The Ledge: A Book Review
“Come on up and stand beside me.” He said confidently. I made a couple more moves and joined him a hundred feet up on a near vertical rock wall in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park many years ago.
“OK, let’s make sure you are clipped in, with backup and another line just in case.” With this my friend, Jim Davidson, shared lifelong lessons with this novice rock climber. I felt safe standing beside him with clear air below.
Jim Davidson is a unique person. He is a mentor, a confidant; he is a climber’s climber. Over the past decade, I have gotten to know him well but even then, his new book, The Ledge, co-authored with Kevin Vaughan gave me insights I never knew.
The Ledge is a story about two friends, Jim Davidson and Mike Price. After climbing the difficult Liberty Ridge to the summit of Mt. Rainier in 1992, on the descent they both fell in a deep crevasse. Only one survived.
Jim and Kevin take us through the ordeal in roller coaster fashion. Sometimes, I had to put the book down. Take a break. Take a breather. It is complex yet simple; detailed, funny and intense. It is Jim Davidson.
The book starts with a teaser of Jim deep in the crevasse. Stuck. Wondering if he is alive or dead. It then introduces us to Mike. A bit older than Jim, more experienced. He was Jim’s climbing mentor, Jim’s best friend in life. His climbing partner in the truest meaning.
Mike was one of those free spirits in life. He lived to climb. He loved life. As an OutwardBound wilderness guide, one of his students said:
“He allowed you your own raw discoveries, and the rewards that come with it; they are the only ones you remember anyway ... And in those terms, he was the ultimate guide.” (p 38)
Just as we get to know Mike, the story takes us back to Jim in the crevasse. On his back. Not sure if he could breath. Buried by snow; unable to move. Fighting for his life.
Jim then takes us to his childhood. Growing up painting houses and electrical towers side by side with his New England Father; a man who had an impact on Jim far beyond fatherhood.
“When you go after it, do it like ya mean it.” (p 22) Joe Davidson tells his son. Lessons of life that follow Jim to this day.
For those impatient with character development, the authors step up the climbing details starting on page 78. Rainier fans will settle in as the Liberty Ridge route is described in savory details. Jim and Mike bivied just under the Liberty Cap after sunset, not knowing they were feet away from a deadly drop down the 2,500 foot Liberty Wall.
We get the full description of their gear: waist and chest harnesses, 12 carabiners, seven ice screws; this is key. The details feed the climber in many readers.
On page 116, we get to the meat of the story. Jim and Mike buried 80 feet down in a two foot wide ice coffin. The pace and intensity of the story develops like a thunderstorm. You never know when lightening will strike. The background has set the stage for what becomes a chilling struggle of life and death.
The next 100 pages takes us through an incredible journey of self doubt, self-confidence; ingenuity, resilience. Jim’s pure will to live is a story in itself. And it is told with skill, sensitivity, and mastery.
The detail in the writing appeals to climbers of all types from expert to aspiring or people who simply enjoy the escape of a real-life chilling tale. The authors take the time to explain terms and techniques. The imagery takes the reader deep into the crevasse with simple, engaging, and brutally honest words.
However, this book is more than about climbing; it is about life. Jim comes to grips with his dilemma as he tells himself:
“Then I noticed something else: Facing one fear after another for hours has tempered me to a resilient calm. Repeatedly grappling with obstacles and adversity has led me to tap wells of fortitude that usually lie hidden and unused. I sense that if I can persist through these moments of fear and doubt, a relieving wave of tenacity will eventually rise to aid me. Just knowing this encourages me to keep hanging on.”
Jim living to tell this story was the best way to honor Mike’s death. And you never forget it is as much about Mike as it is Jim as he tells step by step, pull by pull his struggle to escape the crevasse and tell the world what happened.
If you can’t tell, I liked this book but not only because of my friendship with Jim. It is a story of living, of life. It answers the questions many ask of climbers: why; how to do keep going? It has lessons of growing up, lessons of climbing; lessons of friendship.
This is a book to be shared, reread, put on your bookshelf and pulled out on a rainy day - when you are not climbing yourself. It is a book where you read a section, close your eyes and wonder what you would do. It opens our imagination, it opens possibilities; it reveals the character of a man.
Next week, I will post an interview with Jim where I explore, one on one, what he learned from writing and living The Ledge. If you have a question you want me to ask Jim, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment here.
Arnette is a speaker, mountaineer and Alzheimer's Advocate. He is climbing the 7 Summits throughout 2011. He has summited Vinson, Aconcagua, Everest and climbed Denali July . All to raise $1 million for Alzheimer's research. You can read more on his site.