No aspiring alpinist ever forgets their first brush with mountain danger. For me, it was altitude sickness, which I felt, acutely, for the first time two years ago at 13,000 feet, high in the Peruvian Andes. Feet turned to sludge, stomach thrashing, lungs constricting, I slipped in and out of consciousness before vomiting under the watchful (read: judgmental) eyes of the horses tied up in the rubble. The following day, those same horses would carry some of the climbers on our team higher still while I shook and shuddered in my tent, utterly drained.
For Gabriel Filippi, one of the most accomplished alpinists in Canadian history, the stakes are higher, the brushes more ominous. “I think we’re fucked,” he says to his friend after he watches, on his attempt to conquer Everest’s North Face and become one of the few mountaineers to climb the mountain from both sides, his tent tumble over the side of a cliff, in the dark, in a -25 C snowstorm, in the Death Zone, the area above 8,000 metres where there’s not enough oxygen in the air to sustain human life. All this, after guzzling supplementary oxygen and surviving a bout of food poisoning and possible edema on the way up. “Richard, we’re completely fucked.”
It’s a recurring sentiment in The Escapist, Filippi’s first book, a memoir co-written by award-winning journalist Brett Popplewell, who was, until recently, a senior writer at Sportsnet magazine. As a character, Filippi has many facets here: doting but distant father, loving but distracted partner, striving but troubled son. Above all, he is singularly obsessed, like so many people before and after him, with the mountains. Like so many other inexplicable pursuits, climbing finds Filippi at precisely the right time, when he’s lost just enough that he needs something to grab hold of to help him steady. (His marriage has ended, he’s missing his young daughter, and he’s working at an airport in desolate northern Quebec.) Unlike most recreational activities, the chances of this one killing you are pretty high. He skyrockets upward, set on seeing the world from its highest rooftop, Everest, and racks up summit after summit: Aconcagua, Denali, Mount Kenya and on and on.
Born in Lac-Mégantic, Que., to a paratrooper father who comes home from the war and beats his 10 children, and a caring but work-worn mother, Filippi wrestles for years with resentment and inadequacy, his father’s angry voice echoing through his head in his darkest moments. The book’s first emotional blow is deftly delivered when Filippi returns home to Mégantic after the birth of his daughter, years after last speaking to his dad. His father opens the door to Filippi’s childhood home and, suffering from cancer, doesn’t recognize his own son.
Their conflict is a compelling narrative thread through a book that, at times, suffers the fate of many mountaineering memoirs – those not intimately acquainted with alpine culture won’t distinguish between the minutiae of one near-death experience and the next – it’s frankly difficult to believe they’ve all happened to just one person. However risky, each near-death on a mountainside blends together in a flurry. By the time the book nears its end, though, that feeling has dissipated entirely. In one particularly striking scene, Filippi and Popplewell recount in heartbreaking detail the massacre of 11 international climbers, dragged from their tents and killed in a grassy meadow in a firing line on Pakistan’s Nanga Parbat by the Taliban. Filippi had left the mountain that morning, yet again narrowly escaping his own death – but this time at the hands of humans – after a shudder of intuition told him he should go. It’s an experience that thrusts him into a yearlong struggle with survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder. There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men, the famous Maurice Herzog line goes, and Filippi has conquered more of them than most of us ever will, some mountains and some not.
The book doesn’t delve deeply into the strain Filippi’s exploits must have put on most of his relationships. Fights between him and his partner, Annie, feel glossed over and he doesn’t recount in detail any conversations he has about his exploits with his daughter, Alexandra, who by the end of the book has a daughter herself. Readers wanting to better understand the relationship between mountaineers and their loved ones will find more insight in Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow by fellow Canadian Maria Coffey.
Rather, The Escapist takes most concerted care describing Filippi’s own states of mind as he transitions from aspiring climber to accomplished mountaineer to an expedition leader responsible for getting others up some of the world’s most challenging peaks. He is most relatable as he tries to explain why he can’t give it up, this dedication that wavers between strength and weakness, vocation and obsession. “People ask if, after twenty years in the mountains, I’ve learned anything more about myself and our world. I sum up my current state by telling them that I’ve become somewhat of a fatalist, believing that we are all meant to die on a certain day in a certain place, and that it’s up to us to do the best we can with our lives until we find ourselves standing in our final place in our final time.” He can’t quite articulate it, because, really, no one can. But The Escapist takes us a little closer to the edge of understanding.
Katherine Laidlaw is a senior editor at The Walrus.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated a measurement of 8,000 feet. It is actually 8,000 metres.Report Typo/Error
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