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Book Review – Halfway to Heaven

Halfway to Heaven
By Mark Obmascik

Published in 2009 by Free Press,
a division of Simon and Schuster
ISBN13: 978-1-4165-6699-1

Reviewed by Martha Quillen

Halfway to Heaven is an adventure travelogue featuring harrowing tales of derring-do and death, along with passages about Colorado history, Colorado places (including Leadville and Salida), Colorado fourteeners, and mountain climbers; all held together with stand-up style comedy.

For me, this combination was not an immediate success. At first, I thought Obmascik’s jokes about marriage, aging, baldness, and parenthood blended with his profile on William Henry Jackson about as well as ice cream and lemonade blend to make a sundae.

In fact, I found the whole premise of Halfway to Heaven somewhat suspect. To hear Obmascik tell it, he was “fat, forty-four, and in the market for a vasectomy,” when he decided to finish climbing all of Colorado’s fourteeners. Though he’d climbed five in his youth, Obmascik had reportedly let himself go. Real couch potatoes, however, surely don’t enjoy the occasional 400-mile bike ride (as Obmascik does).

Obmascik is a fraud. Be it in hiking or biking, the author clearly has a competitive streak – and for the sake of local rescue workers I can only hope his words don’t encourage people in dire need of an exercise plan to try climbing three, four, five, or more fourteeners a week.

Halfway to Heaven

But Obmascik is also a great reporter. His prose is clear and compelling; and his profiles resonate with emotion. Although Obmascik can be very funny, in a few places his self-deprecating schtick gets a little awkward, the way comedy frequently does, but his climbing accounts shine. Halfway to Heaven is jam-packed with amusing interludes, but the author’s forte is the sentimental journey.

In chapter four he relates the story of David Worthington, more commonly known as the Talus Monkey, a Colorado mountaineer with a ribald and colorful on-line persona, who often climbed mountains in a purple velvet jump suit with leopard-skin trim. In 2007, the Monkey, as Obmascik refers to him, suffered a serious accident on Humboldt Peak, which led to a rescue that was monitored on-line by Worthington’s many friends and followers. The Monkey spent more than 24 hours alone on Humboldt with a broken arm and hip during a brutal snowstorm, while his friends waited and worried and posted their concerns and prayers.captures the horror, the drama, the disbelief, and the moment-by-moment suspense shared by an Internet mountaineering community who knew Worthington on-line and off. By chapter five I was hooked.

Yet Central Coloradans will doubtlessly find fault with some of Obmascik’s contentions. I suspect Leadvillites will find his history of their city too pessimistic, and I thought his paragraphs about Salida were too stereotypical: a small mountain town that now has “art galleries, coffeehouses, and restaurants that serve green things?” Who hasn’t read this description before?

Obmascik’s book has almost nothing to say about our valleys, rivers, forests, wildlife, homes, ranches, and jobs. Instead, it concentrates on tourist attractions and a Colorado mountaineering community that comes and goes, but that we seldom see – except in passing. Obmascik’s humor is also curiously un-Central to our region: yuppie lives, crabgrass, and jetsetting moms … But that’s what makes this book fascinating. Halfway to Heaven has almost nothing to do with life as we know it, yet it’s all crazily wrapped up with the place where we live.