Saturday, August 02, 2008

Book Review: Shattered Air - A True Account of Catastrophe and Courage on Yosemite's Half Dome by Bob Madgic

On July 27, 1985, five hikers climbed Yosemite’s Half Dome even as the sky became increasingly menacing and thunder sounded overhead. Within hours of ascending to the Dome and seeking shelter inside a cave, two of the hikers were dead from a lightning strike, two others were seriously wounded, and the final hiker struggled to maintain his sanity as the situation deteriorated.

All of this is recounted in harrowing, and sometimes graphic, detail by Bob Madgic in Shattered Air - A True Account of Catastrophe and Courage on Yosemite’s Half Dome, one of the better and more informative recent entries in the outdoors/adventure genre. Madgic, a former teacher and Half Dome hiking veteran, writes in an engaging and suspenseful style, including details about the actual incident, and also provides a nice overview of lightning, its causes, effects, and how it has played a role in the park’s history.

Central to the tragedy described in Shattered Air are Tom Rice and Adrian Esteban, two men who would eventually discover a shared love of outdoor adventure and a half-baked, balls-to-the-wall philosophy that the only way to overcome fear was to confront it in whatever way necessary, consequences be damned. The men adopted Half Dome as their personal Mecca, and developed a near-mystical bond with the mountain (they certainly aren’t the first people to erroneously feel that Nature would willingly reciprocate such strong emotions).

It was this ill-informed philosophy and deep emotional bond to the mountain that greatly influenced the men’s actions and contributed to the tragedy Madgic describes so well. Along with three other hikers, all of whom had varying degrees of hiking ability and desires with or reservations about reaching the Dome because of the worsening weather conditions, Rice and Esteban eventually found themselves confronting a situation that, Madgic implies, neither felt their karma and connection to the mountain would ever allow to happen. Although both Rice - portrayed throughout the book as a gutsy daredevil who rarely considered the risks of his actions - and Esteban would survive the lightning storm, two of their hiking companions died on the mountain.

Madgic conveys a number of key points throughout the book. The first and most obvious is that the hikers made several critical mistakes in continuing to ascend the mountain when it was obvious that a nasty storm was approaching. The hikers plainly ignored the fact that a storm was imminent and also disregarded the advice of several groups they encountered along the way who told them to stop climbing the mountain; the fact that Rice would later comment that he wanted to reach the Dome so that he could dance in the lightning storm (which he indeed did) clearly shows where his head was during the climb. “Sheer stupidity and craziness” is how one of those involved would describe the incident, and it’s hard to disagree with this blunt assessment.

Madgic does a nice job giving a balanced portrait of the incident; he’s sympathetic to the victims but also doesn’t absolve them from the poor decisions they made or the actions they took afterwards (though one of the two men who died, a sixteen year old inexperienced hiker, is portrayed as a reticent participant throughout). The overall implication is that the entire tragedy could have easily been avoided, since the hikers had several opportunities to halt their climb but chose to continue upward. Several of the hikers were well versed in Half Dome and should have also been aware of the frequency of lightning strikes on it.

Esteban, who contributed to the book, is also not absolved from culpability; Madgic notes that Esteban didn’t attend the funerals of either hiker who died and also gave media interviews in which he embellished the story. At the same time, it is impossible not to feel sympathetic towards Esteban; his various comments about the tragedy years after it happened show that the burden of responsibility is a tough one to carry.

Madgic also shows that were it not for the courage and bravery of several other hikers, a couple of whom were trained EMTs and risked their lives to both help the wounded men and seek additional help, the tragedy could have been much worse. In the days before cell phones, the fate of the wounded men rested entirely on these hikers. This makeshift rescue crew was both able to gain control of the situation and to notify park rangers, who then arranged for a risky nighttime helicopter rescue.

Shattered Air is primarily a cautionary tale – of poor decisions and the results of those decisions, of a cavalier and disrespectful attitude toward nature and its power, and of the risks of adopting and following a philosophy of conquering personal fears and pushing personal limits without even considering the consequences. Despite the individual acts of courage shown by the hikers’ rescuers, the reader is still left with the overall impression that the tragedy was completely avoidable.

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