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Trial by Mountain: Suffering and Healing in Difficult Landscapes



Lindsey Collins

Trial by Mountain: Suffering and Healing in Difficult Landscapes

This dissertation addresses the intersection of illness and landscape in metaphors of climbing mountains and cancer. In recovery climbs, events held to raise money and awareness for women's cancers, climbing mountain peaks and summits figures as a journey similar to a struggle with cancer. For these metaphors to be intelligible as healing and hopeful requires the Euro-American histories of investing in mountains as wild, consecrated, risky places.

To understand the development of recovery climbs, which began in the late 1990s, I first contextualize Western women's climbing within a larger mountaineering history in which men are the dominant players. By paying attention to the gendered dimensions of mountaineering beginning in the nineteenth century but focusing on the last several decades, I describe what kinds of shifts have taken place in the last 30 years to make recovery climbs possible. I then describe the development of wilderness therapy in the 1990s. A feminist and still-growing therapeutic model, wilderness therapy creates what I call a slow wilderness, in which risk is made manageable and contained, and fast and risky aesthetics, coded as masculine, are traded for ecofeminist tropes of mutuality, nurturing, and femininity.

These climbing practices go beyond metaphor. I argue that recovery climbers actively make permeable bodies and landscapes through their interactions. I examine several different models of contemporary cancer activism to argue that these different organizations' embodied practices matter and create ecologies, some of which are more life-sustaining, just, and productive for understanding illness than others.

Finally, I follow events organized by The Breast Cancer Fund and The HERA Women's Cancer Foundation to explore the ways that metaphors of rocks and climbing inform people's experiences of cancer and trauma. I use lines, problems, horizons, and pressure as tropes that provide a materially embodied way of engaging cancer climbs. My phenomenological account, informed by queer theory, argues that recovery climbs are embodied practices of resilience and interrelation. I propose oncogeographies as a different ecological model in which we might better relate to illness by working with the limits and obstacles that illness brings, rather than repudiating them in favor of survivorship narratives.

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