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Halfway to Heaven: My White-knuckled--and Knuckleheaded--Quest for the Rocky Mountain High

Halfway to Heaven: My White-knuckled--and Knuckleheaded--Quest for the Rocky Mountain High

3.8 22
by Mark Obmascik

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Fat, forty-four, father of three sons, and facing a vasectomy, Mark Obmascik would never have guessed that his next move would be up a 14,000-foot mountain. But when his twelve-year-old son gets bitten by the climbing bug at summer camp, Obmascik can't resist the opportunity for some high-altitude father-son bonding by hiking a peak together. After their first


Fat, forty-four, father of three sons, and facing a vasectomy, Mark Obmascik would never have guessed that his next move would be up a 14,000-foot mountain. But when his twelve-year-old son gets bitten by the climbing bug at summer camp, Obmascik can't resist the opportunity for some high-altitude father-son bonding by hiking a peak together. After their first joint climb, addled by the thin air, Obmascik decides to keep his head in the clouds and try scaling all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot mountains, known as the Fourteeners — and to do them in less than one year.

The result is Halfway to Heaven, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Obmascik's rollicking, witty, sometimes harrowing, often poignant chronicle of an outrageous midlife adventure that is no walk in the park, although sometimes it's A Walk in the Woods — but with more sweat and less oxygen. Half a million people try climbing a Colorado Fourteener every year, but only twelve hundred have reported summiting them all. Can an overweight, stay-at-home dad become No. 1,201?

With his ebullient personality and sparkling prose, Obmascik brings us inside the quirky, colorful subculture of mountaineering obsessives who summit these mountains year after year. Honoring his concerned wife's orders not to climb alone, Obmascik drags old friends up the slopes, some of them lifelong flatlanders tasting thin air for the first time, and lures seasoned Rockies junkies into taking on a huffing, puffing newbie by bribing them with free beer, lunches, and car washes. Among the new friends he makes are an ex-drag racer trying to perform a headstand on every summit, the lead oboe player in a Hebrew salsa band, and a climber with the counterproductive pre-climb ritual of gulping down four beers and a burrito. Along the way, Obmascik experiences the raw, rowdy, and rarely seen intimacy of male friendship, braced by the double intoxicants of adrenaline and altitude.

Though danger is always present — the Colorado Fourteeners have killed more climbers than Mount Everest — Mark knows his aging scalp can't afford the hair-raising adventures of Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, and his quest becomes a story of family, friendship, and fraternity. In Obmascik's summer of climbing, he loses fifteen pounds, finds a few dozen man-dates, and gains respect for the history of these storied mountains (home to cannibalism, gold rushes, shoot-outs, and one of the nation's most famed religious shrines). As much about midlife and male bonding as it is about mountains, Halfway to Heaven tells how weekend warriors can survive them all as they reach for those most distant things — the summits of mountains and a teenage son. And as one man exceeds the physical achievements of his youth, he discovers that age — like summit height — is just a number.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The mountains of Colorado reach great heights, and so does this book. It's funny, smart, fascinating, poignant — and well worth scaling!" — Jeffrey Zaslow, coauthor of The Last Lecture

"With every lumbering step and gasping breath, Mark Obmascik proves that you don't have to scale Everest to conquer nature — or write a great book about the great outdoors. Halfway to Heaven is an oxygen-deprived romp, a coming-of-middle-age adventure story that is by turns hilarious, gripping, poignant, and uplifting." — Stefan Fatsis, author of A Few Seconds of Panic and Word Freak

"As Obmascik chases the meaning of life across the haute peaks of the Rockies, he touches something in your heart even while he knocks on your funny bone. Halfway to Heaven is deft and delightful. Always minding his wife's admonition never to hike alone, Obmascik proves once again that it's the journey — and the characters met — not the summits that really matter the most." — Dean King, author of Skeletons on the Zahara

"Obmascik tells the often funny, sometimes moving, always fascinating story of taking up the challenge of a midlife-time to climb all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot mountains. He takes us into the strange world of obsessed mountaineers — past and present — and vividly describes the ardors, dangers and joys of chasing that Rocky Mountain high. Whether you ever plan to climb a mountain — or just want to summit from your armchair — Obmascik's engaging style makes him the perfect companion for the trip." — Susan Freinkel, author of the 2008 National Outdoor Book Award winner, American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree

"Halfway to Heaven goes all the way in explaining what it feels like to climb all of Colorado's fabled Fourteeners. Obmascik's excellent writing follows more than the twists of the trails; Mark generously laces his quest for the heights with insights, history, humor, politics, personalities, record runs, friends, family, flora and fauna. Halfway to Heaven is a fortune cache for everyone." — Gerry Roach, author of Colorado's Fourteeners — From Hikes to Climbs

"Halfway to Heaven, Mark Obmascik's account of his quest to climb all of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, should prove an inspiration to middle-aged mountaineers everywhere. For all of his comically recounted misadventures, Obmascik has the true mountaineer's love of high places, and a professional writer's gift of conveying that love to the reader." — Maurice Isserman, James L. Ferguson Professor of History at Hamilton College, coauthor of the 2008 National Outdoor Book Award winner, Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes

Publishers Weekly

In this hilarious midlife picaresque, journalist Obmascik (The Big Year) set himself the goal of climbing all 54 Colorado mountain peaks that are higher than 14,0000 feet because it was both hard, and not too hard-thousands have completed the technically undemanding circuit. He hit the gym, pared two pounds from his flabby frame and spent a summer plodding and wheezing up the "fourteeners," trying to keep up with the better-conditioned women and older men who cruised past toward the summits. Obmascik dodged lightning bolts, took a few hair-raising tumbles, admired the majestic scenery and experienced the exaltation of having truly earned his post-climb bacon double-cheeseburgers. Above all, he bonded with his "man-dates"-male climbing partners who head to the hills seeking refuge from woman troubles, fear of needles and numbing desk jobs. Their slightly feckless masculinity harmonizes with the shaggy-dog stories the author sprinkles in about the miners, cannibals and odious Texans who populate Colorado's mountain lore. Instead of the rarefied spirituality of typical mountaineering narratives, Obmascik's saga revels in off-color jokes and humiliating pratfalls; the result feels like a raucous bowling night, with moderate oxygen deprivation, on the brink of an abyss. (May 12)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
A middle-aged former journalist sets out to summit all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot-plus peaks. Obmascik (The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession, 2004), who led the Denver Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Columbine massacre before turning to nature writing, proves an engaging, convivial host as he leads us up the slopes of the Rockies accompanied by a parade of colorful climbing partners. The author often conquered several adjoining peaks on the same expedition, and each climb introduces us to a different companion, each with a unique back story. The partners were the result of a demand from Obmascik's wife Merrill that her neophyte mountaineer would never climb alone. At one point, she filled the role of climbing partner herself, only to discover a few feet from the summit of Snowmass Mountain that she was afraid of heights. The author's desperate quest for hiking companions took him through friends, neighbors, old college buddies and his reluctant teenage son. Through the Internet, he joined forces on other mountains with a Boeing engineer who climbed in shorts, another who chain-smoked Marlboros, a 70-year-old with two artificial hips and the legendary Erik Weihenmayer, the only blind man ever to summit Mount Everest. Obmascik encountered mountain goats, several hungry marmots (who ate his climbing poles), two gnarly old gold miners and even a few lovelorn females. Throughout, the author maintains a breezy narrative style, a keen eye for nature's beauty and a self-deprecating tone that makes his marathon journey fly by. His story and those of many of the free spirits he meets along the way vividly demonstrate the thrill of taking the road less traveled.Highly readable, entertaining and educational.

Product Details

Atria Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.26(w) x 9.28(h) x 1.08(d)

Read an Excerpt


I was fat, forty-four, and in the market for a vasectomy. My mortgage was half gone, but so was my hair. Crabgrass bugged me.

After sixteen years of marriage, my wife and I completed each other's sentences. Most were about our boys. We had three, though they sounded louder. Because Merrill traveled for her job, and I stayed home for mine, my three sons saw a lot of me. I changed their diapers, cooked their meals, coached their soccer, and harped about their homework. I was around so much that when our three-year-old woke in the middle of the night, he usually screamed for me. Our pubescent twelve-year-old, however, usually screamed at me. The eight-year-old could go either way.

It was a chaotic life, but a fun life, and I knew how to live it — until an emergency phone call rocked my world.

"Dad," our twelve-year-old said from his Colorado summer camp, "they're taking me to the hospital."

Turns out Cass and a bunch of camp buddies were climbing Pikes Peak, elevation 14,115 feet, when he tripped and slashed open his shin to the bone. Now I was the one screaming.

"Dad," he said, "calm down. I summited. It was amazing. I saw the sunrise from the top of the mountain. I slipped on the way down, but I made it to the top — two-and-a-half miles above sea level."

"How bad does it hurt?"

"I summited, Dad. I summited."

With ten surgical staples in his leg, Cass actually let me hug him in front of his friends. He even hugged me back. Then we did something more surprising: We talked.

He told me that mountains over 14,000 feet were called Fourteeners, and that Colorado had a bunch of them. He asked if I knew anything about them.

I did.

Our home state has fifty-four peaks higher than 14,000 feet — more than any other state or province in North America. Every year more than 500,000 people try to climb a Fourteener, but fewer than 1,300 people have ever reported standing atop them all. Colorado's Fourteeners have been summited by skiers and snowboarders, racers and amputees, dogs, cats, cockatiels, monkeys, and horses, people as young as one and as old as eighty-one. One Texan spent three weeks pushing a peanut to the summit of one peak with his nose. There have been gunfights and cannibalism, avalanches and helicopter crashes. Hundreds have died and thousands have been maimed.

One blond boy even survived America's most famous Fourteener with a Frankenstein scar on his leg.

Nice one, Dad, he said, but how do you know all this?

Once upon a time, before I was a husband or a father — back in the days when my inseam had more inches than my waistline — I somehow managed to climb a few Fourteeners.

My son was shocked. For a fleeting millisecond, he even looked at me as if I were almost not embarrassing. Teetering on the edge of a truly touching father-and-son moment, I was ready for another hug, but he was overcome by another surge of testosterone.

Dad, how about if we climb a Fourteener together?

Well, when I was climbing mountains — that was a lifetime ago, back when I liked to exercise. These days I like to eat. I've packed so much on my hips it would be like climbing with a pony keg of beer in my fanny pack. Imagine lugging all that extra weight up the 1,860 steps of the Empire State Building, four times, and doing it in highaltitude air with about a third less oxygen than Manhattan. All that work would be just one Fourteener.

He looked at me. I looked at him.

My mind was racing: Could I do it? Was it even possible for me to try? Back when I was in shape, those five Fourteener summits were still about the hardest sport I'd ever taken on — harder than two-aday football practices as a high school punk, harder than weeklong bike tours that sent me, an alleged adult, four hundred miles over and around the mountain ranges of Colorado. Still, the beauty of the Fourteeners was something to remember. Standing on the roof of the Rockies, high above the trees and the clouds and the everyday worries, always made me feel like I was halfway to heaven. Now I'm forty-four, and my life is halfway there too.

Cass kept looking at me. I wondered what he saw. Someone to argue with? Someone to avoid? Someone who once did something cool, but way before he was even born? My face must have betrayed my fear: The older I get, the better I was.

Then he said the magic words: Dad — please.

I couldn't resist.

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Obmascik

Meet the Author

Mark Obmascik is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and bestselling author of The Big Year, which was made into a movie, and Halfway to Heaven. He won the 2009 National Outdoor Book Award for outdoor literature, the 2003 National Press Club Award for environmental journalism, and was lead writer for the Denver Post team that won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Denver with his wife and their three sons.

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Halfway to Heaven: My White-knuckled--and Knuckleheaded--Quest for the Rocky Mountain High 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
Misubri More than 1 year ago
Hard to put down. This is a "How To" book but not about climbing but instead how to accomplish a goal and have an interesting time doing it. This book is also filled with interesting facts. I plan on reading other books of his.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was looking for some books on hiking the Colorado 14ers and this one looked like an interesting read. If you're new to the 14ers and want to learn a little more, the author does a great job of giving some historical background, trail info and fun aspects of hiking colorado's highest peaks. Highly recommended!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a fun, quick read that never drags and never loses its personality and humanity. So often, authors of personal journeys will self-indulge and navel gaze to the point of making the reader hate him by the end of the book. In the case of Mark Obmascik, it's hard not to root for the guy throughout. He's decent and humble and entertaining. Anyone who's interested in hiking and climbing will love this book. I'd go so far as to say that it's even more satisfying than Bill Bryson's "A Walk in the Woods" - really good stuff.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a great read about accomplishing your goals....i felt like i was on the mountain with him. I have climbed 14ers before and have never wanted to climb anywith exposure before...now who knows! Great read!
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Joe Roth More than 1 year ago
An excellent book, not only for those obsessed with climbing the 14,000 foot peaks of Colorado, but also to help others undetstand this obsession.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
NYM More than 1 year ago
What a fantastic book. Mark Obmascik has a wonderful sense of humor and some of the descriptions of his climbs made my heart race and my palms sweat. For those of you who enjoy the outdoors, this is one of the best I've read. Come join Mark on his quest to climb all the fourteeners.
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tippahdog More than 1 year ago
Entertaining read which focuses on the people Obmascik meets in his quest to climb all 54 fourteen thousand ft. mountains in Colorado. Would have preferred that he included more detail about the logistics of the hikes. Also a time line would have been nice.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very enjoyable, funny with some history of Colorado and the 14ers. You almost feel like you are there. Makes you want to get out and see all Colorado has to offer.
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