By Becky Benoit
Mount Everest has always beckoned to human beings. The highest mountain in the world, its summit reaching more than 29,000 feet into the icy heights of the Himalayan sky, it’s clear why Everest has represented the ultimate challenge for climbers and adventurers since the early 20th century. But the folklore that has surrounded the mountain for millennia, including the tales of high-dwelling deities in the Buddhist faith and the stories of ape-like yeti said to live in the highest caves of Everest, is equally fascinating. It’s no wonder, then, that author Dan Simmons, known for his atmospheric thrillers immersed in historical settings and featuring characters from the annals of history, chose Everest as the site for his latest novel, The Abominable.
The novel begins with the death of real-life Everest climbers George Mallory and Sandy Irvine, two early adventurers whose tragic deaths on the mountain in 1924 have provided fodder for mystery and conjecture for 90 years. Mallory and Irvine were among the earliest climbers to make a bid for the summit of Everest, and both disappeared high on the upper slopes of the mountain. Their fates seemed destined to remain a mystery until 1999, when Mallory’s mummified but largely intact body was found by climbers on the mountain. The location of his climbing partner Irvine’s body still remains a mystery, and whether or not the two actually reached the summit, making them the first to climb to the top of Mount Everest, is still much-discussed by armchair climbers the world over.
Simmons picks up where history has left off, in the year 1924 with the summit of Everest still a tantalizing mystery. Richard Deacon, a WWI hero with a haunted past and a former climbing partner and friend of Mallory, sees an opportunity to perhaps reach the summit of Everest himself when news of Mallory and Irvine’s death reaches the world.
Around the same time and largely overshadowed by the media coverage of Mallory and Irvine comes the news that Deacon’s childhood friend Lord Percival Bromley has also apparently perished on the mountain, swept away by an avalanche under mysterious circumstances. Deacon pays a visit to Bromley’s mother, the extraordinarily wealth and grieving Lady Bromley, and convinces her to fund a secret expedition to the mountain to find out what really happened to Percy Bromley, and if possible, to retrieve his body.
Deacon invites two close climbing friends, French climber and guide Jean-Claude Clairoux and young American climber Jacob Perry, along with him. Both jump at the chance to climb the seemingly impenetrable Everest. The only wrench in the trio’s plans is Lady Bromley’s requirement that a cousin from Darjeeling, Reggie Bromley-Montford, be invited along to manage the finances and logistics of the journey. Though they’ve been assured that “Cousin Reggie” is a talented and experienced climber, none are prepared for the fact that Reggie is actually Lady Bromley-Montfort.
Outfitted with the latest in climbing technology, including the use of specially-fitted crampons and rope pulleys for ice climbing, newly-designed oxygen apparatus for the higher elevations of the mountain, and goose-down outerwear and customized climbing boots to replace the traditional wool and hobnailed boots, and a new type of rope made to withstand much greater stress than typical climbing rope, the foursome seem ready to conquer Everest.
But there’s much more to this rescue mission than a typical body recovery or summit bid. Just who was the mysterious German man last seen with Percy Bromley on the highest slopes of the mountain? Why do those who last claim to have seen him alive, a team of elite climbers from Germany and Austria, seem to by lying about the details of his disappearance? And what could the Englishman’s disappearance have to do with the disturbing rise of a new power in Germany and the rumblings of another great war on the horizon?
Simmons probably couldn’t have picked a more eerie and atmospheric setting for his novel – the heights of Everest are among the most extreme environments on earth, where nothing grows and every moment spent there pushes adventurers closer to death. Simmons deftly weaves in tales of Tibetan folklore and customs, such as the gruesome practice of “sky burial” practiced for centuries in Tibet, with highly-technical climbing practices and maneuvers and rich historical detail surrounding the earliest days of WWII while maintaining a fast pace and an engaging plot.
A warning, though. I loved every page of this weighty novel – all 663 pages of it – because I’ve always been fascinated by Everest, and the extremes that people will go to in order to conquer the world’s most daunting challenges. Much of the book is dedicated to this environment and the particular blend of skill required to summit the mountain in the early days of climbing. If you have no interest in high-altitude climbing, you’ll find vast swaths of this book a bore and you’ll be tempted to skim right through. But if, like me, you’re fascinated by all things Everest (though I’m by no means a climber and never will be), you won’t be able to put it down.