Last Breath: Cautionary Tales From the Limits of Human Endurance
Extreme sports intrigue me. While I confine my personal athletics to swimming and walking, I admire those who scale rock walls, climb high peaks and push themselves through physical endurance tests. My sister is a triathlete, and her descriptions of both her training and her races are something I enjoy living vicariously. Watching the IMAX film, Everest, I was mesmerized by the people who lashed ladders together and then walked across them on crampons, hovering tens of thousands of feet above land. This weekend the New York Marathon will be run. I attended the event one year and was transfixed watching the runner's faces as they crossed the finish line --- most were full of agony and pain, not joy and exaltation. But they still felt the event was exhilarating!
While I will never be among any of these elite groups, the tenacity with which these people drive themselves amazes me. But they are only as strong as what the human body can bear.
LAST BREATH examines what happens to adventurous athletes when the challenges are bigger than their physiological ability. The writing, divided into 11 chapters, chronicles in fictional narrative how the body handles these emergencies and thus responds. It ticks away the clock and counts down how people take their last breath when they are overcome.
Peter Stark is a contributing writer to Outside magazine. In fact, this project began as an article in Outside two years ago called "As Freezing Persons Recollect the Snow." The book examines altitude sickness, hypo and hyperthermia, the bends, avalanche, mountain sickness, and even predators among its 11 topics. My favorite chapters were the ones on malaria, dehydration, and hypothermia. I thought the scurvy chapter was too far-fetched to be included, and thus weak.
What I loved about the book is that you do not need to be a doctor, a scientist, or a forensic specialist to understand Olsen's writing. It is very appealing to the average layperson. There is a superb blend of science, personal anecdote, cautionary advice, and even cure possibilities woven into each story: If he gets a drink right now, he can live. And not every victim dies. As the book progressed I found myself trying to figure out early on who would make it --- and who would not.
I read this book in an afternoon while I was at the beach, and by the end of the day I was beginning to feel like a hypochondriac. As I lay in the sun reading, was I suffering from hyperthermia as the sweat poured from my body onto the concrete around the pool? As I rode my bike and got cottonmouth I wondered if this was the beginning of the second of the six stages of thirst. My children asked for lunch as I finished the chapter on scurvy. I quickly cut up a peach for each of them. (They found it amusing that I told them we could have lunch after I finished reading about scurvy and we could bike after I finished dehydration.)
If you already have enjoyed THE PERFECT STORM, THE HUNGRY OCEAN, and INTO THIN AIR this book is the perfect next read. You will never complete any physical task quite the same way again.
Reviewed by Carol Fitzgerald on October 2, 2001