A professional climber, Piolet d’Or recipient, and vocal climate activist, Graham Zimmerman is among the most accomplished alpinists of his generation. In his new memoir A Fine Line: Searching for Balance Among Mountains, Zimmerman recounts his journeys in the mountains (so far) and grapples head-on with the issue of how to balance pursuing adventure and climbing while facing the reality of loss that comes with high-risk activities like alpinism. An excellent read, A Fine Line is well worth adding to any collection of climbing and mountaineering books.

A Fine Line a book by Graham Zimmerman
A Fine Line Explores

A singular focus on one’s sport is the hallmark of any high-level athlete, and Zimmerman is no exception—so much so that it was necessary for him to become a professional climber. As he explains in A Fine Line, “Through the lore of the climbing community, I ha[ve] been indoctrinated into a culture that asked for climbing to be everything.” (p.54).

But what happens when climbing comes at the cost of almost everything else? What happens when one’s life is at stake while pursuing the next thrill of the sport? Is it possible to succeed at alpinism to the level one dreams of, and still survive? These are some of the questions Zimmerman explores in the book.

One answer he offers is survival, emphasizing a quote he heard at age 26 from a friend of his father: “Your goal, my friend, should be to survive.” (p. 61). In many ways, he comes across as overly self-involved, completely self-focused, and living in the moment. In other words, a typical early 20-something, complete with mentioning reading Ernest Hemingway, Herman Melville, and Ayn Rand, just a few pages later. After yet another woman breaks up with him because of his singular focus on climbing, he meets someone else—who would later help him to see that, yes, the important thing is to survive.

He writes about friends who do not survive, and times when he has realized on the mountain that he needs to prioritize safety above all else. In this way, we see Zimmerman mature over the course of the book, placing climbing within his life, instead of it being his life.

What I Wanted to Read More About in A Fine Line

While Zimmerman does briefly write about the effects of climate change on his climbing, I would have liked to hear more about what he’s doing about climate change. He talks briefly about his work with POW (Protect Our Winters) but the reader never really gets a clear, concrete sense of what he actually does to advocate for climate action. I would have enjoyed a substantial section on his climate work, his community advocacy, and whether or not he works in the climbing community to spread the word and recruit other climbers to his advocacy work.

The book’s subtitle is “Searching for Balance Among Mountains”—perhaps a deeper look at Zimmerman’s climate advocacy would have illustrated more of a balance; that sweet spot where a love of climbing and professional success balance with other work that’s related but not climbing-focused, per se. A symbiotic sort of relationship where each activity enriches the other.

Why Read A Fine Line: Searching for Balance Among Mountain

Overall, the book is a compelling read about what a life in alpinism is like, especially the devastating losses and the very real questions of mortality that one must grapple with when it comes to pushing the limits of the sport. The pace feels a bit quick, but it’s also a lot like simply tagging along with Zimmerman on his adventures, which makes for an endearing, immersive read. If you’ve ever been fascinated by climbing, you’ll want to pick this one up.

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