Sunday, July 21, 2013

On the Ridge between Life and Death, by David Roberts

David Roberts reveals even more details of climbing career, especially the effect that three early traumatic experiences had upon his attitude and outlook, in On the Ridge between Life and Death: A Climbing Life Reexamined. Considerably more mature than The Mountain of My Fear and more thorough than "Moments of Doubt," Roberts' current volume (in addition to the standard biographical stuff) analyzes his many climbs in Alaska and weighs them against his home life, his career, and his psyche. At times, especially during grad-school and teaching, his career is but an off-season to his summers of climbing. Meeting and marrying his wife complicates his climbing to a degree, but he for the most part remains driven. Ultimately, he defines himself for a long time by his climbs, and looks to them for emotional and intellectual sustenance. He's not certain that his attitude is the right one, and he works to explain his mental universe during his expeditions to find an answer to the riddle of why he (and others like him) climbs.

The book is more universal than it appears, as its lessons will haunt anyone who defines himself by what he accomplishes. Roberts' death-defying climbs are an extreme case of what men will do to gain the recognition of their peers. However, is our pride in what we do (career, hobby, vocation) misplaced? Aren't there more important things out there? What are we actually accomplishing?

This book's connection to Everest is tenuous, at best. I saw several mentions of Everest in the index and went for it, especially since I wanted to read this book, anyway. Roberts happens to be first on the scene at the death of Dan Doody, participant in the 1963 American Mount Everest Expedition. On of his students (and later a life-long friend) happens to be Jon Krakauer, who would later write probably the most famous book on Mount Everest. Interestingly, it took some prodding by Roberts and others before Krakauer considered writing for a living. Roberts collaborated with Conrad Anker on a book about Anker's discovery of Mallory on Everest, The Lost Explorer, but little about it is here. There's also a bit of background to his interviews with Messner and Habeler that would make up "Alone at the Top," found in his Moments of Doubt. Disappointing for me, Roberts overall writes little about his literary career, beyond his early books and his transition away from teaching. I would have loved to have read the back stories to his many subsequent books, as well as his many adventures after his hardcore climbing career. I cannot complain, however, as the title clearly states that the book has another focus. 

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