If you follow rock climbing or outdoor sports, you’re probably familiar with what happened nearly 25 years ago, in August of 2000. Professional rock climbers Tommy Caldwell, Jason Smith, Beth Rodden, and John Dickey were on a climbing trip in the Pamir-Alai mountain range in Kyrgyzstan when they were kidnapped at gunpoint by militants and taken hostage. After six terrifying days, they managed to get free—physically, that is.

Book Review: A Light Through the Cracks by Beth Rodden

In her new memoir, A Light Through the Cracks: A Climber’s Story, Beth Rodden has written a memoir that illustrates the insidious nature of trauma, especially if it’s not addressed and treated. This is set against the backdrop of continuing to pursue her career as a climber, and all of the pressures inherent in that community, especially for female climbers.

A Light Through the Cracks covers a lot of Rodden’s history. There’s the kidnapping and the ensuing trauma; her relationship with Tommy Caldwell, whom she ends up marrying and then divorcing; and her career as a climber and the associated pressures with that, most notably the disordered eating and body image issues. Later on, Rodden touches on her mental health issues during pregnancy and the first two years of motherhood. The memoir scratches the surface of all of these topics but never delves into them in a meaningful, expansive way, making it challenging to connect with her. The chapters also jump back and forth in time, especially in the beginning, which can get confusing and take the reader out of the flow of the story.

Rodden is at her strongest when writing about climbing: she writes about the process in a focused, technical way that brings the reader right onto the rock with her, illustrating the complexity and intensity of the sport, the physical and mental demands, and the choreography necessary to succeed: “I wrapped my thumb over the top of my right index finger to help hold it in place, adjusted my feet one more time, and then tensed and lunged for the subtle left-hand jug. I latched on to it, and my feet blew off their holds. My instinct was to let go, but my two remaining points of contact, my hands, clenched and doubled down.” (p. 170). When she loses herself in climbing, it’s the closest she gets to the reader.

At times, the book showcases the author’s own limitations—Rodden can’t understand why her husband Tommy and her friend Courtney ask her why and when her feelings for Randy (Courtney’s ex-fiancé) started after she divulges that the two of them are attracted to each other. She writes, “Why did they keep asking that?”(p. 196)  Later on, she tends to frame this as coming into her whole, authentic self and not betraying her feelings, while minimally acknowledging how her actions hurt people she ostensibly cared about. She writes about the “shunning” from friends, seemingly not fully understanding the gravity of the choices she and Randy made.

It’s not until nearly the end of the book that Rodden’s tone becomes more mature and more deeply reflective, which is a welcome development. However, once again, she discusses her psychological work around anxiety, trauma, body image, and other issues in minimal ways, and a deeper exploration of this would have developed the last part of the book even more.

Rodden is a trailblazer and a warrior; this much is clear. Her sheer determination as a climber and her fighting spirit have enabled her to survive and endure heartache, trauma, and physical injury. A Light Through the Cracks is a thought-provoking memoir about life and climbing, and I look forward to seeing what Rodden publishes in the future.

Interested in another memoir from a pioneering female climber? If so, check out this review of Take the Lead by Sasha DiGiulian.