Cecily is famous for not making it to the summit of high mountains. She’s still a bit gobsmacked that the famous Charles McVeigh has invited her to be the only journalist on his final push to break a world record: to summit all fourteen mountains above the death-line of 8000 meters in a single year, alpine-style (no fixed lines, no supplemental oxygen, etc). There’s a catch, though. McVeigh has invited her on this trip, but she only gets the big interview after she makes it to the summit. Cecily has little confidence going into this experience, despite training hard, but she also has no other choice. Without that interview, her career is over. So even when the first fellow mountaineer dies in a freak accident before the climb even begins, and whispers of a killer on the mountain trickle through camp, Cecily must keep going.
Wow, this book was a trip. Definitely the best thriller I’ve read in quite some time! It probably helps that McCulloch has actually climbed Manaslu, the mountain this story centers on. Her real-life experience allows for incredibly realistic sensory writing, not just limited to emotion and sight/sound. The little details: condensation collecting inside the oxygen masks. The change in the color of the sky as you gain elevation. The varying and unpredictable reactions to altitude change. I don’t think the book would have been nearly so evocative without the experience behind it.
I loved that this was set up in a more traditional mystery style than with modern-day thriller tropes. From the prologue, you know – or at least there is the assumption – that the killer is a man, and as different men are introduced, they are each immediately under suspicion for one reason or another. I personally had two theories in mind from the beginning, and in a way, both ended up being right! It didn’t all come together exactly as I was expecting, though, so I wouldn’t say it was predictable. By the end, there were quite a few unanswered questions – it makes me wish I could discuss it with someone!!
One of my favorite aspects of Breathless is the respect McCulloch pays to the Sherpas and their culture. I’m no mountaineer, and while I love hiking, I have no desire to scale one of those giant Himalayan mountains. My opinion may be entire irrelevant because of this. However, I feel like the Sherpas are the true mountaineers and the true heroes of these mountains. To hear some of the things they were doing – how many times they scale the mountains; how they fix the lines and cart up ladders and even carry plush furniture up the mountain for some spoiled-rich clients! It’s just beyond imagination, and yet, they stay quietly in the background, appreciated perhaps by clients but hardly noticed by the world so fixed on the (usually white, usually male) mountaineers who plunk their flags at the summit. McCullogh spent some of the novel’s time with the Sherpas, one on one and also detailing some of their rituals, prayers, and beliefs. I loved that.
The only real downside to the book for me – and this is purely because I’m an American who was never taught the world’s measurement system – is how often I had to put the book down to do meters-to-feet conversions. Actually, funny story: When I first read the prologue, I was really surprised to hear that 8000+ meters is considered the death zone, where oxygen is so thin that your body is slowly dying the longer you stay above it. My brain automatically thought “feet” instead of “meters,” and I was thinking of all the people I know regularly climbing 14k-footers in Colorado, and how Jason and I were up around 6500 feet on one of our hikes last fall, and sure, the air was thinner than I’m used to, but surely it wasn’t that close to the death line? It took a few minutes for my brain to click. Meters, not feet. Do you know what 8000 meters converts to in feet? 26,247. That’s a LOT of climbing. Heh.