I was lucky enough to be sent a copy of Just Another Mountain: A Memoir by Sarah Jane Douglas by publishers, Elliott & Thompson. I don't do very much of this kind of thing, mainly because my TBR pile is huge enough without me doubling it with free books. But, I saw this one on Twitter, thought it sounded like my kind of thing and wrote and asked them if they would consider sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review. They very kindly agreed. I believe the book is due out this week so hopefully this is good timing.
To author, Sarah Jane Douglas, her mother was everything. Brought up without a father, they were incredibly close, even when her mother married when Sarah was in her teens. Losing her to breast cancer - her mother was in her 40s, Sarah, 24 - was utterly traumatic and pretty much caused her to go off the rails. One thing her mother loved to do was go walking in the Scottish mountains. The family lived near Inverness in The Scottish Highlands and were thus in the perfect place to indulge this passion and it was what Sarah turned to in order to cope with the loss of her mother.
The Munros are a series of mountains in Scotland that are over 914 metres (that's 3,000 feet for those of us of a certain age). Climbing them all - it's called 'Munro bagging' - is a very popular hobby amongst hill walkers and mountaineers and Sarah decides to take on this challenge hoping it might help with the pain of losing her mother. She's rather inexperienced at first, gets into all kinds of trouble on more than one occasion, forgetting to take a map, unexpected bad weather, miscalulating how long climbs will take... that sort of thing.
She survives it all though and, bolstered by her success, and as a further tribute to her mother Sarah decides to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the highest mountain in Africa. A fascinating account of what it's really like to climb that mountain follows. Some may have seen the documentary early in the year about the group of people who climbed this mountain for Comic Relief... it's clearly gruelling but it was really brought home to me exactly how gruelling by Sarah's very vivid and honest account.
More challenges follow, chief of which is her decision to go to the Himalayas with her mother's ashes. When Sarah was a child her mother had almost married a man called Gerry, the love of her life. Tragically, Gerry died before they could marry, while mountaineering in the Himalayas, and Sarah decides on a pilgrimage to find the site of a cairn put up his memory and to scatter the ashes there. There is also a mystery. Why did Gerry not tell any of his friends that he was engaged to be married to Sarah's mother?
Well, I was right to ask for a copy of this book. I love reading about mountains and the people who climb them and that button was definitely pressed here. Sarah Jane Douglas writes beautifully, her descriptive passages of what she sees and experiences on the mountains are some of the best I've read. I'm stunned that this is her first book, you would never think it in a million years. She's a very talented writer.
BUT this book is so much more than just a book about walking and climbing in the mountains. Quite frankly it's heart-breaking at times. Sarah is brutally honest about what she sees as her shortcomings - the rest of us can see it's all the result of a difficult childhood and overwhelming grief at losing the one person who loved her unconditionally and understood her. She is incredibly candid and I'm so full of admiration for her for that. It's not, after all, compulsory.
More losses follow her mother's, problems with drug and alcohol abuse ensued, marriage and relationship difficulties... luckily she has two lovely sons who probably got her through. I felt so, so bad for her and even more appalled when something else was revealed close to the end.
My favourite part of the book was definitely the Himalayan trip. Poor Sarah was was very ill with vomitting and diarrhea. She triumphed in the end but oh God, I felt for her. People talk about these mountains quite casually these days, but we forget how incredibly dangerous it still is to go there. Just a few weeks ago a handful of climbers died on Everest, too many people climbing I believe and not enough oxygen to get back down. I couldn't believe the photos of the queue of people going up that mountain, staggering, I wonder what the effect is ecologically speaking and for how much longer it'll be allowed to continue.
I'd like to thank Marianne Thorndahl at Elliott & Thompson for my copy of Just Another Mountain, for the opportunity to read and review this excellent memoir, and I really hope it does well and wish the author, Sarah Jane Douglas, all the very best in what must be a difficult time.