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Strange and Dangerous Dreams: The Fine Line Between Adventure and Madness

Strange and Dangerous Dreams: The Fine Line Between Adventure and Madness. Geoff Powter. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2006. 8 pages of black & white photographs. 245 PAGES. $22.95 HARDCOVER.

A bit of ancient wisdom has it that no matter how far the freedom-seeker travels, he always carries his own chains with him. This venerable insight is amply confirmed by Geoff Powter’s extraordinary book, which consists of eleven elegantly written case histories of grim adventuring, ranging from Meriwether Lewis to Guy and Johnny Waterman. Although the term “case history” accurately describes these pieces, it comes nowhere close to conveying the mesmerizing narrative force of Powter's prose. As the author explains in his introduction, “everyone in this book has been called ‘mad’’.’ The lives of these haunted souls are not to be read as profiles in courage but as proverbs of pixilation. Powter—a psychologist with a clinical practice in Canmore, BC, and editor of the Canadian Alpine Journal—is uniquely positioned to make this distinctive contribution to mountaineering literature.

Certainly every adventurer who has ever paused to reflect has confronted the question of what constitutes acceptable risk versus what is just plain crazy. Unfortunately for the men and women whose lives are examined in this book, none had the inclination or opportunity to engage in any therapeutic soul-searching; instead they threw themselves into—and against— the world. The inevitable result was tragedy. “In each of these stories,” Powter tells us, “darkness of some kind—ambition, ego, a thirst for redemption, the need to please others—carried these characters in a perilous direction.” When it comes to stories in the annals of adventure that involve tragic death, very few are untainted by some kind of controversy. As both psychologist and mountaineer, Powter feels a special responsibility to offer explanation to those outside the adventuring community who look askance upon risky activities: “I was convinced that there were right and wrong adventures, but I often found it a challenge to explain the difference to non-adventurers who often saw any voluntary risk as a sign of stupidity or lunacy.” Thus he selected stories of individuals in whom “the line between adventure and madness is less distinct,” figures such as Robert Falcon Scott, Jean Batten, and Earl Denman. The dismal destination of these tortured souls was the same, only the routes they chose varied.

For alpinists, the exemplar case in the book is perhaps that of Maurice Wilson, a shellshocked survivor of the bloody trenches of Flanders in World War I. Wilson was a man who took post-traumatic stress to new heights—by concocting a scheme to become the first to ascend Everest. The plan entailed landing a plane on—or more precisely, crashing it into—the higher slopes of the peak. Then he would just hop out and scoot to the top. To the chagrin and horror of contemporary climbers, Wilson was quoted in the newspapers as saying: “All you need to climb a mountain is a tent, a sleeping bag, warm clothing, food and faith.” That this man had no mountaineering experience nor indeed any particular interest in mountains prior to coming up with his cockamamie idea only adds absurdity to the apparent insanity. But as Powter so aptly phrases it, “Wilsons story is a perfect illustration of how so many aspects of any risky adventure start to look abnormal when judged through the narrow perspective of ‘normal’ safety-conscious lives.” To nobody’s surprise, Wilson’s plans were grounded by the colonial authorities in India, but this did not stop him from sneaking off and walking the long distance to the base of the peak and then making a pair of solo attempts, the latter ending in his death. That second attempt has been a source of much speculation over the years as to whether Wilson was in fact bent on suicide. “The crux of Wilson's tale,” Powter explains, “lies in whether his return to the mountain was truly a dedicated last shot, or more honestly a sad resignation to fate—as though he simply ended the journey by going up rather than down.” In the end, such profoundly disturbing questions must remain unanswered, and Powter's great strength as a writer is to defer from any psychological vandalism, leaving undisturbed the inner recesses of a human heart racked with suffering.

There is no denying the pain and melancholy that seem to throb from the pages of this book. Yet, as Powter summarizes it in his epilogue, “the best way to understand how the mind and body work is to observe illness or dysfunction; the stories of what went wrong here might offer clues to what goes right in the best cases.” For readers who prefer stories of triumphant ascents, Strange and Dangerous Dreams will be a real downer. But for those who agree with Socrates that the unexamined life is not worth living, this book should offer genuine hope and immense reading pleasure.

John P. O’Grady

Note: Strange and Dangerous Dreams received the Special Jury Mention Award at the Banff Mountain Book Festival 2006.