Monday, May 30, 2011

Keep Climbing, by Sean Swarner

Keep Climbing tells the story of Sean Swarner, the first cancer survivor to ascend Mount Everest. The book details Swarner's survival of both Hodgkin's Disease and Askin's sarcoma in his teenage years, the latter leaving him with only one fully-functioning lung. After graduating from college and attending graduate school, he puts his studies on hold to spend a year training for and climbing Mount Everest to inspire and bring hope to cancer patients. He moves to Colorado along with his brother, having never scaled a mountain before, and they scrape by while climbing 14-ers with 100-200 pounds of rocks in their backpacks and finding sponsors for Sean's climb. He climbs Everest from Nepal via the Southeast Ridge route in 2002 on the permit of the National Geographic 50th Anniversary Everest Expedition. Like H. P. S. Ahluwalia's Higher than Everest, the climb is the easy part of the protagonist's struggle.

For someone at the brink of death, Swarner was amazingly full of life during his teenage years. He consistently amazed his parents and medical help with both his attitude and his outlook. The story of his illness and recovery is amazing enough for a book, and I can't believe that he felt the need to climb Everest to further inspire people. His life changes in a matter of days from being the fit kid at the head of the sports teams to not even being able to summon the energy to sit through a day's classes at the age of 13. After surviving the cancer and chemo treatments, he gets his energy, fitness, and hair back, only to come down with his second cancer at 15. He refuses to let the second treatments take over his life, and he pushes himself and his doctor to get himself back to normal very hard. Both cancers were very serious (He was not expected to live through either.), but Swarner is a determined and very lucky survivor.

Like Goran Kropp's Ultimate High, Swarner's book details an amazing story, but is hindered somewhat by its prose. Most notably regarding the Everest climb, Sean and his brother, Seth, comprise their own expedition to Everest, along with Wongchu, Kame, and Nima Gombu, with Seth staying at base camp, since they could only afford a single climbing permit; but the author (or co-author?) on several occasions mentions mysterious "others," who do things such as visit other expeditions at Base Camp. The big one for me is an extraordinarily inconvenient place for ending the book. I can't imagine I'm the only one who was left holding his breath and wondering what happened next on this one. A bit like ending a symphony on the second-to-last chord! I had to look at Swarner's website to get some resolution.

On a side note, Swarner includes a photograph of his climbing permit. I was amazed to see six names on the permit---Pete Athans, Peter Hillary, three film crew for the National Geographic group (including Everest veteran Michael Graber), and Sean Swarner. Either their permit was altered after this March 23, 2002 printing, or Brent Bishop and Jamling Tenzing Norgay, also members of the anniversary climb, were actually climbing on a different permit. I'm glad I only have to read about the logistics of an Everest climb; I could never handle them!

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