More than 30 years before Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay officially summited Mount Everest, an Englishman named George Mallory made an attempt to climb the world’s highest peak.
Whether he made it to the top is still a mystery. The discovery of his body, in 1999, only served to fuel speculation. The published images of that body, petrified in the thin air, were startling, but as a climber, I found the tattered clothing found on his body especially so. A wool sweater frayed around the edges, which left his back exposed, smoothed to look like porcelain. Cotton long underwear, a shirt, thin socks and leather boots. What would drive Mallory to set out for the summit of the world’s highest peak in gear that I would hesitate to wear tobogganing?
While Mallory has been written about many times before, Tanis Rideout adds new insight about his motivation in her captivating debut novel, Above All Things.
The book tells the story of Mallory’s final attempt on Everest. Through the eyes of Mallory and the young student who accompanied him, Sandy Irvine, we come to understand the pull of the mountain and the high costs it extracts from those who make an attempt. The adventure narrative is intertwined with a day in the life of Ruth Mallory, wife to George and mother of three, as she waits for word about the summit bid.
The author puts her finger on a truth about all climbing accidents. From the account of the Everest disaster told in Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer, to the recent death of a Canadian climber on Everest, an accident is rarely an isolated episode. Most tragedies are born out of chain of events that are driven by circumstances and by the personalities involved. The true answers about why an accident happened often lie deep within the climbers themselves.
It is Rideout’s enthralling blend of historical fact and imaginative fiction that allows her to tread new ground with the story of Mallory’s motivation. She suggests that we need to look beyond Mallory, the family, friends, colleagues and postwar mindset for answers. She uses the known facts about the Mallorys’ lives, including those from letters between Ruth and George, and adds imagined inner lives to slowly unravel a complex story. The result is as plausible as it is captivating.
This structure could, in lesser hands, be problematic. Ruth’s domestic narrative has the difficult task of countering a first-ever Everest attempt. How can choosing flowers for a dinner party possibly compete? While the summit attempt drives the tension, Rideout’s elegance as a storyteller comes through as Ruth’s narrative, the idea of what makes one feel complete in a life, holds the keys to Mallory’s motivation and what may have happened on the final, tragic push to the summit. By the end, we know exactly why this imagined Mallory set out for the summit of the world’s highest peak in a wool sweater.
Rideout was a finalist for the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers and the CBC Literary Awards. Her book of poetry, Delineation, was published in 2006, after which she was named Poet Laureate for Lake Ontario and toured with Gord Downie to promote environmental justice on the lake. Though this is her first novel, she should not be mistaken for a beginner. This is the work of a storyteller who has honed her skill.
With precise language and perfect pacing, the novel builds to a terrifying climax. Most readers will already know what happened to Mallory, but the joy in reading this book is in the journey. And Ruth helps us see that the joy of the journey is, perhaps, what George Mallory forgot.
This book is a must-read for Everest buffs with a sensitive side, and for those who want to understand the anatomy of climbing accidents. It is also the perfect summer read for anyone lured by the romance of adventure, as the story goes well beyond the vast summit of Everest into much trickier terrain: the unmapped topography of the heart.