March 6, 2014
Review By Zac Robinson
Finding Jim is an intimate portrayal of grief. In this memoir, first-time author Susan Oakey-Baker chronicles her relationship with mountain guide Jim Haberl (1958-99), a Canadian climber made famous for his 1993 ascent of K2 (a Canadian first), followed by his 1999 death while climbing in Alaska, and the aftermath. The book is not really about mountaineering and risk; in fact, it offers only a punctuated glimpse into the tight-knit West Coast climbing community of the eighties and nineties. Rather, in the spirit of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), Finding Jim is a personal catharsis. It’s about Oakey-Baker seeking resolution, answers, and closeness to a lost partner. It’s about her efforts to make sense of a time when nothing seemed to make sense. It’s about her moving forward. Perhaps taking a page or two from Maria Coffey’s Fragile Edge (2000), Oakey-Baker embraces travelogue — that is, she figuratively finds Haberl, and solace, through visiting the site of Haberl’s death on the slopes of Ultima Thule Peak in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, and by (re)visiting the various adventure travel destinations that were formative to her and Haberl’s relationship: Haida Gwaii, for instance, and Mount Kilimanjaro. Wilderness, and wilderness travel, is accorded a transformative quality: a well-worn allegory among travel writers and outdoor educators that permits the predictable and penultimate “return,” in Oakey-Baker’s case to life and love, and to change.
Climbers should take note. While the larger climbing literature seems commercially consumed with hyper-masculine accounts of crisis, calamity, risk, and danger, Finding Jim is another in a growing body of writing that places on view the other side of the mountaineering story — those left at home, those left “where the mountain casts its shadow,” to quote another Coffey title. Think of Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void (1988), Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (1999), or a dozen others. Indeed, the critic Bruce Barcott has recently lamented the “the fatal descent of the mountain-climbing memoir.” Oakey-Baker again broaches the “taboo” subject of the impact that elite mountaineering has on the immediate family of those who partake in it. In this sense, and others, it just as easily could have been titled Finding Sue.
Of travel writing, Ted Bishop — author of the critically praised Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books (2005) — recently told a group of my tourism students at the University of Alberta that they should strive to make their travel writing bigger than themselves. “YOU ARE BORING,” he said to them all, with a smile. His point, not to belittle, was that good travel writing should teach your reader something. Oakey-Baker has the upper hand in that she’s anything but boring. But, as travelogue, Finding Jim may have been improved by pushing out beyond the personal, however touching. I found myself wanting to know more about Haberl’s accomplishments in the wider context of the climbing world, more about the Coast Mountains of British Columbia and of Whistler, or about the tourism industries of East Africa, say. That Oakey-Baker did not expound on these and other topics is less a criticism and more a comment that the book left me wanting more.