31st August – 20th September 2014
Dan Simmons talked about this book when he was on as interview guest in Geeks Guide to Galaxy. It is the story of an 1925 Everest summit attempt.
I had read “On K2 with Kanakaredes” from Dan’s anthology “Worlds Enough & Time”, which is on the outside about climbing K2 with an alien, but really just about mountaineering. Dan is marvelous to write about climbing and mountaineering. I had liked that story very much, so the book was a natural next step.
The story is a mix between fact and fiction, sometimes too much of the later, but still a very compelling thriller, and in wide stretches true to climbing.
In June 1924, George Mallory and Andy Irvine vanished while trying to summit Mt Everest (which is true). But there were also two other climbers, Percy Bromley and Kurt Meyer (which is fiction).
The main characters, Richard Deacon (a British war veteran), Jean-Claude (JC, a French mountain-guide from Chamonix), and Jake (an American climber and the narrator of the story) were friends since the end of the first World War and climbing together in the Alps. The Deacon, as everyone calls him, comes up with the plan to persuade Lady Bromley to find the remains of her son Percy, as a way to finance the summit of Everest. She is very emotional and agrees to the mission under the condition that Reggie Bromley, responsible for their tee plantation in Darjeeling accompanies them.
The three get prepared, really prepared. The technology of that time did not really allow to climb Everest. You need the right equipment to protect yourself against the cold and loss of air pressure, and to be able to climb in these heights. The Deacon provides goose feather filled jackets and a new light-weight air apparatus. JC developed with his father 12-spike crampons – the front spikes for vertical ascent were a novelty back then.
Then they travel to India. In these days, the only route to Everest was from Tibet. Nepal, which is the easier route was closed. Today, it is the other way around and Everest is usually climbed from Nepal.
Reggie Bromley they soon find out is in fact Lady Bromley. Grudgingly they have to accept that she comes with them. In those times, women climbers were unheard of. However, she provides for the logistics such as food and the Sherpa porters, so they can’t continue without her. She lived all her life in the region, speaks the local languages and is a master of organisation. It soon turns out that this is not her first Everest tour, and that she has already climbed well above 8.000 meters.
From then on the story is very much about the slow ascent, from establishing the base-camp and the six high-camps. It is here where Dan Simmons excels in his story telling mastership. He perfectly transports the climbing process to the reader. If you have ever climbed yourself, you enjoy it all the more.
After two-thirds of the book they are close to make a summit attempt. But that have to forge it because of a sudden Yeti attack (yes, that’s right). From then on the book is more fiction than factual, more thriller and suspense novel. I was initially turned off by the Yeti thing, but that is soon clarified (of course, there are no Yetis). The story keeps being great, but our heroes do the impossible at the mountain and we drift over to fictional spheres. That is good from a story-telling and suspense point-of-view, but you have the thought in your had that they do the seemingly impossible.
But all is clarified in the end, and I felt the book had a satisfactory conclusion.