SPECIAL CAUTION: If you have not started this book or even, if like myself, you read things about Mount Everest years ago when you were a youngster, do NOT, I repeat loudly, DO NOT, read anything about the mountain or the people who climbed it, until AFTER you finish this book. I say this ONLY to ensure that you have the maximum experience of this fine piece of writing. I also know from personal experience that my reading was greatly enhanced by reading without advance research and that was just accidental.
This amazing book is a combination of fact and creative fiction. I read another book earlier this month that was similar and also by a Canadian (Studio Saint-Ex by Ania Szado). Both books have been extremely satisfying reads.
The story is told by Ruth and George Mallory in alternate chapters. It begins in 1920 as Ruth says to George:
“”Tell me the story of Everest,” she said, a fervent smile sweeping across her face, creasing the corners of her eyes. “Tell me about this mountain that’s stealing you away from me.””
George and Ruth sat on the drawing room floor, laughing and tipsy, dinner growing cold on the table in the next room. Ruth was cross-legged opposite him, her grey skirt pulled tight across her knees. She picked up the single sheet of thick ivory paper from her lap and reread the invitation from the newly formed Mount Everest Committee again. “My husband, the world-famous explorer.” Ruth held up her glass of wine and he reached out with his own, the crystal ringing in the lamplit room. She was fairly bursting with happiness.
“I like the sound of that,” George said, and let himself imagine what it would be like to have people thinking about him, talking about him. The opportunities that success on Everest would bring. “I might be able to leave teaching, maybe even write full time. We could travel,” he said. “Have our own adventures.”
“”It’s blank,” Ruth exclaimed when their hands reached the spot where Everest should be; there was only a series of names – no relief, no lines of ridges or elevations. Just words floating in an empty space, waiting to be claimed by him.
“”No one has mapped her yet. That’s what we’re going to do, Ruth – reconnoiter her, bring back the shape of her.” …There was an awe in his voice that he wanted her to share. He recited names and caressed the page before moving the map to navigate the skin beneath the folds of her skirt. “West to east – imagine them. Cho Uyo, Gyangchungkang, Everest, Makalu, Kangchenjunga.” They were like spices on his tongue, on hers, tingling.””
George explains that the mountain was named for George Everest who was the surveyor general of India but died from malaria without seeing Everest. She is proud of George and wants him to write her “about everything.” He replies that she will be with him, “Every step of the way.”
They talk about the height of the mountain and Ruth says,
“How do they know?…How do they know how tall it is if no one’s been there?” She thinks about how she will wait for him while he goes and does “what he planned for and dreamed about the mountain.” And she asks again, H”How do they know?…Maybe it isn’t even the tallest.”
“It has to be,” he said, his fingers lingering on the map. “”It has to be.”
Before he says his goodbyes to their three children and to Ruth, George carries out a ritual which endears him to readers everywhere: he tears out the last page of whatever book Ruth is reading and it goes with him. “Whatever book I am reading, no matter how close I am to finishing, I pace out the rest of the pages, reading slowly, timing the end with George’s return.” How can you not really like this pair of people?
Once George leaves, the reader learns more and more about the relationship through Ruth and through letters and memories of both Ruth and George. One night when the climbing team has sought refuge in a monastery to regroup: a monastery that is more than two thousand years old and where, one of the team members remarks, monks “have been praying here since long before Christ was born.”
His first night there, George “conjures his last image of ” Ruth: “her face pale in the winter cold. She’d kissed him good-bye on the deck of the California, and he watched as she walked down the gangplank. But then she stopped, turned, and climbed back toward him. She lifted her gloved palms to her face, cupping it in her hands. There was his perfume – some spring flower – and the scent of the sea already clinging to her. She tared up at him, hard and earnest, the way she did when she needed him to believe her. “I only want you to make it,” she said, measuring every word, “because you want it. If you want it, then I want it. Your heart is mine. Mine is yours. But it really doesn’t matter to me, you know. Just you matter.”
George struggled to believe this. “”But she couldn’t have meant it. Not after everything he’d put her and the children through. “It feels as though we’ve spent more time apart than together, George,” she’d said as they battled about his return to Everest. “That’s not a marriage. I want to be with you. Isn’t that what you said you wanted?
The alternate sections present George’s experiences on the expedition: in the one titled, The North Col, 23,200 feet, they are at Advanced Base Camp where Sandy Irvine the youngest team member is left alone with Shebbeare and a half-dozen porters. The doctor, Somervell has gone higher and Sandy and two porters are supposed to follow. One of the porters was not in good shape: “When Sandy climbed into the tent, Shebbeare was staring at the porter. What was his name? That should be one of Somervell’s bloody tests (the doctor was always testing the men to determine what state they were in to climb higher etc): name the porters at altitude. He was the smallest man on the team, but strong….Lapkha. Lapkha Sherpa. that was it. …”I don’t know what’s wrong with him.” …Lapkha’s lips smacked against each other, dried white spittle gathering in the cracked skin. His tongue lolled out to lick them, thick and slow. But it was his eyes that were terrible….Lapkha’s eyes continued to bulge at him. …Sandy reached out and touched Lapkha’s hand, hushing him, trying to calm him as he might a trapped animal.” The effect of altitude and extreme cold on the team members and the porters is vividly presented in these sections and the connections between several of the team members and their home and/or relational lives helps to keep the alternate view points connected.
In the section titled Assault, 27,000 feet, George had left Camp VI with his assigned team mate, Odell, and they had done ten hours of straight climbing. On the second day, however, even in the morning, Odell “was already wandering and he “stopped after every step, staring at is feet, inhaling three, four breaths for each step upward. George asked him to wait but Odell said he was fine. George told him he was slowing him down. George pushed on alone. He (George) could not see the summit at this point. He stopped for a brief break and then “stepped forward, and again, and again …then a sickening lurch in his stomach and he was falling. And the wrenching stop, his right arm over his head, a tearing at his shoulder. He screamed in pain. Above him, his ice axe was caught widthwise across the top of a crevasse…below him a gape of emptiness.
…This was how it could end, then, this easily. He wasn’t tied to anything. Not the mountain. Not Odell.”
It doesn’t end there but it could have. The balance is good in this book between the personal story and the challenge posed by the mountain. And good between the actual facts and the imagined parts of the relationships.
Tanis Rideout did an interview with NPR on February 15, 2013 and said this regarding the origins of her interest in George Mallory and Mount Everest:
“I worked at an outdoor equipment store in Kingston, Ontario,…I didn’t know anything about camping…one of my coworkers was obsessed with everything to do with Everest and he would bring in videos, and one of the videos that he brought in was about the early expeditions…” and the interview continues with this in response to why she chose to focus on George’s wife Ruth:
” “Ruth in her own right is pretty gutsy…I thought in so much of the nonfiction literature that’s out there, Ruth is portrayed as being so good and supportive, and I thought, ‘she’s gotta be more interesting than that, she’s gotta be tougher than that, to be able to go toe-to-toe with this man for 10 years.’ ”
Tanis has definitely succeeded in creating a “gutsy” Ruth. There is a review of her poetry collection, Arguments with the Lake, in the archives of this blog.