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Learning to Breathe

Learning to Breathe. Andy Cave. London: Hutchinson, 2005.

276 pages. £18.99. $44.95.

This remarkable debut memoir, co-winner of the 2005 Board- man-Tasker Award and winner of the best-book prize for Adventure Travel in the 2005 Banff Mountain Book Festival, recounts an equally remarkable trajectory in the life of one of Britain’s finest mountaineers. Andy Cave grew up working class in Yorkshire, the son and grandson of coal miners. At the age of 16, he took up work himself in the Grimethorpe pit, performing some of the most dangerous and brutal labor in the “civilized” world for menial wages. Cave might well have spent the rest of his life underground (the Grimethorpe pit is 3,000 feet deep) but for Margaret Thatcher’s meddling with the industry, which led to a prolonged miners’ strike, which in turn allowed the lad to scratch the restless itch that drove him from local crags to the Alps and ultimately to the Himalaya.

In 1986 Cave turned his back on the family profession to devote himself to climbing— without, at first, any hope of making a living from his passion. Instead, he dedicated himself to school, eventually earning a PhD in socio-linguistics. His dissertation? A study of the dialects of the miners with whom he had grown up.

Some of the most vivid passages in Learning to Breathe evoke life in the coalmines. Not only does Cave capture the claustrophobic terrors of the deep, dark shafts and tunnels, but his ear is pitch-perfect for the dialogue of his grimy cronies. The gallows humor of these “hard men,” exposed daily to the hazard of crippling accidents and even death, makes Don Whillans sound cheery. Overlying the whole way of life is the relentless bleakness of the lifelong poverty from which Cave makes his daring escape.

Thus the climbing passages, which at first alternate with the episodes in the mines, sing with the lyric joy of that escape. As Cave discovers that he’s better than merely good as a climber, his ambitions escalate wildly. Reading about the young man’s dream of limitless ascent in the far-flung ranges, every mountaineer will be reminded of his or her own youthful urge for transcendence on rock and ice.

If there is a single missed opportunity in this memoir, it may be that Cave does not quite exploit the perspective of his grad-school learning and his mountain craft to reflect more deeply on the self-transformation he has wrought. There is much to be said (as, for instance, Sebastian Junger does in The Perfect Storm) about the irony of seeking risk in a dangerous pastime versus enduring risk in a daily job. Is mountaineering, after all, a luxury for those of us who will never have to work in a coal mine?

But this is a mere quibble. Learning to Breathe is a wonderful, unique book. And its climactic chapters, about a drawn-out, ultimately tragic epic on Changabang, unfold in climbing narrative as gripping as anything written in the last several decades.

David Roberts