Addicted to Danger: A Memoir about Affirming Life in the Face of Death. Jim Wickwire and Dorothy Bullit. Pocket Books: New York, 1998. Black-and-white photos. 352 pages. $24.00.
On a grass field 100 yards long in the desert area of Central Washington State, a football star named Jim Wickwire ran beyond the goal posts to a career as a pioneer alpinist in world mountaineering. Jim Wickwire’s memoirs, written with his friend Dorothy Bullit, are a collection of some of his expeditions that unfortunately involved tragedy—tragedy beyond talking about until this book.
In the introduction, Wickwire says his co-writer, Dorothy Bullit, “insisted I deal with issues I had never before faced, let alone published.” Perhaps for most of us who have been close to tragedy in the mountains, dealing with the truth and circumstances of a death are hard enough to cope with on a personal level, let alone share and communicate to the public in a book.
The first chapter tells the tragic tale of young Chris Kerrebrock’s death in a crevasse on the south face of Mt. McKinley. I don’t believe any mountaineer—no matter how case hardened—cannot help but shed a tear upon reading this chapter. Next, Wickwire tells of his love of family and how he first started climbing. He recounts nail-biting adventures on the Willis Wall of Mt. Rainier and the failed attempt on K2 in 1975. His tenacious desire and drive would see him return to K2 and reach the summit, but on a training climb in Alaska, in preparation for his second attempt, his good friends Dusan Jagersky and Alan Givler would perish before his eyes while descending Peak 8440'. The tale of this accident and subsequent search for the bodies is emotionally described.
The fifth chapter recounts what Wickwire considers his greatest achievement: the first American ascent of K2. This adventure was a great expedition that showed true grit and brings out the usual in-house personality issues that had to be overcome to succeed. The following chapters go from “good times” to another high-altitude accident at 26,000 feet, this time on the north face of Everest, where Marty Hoey tragically falls to her death while climbing to high camp with Wickwire.
Unfortunately, Wickwire’s association with death up close and personal does not end. One chapter tells of his futile attempt to find his missing friend, Japanese hero Naomi Uemura, on Mt. McKinley. Another relates the unbelievable circumstances of the senseless murders of his law partner, Chuck Golmark, his wife and two sons by a crazy man. Finally, climbing out of the “death zone,” the reader relives happier times and expeditions as Wickwire tells of first ascents in South America and more attempts on Everest with his good friend John Roskelley.
Fate (fortunately!) also blessed Wickwire, giving him a wife as tough as himself. Mary Lou Wickwire, his wife of 37 years, is the heroine of the book, as he unabashedly admits.
I have not read a mountaineering book in a long time that held my attention so thoroughly as did this memoir. Its weakness is that if the reader is looking for a literary artwork, this book is not it. However, the truth of these tales and the candor of how they are told transcend the vertical world of white-knuckle adventure to a soul-bearing catharsis as a personal witness to tragedy. Jim Wickwire, on his long journey as a pioneering mountaineer, is a victim of circumstance. He chose to tread a razor’s edge between the abyss of death and the ecstasy of life. Fate had him straddling that edge more often than he deserved.