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Below Another Sky: A Mountain Adventure in Search of a Lost Father

Below Another Sky: A Mountain Adventure in Search of a Lost Father. Rick Ridgeway. New York: Owl Books, 2000. 306 pages, paperback. $15.00.

The book begins in 1980, with the young Rick Ridgeway writing about his surviving an avalanche that killed a close friend: “I need to get this down while it’s still fresh.” Yet he wisely waited before expanding upon that lead. Twenty years later, Below Another Sky was published in New York, where editors cast a wary eye at writers under 40. The conventional wisdom among these publishers is that young writers lack the life experience to perform the so-called “act of literature.”

Below Another Sky could not have been written with such lucidity immediately after the avalanche. It is no accident, however, that the best-selling climbing disasters rush cathartically to press from hospital rooms and funerals: Whymper spinning the Matterhorn fall, Herzog agonizing over his Annapurna frostbite, Simpson embellishing his crevasse abandonment, or Krakauer recreating the Everest tragedy. Until Ridgeway’s book, there was no climber pulling a River Runs Through It and taking a couple of decades to hone their defining tragedy. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve avidly devoured the aforementioned books, but Below Another Sky effectively asks if climbing literature is too narcissistic, or lacking in feminine perspective, as if our asexual mountaineers never face the consequences of returning home to any family or community outside the sterile ranges. (In the interest of full disclosure, as a writer, I too may be responsible for this vacuum.) Of course, Ridgeway has also written other expedition books that follow the limitations of traditional form. His Seven Summits for instance, became a bestseller eight years before Into Thin Air, recounting how wealthy clients were towed up the world’s tallest mountain—without a body count. While his other books artfully describe classic moments in mountaineering history, at the appearance of his newest and most inventive book, Below Another Sky, the judges for the American Alpine Club unanimously awarded Ridgeway the Literary Award. It is to the reader’s advantage that the author waited and contemplated his loss for two decades, so that he could describe a mountaineering disaster with careful hindsight.

So this thoughtful story is rare because it begins—rather than ends—with tragedy, and Ridgeway avoids exploiting Jonathan Wright’s death by celebrating his life and focusing on the survivors. Nearly two decades after the accident, Ridgeway takes Wright’s daughter, Asia, back to Tibet in order to try and show her her long-dead father. Admittedly, it is an emotional book, which less sensitive literati, equipped with overly sensitive bullshit detectors, might pronounce mawkish. But in my opinion, Ridgeway has taken great verbal risks to unveil some awkward truths. He didn’t wait this long to simply weave a tale of sentimentality. By utilizing carefully structured vignettes about past mistakes, Ridgeway’s purpose, in the time-honored tradition of a tribal elder, is to pass on wisdom and judgment. Whether he actually told all of these lessons to Asia during their journey is a moot point, because the structure works, while Ridgeway’s candidness effectively transports the reader.

For instance, although he openly admires the authenticity of Wright’s Buddhist beliefs as quoted in journals and conversations, Ridgeway shows his own skepticism about this some-times-trendy theology in a hilarious anecdote about a Hollywood Buddhist. Or by freely sharing his and Asia’s foibles and doubts, the reader is moved by flesh and blood characters—rather than the understated male prose, the partnership conflicts, or the grieving and one-dimensional caricatures that already dominate this particular disaster genre.

Quietly, without the hoopla of other mountaineering accidents (in 1980, the media wasn’t covering deaths on unheard-of peaks such as Minya Konka), Ridgeway has created a durable adventure memoir, a cross between The Snow Leopard and Moments of Doubt. The story builds like the slow-breaking waves that Ridgeway is fond of surfing, pulling the reader through one anecdote after another, tumbling along with Asia toward the inevitable shore break.

There are also bright nuances about Ridgeway’s jail time in South America, his marriage, and his climbing partnership with the luminaries—Yvon Chouinard, Chris Chandler, Ron Fear, John Roskelly—that are at once fascinating and then enlightening for anyone who ever entertained a life of adventure.

As a gifted storyteller, it should come as no surprise that Ridgeway deftly paints the willful Asia, the iconoclastic Yvon, and the sensory aspects of an avalanche ride. To meet Rick Ridgeway is also to know that this book is sincere, because he writes as he talks, softly, describing his fiercely won friends as merely “good buddies” and avoiding, at all costs, the didactic. He is the quintessential filmmaker in this manner, deploying images instead of unnecessary language. In Below Another Sky we know where Rick’s story will end, with Asia at the grave of her father and his friend, but it’s the stops along the way that provide resonance and make this intensely personal book a compelling act of literature.

Jonathan Waterman