Francis Slakey's new book, To the Last Breath: A Memoir of Going to Extremes, opens with one of the most terrifying moments in nonfiction this year. On a cot pinned to the face of El Capitan, some 2,000 feet above California's Yosemite Valley, Slakey wakes in the middle of the night and realizes his gear is failing.
"In a few more seconds the webbing will come completely undone and our cot will drop out from under us," he writes. "There is nothing we can do to stop that from happening."
To the Last Breath promises the kind of chest-thumping adventure chronicle you'd expect from the first man to climb the Seven Summits and to surf all the world's oceans. But after that initial adrenaline shot, Slakey settles into an unexpectedly warm memoir of how his journey helped him overcome a profound sense of loss-induced detachment.
The Upjohn lecturer on physics and public policy at Georgetown University, Slakey writes touchingly about the kindness of those he meets along the way and with precision about a range of scientific fare, from the physics of ocean waves to the way a climber's body shuts down on Everest. He also can be droll--calling, say, his surfing/climbing record "the first global surf-n-turf."
But let's give the last word on To the Last Breath to Lama Kinle, a Buddhist monk Slakey meets in Bhutan. "If you get to the end of your life and you have regrets that you could have done better," he says through his translator, "then you blew it."
This article appears in the May 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.