To the Last Breath: A Memoir of Going to Extremes
Without knowing it, Francis Slakey was prescribing his own psychotherapy when he decided to climb the highest mountains and surf all the oceans of the world.
Slakey is one of America’s most dynamic scientific personalities. He’s the Upjohn Lecturer on Physics and Public Policy at Georgetown University, founder and co-director of the Program on Science and the Public Interest, a Lemelson Associate of the Smithsonian --- and the list goes on. On his website, you will learn that “Dr. Slakey became the 28th American to summit Mt. Everest in an unguided expedition that hauled 700 spent oxygen bottles and a half-ton of trash off the mountain. He is the first person in history to summit the highest mountain on every continent and surf every ocean. He has hitchhiked across Central Asia, lived with Masai in East Africa, scaled the granite face of El Cap, and skied in Antarctica.” It is these adventures that he has written about inTO THE LAST BREATH.
"In this well-written chronicle that takes us to some of the most untraveled, dangerous sites on earth, we see the disintegration of Planet Francis and the rebirth of Francis the man, husband, father and guy with a dog."
The book, though, is only partly about Slakey’s feats of daring on the surface of Planet Earth. Underlying these exploits is the story of Planet Francis, a cold dark planet that began to form when his mother died of a brain tumor when he was just a child. He gradually separated himself from people, from affection, from close relationships. Science didn’t fail him, was always logical, and, like the newly forming Planet Francis, was icy and remote. After becoming a well-known scientific academic, Slakey decided it was time to conquer the physical world as he knew it. “The journey would unravel me, then bind me back together into someone who could feel and care.”
Those who thrive on physical risk-taking will enjoy the author’s descriptions of scaling El Capitan and Mt. Everest, riding stormy waves, and experiencing the tomblike deprivation of the Antarctic vastness. The balance comes when, through these stark, invigorating adventures, Slakey begins to realize that he isn’t like other people. Other people, he begins to observe, care about other people. He has to learn about that and take that risk before he can regain his humanity. This phase of inner exploration begins when he receives a mysterious amulet from the Most Holy Rimpoche in a remote monastery on his way to climb Everest.
Things start to happen, remarkable coincidences that can’t be explained scientifically but that impact his life profoundly. He encounters a woman on one of his climbs who just happens to live a few blocks from his home in the US. Gina has a different view of life, a belief in destiny and the unseen hand that guides us. Breaking one of his long-held rules, Slakey learns what it’s like to love someone, and lets himself get married.
In this well-written chronicle that takes us to some of the most untraveled, dangerous sites on earth, we see the disintegration of Planet Francis and the rebirth of Francis the man, husband, father and guy with a dog. He also becomes an activist, unafraid to speak out after witnessing events in Indonesia that will influence US foreign policy in the fraught months following 9-11. His example for this concern for others comes from another coincidental meeting --- with Patsy Spier, winner of the Department of Justice’s Special Courage Award.
From Spier, he learns that “if someone is passionate about their cause, driven to see a just end, willing to push with every breath, then they could influence the decisions of major institutions even if all odds were against them.” It was a new kind of climbing, to reach a new kind of vista. In TO THE LAST BREATH, we get the triumph of conquering Everest, of surviving harsh conditions and perilous situations in the world of nature, and of conquering one’s inner nature and emerging as a caring and conscientious person.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on May 11, 2012