Unless all reality is made worse, one cannot attain liberation ...so wonder in grizzly places and mountain retreats... do not get distracted by doctrines and books...just get real experiences... in the horrid and desolate. - Machig Labdrön
June 1924, distinguished mountaineer George Mallory with climbing recruit Andrew Irvine perished on their attempt to be the first to conquer Mount Everest, the tallest and fiercest unclimbed ( at that time ) mountain in the world. Concurrently, a British poet, aristocrat and WWI veteran Lord Percival Brombley also disappeared on Everest's treacherous slopes.
For an entire year, Brombley's questionable presence on Everest in 1924 has been buried in mystery and prompted a recovery expedition, funded by Brombley's aggrieved mother, to search for and return her son's remains to her. The recovery team is headed by Mallory's British contemporary Richard Deacon, whose motives for joining the expedition seem unclear, guide expert Jean-Claude Clairoux, Brombley's cousin -Lady Reggie Brombley-Montfort, and Jacob Perry- a self-described "unskilled and anxious impoverished Yank."
This Everest story is 89 year old Jacob's account of events of that fateful expedition, memories written in journals left boxed up since his death in 1991; journals which, twenty years later, came in the possession of Dan Simmons, who would eventually write the foreword to Jacob's manuscript, creating the illusion of a chilling non-fictional adventure.
Much time is devoted to descriptive narrative on climbing techniques, a very slow trek into the alpine world of 1925. Simmons shows he's researched the topic extensively.He takes the reader through rigorous protocols required prior to a climb as dangerously high as this. A veritable mountain climbers' manual of policies and procedures is exhaustively covered. He describes the inadequacies of the bulky and ineffective equipment of 1925; the various modifications to climbers' tools and innovations in alpine gear, including the more regimented protocols for oxygen use that were just coming into practice in that time period.
Deacon's instructions hammer in the severity of thin air and the resulting destruction to the body: "This is a technical free climb the Second Step – above 28,000 feet, please recall, where even when one is hauling heavy oxygen equipment, your body and mind are dying every second you stay at that altitude or increase it – the rating of the Second Step is beyond the Alpine club's 'very severe' rating system."(123)
Retracing Percival Brombley's last steps, the recovery team stops at Rongbuk monastery for a blessing to ascend Chomolungma (Goddess Mountain of the World), a ritual that many climbers of the mountain follow if only to appease their superstitious sherpas. The team is forewarned of a doomed expedition, of the presence of mythical demons:
"The auspices are bad. The demons in the mountains are awake and angry, and more are coming. The Metohkangmi on the mountain are alive and angry and..."
"Metohkangmi?" asks Jean-Claude.
"Yeti," the Deacon reminds us. "Those ubiquitous hairy manlike monsters." (265)
Some of the dangers at high altitudes already begin to plague the climbers- dehydration, headaches, vomiting, hallucinations come "from our bodies beginning to die on Mount Everest near and above 8000 meters...this mountain makes everyone stupid." (268) Such "stupidity" could cause fatal mistakes.
Simmons presents a vivid, crisp vision of the treacherous climb in the novel, but the true protagonist is Everest: "divine and not of this world," whose steep vertical slopes wreaked by bone-chilling winds, cloudy shrouds, mists and myths would slowly relinquish her deadly mysteries to yet another team- who, in their eagerness to conquer her majesty- might be too ill-equipped to handle her perils.
After a slow beginning, the much anticipated action was welcomed, heart poundingly intense and fast paced. Up in thin air, as the mountaineers experienced some gruesome unexpected discoveries and suspenseful thrills, the reader would be left momentarily breathless. The perplexing question surrounding Percival's disappearance was an intriguing twist (albeit not entirely surprising given the era that all this occurred).
Being a fan of supernatural fiction, my only tiny peeve was the misleading advertising of this tale as supernatural. I haven't read any Simmons' novels before but I understand he has the imagination and the creativity to successfully explore a mythical theme; he instead chose to use the Abominable metaphor for a different kind of monster- that to me was a little patronizing.
Disappointed only by the absence of -