Facing cancer, climber David Roberts reexamines adventuring and extreme risk

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David Roberts is one of the best mountain climbers of his generation. He’s mentored Jon Krakauer, and co-wrote free-climber Alex Honnold’s memoir “Alone on the Wall.” He’s written more than 20 books – thus earning the moniker “the dean of adventure writing.”

In 1965, when Roberts was 22 years old, he and companions Matt Hale, Ed Bernd, and Don Jensen climbed the west face of Mount Huntington in Alaska. It took them 32 days to go up. But on the descent, Bernd fell 4000 feet and died.

Fifty years later, in 2015, David Roberts and Matt Hale went back to Alaska to commemorate the anniversary. That’s when Roberts then noticed a lump in his throat.

He was diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer.

Now in his 70s, Robert has written “Limits of the Known,” a memoir about mortality and  his relationship to extreme risk.

Roberts told Press Play that his own adventuring — at its best — was about pursuing the unknown. “Hence the title, which is taken from Fridtjof Nansen, the great Norwegian explorer. The idea of adventure and exploration is to push the limits of the known.”

Exploring the outdoors and pushing his body helped Roberts understand what it meant to be alive. “It’s pretty hard to be blase when you’re off route on a big climb, and the weather’s moving in, and you’ve got to do everything you can to survive,” he said.

“That’s where it shades into what people think of as thrill seeking. It really isn’t about thrill seeking. In fact, most good adventurers dread fear, and don’t seek out fear. Fear is the unfortunate residue of when things go wrong. And your skill is all devoted to not overcoming fear — you can’t do that — but to figuring a way out of the trap that fear presents.”

English novelist Graham Greene said at age 74, “When one is young, one trifles with death.” Roberts admits that he certainly did. “It’s not that I thought I would live forever because after all– Ed, and before him, my first climbing partner Gabe, were killed right in front of my eyes. I didn’t think I was immortal or invulnerable. But I sort of felt that if I kept tip-toeing the right side of risk, I might get away with it. And it was so glorious to be out there that it was worth the risk. In those days, I wasn’t weighing anything but my selfish needs, and that can’t be the whole equation.”

Roberts said that many climbers see adventure as an equation that measures risk against reward. But after decades, Roberts realized you have to consider the pain  inflicted upon loved ones when there’s a fatality, like that of his partners Ed Bernd and Gabe Lee.

Getting cancer also reframed his idea of his life’s passion. When he was younger, Roberts insisted he couldn’t live without mountain climbing. But now, “Every day becomes more valuable when you’re constantly threatened by death and by suffering leading to death. But I’ve also come to appreciate relationships more than I ever did before. Many great friendships, not only with fellow climbers, but with just friends. But also I can never say enough about how terribly supportive and vital to my continued existence Sharon has been — my wife.”

Roberts says what he’s most grateful for in terms of the cancer — is that it hasn’t compromised his thinking or writing.