Friday, 23 July 2021 09:51

Andrew Terrill's The Earth Beneath My Feet reviewed

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Despite the fact that this is part 1 of a two part story of one man's walk from the southernmost point of Italy to the northernmost point in Norway the title is something of a misnomer. 

The statistics and the title itself may imply it's all about the 7000 miles of earth that passed beneath the author's feet over the two books, but the reality is that it's the story of the making of a man; A story of personal validity and self-empowerment. It's a story of mental and physical resilience and in some ways redemption. The earth beneath Andrew Terrill's feet through the journey bore no trace of his passing, but the footprints imprinted in his psyche would form the foundations of a new identity. The earth itself was a passive witness rather than a dominating theme, just a single component amongst several in the journey.

Andrew Terrill Colorado March 2021

The Earth Beneath My Feet covers the first two sections of The Walk, as the author calls it, composed of walking the length of Italy and crossing the Alps. Over the course of this volume a disillusioned, stammering, young man learns his place in the world, and a place on his own terms. Far from being a story of miles it's a story of every element of nature; the geography and geology, the fauna and flora, the historical significance of places and people encountered along the way and how these elements combined to give The Walk a purpose far beyond its initial concept.

From the energy sapping heat of Calabria to the impenetrable undergrowth of Apennine forests and waist deep postholing Alpine mountains the journey is one of both discovery and true adventure. What makes this book so special, though, is unlike the hype and hyperbole associated with so many adventure stories this is accessible adventure. It's not a tale of inaccessible mountains and impossible (to you and me) athleticism by a branded influencer, but one that almost anyone can relate to. It's a story where the author could be you, me, or the next door neighbour. The highs and lows, and there are plenty of both, are ones that are so relatable to us all, and the writing style so expressive that it's impossible not to be transported there yourself. It's a book where the silent voice in your head starts reading the words as your own words.

photo from the walk above the clouds and living in a world apart italian alps october 1997Above the clouds and living in a world apart - italian alps - October 1997 ©  Andrew Terrill

Some have said The Earth Beneath My Feet is a book you can't put down, but in all honesty I found it to be the opposite. The depictions of Andrew's interactions with both nature and his own mind could hardly be improved if they were recorded on celluloid and in their own way they enable the reader to escape the Pinner, or Macclesfield, we're all trapped in. Rather than consume the book in a single sitting this is a book to be taken bit by bit, Like The Walk itself, it's long, but like The Walk the more you read the more you don't want it to end. It's the first book in years that I've set 30 - 45 minutes aside for each evening, knowing that within a paragraph the worries of the everyday world would fade away and it would be me transfixed by fireflies or contemplating the enormous forces that drive continents together.  The irony is that while the author battles times of lonliness and feeling isolated the reader feels they're there with him. Far from being alone, albeit 24 years later, the reality is he took us all with him.

Photo from the walk high spirits in the northen apennines italy August 1997High spirits in the Northern Apennines italy - August 1997 ©  Andrew Terrill

Of course a 7000 mile walk doesn't just happen, it has to have something to drive it. In Andrew's case the impetus came from a dramatic accident high in the mountains of Switzerland. A fall while approaching the Bluemlisalphutte, between Murren and Kandersteg, so nearly led to life changing injuries but instead led to life changing decisions. Set in a pre-social media age The Earth Beneath My Feet is a kindly reminder of a different world where gratification wasn't instant, and a world where the touch, the feel and the smell were experienced through your own senses not through an "Insta" shot.

In the 24 years that have passed between The Walk and the publishing of The Earth Beneath My Feet the story could easily have been lost. This was set in a time where photos came on print or slide and the rolls of film had to negotiate the intricacies of international post to survive. There was no 3G, 4G or 5G and records were made by hand in a diary. It was somehow a gentler and more innocent age but was also a time when rewards had to be earned. Mad Mountain Jack, Andrew's alter (or is it primary?) ego earned the rewards, and in committing the experience to words he shared those rewards with the world - and we will be eternally grateful for him doing so.

If there is a criticism of the book it's that, presumably due to printing costs, the photos are all in Black & White. Andrew is a very accomplished photographer and having seen many of the images in colour they would have been the cherry on the icing on the cake. In compensation, however, the photos are also somewhat superfluous - the quality of the words alone being more than enough to paint the pictures in your mind.

As well as receiving the book to review we've also been fortunate to have an exclusive excerpt -

Prologue: An Alpine Bounce - The Bernese Oberland, Switzerland

 

ON THE SECOND day of June, 1993, I fell down a mountain. It was a spectacularly unpleasant thing to do. As an experience it isn’t something I’d recommend, but for the way it changed my approach to life I remain eternally grateful.

The accident took place in the Bernese Oberland. Rearing abruptly from gentler ​country, the Oberland forms a startling wall of snow, rock and ice. In the Oberland there are sharp-pointed peaks, mighty glaciers and soaring rock precipices: a landscape as unlike my suburban home as any place could be. And that was why I went.

At twenty-three, I lived for mountains, and for journeys on foot through them. Ordinary life didn’t compare. How could waking in the same bedroom each morning compare with waking in a tent somewhere new and wild? How could catching the same cattle-truck commuter train each day compare with striding off alone into the wilderness? Ordinary life was predictable, comfortable, limited by rules; mountain life was mysterious, challenging, unshackled. London was where I lived, but mountains were where I went to live, and so I escaped to the high places as often as work allowed.

The plan for this escape was to walk for seven days beneath the Oberland’s highest peaks. In summer, thousands of hikers followed the route I’d chosen, but I wasn’t going in summer. I wanted to escape my own species and choose my own path. Most of all I wanted adventure—an experience not possible for me following a crowd.

At first, the journey was exactly what I wanted: uncluttered, wild and free. For three idyllic days I wandered through meadows and forests, and camped in glorious solitude beneath glacier-capped peaks. But on the third night a storm erupted with idyll-shattering violence. Sleep was impossible. All I could do was cower and hope for the best. Some mountain nights last longer than others, and that night lasted longer than most.

Weary from it, I slept later than planned the following morning and didn’t strike camp until noon. Ahead were the highest miles of the week’s route: the lofty Hohtürli Pass. Its crossing usually demands a good night’s sleep, an early start, a full day’s labour, and perfect conditions underfoot. I had none of these things.

Hohtürli PassHohtürli Pass © Bryn Leyton/MyOutdoors

I set out beneath a fierce sun and sweat came streaming within minutes. Although it was the first day of June, snow still lay deep above 2,000 metres. The snow was why I was here and other hikers weren’t. It made progress harder and the wild places wilder, which was how I wanted it. Of course, it might also make the pass impassable, but not knowing the outcome wasn’t a bad thing.

Progress above snowline was slow. I wallowed, sunk, gasped. My shirt clung to my back, my legs quivered. Thoughts weren’t focused on the banalities and stresses of everyday existence. Instead, they were fixed entirely on the present moment, on the sensations of it: the burning sun on the back of my neck, the sugary taste of snow scooped into my mouth, the heaviness of legs pushed to their limit. This wasn’t like my job, repetitive and tedious; or like my home life, easy and bland; this was new, difficult, engrossing. I dug a thigh-deep trench-trail upwards and celebrated every challenging step.

Hours passed. Rising heat gnawed at the snow, softening it horribly. Slowly, pleasure in the climb faded and concerns grew. Each step triggered small snow slides and the situation soon seemed precarious: could the entire slope give way? I paused many times, debating the wisdom of pushing on, but each time the desire to achieve what I’d set out to achieve kept me climbing. Soon, all I could think about was reaching the pass and descending safely from it. I could only hope the way down was going to be easier than the way up.

My relief at the top felt overwhelming, but it lasted seconds only, vanishing when I looked down the far side. The route fell away with intimidating steepness. In summer, wooden steps and a rope handrail eased passage, but they were buried beneath snow. One look down was enough to confirm I wasn’t going that way—not with the snow so unstable. But neither could I safely head back the way I’d come.

Fortunately, this was Switzerland, not some vast northern wilderness. Situated above the pass was a refuge, the Blüemlisalphütte. Although it wasn’t yet open for the summer it still offered a small winter room. I settled upon a new plan: I’d sleep there and tackle the descent the next morning when, hopefully, the snow would have frozen hard. In the meantime, I had my own magical kingdom to enjoy up there at 3,000 metres. By sunset, a fire-tinged cloud sea stretched to the horizon, mountains breaking through like islands. Later, a full moon washed the glaciers with silver light. It was almost worth what followed, seeing such extraordinary sights, feeling such extraordinary isolation.

BlüemlisalphütteBlüemlisalphütte © Bryn Leyton/MyOutdoors

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I was underway the next morning long before sunrise. A hard frost had killed off any avalanche risk, but as I picked my way back to the pass my stomach twisted with anxiety. I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing.

I held an ice axe in one hand but didn’t strap on crampons. Although the snow had frozen hard, a line of bucket-sized steps led downwards. Crampons can be awkward in a tight space. They can catch and trip, and with boot-sized holes for my feet I judged they’d be more hindrance than help. Afterwards, of course, I wondered: if I’d worn them would I have fallen? Would my entire life have been different?

I peered over the crest and began down, facing into the mountain. I moved with great deliberateness, holding the axe firmly, digging it into the snow, loving its bite. At my heels the slope fell away in great leaps and bounds before plunging into a void. How I wished my pack weighed less; I could feel it tugging me backwards. And how I wished I were already down. I’d travelled to the Alps for adventure, but not this much adventure.

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And then it happened.

From a small crag overhead came the clatter of falling stones. Instinctively, I looked up, but too swiftly; my feet slipped, I lost balance, and never got to see if the stones posed a threat. I landed on my back and momentum flipped me onto my front. Urgently, I stabbed my axe into iron-hard snow, throwing my shoulder onto it just the way I’d practised many times, but hit a bump at exactly the wrong moment and the axe flew from my hands. I saw it all in fine detail: the axe embedded in ice, tiny scratches on its shaft, the hopeless reach of my fingers. I had time to think not good—an understatement—and then I was off.

It is true what they say: in such situations time slows. No, more than that: it stops, becomes irrelevant. I plunged into another time and existence altogether.

I bounced, spun, flew through the air, cast around like a rag doll. The ice slope, the sky, the abyss below: the world around me became an incomprehensible blur. I hurtled towards the void, out of touch with time and reality, but with time available for a million thoughts. I thought it strange that I had time to think so much.

There was complete disbelief that this was happening, and embarrassment that it was happening to me. What, I cringed, would they say back home? And why haven’t I been knocked out? I could feel my head slamming into ice after every leap through the air, but oddly couldn’t feel any pain. Why is there no pain?

And I thought—with shock that I was even thinking it—so this is what it’s like to die.

Steps to BluemlisalphutteThe steep slope and steps to the Bluemlisalphutte © Bryn Leyton/MyOutdoors

But NO, I screamed silently, I was not going to let myself die. I had no control but could perhaps regain it. It was the heavy pack, I reasoned, that was prolonging my fall. In desperation I tried to remove it, but couldn’t—my body was beyond my control. And so I found positives even in that. The pack contained a metal frame, perhaps saving me from a broken back, although I couldn’t understand why my arms and legs hadn’t snapped long ago.

Onwards I skimmed down the ice-slope like a rock tossed from above. If I am about to die, I thought, shouldn’t my life be flashing before my eyes? But instead I saw rocks, jagged and sharp, directly in my path, pain approaching. But somehow I missed them, hit a bump and flew through the air for ten, twenty, maybe thirty metres. Will this never end? Do I even want to reach the end? But the questions were academic: the fall was now everything. There was no past anymore, no future. My life consisted of nothing but this mad, unstoppable fall. 

But then suddenly, incredibly, I found myself on my front, and for once not bouncing.

Instinctively, I spread myself like a star, feet up to stop myself flipping over again. In desperation I dug my fingers into the ice, tearing at the surface, tearing flesh too, plucking several fingernails clean off, and slowly, wonderfully, miraculously I ground to a halt.

And there I was: stopped.

What a feeling!

I yelled at the top of my voice; an exultant, adrenaline-charged scream of sheer relief and raw emotion. I was alive, ALIVE! I was living, breathing, moving, feeling. I could hardly believe my luck.

I sat for a minute, savouring my existence. My fingers were a bloody mess. My limbs were battered, grazed, bruised. One eye was swollen half shut, my clothes were torn, and my left ankle was fractured, although I didn’t then know it. But I felt no pain, just euphoria. Everything I experienced now was a bonus.

Soon it was time to move on. Days might pass before anyone chanced by, and I wouldn’t be missed for a week. I was entirely responsible for myself—a choice I’d consciously made, with consequences I now had to accept. Already I could feel my body stiffening. I had to move right away before I became incapable of moving at all.

In a few brief seconds I’d lost 300 metres of altitude, but another 600 still lay between me and easier ground. Much of it was exposed, and I had no axe to steady myself or catch another fall. At least I still had crampons. I tried strapping them on, but my bleeding fingers couldn’t manage it. So I began the descent as I was. I kicked my way down frozen snow in slow motion, bringing more care to the task than I’d brought to any task before. My legs quaked from imagining another fall, from the intense effort of avoiding it. At the steepest section I eased off my unbalancing rucksack and pushed it down the slope ahead of me. It slid away, gathering speed, bouncing violently, and I shuddered at the sight. Had I looked like that?

It took five hours to reach safe ground, and the intensity remains etched in my mind. I left a trail of blood in the snow, and when I finally reached help I really had endured enough. An elderly man stood outside the first building I came to, a remote mountain restaurant. Bloody and ragged, I finally stood before him, and couldn’t hold it together any longer. I burst into tears, and surrendered responsibility for myself to someone else. Speaking gentle words, the man clasped my elbow and guided me indoors. He gave me a place to sit and a basin of warm saltwater for my torn hands. And then drove me carefully to hospital.

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Later that night, while lying between clean hospital sheets, the euphoria returned. And what euphoria it was! It didn’t match the sterile hospital environment. It was euphoria better suited for the great outdoors, for wide open spaces, for rebirths. I wanted to scream with joy, laugh ceaselessly. I was alive! Life suddenly seemed outrageously fragile, and unfathomably precious. What a miracle it was; every breath a gift. I’d been given a second chance that I absolutely couldn’t waste.

I spent a sleepless night re-evaluating my priorities. What did I want from life? Was it really what I had: a sheltered suburban existence, with days that were safe and comfortable, routines that felt deadening, and work that lacked purpose? Was it really the pursuit of money, possessions, stability, security, a pension? Was life all about achieving status, being what others thought I should be? Did I really have to fit in with the system, follow the path that almost everyone I knew appeared to follow? Was that really living?

Prologue photo Sunset Over The Bernese Oberland June 1993Prologue photo - Sunset Over The Bernese Oberland - June 1993 © Andrew Terrill

Suddenly, it all seemed wrong. It was desolate. Empty. No, worse: it was ridiculous, and just because it worked for others didn’t mean it had to work for me. I lived for mountains, for the simplicity of being in them, for the freedom they gave me to be myself. Mountains were the only places I felt fully alive. Why limit my time in them to annual vacations and snatched weekends? Vacations were too short. Life itself was too short! Couldn’t there be another way?

What I yearned for flew in the face of everything I had been conditioned to from birth, went against all the advice I had ever been given, ran contrary to how everyone else appeared to live. And so my escape took time. It was a battle. There were doubts, fears. I made up my mind, then un-made it. The chains that bound me had been well set. But after the Hohtürli Pass there was no going back. I couldn’t forget what had been revealed: that life was a gift not to be wasted, and finally I made my choice. I quit work, pulled on my rucksack, and set forth, leaving behind my suburban existence. It was the best decision I’d ever made. Afterwards, I wondered why it had taken so long. It was so clearly the right choice. 

Prologue photo The Blüemlisalphütte above the Hohturli Pass June 1993The Blüemlisalphütte above the Hohturli Pass - June 1993  © Andrew Terrill

Decision made, I spent the summer of 1994 back in the Alps, walking the length of the range, living the life I knew I was meant to live. After a winter of work that now held real purpose—to fund the next adventure—I set out on a three-month walk through the Pyrenees the following summer. Once alone in the mountains I couldn’t imagine a better life, couldn’t picture one that taught more or gave so much back. I was glad I’d fallen from the pass. But it tormented me that the journeys had to end so soon.

Or did they?

Once home from the Pyrenees I began considering the possibility of something bigger. I wanted a journey I could lose myself in completely, something so long in distance and broad in scope it could become more than just a walk. I didn’t want a journey that ended with the summer.

What I wanted was a new way of life.

The Earth Beneath My Feet was published on June 1st in paperback and ebook by independent-publisher Enchanted Rock Press. It is available on Amazon and from bookshops. The story will conclude with On Sacred Ground in 2022. For more details please visit andrewterrill.com.