Former Marine and survival expert Bergthold (To Walk Away From Battle Mountain, 2013, etc.) documents his grueling trek from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney.
In October 1989, Bergthold and a longtime adventure companion set out on a 14-day odyssey through the most extreme climates and barren regions of North America. Armed with carefully selected gear and food, the men arranged to pick up water at checkpoints as their only form of outside aid, no small feat in a pre-cellphone era. Bergthold uses his trip diary and memory to reconstruct one travel day per chapter, describing in detail meager rations, odd camping spots, hard-core survival techniques, frantic water searches and wildly varying temperatures. The memoir excels at communicating the grandeur and terror of the wastelands: “The macabre, wind-swept landscape made us suddenly see and feel the effect of an outlaw wind that had nowhere to go except in all directions. It had nothing better to do than to blast an already taxed land and to batter the living beings.” Bergthold shines when explaining the internal motivations that impelled his Frodo-like quest as well as the nirvana attained during the final ascent to 14,000 feet on Mt. Whitney in severe winter weather. Largely driven by the thought of hardships faced by ancestors and the softness of modern humanity, which he and his companion deplore, Bergthold writes passionately of trying to measure up to these “real men” of yore who did battle with nature. A few issues prevent this otherwise exciting narrative from unfolding with maximum dramatic impact. For one thing, the lack of details about the men’s “real lives” prior to the trek limits the reader’s emotional investment in their journey. One often wonders where these decontextualized wanderers hail from and who might be waiting for them to come back. Second, the author considerably undercuts the climactic effect of reaching the summit of Mt. Whitney by frequently overusing exclamation points, italics and sensational adjectives throughout earlier chapters.
A riveting if unevenly paced survival story that covers both interior psychological and exterior geographical terrain.