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Book a memoir of author's climbing experiences and their impact on his life

Mountaineer and author George Zell Heuston, who lives on Chehalem Mountain, has released a memoir of his climbing experiences that explores how mountaineering has shaped him at different times in his life.

“It’s about the challenges of growing up in a dysfunctional family and the privilege or challenge of being able to cope with some of those issues through mountaineering — getting out and away,” Heuston said.GARY ALLEN - Climbing high - Mountaineering and its impact on one man's life is explored in ‘Avoiding the Sudden Stop,' a new memoir by local author George Zell Heuston (above). The book (left) examines different perspectives that Heuston took toward mountaineering at various points in his life.

Born in the small logging town of Sheldon, Wash., Heuston gained an early exposure to mountain climbing through his father, who had been a guide on Mount Rainier in the 1930s.

“I started very young, I’d get carried out on my dad’s back,” he said. “My first major climb that started the whole thing was when I was about 7.”

His physical location helped grow and sustain that interest, as the Olympic Mountains were close in proximity to his home. Another factor, a troubled home life, also added to his interest in escaping to the mountains.

“Getting out every weekend really helped: it was a safety valve and a retreat,” he said.

A turning point came when he turned 17 and started working as a mountain guide. He got the opportunity to assist on a seminar with Lou Whittaker, the first American to ascend Mount Everest. Hosted at Mount Rainier’s Camp Muir, the seminars generally focused on speakers coming up to teach courses over five days.

The event came shortly after Whittaker’s successful Everest climb and much of the audience wanted to know all about it.

“People were asking him, of course, about Everest and what were the challenges, how were the personalities,” Heuston recalled. Whittaker explained that on one level, he did feel like he had accomplished something special.

“‘But on another level, was it worth it? Was it worth the emotional wreckage? I went up there one person and came back another person,’” Heuston recalls Whittaker replying.

Whittaker explained that it was that intense — you had to sacrifice everything for these climbs, which Heuston realized came at the expense of others, because relationships suffered heavily.

This explanation hit home for Heuston: he realized he was mountaineering for an escapist reason, but that there was more to it than he had fully understood.

“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” he said. “Here I was using my retreat into the mountains as a retreat instead of an opportunity to move forward to prepare for being in the flatlands living my life and having a family, striving to be balanced in the normal environment of life. It was like a light bulb came on.”

His epiphany ushers the book into its second half, where Heuston comes to grips with this fact and explores what mountaineering built him into for the rest of his life.

“The mountains gave me perspective,” he said. “I was up there as a retreat, like going to a monastery. But that isn’t what it’s for.”

Heuston will sign copies of “Avoiding the Sudden Stop” from 6 to 9 p.m. April 3 at Chapters Books and Coffee during Art Walk.

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