The Sharpest End: A Climb from Cancer to El Capitan

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by Jeffrey S. Markovitz and Alex Wildman, with a foreword by Conrad Anker

Alex Wildman was a cardiac nurse and rock climber who, at the peak of his physical fitness, faced a diagnosis that would threaten his life. Through the process of his diagnosis and treatment, Alex had to rely on others, and had to develop a personal philosophy contrary to what disease suggests: the insistence that bodies are ultimately frail. Based on a chance encounter with Conrad Anker and a promise to climb one of the world’s most iconic cliffs, The Sharpest End delves into the mysterious love people have for climbing with an appreciation of family, adventure, and friendship in the face of pain. 

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  • 5
    The Sharpest End

    Posted by Frank Weckerly on 21st Feb 2022

    Beautifully written book about a humble, compassionate guy with incredible inner strength. Very inspiring!

  • 5
    Climbing Story

    Posted by Dave “D-Bone” Bonette on 7th Dec 2021

    I know Alex, the hero of the new book The Sharpest End. We worked at the same outdoor-gear retailer years ago and enjoyed a few hikes together over the years. He really is a sweetheart. Just as empathetic and empathic as co-author Jeff Markovitz claims in this chronicle of Alex’s outlasting cancer through rock climbing. Warm, outgoing and friendly, Alex truly is a great teacher. When you are with him, he focuses on you intently and makes you feel truly valued. So I remember being shocked and amazed when I found out that he and his pregnant girlfriend weren’t going to stick it out together. “Big mistake, Girl,” I thought to myself. “You’re not going to find a nicer guy, one as warm and loving and—a scruffy ginger with Popeye forearms—as dead sexy to boot.” I didn’t know the lady well; I’m not casting any aspersions. I’m sure they made the best decision for themselves at the time. I tell you my little story just to show you the level of my respect and admiration for Alex. Clearly I’m not his only fan. People came out of the woodwork to support him when he announced his illness. Rock gyms were full of well-wishers. A benefit event was packed. A crowdfunding site was oversubscribed. In true understatement, Jeff writes that “It’s evident that you are pretty important to a lot of people.” In a case of survivor’s guilt, Alex even worried about letting all these people down when he overcame his illness. I knew a little about what Alex was going through at the time from working with him, but not much. You get all the “deets” in this short (136 pages) but packed narrative due to Alex and Jeff’s uniquely close relationship. A relationship that started at the retail shop when Alex helped Jeff gear up for an AT hike. Later, when Jeff learned of Alex’s travails and volunteered to turn his story into this book, Alex said “under one condition… We have to hang out and climb together. A lot!” Jeff couldn’t begin to understand Alex until he understood climbing. And so in addition to the story of Alex’s illness and recovery, you get the story of Jeff’s immersion in the world of climbing. The authors patiently explain all the terms and styles of climbing for the uninitiated. You also get a great sense of why climbers climb, the passion and excitement and strong sense of “aliveness” it can provide. “This would begin a year of finding crags, learning, and climbing to an exhilaration that I never knew existed.” Topping out on the famous “High E” route in New York’s ‘Gunks, Jeff says, “There were chemicals whirling in my body that I didn’t feel daily. That was what it was all about.” Climbing, for Jeff and for Alex and so many others, lets you know that “a feeling like that existed in the world and that it could be found. That a person could go out searching for a means to feel that way.” On the title page Alex and Jeff are listed as the two coauthors. As I read, I wondered about that. Other than some long quotes from Alex’s journal, it’s primarily Jeff’s writing. The narrator’s voice is Jeff’s. Like a long New Yorker piece, the book is Jeff’s profile of a fascinating person. It’s also Jeff’s come-to-climbing personal narrative, sprinkled into Alex’s story. The inner thoughts are mostly Jeff’s as we, along with him, try to understand Alex. So why the co-authorship? Truly, this book is the result of an unusually close-knit partnership. Jeff frequently references the untold number of coffeehouse and ramen restaurant meetings as they developed the narrative together. “We’d met so many times in so many places over the course of the time we discussed this project that the actual locations blur together, swirling as they do in all of the notes and recordings and photographs and information that leaks from the research onto the page.” And because: they are climbing partners—who by nature of the sport, must do everything together. Climbers rely on each other, working together towards the top, each taking turns belaying the other, taking the other’s life into his hands. “Inherently, climbing is something you do with other people,” they say. The Sharpest End is a timely addition to the current climbing boom. It joins the media parade of amazing feats in free soloing and alpinism appearing in our journals and on our screens. Like the incredible climbers Alex Honnold, Marc-Andre LeClerc and Nims Purja, our Alex Wildman is a climbing hero, albeit one of a different sort who has overcome different kinds of—perhaps even more challenging—obstacles. Alex and Jeff are currently doing events to promote the book at Philly-area climbing gyms. As I touched base recently with Alex online, I wrote “Enjoy the book tour…Oprah next!” He replied, “Ya know, Oprah just isn’t returning my calls like she used to!” Maybe she should.