Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow; The Dark Side of Extreme Adventure

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By Maria Coffey

Inspired by personal experience, Maria Coffey explores the questions few discuss in public: what happens to the families, friends and loved ones of mountaineers when there’s a fatality on a climb?

She interviewed climbers, wives, widows, children, parents and psychologists extensively. Her book offers an informed and poignant portrait of high-risk climbers and the people who love them.

For two and a half years, Coffey was involved with British climber Joe Tasker, who died five days after his 34th birthday on the northeast ridge of Mount Everest. His partner on that expedition, Peter Boardman, also died. Boardman’s body was found in 1992; Tasker’s never has been.

Climbers are often charismatic, extremely confident, physically fit and have a glamor that attracts members of the opposite sex. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, successful high-altitude climbers were treated like true “rock” stars when they returned from successful expeditions.

Initially, Tasker was irresistibly attractive, but the repeated absences, his lack of investment in the relationship and a growing suspicion that he was involved with another woman eroded the relationship. Coffey experienced a double loss, first from Tasker’s death and then on reading his letters to the other woman, which she found in his trunk when it was sent back from Everest. The grief was overwhelming.

According to the experts Coffey interviewed, mountain climbers are a special breed. Addicted to risk, they are constantly trying to prove themselves and have little patience for the monotony of daily living. Many never grow up to be comfortable with the responsibilities and daily routines of marriage and fatherhood.

To survive and succeed, they become self-absorbed and minimize the contributions of others, be they the Sherpas on the high peaks or the wives who keep home intact while they adventure.

Many climbers’ wives enjoy the nontraditional lifestyle and the autonomy they have when their husbands are on an expedition. Extended absences end in lusty reunions. Marriages don’t get stale when one partner is more gone than home. Marriage to a climber also means repeated upheavals when they return from expeditions, being marginalized and undervalued and doing without a spouse’s support when life takes a downturn. Even so, a surprising number of women, left alone when their husband or lover dies on a mountain, become involved with another climber or extreme athlete.

For children, having a parent who climbs is more complex, especially if that parent dies on a mountain. Some children try to follow in their climbing parent’s footsteps, living with constant comparison to their late, great parent. Some climbers’ children grow up unable to sustain long-term relationships because of the potential pain of losing a partner. Others struggle with the question of whether their father loved the mountains more than his family.

While Coffey writes that the world needs risk-takers – the explorers like Columbus who set sail facing the possibility he might fall off the edge of the world or astronauts – people who inspire, amaze and remind us that the seemingly impossible dream can be achieved – she questions the motivations of climbers in today’s world.

With all the major peaks climbed from multiple directions, there are few firsts to be had these days. The ones that remain grow increasingly absurd and pointless – snowboarding from the summit of Mount Everest, climbing with an amputated leg, climbing blind (a feat that required a team of others to make sure the blind climber reached the summit and got back safely). What does it mean to summit Mount Everest, when anyone with enough money and enough support can do it? Or when the lines to summit are as long as those to buy the latest high-tech device?

Regardless of your perspective on the value of high-risk climbing, Coffey has written a fascinating book filled with tales of miracles and misadventures. Her book is spiced with the stories of mountaineers such as Anatoli Bourkreev, who met his lover Linda Wylie when she was on her way to see the final resting place of her partner on Pumori; Jim Wickwire, who despite repeatedly seeing friends die in the mountains and promising he’ll never go back, can’t resist the next expedition; and Ed Viesteurs, who took his bride of two weeks to Everest in 1996 to serve as base camp manager for an IMAX filming team. She was at base camp listening in with others as guide Rob Hall said good-by to his pregnant wife in New Zealand just before he froze to death on Everest.

This is a long overdue examination of critical questions about mountain climbing and high-risk sports.

The Author: Maria Coffey (1952 – )

Maria Coffey started her professional life as a teacher in the 1980s in England. In 1985, she left England for Canada on a teacher exchange program on Vancouver Island.

She has been an outdoor journalist and has written or co-authored more than 10 books. These include FRAGILE EDGE, an account of her relationship with the mountaineer Joe Tasker and his death on Everest, and EXPLORERS OF THE INFINITE: THE SECRET SPIRITUAL LIVES OF EXTREME ATHLETES.

She and her husband Dag Goering, a photographer and veterinarian, run an adventure travel company.


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