[Rising, by Sharon Wood, was a finalist in the Mountain Literature category of the 2019 Banff Mountain Book Competition.–Ed.]
In 1979 Sharon Wood took a snow stability workshop in the Canadian Rockies. The instructor lectured on snow slope configuration using an image of a woman’s breast to illustrate weak vs. strong terrain features and the possibility of avalanches. “I was one of two women in the room and he shot me a sly smile,” Wood writes in her recently published memoir, Rising. “Asshole.”
In 1986 Wood became the first North American woman to summit Mt. Everest (Chomolungma). Her achievement led to a long career as a public speaker, as she was celebrated as a feminist icon in the climbing world. However, as Wood reflects in Rising, 33 years later she is still grappling with her role in that 1986 climb, and the role of Everest in her life as a whole. But aspects of the narrative also reveal that she still feels uneasy with the aspects of gender and sexism that permeate the mountaineering world.
Wood’s narrative focuses on the all-Canadian expedition, which began in March 1986, when the team of 12 climbers, plus a cook and a doctor, arrived at the toe of the Rangbuk Glacier in Tibet, their basecamp at 5100 meters above sea level. From the Tibetan side of the mountain, the team planned to climb a variation to the West Ridge route, which was first climbed by Americans Willi Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein in 1963. (Prior to the Canadian expedition, 13 people had attempted the difficult West Ridge and eight had died.) Named the Everest Light expedition, the Canadians planned to climb this route without Sherpa support, and with only a few oxygen tanks and fixed ropes at the end. At the same time, the Canadian team was in competition with an American team to put the first North American woman on that summit. Wood’s memoir mostly follows the Canadian expedition as they move their camps to higher elevations and set ropes for a summit bid. The second part of the book follows life after her return from Everest.
Wood’s book is a window into the world of women in climbing at a time when many still considered women to be inferior mountaineers. In the late 1970s, as Katie Ives wrote in Outside Magazine, “Denunciations of ambitious female climbers punctuated the outdoor media…as male pundits argued that women didn’t have the strength or skill for high-altitude mountaineering, or that feminist motives pushed them to take unnecessary risks.”
While Japanese mountaineer Junko Tabei became the first woman to reach the summit of Everest in 1975, the bias against women on expeditions persisted into the mid-1980s. On the page, however, Wood herself appears as a reluctant feminist: she often brushes off sexist incidents in favour of appearing like “one of the boys.”
Some of the objections to having women on expeditions was that they were too sensitive and not as strong as men–something that Wood wonders about their cook, Jane, the only other woman on the team, noting that “[she] has more feelings than I do, and shows them. Will it be a strength or a weakness here?” This suggests that Wood has internalized the idea that women aren’t suited for climbing unless they’re tough. However, Jane and Wood end up sharing a tent and becoming good friends; Wood even writes that “it seems an event has not completely happened until I tell her.”
Wood also feels the weight of the history of women in climbing when she thinks of Marty Hoey, a female mountaineer who attempted the North Face of Everest in 1982 as the only woman in a group of 16 climbers. Wood notes that “[Hoey], like me, was a woman in the male bastion of mountain guiding and Himalayan climbing.” Hoey modified her climbing harness so that she could go to the washroom more easily–a problem male mountaineers didn’t have. Unfortunately, that modification likely led to her demise, as she fell out of her waist harness to her death. Wood is glad that, for their expedition, they have customized three-layered suits with a full-length zipper in the crotch of each, which allow all genders to go to the washroom safely and easily while still wearing a harness.
Wood is grateful that the men on her team are generally respectful of both her and Jane. But when the women are subject to sexually suggestive behavior from local Tibetan yak herders, the men on their team laugh it away, not realizing the impact it has on the women. Jane notes that “I feel like a completely different species than those guys…” and asks Wood if she feels lonely as the only woman on these trips. Wood says she does get lonely but she internalizes her feelings: “they feel like brothers and strangers to me at the same time,” she says.
When expedition leader Jim Elzinga tells her she will be half of the pair of climbers to aim for the summit, Wood struggles with how to discuss it with her “brothers.” She doesn’t want them to dislike her and feel she’s monopolizing a summit bid, but she also chastises herself, saying that “a man in this same position wouldn’t dither like I am.” Despite her misgivings, she talks to each team member individually (on the advice of Jane), and all support her summit bid. It makes sense, as she’s been the healthiest the whole time: she hasn’t gotten sick, nor has she felt many of the negative effects of being at altitude. On May 20, two months after their team arrived in base camp, Wood and her teammate Dwayne Congdon stood atop the summit.
But she has little say in how the media frames the event, and when she returns to Canada her life changes in ways she didn’t expect. As the first North American woman to summit Everest, Wood is in demand for interviews and as a public speaker, which she has to balance with a return to mountain guiding. Like many women, she suffers from impostor syndrome: “Who am I to be personally rewarded for our team effort?” she writes. “Am I becoming an opportunist?” Even 20 years later at their reunion, she has to bite back her words about their success being a team effort, not just her on her own.
Rising is a gripping book–Wood openly shares her experience as a woman in climbing, and has a knack for writing compelling scenes that draw the reader in. Her use of dialogue does the work of making the team members and events three-dimensional rather than mere cardboard cutouts. Wood acknowledges that having access to transcripts of their radio calls and having team members read book drafts were likely critical to developing the dialogue in the book. Their climb to the summit is just as exciting as them accidentally blowing up the tent at Camp VI on their way down.
Wood balances serious reflections about women in climbing with some humour throughout, including some 1980s moments, like getting mix cassettes in the mail and listening to them on her cassette player, and the fact that they have a two-way radio but no satellite phone.
Throughout her memoir, Wood continues to focus on the Canadian Everest Light expedition’s success as being the result of a team effort, and she downplays her role as the first North American woman on the summit of the world’s highest mountain. Thirty-three years after standing atop the mountain that changed her life, she concludes, “The most important thing Everest has taught me is the value of relationship: my relationship with myself, with some remarkable people and with the world around me.”