Book Review – The Solace of Open Spaces

1669903 stars. In the 1970s, Gretel Ehrlich went to Wyoming on assignment for work. After her partner died of cancer, she stayed as a ranch worker, finding comfort in the bleak landscapes, hard work of sheepherding, and tight-lipped but warm residents. The Solace of Open Spaces is a collection of her essays describing the land, people, and animals around her.

Ehrlich’s prose is very lyrical, and she has a good eye for detail. She describes the connections between land and people eloquently. The writing shows her command of language and description with moments of tenderness, humor, and erudition.

The weakness of this collection is that I feel like I’m looking at pretty postcards that are written to someone else. I can admire the picture and the writing, but I never connect with it. Ehrlich talks very little about herself or events that occur, so the vignettes felt flat to me. Given the title of the book and her situation, I perhaps expected something more moving on the personal level.

The Solace of Open Spaces seems, to me, more a book to admire than to enjoy.

Book Review – Mountains of the Mind: How Desolate and Forbidding Heights Were Transformed into Experiences of Indomitable Spirit

981281Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind: How Desolate and Forbidding Heights Were Transformed into Experiences of Indomitable Spirit is a beautiful celebration of the highest peaks. With lyrical prose, the author covers geology, history, and explorers of mountains, as well as some of his personal experiences on the slopes.

Mountains of the Mind outlines how, for most of human history, mountains represented the fearful and the unknown. Macfarlane tells of the forces that shaped the mountains, then relates that tale to how the mountains have shaped us. One of his themes is how depictions of mountains in art have changed through the times, to the current interpretation of mountains as a sublime transformative experience that strips away pretense and shows who we are.

The subjects covered are varied and interesting. Many, such as Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna ascent and George Mallory’s failed attempt on Everest, are familiar, yet their wonderful renditions here are well worth the read thanks to his insight on what drove men up these slopes. His personal accounts are absolutely lovely, especially one about meeting a snow hare during a whiteout.

Mountains of the Mind is peppered with lovely quotes:

“To know a landscape properly, you must go into it in person. You need to see how in winter a tree gathers warmth to itself, and melts the snow it stands in. You need to hear the rifle-crack of a crow’s call snapping over icy ground. You need to feel the remoteness of a huge grey pre-dawn Alpine sky, with the lights of the nearest town blinking thousands of feet beneath you.”

“This is the human paradox of altitude: that it both exalts the individual mind and erases it. Those who travel to mountain tops are half in love with themselves, and half in love with oblivion.”

For all his phrase-perfect writing, Macfarlane does not romanticize his subject matter:

“And we had talked, as mountaineers always do, about how strange it is to risk yourself for a mountain, but how central to the experience is that risk and the fear it brings with it.”

“One forgets that there are environments which do not respond to the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial, and which have their own rhythms and orders of existence. Mountains correct this amnesia.”

As much a guide to human psychology as to the slopes, Mountains of the Mind is a wonderful read by a master author. Highly recommended for lovers of the outdoors and literature.

Book Review – Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains

62704854 stars. Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains is a collection of short Jon Krakauer pieces about climbing, largely drawn from his magazine articles. He has a talent for conveying the feeling of being in high places that can make my stomach do a little dance even when I’m comfortably in a recliner at home instead of clinging to rotten ice on a spire in Alaska.

The subjects covered in the essays are varied and interesting. In addition to the history of the quest for the summit of the Eiger and a chapter on Everest, Krakauer covers canyoneering, bouldering, a colorful cast of characters on the slopes of Denali including a honeymooning couple and Adrian “The Romanian” Popovich, the social stratifications of the climbing community of Chamonix, and climbing the frozen waterfalls of Alaska. There were several highlights for me. “The Flyboys of Talkeetna” tells the history of the Alaskan bush pilots who serve base camps on Denali. “The Burgess Boys” is a riotous look at two brothers from Yorkshire with no patience for the norms of the real or climbing worlds. Krakauer even makes interesting reading from being confined to a tiny nylon room in “On Being Tentbound.” His description of his solo climb of a difficult Alaskan massif is gripping in “The Devil’s Thumb.” “A Bad Summer on K2” looks at the season that left 13 climbers dead on K2, the second highest peak in the world and one of the world’s most dangerous climbs.

The colorful characters of the climbing world come alive in these pages, with all their foibles and obsessions. The author portrays both an appreciation for history and an understanding of the ego-driven world of climbing. Occasionally the subject matter is dated, as the pieces are drawn from the author’s long career, but the peaks and those who climb them don’t change with new techniques and technologies.

Eiger Dreams is a great book for armchair adventurers, transporting us to icy heights and introducing us to a lively world in its readable prose.

Book Review – Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home

1736775 stars. Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home is a powerful, gripping personal account by Nando Parrado of the 1972 crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571. Carrying rugby players, friends, and family members to a match in Chile, the plane was forced to deviate due to weather from its planned route, and inadvertently flew into a mountain peak. The survivors were faced with desperate conditions, ranging from altitude to weather to avalanche, and were forced to resort to cannibalism for food. Parrado and two others crossed the crest of the Andes to find help. Of the 45 passengers of the flight, 16 survived the crash and the mountains.

The survivors’ story is a breathless, page-turning read. The harsh environment of the Andes presents challenge after challenge to the crash survivors. Only through ingenuity and reliance on each other are they able to survive. Even knowing the outcome, the events kept my nose in the book from start to finish.

Parrado’s narrative is intense and moving. Moments of heroism, selflessness, and friendship are punctuated by sorrow, desperation, and helplessness, and the author’s story conveys the raw emotions he felt throughout the ordeal. We feel for him as he comforts his dying sister, tremble as he clings to high mountain passes, and exult as he finally finds help. The burden of the decision to stay alive by consuming the flesh of their dead friends is especially heartbreaking and compelling.

Part of what makes Miracle in the Andes have so much impact is that Parrado’s writing is straightforward and factual. He tells his story with humility and gratitude, neither glossing over nor playing up the peril or heroism. As he discusses his life after the crash, he is never maudlin; I got the idea that here is a man who is simply thankful for every day.

A lengthy section of pictures is a tremendous addition to the book. Maps of the crash scene and Parrado’s route to find help are clear and add greatly to the text.

Miracle in the Andes is a true-life survival drama that runs the gamut of human experience. Nando Parrado is a talented author with a unique perspective on the events of the crash, and his story and personality make for great reading.