Aldous Huxley's critics used to disparage him for claiming that his acid trips begat religious experiences. "Simply esthetic," Thomas Merton and others branded Huxley's drug-induced visions. He replied by painstakingly distinguishing his mystical reactions to certain drugs from mere pretty pictures. He reminded the scoffers that "all the standard mortifications -- fasting, voluntary sleeplessness and self-torture -- inflicted upon themselves by the ascetics of every religion . . . are also, like the mind-changing drugs, powerful devices for altering the chemistry of the body in general and the nervous system in particular."
Something of the same criticism, I expect, will be leveled at Rob Schultheis for following an athletic path to enlightenment. Yet few readers will dispute that "Bone Games" is an unusual book -- essentially a meditation on an experience Schultheis had 20 years ago, while climbing alone in the Colorado Rockies. He fell, cut himself badly, had to face a long and treacherous descent from the icy mountain. Miraculously, his every move was the right one:
"I found myself very simply doing impossible things, scores of them . . . Shattered, in shock, I climbed with the impeccable sureness of a snow leopard." He became Schultheis Enhanced, "the best possible version of myself, the person I should have been throughout my life." The rest of the book records his attempts to understand and recapture this exalted state.
"Bone Games" may be the most entertaining book about matters spiritual since Huxley's own "The Devils of Loudun." Schultheis knows exactly how to leaven a demanding passage with an anecdote. Just before falling, he'd been apprehensive about a narrow, snowy ridge he had to negotiate. "I once read of an extremely theoretical physicist," he writes of that fear, "who studied matter and decided it was so close to being nonexistent, unstable, perforated, insubstantial, that he began wearing gigantic clown's shoes on campus so he wouldn't slip through the crust of the earth. I knew exactly how he felt. There seemed to be nothing I could depend on anywhere."
Whenever the discussion looks to be bogging down in mystification, Schultheis revives it with an injection of evocative prose. After he fell and cut himself, there were "blotches on my knees the size of waterlilies." When, later, his ultraself proved to be elusive, he felt "as if there were a membrane clear as air and thinner than the thousandth skin of an onion, a membrane that stretched and stretched but never broke, separating me from what I sought."
So charming is the writing -- and so tantalizing the quest -- that the reader can be seduced into sliding over some hard questions. Schultheis dismisses competitive sports as a means to his preternatural end. But why? Indeed, he ignores the social dimension of his goal altogether. Is there any way most of us could become our best selves most of the time? Still, it is a measure of his book's power that these and a host of other questions linger after the last page has been turned.
By contrast, "The Armchair Mountaineer" is standard fare -- an anthology of mountaineering literature -- albeit a superior example of its kind. The editors have managed to be comprehensive while at the same time dredging up some novelties, like a climbing piece by Evelyn Waugh. There are first-person accounts ranging from Edward Whymper's bitter triumph on the Matterhorn (1865), in the course of which four team members fell to their deaths, to the late Joe Tasker's ordeal on the way down from Dunagiri in the Himalayas (1975). There also are fictional treatments by H.G. Wells and Norman Mailer and humorous bits by Ian McNaught Davis and Mark Twain.
The most affecting item is Philip C. Gossett's report of surviving an Alpine avalanche in 1864. After "swimming" with the moving snow and withstanding fierce pressure on his back when he stopped but the snow did not, Gossett found himself buried alive. Sensing that he could move his hands, he figured they must be above the snow. He dug himself out as far as he could but reached a point where his wrists wouldn't bend far enough to scoop out any more snow. He had the brilliant idea of blowing himself an airhole. Several puffs later, he succeeded. Eventually another survivor spotted his hands and extricated him.
What's most remarkable about this account is the matter-of-factness in the telling. Like Schultheis, Gossett did everything right; but he felt no need to transform the experience into a cosmic brief. Much as I responded to Schultheis' style and admired his book's originality, the simplicity of Gossett's piece made for a welcome contrast.