REVIEW: AS ABOVE, SO BELOW
A CLIMBING STORY
BY CHRIS KALMAN
Reviewed by Sean McIntyre
In As Above, So Below, what begins as an attempt to reconcile the gap between teenage rebellion and old-school grit quickly turns into a tragic fight for survival and exploration of the self. Sean McIntyre reviews the self-published work of Chris Kalman, who set out to create the perfect mountain novella and brought his dream to fruition thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign.
Scrawled in black felt marker on a crumpled piece of looseleaf paper and taped to the wall of his Fort Collins, Colorado, home is Chris Kalman’s long-term to-do list.
The mountain writer and adventure journalist has been a busy guy, both on and off of the mountains, judging by the projects crossed off the list. Index Guidebook, Canada Expedition, get new glasses prescription.
Only one item, highlighted with crudely drawn stars and encompassed within a wonkily drawn rectangle, stands incomplete: As Above, So Below.
That was in late 2017, when Kalman launched a Kickstarter campaign that would eventually conclude a four-year project to write his version of the perfect mountain novella.
“I’ve always had this vision about how this book was going to look. A beautiful, hardbound, old school retro thing,” Kalman says in his pitch. “I don’t want to compromise on how it looks, or whether it was hardbound or softbound, or 20,000 words or 25 or 50. I just want to make it the way I want to make it, and I’m hoping that you guys will help me make that dream come true.”
This humble plea of a stubborn writer — Kalman is described affectionately by his partner as an antiquated, old fart born into the wrong generation — exceeded expectations, helping Kalman finally tick that final box on his long-term list.
Kalman edited parts of As Above, So Below at Banff Centre’s Mountain and Wilderness Writing Workshop in 2016. It follows in the tradition of Hemingway’s Old Man of the Sea and Jack London’s To Build a Fire, books whose brevity defy their literary punch. The finished work has attracted praise from some big names in the genre of mountain lit, such as Alpinist Magazine editor Katie Ives, Bernadette McDonald (Alpine Warriors and Freedom Climbers) and Brendan Leonard, author of Sixty Meters to Anywhere and Semi-Rad.com.
As Above, So Below is the short, fictional story of a father and son expedition to Patagonia’s Cerro Torre and Mount Fitz Roy. What begins as an attempt to reconcile the gap between teenage rebellion and old-school grit quickly turns into a tragic fight for survival and exploration of the self.
Things begin benignly enough as the pair wait for their weather window in El Chaltén. To age-grizzled Dave, the story’s protagonist, the settlement is more akin to Disneyland than a wilderness outpost. As is the case with many A-list mountain towns, El Chaltén epitomizes the discovered mountain landscape, a shadow of the wildness such places once symbolized. “This new Patagonia had grocery stores, ice cream shops, sight-seeing tours, internet cafes, refugios, restaurantes, hospedajes and ferreterias. This wasn’t the little village Dave recalled — this was a veritable metropolis,” Kalman writes.
Despite the changes, the mountains beyond the town limits represent a crossing into the mysterious and unknown, an otherworld where the trappings of civilization are stripped bare, leaving only father and son to face the elements.
The mountains convey a strict no-nonsense attitude. When you’re roped up, there’s no time to mess around with extraneous details and wandering narratives. In a setting such as this, Kalman quickly establishes his characters and outlines the novel’s universal themes in a narrative that jumps between the pair’s expedition and their family life back home in suburbia.
A teenaged gym rat juxtaposed against his trad-gear totting father probe the confidence of youth, the relentless advance of time and a coming to terms with one’s inevitable vincibility.
“I don’t think you need to be a climber to like it,” Kalman says. “I think the themes are universal.”
To those who venture into the mountains, however, the book will raise familiar questions. Questions like how to resolve one’s passion – one’s need – for mountaineering with the responsibilities of family and work, with growing older. It’s a question that constantly challenges Dave, who pines for the high peaks and exposed rock faces where he once felt so alive.
“When asked at Christmas parties, ‘What do you do?’, the answer was always the same: ‘I’m a climber.’ But the more people said it, Dave thought, the less it meant. Climbing was no longer a way of life. It was just another sport. As common and meaningless as baseball.”
Risk and fear, properly managed, are at the core of climbing. Self-awareness and humility is what instills the sport with meaning. As Above, So Below is about a man who seeks to embrace that meaning without realizing how grave the consequences of purity can be.
If Kalman set out to write his version of a great mountain novella, he can take a moment and celebrate his success. Not only is the book compact and lightweight (who wants to lug Moby Dick or the Lord of the Rings trilogy on a trek through the hills?), it explores some poignant themes against an inspiring backdrop of high mountains and outdoor adventure.
Rather than focus on the relatively easy-to-pick and predictable dramas offered by people venturing into the wild, Kalman reaches far, exploring how the climbing life affects home, family and self-perception. Readers become quickly acquainted with Dave’s inner voice, giving us the opportunity to relate to his fears, guilt and regrets. Kalman is a master at setting the scene through his sparse yet effective use of descriptors and vivid turns of phrase. Black and white hand-drawn illustrations by Craig Muderlak are an added bonus.
Anyone who might cringe at the prospect of picking up a work of self-published mountain fiction (I did, briefly), can rest assured that Kalman’s experience as an athlete and mountain journalist has outfitted him well for the task of writing the book he’d been dreaming of.
As Above, So Below is self-published by Chris Kalman. For details on how to order the limited edition hardbound edition, visit chriskalman.com.
Sean McIntyre is a freelance writer based on Salt Spring Island, B.C. In between trips to the Rockies, he enjoys seeking liberation and wonderful transformation among the high peaks of Vancouver Island.
The views and opinions expressed in the articles on CrowfootMedia.com are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the editor, the editorial team or the publishers.