Friday, July 8, 2011

Stories Off the Wall, by John Roskelley

For a personal perspective from one of the United States' best and most controversial climbers, read John Roskelley's Stories Off the Wall. Roskelley writes about some of the more exciting or amusing episodes in his life, including his trips to the Pamirs, his ascents of Makalu and Uli Biaho, working in a mine, and some near-death experiences. I particularly enjoyed his trip up Denali with Jim Wickwire (Addicted to Danger). He also includes two memorial tributes, one to Kim Momb and the other to a non-climbing friend, Will Hawkins. About Everest, Roskelley includes his emergency evacuation down the West Ridge and discusses his leaving the 1981 Kangshung Face expedition.

I found that this book puts a face on a climber that often receives caricature depiction in other climbers' writings. He gets less-than-favorable coverage in Robert Roper's Fatal Mountaineer (Nanda Devi 1976), and is depicted as the guy who thinks too much of himself to work with such riff-raff in both David Breashears' High Exposure (Everest 1981) and Ed Viesturs' No Shortcuts to the Top (Kanchenjunga 1989). Slightly more neutral is Galen Rowell's High and Wild, in which they climb Cholatse together. In his own writing, he is far from angelic, but it does help to learn his motivations and rationalizations. Roskelley is someone who relishes the sharp end of the climb, and he doesn't put up with much straggling. He works to become an all-around mountaineer, climbing multi-pitch vertical faces, high Himalayan peaks, and tough ice. He admits that he is difficult to get along with, but he forms close partnerships with a few climbers. He metes out praise for other climbers often in this book and is careful to be vague in the object of his criticisms, such as "physicians" or "other climbers."

Roskelley discusses two of his Everest experiences in this book. In his tribute to Kim Momb, he describes his experience of coming down with pulmonary edema high on the West Ridge during Bob Craig's 1983 expedition and Momb's rescuing him. It's a frightening experience, and I found Roskelley's description of his experience enlightening, since most pulmonary edema stories are told from the perspective of the rescuers rather than the rescued. This is actually the first glimpse I've had of the 1983 expedition, and I hope to find more on it in the future. In contrast to the British, it seems like American Everest climbers almost never (after the 1963 expedition) write book-length expedition accounts. It's too bad---many of the American climbs from Tibet in the 1980s sound like exciting stories from the details I've gleaned from other sources. In his last chapter, "The Art of Risk," Roskelley discusses, among other things, his rationale for leaving the 1981 Kangshung Face expedition. He mentions the snow conditions above the buttress, the lack of teamwork, and the lack of rational leadership as his primary motivations. Additionally, he felt that conditions were just about right for a North Ridge attempt. If you don't read this one too deeply, it's a fun read. It's easy to be offended by John Roskelley, but its also easy to enjoy this book.

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