Friday, November 4, 2011

Review: The Next 15 Minutes by Kim Kircher

The Next 15 Minutes: Strength From the Top of the Mountain is a memoir by Kim Kircher, a ski patroller who works the slopes at a ski resort in Washington state; she rescues skiers and performs avalanche control. The book, although it talks about that part of her life, is about the experience of watching helplessly as her husband's health deteriorated while he waited for a life-saving liver transplant. In beautifully written prose, she draws parallels between her life as a mountain rescuer and her life as wife to her gravely ill husband. She deftly translates the survival skills honed on the mountain to surviving the challenging months waiting for a liver to come available for her husband.

Kim Kircher is used to living life on the edge - as a ski patroller she takes calculated risks in setting explosives to cause avalanches on at risk slopes and runs. By identifying the slopes most at risk for an avalanche and forcing an avalanche, the ski patrol ensures the unpredictable slope doesn't give way while skiers are on it later in the day. She describes a number of harrowing scenes in which she just escapes ahead of the avalanche or where the fuse to her explosive is burning dangerously close to her hand. Although these situations are risky, Kim is totally in control of the risk - in many ways, she lives her life trying to control risk whether it be by performing avalanche control or by managing her blood sugar carefully to stave off the long term damage from her diabetes. When her husband becomes seriously ill and needs a liver transplant to survive, however, she is decidedly out of control and is faced with a situation where can't manage every detail and thereby exert control over something but instead just needs to navigate and take things as they come. She navigates much the way one does on a steep and windy ski slope - taking it in little pieces, letting the turns take you instead of fighting them, taking strength from recognizing how much you have already tackled and letting that strength get you to bottom of the mountain.

Kim and her husband John's story is compelling - they are both young, newly married and living life to the fullest when John became so ill and the course of their lives changes. But the compelling story is not what makes this memoir so good - it is the quality of the writing. I really enjoy a good memoir but good writing is not always a given in the genre - often the memoir's draw is its subject or story but the writing may not impress.  Kircher, however, writes beautifully with tremendous insight and articulates emotions that really resonate with the reader. For example, in the following passage, Kim reflects on a conversation with her mother while she sits in the waiting room at the Mayo Clinic:

Now in Rochester, I had to admit it. I couldn't do this alone. But I was afraid that around Mom, my mask of strength would fall. She'd find a chink in my armor. She'd reach into that small entry with her slender fingers and extract handfuls of my sorrow, holding it for herself, as if by harboring my pain, she could keep it from me.

Here she draws a parallel between the changes to slopes over time and changes that happen to individuals as they face stressors:

But once tracked, snow changed forever, losing its soft, fluffy nature and becoming work-hardened. Those turns stabilized the snowpack against avalanches. Working snow helped it withstand the harsh rigors of stress and weather. It strengthened under stress, much like the human intellect. Like tracks through a once-naive enthusiasm, life had a away of hardening a person.

It may be grim to think about life hardening a person but also realistic and laced with hope because, like the snowpack, we strengthen under stress. Certainly something to hold on to as you hang on and weather a difficult period- 15 minutes at a time.

Thank you to Meryl Moss Media Relations for providing a copy of this book for review


  1. I'm a big fan of memoirs … and this one sounds like it has a lot to offer. It sounds terribly sad though … I can only hope her husband somehow got a liver transplant.

  2. Jenners,

    Thanks for your concern about my husband, John. He did get the transplant, thanks to a live donation from a heroic member of our family. He's doing very well, and we are currently awaiting the arrival of this season's snow. Hope you like the book.
    Kind regards,

    Kim Kircher