Adventure tale is gripping but ultimately disappoints

Terri Schlichenmeyer, Bookworm
Posted 7/25/12

Life is an adventure. Just this morning, for instance, you had the regular instead of the Frapp. You took the stairs at work, two at a time. And you …

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Adventure tale is gripping but ultimately disappoints


Life is an adventure.

Just this morning, for instance, you had the regular instead of the Frapp. You took the stairs at work, two at a time. And you told the boss “no” at today’s meeting.

You’re such a rebel.

Tonight, you might even splurge on extra dessert after dinner.

And while you’re enjoying that, imagine going to a place so remote that eating is out of the question, not because you don’t have food but because your body couldn’t handle it.

Then check out “To the Last Breath” by Francis Slakey.

Humans are not engineered for vertical climbing.

Our knees aren’t meant to pivot, our toes don’t grip very well, and evolution hasn’t been kind to our hands when it comes to a sheer wall of rock.

The best one can do, then, when faced with a monolith like California’s El Capitan, is to cram digits into infinitesimally small cracks … and hope.

Francis Slakey was intrigued by things like that.

A few years after his mother died when he was 9, he befriended an “adventurous kid” who was later killed during an ill-prepared mountain descent.

At 16, Slakey petulantly watched his brothers ascend Devil’s Tower, a trip they denied him.

As an adult, he knew that extreme sports were dangerous, but the mountains pulled and Slakey climbed.

By age 37, he was experienced enough and ready to tackle the “vanity” promise he’d made two decades before and boasted about: he would climb the highest peak on every continent and surf every ocean.

Others had done one or the other, but Slakey vowed to be the first to do both. He was likewise determined that his efforts wouldn’t put “one dime” into the coffers of any charity.

Kilimanjaro was first, followed by an almost-deadly trek up and down Everest.

But before he could get to Denali and beyond, Slakey went to Antarctica for a successful climb on Vinson Massif, which was followed by a blizzard that lasted days.

Days enough time for reflection.

People accused him of being “cold and broken,” which he figured he was. And there, in the cold of Antarctica, Slakey broke down his life and saw the world.

No doubt about it, “To the Last Breath” is exciting. At first. the author, a Georgetown University physics professor, had my heart pumping and my palms sweaty with his vivid descriptions of climbing sheer rock and high pinnacles. Every slip made me gasp. Every grab made me grab my chair.

And then this book falls apart.

Slakey even questions himself for it as he describes the changes that overtook him after his Antarctic climb: the acquired need to do good, the acceptance of a relationship, even an ill-fated grasp at TV hosting.

He continues to a happy ending that shuts the adrenaline off so abruptly, it almost hurts.

For many readers, I suppose, it could be said that this is a rags-to-riches-of-the-soul kind of book, and that might be true.

For thrill-seekers and armchair-climbers, though, “To the Last Breath” just descends into adventures in navel-gazing.


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