George Mallory is famous for answering “Because it’s there” when asked why he kept trying to scale Everest, but Canadian Rideout’s debut novel about Mallory’s disastrous last climbing attempt is the story of a love triangle: a man, a woman and a mountain.
After two failures, George has promised his wife, Ruth, that he is done with Everest, but in 1924, he leaves Ruth with their three small children in Cambridge, where he is a professor and part of the Strachey/Bloomsbury world, to join a third expedition to the mountain. He is 37-years-old, with movie-star looks and charm. Ruth supported his earlier attempts, but now she is jealous of his time away climbing. She is right to be jealous since the real love they feel for each other is no match for his hunger for adventure or for Everest, which is always referred to in feminine terms. Although a large portion of the novel takes place in Cambridge, where Ruth waits for letters from George while caring for her children, her domestic dramas—insecurity about her abilities as a mother, mild attraction to family friend Will, hostility toward Mr. Hinks, chairman of the Mount Everest Committee, who sponsored the expedition—cannot compete with the drama on Everest itself. George feels the need to vindicate himself on this trip after an avalanche disaster that killed seven Tibetans during the last attempt. Five members of the team have attempted Everest together before. The new member, Sandy Irvine, is much younger, still a university student and eager to prove himself, especially to George. Petty tensions arise among the men bound so closely in isolation, but there is indescribable intimacy as well as they face life-and-death challenges on a daily basis.
A plodding quality slips in, the sense that Rideout is following the historical dots, but she does a terrific job describing both the extreme physical conditions and the dreamlike consciousness George and Sandy drift into as their memories of home intertwine with their moment-to-moment climb.