Climbing is a Therapy Not an Antidote: A Review of All that Glitters

Margo Talbot, an ice climber, a leader for women’s climbing, and an advocate for mental health published her autobiography in 2011. It was self published because Talbot is stubborn and refused to quit when the publisher’s warehouse burned down. The 2020 publication of All that Glitters: A Climber’s Journey through Addiction and Depression by Rocky Mountain Books was made possible because of Talbot’s stalwart attitude in 2011 and reader response to date, including being a 2011 Banff Mountain Literature Finalist. RMB knew, like I have realized, more people need to read this book.

Talbot was born in Frederickton, New Brunswick in the 1960s to her disconnected parents. Her father was an un-involved father, which was typical of the era but compounded by being an orphan and claiming he doesn’t know how to raise children. Her mother was neglectful with her girls and showered attention on her boy. The girls, except Margo Talbot, all got pregnant early. Talbot left on a journey the was an Odyssey with characters and the 1980s and 1990s twist with alcohol and drugs.

One of my favorite lines came after she spent time as a sugar-baby to a wealthy, married, addict, drug dealer named Jay. She challenged him to tell his wife about her, which he does, and the situation explodes sending her back to Jasper, Alberta where they had originally met. She wrote, “Whenever I went to the post office or to do my banking, women would stop me and tell me how great I looked, how thin I was. I wanted to tell them that my secret was an eight-month diet of cocaine followed by betrayal and intense emotional upheaval.”

Talbot discovered climbing through one of her lovers and another addict. She continued to struggle, and things were dark, but she explains how the effort of climbing matched the intensity of her depression. While she climbed, she felt better. That’s not to say that there weren’t pressures from climbing that crept into her life; it did. When she started climbing in competitions, the stress often prompted bouts and periods of deep, darkness.

I like to believe that climbing is a cure or at least a therapy for many things, as climbing helps me deal with stress and centering myself. But Talbot’s story made it very clear to me that climbing is not an antidote to depression. Getting out of depression as deep as Talbot’s still requires exorcising demons, which is a hard, long process — possibly years long. Talbot does show that ice climbing is a helpful tool during the process of alleviating the pressures and triggers of depression, but does not necessarily mean the condition was healed.

While I think there is a valid case that this book is about climbing, I do not call this a climbing book, if that is what you are explicitly seeking. In fact, this is the second climber biography that was distinctly not about the climbs as well as the climber. (The other being Sixty Meters to Anywhere by Brendan Leonard in 2016 which had a greater focus on climbing than All that Glitters.) There is a trend these days of climbers and adventurers writing their book involving a mountaineering goal but using it as a Trojan horse to convey a message or illustrate a point about the fragility of the planet or mental health.

As a reader, I genuinely enjoy getting to know the climber as a whole, but I enjoy it most when the story is about human achievement in the mountains, and how they succeed or fail in life as a secondary theme. For instance, I am currently reading tennis champion Maria Sharapova’s autobiography and I want to know about her early life in Sochi, but if the book rarely addressed how it helped her compete against Serena Williams I would say she misunderstood her audience. For Talbot, however, I suspect that more people are drawn to her because of her nonprofit work and her Ted Talk on mental health. I am the rare climber-reader looking for more climbers’ stories.

Of course, Talbot is a climber and her love for climbing is woven through the book in subtle ways. She identifies as a climber, as the book’s subtitle points out, and the chapter titles are taken from names of ice climbing routes (my favorite being Polar Circus for obvious reasons.)

Talbot found ice climbing and mountaineering before she overcame depression, and yet, her climbing life blossomed after her battle.

It is a very quick read and a page turner but this book was not what I was expecting. There were far fewer climbing stories and anecdotes, proportionate to the pages, than I anticipated. Yet it reminds us, as an audience passionate about the mountains, that life is more than our interests. Talbot concludes that relationships are the most valuable things we have in life. The power of relationships over us can be precarious, with the potential to cause lasting damage if repressed, or empower us to thrive and climb to the heights.

I recommend that you read All that Glitters because I learned things I may not have been exposed to elsewhere and I needed to know, and Talbot does it all with a hopeful and sensitive tone. You will be a better climber and person for reading her book.

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