Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Frozen on a mountaintop: Guest post by Ellen Jensen Abbott

The latest in my series of guest posts about fear comes to us from Ellen Jensen Abbott:


by Ellen Jensen Abbott

I grew up doing regular hikes in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, but I had never done any winter hiking until I met my husband, Ferg. When I met him, Ferg had climbed Mount Washington—renowned for the most severe weather of the lower 48—x times in winter. There is a harrowing story about he and a friend getting caught on the mountain as the sun was setting, exhausted and unsure of the way down, but most of his ascents were successful. That’s why I was willing to put myself in his hands for my first winter hike—Mt. Chocurua, a 3490 ft. mountain with a wonderful view of Squam Lake. (The blindness of love my also have been involved; we were newly engaged.)

We hiked Chocorua in late December. There was not a lot of snow on the ground and much of what had fallen had been blown off the mountain. We were well outfitted, and the hike kept us warm. There were few other people on the trail and the bright blue sky and the sun on the snow made the day breathtaking. As we hiked, I added new images to my dreams of married life: we would be an adventurous couple, dashing off to climb up and then ski down Mt. Washington’s Tuckerman’s Ravine, hike in the Rockies, conquer Mt. Ranier and Mt. McKinley.

Then we reached Chocorua’s peak, and my fantasies turned to fear. For some reason, being on top of that mountain in the winter—a mountain I had climbed several times in July—completely undid me. On the summit’s rock face we had no shelter from a stiff and whistling wind. The air felt thinner, the cold more intense as my body heat rapidly evaporated. The sky, rather than impressing me with its vivid blueness, impressed me with its vastness. Standing under that sky made me feel small, vulnerable, and exposed.

We were supposed to have a picnic, but I couldn’t sit down. I knew in my head that there was no risk whatsoever at that moment, but I was terrified. Ferg tried to lead me a sheltered place to eat—the poor guy must have been starving!—but I paced until finally he gave up and we started down. One-hundred yards off the summit, the fear disappeared. Back in the embrace of the trees, sheltered from the wind, and with branches instead of the thin atmosphere over my head, I relaxed. We sat down, munched on our sandwiches, and chatted. I don’t remember if we talked about my irrational fear. Ferg did not rethink our engagement, though we never have climbed Washington, Ranier or McKinley.

Watersmeet-4j centaurdaughter The Keeper10 (2)

As I think back on this experience, I can’t help but compare it to the experiences of my main character in the Watersmeet Trilogy. She faces many moments of similar vulnerability and exposure, but for her the risks are real: she is kidnapped by centaurs; attacked by reptilian leviathan birds; carried against her will up a waterfall and through a rock tunnel by naiads. I’ve used my irrational fear on Chocorua many times to bring a sense of real fear to Abisina. Though I feared only the openness of the sky—nothing compared to the shape-shifting evil Abisina faces—my fear was just as real as hers; and it’s the work of the writer to use whatever material the universe presents—even if it means that the writer will forever view Mt. Rainier from the base.

Ellen Jensen Abbott thinks that life would be perfect if she could move her home, her job, her friends and her family to the White Mountains of New Hampshire where she grew up. Until she can convince everyone to join her, she’s content to be writing, teaching English at the Westtown School, and living with her husband and two children in West Chester, PA.

The Keeper is the most recent book in the Watersmeet series. In The Keeper, Abisina is ready to embrace her destiny and become Keeper of Watersmeet. But can she unite this divided land to fight the gathering evil? Can she be the leader that everyone needs?

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