This is a book you won’t soon forget after reading it.
Norman Ollestad’s father involved him in extreme skiing and surfing from the time he was three years old. His dad and mom were separated, and each had new partners. Norm didn’t like either one; his mom’s boyfriend was particularly difficult, given to alcoholism and violence. When Norman was out with his dad riding a tube of water or skiing down new powder, he escaped his problems and felt serenity. Sometimes he resented the extremes to which his dad subjected him, but in the end, his training by his dad saved his life.
At age 11, the young Norman won a junior ski championship, and he, his father, and his father’s girlfriend Sandra took a chartered plane from Santa Monica to Big Bear for the awards ceremony. It was February 19, 1979 and there was storm in the area. The pilot slammed into the side of Ontario Peak, 8,693 feet high just 250 feet from the top. This book tells the story of how Norman improbably made it to safety and survived.
The book starts with the crash and then proceeds in alternating chapters to tell the story before and after it. I really didn’t see any reason for that format unless it was to drag out the suspense and keep readers interested, since clearly the crash was the centerpiece of the story.
But the ordeals of Norman both before and long after the crash were also absorbing. Norman’s mother loved him, but was clearly more involved in her own abusive relationship with her boyfriend than in her son. His father’s drive to make Norman fearless and include him in adult activities in some sense deprived him of a “normal” childhood, which Norman occasionally begrudged. Worst of all, after the crash, he was not given any psychological help in dealing with the welter of emotions that engulfed him: sadness, loss, anger, and self-hatred. His mother and her boyfriend were in their own little world, and Norman was left to his own devices to cope.
Many years later, with his own son, Norman finds he cannot keep from emulating the child raising tactics of his dad. He understands as well as anyone could his son’s resentment, but he also knows he is giving his son a “well of confidence” from which he can draw his whole life. And he has showed him how to “break through the storm” and enjoy the bliss of his personal victory. “There are few joys in life,” Ollestad writes, “that can compare to that.”
Some of the discussion of skiing and surfing was beyond my ability to comprehend fully, never having done those sports. But this book is both sad and inspirational, and well worth reading.
Watch a video that shows Norman Ollestad right after the crash here.