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Last Breath: Cautionary Tales from the Limits of Human Endurance

3.98  ·  Rating Details ·  378 Ratings  ·  48 Reviews
In a fascinating blend of adventure and science, Stark recreates in heart-stopping detail what happens to our bodies and minds in the last moments of life when an extreme adventure goes awry.
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published October 2nd 2001 by Ballantine Books (first published 2001)
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Schuyler Wallace
Mar 19, 2015 Schuyler Wallace rated it it was amazing

As I sit reading “Last Breath,” Peter Stark’s engrossing study of life’s last moments during venturesome activities, a sudden thought occurs. I’ve done several of the activities he writes about, and experienced some of the physiological hardships he discusses. Not to the extremes he portrays, of course, but I’ve been cold, thirsty, overheated, and even nearly drowned. I can appreciate that had any of my hardships progressed to the levels of his discussions, I wouldn’t be here right now. That’s s
Aug 20, 2012 Ashley rated it liked it
What a strange book. It was compulsively readable, and yet it wasn't quite nonfiction. The author created scenarios with fictional characters to illustrate some of the most harrowing kinds of death--heatstroke, dehydration, avalanche, hypothermia, et cetera. The mix of history, physiology, and narrative was wonderful, but I found myself wondering if he couldn't have told the stories of real people who suffered from these misfortunes and survived, or those who died but left behind witnesses. He c ...more
Jun 08, 2011 Loren rated it liked it
Shelves: morbid-books
This is a truly strange book. Neither fish nor fowl, it follows the journalistic tradition of In Cold Blood to relate a fictional story hung on a skeleton of nonfiction. Last Breath gave me a strange sense of dissonance as I turned its pages.

Each chapter explores the way our fragile human bodies fail before the awesome power of nature: drowning while white water kayaking, cooking internally while bike racing in high humidity, choking on lungs full of blood while suffering the bends. In each chap
The whole time I was reading this book, I had Australian Metro's "Dumb Ways to Die" jingle running through my head. It was festive.

Because honestly, who decides to visit Southeast Asia without taking any kind of anti-malarials, either as a pre-trip precaution or as ongoing prophylaxis? Who free-climbs a 5.9 while angry and focused on your dayjob? Who takes a shortcut through the woods at night during an icestorm? Who deliberately swims outside a swimming net during Australia's high-jellyfish sea
Apr 18, 2012 Cindy rated it it was ok
Kind of strange. I liked the chapter about avalanche best, given that I live in avalanche country, but overall it was an odd read. Why did he use a fictional was of telling the story? Why not interview actual people who survived these events, or tell actual accounts of people who died? As a storytelling device, it kept me disconnected from the story. Not recommended. Read Surviving the Extremes instead.
Dec 21, 2014 Ruth rated it it was ok
This book of several presumably true stories is pretty heavy on the medical descriptions of the victim's body. In some of the stories, probably 75% is taken up with the body's reaction to a wound, or dehydration, or malaria. It gets old pretty quick.
Jan 19, 2009 Valerie rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Lindsay
Recommended to Valerie by: Debbie
This book is filled with fascinating details about drowning, being smothered in avalanches, hypothermia etc. Goes well with any Into the Wild type reading.
Aug 15, 2010 Jeremy rated it really liked it
Everyone knows that if left out in cold temperatures for too long, people die. But specifically how do people die of cold. Specifically what happens to the circulatory system, or a cellular level, even, that makes people die of cold? This book that attempts to answer that question and many like it. It's a collection of stories about the many ways that people die in the wilderness. There's freezing, drowning, falling, avalanche, malaria, heatstroke, dehydration, HACE/HAPE, animal attack, scurvy(! ...more
Mar 25, 2008 Kevin rated it it was amazing
Last Breath is a collection of stories that describe, in extremely vivid detail, just what happens when people die horrible wilderness deaths. Stark begins each chapter by spinning a "what if" tale about a character who finds him or herself in a deadly situation (such as hypothermia, cerebral malaria, heat stroke, drowning, etc.) and, as he builds the narrative, he splices in actual historical instances of this death in action as well as medical explanations of what is happening. Although it see ...more
Don Merriam
Mar 19, 2016 Don Merriam rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book has an interesting format, whereby, the author describes an extreme situation, in which people get into such nasty trouble, as to be close to taking their Last Breath. The story then turns to how the physical body reacts to these situations, described in readable but detailed medical terminology.
My greatest realization about this book came, a long time after, I had finished reading it. Reacting to a friend suffer through a "cleansing" de-toxifying holistic regime. This book talks to m
MusingMom Kris
This book details death brought about by extreme environmental conditions, from hypothermia, to hyperthermia, to drowning, to desert dehydration. The vignettes are interesting enough vehicles to describe each character's demise in extensive and accurate physiologic detail. Stark, however, throws in large doses of metaphysics from all the world's major religions that only serve as boring detraction from the real meat of his stories. (In fact, he involves Catholicism in one story without any menti ...more
Sep 19, 2008 Julie rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: everyone
Recommended to Julie by: an instructor
I absolutely love this book! This is for anyone who loves short stories and excitement. This book is about people who do extreme sports and what happens to their bodies both emotionally and physiologically, right down to the cellular level. You need not be in the medical field to understand this book, it is written in simplistic terms. Every chapter is a new story. Everything from what your body experiences by being crushed by an avalanche, to heat stroke, dehydration, drowning, and so on. This ...more
Feb 18, 2009 TheSaint rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, adult
Like snowboarding, kayaking, or deep sea diving? Many people like to challenge themselves outdoors, and most make it back home alive and well. In Last Breath: Cautionary Tales from the Limits of Human Endurance, author Peter Stark describes in fascinating detail the many ways people die as a result of spending too much time in harsh environments. He discusses the causes and sometimes cures of mountain sickness, hypothermia, dehydration, suffocation, blunt trauma (falling), and many others. A pag ...more
May 12, 2009 Mary rated it it was amazing
Horrible yet riveting- We listened to this book on tape while on a road trip, it may have a different feel if read but it was a series of 6-7 high adventure stories. In each one "something went horribly wrong" causing death or near death to one of the participants. Not just exciting stories about hypothermia, drowning, high altitude sickness, heat stroke, etc. but a scientific explanation of what happens to a human in these situations from their emotional state down to their cellular state at di ...more
Jul 19, 2009 Chels rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Amazing nonfiction book. It really appealed to me because of my interest in extreme sports and pushing my limits. This was a more challenging read, just because it's entirely scientific. The author does an amazing job of going into incredible detail on medical, scientific conditions. It's textbook material - but described so much more effectivly than a textbook, in that they make it so interesting that you'll remember a lot of it.
Melody Warnick
Feb 01, 2009 Melody Warnick rated it really liked it
This was a rather morbid read, but I found each chapter, about a different horrific way to die, fascinating. Rather than real stories, these were composite tales, which kind of lessened the effect, but I liked the CSI-esque approach to discussing what actually happens to your body when you're dehydrated, suffering from hypothermia, scurvy or malaria, drowning, an avalanche victim. It helps me feel prepared, just in case, you know, I do become daring.
Jan 14, 2014 Andy rated it really liked it
Got on to this book through an excerpt from the "death by cold" chapter in Outside magazine. This winter most of us can relate to being stuck in the frigid weather and finding yourself stuck in a bad (and spiraling downward) situation. Each chapter speaks to different ways how one can get into a death-inducing spot, and then monitors dispassionately the medical causation and symptoms as you slide into finality. Morbid and compelling!
Aug 24, 2008 Sarah rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: hikers, bikers, avid outdoorsmen/women
I don't know about you, but I have an active imagination. I am always worried about running into Ted Bundy on the hiking path when I am hiking alone, of getting lost and suffering from hypothermia or dying of hypoxia. This book covers all those this and more...well, not the part of Ted Bundy...but everything else.

It details all the physiological events your body goes through before death. I couldn't stop reading it. If you are into the outdoors at all, you should read this book.
Tom prigg
Jan 25, 2008 Tom prigg rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Finished this book. I thought it started out well but the story lines got weaker as the book went on.

It tells the tales of people who survive and do not survive against nature. But it tells the story from a perspective of how the their physiology is changing/struggling during the event.

The author does an amazing job of telling a great story of epic and a medical case study.

Good for anyone who likes adventure.
Aug 29, 2011 Lisa rated it liked it
This was a mixed bag. I expected it to be all non-fiction. Instead it was fictionalized stories of adventurers facing a life threatening event. Then it went through all the science related to what their body was experiencing. On one hand it was more interesting than I expected---on the other hand the fictionalized parts were not particularly well done.
Rebecca margoles
Jan 05, 2009 Rebecca margoles rated it really liked it
This was part scientific journal and part Indiana Jones. I loved it. I have not read any other like this. Multiple stories in a book-I like that so my add nature doesn't get bored. Some were actual accounts of what happened to people and some were what physically could happened to people in different scenarios-all adventure based.
Cindy Raquepau
Sep 28, 2009 Cindy Raquepau rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: teens, adults
Stories of people who got lucky and some who did not. Extreme sport enthuiasts discusses their near death experiences, or the narrator speaks about the possible experiences of the dead. Technical medical knowledge written in layman's terms. Interesting for non-fiction enthuiasts of medical, sports and adventures to read, and will appeal to olders teens a adults
Oct 09, 2007 Jane rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Although the concept sounds morbid, this is a captivating book . . . through short stories about various outdoor adventures, the author describes the physiological changes that take place in the body when experiencing hypothermia, drowning, HAPE, etc. It really is an interesting book - and a quick read.
Aug 20, 2010 Erin rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
While a bit gruesome, this book was still good. Don't read this if you have friends and family who do dangerous things AND you remember everything you read. I have a crazy brother who does some of these things, but thankfully I don't remember every detail of the freezing to death chapter, so I won't be scared for him. Interesting for sure.
When I saw this book, I knew I had to get it. I like Peter's narration and flow of Last Breath. I felt like I was with the character in the drowning chapter and got so cold reading hypothermia chapter--I felt like it was me in the woods. If you like adventure and science, I recommend. I learned some good from this book. Read this summer.
Felice Kelly
Mar 08, 2016 Felice Kelly rated it liked it
I'm a little morbid, but I really enjoyed learning what actually causes death in each of these accidents. The author often added too much editorial "insight" for my tastes, but overall quite interesting.
Janet Shelton
Jul 09, 2009 Janet Shelton rated it really liked it
This was a great follow up book to "Deep Survival". The story of those who don't survive and how they die from a scientific perspective... Drowning, falling, freezing, being stung by the deadly Australian Box Jelly Fish etc..these tales certainly make me more cautious about high adventure sports.
Jan 19, 2011 Veronica rated it really liked it
FASCINATING look at what the body goes through when pushed to the limits in various scenarios...however, I do not suggest reading how you die by hypothermia, avalanche, or heat stroke just before going to sleep. But for a "Death Fixated" chick like me, it was very informative & interesting! ;-)
April Capil
Dec 31, 2015 April Capil rated it it was amazing
Shelves: pop-up-library
I am a sucker for survival story collections, and this is one of the best! If you've ever wondered what happens when the human body faces death (by avalanche, heatstroke, drowning, dehydration, hypothermia, etc.), this is the book for you. Fascinating combo of biology and adventure.
Stark does a great job of showing what happens both physically and mentally to those at the extremes of human endurance. Very informative and thought-provoking.
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