Writers are always looking for the element they can bring in to their writing that not only separates the work from that of other writers, but elevates it as well — and gives readers an experience they won’t get from anyone else. For Courtney Schafer, the element that elevates her novel The Whitefire Crossing does so literally — giving her fantasy adventure a perspective few others have. Here is to reveal the heights of her inspiration.
Some fantasy authors find inspiration for their novels in a historical culture, or a set of myths. I found mine in a landscape: California’s Sierra Nevada, the mountains John Muir called the Range of Light. Specifically, the eastern escarpment of the Sierra, where snowcapped 14,000 foot peaks rise with awe-inspiring abruptness from the sagebrush and alkali desert of the Owens Valley.
You see, I’m a climber. One of those crazy souls who can imagine nothing better than spidering up some gleaming sweep of rock and snow to reach a summit so narrow you’ve barely enough room for both feet. And though I live in Colorado and have climbed many a delightful peak in the Rockies, it’s the jagged granite spires of the Sierra that make my heart truly sing.
So when I set out to write The Whitefire Crossing, I decided to use that passion. I love fantasy novels full of magic, intrigue, and adventure; so I thought, why not set such a fantasy in a landscape similar to the Owens Valley and eastern Sierra, and make one of my protagonists a climber?
Not a climber in the tame, modern sense, with synthetic ropes that stretch to absorb the force of a fall, clever camming devices, and all the other technological innovations that have made mountaineering safe enough for the masses. No, a climber in the far more dangerous style of the 1700s and 1800s, when mountain guides relied on hemp ropes, iron pitons, and hobnailed boots, and the maxim was “the leader must not fall.” (Even a short fall on a slack rope is enough to sever hemp fibers.)
Among climbers, there have always been some more daring (or crazy) than the rest, willing to forego all safeguards in exchange for pure freedom of movement and the chance to spit in death’s eye. Check out this video of Dan Osman speed-climbing a 5.7 technical rock route in Yosemite, sans rope (and sanity, some would argue!). Non-climbers tend to assume ascents like Osman’s are the product of our modern age of Jackass-inspired stunts. Yet the journals of 18th century mountaineers are full of equally risky climbs; and archaeologists have found signs of Ancient Puebloan visitation on the summits of sheer-sided buttes whose crumbling sandstone makes modern climbers’ blood run cold.
I am by nature the cautious sort of climber who blanches at the mere thought of a free solo ascent. And yet, I can empathize enough with a free soloist’s mentality that I wanted to explore the mindset further. It also struck me that the strange, insular, addictive nature of climbing isn’t so far off from the way magic and mages are sometimes portrayed in fantasy. I thought it’d be fun to compare and contrast the viewpoints of two protagonists, one a mountain guide who well knows the lure of dancing with death, the other a mage attempting to reject the deadly style of magic he’s been trained to cast.
Even more fun if my protagonists are deeply suspicious of each other’s motives (and for good reason) while they’re journeying together across treacherous alpine terrain. After all, mountain climbing is all about trust. When you rope yourself to a partner, you place your life in that person’s hands. No mountaineer takes this truth lightly. (Witness the blistering criticism directed at Simon Yates, the climber famous for cutting the rope and letting his partner Joe Simpson fall, in a situation where Yates believed the only alternative was death for them both. Though Simpson survived the fall (after a truly epic ordeal), and even vehemently defended Yates’s decision, some climbers couldn’t get over their instinctual aversion to the perceived betrayal of a partner.) If you’re forced to climb with a partner you dare not trust…a bond may form despite your best intentions, and decisions that once seemed easy can turn into thorny ethical dilemmas.
Climbing is only one component of The Whitefire Crossing – the story also involves blood mages, Tainted Children, shadow men, and plenty of risky schemes and double dealings. But I found the mountaineering scenes a wonderful (and fun!) way to highlight the themes of trust, sacrifice, and betrayal that stand at the story’s heart. And if I can give you a glimpse of the joy and awe I’ve felt among the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, better yet. Because when you love something as deeply as I love climbing mountains, you want to share that love.