Madhuri reviews Jim Wickwire and Dorothy Bullitt’s book subtitled, A Memoir About Affirming Life in the Face of Death.
Addicted to Danger
A Memoir About Affirming Life in the Face of Death
by Jim Wickwire and Dorothy Bullitt
1998, Pocket Books, New York
I love books about mountain climbing. If I’m going to take a book on a retreat, that’s a sort I’d take. It’s kind of adventure and meditation together, and such books take me into some pure space and air that goes well with a seminar in, say, the mountains in the South of France. I see these books as a bit like listening to classical music – it’s not the pure meditation of New-Age music but it’s something similar, in its own way. And in fact what we see in this book are many mountaineers who are classical musicians, or aficionados of classical music.
I tend to consider mountain climbing a noble sport – like sailing round the world, a thing someone does when they are going to meet themselves and the elements whole and entire. I have climbed two mountains myself when young – not very high, each just 14,000 feet, but high enough at the time; and in my 40’s hiked at 17,000 feet. So although I haven’t done any of the scary stuff mountaineering books describe I still feel a sort of proprietorial right to read them!
What is shocking and inexplicable to me is the extreme danger rock-climbers and high-altitude mountaineers put themselves in. They say it brings them into the present moment like nothing else. I tend to think there must be a better way, but at the same time I don’t in the least want to rain on somebody else’s parade.
And it seems that mountaineers are often very competitive, driven people – either by nature or through some sort of ego-compensation, or both. This would be the case with Jim Wickwire – I haven’t seen his Human Design, but he is certainly relentless in his need to conquer mountains. Sometimes he manages, and many times he doesn’t manage – but he keeps trying.
And… imagine that you’re sitting high on a mountainside (Mt Everest, to be precise) with a woman you are in love with – not your wife – and the woman stands up and then simply goes flying off down the mountain, 10,000 feet to her death on the glacier below. She’d forgotten to attach her waist harness. And, the previous day she’d remarked to a fellow-climber that she would not live past 30.
This sort of thing is the norm rather than the exception – the book has many beautiful black-and-white portraits of people, and if you see one, you can be pretty sure that that person is going to fall off a mountain or get swallowed by an avalanche, very soon. And it is sad…
I much enjoyed all the psychic predictions peppered throughout, and the mention of tarot cards. Mountaineers, like sailors, are a superstitious lot.
The book is well-written and clear, and I was completely engaged with the story – a Seattle lawyer who, from a very young age, takes to the hills again, again, again. His greatest triumph was climbing K-2; he tried and failed on Everest several times. He climbed Mt Rainier and Mt McKinley times without number. Peaks in the Andes were his for the asking. His long-suffering but uncomplaining wife stayed at home and raised their 5 kids.
A very vivid life – at the beginning I felt he was a bit pompous but as the book went on and his sufferings wore him down he got more interesting. You can feel the love he has for his friends who died. Mountain books are full of these (I’m thinking of This Game of Ghosts, by Joe Simpson, who also wrote the incredible Into the Void.)
He quotes Robert Leonard Reid from an essay entitled, The Mountain of Love and Death:
Mountaineers climb because they love the mountains, yes; but they climb too because climbing prepares them boldly and tenaciously for death, then guides them faithfully to the edge of another world, a world I now recognize as the world of the dead, and there allows them to dance, mountain after mountain, year after year, as close to death as it is possible to dance; which is to say, within a single step.