REVIEW – INNER RANGES:
AN ANTHOLOGY OF MOUNTAIN
THOUGHTS AND MOUNTAIN PEOPLE
Reviewed by Graeme Pole
Inner Ranges brings together an enlightening and entertaining selection of mountain writing by one of Canada’s most respected adventure journalists and thinkers.
In the course of a lifetime writing short pieces that describe mountain life, a talented author is certain to create material worthy of an anthology. With Inner Ranges (Rocky Mountain Books, 2018), Geoff Powter provides just such a compilation, and steps forward from his place as a competent supporting voice in chronicling mountain life and adventure to a well-deserved position in the foreground.
Through his former work as editor of the Canadian Alpine Journal, and his longstanding involvement with the Banff Mountain Festivals, Powter possesses tremendous knowledge of, and contact with, the players of the mountaineering world. If he had compiled Inner Ranges with a perspective from strictly inside that bubble, this anthology soon would have become tiresome. But Powter’s writing discloses an intelligence and a maturity that ranges beyond mountaineering’s frequent self-absorption. He is able to both view the mountaineering world from within the bubble, and from the outside looking in. This occasionally involves a self-depreciation which, if overplayed, could itself also have become tedious. Yet Powter strikes an efficient balance – in turns crying, laughing, and marvelling – at the collective experience recounted in these essays.
Powter’s writing encompasses an enticing mix – historical, biographical, investigative, analytical, and fictional. Layered over the writing is a narrative in which he frames the essays, placing them into the context of climbing in the Rockies, Canada, and the world, and within the arc of his own journey as writer, observer, and climber. He is unafraid and unashamed to report on some deeply personal observations regarding his life and growth. Some writers do this and fall into the trap of calling attention to themselves – “I used to be like that, now I am like this.” With Powter, the observations become a seamless component of the larger story, and reveal another strength: to write about any of life’s journeys before that life is over, a writer must hold space for the mystery of what that life may ultimately mean, while also holding space for the mystery of the possibilities yet to come.
The only fictional essay of Inner Ranges shines and is alone worth the price of admission. The Art of Forgiving bristles with riveting imagery as magical as it is unsettling; its metaphor as spare and keen as the mountain ridges on which the story plays. The detail and power of such writing can only come from a life lived immersed in the mountains, observing at every turn, and processing it all with an imagination that is deeply original.
The only blemish on the varied countenance of Inner Ranges is perhaps unavoidable. Mount Everest as touchstone is a given when writing about mountains for the general public. For better and worse it is the mountain to which collective attention is paid. As a writer-for-hire, the world’s mega-peak has necessarily been the topic of many of Powter’s assignments. However, in a collection of mountain essays, the pitch is to the choir. The frequency with which Powter references Everest in Inner Ranges undermines his assertion that the highest peak in the world is no longer a legitimate benchmark for most accomplishments in the mountains.
True to the title of this anthology, many of its essays deal with exploring the inner workings of others. It is here that Powter reveals another creative gift – the ability to get a story without getting in the way of it. It is comfortable reading – his editorial voice, although present, is quiet – and leads to the impression that those whom Powter interviewed probably felt equally comfortable in sharing their time and thoughts with him.
It is common to consider that when an author releases an anthology of their own work, he or she is either defining an ultimate summation or a departure point. Powter has distilled decades of mountain experience into Inner Ranges. Here’s hoping that his considerable talent allows him to continue to draw from that well and craft more of this calibre of writing in decades to come, in whichever genre he chooses.
Graeme Pole writes about life and the mountains, and life in the mountains. mountainvision.ca
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