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David Roberts' New Book
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Aug 31, 2005, 11:34 AM
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David Roberts' New Book
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Anybody read it? I remember reading Deborah about 15 years ago but haven't done anything more than browse his recent work. Seemed kind of thin.

Anyway, I wanted to get his new book but the title seems a bit melodramatic and this review in the NYT Review of Books wasn't exactly a glowing endorsement. . . .

"Mountaineering is dangerous. If you ever doubted that truism, David Roberts cites a German study that found that on any given expedition to a peak above 26,000 feet, a climber has a 1 in 34 chance of dying. On the lower, highly technical peaks that Roberts favored as a young man, the fates appeared no friendlier. By the time he turned 22, he had watched two of his partners fall to their deaths in separate accidents, and he was quick on the scene in the grisly deaths of two others. He encouraged another young enthusiast to climb beyond his level of skill and experience, and he too plummeted to a snowy grave. Despite these tragedies, Roberts cavalierly roped up to bag the next summit, fully embracing what he calls the ''hard man'' coda of the sport.

Climbing was only the latest in Roberts's string of youthful obsessions, all intended to ward off what he calls a ''lifelong horror of the domestic.'' The son of a scientist in Boulder, Colo., in the 1950's and 60's, he spent his teenage years peering through a backyard telescope, then working out mathematical theorems. Next came perfunctory, almost nightly sex with his high school girlfriend, and only after that ended badly with a clandestine, overseas abortion, rock climbing. The last infatuation stuck, propelling young Roberts onto many perilous mountains.

He is by turns, he admits in ''On the Ridge Between Life and Death,'' compulsive, driven, self-absorbed, competitive and emotionally distant, traits often shared by serious mountaineers. Now, in his 60's and mellower, he decides to reckon with the demons of his risky past. His project -- to reassess his life based on the body count at the bottom of the hill -- should be a refreshing alternative to the traditional mountaineering memoir of derring-do and victories plucked from the jaws of fear.

The problem is that for three-quarters of this 400-page book, Roberts gives us exactly that. We learn of pitons lost and pitches gained, about every scrape avoided through tenacity, luck and skill. And then we hear about the praise he has accumulated during his dual careers in climbing and publishing (he's written 16 other books), about the hearty slaps of approval from the climbing journals and about which alpinists failed to repeat his feats (or how many years went by before they did so). If the dense middle of the book were a cocktail conversation, it would be flee-to-the-punch-bowl time to escape all the self-congratulation and long-winded tales of past exploits.

The best part of the book comes near the end, when Roberts searches out the family members of his fallen partners in order to understand better the loss side of the mountaineering calculus. ''Brooding upon that long-ago event, I was seized with the impulse to rediscover Gabe, to wade into the ripples that must still be spreading outward from his demise.'' These visits are moving and insightful, and as brave as scaling the most treacherous couloir.

Roberts thought he had been heroic in vanquishing virgin mountains. Later, he learned the distinction between being brave (selfish quests) and being heroic (acts undertaken in service of others). ''In mountaineering,'' he writes, ''the narcissism all too often goes hand in hand with a disturbing coldness, an absence of compassion.''

Only one body remains unaccounted for, that of the girlfriend Roberts dumped after her abortion. He says this relationship turned him away from intimacy and toward the heartless soul of granite and ice. It didn't seem to occur to him to make amends with her. That would have been brave, and heroic as well."

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