Mountain Man

Mentor to Jon Krakauer, America's leading climbing writer has some new wisdom to share about his old hills and thrills. Just don't ask him to change any diapers.

Old climbers never die, they just slowly fade away. The young ones tend to perish tragically, or recklessly, or simply owing to bad luck. Those who live through their climbing prime tend to slow down and re-evaluate risk. Once you've done the hard, scary routes and ticked off some prize peaks, mowing the lawn or playing with your kids seems like a reasonable use of a weekend. And you don't need so much Ibuprofen afterward. Your perspective inevitably changes with age (funny how the pack feels heavier with each new summer), and all those factors figure into this autobiographical reassessment of the sport from David Roberts, On the Ridge Between Life and Death: A Climbing Life Reexamined (Simon & Schuster, $26). His 1980 collection, Moments of Doubt—in part a farewell to serious Alaskan expeditionary climbing—posed and answered affirmatively the alpinist's eternal question: Is it worth it; are the risks worth taking?

Roberts, now 62, makes clear that he isn't repudiating that younger man's yes. But it's a qualified yes, one that intelligently reframes the question from a less "narcissistic" position. In other words, is it worth it not in terms of one's own life and safety, but in terms of those you'd leave behind by dying? He sees among the boldest mountaineers "a disturbing coldness, an absence of compassion," qualities that he also recognizes in his younger self. It's easier, in a way, to think about the objective hazards of the hills rather than the "moral consequences" of bereavement on family, friends, and especially children.

This theme of selfishness runs through the book, in which Roberts also details his life and main climbing adventures. Much of this is banal and familiar (every author's adolescence is sacred ground, right down to the baseball teams and first kiss), but Roberts is unsparing about some of his personal failings. Married at 24 in a ceremony he recalls as "a shameful, or at least an embarrassing deed," he traces a "lifelong horror of the domestic" to getting a girl pregnant in high school. She had an abortion in Japan, he went to Harvard, and there are no Roberts kids today. Yet he insists the experience gave birth to his passion for climbing: "I needed to taste the forbidden wine of escape." (The passage unfortunately typifies a tendency toward secondhand phrasing that Roberts also needs to escape.)

Elsewhere, he rightfully knocks the great Italian alpinist Reinhold Messner, a man known for cultivating his own gnomic myth. "Only by undergoing the most extreme ordeals in mountains, [Messner] writes repeatedly, can he plumb the inner depths of his being. The only trouble is, he never bothers to tell us just what he found in those depths." Roberts frankly admits to not being able to sort out the egotism, adrenaline, quest for beauty, competitiveness, athletic appeal, and even antisocial aspects of mountaineering. Even as he finally surveys other climbers' motives ("Because it's there," etc.), he doesn't insist upon some Messnerian profundity to the sport. If it gives him joy—even now, scaled down to more reasonable adventures—that's enough.

So which came first: the horror of the domestic or the "transcendence" of the mountains? I'm not sure I buy Roberts' chicken-egg ordering of the two. And are they truly incompatible? He writes insightfully about the rationalizations climbers use to cope with the sport's inherent dangers (i.e., bad luck always trumps skill, fitness, and judgment), but what about the rationalizations climbers use to avoid certain pressures at sea level? Based on a lot of my friends and fellow mountaineers, these include not just career, marriage, and family but doing the laundry, getting a haircut, or being able to attend a dinner party and not talk about climbing for once. Sometimes climbing is the easy way out.

Roberts chides his friend Ed Viesturs for denying the sport's statistical risks; yet having knocked off his last 8,000-meter peak this year, Viesturs is sitting safe on Vashon Island with wife and kids, happily retired from the death zone. That's not to say Viesturs is the better man or the better climber, yet I don't think Roberts is being entirely forthright about "the dolors of my own childhood and adolescence" being the reason for his rather cruel climb-or-procreate bargain with his wife. His family upbringing in Boulder, Colo., sounds pretty idyllic—is there something more to the story? He never bothers to tell us just what else drove him into the heights. But I'm glad he came down safely.

David Roberts will talk and show slides at REI (222 Yale Ave. N., 206-223-1944), 7 p.m. Thurs., Sept. 29.

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