Thursday, September 26, 2013

Book review: "Survive! My Fight for Life in the High Sierras"

Peter DeLeo has an incredible, amazing survival story to tell. So why doesn't it make an incredible, amazing book?

In November 1994, a plane piloted by DeLeo and carrying two other passengers crashed deep in California's Sierra Nevada range. With a broken ankle, broken ribs and a broken shoulder, he hiked out through deep snow in 13 days, eating only bugs to survive. He didn't make it out in time for his two friends to be rescued. Both Wave Hatch and Lloyd Matsumoto died at the site of the crash.

In "Survive!," adventure story fans can live vicariously through DeLeo's ordeal,

DeLeo shows that he had to be smart to survive. He chose his route carefully to avoid going in circles. He learned to pick a good shelter (a rocky cave too cold; the hollowed out trunk of a tree good). He made sure to dry his clothes in the afternoon sun. I sometimes questioned his choices at one point he spent several hours climbing a tree to get a better view but the fact is, he made it out under almost impossible conditions, so he clearly did something right.

Still, questions nag at this book. For starters, the author often seems just too cool and analytical about his horrible ordeal. A normal person would be saying, "My broken bones are killing me! I've only eaten bugs for days and I'm starving! I'm wet and cold and just plain exhausted!"

But DeLeo instead portrays himself as carefully analyzing the crust of the snow, the angle of the sun, the droppings of wild animals, and the color of his urine (many times). Is this the way he really is, or is this just the way he wants to portray himself?

Was it really necesary to show DeLeo's whole hiking route in the map in Chapter Three, thus giving away much of the story?

And why was it DeLeo and not Wave who walked out? DeLeo describes Wave as having just a bruise on the forehead after the crash. DeLeo had 16 broken bones. Wouldn't it have made a lot more sense for Wave to have gone for help?

I might have been able to let that one go if it hadn't been for the online postings of some other reviewers who pointed out that DeLeo left out some important details.

For starters, DeLeo never mentions that the investigation by the National Traffic Safety Board found that the crash was his fault for flying too low in a box canyon.

Second, while DeLeo mentions making a plan with Wave to use the emergency locator transmitter from the plane, he never mentions, even in the epilogue, that the ELT was found still in the plane, not turned on and lacking a required antenna.

True, DeLeo doesn't lie about these things but he clearly dodges them because both make him look bad.

You might note that the book isn't really about the crash or the ELT, it's about DeLeo's survival ordeal. So, does his evasion on those two topics really matter to the rest of the book? Yes, they do.

In this type of book, you're completely dependent on the author to recount events honestly there are no other witnesses. So you've got to trust the author to be giving you the straight story. Unfortunately these issues cast just enough doubt to make readers wonder: "How much of the truth am I getting?"


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