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David Roberts - On the Ridge Between Life and Death
In this memoir, David Roberts reviews his most significant mountaineering adventures and reflects upon the losses that have occurred to him and his friends. The author expresses second thoughts about his 1980 essay, "Moments of Doubt," which he now describes as "an apologia for the climbing life."

Chapter 2 - The Vacant Lot

p. 17: The pursuit of difficult mountaineering poses two questions: "Why do we climb mountains?" and "How do we justify the risk and the inevitable tragedy climbing entails?" It wasn't until his fifties and sixties that the author saw that the way climbers usually grapple with these questions is ultimately solipsistic. "Climbers tend to answer those queries solely in reference to themselves," he writes, "as if the impact of a death in the mountains on those who cared most about the victim were irrelevant, or at most an unfortunate by-product of the tragedy. For such apologists, 'Is it worth the risk?' reduces to a much simpler and less interesting question: 'Do I get enough rewards from climbing to justify the chance of dying?'"

Chapter 6 - Worth the Risk

p. 169: As Roberts became involved with the woman he would eventually marry, he realized: "The clean love of mountaineering, the passionate pursuit of new routes and unclimbed summits, the most important thing in my life, was fundamentally incompatible with that other kind of love, the bond between a man and a woman who [...] hope to share a life together." He later wrote in his diary (p. 172): "Perhaps I have only in the last year found other things that mean (or that could eventually mean) as much, possibly more, than climbing does to me."

Chapter 7 - Hostage to Fortune

p. 200: About his 1965 climb of Mount Huntington in Alaska, the author acknowledges the influence of peer recognition: "I had finally, on the west face of Mount Huntington, made a mark that stood up creditably among the best things being done by my peers worldwide."

Chapter 10 - The Unexamined Life

p. 332: The author describes the guilt and ambivalence he has felt as he has become a casual, part-time climber. When pressed on the subject, he explains that he has found other kinds of adventures that are just as fulfilling as climbing once was. "Yet every time I utter these formulas," he writes, "an imp whispers in my ear, 'Bullshit, Roberts.' For I know that nothing else that I have done in life has matched the adamantine intensity of the tightrope walks between life and death that I performed in the mountains in my twenties and early thirties."

p. 341: In the 1980s, following publication of the essay "Moments of Doubt," Outside magazine assigned Roberts to profile several of the world's leading climbers and adventurers. He found that "all my subjects had in common an intensity and self-preoccupation that--though clearly functional in the third bivouac on the Eiger or above 26,000 feet on Everest--seemed more than faintly disturbing in a person one might choose as a friend rather than as a hero." He adds that "the abundant narcissism I found in the makeup of climbing stars nudged to a new level my latent skepticism about the mountaineering life." He had already concluded for himself that climbing made a very poor model for how to get through "normal" life. On p. 347, he notes that while narcissism can be found in high achievers in many walks of life, in mountaineering, the narcissism "all too often goes hand-in-hand with a disturbing coldness, an absence of compassion."

p. 343: The author examines some of the reasons that people climb mountains. He was never able to formulate a coherent answer himself, nor did he ever come across one written by another mountaineer. The most acceptable response was from the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, commenting on an unrelated activity. Nabokov answered that it was "a way of rebelling against the void fore and aft." Of the reasons offered by climbers for pursuing their pastime, the author finds the most compelling explanations in the writing of two very different British climbers. Tom Patey portrays climbing as fundamentally absurd, a "mock-heroic comedy" (p. 355). John Menlove Edwards, on the other hand, seems to regard it as a kind of disease, "some psycho-neurotic tendency" (p. 355).

p. 345: The notion that there is nothing competitive about climbing is "pure nonsense," writes the author. "Climbing has always been intimately tied up with fame and glory, with the dark urge to triumph over rivals, with the greedy ego gratification of being recognized as the best."

p. 348: The author discusses the rationalizations that climbers use to continue big-range mountaineering. He writes, "Few of us climbers can really accept the role of sheer luck in our survival."

p. 358: For the author, the moral status of mountaineering was framed most forcefully by the writer Sebastian Junger, who distinguished between courage and heroism. Climbing a mountain like Mount Everest, Junger asserted, takes all kinds of courage, but it should not be called heroic. "Heroism is courage in the service of others," Junger said. Commenting on the death of Dan Osman in a 1998 "rope jumping" accident, Junger wrote, "Was his life worth the last jump? Undoubtedly not. Was his life worth living without those jumps? Apparently not."

p. 364: In the final pages of the book, Roberts examines the cost of climbing to those who have lost a loved-one to mountaineering. Thirty-nine years after the death of his climbing partner Gabe Lee, the author sought out Gabe's friends and family to better understand him and what his loss meant. Through these meetings, the author came to understand that the question he had attempted to answer in "Moments of Doubt"--Is climbing worth the risk?--was ultimately meaningless, for while it pretends to embrace the loss of the fallen, it has no way of reckoning the grief of the survivors (p. 381).

p. 380: Climbing, for the author, was always about transcendence. Yet the deaths of his early climbing partners taught him unconsciously that "ascent was inextricably woven up with hubris" and that to attempt transcendence leads inevitably to tragedy and pain. "Thus, the petty pace was what life was ultimately about," he writes. "One must learn to live with what Freud called 'ordinary human unhappiness.'" Though nothing else he has done in his life has filled him with as much pride as his early climbs in Alaska, and nothing has equalled the joy of those climbing experiences, the author concludes: "In the human heart, however, there are nobler feelings than pride. And there are more important things in life than joy."

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Last Updated: Mon May 4 11:37:08 PDT 2009