This gripping memoir follows Gabriel Filippi step-by-agonizing step to the highest summits in the world, while thrilling and terrifying the reader at every turn of the page.
“People ask me about the terrible things I’ve seen at the top of Everest. They ask about the bodies that litter the mountainside, about the friends I’ve lost trying to get to the summit, or about the avalanche that almost took my life. I tell them the truth: that up there, life is precious and sometimes terrifying, and I can’t wait to get back,” writes the author, Filippi, in the opening chapter.
The story begins with a young boy desperately trying to please an angry and unpredictable father, haunted by his military past. Then a young man, still reeling from the collapse of his marriage, learns his father died of cancer just four days after Christmas.
He finds himself looking for an escape from a lonely existence, and discovers his calling in climbing. For twenty years the mountains become his “oxygen” determining his worth.
It could be said that Filippi pushes himself to the edge of death and back as a subconscious way of trying to accomplish something greater than what anyone expected of him, especially his father.
This memoir is about one man’s desire to follow his wildest dreams, but it will also make the reader think twice about life, about family, and about the simple things we often take for granted. The title, too, The Escapist, is very befitting because Filippi repeatedly cheats death.
But the cost of survival comes at a price.
Filippi recalls navigating the Death Zone on Mount Everest in the Himalayas, following in the footsteps of his hero Sir Edmund Hillary (one of the first recorded climbers to have reached the summit in 1953), when he starts feeling the terrible effects of altitude sickness.
He writes, “My blood was turning to sludge; my brain and lungs were slowly swelling as my heart pounded against my chest. I was dying, but I felt inspired.”
To make matters worse, his friend and countryman Frank Ziebarth is resting in the snow at the base of the last true obstacle to the summit. He had managed to summit without oxygen, but on his descent sat down to catch his breath.
The atmospheric pressure is so low at this height that all life begins to die.
A year earlier, Ziebarth told Filippi that he planned to stand on the summit with a banner above his head, asking his girlfriend to marry him.
Filippi is making his descent from the summit and finds Ziebarth exactly where he left him, hours later. Ziebarth had slipped into a coma and died as a result of high-altitude cerebral edema.
That same girlfriend asked Filippi to remove Ziebarth’s corpse from the well-known path to the summit.
Filippi writes, “Exhausted and with little time and oxygen left, I put my arms around his body and tried to move him. I couldn’t. His body had frozen to the mountainside…When I began looking around his collar, a layer of snow fell to his chest, and suddenly I was staring at the face of the man I once knew.”
The frost-covered face of his friend will remain trapped in his mind years later, haunting him, but there is a resolution.
Filippi writes a letter to Ziebarth’s girlfriend to reassure her that his “life and death would have an impact on every climber who passed him from now until eternity. That he wouldn’t grow old on the mountain. He would remain there, exactly as he was.”
There will be many more climbs for Filippi, which will literally have the reader holding their breath as we feel every raw emotion – from a Taliban attack on northern Pakistan to the deadliest disaster in Everest’s history.
Readers won’t want to put down this non-fiction that serves as is a poignant reminder that it’s possible to do far more than what anyone might think possible, so long as you don’t give up.
The author, Gabriel Filippi is the only Quebecer to have climbed both faces of the highest point on earth, Everest. He has scaled six of the highest peaks around the world, before becoming an ambassador for his hometown of Lac-Mégantic in Quebec. He is a member of the North Face athlete team, Ironman, and a proud grandfather. He lives in Montreal.
Brett Popplewell works as an assistant professor of journalism at Carleton University. He is a National Magazine Award-winning writer and editor. His writing has appeared in numerous publications that include the Toronto Star, The Walrus, and The Best American Sports Writing.