Thursday, 16 June 2016

Book Review: Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow by Maria Coffey

Climbers who court danger in the world's highest places risk far more than just their own skins. When tragedy strikes, what happens to the people who love them? Why would anyone choose to invest in a future with a high-altitude climber? What is life like in the shadow of the mountain? Such questions have long been taboo within the international world of mountaineering. Now Maria Coffey breaks this silence. She recounts climbers' stories of near-death experiences, and gives a voice to the families and loved ones of Chris Bonington, Ed Viesturs, Anatoli Boukreev and Alex Lowe, amongst many other famous names. Her riveting narrative weaves tales of adventure with first-person accounts of the people left behind, highlighting the conflicting beauty, passion and devastation of this alluring obsession.

My Review: 
This is the second book I've read by the author and I liked this book better and would give it 3.5 stars if the option was available. This book gives a voice to the dead climbers and their thoughts about the dangers of climbing, and juggling climbing with family life. It also tells the stories of the wives and girlfriends who have lost one or more partners to death and disaster on climbs. It concludes with an excellent bibliography of the books written by the climbers about their expeditions and the books completed by their grieving families. It has added quite a few books to my wishlist.

In this book, Maria explores the question of risking your life to climb and the effects that this has on your family and loved ones at home waiting for news. It goes into how different people reacted to the situation-the children who rebelled against their absent fathers, the children who developed their own love for the mountains and the children who never felt they could live up to their famous parent. It meets the women who lost a partner in the mountains to find love again with a similar partner, the women who suffered more than one loss to the mountains and the women who accepted the strange life they were living without question. There is a mixture of climbing stories and human stories which I enjoyed.

One theme that seems to go through a lot of stories can be summed up by the climbing career of Jim Wickwire, who promised after each climb that cost a friend's life that he was finished with climbing and would stay safe for his family. The third timed he missed his son's birthday, he watched two friends die in Alaska and swore to cut down the climbing, yet a year later he was seriously ill on K2 and thinking of quitting climbing. Then he was watching a friend die on Denali, and lost another friend on Everest straight after. It seems more like a compulsion than a hobby so I fully understand why his biography is called Addicted to Danger. Others followed similar patterns despite the fears of their loved ones.

There are other stories of death on the mountains-Alex Lowe on Shishapangma, John Harlin on the Eiger, Mick Burke on Everest, Bruce Herrod on Everest and quite a few more. In each story the thoughts of the loved ones are written, some who were there to witness the death and others who received the news at home. These parts of the book were excellent but tragic to read. The book also looks at the different views when a female climber dies. British climber Alison Hargreaves was the darling of the media when she climbed Everest but was the devil when she was killed on K2, with people calling her a bad mother for leaving her kids behind. Female climbers seem to have a much harder time of it when the media are looking into their lives but nobody gets critical of the countless men who leave their kids to climb.

On the other side of it are the women who seem almost addicted to men with this dangerous hobby. Linda Wylie lost her partner Greg Gordon to an accident on Pumori in 1993, and a year later went on a pilgrimage to Everest Base Camp where she met and soon fell in love with Anatoli Boukreev, who died in 1997 on Annapurna. The widow of Dave Cheesmond married his climbing partner as did the widow of Alex Lowe. Going through such a loss once would be bad enough and most people wonder how these women can risk it a second time. The author herself chose a different path, removing herself from the climbing community and moving to a different country to marry.

I looked through my large mountain climbing collection and noted with grim interest that quite a few of the book authors are dead or were dealt life changing injuries because of their love of climbing. It sobers you to the dangers these people chose to face but I can't be critical of their choices, as I love reading about their exploits. This was a fascinating book which will appeal to climbers and non climbers alike.

star rating photo: 35 star rating 3-5-stars.jpg


  1. I read Into Thin Air, the book about the really bad Everest climbing disaster in the 90s, for a class, and it was good, but not something I'd pick out for myself. The idea of spending a lot of money and risking life and limb to climb a mountain wigs me out. I'm glad you liked the book, though. :)

    1. It was reading Into Thin Air for a book challenge that got me interested in reading all these other expedition books. I'd love to see Everest Base Camp and take some photos there but I've never wanted to climb it!