Sunday, January 10, 2010

Review of "Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow"

Most mountaineering books are written from the perspective of mountaineers. In Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow: The Dark Side of Extreme Adventure (2003), Maria Coffey writes about mountaineering – mostly high-altitude mountaineering – from the perspective of the family and friends of mountaineers. Coffey was in a relationship with Joe Tasker when, in 1982, he and Peter Boardman disappeared trying to make the first traverse of the pinnacles on the Northeast Ridge of Mt. Everest.

High-altitude mountaineering places tremendous stress on the family and friends of mountaineers. First, expeditions to the greater ranges routinely require three or more months, in addition to the time necessary for preparation and recuperation. During that time, the spouse is left to juggle childcare, work, and all other facets of home economics by his or her self. Second, and most obviously, extreme mountaineering is incredibly dangerous. One of the merits of Coffey's book is that it chronicles a staggering number of mountaineering injuries and fatalities, while emphasizing their effects on family and friends. It is remarkable, not to mention depressing, how many accomplished mountaineers have died mountaineering. He who lives by the ice axe dies by the ice axe.

Coffey interviewed scores of people for her book. Much of the book is comprised of quotations from those interviews. This is both a strength and weakness of her book. On the one hand, with all of the interview excerpts, it is sometimes hard to keep track of who is talking. On the other hand, the dizzying array of testimonials leaves the reader with a clear and undeniable sense of the negative impact of extreme mountaineering on family and friends – their uncomfortable shoes are put on the reader's feet and laced tightly for 229 pages.

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