Risky Business

Jan 1, 2006
Outside Magazine

The Western Limit of the World
By David Masiel (Random House, $25)

IF CORMAC McCARTHY WROTE about mariners instead of cowboys, he'd come up with a character like David Masiel's Harold Snow. A jaundiced, middle-aged outcast with a traumatic Vietnam past and a claustrophobic present, Snow is the boatswain aboard the decaying chemical tanker Tarshish, circa 1980. Part criminal, part hero, he is driven by his yearning for a twenty-something deckhand named Elisabeth to follow his worst and best impulses—including the urge to commandeer the toxic ship with a couple of nefarious partners. Together they navigate the Skeleton Coast of Africa, battling tropical storms at sea and dangerous geopolitics in port as they try to sell off the vessel's volatile cargo. Masiel, author of 2002's acclaimed Arctic Ocean adventure 2182 kHz, has written a meditative, fast-paced thriller peopled with fascinating weirdos, like Snow's self-flagellating bunkmate and an arthritic engineer with a sulfazine drug lab cobbled together in his cramped cabin. Meanwhile, Snow, his mind racked by malarial hallucinations, plunges into a clipped existentialism as he broods on his own peculiar calculus of moral reckoning. "The ocean never stopped, that was for sure," Masiel writes. "The ocean was like the moral underground. He wished he could talk out loud—a man needed that, like he needed to lay it all out there at some point. He needed a map of the world, needed to know where the limits were." Aware that his days are numbered by law and ill health, Snow spends his time alternately lusting for normalcy and flesh. Ultimately, this gripping novel is as much about the inner demons and angels of this hard-boiled modern Odysseus as it is about his tense voyage.
—Florence Williams

In the Grip of Avalanches
by Jill Fredston
(Harcourt, $24)

Thin Ice
Unlocking the Secrets of Climate in the World's Highest Mountains
by Mark Bowen
(Henry Holt, $30)

Jill Fredston once got some good advice. If you really want to learn about avalanches, she was told, "you have to hang out in the den of the dragons." Fredston, a Cambridge-educated ice expert and author of the 2002 Outdoor Book Award–winning Rowing to Latitude, has spent the past 20 years chasing those dragons as one half of Alaska's foremost avalanche-forecasting team. In her engaging new memoir Snowstruck, Fredston offers readers a seat in the chopper as she and her husband and mentor, world-renowned avalanche expert Doug Fesler, search for victims and gauge the fresh-fallen risk. When a slide hits, Fredston and Fesler get the call. "As is not unusual on a beautiful Saturday, both phone lines at home had rung simultaneously," she writes. "Both conveyed the same message: MOVE!" Fredston and Fesler ferry the lucky few to safety and bring the rest home in body bags. The couple is sustained by a shared love for Alaska's wild backcountry but fear they are fighting a losing battle as a rising tide of backcountry users outruns our knowledge of slopes and snow. "All you want is a yes or no answer to the question, ‘Is the slope safe?' " Fredston writes, but "most avalanche questions are answered with ‘It depends.' " Snowstruck doesn't hand out easy yes or no answers; instead it offers an intimate look at one woman's struggle to strike a balance between deadly risk and the vital outdoor experience that, for her, makes life worth living.

Mark Bowen, a writer and climber with a Ph.D. in physics from MIT, follows another scientist whose icy quest led him to extremes. Alarmed by stories about snow disappearing from the great mountaineering routes around the world—the 22,494-foot Himalayan peak Ama Dablam has been climbed without crampons, the snows of Kilimanjaro are predicted to disappear completely within 20 years—Bowen sought out Ohio State University climatologist Lonnie Thompson, who originally made the Kilimanjaro prediction. The result is Thin Ice, a 395-page exploration of global warming that follows Thompson up peaks like Kili and Bolivia's Nevado Sajama as he continues what Bowen calls "one of the more challenging scientific endeavors of all time"—a pole-to-pole transect of the Western Hemisphere. For 29 years, Thompson has been climbing the highest mountains in the Americas, drilling ice cores to find clues about the planet's climatological history. The cores—lugged on foot down glaciers and through deserts or jungles before reaching the nearest freezer—have turned up clues to the disappearance of ancient civilizations and solid evidence of contemporary global warming. Thin Ice is a fascinating tale of adventure on the cutting edge of science—and a wake-up call to all who love the high mountains. "As the snows disappear," Bowen writes, "not only do the routes we climb become more difficult and dangerous, but the climbing itself becomes less aesthetic. And, to most of us, the mountain world loses some of its luster."

By Our Contributors
Can a river flow uphill? What does Everest weigh? And don't woodpeckers get brain damage from all that head pounding? Contributing editor Brad Wetzler explains it all in REAL MOSQUITOES DON'T EAT MEAT: THIS AND OTHER INQUIRIES INTO THE ODDITIES OF NATURE (W.W. Norton, $16), the newest roundup of quirky questions (and witty answers) from Outside's Wild File column.

It's the wild life of Manhattan that inspires contributing editor Ian Frazier's GONE TO NEW YORK: ADVENTURES IN THE CITY (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22), a collection of 22 essays that paints a vivid portrait of Frazier's favorite metropolis.

You're bound to be misunderstood when you're gray, hairy, and much larger than life. Bigfoot, the mythical backwoods recluse, sets the record straight in ME WRITE BOOK: IT BIGFOOT MEMOIR (Plume, $15), the second hilarious Sasquatch tell-all from Toronto-based illustrator Graham Romieu. As channeled through Romieu, Bigfoot's a lovable oaf just trying to hold his own against Hollywood's new breed of creatures. "Computer generated monster," writes our hero, "can kiss Bigfoot ass!"

Calls of the Wild
The plucky birds who took the big screen by storm last summer are about to waddle—and belly-slide—into your living room. The just-released DVD version of French director Luc Jacquet's documentary MARCH OF THE PENGUINS (Warner Home Video, $29) includes extras like a 30-minute feature on the making of the film, a 13-month Antarctic undertaking in which cameramen battled blizzards and sub-zero temperatures to follow thousands of emperor penguins on their 70-mile winter migration. For a different kind of chill, check out GRIZZLY MAN (Lions Gate Home Entertainment, $28), German director Werner Herzog's haunting exploration of the life and death of self-taught bear expert Timothy Treadwell. The DVD hits stores December 27.

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