Facing the Extreme: One Woman’s Story of True Courage, Death-Defying Survival and Her Quest for the Summit. Ruth Ann Kocour with Michael Hodgson. St. Martin’s: New York, 1998. 256 pages. $22.95.
Facing the Extreme does not merit inclusion in the AAJ, although the dust jacket and preface intentionally give the impression that the book is about a top woman mountaineer pushing the edge on Denali. The cover breathlessly promises “one woman’s story of true courage, death-defying survival, and her quest for the summit” under a blurry photo of computer-generated hikers on an unidentifiable Alaskan ridge.
“I was pulled back to the lures of ascending in a vertical world by an invitation to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in 1986 with Peter Whitaker, a world-class alpinist from a legendary mountaineering family,” Kocour (or rather, Michael Hodgson, who actually wrote the book) begins modestly. She goes on to talk of climbing Aconcagua, accompanied by Mark Tucker. Tucker happens to be a guide, but Kocour breezily mentions that he is there “training for an Everest attempt.” On Denali, Kocour is “the most seasoned mountaineer [in the group] outside of Robert and Win [Whitaker],” who, by the way, are guides, too. Scattered, offhand details gradually clued me in to the fact that Kocour’s self-described “shopping list of summits” consists of guided treks up the trade routes of moderate peaks, as opposed to self-directed ascents
of new, difficult or dangerous routes as the cover led me to expect. A non-climbing reader would not pick up on this, and is evidently not intended to.
The first paragraph of the preface jumps right in and compares this story to the 1996 Everest disaster, although after reading the book I’m not exactly sure why. Interestingly, Kocour’s “struggle” took place four years before that, and is only now being published. As it turns out, Facing the Extreme chronicles Kocour’s harrowing achievement in being guided up the West Buttress of Denali (sometimes known as “the cattle route”) with seven even less experienced clients. Coincidentally, while her group waits out storms in the social center camp at 14,000 feet, climbers whom Kocour has never met (such as Mugs Stump and Alex von Bergen) die in various accidents while climbing. When the weather improves, Kocour’s guides herd the eight clients up and down the West Buttress, and they all go home.
For some reason, Kocour is convinced that she personally has “faced the extreme,” and that her new-found familiarity with death puts her in the ranks of “mountaineers who would ascend to the lofty heights of world-class mountaineering.” Despite Kocour’s constant self-preening, jibes at other climbers, and lack of any real point, this book would not be truly objectionable but for the blatant misrepresentation of Kocour’s role on her trips. The most interesting topic it offers is the question of why Hodgson and Kocour so deliberately obscure her role as a client. After all, one of the most charming collections of climbing essays is Jeremy Bernstein’s Mountain Passages about being guided in Chamonix, a book that is engaging to guides, clients, and non-climbers alike. In Kocour’s case, the obfuscation seems designed to plump her ego as her guides have done, and to fulfill her delusional sense that she is an “extreme” mountaineer. In Hodgson’s and the publisher’s case, the book is an even less excusable attempt to ride the Everest bandwagon and make some fast cash off someone else’s tragedies. I, for one, will be relieved when that fad is over.