The Abominable by Dan Simmons is a historical fiction novel about mountain climbing and a mystery that is set, for the most part, during the early years of World War II.
The story reads like less of an adventure novel and more like an homage to the sport of mountaineering.
Dan Simmons takes his time building the tension of the tale with back stories and detours until I nearly lost interest in the whole thing. But, to be fair, I have never been a serious mountain climber, having injured myself the first and only time I tried it.
I do enjoy long hikes in beautiful spaces. I don’t like risking my life or the lives of my companions in the process. So, not my thing, but maybe it’s somebody else’s.
If hiking is your jam, the long and technical descriptions of climbing techniques, knots, and methods in The Abominable might be just the read you’ve been looking for.
Here’s a pretty passage about viewing the night sky, high up in the mountains: “When you look at the stars near the horizon…especially when it’s really cold.. they tend to jitter around. Jumping left, then right… all while they jiggle up and down at the same time. I think it has something to do with masses of super-cold air lying over the land or frozen sea acting like a lens that’s being moved…” pg 18
One of the many passages that literally made my hands sweat in fear for the characters: “It’s tricky playing out the rope to Jean-Claude as I crab-shuffle to the left. Most of it is in my rucksack, which keeps trying to pull me back and off the face with just the weight of the extra rope and a few other small things in it, but some I’ve had to loop over my right shoulder to keep playing out to J.C. The coil of rope itself pushes me away from the arresting friction of the cliff, and every time I play out more to Jean-Claude, I slide down a little bit until I’m free to slap my palms and fingers and forearms against the rock again.
I’ve made it a little more than halfway to the pipe ledge when I slip…” pg 111
There are hundreds of pages with writing like that. I found it stressful, but again, I’m not a mountain climber.
There’s a lot of wry humor in this read too: “…why are they so eager to get this blessing from the monastery’s holy man, Dzatrul Rinpoche? If everything’s predestined for them anyway, what difference will the abbot’s blessing make?” Pasang smiles his small smile. “Do not ask me, Mr. Perry, to make sense of the internal contradictions that are common in all religions.” pg 341
More love for mountain climbing: “Machig Labdron once wrote, Unless all reality is made worse, one cannot attain liberation… So wander in grisly places and mountain retreats… do not get distracted by doctrines and books… just get real experiences… in the horrid and desolate.” “In other words,” I say, “face your demons.” “Exactly,” says Reggie. “Make a gift of your body to the demons of the mountains and wilderness. It’s the best way to destroy the last vestiges of one’s vanity and pride.” pg 346
This book in two lines: “We were metaphorical inches from hypothermia-which has a wider range of terrible symptoms than merely going to sleep and freezing to death, not the least of which would be intemperate belligerence and a need to rip our clothes off as we froze-and literal inches from a 9,000-foot drop to our south side and a 10,000-foot drop a few more feet away to the north side. But for the moment, we were very happy.” pg 554
And some people call that fun.
So, beyond being terrified during the climbing portions and bored by the never ending, rambling style of story-telling, I wanted much more of the fantastical in this tale, for example: the abominable snowman!
I’m not going to say anymore about yetis because I don’t want to spoil the surprising twists and turns of this tale for those who do choose to pick it up. Prepare yourself for one hell of a climb though- because it’s a long and meandering one.
Thanks for reading!