________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 16 . . . .April 14, 2006


Vertical Limits. (Take It to the Xtreme).

Pam Withers.
North Vancouver, BC: Walrus Books/Whitecap Books, 2006.
226 pp., pbk., $8.95.
ISBN 1-55285-783-2.

Grades 7-9 / Ages 12-14.

Review by Karen Rankin.

**½ /4



“Hi there. I’m Peter and this is Jake. We’re headed into the park for some climbing with Gecko – er, Steph – who’s going to be a fully certified mountain guide one of these days. Jake is going to solo a big wall if Steph will let him, and I’m going to film it for my new extreme-sports video project. I prefer bouldering myself. So is there good bouldering stuff in the park?”

Katja continued staring out her window as if she hadn’t heard a word of Peter’s motor-mouthing. Gecko hung a left onto a gravel road, passed a sawmill tucked in between the trees, and shot Peter a look that would have silenced most people. But as Jake knew all too well, Peter never had been good at picking up on silent cues – or shutting his mouth.

“I was just assuming you’ve been in the park before. Have you? It’s got four major summits, right? And some amazing climbs right up to 5.12? Steph says this is about the earliest we can climb in the Bugaboos. Think it’ll snow on us up there? Think we’ll need crampons to hike in?”

Crampons are spikes strapped to the bottom of mountaineering boots for traction on snow and ice, and if Katja had a pair in her pack, she looked ready to sink them into Peter’s face. Jake wondered what her problem was, but it’s not like it was any of their business.

“Peter, how about you choose a CD?” Jake said, slashing a finger across his throat in a “shut your trap” signal when Peter turned to look at him.

Peter frowned, looked about the truck, and hit the CD switch.


Vertical Limits, the sixth novel in author Pam Withers’ “Take It to the Xtreme” series, sends the series’ 15-year-old protagonists, Peter and Jake, to the Bugaboo Mountains, just west of the Canadian Rockies. Peter has a fear of heights and, therefore, he does “bouldering” which never involves the use of ropes or climbing above eight feet. Jake, on the other hand, loves climbing high walls and is eager to do his first solo climb on a 3,000 foot cliff face. When Gecko, an older friend of Peter and Jake’s, agrees to go climbing with the boys, their parents have no objections.

     Gecko, as well as being a member of the Search and Rescue Team, is as great a mountain climber as his nickname suggests. On their way to the mountains, Gecko stops to pick up a surly, young hitchhiker who turns out to be another avid mountain climber as well as Gecko’s old neighbour, Katja. Fifteen-year-old Katja is on the run from government authorities who want to take her into custody after the recent death – by cancer – of her mother. After only one day of climbing together, Gecko is called away from the boys to help search an area about 24 miles away for a lost seven-year-old boy. Gecko asks Katja, a more experienced mountaineer, to stay with Peter and Jake while he’s gone. After a day of waiting for Gecko to return, Jake decides he’ll go ahead and do his solo climb without him. The first day goes well, but, after a harrowing night Jake spends hanging off the rock face in a tent, the second day turns ugly when a thunderstorm blows up, and Jake has to take shelter from the lightening. In a tiny cave in the rock-face, he discovers a partially mummified human corpse. Seeing that Jake is in trouble, Peter and Katja find a back, walking trail up the mountain. After some heroics by both Peter and Katja, all three teens make it to the summit. On their way down the back trail, they come across the lost seven-year-old who Gecko is still off searching for. By the end of the novel, Katja has moved in with Gecko’s mother and Peter’s well-received documentary film has evolved to include the story of the corpse Jake discovered as well as Jake’s climb.

     Narrated in the third person, Vertical Limits’ chapters trade off between Peter and Jake’s points of view. Peter, Jake and Katja are fairly well-rounded characters. Over the course of the adventure, all three develop some new insights and maturity. Unfortunately, the dialogue often feels somewhat forced, as in the following conversation between Gecko, Peter and Jake:

“Yes!” Peter enthused. He’d be into that for sure. “Then an hour’s drive to the Bugaboo Mountains?”

“Yup. The lodge up there is where I’ll be getting training after our week of climbing. It’s oneheck of a luxury outfit, you know: a wilderness lodge with gourmet chefs, massage rooms, children’s programs, heli-hiking and skiing, the whole nine yards.”

“Cool,” Jake said. “And what’s in Radium Hot Springs?”

“Population less than a thousand, with Canada’s largest hot-springs swimming pool…”

“Awesome!” Jake and Peter chorused. “A couple of fun parks with go-carts, bumper boats, paintball and such. There’s also wake-boarding, all-terrain vehicle tours, white-water rafting, jet boating…”

“Wow! And we have to leave tomorrow morning?” Peter complained. He could handle some jet boating and ATV-ing.

“Yeah, well, we’re doing the hot springs pool no matter what!” Peter ruled as John Denver started belting out “Rocky Mountain High.”

     While some of the story is fairly predictable, the plot is well-paced with a number of interesting twists, such as Peter’s secretly going to a hypnotist before the mountain trip to be cured of his acrophobia, Katja’s influence on the boys, and Jake’s gruesome discovery. The story’s credibility is stretched a little too far for this reader when the teens find the lost boy who has traversed 24 mountainous miles and survived thanks to some helpful mountain goats.

     Withers gives an enticing description of the Bugaboos. In her “acknowledgments,” she explains she has also done a great deal of research on the subject of climbing. This information is blended fairly well into the story, clarifying details for the uninitiated about the equipment and climbing maneuvers. Furthermore, Jake, an extensive reader of mountaineering books, and Katja relate many interesting and true tales of climbers past and present.


Karen Rankin is a Toronto, ON, writer and editor of children’s stories.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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