People in the climbing community who hold strong pro or con views about Barber, and there are many, will read this otherwise...


ON EDGE: The Life and Climbs of Henry Barber

People in the climbing community who hold strong pro or con views about Barber, and there are many, will read this otherwise so-so (and perhaps premature) biography of the 28-year-old American climber back to front, starting with Lee's treatment of Barber's controversial attempt on Kilimanjaro's Breach Wall with Rob Taylor. In The Breach (K 1981, p. 1001), Taylor accused his (pseudonymous) ropemate of abandoning him on the mountain with a broken ankle--i.e., summoning rangers, but not returning with them to see if Taylor had survived. According to Lee, Barber admits he made a ""wrong decision"" in leaving Africa before seeing his injured partner, but claims few other climbers could have gotten Taylor down severe technical ice sections, as he did, to a relatively safe bivouac spot. Though ambivalent about Taylor (""a brilliant ice climber,"" but ""too paranoid to be in the mountains""), Barber lauds his gutsiness at Kili as ""the most courageous performance I've ever seen or heard about in a human being."" And how did that accident happen? Still unclear, though Lee suggests ""some brief inattentiveness on the part of the belayer [Barber]."" Otherwise, this is a straightforward account of the public life of a rock-climbing prodigy who, at 19, zapped the international climbing world with a lightning-fast unroped solo of a very tough route in Yosemite. The natural outgrowth of Barber's emphasis on ""clean"" climbing, downplaying hardware, was soloing--doing extreme climbs alone, on sight, without prior knowledge of the route--and Lee's chapter on Barber's philosophy of solo climbing, and why it's safe (!), is the highlight of the book. Though he captures Barber's skill, drive, arrogance, and control--in short, his style as a climber--Lee offers little insight into Barber as a person. (Even a friend admits he's ""as inflexible as can be."") Nonclimbers, moreover, will be numbed by myriad route descriptions and confused by Lee's zigzag chronology of Barber's career. Chiefly for (and clearly aimed at) chocks-and-carabiners folks, with the Barber-Taylor controversy as a hook.

Pub Date: May 1, 1982


Page Count: -

Publisher: Appalachian Mountain Club

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1982