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Escape Routes

Escape Routes. David Roberts. The Mountaineers: Seattle, 1997. 267 pages. $22.95.

It is hard to imagine a regular reader of this journal who is not familiar with at least some of the climbs of Dave Roberts. And it is almost as hard to imagine someone who has read an article or book by Roberts and has not been inspired to seek adventure where he found it.

Escape Routes is a collection of 20 articles written during the past decade—or, to give it a certain perspective, since Moments of Doubt, a previous collection of articles, was published. Where has Roberts been in that time? Moving roughly east from his home in Boston: Iceland, Mali, Fontainebleau, Provence, Grindelwald, Kitzbühel, Cortina, Ethiopia, Beijing, the Brooks Range, The Wind Rivers, Moab, New Mexico, Patagonia, and the Gunks. What has he been doing? Climbing, caving, bicycling, bouldering, golfing, river running, llama herding, elbow bending and writing, writing, writing. Whom has he seen? Jeff Lowe, Roman Dial, Ed Viesturs, Richard Bangs, and his long-time tramping buddies, Jon Krakauer and Matt Hale, among others.

I could end this review right here by saying there is not a trip that he describes that does not stimulate the green worm of envy (those wriggling words again). How come he gets to have all the fun? But that would be too superficial a response. While some of the pieces belong to the been there/done that genre (e.g. “Storming Iceland,” “Wandergolf in the Tirol,” “Quiet Days in the Brooks Range”), others raise issues that increasingly thrust themselves upon the (post?)modem adventurer.

“First Down the Tekeze” describes an 18-day first descent of the Tekeze River in Ethiopia. What made this trip special as far as the general public was concerned was the reunion of five river rats who several decades before had punched a number of first descents down rivers in exotic lands in the face of genuine danger and who subsequently formed an adventure travel company, Sobec. But what made it known to the public was a film crew of eight and five additional scribes, photogs, and computer jockeys who, with four tons of gear and a satellite link direct to Redmond, Washington, brought it to the whole wide world via the Web site Mungo Park. And if danger should bite, well, one could perhaps use the phone to call in the helicopter.

Techno-tripping has ineluctably brought changes in two directions. It clearly changes the nature of the adventure itself, usually in the direction of reducing or removing adventure, but it also changes the vision/version of the adventure projected to the world. This is not completely new. For those of us who suckled on Annapurna, the recent revelations of Herzog’s tyrannical control of the expedition and the resulting book in the face of Lachanal’s diaries and misgivings have left a sour taste. As Roberts admits, if the public wants thrills, then it is up to the film crew to give it the most smashing, thrashing white water that low camera angles can provide, even though most of the trip is Class II and much more time is spent setting up cameras than running rapids. And in his piece about Ed Viesturs, Roberts describes Viesturs as being so far ahead on his push to the summit of Everest that Dave Breashears had to make do with filming the Sherpas topping out. There are no close-ups of the soloist. Nor was there any footage of Viesturs coming upon the body of his friend Scott Fischer and then, a while later, the body of his friend Rob Hall. It is left for Roberts, who wasn’t there, to tell us about it in uncluttered, understated, and therefore moving, prose.

In “The Moab Treehouse,” Roberts muses over the changes in Edward Abbey’s backyard. What is the wilderness for? What is a town for? And for whom are either of these places in the age of the carbon-fiber frame, the oil-damped fork, and the ellipsoid granny ring? Similar questions arise in “Roman Dial and the Alaska Crazies” and “The Race Diabolique,” the latter an account of the 1995 Raid Gauloises held in Patagonia (the Eco-Challenge, an offshoot of the Raid, was held earlier in that year near Moab), and they arise in a more tangential way in a number of the other articles.

Krakauer, in his foreword, says that “Dave’s best writing has always been characterized by a ruthless even brutal candor,” and in this collection there is ample evidence for that claim. Still, Roberts’ candor is revealed primarily in his description. When it comes to taking a position about the issues raised in his accounts, he often is ambivalent. Ordinarily, this could be taken as something to be condemned, but not here. What makes it interesting is that Roberts, like all of us, approaches his experiences with values intact. Like a well-oiled six-shooter, his responses are loosely holstered. But the actual situation, as opposed to a vision of it, keeps catching him up short. He also encounters others with values different from his own (one suspects he actively seeks them out). The result is a certain tempering, a movement to a position more tentatively held and vaguely defined—a good position, I would think, for thinking through the issue anew. And this is what Roberts invites the reader to do, not by laying out the strands of opposing arguments, but by vividly portraying the kinds of experiences and desires different individuals have in the face of something like an adventure. This rethinking also is invited by his accounts of those very different from ourselves: the Amhara and Agow on the Tekeze, the Dogon and their predecessors the Tellem in Mali, and the Anasazi in the Four Comers region.

Finally, as an echo to Krakauer, I would say that Dave’s best writing has always been characterized by good writing. He helps us to see things not only vividly but freshly. Faced with the end of an idle in the Winds, he writes, “Back home, responsibilities lurked like tax collectors.” Ambivalence again, akin, I suspect, to that felt upon arriving at the end of this book.

Joe Fitschen