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Jerry Auld
Jerry Auld

The Daily Review, Thu., Apr. 14

Rockie mountain high Add to ...

For a country with a perpetual identity crisis," John Allemang once observed vis-à-vis his assessment of David Thompson's ever-evolving nation-builder status, "geography is the one great unifier."

Thankfully, this country emerged unified, minus perpetual identity crisis, plus one rookie novelist standing head and shoulders above the newbies in the story-telling field, Calgarian Jerry Auld, author of the propitiously breathtaking - literally - Hooker & Brown.

Blending history, urban legend, nature, contingency, inclination and mystery, Hooker & Brown, chiefly narrated by Rumi, chronicles the youthful dreamer's romantic, professional and recreational pursuits in one fell swoop. Armed with a freshly minted B.A. in Geology, Rumi - the ruminant-designate with that deer-in-headlight look after he's nearly clipped by a helicopter propeller - lands a summer job with the Alberta Rockies' Kananaskis Trail park crew, thanks to his university friend, the Lion (who holds a Philosophy degree):





Now I'm in the Front Ranges at the eastern edge of the Canadian Rockies, standing on the hot boulders at the base of a steep crag, playing out the rope as the Lion, above, reaches for a hold with heavy chalked fingers. I call him the Lion because it reminds me of who he is. It's better than his real name . . . We climb together today on our way to work tomorrow . . . The first climb of the season: always a blind date. The Lion digs at a horizontal crack of loose chips. Can I trust him, or is our friendship like this limestone, hard and solid-looking but friable, having a tendency to shatter? Handholds here are notoriously portable.

The rope jigs and teases like a fishing line as he pulls out of sight. A pause, not short. Then he calls down that he's secure . . . I pull the rope from my belay device and feel the butterflies inhabiting my guts. The rope rises as if charmed until it comes tight on my harness . . . I step up and feel the rock. It's warm, rough, passive and inviolable. Everything I want in a lover . . . On the first days of the job, the Lion hikes beside me and shows me the ropes. Trail crew isn't rocket science; it's more endurance than finesse, so physical that my mind can play all day while my body works . . .

And, work it does, back-breaking, heart-raking and exhilarating all at once. Rumi takes orders from the Ant and trades stories with a Québécoise interpretative tourist guide who spends too much time with the Ranger from Ontario for his liking. But, before he knows it, the trail crewman falls head over heels for two peaks he soon learns n'existe pas (despite the fact the dab hand serendipitously spies their summits - or does he? - through a break in the high-mountain mists while going about his daily grind). Right, enter Mounts Hooker and Brown, around which Auld weaves his gripping narrative, based, readers ultimately discover, on a mythically true missed story burning a hole in Rumi's vividly poetic imagination.

"Discovered" as the 19th century dawned, the overwhelmingly splendorous peaks, erroneously marked on fur-trader routes as the Western hemisphere's highest for most of that millennium (thanks partially to nation-builder Thompson's lack of interest in mapping obstructions to efficient commerce, partially to self-taught botanist David Douglas), inspire Rumi to get to the bottom of the mountains' cliff-hanging mythos.

The results? Perhaps because Auld, frequent contributor to the Canadian Alpine Journal and The Alpinist as well as Banff Writing Studio alumnus (where he worked closely with Paul Quarrington and Michael Helm) put in his fair share of hours labouring for Parks Canada and the Banff Lodging Company, his vitally accomplished and astonishingly vibrant debut - recently short-listed for the UK's top-ranking Boardman Tasker Award - simply soars above and beyond the sky-high wild blue wonder of holding onto life for all its spine-tingling worth.

Move over, Joe "Touching the Void" Simpson and Jon "Into Thin Air" Krakauer: There's one hell of a Canadian climber hot on your heaven-bound heels.

Contributing reviewer and In Other Words blogger Judith Fitzgerald lives in Northern Ontario's Almaguin Highlands. She is completing her 30th work, a poetry collection slated for release later this year. The only mountain she ever climbed? The one in her mind's eye.

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