The Ledge: An Adventure Story of Friendship and Survival on Mount Rainier. Jim Davidson and Kevin Vaughan. Ballantine Books, 2011. 268 pages. Hardcover. $26.00.
On June 21, 1992, Jim Davidson and his friend and climbing partner Mike Price summited Mt. Rainier (14,410') via Liberty Ridge. On their descent, via the Emmons-Winthrop route, they both fell through a snowbridge into a crevasse. Davidson survived; Price did not. Nineteen years later Davidson used audio records, old letters, and his memories to tell the story of their accident in The Ledge.
While the first few chapters are dedicated to Prices early life— his youth, his education, his work as an Outward Bound instructor, and his development as an alpine climber—the bulk of the book is Davidson’s detailed first-person account of the day of the accident. After summiting, the team began their descent of “the postcard-perfect mountain.” They were on the Carbon Glacier—only 1,500 vertical feet above the climbing ranger's hut at Camp Sherman—when Davidson broke through a snowbridge over a hidden crevasse. Price was unable to arrest the fall, and together they tumbled an estimated 80 feet before landing on a small ledge deep in the crevasse. (Ten feet farther, Davidson estimates, and they would have been wedged between narrowing ice walls.) Price was gravely injured upon landing, and despite Davidson's attempts at resuscitation, chest compressions, and rescue breathing, he never regained consciousness. After stopping CPR Davidson assessed his options, realized he would die in the crevasse before rescue arrived, and used his limited gear—six ice screws, ten short slings, two long runners, three Prusik cords, a belay device, and two cams—to self-rescue by aid climbing 80 feet of overhanging glacier ice. When he reached the surface, he shouted to Camp Sherman for help. Rescuers walked him back to Camp Sherman, where he was taken off the mountain by helicopter. The whole incident, from fall to rescue, took less than seven hours.
The final 50 pages cover the 19 years since the accident—the heartbreaking details of Price's memorial service, the logistics of Davidson's recovery, and, of course, his reflections. His survivor's guilt manifests in all the expected ways: fear, anxiety, doubt, sadness. He entertains the what-ifs and whys, often alone and late at night. (Strangely, though, the question that seems most natural—“Why didn’t Price self-arrest?”—is only briefly discussed.) Ultimately Davidson finds solace in later climbs— notably on Cho Oyu and in Nepal—and in aspects of Tibetan Buddhism. Each of his climbs since the accident, he suggests, is “a microcosm of that repeating cycle of resilience: engage, persevere, rally” While the final 50 pages of The Ledge are earnest, they’re relatively predictable. But that’s what’s interesting: the strength of this book isn’t in poetic reflection. It’s in looking over Davidson’s shoulder as he’s figuring out how to get out of a crevasse. We hear him speak to his father, his wife, to God. We watch him struggle on overhanging ice with ripped muscles after hearing his friend’s last breaths. We hear him think about inspirational stories, like Joe Simpson's Touching the Void, and wonder if he can pull off a similar feat. And as we witness his interior monologue during the struggle, it’s impossible for readers not to wonder, “What would I have done?”
The book jacket advertises “…a heart-stopping adventure story, a heartfelt memoir of friendship, and a stirring meditation on fleeting morality and immutable nature.” I disagree: I read The Ledge as the kind of unvarnished first-person account you’d get from a climbing partner over a beer in a dark corner of a bar. It’s the kind of grossly detailed story climbers crave in a private, voyeuristic kind of way: What was that like, exactly? And therein lies the terrifying poignancy of The Ledge: this accident didn’t happen on a new route in the Himalaya or on a wind-loaded slab in the Alaska Range. It happened to two average dudes on a well-traveled glacier on a popular mountain; one of those men died and the other had to figure out how to survive. Davidson’s matter-of-fact everyman perspective is terrifying—because the same thing could happen to any of us.