Miracle On The Mountain

Scott Sutherland reviews 'Miracle on the Mountain' by Mike Couillard and Mary Couillard and 'Deep Play' by Paul Pritchard

Published August 26, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

When Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air" bagged the summit of the bestseller list last year (it continues to hang on in paperback), you knew it was only a matter of time before a host of other books came straggling along in its snowy, death-haunted tracks, eager -- if not entirely capable -- of bagging a few lesser peaks of their own.

Two recent nonfiction books, "Miracle on the Mountain" and "Deep Play," are prime examples of the grisly fate that awaits most of the overeager wannabes. "Miracle on the Mountain," the story of an American Air Force man and his young son lost for 10 days on a snowy Turkish mountain, is thinly researched and even more thinly written, devoting more space to glassy-eyed spiritual reflection than to the particulars of organizing and carrying out a large-scale search and rescue operation. "Deep Play," a collection of essays by renowned British rock climber Paul Pritchard, comes tantalizingly close to revealing the world and psyche of a big-wall climber, but the essence of many of the pieces is lost in a haze of jargon and imprecision that could have been eliminated with a bit of disciplined editing. While the two books taken together don't exactly comprise a literary death zone, chances are they'll leave you sluggish and a little spacey, in need of oxygen and a nap.

By far the worse offender is "Miracle on the Mountain," which audaciously bills itself as a survival story "in the tradition of Jon Krakauer." Hardly; writers William and Marilyn Hoffer do a cursory job of churning out the tale of Mike and Matthew Couillard, the father-son duo that became lost while skiing on Turkey's Kartalkaya Mountain in 1995. The Hoffers hastily dispense with the details of the search, presenting each chapter as a series of monologues by the various members of the Couillard family, including Mike's wife, Mary, who becomes the focus of the story's sometimes loopy religious angle. While Mike and Matthew are holed up in a tiny cave -- with only five pieces of hard candy to eat and their feet slowly solidifying -- Mary is busy organizing prayer vigils with her American friends in Ankara, efforts that often end with participants speaking in tongues. Whatever gets you through, I guess.

Mike has plenty of that old-time religion on his mind, too, and is a major Pollyanna -- "I winced in intense pain as my hip once more popped out of joint. 'Damn!' I yelped. I felt a tinge of guilt as I heard my curse echo through the canyon" -- which is why I so enjoyed Matthew, a natural-born skeptic who at one point combats the icy gloom of the woods by belting out not scripture, but Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." Matthew notwithstanding, "Miracle on the Mountain" is best left to languish in the Inspirational Reading section.

Pritchard, on the other hand, is the real deal, a top-flight rock climber who posted some of the hairiest routes in Britain during the 1980s, then went on to post even hairier routes on some of the world's biggest vertical rock faces in places like Patagonia, the Himalayas and Baffin Island. So it's a shame that, with this kind of material to draw from, so many of the 18 essays in "Deep Play" should feel as sketchy as they do. The opening chapters, "Fire-Starter" and "Rubble Merchants, Slateheads and Others," which recount Pritchard's hardscrabble Manchester childhood and his discovery of rock climbing as a teenager, are wonderfully vivid and full of laddish spunk -- think "The Butcher Boy" clad in rock shoes and Lycra climbing tights. Other pieces, however, retain too much of the insidery style that characterizes the climbing journals where they first appeared. The jargon flies at times ("As Adam led us up a verglassed off-width on tipped out Camalot 5s"), but far more frustrating are the whats-and-wheres missing from some of the essays: where exactly the climbs are, how high they are, how long it took him to get up, a lay explanation of how the gear works and so on. Oddly, appendices at the book's end -- including a glossary of climbing terms and one called "Notes About the Essays" -- include precisely the sort of contextual nuggets that should have been incorporated into the essays themselves.

Pritchard tells us up front that he's "a climber who writes," and you come away from "Deep Play" with the feeling he's upheld his end of the bargain. His wry, impressionistic style is entertaining, and his love for climbing and those who practice it is infectious. What "Deep Play" didn't get is the editing it deserves; like a belayer sleeping on the job, the wordsmith ostensibly in charge of the book isn't around to break Pritchard's fall when he comes unstuck from the rock. And it's a long way down.

By Scott Sutherland

Scott Sutherland is a writer in Portland, Maine.

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