When Bow Valley climber Karen McNeill disappeared on Alaska’s Mount Foraker in June 2006, the realization that her close friend was dead hit Margo Talbot ‘like a Mack truck.’
As frequent climbing partners, the women had shared countless mountain adventures. It was also with McNeill that Talbot had shared her darkest secrets.
“She was the only person who knew all my secrets,” Talbot said. “We were a universe of two.”
An accomplished ice climber who guides adventures in the Arctic and Antarctic, Talbot had written magazine articles for years, so she naturally began writing about McNeill’s passion for life and challenging climbing expeditions. When she applied to The Banff Centre’s Mountain and Wilderness Writing program, she submitted her uncompleted manuscript to the program editors. The feedback was not exactly what she had expected.
“They told me the book needed to be about me,” Talbot said. “I’d been slipping in stuff about my friendship with Karen, and the editors told me my strong emotions were screaming through the pages.”
Until that point Talbot’s life had been comprised of secrets – about her dysfunctional family, dysfunctional relationships, child abuse, chronic depression, therapy and addiction to illegal drugs – not to mention risky behaviours including smuggling and selling those drugs. Ironically, it was another risky behaviour, ice climbing, which helped Talbot discover the focus and passion necessary to lead a more stable, balanced life.
But while she had overcome the consequences of poor decisions and learned to manage and live with mental illness, writing about such personal experiences represented a new challenge.
“It was a secret, something I did not want the world to know,” Talbot said. “So I told myself I didn’t have to publish it and kept writing. That freed me, and I was able to write down everything that happened.”
When, with her partner Warren’s blessing and encouragement (himself a well-known author and motivational speaker who lost both his legs in an outdoor accident), she decided to go ahead and publish the book, she was overcome with anxiety, waking up in the middle of the night drenched with sweat, unable to sleep.
Undaunted, this summer she published All That Glitters: A Climber’s Journey Through Addiction and Depression, with Sononis Press.
While she admits having her intensely personal, at times wrenching, shocking and uncomfortably honest story in print for all to read does leave her feeling naked to a certain extent, Talbot, 47, is resolute and confident that if it does, she no longer cares.
“I feel 500 pounds lighter being unburdened of all those secrets,” Talbot said. “My whole family life and my life afterward – I’m into transparency now.”
The response, she said, has been overwhelmingly positive.
“When I was growing up, it was very alienating to be the person struggling and not feel like you’re able to talk about it,” she said. “But now that I’ve told my story, people are reaching out. I had no idea so many people had been going through similar things.”
One significant thing she’s learned to understand is how her childhood led her to make poor choices as a teen and even into adulthood.
“I’ve learned an unanchored kid is vulnerable to whatever comes along,” Talbot said. “I never had that anchor. My mother could literally be the woman across the street. She doesn’t know anything about me and I don’t know who she is either. She hasn’t read my book and she’s not the least bit interested that I wrote it at all.”
For Talbot, however, writing has provided a new kind of anchor, and the minute she finished All That Glitters, she wanted to start her next book.
“I want to write books for the rest of my life,” she said. “I haven’t been that engaged since I learned how to ice climb.”
Her next book, she said, will focus on depression, mental health and therapies – including delving deeper into how she learned to rely on a “box of tools” to “come out the other side”.
“I’d like to think I’ll never be depressed again,” Talbot said. “I’ve learned to ride the wave and not let it crash over me. Some people ask if they should start ice climbing, and I say no – some people should take up knitting. You need to find something that makes you feel alive, so passionate you actually feel life coursing through your veins – instead of death.”
Talbot will sign copies of All That Glitters at Café Books in Canmore on Monday (Sept. 5) from 2-4 p.m. To learn more, please visit www.margotalbot.com