"There are six hundred and thirty-eight mountains over thirteen thousand feet high in the Colorado Rockies. If I were sensible," says Jane Parnell, "it would take several lifetimes to do them all. But I want to climb them all in this lifetime... I want to possess these mountains as they possess me."
In her memoir, Off Trail: Finding My Way Home in the Colorado Rockies, Parnell interweaves the story of her enduring passion for reaching those summits with stories of what did not endure—her marriage to the man who started her on that life path.
A dark ribbon through Parnell's life is a rape in her early twenties. Karl, her newish boyfriend, is the only person who believes her report of the rape, and assigns no blame to the victim. Ten years older, with Stanford degrees, impressive stature, and a lifetime of mountain climbing experience, he has been teaching her to hike. They had found passion in the rocky peaks and scree fields. Karl provides solace and escape from the haunting assault, though her desire does not survive the attack. Within months, they are married. Their life together is centered on mountain climbing, bagging peaks with incredible determination, and the endless renovation of a Victorian home on a steep hillside in the tourist town of Manitou Springs.
Making a natural connection, Parnell adds a thread that follows her fascination with another woman who loved the mountains, Isabella Bird, adventurer and author of A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains. Bird is both inspiration and object lesson for Parnell, because she suffers for her rare and socially questionable freedom, as does Parnell, who learns young that being female can tie you down, and knows what it means to be an outsider, to want something different.
And yet another story is woven into this tapestry, that of her beloved older sister, Alice, who shared her childhood delight in family vacations in Colorado. They played in the pines around the cabin, and in the willow thickets along the stream. They watched through binoculars as climbers scaled Longs Peak. But gradually Alice succumbed to severe schizophrenia. The suffering and impact of mental illness is a lesson Jane carries, and her candor here honors her sister.
Ultimately, Jane Parnell draws these threads together and gives us a fascinating picture of her complex womanliness, by turns awkward and remarkably bold, ambitious and retiring, brave and insecure, willing to suffer to move forward, always on a path to realizing herself. From these paradoxes, by age thirty she becomes the first woman to climb the 100 highest peaks in Colorado.
Yet that achievement cannot save a failing marriage. She has grown strong. "Soft, shapeless muscle has toughened up, rounded out. Legs and lungs perform in harmony, powering me up the mountain." She and Karl bear awful discomforts to distinguish themselves in the climbing community. Yet she finds herself wondering, "What must I sacrifice for Karl and me to meet our peak-bagging objectives, for our union to gratify us both?"
In telling the story of becoming a premier mountaineer, Jane Parnell discovers the sacrifices she is and isn't willing to make, and the form of her life appears from the swirl of memory, like fog lifting from a mountain vista. As with most women's stories, hers is both unique and familiar. Her perseverance is inspiring, and her search for fulfillment is poignant and powerful. Following her uphill and down through her life makes for a rewarding read.
Jane Parnell has taught writing at Colorado Mountain College and journalism at Utah State University. Her articles, editorials, and essays under the pen name Jane Koerner have been published in High Country News, Mountain Gazette, and Outdoor Adventure.
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