Living on the Edge. Cherie Bremer-Kamp. Peregrine Smith Books, Layton, Utah, 1987. 213 pages, 33 color photos, 6 maps and diagrams. $19.95.
There are risks in writing about climbing that mirror the risks of the sport itself. The intensely personal nature of the struggle, and of our concepts of life and death, set the writer a delicate task. Cherie Bremer-Kamp, during the course of a deliberate life, has embraced both varieties of risk with fervor; in both cases, unfortunately, the hazards seem to have gotten the upper hand.
Ms. Bremer-Kamp and the late Chris Chandler first met during the 1978 American K2 Expedition. This book tells of their subsequent years and adventures together, culminating in the tragedy of their lonely winter attempt on Kanchenjunga in 1985, when Chris died of altitude-related illness and Cherie herself nearly failed to make it back down with their single Nepali helpmate.
The book begins promisingly, with a provocative account of an epic sea journey in a sailboat that the two of them had crafted in their spare time. This engaging introduction is then left behind for a gossip-laden account of their participation in the K2 expedition; and the reader is soon left in a state of unrequited curiosity as husband, children, and the rest of the author’s former life are apparently forgotten in order to pursue a love and a set of ideals that remain inadequately explicated. We are never treated to the background material that might serve to explain Chris and Cherie’s willingness to sacrifice so much for their great loves: climbing and each other. Dreams hide within these pages; we catch glimpses of them but their substance escapes. Brief, passing references to Cherie’s former spouse (who was also a member of the K2 expedition) do little to illuminate for us the power of emotions that can lead to such a complete disruption of one’s life, or the end of life itself.
Simultaneously paean and apologia, this book has great tragedy and the intense passions that lead up to it as its themes. There are moments of great honesty and insight, but in the end to read it is a saddening experience, not only for what it relates but also because the reader must ultimately come to grips with the fact that passion alone does not give a book substance. The depth and universality of the emotions dominating Living on the Edge are belied by their brief and anecdotal treatment; on the other hand, events and situations that should have been able to speak for themselves are either spoken for or treated so cursorily that they have no voice.
The author has taken upon herself a monumental task, essaying to draw the reader into the vortices of a very personal and tortuous relationship, and to show us what it means to confront the mountains at their most hostile with that relationship as shield and weapon. But the expository sections of the book are inadequate as a preparation for what is to come, and the climax—Chris’s death—serves only to bring the book to a hasty close. At this point, where it is most needed, Cherie’s introspective voice seems most at a loss for something meaningful to say.
The book seems to have been assembled hurriedly and (understandably) under great stress; the author herself acknowledges the essential support of family and friends in writing it. She has labored under the additional handicap of insensitive and careless editing; the reader’s empathy flows less freely around the obstacles of syntax and spelling that are thrown in his path. Especially annoying are the ubiquitous parenthetical conversions from metric to English measurements, present even during the most emotionally charged moments.
One can see that this book carries with it a lot of the author’s emotional sensibilities; the writing of it was, no doubt, a painful act of catharsis. Unfortunately the reader is apt to be an unsympathetic lout, and require a bit more guidance to understanding than Ms. Bremer-Kamp was able to give. There is too much of the author here, and too little of that painful world of hope, despair, and tragedy that she inhabits. And, inevitably, there is too little of Chris Chandler himself; but that, now, will always be the case.