Publication date: October 22nd 2013
Our valley is in darkness, but Everest blazes far beyond and above us in a cold, powerful, self-contained isolation. That strikes me as terrifying.
In 1924 the British alpine climbing community was dealt a serious blow when George Mallory and his partner Sandy Levine disappear high on Mount Everest. At the same time a lesser known but titled Brit disappears and his mother hires three climbers to head up Everest the next year to find him. Yes, find him. Despite his last being seen hit by an avalanche somewhere around twenty-five thousand feet she believes he may still be alive. With her deep pockets and the drive and determination to summit Everest, so begins The Abominable: A Novel by Dan Simmons. A Frenchman, Jean-Claude Clairoux; a young American, Jake Perry; and a British WWI war hero, Richard Deacon are friends who have climbed some of the world’s most well-known mountains.
If you’ve ever been intrigued by Everest and the myriad of books, television shows, and movies then The Abominable will be a thriller to read. It has espionage, murder, and conditions that will push the hardiest of souls to the breaking point. What it does not have is a plot involving the abominable snowman (or yeti). That is not a spoiler, the topic comes up once in the first four hundred pages and only briefly after that, largely as a decoy. The good news is that there is enough going on with altitude sickness, injury, unexpected members joining their group and the simple physics of climbing the highest peak in the world for the first time in history (it’s never been established that Mallory summited). Remember, this is 1924. There are Sherpas and oxygen tanks are newly available, but there are no guide ropes or ladders left in place by previous climbers. Every single step has to be hacked out of ice, snow, and rock. Jean-Claude, Jake, and Richard each bring their own expertise as well as their own secrets.
Simmons is one of those authors whose research and writing skill means he can manipulate history and still make you want to keep reading. He thickens the plot by adding a female climber to the team who is expected to be a hazard and by setting the story at a time when the relations with allies England and France towards Germany are still fragile. The first to reach the top of Everest will do much to restore their country’s morale. These details, layered on top of the perils of climbing to such heights are much like snow on top of ice—seemingly innocuous and unimportant but slippery and deadly dangerous underneath. The Abominable may ultimately be improbable but it is still good winter reading from the safety of a warm home.