A Memoir of Going to Extremes

By Francis Slakey Simon & Schuster. 252 pp. $25

Francis Slakey must have nine lives. The Georgetown University professor has survived a malfunctioning cot hanging off the wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, a blizzard during his descent from the summit of Mount Everest, another blizzard in Antarctica that lasted eight days, an incident involving armed soldiers in Indonesia, a near head-on car collision in Morocco, civil war in Sri Lanka and even an audition for a TV show called “Dangerman,” during which he lay on a bed of nails with a cinderblock on his stomach.

‘To the Last Breath: A Memoir of Going to Extremes’ by Francis Slakey (Simon & Schuster)

Slakey’s adventures started about 15 years ago, when the “self-absorbed, insensitive and disconnected” physicist decided at age 37 to climb the highest mountain on every continent and surf every ocean.

Having lost his mother as a young boy, Slakey had steeled himself to the world, so he assumed that his “surf-n-turf” goal wasn’t about anything but staying strong. “I wasn’t trying to bring meaning or purpose to my life or anyone else’s,” he writes. “No one would be any better for my journey, and that was just fine with me. I had been living with that indifference to the world, that detachment, for decades.”

While every near-death experience brings him closer to his goal, it also brings him further away from the person he once was, and his journey becomes less about geography and more about self-discovery. In a book that is compelling and insightful from the get-go, Slakey takes the reader along on his adventures as he comes to terms with his mother’s death and learns what really matters in life.

— Moira E. McLaughlin