When a delivery arrives at Jan Redford’s home in Squamish, she opens the box to reveal copies of the American edition of her new rock-climbing memoir, End of the Rope: Mountains, Marriage, Motherhood.
The author flashes a dazzling smile. This arrival, and the rave reviews for her book, signify a happy ending of sorts. But Redford isn’t about to get too comfortable.
Redford knows there will be ups and downs on this journey, much like the ups and downs she goes through on a climbing pitch, testing, reaching, retreating, trying to get past her own fear and self-doubt.
“It’s not when you get to the top, when you feel good about yourself, that matters the most,” she says, as she reflects on the process of climbing. “It’s what happens when you are self-doubting, when you are scared. That’s where all the action is, where all the learning is.”
Redford, who was born in Quebec and grew up in Yukon, was a daring kid who took to the vertical gymnastics of rock climbing “like an addiction.”
“I wanted the dirtbag lifestyle,” says Redford of her decision to skip college and embrace the outdoor life. “I was wild. I wanted adventure.”
Redford was hooked on the adrenalin, the passion and the sense of connection she felt among climbers. “Climbers are such an alive bunch. They live life really fully.”
So did Redford. Barely 5-foot-1, Redford was a gutsy, tobacco-chewing, tough-talking 20-something who listened to AC/DC, and drove with a paperback copy of Shogun strapped to her gas pedal when she found her community among the climbers in some of Canada’s most storied small towns: Field, Fernie, Banff and Canmore, Alberta.
She was also looking for belonging, something she found among climbers.
Redford jokes that “climbers don’t add much to society,” but they share an unbreakable bond. “Our community was really tight. When you are holding someone’s rope you develop a relationship of trust you can’t really find anywhere else.”
On the rock, you also have to learn to trust yourself. “You climb like you live your life,” says Redford. “I was ballsy. I loved the danger.”
She was also terrified much of the time and her negotiation with fear became the most difficult obstacle she had to navigate. When her partner, Dan Guthrie, 27, and his climbing partner, Ian Bult, 24, were killed in an avalanche on Mount Foraker in Alaska in 1987, Redford was plunged into chaotic grief.
Later, one of her closest female friends would die in a rock-climbing accident.
The deaths of friends, acquaintances and climbers that she deeply respected amplified the fear she felt on the rock. “None of it made sense anymore.”
Redford sought comfort after Guthrie’s death by rushing into another relationship. She quickly had two children. Desperate to become independent, she faced obstacle after obstacle while simultaneously trying to cope with a failing marriage, and to find a new life off the mountain. As with climbing, she explains, “I struggled with self-doubt.”
When a therapist asked Redford what she would do if she could do anything, Redford replied, “write and draw.”
She began to do both. “Rock climbing was my salvation,” she says, “and my downfall.” Writing would become her second salvation.
“People think it’s about getting to the top of the mountain, but it’s coming down that can be the hardest.”
She ended up going to university while caring for two children under the age of five, becoming a teacher and struggling as a single mother before finding her voice as a writer.
Redford always kept journals, and they become invaluable resource as she began the long process of figuring out who she was, why she climbed, and how she survived.
The book took over a decade, and was shaped through work at writing programs, including Banff’s Wired Writing, Banff Mountain and Wilderness Writing, The Writers Studio at SFU and the UBC master of fine arts program. “Too many mentors, too many mountains,” jokes Redford.
Redford is delighted that the book has found an audience among non-climbers. “I didn’t want to write a book just for climbers,” said Redford. “It’s about so much more than that.”
Redford still climbs recreationally, but the bravado of her early years has been tempered by caution. “I’m a chickenshit,” she says. “Climbers are going to read my book and say she’s crapping herself on a 5.8!”
But she no longer equates fear with failure. “I’m scared when I climb. I’m scared when I mountain bike. I was scared when I went to university with two little kids and when I became a single mom. Everybody is scared, but we do these things in spite of it.”
Redford says she has come to a place of acceptance about coming down the mountain, and the mistakes she made along the way. “The book helped me come to a place of compassion for myself,” she says.
“The biggest lesson in my life is that I had to learn to rely on myself. I can protect myself. I’m competent.”
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