North Wall by Roger Hubank
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Roger Hubank is a writer I have encountered before. Hazard’s Way was, I felt, a flawed gem with moments of brilliance but a curiously detached main character and a plot that lacked coherence. For this reason, I started reading North Wall with modest expectations.
North Wall (1978) is Hubank’s first novel. It has four characters, only two of which–Raymond and Daniel–really matter to the story. The plot is a basic one at first glance: get up the north face of Piz Molino. This wall has a reputation for being a fearsome challenge and has killed before. So far, so good; this is standard stuff for a climbing story.
The first chapter actually did not impress me that much. Neither of the main characters were introduced particularly well, I felt, and I gained an (unfair) impression that it would be a simple book with no surprises. However, North Wall is not a simple book by any means, and it would be a mistake to judge it based on the first chapter. There is so much more going on here. After the second chapter, more is revealed about our heroes, and we gradually understand more about these two very different men. Both are carrying demons of their own up the wall with them; both have very different views about death in the mountains; both react in a different way to disaster and hardship.
It’s got to be said, I found the point of view unusual. Hubank has chosen an omniscient 3rd person POV, which means the perspective is shifted from character to character several times in a scene. This becomes less of an issue as the book develops, but at first, before we get to know the characters, it was hard to get used to. Even later on, during the climbing scenes, jumping from one end of the rope to the other without warning was disorienting.
The book really got going about a third of the way through. Things inevitably start going wrong, and Hubank’s mastery of language creates the most unbearably tense and atmospheric situations. The mountain is brought to life with considerable skill, and the climbing is realistic. Every tiny error has consequences that escalate to create a genuine disaster. This is a scenario every climber knows (and fears), and it is recreated with chilling accuracy. A complex interplay of emotion and environment, fear and indecision, determination and pain defines these two characters and makes them real in a way the first couple of chapters could not. I found myself totally immersed. This is truly great writing, evocative and frequently sombre, but not without hope for a happy outcome.
I believe that North Wall recreates the tragedy of a mountain disaster better than any other book I have read. The subject of death is never very far away throughout the novel, and its meaning to climbers is examined carefully. Why, after all, do climbers put themselves in deadly peril when there are so many lovely things in the world? This is the fundamental question North Wall poses, but of course it is unanswerable.
The book is a crescendo. From uninspiring beginnings, it becomes richer and more meaningful, finally becoming a true work of mountain philosophy. It’s a well-deserved classic in the mountain fiction genre, and the only reason I can’t quite bring myself to give it five stars is that the omniscient POV marred otherwise excellent writing.