Before Georgetown physics professor Francis Slakey decided to climb the highest mountain on every continent and surf every ocean, he had shut himself off from other people. His lectures were mechanical; his relationships were little more than ways to fill the evenings. But as his journey veered dangerously off course, everything about him began to change.
A gripping adventure of the body and mind, To the Last Breath depicts the quest that leads Slakey around the globe, almost takes his life, challenges his fiercely held beliefs, and opens his heart. The scientist in Slakey explores the history of Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed Antarctica expedition, the technology of climbing, and the geophysics of waves. But it is the challenges he endures and the people he encounters - a Lama who gives him a mysterious amulet, a life-or-death choice atop Everest, an ambush at gunpoint in Indonesia, a head-on collision in the high desert - that culminate in a moving lesson about what it means to be human.
Imagine: you are cocooned in your sleeping bag atop a cot pinned to the sheer granite monolith that is El Capitan--2,000 feet from the floor of Yosemite. You wake up and notice your feet are dangling over the cot, and see that the 9mm strap attached to the vertical granite face is quickly unraveling. Pfffffftttthhh!!! A heart-pounding beginning to Slakey's fine memoir, To the Last Breath. But, lest you think this is the chronicling of Slakey's adrenaline-packed expeditions to accomplish the feat of being the first man to climb the 7 highest peaks, and surf each of the world's ocean (which he names the "surf-n-turf" journey)...it changes direction.
Slakey comes off the mountain and takes the listener back to the day his mother died, when he decides to protect himself from the pain of dissappointment and abandonment. He begins to withdraw and build a protective wall around himself, while outwardly hurtling through life, aloof and reckless. His detachment extends into his relationships and his professional life, and he vows to accomplish the surf-n-turf challenge without emotional entanglements.
The author chooses to write little about the actual physical challenges, instead detailing the effects of extremes--when a body is pushed beyond its physical limits--with great medical and scientific facts (about hypothermia, dehydration, hypoxia, jellyfish toxins, altitude sickness, even scurvy). Similar historical expeditions are recounted,their origins and outcomes. But the emphasis is clearly on the people he encounters along his way, and how those interactions shaped him, broke down his wall, and helped him find his own humanity and consciousness.
To be honest, I was looking forward to more action and less "awakening", something along the lines of Into Thin Air, but once I stopped pulling on the leash and let myself go along with this unexpected change of direction, I enjoyed this.
Towards the end, a Budhist monk gives Slakey some words of wisdom..."If you get to the end of your life and have regrets that you could have done better, then you blew it." Guess that little gem could apply to choosing this book! If before you get into this, you understand that you're not getting a high adrenaline accounting of scaling 7 peaks and riding monster waves, you might find yourself liking this soulful journey.
23 of 25 people found this review helpful