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Deborah: A Wilderness Narrative

Deborah: A Wilderness Narrative, by David Roberts. New York: The Vanguard Press, 1970. 188 pages, 15 photographs, $6.95

Who has not had at least one mountain experience ruined by some kind of intrapersonal conflict? Planning may be flawless, weather perfect, rock and snow solid, yet given one abrasive personality—or two otherwise nice guys who just can’t get along—a brilliant climb may fail as a total experience. Leaders of major expeditions, knowing this to be true, consciously survey character as well as conditioning and technical abilities in choosing companions.

But the young, the novice and even the grizzled veteran if it is a short trip—are not so discriminating. Which brings us to Deborah, a story about two college chums who grate on each other’s nerves in the best of circumstances, yet set off for a two-month attempt on the unclimbed east ridge of Deborah, in the Hayes Range, 100 miles south of Fairbanks. A third of the book is taken up with a history of the ambivalent relationship between Roberts and Don Jensen, including stories of previous climbs, preparations for Deborah, and an account of a non-stop drive from Boston to Fairbanks. These pages are not intrinsically interesting, yet because Roberts is a skillful writer, and because we are given ominous hints of trouble ahead, there is some dramatic tension. We are even made to squirm a bit, wondering how the author could commit to print such intimate details of a troubled friendship. And what will become of our heroes alone in the subarctic wilderness?

In reality nothing happens: no crisis, no resolution. We are told about a route that doesn’t go, two crevasse accidents (their dramatic potential is underplayed), and interminable squabbling over crumbs on the tent floor; and we are asked to explore the interior of two minds that, on this occasion at least, are revealed to be empty. It is a good idea to tune in on the stream of consciousness of men coping with adversity, but here most of the coping is with boredom, pettiness, petulance and disappointment. That is reality, Roberts would say, but not all reality is worth writing about. We cannot complain too much, for Roberts went on to climb other mountains with Jensen, including Mount Huntington (in a party of four), and gave us the excellent The Mountain of My Fear (same publisher, 1968, reviewed in these pages in the 1969 issue).

Roberts does not trouble the general reader, for whom his book is written, with discussion of the “lessons” of the experience. These are fairly obvious: Don’t count on improving a sour relationship during the course of a major climb in Alaska. Don’t travel à deux on big, bad glaciers (both of Jensen’s crevasse falls were very close calls only because they chose to ignore this dictum). And don’t attempt to write a book with such a small stock of story material.

Grant Barnes