Halfway to Heaven is a different kind of mountain climbing book. Unlike
Into Thin Air or Touching the Void, which feature
well-trained individuals obsessed with the sport, Halfway to Heaven
relates the exploits of forty-four year old "everyman" and novice climber, Mark Obmascik. The result is an entertaining look at a challenging activity from a
viewpoint to which many of us can relate. This is a book for the weekend
warrior, for all of us who watch mountaineering movies from the safety of our
couches, and for those who dream of attempting feats of athleticism - maybe
There will be inevitable comparisons between Halfway to Heaven and Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, and for the most part, they're apt. Both feature middle-age men tackling nature in ways one wouldn't think possible for those in less than peak physical condition. Both authors also see the humor in what they're attempting, and are able to convey it to their readers. Unlike much of Bryson's book, though, Obmascik's writing isn't as laugh-out-loud funny; his style is to drop the occasional one-liner into his narrative, more likely resulting in a sympathetic smile or chuckle than a belly-laugh.
"On the way up the mountain I had donned crampons for the first time, mostly to practice with my new gear, but also for safety. Besides, they let me climb like Spider-Man. Slopes that Matt had to hop and peck and squirm around, I just sauntered straight up. The twelve sharp steel teeth strapped onto each hiking boot may as well have been superglue; they stuck to anything, and I beamed like a boy with his newest, favoritest Christmas toy. I felt safe. I felt strong. I even felt a little bit of an even rarer commodity confidence."
Halfway to Heaven is also more compelling than Walk in the Woods.
For one thing, mountaineering is a dangerous sport. Obmascik unquestionably
risks injury or death every time he steps on the mountain. Humor aside, there
are definitely sections of the narrative where his fear is evident.
Adding interest to Halfway to Heaven is his depiction of the other
people with whom he climbs. His wife's insistence that he never climb alone led
him to ask, beg and bribe relatives and friends (some of whom he hadn't seen in
decades) to join him. When that still left too many unattended climbs, he turned
to friends of friends, and, ultimately, to strangers. Obmascik not only
describes these people and their climbing abilities, but gives his readers some
insight into what motivates them to undertake such a demanding sport. Finally,
he depicts the mountains themselves as individuals. Each has its own
unique character, making each climb different and unpredictable.
Image: Aerial view of some of the the Fourteeners
This review was originally published in May 2009, and has been updated for the May 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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