Thursday, May 17, 2012

To the Last Breath, by Francis Slakey

Francis Slakey writes about his reconnection with humanity over the course of his climbing the Seven Summits and surfing the four oceans in his To the Last Breath: A Memoir of Going to Extremes. He transforms his self-possession into world engagement through a series of unlikely events surrounding his quest that draws him out of his shell. Because Slakey's conversion is intrinsically linked to his adventures, I found myself engrossed in his story both on and off the mountain. Though To the Last Breath has less written on the actual climbs than any other Seven Summits book I've read (He nearly omits Aconcagua and Elbrus.), his connecting of periphery events and several instances of unexpected drama create a superior storyline.

Slakey climbs Everest in the pre-monsoon season of 2000 from Nepal via the Southeast Ridge as a part of an unspecified US clean-up expedition. (I believe, after a bit of research, it was the National Geographic Everest Environmental Expedition, featured in the movie Beyond the Summit. I find it frustrating that many climbers these days find it uncool or unimportant to specify with whom they climbed.) He happens to meet his future wife on this trip, though it was anything but love at first sight. His summit climb ends up being relatively late and during a storm, and by his own recollection he was nearly alone during his highest climbing (though 20 people would summit Everest from the South Col that day). He says he met a Russian climbing from the North at the summit to whom he loaned his radio, but it was actually the Kazakh Denis Urubko, climbing without supplementary oxygen from the South, who would later complete the fourteen 8,000 meter peaks, including two in winter. He runs into trouble on the way down, with a Sherpa crumping near the summit and another teammate with his oxygen spent hallucinating and removing his gloves, making for a frightening descent. Even though I found some of the Everest information frustrating, I still had a lot of fun with this book. His conversion gave me hope for others like him, and his quest actually turned into something more than a checklist. I hope you enjoy!

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