Title: THROUGH DANGEROUS DOORS
Author: Robert Charles Lee
Publisher: Wido / E.L. Marker
In a life defined by risk, Robert Charles Lee experiences a poor and free-ranging childhood in the racist South of the 1960s. After his father dies, the family grows dysfunctional. As a result, teen-age Robert seeks sanity and solace by rock climbing solo and driving cars fast. He wins a scholarship and graduates from university, but still seeks to escape the South.
Moving to Alaska and the Western US, Robert works in a series of dangerous and brutal jobs. He meets and marries Linda, who enjoys climbing and skiing difficult mountains as much as he does. Simultaneously, Robert trains in the science of risk to become a respected professional risk scientist.
Robert shares his remarkable story as he guides the reader through a series of dangerous but rewarding doors, culminating in a vivid journey of adventure and risk.
“Through Dangerous Doors is an engaging and snappily written reflection on a life charted by risk. Like the dangerous mountains he eventually comes to climb, Lee’s need to be on the edge and in the flow guide him on a fascinating ascent up the American socio-economic pyramid, a challenging mountain in itself, and geographically from the lowland South to high country of the North. Small wonder that when Lee and his wife arrive in Calgary, Alberta to live for a decade they immerse themselves in what Lee wisely comes to realize is one of the most dangerous, yet spiritually rewarding mountain ranges in the world – the Canadian Rockies. Lee’s lifelong evaluation, and refinement of, the risk versus reward calculation is educational. And I love the way he calls poppycock when he sees it. Lee shares life lessons that were hard won and valuable to all.” – Barry Blanchard, UIAGM/IFMGA Mountain Guide, author of The Calling – A Life Rocked by Mountains, winner of the Boardman-Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature
“Much more than a book on mountaineering, Robert Charles Lee’s memoir delves deeply into the relationship between risk and reward, exploring the things we can control and those we can’t. His journey of self-discovery has resulted in a thoughtful meditation on the nature of adventure and what makes for a life well lived. Lee’s story will resonate with any readers who have experienced the incomparable satisfaction of challenging themselves while at the same time understanding the wisdom of respecting their limits.” –Scott Zesch, author of “The Captured,” winner of the TCU Texas Book Award
“This is a memoir like few others, in that the author is intent on beseeching his readers not to follow the example of his own life. The story he tells shows that this is very good advice indeed, but nevertheless his tale of improbable escapes from one looming disaster after another is both instructive and entertaining.” – William Leiss, Queen’s University, author of: In the Chamber of Risks: Understanding Risk Controversies, Mad Cows and Mother’s Milk: The Perils of Poor Risk Communication, and Risk and Responsibility
“In this engaging and very readable memoir, Robert Lee reminds us that life IS risk. Humans only continue to learn, grow and evolve through facing and conquering risks. Whether the risks are involuntary or voluntary, Lee aptly emphasizes that the key to survival, or even thriving, is how we choose to understand and manage those risks. While Lee’s recounting of his numerous climbing risk adventures reflects his personal approach to risk and risk management, his stories will resonate strongly with anyone who seeks the challenge and stimulation of being a ‘risk taker’. This book will ultimately make you examine more closely your own life in relation to the risks you choose or don’t choose to undertake.” – Cindy Jardine, University of the Fraser Valley, world record skydiver
“As autobiographies like Educated and The Glass Castle have taught us, growing up through hardship can be remarkably annealing. So too in this disarmingly honest memoir, where Lee relates his annealed response. He adeptly strings us along his extraordinary lifepath from childhood until retirement using an idiosyncratic lens: A meditation on risk serves as Lee’s through-line, one informed by his career in risk analysis. Sit and enjoy the windfall of a raconteur relaying how he and his fellow travelers have encountered and responded to risks. Many encounters, like his vivid recounts of ice and mountain climbing, are quite intense. We get a taste of life as a forester, psychedelic-explorer, musician, academic, blessed husband and alpinist. Some entrancing events, nicely infused with a humble `stock-taking’ of the cards that were dealt, and the choices made. An extraordinary story that resonates beyond risk.” – Kevin Brand, University of Ottawa
““Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all” wrote Helen Keller in her passageway focused book The Open Door. Metaphorical passageways hurtle us in and out of the risky exploits of Mr. Lee in Through Dangerous Doors. Climbing on a glacier or rappelling down a mountain, Lee shows us the thrill of daring adventure. But risk is not the goal, it is the price paid for adventure – and sometimes that price is too high. Lee helps us see that managing risk, sometimes with tools or technology and sometimes by knowing when to say no, is the key to continuing to be able to pass through new doors.” – George Gray, George Washington University, co-author of Risk: A Practical Guide for Deciding What’s Really Safe and What’s Really Dangerous in the World Around You
I’m a tired, cold, wet sponge. My co-workers are losers, addicts, and criminals who work hard, nonetheless. Most are always stoned on something. I’m encased in rubber from head to toe, with wool underneath. The smell of wet vegetation permeates everything. It’s always raining, and never warm. I’m in virgin wilderness, moss-covered primordial forest never seen by humans. The streams are choked with salmon during spawning. Some days, I see a dozen or so nine-foot-plus Alaskan brown bears, thousand-pound monsters who have never seen humans and who’re afraid of absolutely nothing. They can kill with one swipe of their eight-inch wide paws, armed with claws like curved daggers. I carry a bolt-action rifle chambered for .375 H&H Magnum 300 grain bullets for bear defense. I’m reluctant, but I slosh through the door to woods work.
Upon arrival in Ketchikan, I was told no logging jobs were available. Many people who work for or with the US Forest Service refer to the agency as the Forest Circus. The logger I spoke to explained he hadn’t won an expected Circus contract, and he’d had to lay off workers. This put me in a bit of a sticky wicket, as I had no return ticket and little money. If this had happened later in life when I was more confident, I would’ve wrested a return ticket out of the man. My life, however, would’ve proceeded in a completely different direction, so I’m glad I didn’t wrest anything.
The lack of logging jobs was actually a fortunate turn, as logging is particularly dangerous. I flew back to Juneau, where there were other jobs. I worked for a few months for minimum wage in a Forest Circus visitor’s center at Mendenhall Glacier, a stop for busloads of well-heeled cruise ship tourists. I couldn’t afford rent. I’d expected to live in a logging camp, but I was able to use temporary government housing in Juneau.
The only people who lived in Juneau seemed to be those who didn’t fit in anywhere else. Fishermen and loggers came into town and blew their entire paychecks drinking and whoring. The town smelled like fishy moss, or mossy fish. Bald eagles dumpster-dove, competing with the ravens. It felt like time travel back to a wilder era.
Tiring of cleaning up tourist trash and actual crap, I capitalized on a forestry course I took at State, and switched to a surveying job. Surveying in those conditions wasn’t any more pleasant than logging, but at least the work itself was easier and a bit safer. Survey crews laid out the boundaries of future logging areas in virgin wilderness with compasses and chains (long tape measures). This was way before Global Positioning Systems (GPS). Once logged, the areas are called clear-cuts. All marketable trees are felled, then skidded down to the ocean and floated to mills. Surveying was my introduction to woods work.
The crew flew from town to the field camps in small float planes, flown by crazy-ass bush pilots whose idea of fun was diving toward and buzzing whales, mere feet above the waves. The camps looked like sets from the Robert Altman movie M.A.S.H. Miserable workers living in miserable canvas tents in miserable, sopping wet forest. We suffered from gastrointestinal illness much of the time, due to fecal contamination or camp crud. It was difficult to obtain fresh food except for fish.
We flew to the survey line most days in Vietnam-era Bell Huey helicopters, piloted by freaky Vietnam vets who were usually drunk or stoned. Decapitation during loading was a concern for tall people like me. Crosswinds off the glaciers above the forest zone pummeled the aircraft. The helicopters pitched and yawed wildly once they took off and rose above the treetops. None of us ate breakfast before going to work. The pilots yelled at us in our headsets to shut up so they could concentrate in such conditions.
The pilots often landed in muskeg, as these were the only open areas. Few things were more unpleasant than stepping out into a bog and sinking down, OTT or over-the-top of our knee-high rubber boots, into the cold peaty water. Then we’d have to take off our helmets and reeking, fireproof onesies with the rotor screaming in our ears.
I was concerned about some of the workers carrying rifles. Many had never hunted or even fired a weapon, yet the government handed them powerful firearms used to hunt the largest game on Earth. Training for shooting a charging bear, dodging-and-weaving through thick forest, consisted of the crew chief setting up a stationary cardboard box fifty feet away and instructing the shooter to fire away. Fortunately, nobody on my crew ever shot a bear or human. Capsaicin bear spray, a much more effective defensive weapon, had yet to be invented.
Much of the work involved just making it through the day without getting killed by ursine monsters or other means, or going rain-insane. Everybody had different coping mechanisms. Being in a stoned state made the work less pleasant for me, as the days seemed much too long, and I tended to focus on my physical misery. I’d wait until I was in the tent at night to light up. I felt overwhelming relief lying stoned next to a glowing wood stove in a dry tent.
Working in such unpleasant surroundings, with many unpleasant people, required a simultaneous mix of inward retreat and congeniality. I’d done plenty of hard work before this, but not at such a high level of wretchedness.
There were, however, occasional moments of transcendence. As long as I accepted the suffering, there were fine rewards: Spawning female salmon leaping over dams of their dead and rotting sisters who didn’t make it. A gigantic brownie, sitting on his haunches eating caviar from the gravid belly of a salmon he’d just snagged and ripped open with a single claw. Impromptu sight-seeing tours over pristine fjords, provided by the heli pilots when they had extra fuel. Keeping my shit together while hiking, camping, and tripping on psychedelics on my days off; lever-action Guide Gun on my pack or next to my sleeping bag, loaded for big bear. Hikes along wild beaches choked with giant driftwood, making way for the occasional lumbering bear. Glorious views of the Juneau Icefield and the coastline, achieved by bushwhacking (trail-less hiking through bush, which whacks the bushwhacker) and scrambling (easy, un-roped rock climbing) up unclimbed and unnamed peaks on rare, precipitation-free off days. My first aurora borealis, witnessed on a rare clear night from the deck of a ferry plying between islands, miles from any shore lights. It was astounding. A yellow-green corona originating from overhead like divine rays of love, an LSD trip without drugs.
About the Author
Robert Charles Lee is a retired risk scientist with over twenty-five years of academic and applied risk analysis, decision analysis, and risk management experience in a wide variety of contexts. He has authored over one hundred peer-reviewed scientific works, as well as over one hundred technical reports for industry and government agencies. Prior to the professional risk work he worked in laboratories a bit, but otherwise was a manual laborer until he reckoned that he could use his brain for a living.
Robert has a BS in Botany, a BS in Science Education, an MS in Environmental Health, and a Certificate in Integrated Business Administration. He is ABD (all but dissertation) in a Toxicology PhD program. He is an ordained Minister and has an honorary Doctorate of Metaphysics from the Universal Life Church and is a Member of the Nova Scotia L’Ordre du Bon Temps, or Order of the Good Time.
He was born in North Carolina and lived there for over twenty years, but has since lived in Alaska, Oregon, Washington, and Alberta. He was also homeless for a time while a laborer in the Western United States. He currently resides in Colorado.
Robert and his wife Linda have climbed hundreds of technical and non-technical mountain, rock, ice, and canyon routes, hiked thousands of miles in several countries, and skied many miles of vertical feet at resorts and in the backcountry.
Robert is an avid amateur photographer, largely of outdoor subjects. He is a musician who plays hand, stick, and mallet percussion, and who can sing, but rarely does for unclear reasons. He is an amateur sound engineer and producer and has recorded more than a thousand written and improvisational instrumental pieces with other musicians to date. He was trying to learn to relax in retirement, but then he discovered non-technical writing. He has written a memoir and a poetry collection and is working on short stories.
Through Dangerous Doors is his latest book.
Visit his website at https://robertcharleslee.com or follow him on Goodreads.
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