On the Ridge Between Life and Death: A Climbing Life Reexamined

3.86 avg rating
( 409 ratings by Goodreads )
 
9780743255189: On the Ridge Between Life and Death: A Climbing Life Reexamined

By the time David Roberts turned twenty-two, he had been involved in three fatal mountain climbing accidents and had himself escaped death by the sheerest of luck.

By the time David Roberts turned twenty-two, he had been involved in three fatal mountain climbing accidents and had himself escaped death by the sheerest of luck.

At age eighteen, Roberts witnessed the death of his first climbing partner in Boulder, Colorado. A few years later, he was the first on the scene of a fatal accident on Mount Washington, New Hampshire. Months afterward, while pioneering a new route in Alaska with the Harvard Mountaineering Club, Roberts watched as his climbing partner and friend fell wordlessly 4,000 feet to a glacier below.

Despite these tragedies, Roberts insists that the greatest pleasures in his life have come in the mountains. Several of his challenging routes in Alaska have never been climbed again in the nearly forty years since those first ascents. Roberts continues to climb today, and like all climbers, he still grapples with the cost-benefit calculus of his sport. In a well-known essay that he wrote twenty-five years ago, “Moments of Doubt,” Roberts insisted that the benefits of climbing were “worth it.” More recently, however, he has gone back to interview relatives and friends of some of his deceased climbing partners. He discovered that even decades later, the wounds had failed to heal, the terrible losses were still acutely felt. And so in this book he comes to a different conclusion about climbing, one that is sure to stir controversy in mountaineering circles and among adventurers generally.

Anyone who has ever wondered why mountaineers take the risks that they do will be moved and enlightened by On the Ridge Between Life and Death, as will anyone who appreciates vivid, dramatic storytelling and an unflinchingly honest self-examination of a lifetime spent pursuing a dangerous pastime.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

David Roberts is the author of twenty-four books on mountaineering, adventure, and the history of the American Southwest. His essays and articles have appeared in National Geographic, National Geographic Adventure, and The Atlantic Monthly, among other publications. He lives in Watertown, Massachusetts.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: Gabe

The trouble began on the fifth pitch. I handed Gabe our hardware -- half a dozen soft-iron pitons and eight or nine carabiners dangling from a nylon sling -- and said, "On belay." Once again, I had been unable to drive a single piton for my anchor: instead, I had found a bucket-shaped hollow in the ruddy sandstone and sat in it with my back against the right wall, my feet braced against an opposing bulge.

Gabe started up the inside corner, angling left as the arching dihedral dictated his path. The going looked easy, for he was moving with that jerky efficiency that had become his forte during the last three months. My breath escaped in a sigh of well-being. Once again, we were launched on the flight that turned the neurotic thrum of ordinary life into a staccato pulse of purpose.

But there were no cracks for our pitons. That was the trouble with the First Flatiron -- with all the Flatirons, those massive tilting slabs that stared east from Green Mountain over the mesas above Boulder. Eighty feet up, Gabe sidled left around a protruding aràte and passed out of sight. Still he had placed no protection, so as I fed the rope out, I knew my belay was worthless.

The rope stopped. Gabe's distant voice: "Should I go straight up? Or traverse left?"

We had been shouting too much on this climb -- conferring from a hundred feet apart, as we had forced our way through the route's odd intricacies. The elders in the Colorado Mountain Club who had taught us to climb early that spring had stressed the importance of economy in our shouted signals: "On belay!," "Climbing!," "Slack!," "Up rope!" -- the syllables apportioned so that even over a droning wind one call should never be mistaken for its opposite.

"Try to go straight up!" I yelled back. So the route had seemed to unfold, as I had studied it in binoculars from my home on Bluebell Avenue. Atop this pitch, I thought, we would have it made, with less than 200 feet of easy scrambling to the notch just below the summit.

The rope inched out again. Ten minutes later came Gabe's call: "Off belay!"

With a sense of relief, I started up. It was a perfect summer day, pine sap wafting on the fickle breeze, warm sun slanting across the cliff, the whole of the First Flatiron to ourselves. Each wrinkle in the sandstone offered a toehold, each knob a handle to seize with my fingers. The rhythm of movement absorbed me.

The burden of my previous winter lifted: in the blue sky at the brow of our universe, an answer hovered. I need only struggle up to find it, turning fear into power, ambivalence into act. After this pitch, we could waltz to the top. Gabe would get back in plenty of time for his cousin's birthday party.

As I climbed, the rope drooped unnaturally to my left. Despite my advice, Gabe must have continued his traverse, rather than heading straight up. Oh, well: I trusted his route-finding.

When I was fifty feet up, the rope began to drag at my waist. I pulled in about ten feet of slack, then moved farther up. Once again, the drag restrained me. This time when I pulled, no slack came. Somewhere the rope must be stuck. I peered left, and noticed, across forty feet of blank purple slab, a downward-pointing prong, beneath which the rope disappeared.

I stepped carefully left, hanging on to a horn with my right hand, to regain a few feet of slack. Taking the rope in my left hand, I swung it vigorously in a counterclockwise turn. A loop spun down the GoldLine cord, ebbing as it went. At the prong, it died. I tried several more times, but the rope was jammed fast.

On my tongue, I tasted the first trickle of dread.

It was July 9, 1961. I had turned eighteen a little more than a month before, Gabe Lee two months before that. We had taken minimum-wage jobs that summer between high school and college: I planted seedlings in the tundra at 12,000 feet for an alpine research lab, while Gabe peeled potatoes in a kitchen at the University of Colorado. We lived for the weekends, when we could climb together.

I had known Gabe since our kindergarten days at Uni Hill, and yet, how well did I really know him? I could picture him in third grade, hunkered in jeans fraying at the knees on the gravel playground, as he thumbed an aggie toward my vulnerable marble in our endless game of keepsies. I saw him in gym class at Baseline Junior High, gliding deep down the left sideline under a bomb hurled by Steve Green, our sandlot Johnny Unitas. And I saw him the previous fall on our Boulder High tennis team, as he gritted through a pivotal match against Fort Morgan, his lobs sailing astray in a blue wind out of the east, heavy with the sickly-sweet odor of the sugar-beet factories.

Gabe was shy. He kept his private self impermeable, deflecting any questions that veered toward the personal. When he talked, it was in that quick, jerky voice, the complement of the way he climbed -- as if each sentence were a burst of weakness that he could not purge soon enough. And we, his classmates, cut him all the slack he needed: for, with his younger brother, Martin, and his sister, Marian, Gabe had grown up without a mother. Why, we had no idea. We never thought to ask.

Then, just three months before our climb on the First Flatiron, in March, driving on a freeway south of Houston, Gabe's father had been hit from behind by a speeding drunk. His car had shot across the divider and collided with an oncoming vehicle. Gabe's father had died in the hospital an hour later.

A week before his eighteenth birthday, Gabe had in effect become the head of his orphaned family. When he resurfaced at Boulder High after his week in purgatory, I mumbled my prepared formula: "I'm really sorry about what happened."

"That's okay," Gabe said in his breathless syllables. "When can we go climbing?"

Gabe was an inch taller than I, at five eleven, with short brown hair swept left, a round face, and heavy eyebrows shielding his brown eyes. He was as thin as I was. He was smart in school, though not the scholar I fancied myself. At first, I had been the better rock climber; but he had improved so rapidly in the last two months that now he routinely took the leads of which I was leery.

On weekends through May and June, Gabe and I had gone after all five Flatirons. The Colorado Mountain Club mentors who had given us our lessons on five successive Saturdays had taken us up the Second Flatiron as our graduation exercise, then turned us loose into the labyrinth of our half-mastered craft. Gabe and I had done the standard routes on the First and Third, at the time the most popular climbs near Boulder. It was the Fourth and Fifth Flatirons that remained obscure, and, as we roped up at their bases, we had no idea where our predecessors had gone, or how hard the climbing might prove. With those forays had come a new, deeper enthusiasm, that of explorers setting out upon uncharted oceans. And on the Fifth Flatiron several weeks before, Gabe had led a dauntingly smooth pitch without placing a single piton -- his finest effort yet. I knew that I wouldn't have had the guts to try it myself.

Early that morning in July, I had called Gabe up with my plan. "I want to try the First, but not the standard route," I told him over the phone. "I've been looking at a line on the left. It goes pretty much straight from the bottom of the cliff to the summit. Maybe eight or nine pitches. It's possible nobody's done it."

Gabe had hesitated; I heard talk in the background about a birthday party. "We can get back by five," I exhorted. "We're fast. It'll be a great thing to do."

"The rope's stuck!" I yelled. "Pull!"

Gabe pulled, to no avail. Later I would wonder whether the effort had only jammed the GoldLine tighter under the downward-pointing prong.

The dread on my tongue blossomed in a wave of malaise, which I tried to swallow down. An obvious course of action loomed. I could try to traverse to the snag, free it, and climb straight up to Gabe. But as I gazed at the frighteningly smooth tract of no-man's-land that lay between me and the prong, I knew that I couldn't climb it. At some point, I would fall, whipping down and then left as forty feet of slack abetted my plunge. The brunt would come in a sudden, wrenching jerk. If it were forceful enough, and if Gabe, like me, had been unable to place an anchor piton, that jerk could pull him off his ledge. Alternatively, if the 3/8-inch rope were wedged across a sharp edge, there was a chance that it would sever on impact.

My mind raced. I looked hard at the smooth slab, searching for nubbins that would hold the sharp rubber edges of my rock shoes. But there was nothing.

I could think of only one other thing to do. As I contemplated that choice, a gust of pure nausea chilled me. With careful fingers, I untied from the end of the rope. Gathering up as much of the GoldLine as I could, I made three small coils. Then, awkwardly, I hung on with my left hand while I cocked my right arm, like a discus thrower, and flung the coils as hard as I could into the void. "Pull!" I screamed at Gabe.

What I had hoped to accomplish was to snap the line loose from the prong with the force of my throw. If that worked, Gabe could simply pull the rope up to his ledge. Reunited there, we would tie in once more and get on with our crawl toward the summit.

I took two deep breaths, then started climbing, unroped, up to Gabe. For the next eight or ten minutes, I concentrated so hard on the sandstone beneath my feet and hands that the rest of the world vanished. I made each move with an exaggerated, stodgy caution, hesitating before I dared transfer my weight. I could not afford the slightest misstep.

In the myopia of my concentration, however, I must have taken a route different from the one Gabe had followed. A hundred and twenty feet out, I saw no sign of him. At last I stood on a generous, rounded shelf. Above me, the going looked easy. "Where are you?" I called.

"Right here!" His voice was so close it startled me. He must have been only fifteen feet below me and to the left, yet an intervening bulge had eclipsed him from my sight. "It's still stuck!"

The nau...

"About this title" may belong to another edition of this title.

Top Search Results from the AbeBooks Marketplace

1.

David Roberts
Published by Simon & Schuster (2005)
ISBN 10: 0743255186 ISBN 13: 9780743255189
New Hardcover Quantity Available: 1
Seller:
Irish Booksellers
(Rumford, ME, U.S.A.)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Simon & Schuster, 2005. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # M0743255186

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
US$ 18.02
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: FREE
Within U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

2.

Roberts, David
Published by Simon & Schuster, NY (2005)
ISBN 10: 0743255186 ISBN 13: 9780743255189
New Hardcover First Edition Quantity Available: 1
Seller:
Crowfly Books
(South Portland, ME, U.S.A.)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Simon & Schuster, NY, 2005. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Dust Jacket Condition: New. 1st Edition. This is a New and Unread copy of the first edition (1st printing). Book. Bookseller Inventory # 036395

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
US$ 17.50
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: US$ 3.75
Within U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

3.

David Roberts
Published by Simon & Schuster (2005)
ISBN 10: 0743255186 ISBN 13: 9780743255189
New Hardcover Quantity Available: 1
Seller:
Ergodebooks
(RICHMOND, TX, U.S.A.)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Simon & Schuster, 2005. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # DADAX0743255186

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
US$ 35.56
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: US$ 4.99
Within U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

4.

Roberts, David
Published by Simon & Schuster (2005)
ISBN 10: 0743255186 ISBN 13: 9780743255189
New Hardcover Quantity Available: 2
Seller:
Murray Media
(North Miami Beach, FL, U.S.A.)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Simon & Schuster, 2005. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Never used!. Bookseller Inventory # P110743255186

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
US$ 41.45
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: US$ 1.99
Within U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

5.

Roberts, David
Published by Simon & Schuster
ISBN 10: 0743255186 ISBN 13: 9780743255189
New Hardcover Quantity Available: 1
Seller:
Cloud 9 Books
(Wellington, FL, U.S.A.)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Simon & Schuster. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. 0743255186 New Condition. Bookseller Inventory # NEW7.1233905

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
US$ 59.99
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: US$ 4.99
Within U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds