In her memoir Rising: Becoming the First Canadian Woman to Summit Everest, Sharon Wood writes that she never expected this one climb to so fully permeate her life. “[Everest] has often preceded me,” she writes, “… cut swathes through conversations and embarrassed me.” More than 30 years after her historic ascent, the Canmore-based climber, speaker and writer offers her first full-length account of her contribution to the 1986 Canadian Everest expedition—an account that is affecting and personal.
Arriving on the high Tibetan plateau, Wood is startled when one of the yak drivers greets her and “thrusts and undulates his pelvis.” Her teammates set up camp in howling winds and “stumble like drunkards.” The mountain landscape is moonlike, and it provides for a rich travelogue of nearly unreachable places and objective hazards. “Rocks whistle by my head, stirring my sluggish thoughts into a frenzy like a startled school of fish. My gut recoils as a rock cracks, explodes and ricochets off the walls.” Reaching the summit as day wanes, Wood snaps a photo of her teammate Dwayne Congdon. “We are… suspended between heaven and earth. We are in limbo. We have gone too far.”
Wood intersperses her account with vignettes about her teammates and her development as an alpinist, augmented by tales of her personal relationships and rocky adolescence. Emotionally charged and comic exchanges punctuate her conversations. The expedition cook, Jane Fearing, becomes Wood’s ally, and their tent at basecamp lends them the private luxury to vent over teammates’ sometimes rude comments. “Such nice boys one on one,” Fearing says. “Such dogs in a pack,” Wood responds. More troubling is when her ex-boyfriend Carlos shows up at Everest basecamp with an American team vying to put the first North American woman on the summit. Wood must hold her emotions in check and rise above the knowledge that her rival, Annie Whitehouse, is Carlos’s new girlfriend.
The last three chapters explore the climb’s aftermath, touching on the gifts and trials that summiting Everest has afforded—from Wood’s embarrassment at being in the media spotlight to her sudden launch into motivational speaking. She juggles these with working as a mountain guide, straining to hold a marriage together and mothering two rambunctious sons.
Rising is sure to become a classic in the ever-burgeoning genre of climbing memoirs. By making the impossible possible, on a difficult and rarely repeated route up the world’s highest mountain, Sharon Wood’s Everest journey should inspire women and climbers the world over—challenging us to be strong, steely-eyed and present in each moment, and to persevere.
—E.D. Morin’s forthcoming book is about women and concussions.