Our thanks to A.J. Jacobs (Drop Dead Healthy) for taking time to interview Francis Slakey about his great new book, To The Last Breath, the fascinating story of Slakey's quest to climb the highest mountain on every continent and surf every ocean--and, along the way, learning how to live. To The Last Breath was an Amazon Best Book of the Month selection for May. (Drop Dead Healthy was a top pick for April.)
Jacobs: When George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, he famously responded: “Because it’s there.” What do you think of that answer? Is that why you wanted to climb it as well?
Slakey: Mallory’s answer was memorable, iconic—it has more than a million hits on Google. But my answer is different. As a scientist I press my intellectual limits, and I took up climbing as a way to press my physical limits. Some readers of To The Last Breath may think I pressed things too far. I don’t think so, but I admit I played it close to the line. I like to find out just how far I can go, using science to help me plan. Still, there were unexpected events along the way—calamities and acts of selflessness and heroism—that I could never prepare for.
Jacobs: You talk a lot about how the lack of oxygen affects the brain. How would you describe hypoxia to someone who has never had it (i.e. me)?
Slakey: Hypoxia is the oxygen-depleted state that occurs when you go up in altitude and the air gets thin. I’ll tell you exactly what it’s like. Go run ten windsprints at top speed. Then, while you’re bent over, with your hands on your knees gasping for air, try breathing out of a cocktail straw. The world will get hazy and you’ll forget why you’re breathing out of a straw–that’s hypoxia.