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Book Review: Holding Fast – The Untold Story of the Mount Hood Tragedy by Karen James

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As Kelly James lay alone in a snow cave nearly eleven thousand feet high on Mount Hood, he wondered, “Where the h— is Brian? Come on dude.” His climbing partner, Brian Hall and fellow climber Jerry “Nikko” Cooke had left Kelly a few days earlier to descend the mountain in search of help. It was December, and Kelly was stuck on a mountain in Oregon, far from his home in Dallas, Texas. What had started as a quick weekend trip to practice ice climbing in preparation for tackling Mount Everest had turned into a life-and-death situation unlike any that Kelly had ever faced….

So begins Holding Fast: The Untold Story of the Mount Hood Tragedy by Karen James, Kelly’s wife. It is a harrowing tale, all the more so because we know how it will end. Yet James manages to not only hold our attention but inspire us through her retelling of a mountain climbing accident — and its aftermath — in a fierce winter storm.

The book is divided into four parts. In Part One, “The Man Behind the Headlines,” James starts with her imaginative recreation of Kelly’s last hours in the snow cave. Then she goes back in time to fill us in on Kelly’s life to that point, ending with a description of their happy life together just before the trip.

In Part Two, “The Storm of a Decade,” James details what happened during December 10-17, 2006 in chapters the very names of which tell a story: “The Phone Call That Changed My Life,” Our Arrival,” “Signs from Above?” “Give Us a Break,” and “The Worst Day of My Life.” The narrative in this section is divided by subheadings of date and time-of-day (e.g. Monday, December 11, 10:00 a.m.), slowing the pace and putting the focus on how time is passing as the search drags on without a clue of Kelly's whereabouts. James keeps us informed of the weather, what happened at the daily search briefings, and how the family is handling the wait and the media. It is a roller coaster ride of hope and disappointment.

Part Three, “Putting the Pieces Together,” describes the aftermath of finding Kelly’s body. James is amazingly transparent about her journey through grief. Though the story could easily have bogged down in self-pity here, it never does. Instead, in addition to a moving tribute to an exceptional man, it becomes a journal of grief recovery and a testimony to how faith in God can help one come through the darkest time.

Part Four, “A Legacy of Love,” contains Karen’s tributes to Kelly as her husband. In it she shares poems and letters he wrote her.

The hardback edition I read had a heft to match the mid-book color photo section, printed on heavy, glossy paper. There were black and white photos throughout the text as well. The photos and personal writings made the story and its characters come alive.

Cover endorsements from Sheriff Wampler and Steve Rollins, both involved in the rescue, where James’ description of the events is called “the most accurate I have heard to date,” and “the most detailed and inspiring I’ve heard,” encourage the reader to trust this vivid first-person account. James’ experience as a journalist shines through in her skillful storytelling.

I found Holding Fast a quick, absorbing read. It made me see my family with new appreciation and want to tell them so now, while I still have them. The story also gave me a confidence in God’s presence even in tragic situations when our most earnest prayers remain unanswered. James ends the chapter where she tells numerous incidents of feeling God’s presence (from the message she got in a fortune cookie to the name of the bulbs she was planting on the day she got the phone call from Oregon) with the statement, “I believe now more than ever that there are no coincidences and that there is a grand plan in which we all play a role.”

I recommend Holding Fast for the riveting story it is. But I recommend it too for the aftertaste of hope that lingers even after you’ve turned the last page.

Go to Holding Fast for Purpose to hear the song which inspired the book's title, see more photos, read chapter segments and more.

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About Violet Nesdoly