Norman Ollestad remembers the tree limb.
He was 11 years old, riding in a Cessna in a blizzard through California’s San Gabriel Mountains in 1979, on his way to pick up a trophy he won in a skiing competition. “The gray clouds were just pressing against the windows; it didn’t even seem like we were moving,” he recalls. “Then, there’s a limb reaching out of that fog and disappearing. Then another one and another one. “Then realizing we were in the trees.” The plane crash that followed killed his father and the pilot and badly wounded his father’s girlfriend, who with young Norman was tossed violently onto the top of an 8,600-foot mountain in the freezing, February chill. “I felt three thuds. The third one must have knocked me cold,” says Ollestad, now 41. “I remember feeling those thuds in my spine — a clear memory of that. Then I woke up who knows how long after.” The ensuing nine-hour, life-or-death descent — in the end, he was the only survivor — is the topic of “Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival.” Watch the press conference that followed his survival » But the book is about more than a plane crash, namely his relationship with an adrenaline-junkie father who basked in the wild life of Malibu in the 1970s and relentlessly pushed his “Boy Wonder” to excel from the ski slopes of northern California to the crashing surf off the Mexican coast. “It’s actually 100 percent about my relationship with my father,” Ollestad said. “That relationship was present on the mountain with me, even though he was dead.” Released this month, the book already has been picked up by Warner Bros. [a sister company of CNN] for a feature film and has earned critical acclaim, including comparisons to John Krakauer’s 1997 nonfiction best-seller “Into Thin Air.” “An engrossing story of adventure, survival and psychological exploration,” wrote the journal Kirkus Reviews. In the book, Ollestad cuts back and forth between the crash and journey down the mountain and the years leading up to that moment. Included are memories of life in Malibu, where he grew up the son of divorced parents in a cottage on the beach. There are surfers and skate rats, musicians and nudists and memories of smoking weed and spying on his neighbors’ most intimate moments.
Book: ‘Crazy for the Storm’
But mostly there’s his father, Norman Ollestad Sr., an athlete, actor, lawyer, musician and former FBI agent. From the age of 3, Norman was groomed for competitive “extreme sports” by his father and pushed to be the best. The book’s jacket features a picture of a 1-year-old Norman clinging to his father’s back as he steers a surfboard atop the waves of California’s Topanga State Beach. He acknowledges that many times, when his father was cooking up a new adventure for the two of them, he would rather have been “riding my bike or eating chocolate cake.” “[At first] a lot of people are, ‘Wow .. I had a lot of trouble with some of the stuff your dad was doing,’ ” says Ollestad, who studied creative writing at UCLA and attended UCLA’s film school. “But then it turned out that a lot of that stuff was really beautiful.” And he believes it saved his life. The skiing made him aware of how steep the mountain’s slope was and what it would take to get down it without falling. The skiing and surfing gave him control of his body and awareness of the exact movements required to work his way out of the descent’s most treacherous spots. “Some of it was sort of eerily, specifically perfect for the situation,” he says. “Forty-five degree pitch, blizzard with ice, well, I’ve been here for eight years doing this. It was familiar to me.” The book has had another, unexpected result for Ollestad, who now lives in Venice, California. He says he’s been shocked at the e-mail from readers. “Nobody’s even written about the plane crash,” he says. “[They say] ‘it reminds me of some of the things I did with my dad or some of the things I didn’t get to do.’ “In every e-mail, whether it’s a woman or a man, they talk about …their relationship with their father or mother. It touches something in there where they want to talk about it.”
Now, for Ollestad, the story has followed him all the way around. He’s the father of an 8-year-old, Noah, and seeks to walk the line between responsible parenting and teaching his child the lessons he says saved his life. “Those were different times,” he tells the boy in the book’s epilogue. “My dad made me do lots of things that I’d get arrested for making you do.”