Adventure and intrigue await a small party of climbers at the top of the world in Dan Simmons’s ‘The Abominable’

December 6, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 6, 2019

1924. Europe is recovering — some parts more quickly than others — from the Great War. The world’s highest summit, Mount Everest, has yet to be scaled, although the Royal Geographic Society and other adventurers are keenly interested in doing so. Mountaineering in general is a hazardous endeavor, even as some climbers have begun using bottled air to battle the oxygen deprivation that is endemic at higher altitudes.

Near the beginning of The Abominable, Dan Simmons’s 2013 novel, a 37-year-old English war hero secures backing from the family of a British aristocrat who’s disappeared on the perilous slope. Together with two fellow climbers — Jean-Claude Clairouox, 25, certified by the world’s oldest association of mountain guides, and the narrator, Jacob Perry, 22, a recent Harvard graduate and member of an esteemed Boston clan — Richard Davis Deacon gathers the equipment and expertise that the trio will need to find a body high up on the colossal peak.

“The Deacon,” as his friends call him, wishes to conduct the trip in secrecy in an effort to avoid interference from potential rivals. Deacon has other reasons for the clandestine approach, as Perry and the readers will discover in the course of events. Together with a party of Sherpas, a cousin of the missing Lord Percival Bromley who operates a Darjeeling tea plantation, and a hardy doctor with an unusual background, the climbers confront a variety of antagonists, not least of which is the massive mountain’s challenging terrain and formidable weather.

Even in the best of conditions, ascending Everest can be demanding. That comes through as the French alpinist prepares to set up ladders on a perilous part of the climb:

About two-thirds of the way up the icy wall, J.C. pauses, fumbles in his rucksack, and pulls out his oxygen tank. The Deacon and I exchange guilty glances; the plan had been for Jean-Claude to do this part of the climb with a new oxygen tank, opened to its full flow of 2.2 liters per minute. We’d all forgotten to make the exchange; even Jean-Claude in his eagerness to start the most dramatic part of our day’s climb had forgotten. 

Now he removes his oxygen mask and free-hanging regulator with its various tubes and carefully sets them in his rucksack, even while pulling out the empty tank, pinning it against the ice wall with his body while using just his free right hand to unscrew the connections. 

Shouting “Watch out below!” J.C. swings the empty tank one, two, three times and then hurls it to our right. We all watch, delighted and horrified at the same time, while the heavy oxygen tank bounces first off the ice wall itself and then off snow and ice for the full 1,000-foot drop to the glacier below. The noise it makes in its bouncing — especially its final ricochet off a snow-hidden boulder — is wonderful. 

The Deacon pulls his own mask down. “Want to change leads?” he shouts upward. 

On a windy day, I have no doubt that the shout would have been lost under wind roar, but today is almost perfectly still. I’m using the undershirt over my forearm to mop away sweat, even as we just stand here on the hillside below the vertical face, one arm around the fixed rope, both forward sets of crampon points and our left ice hammer holding us in place. 

Jean-Claude grins, shakes his head, and looks up at the rest of the climb above him. Then he begins moving again, pausing more frequently now, moving a bit more slowly, but still climbing steadily. 

Fifteen minutes more and we watch him thrust himself up, weight on his crampon points, and lean far over the lip of the North Col, sinking his right ice hammer deep into horizontal ice we can’t see. Then he’s gone. 

A moment later, when he’s obviously tied into some anchor he’s set on the surface of the Col, his head and shoulders reappear and a second rope begins snaking down. 

“Send up the ladders!” shouts Jean-Claude. 

We do, but not before all eight of us sitting and standing on the ice cliff below the last vertical wall send up a cheer for him. 

‘The Abominable’ by Dan Simmons.

Simmons is an accomplished writer whose work spans the science fiction, horror, mystery and historical genres. These days, the Colorado resident is probably best known for his 2007 novel The Terror, in which a doomed 19th-century Arctic expedition seems to encounter a supernatural force. (The book is the basis of an AMC television series, although the most recent season took a sharp departure from Simmons’s work.) To my mind, Simmons’s reputation as a science fiction master was secured by his Hyperion Cantos cycle, a four-volume space opera that debuted in 1989 with the publication of Hyperion.

That book, astonishingly, was one of three that Simmons published that year; the others were Phases of Gravity, a relatively modest story about a retired astronaut experiencing a midlife crisis, and Carrion Comfort, a nearly 650-page-long saga about mutant telepaths powered by schadenfreude who engineer schemes that inflict misery and death upon as many people as possible. The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, which credits Simmons with more than three dozen volumes, measures the Hyperion Cantos at 2,000 pages.

Prolixity is obviously a deeply entrenched tendency of Simmons’s. His self-indulgence threatened to spoil my enjoyment of The Abominable, as nearly a third of the volume is spent chronicling the climbers’ preparations in London, Zurich, Munich and Darjeeling. That’s a lot of preamble for an adventure story; at times I despaired that the book’s promise of an alpine adventure tale containing notes of horror was entirely the product of the marketing department.

Fortunately, the pace picks up considerably once the characters arrive in Tibet to climb Everest’s north face. There is indeed a rousing adventure here, including an extended climax wherein the heroes make a desperate bid to scale a previously unconquered peak while being pursued by deadly and implacable adversaries. The latter two-thirds of The Abominable features some really terrific passages.

Mountains, polar exploration and cold-weather adventure in general have long intrigued Simmons. These subjects are integral to The Terror as well as to three of the five pieces in Simmons’s 2002 collection Worlds Enough and Time. One of the best parts in The Abominable has a small party trapped in a blizzard at an elevated camp as a vital stove has failed. I’m not qualified to say whether Simmons’s depictions of mountain climbing, Europe and Asia in the mid-1920s are accurate, but they certainly seemed convincing to me.

Simmons undercuts himself somewhat with a drawn-out denouement, although mercifully this isn’t as protracted as the opening.

The Abominable is a thrilling and rewarding novel, especially for readers who have the patience to wait out Simmons’s lengthy setup.

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