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Breaking Point

Breaking Point. Glenn Randall. Chockstone Press, Denver, 1984. 135 pages, color photographs, appendixes. $9.95.

On May 11, 1980, Glenn Randall and partners Peter Metcalf and Pete Athens completed a grueling thirteen-day ascent of the central buttress on Mount Hunter’s south face. Although theirs was the first successful alpine attempt of the remote and difficult route, other footprints had been stamped in its steep snows two years earlier when John Waterman soloed the same route. This book’s title suggests that Waterman’s extraordinary effort—a 145-day siege of endurance and solitary suffering—led to his suicidal new route on Denali two years later.

The first third of the book is promising and builds on the premise of Dennis Ford, who once wrote that, for the mountaineer, the “meaning” of a climb lies in the efforts and experiences of those who have preceded him. Randall purposely juxtaposes his climb with short chapters on the saddening events of Waterman’s last years. The contrast is erie and foreboding as the reader is led to believe that Randall also is moving toward an ultimate test on the crystalline precipices of Hunter.

However, that sense of mounting drama too quickly dissipates on the mountain as the author becomes preoccupied with his hour-to-hour account of the climb. But for a short postscript, Waterman disappears from the narrative and with him goes the chance for an engaging analysis of either Ford’s idea about the meaning of climbs or the notion Waterman exemplified, that climbing is a plausible substitute for love, security and belonging. By abandoning the moods of the early chapters, Randall lowers Breaking Point to the common expeditionary account and otherwise minor weaknesses soon become conspicuous.

Firstly, there is the question of detail. Randall initially displays a sharp eye for place and an apparently incredible memory as he recalls, verbatim, snips of conversations and discussions about snow conditions, food supplies, weather and strategies. Ironically, this eventually causes soft spots in the narrative where the climbing is delayed whilst the trio overexplain their thoughts to each other. These detailed colloquies seem reconstructed more for the reader’s sake, since it is difficult to believe the climbers actually talked this way to each other. Secondly, although the central buttress is a committing climb, the fears and questions that climbers normally experience on such routes are downplayed. The tension of the climb fails to mount as food dwindles and cold takes its toll. Their increasingly desperate circumstances are not vividly conveyed.

Breaking Point’s major weakness, though, is its failed promise to ultimately elucidate the “meaning” of the climb. In the preface, Jeff Long talks about Randall’s “life-enhancing experiences on the mountain,” but this is contradicted by Randall’s description of his temporary emotional breakdown in an Alaskan hospital following the climb. The title suggests some maniacal quality to the route which can shatter a climber. But was it only Waterman, or both Waterman and Randall who were ‘broken’? This question is never adequately resolved because neither Waterman’s nor Randall’s experiences are sufficiently analyzed for either possibility.

As an account of an impressive second ascent, Breaking Point has obvious appeal and will be read by interested mountaineers and adventurists. Unfortunately, a great climb rarely ensures a great account and Breaking Point ends as a disappointment for any reader who initially thought something unique in climbing literature was evolving here.

Jim Vermeulen