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Book Review: Two Shadows by Charlie Winger

It’s amazing where a post on twitter can take you. About two months ago I tweeted about an interesting book I was reading – one that involved adventure. Immediately Diane Winger contacted me and after a bit of back and forth with border post offices I received a copy of Two Shadows – The inspirational story of one man’s triumph over adversity.

Charlie Winger, the author and the subject of the book, takes you on his inspirational journey from a truly miserable childhood in Chicago and Kansas to his life as a petty criminal, to a five year stint behind bars and finally to that of a white collar worker and world-class mountaineer.

"Two Shadows by Charlie Winger"

Two Shadows by Charlie Winger

The book is broken into three sections – In the Beginning, Climbing Adventures and Reality Check.

In the Beginning details in chronological order Charlie’s wretched childhood and his descent into petty crime. He says – We were enterprising little snots and there wasn’t a scheme we couldn’t think up. And that’s at about the age of 10. Over time, brushes with the law became more frequent. He’d get arrested, be returned home to an abusive aunt, run away and the cycle would repeat itself. By the time Charlie was 18 he was considered to be an incorrigible teenager. For that reason, he was sentenced to 12 years in a state prison for crimes relating to car theft and burglary. Charlie provides an account of life behind bars – and it’s not pretty. Luckily for him, his sentence was commuted to 5 years and while in prison he was able to attend a computer systems and programming class. Charlie states: I cannot stress enough the value of the education I received while incarcerated. Those skills learned in prison and a total attitude adjustment were enough to take him in a new direction.

Climbing adventures takes you all over the world.

Charlie’s climbs and mountaineering escapades over the next 25+ years are described by geographical area. (A map at the front of the book would have been a nice addition.) I enjoyed reading about the climbs – even though, in places, the writing isn’t as strong as the previous section. On occasion, the climbs feel like they’re being cataloged and the description is on the thin side. Sometimes too, the writing gets cutesy or colloquialisms are used – both of which distract from an otherwise good story. But when Charlie gets into his journal notes, the writing comes alive – and the addition of fellow climber’s notes helps set the scene on the mountains. Reading about his escapades and adventures off the mountain is just as much fun as reading about the more technical climbing sections. Intermittently he throws in interesting tidbits like the following as he describes why the climbing is so hard on Denali : …..To further exacerbate the situation, the atmospheric pressure at the top of  Denali (20,320′) is relative to being at 23,000 feet in the Himalaya. This effect is due to the thinning of the troposphere near the poles of the earth. I love learning those details.

Reality check is a short section which deals with his recent diagnosis of prostate cancer. He’s honest about his fears and the descriptions he makes are vivid and will make every male cringe. For instance, this is what he says it feels like to have a biopsy procedure. Bottom line: imagine someone sticking a shotgun up your ass and pulling the trigger. The book culminates with his search for his mother who disappeared in childhood and his desire to receive a pardon for his crimes, over 50 years ago, though that sounds like a bureaucratic nightmare.

It’s terrific to read a book about someone who doesn’t bemoan their lot in life, who faces their mistakes without self pity and who after a most unpleasant stint in jail goes on to get a college degree, marry wisely and for love on the third time around and successfully climbs so many big mountains around the world. I don’t imagine it’s easy baring your soul for the world to see either. He is to be congratulated on writing Two Shadows. I would definitely recommend it- especially to the mountaineering crowd and adventure armchair readers.

I really enjoyed Two Shadows as I’ve been to many of the off the beaten track places he writes about and we’ve shared similar experiences eg. I was an assistant rock climbing instructor for the Colorado Mountain Club of which he was an active member – and a full instructor. He’s climbed all 200 of the highest peaks in Colorado – I’ve climbed about 40 of them (none of the really hard ones either.) As I’d read through sections I kept hoping to encounter someone I knew from my Colorado days but no such luck. I would love to meet Charlie and sincerely hope our paths may cross one day.

Leigh McAdam

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
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Author Leigh

Avid world traveler. Craves adventure – & the odd wildly epic day. Gardener. Reader. Wine lover. Next big project – a book on 100 Canadian outdoor adventures.

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