by Becky Benoit
Many of us, as adults, have relationships with our parents that can best be described as complicated. All children love their parents, and as we grow and mature, separating from them is a natural part of growing up. In the best case scenario, we learn as we age that our parents did the best they could and we appreciate them more, even if we disagree with some of their parenting decisions. Sometimes our relationship never fully recovers, and the resulting fallout can fall anywhere on the spectrum from uncomfortable holiday gathering to complete estrangement from our families.
For Norman Ollestad, his relationship with his father is more complex than most. Norman Ollestad senior was a complex man, an adrenaline junkie who dragged his often unwilling son along with him, challenging his preteen son to surf the biggest waves, ski the steepest mountains and conquer his fear in the process. At the same time, his father was intensely loving, with a magnetic personality that could be both charming and overwhelming. Growing up in the unique surf culture of Malibu, California, a place where ordinary norms and rules didn’t exist, Ollestad’s childhood was a strange blend of freedom and rootlessness that left the young boy wondering where exactly he fit in.
But Ollestad’s father gave him one extraordinary gift. In February of 1979, 11-year old Norman, his father and Sandra, his father’s girlfriend, took off in a small plane from Los Angeles, bound for a championship skiing competition at Big Bear. In the towering California mountains, the plane crashes, leaving Norman’s father and the pilot dead. Norman himself is only superficially injured, but he’s trapped on the icy peaks of a mountain range with only an injured Sandra for help. Dressed in running shoes and a light jacket, he has no food, no water, and no way to call for help. Somehow, he must find his way down the treacherously steep mountain slope to find help, with only his wits, his courage and the skills his father has ingrained in him from birth.
As Ollestad recounts his desperate escape from the mountain, he intersperses the story of his childhood, growing up with his mother in Malibu in the 1970s. Though his family was unconventional to say the least – Ollestad grew up with his mother and her abusive boyfriend; his father lived only a few miles away but was an unpredictable force in Ollestad’s life – there was one constant: his father’s love of adventure, a thrill-seeking lifestyle that brought him from the beaches of Malibu to the coast of Mexico and the mountains of California, always seeking a bigger wave or a steeper slope. Norman Ollestad senior sought to instill this love of adventure in his son, hoping to help the boy conquer his natural fear of danger and the unknown. To his father, riding so close to the edge of disaster was an existential experience, something he longed to share with his boy.
And even though the young Ollestad was dragged along, usually unwillingly, in his father’s quest to experience the divine, ultimately these experiences would equip him with the courage and skill needed to survive a terrible situation, one that left three other adults dead, including the man he both loved and feared.
I enjoyed the sparse narrative style this book was written in. While some readers might find the interspersing of Ollestad’s childhood memories with his memoir of the mountain escape jarring or difficult to follow, I enjoyed it – his style provided a needed break from the intensity of the escape, kept the suspense of the story high and highlighted the complexity of Ollestad’s relationship with his father, a complicated love story that would never have the chance to be resolved.
This book offers a compelling story of survival as well as a unique glimpse into an iconic lifestyle that still fascinates today.