To the Last Breath    by Francis Slakey

252 pp., Simon and Schuster 2012 ....   reviewed by David P. Stern


    Some lives become adventures. The author, a physics professor, follows an ambitious dream: climb the highest peak on every continent, surf every ocean. He is not the first to challenge all peaks, though no one before has combined the quest with surfing.

    Wisely, only snippets of some climbs are described: Kilimanjaro, where Slakey encounters Masai herders; the perilous ascent of Everest, taxing endurance and luck; and Denali, where his ice-axe is stolen, seemingly dooming his attempt until another climber, on his way down, offers "take mine."

    And then the last peak, Puncak Yaya (16,024 ft) in New Guinea, representing the "Pacific Continent" (rather than Australia's summit with less than half that height). The climb itself, from a huge gold mine nearby, does not pose any problem. The real obstacle is a what seemed like brazen attempt by the Indonesian army, with a camp near the road, to shake down the mine for more protection money. Francis and his teammate are ambushed by Indonesian soldiers on their way back and robbed of all their money; only later does Slakey realize his luck, after reading a newspaper story about a later ambush at the same spot, at which two teachers and a guide were shot to death.

    These are some of the outdoor adventures, which in addition include a harrowing climb of the El Capitan cliff in Yosemite. But the book also traces a simultaneous adventure of the soul, no less fascinating. In his formative years Slakey was a profoundly introverted young man, deeply immersed in his private universe. It may have come from the tragic loss of a loving mother at age 11, or perhaps was an innate trait. In camp before Everest, a trekker tells about taking photographs of a dog. Slakey interrupts her:
            --"Is the dog alive?"
            --"Of course the dog is alive" she answers. "Who asks for a picture of a dead dog?"
            --"Well, if the dog is alive, why does the guy need the picture? ... He can just look at the dog."

    But as the journey continues the author develops sensitivity to others. Yes, it is good to be among friends, like that stranger lending his ice-axe. Yes, it is good to have a cause to fight for, like that of the woman whose husband was killed in New Guinea. Early in his career Francis made three resolutions: not to marry, not to buy a house, not to have children. By the end of the book (spoiler alert!) all three are broken, but by sharing his life, it becomes much more meaningful.

    Most readers can relate to the outdoor adventure. One can readily comprehend spending a night on a ledge of El Capitan, 2500 feet above the void, on a cot tied to the rock, before that cot unravels and has to be tossed away, ending impaled on a redwood far below. One can well imagine that.

    A journey of personal discovery is harder to visualize. Either one relates to it, or it seems foreign; it either resonates with the readers--like a lock with its proper key--or it does not. To this reader, Slakey's other adventure seems quite tangible, no less of an adventure than those peaks and surf waves. But to others it may just seem strange.

    The personal journey is accompanied by a strange quest of its own. Before ascending Everest, the group of climbers is blessed by the Most Holy Rinpoche of the nearby Tyangboche monastery. As the group leaves, Slakey breaks protocol and asks the lama "can you give me an insight to keep in mind as I climb the mountain?" Answer: "I'll get back to you on that."

    In the evening a young monk brings Slakey an amulet with strange writing, wrapped in silk. But his Sherpa friend cannot translate it: "It is written in old language." No one elsewhere can, either--not the experts at the Library of Congress, nor Kinle, the lama of Dhorika in Bhutan. Neither can the monks back in Tyangboche, where Francis returns to get married (but not by the Rinpoche, who is "in seclusion" at the time). Both he and his bride tie the knot dressed in borrowed local wedding garb. Only at the end does Francis guess the amulet's implied message: the journey is its own destination.

May it continue.


Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol) .

Last updated 29 July 2012