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Maria Coffey - Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow


"The world needs risk takers. They inspire, challenge, and encourage. They set off sparks, igniting fires that burn long after their passing. They dare the impossible. But not without cost." In researching this book, the author "went beyond the usual inquiry into why people climb, to ask why anyone would choose to love a person who repeatedly risks his or her life in the high mountains. What are the costs, and the gains, of such a choice? I also talked to the people who had no choice--the parents and the children of climbers. [...] It is my hope that this book sets off some sparks of its own, that discussions flame about the impact of climbing on people's lives. About the dazzling brilliance of risk, and the darkness of its shadows."

Chapter 1 - Moments of Perfection

In this chapter, the author explores what motivates climbers. For some (p. 6), climbing is like an addiction. For others (p. 17), climbing and their relationships with other climbers defines them. Many climbers remain in a kind of perpetual adolescence (p. 20) in which they avoid the responsibilities of adulthood and seek a sense of immortality through brushes with danger. Others (p. 22) report moments of transcendence, of oneness with the universe, described by Zen Buddhists as kensbo, Christians as epiphany, and psychologists as flow.

p. 24: "In The Evolving Self, [psychologist Mihaly] Csikszentmihalyi affirms what mountaineers so often claim--that the enjoyment of risk taking derives not from the danger itself but from managing it, from the sense of exercising control in difficult situations. In the long run, this adds up to a sense of control over one's life, which he claims, 'comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably imagine.' But he warns that flow has its negative side. 'The goals to which it can be applied,' he writes, 'can make life either richer, or more painful.'"

Chapter 3 - In Thrall

p. 54: Psychiatrist Ruth Seifert, wife of expedition doctor Charlie Clarke, says, "Climbers are very single-minded and unspeakably selfish. There is no compromise in what they do. No compromise whatsoever." She adds, "I think that every single person that does this sort of thing doesn't feel whole; they feel they have to go on proving and proving and proving, filling in a massive gap and helping themselves survive their feelings of not being good enough. I don't think they feel real unless they're taking themselves to extremes."

Chapter 7 - Badges of Honor

p. 145: "Ruth Seifert believes that such determination has as much to do with feelings of competition as a love of climbing. 'There's this battle that goes on with the serious mountaineers, that if they fail to climb a mountain, or if they've lost fingers or toes or been hurt in some other way, they've got to come out the winners. They've got to be on top, not the mountain. They've lost the fight, and something has stopped them from doing what they want, and so they go back.'" Ed Webster concurs: "For the serious mountaineer, to lose your ability to climb is to lose your entire sense of self."

Chapter 9 - An Absence of Light

p. 195: Andrea Harlin: "When climbers die I hear lots of people saying, 'Oh well, it's okay, they died doing what they love best.' I don't think that at all. You should make sacrifices when you have children, because they need you. People also say, 'If climbers didn't do what they love to do, they would die inside.' Well, excuse me, but there are other people involved in life, and you're not an island, especially when you have a family. I can only go by how I felt growing up in that situation. I felt abandoned. I felt like I was less important to my father than that mountain. I still feel that way. So many times I wished I had a father. I still do. If he came back today, I'd yell at him, 'Where were you all my life?'"

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Last Updated: Sat Jan 8 16:27:34 PST 2005