Guest Reviewer: James M. Tabor James M. Tabor earned an MFA from Johns Hopkins University and is a former Contributing Editor to
SKI Magazines. His writing has also appeared in
The Wall Street Journal,
The Washington Post,
Barron's, and many other national magazines. He was the writer and host of the national PBS series,
The Great Outdoors and in 2007 was the co-creator and Executive Producer for the History Channel Special,
Journey to the Center of the World. His first book was the international-award-winning Forever on the Mountain (2007) and his most recent was Blind Descent
. A former Washington, DC police officer, Tabor now lives in Vermont where he is at work on his first novel,
The Deep Zone.
On June 21, 1992, Jim Davidson, 29, and his best friend and climbing partner, Mike Price, 34, summited 14,410-foot Mt. Rainier via the challenging Liberty Ridge route. While descending, Davidson plunged into an 80-foot-deep crevasse and pulled his rope-partner Price in, too. Price died, Davidson survived, and The Ledge is Davidson’s painstakingly detailed account of their accident, written 19 years post facto.
Hundreds of books have described climbing tragedies in such detail. Two things set the best apart. One is the attempt to look beyond obvious vagaries of gear, weather, and happenstance to discover tragedy’s true, dark roots. The other is an equally strong determination to bring something of value back from the brink. These are much harder quests and, to his credit, Davidson tackles both.
That detail, first. Davidson recreates the fatal fall and aftermath as though they happened yesterday, thanks to hours of recollections tape-recorded shortly after the event. That’s important, because on one level, such the success of such narratives depends on details as sharp as ice shards. An example will suffice. After he hit bottom, buried beneath and completely immobilized by cascading snow and ice, Davidson could not breathe.
I suck in hard, trying to grab a breath, but my mouth is half-filled with crunchy snow, so I pull in only a small gulp of air. I try chewing the snow to clear it away, but it is too much, as if someone has stuffed a Popsicle into my mouth. I work my jaw and tongue, struggling to push out the rapidly hardening snow clump. But it turns into a dense lump the size of a plum. When I rest for a second, the snowball settles back in my throat and gags me.
Having had no chance to save his friend, Davidson had to save himself by climbing out of the crevasse, and the odds against him were long. Davidson was injured, exhausted, and probably in shock. He lacked both the requisite technical aid-climbing experience and most of the proper gear. But he drew strength from recollections of Joe Simpson’s against-all-odds self-rescue in Touching the Void. After many hours of struggle, Davidson finally climbed back to the surface. Even then, the ordeal was far from over. It was late and getting dark. He was hurt and had no gear and was alone on a glacier riddled with more crevasses. “I’m out, but I’m not safe,” Davidson acknowledged.
That turned out to be true in more ways than one. Though he survived and eventually recovered physically, Davidson continued to suffer from psychic injuries, survivor’s guilt chief among them. In his journal, he wrote, “How am I to carry this load alone--the self-doubt, the endless questioning? How can I hope to carry it alone?” Mike Price haunted his thoughts and dreams and, laudably, Davidson eschewed the more common rites of exorcism: chemical, alcohol, and compensatory self-sacrifice. Instead, over the months, he went mano a mano with every painful “what if” and found his measure of solace:
Each decision, action, and bit of luck is a fork leading to different outcomes, different branches. Some are sturdy and hold fast, some creak under your weight, some fracture and drop you into unexpected turmoil.
Not perfect, perhaps, but certainly good enough to live with.
Making personal peace with the tragedy was good, but left missing one last arc in the circle of healing. Could something of value be distilled from all the loss and agony? As it turned out, yes. “While I was in the crevasse, Joe Simpson’s survival tale convinced me that there was a remote chance to escape, and that belief helped spur me to action. Perhaps I have an obligation to share my story...”
After securing permission from Mike Price’s parents, Davidson spoke to his first live audience in September, 2003 at the annual Rainier Mountain Festival. Afterward, among the many grateful listeners was a middle-aged mother with two daughters. “I wanted them to hear it,” she told Davidson. “Now if they’re in an accident...they’ll know how much people can do, that we can do incredible things if we try our hardest.” And with that, the circle was complete. Since then, according to his publisher, Davidson has delivered his message to more than 30,000 people. The Ledge is part of his ongoing commitment to Mike Price--and to himself--to find meaning in the heart of tragedy.
Someone once said that for true value, “a book must be about more than it is about.” Jim Davidson’s The Ledge is. You can read it as a thrilling, chilling tale of adventure and death in the mountains, but it is, ultimately, about more than that. As, come to think of it, are climbing and mountains themselves.