Over the Top
Three looks at the lives -- and deaths -- of risk-taking mountain climbers.

Reviewed by Grace Lichtenstein
Sunday, January 15, 2006

BREAKING TRAIL

A Climbing Life

By Arlene Blum

Scribner. 313 pp. $27.50

ON THE RIDGE BETWEEN LIFE AND DEATH

A Climbing Life Reexamined

By David Roberts

Simon & Schuster. 414 pp. $26

SNOWSTRUCK

In the Grip of Avalanches

By Jill Fredston

Harcourt. 342 pp. $24

Is mountain climbing a sport or a death wish? Why risk your life just "because it is there," as George Leigh Mallory famously answered when asked why he would climb Mt. Everest? How do you define risk? These three books take on those questions, although only two are memoirs by climbers. What all three have in common is risk -- and death.

Jill Fredston's lucid memoir of her work as an avalanche stalker and forecaster proffers a simple explanation of the risk associated with playing on snowy mountains. "For some, risk is tainted with the negative connotations of other four-letter words," she writes. "But if you are taking no risks, you are dead, and without risk, we might forget we are alive. . . . Many of us live everyday lives that feel rutted enough to glorify risk." The extraordinary risk of mountaineering is one reason there have been so many remarkable books on the subject. Climbers David Roberts and Arlene Blum have written several of those books, but that's about all they seem to have in common. Clearly gender plays a large part in their differing attitudes toward climbing. In their new works, they attempt to explain their motivations after a lifetime of striving to reach the top of death-defying peaks.

Roberts secured his reputation as a writer when he published an essay, "Moments of Doubt," 25 years ago. A climber since his teens, he argued that despite the deaths he had witnessed, climbing was worth the risks. Now in his sixties, he sets out to reexamine the tradeoffs. That he does not reach a satisfying conclusion is less important than his searing honesty in exploring this slippery metaphysical slope.

Roberts was 18, just out of high school, when he watched a friend and climbing buddy plunge to his death in the Flatirons outside their hometown of Boulder, Colo. He was 22 when another partner died falling off a mountain in Alaska. Despite these and other harrowing experiences, he did not stop climbing. By his own admission, he was a fanatic who as a youngster first "tasted the rapture of the abyss" and years later "tasted the most piercing moments of joy I would ever be granted" while scrambling toward the sky. By 1975, he had become an associate professor of literature and mountaineering at Hampshire College, where he became a mentor to a younger fanatic-in-training, Jon Krakauer.

Roberts clearly feels that climbing made him a "hard man" -- a positive term learned in his days with the Harvard Mountaineers Club -- and he is proud of the numerous first ascents he made, primarily in Alaska. Neither the fatalities, nor his own near-misses, nor marriage to a woman who is acrophobic stopped him from seeking the rapture year after year. Too much of On the Ridge Between Life and Death recounts in numbing detail his key expeditions, while only toward the very end does he seriously reassess what effect they had on himself, his family and the relatives of those who died on trips with him.

Blum, almost the same age as Roberts, provides an alternative view. The daughter of troubled Jewish parents, she was raised in the Midwest mostly by a grandmother who kept admonishing her to avoid even normal, everyday risks. Accidentally overhearing an aunt say her little niece would never amount to anything made young Arlene fiercely determined to prove her wrong.

Blum sought out risk -- everything from cooking nonkosher meat to studying science -- to break out of the suffocating box of tradition and safety to which girls of her generation and ethnicity were consigned. While attending Reed College in Oregon, she went on her first real climb, huffing and puffing in borrowed boots roped to a boyfriend who confessed he had brought her along on their first ascent only because he had expected her to quit. While she did not reach the summit of that first peak, she was hooked.

Her upbringing was only the first hurdle she had to overcome. Blum confronted sexism in her work as a research chemist and throughout her climbing career. During one expedition in 1969, a male member of the group declared, "There are no real women climbers." When she demanded an explanation, he said, "It means that women either aren't good climbers or they aren't real women."

Every outrage seemed to spur Blum on. Seeking freedom from male paranoia, she began organizing all-women climbing expeditions. There was discord, to be sure, but there was also bliss. Describing the all-female ascent of Denali, the highest peak in North America, in 1970, she calls the effort of climbing a ridge "extreme meditation, thinking about my breathing and moving with focus, concentration, and harmony. Where I placed my foot determined whether I lived or died. Future plans, past regrets, and the normal clutter of my mind were silenced. I felt a sense of peace and distance from the world."

Disappointments touched Blum's climbing (she was part of the American Bicentennial Everest expedition in 1976 but got no higher than 24,700 feet), and so did tragedy. Her crowning achievement was leading the first all-female team to make the summit of Annapurna in 1978. Two participants died during the expedition. She has also had to face nasty backbiting. She is particularly indignant about the role she says the late Galen Rowell played in criticizing women climbers.

Eventually Blum gave birth to a daughter and left behind the most risky mountaineering for interesting but tame treks. Nevertheless, her legacy as a pioneer lends Blum's story a historical resonance that Roberts's book lacks.

Fredston, who grew up fascinated by snow in a New York suburb, is younger than Blum and was fortunate to find both a mentor and a lover in Doug Fesler, an avalanche expert 13 years her senior. In an earlier book, Rowing to Latitude , she told of their Arctic sea kayaking adventures. In Snowstruck , she reports on their work running an avalanche safety center near Anchorage, Alaska.

Fredston's writing is so vibrant you almost want to pull on a down parka while reading her tales of calamitous snowslides and dangerous helicopter rescues. Her book features more dead bodies than can be found in the two climbing memoirs put together. Some of the victims (including herds of snowmobilers) trigger the slides that kill them; others are just unlucky.

Forecasting avalanches is a strange profession indeed, and Fredston is up to the task describing it. "As you try to peer over the convex edge of the slope," she writes, "you feel like a very pregnant woman who can't see her toes. All you want is a yes or no answer to the question, 'Is the slope safe?' " After page upon page of nonstop search and rescue, however, even the hardiest reader might be ready for a book about beaches. ยท

Grace Lichtenstein writes frequently about adventure and sports from New York City and Santa Fe, N.M.

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