by Jay Satz, ’86, ’87, ’89, ’90, ’92, ’94, ’95, SCA Staff
Bob Birkby – uber-experienced SCA crew leader (16 crews) and Conservation Work Skills Program instructor (65 courses) – has many adventures under his belt. Whether he’s leading SCA crews or Boy Scout conservation programs or completing a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail, Birkby loves to experience life in the outdoors, and then write about it.
Besides his extensive writings for multiple editions of both the Boy Scout Field Book and Boy Scout Handbook, Birkby also penned SCA’s premier conservation work skills handbook, Lightly on the Land, now in its second edition. In all of them, he writes about what he knows well – and his newest, and most personal, book is no exception. In Mountain Madness: Scott Fischer, Mount Everest and a Life Lived on High, Birkby gives us an inside look at the man who was his friend.
Scott Fischer’s name as a mountaineer was as well known within the international mountaineering community as it was little known by the general public until his tragic death on Mount Everest during the deadly climbing season of May 1996. That series of tragedies at the top of the world captured the public’s imagination not only because of the significant loss of life, but also because for the first time, the mostly private business of challenging the world’s highest summit was available to all who were interested on the internet, over satellite phones and through Jon Krakauer’s presence as an “imbedded” journalist for Outside magazine.
With Scott’s death, Birkby lost a close friend and an influence in his own life going back to 1982 when the two men, who had only recently met, climbed Mt. Olympus together in Olympic National Park. Although Birkby’s evolution as a highly skilled and well known outdoorsman had taken him on a self described “horizontal approach to America’s wild places” his friendship with Scott inspired new types of vertical adventures with Scott and his commercial climbing company Mountain Madness that included expeditions to the summits of Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Elbrus and even eventually, to the famous Everest base camp.
Birkby’s healing from the loss of his good friend began on the SCA high school crew he led in Grand Teton National Park the summer following the tragedy. But even as the pain eased, Birkby and other member’s of Scott’s community grew frustrated with the incomplete portrait of Scott as a man, a father, and a mountaineer that emerged publicly in major accounts of the accident. He eventually began a search for the truth of who Scott was – mostly gained through the eyes and hearts of those who knew Scott best – and chronicled in a manuscript that Birkby was sure would never be published.
It is fortunate for us that not only did Mountain Madness eventually find its way to publication this year, but also that one of the book’s most influential and articulate story tellers about Scott’s life was Bob Birkby himself. This first person narrative tells great stories of adventures but also seeks – quite successfully – to ask and answer questions about why people seek out adventure in the outdoors and how we succeed or fail in balancing this need with other priorities in our lives.
Scott was both a charismatic and controversial character, a fact that Birkby both acknowledges and illuminates. From his tracing of Scott’s boyhood in New Jersey, watching a documentary on television about the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) that led to his odyssey to Wyoming’s highest places, to his early frustrations of trying to make a living by following his passion with his company Mountain Madness, the reader learns much about what drove Scott Fischer to the heights he sought.
And while Birkby had no intention to add yet another book to the considerable cannon of Everest disaster literature, the quality of his research and the trust his interviewees obviously placed in his integrity and commitment to tell Scott’s story does in fact shed some new light on that fateful May expedition. But perhaps more importantly the author has succeeded in telling the story of a man, his community and what came to be a far more fleeting moment in the history of high elevation mountaineering than any of the real people living in that moment could have recognized at the time.
As readers come to different conclusions regarding who the real Scott Fischer was and how well Scott met the challenges of his own life and goals, Mountain Madness succeeds fully in articulating the call that wild places has on so many of us. And by the end of the book, we also realize that with his crisp descriptive prose, his own vast experience and deep sensitivity to human triumph and fragility, Bob Birkby was our perfect guide to this remarkable story.
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