September 26, 2005 12:00 PM

By David Roberts

MEMOIR

CRITIC’S CHOICE

This is an addiction memoir like no other. Roberts, a world-class mountaineer, spent his youth slinging lines across Alaskan peaks like Spider-Man. Now in his 60s, he has pushed himself to the dizziest limits and lived to tell the tale. Others haven’t been so lucky, and now all that carnage and grief has Roberts wondering if the thrills are worth the price. He saw two pals killed in his younger years: Gabe, tumbling off a Colorado mountainside; and Ed, pitching soundlessly into an Alaskan abyss. In On the Ridge Roberts recounts those climbs with a technical precision that only makes them more disturbing. He also ponders expeditions he wasn’t part of, bringing to light the surprising number of top climbers who have been lost to avalanches, freezing and falls.

Roberts’s victories on the slopes, vividly detailed here, have made him “throw my arms into the air and shout with joy.” But visiting Gabe’s sister—still heartsore nearly 40 years after her brother’s horrible death—he comes to see the selfishness of his own obsession, of risking everything not for a cause but for a kick. Without climbing, would he have been a better husband, a better son? It takes another kind of courage just to ask the question.

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