On a mountain climb in Nepal, a heroine searches for - herself; Beyond the Mountain, by Elizabeth Arthur. New York: Harper & Row Publishers. 211 pp. $12.95.
''It's funny now that I think about it, but beginnings often hurt more than endings. Endings you anticipate; no matter how bad they may be in reality, your imagination has always made them worse. . . . But beginnings are different.''
When Artemis Philipps embarks on her flight to India to join a climbing expedition there, she expects to leave all the sad memories behind: her feelings of guilt and of isolation and, most of all, her passionate desires.
But on arriving in Bombay she realizes that, not only do her memories cling to her steadfastly, but the culture puts new strains on her as well. However, coming to terms with the culture proves easier than coming to terms with her own past. Thus, as the expedition moves through the strange and fascinating country of Nepal, the reader is frequently taken back into Artemis's past.
She has been a famous mountaineer, climbing the world's highest ranges with her husband, Nicholas, and her brother, Orion, until the two men were killed in an avalanche a few months before the story's outset. Artemis's life is shattered. But it is not only loneliness and longing for the loved ones which torture her now; rather it is a sense of guilt when reflecting on her relationship with Nicholas. This relationship had been characterized by intense passion, driving both of them to extremes of joy and despair, and allowing for peace only in rare moments. And although, for most of the time, both Artemis and Nicholas seemed to have had an equal share in keeping their relationship in turmoil, events preceding the avalanche have tipped the scales on Artemis's side.
Now all of these rather agonizing memories are set against the background of a people and landscape that could hardly be more peaceful and calm. And gradually Artemis feels the influence of Nepal. When being attracted to a little girl who is mute, but still ''as full of life as a river'' and when enjoying the hospitality of a yak herder, Artemis arrives at some sense of peace herself. The question, however, whether she will find real forgiveness, whether her life will become simple and ''manageable'' once more, remains open until the last chapter.
Although this is a novel on mountaineering, it is by no means crowded with jargon. In fact, it is full of joy in the out-of-doors, and it conveys the ''splendor of motion.'' And it is more. It is a novel with much insight into human nature, and much wisdom.
By choosing a journey as the setting for a spiritual quest, Elizabeth Arthur echoes an old tradition. Poets have long linked the search for ultimate values to physical journeys. And, as Arthur surely demonstrates, the theme has lost nothing of its freshness or urgency.