A Deathful Ridge: A Novel of Everest. J.A. Wainwright. Mosaic Press: Ontario, Canada and Buffalo, New York, 1997. Hardback. 138 pages. $24.95
If you are the least bit intrigued by the 1924 disappearance of George Leigh Mallory and Andrew “Sandy” Irvine on the upper reaches of Everest’s Northeast Ridge, you will savor every word and be utterly astonished by this superbly researched, brilliant first novel by Canadian poet and author J.A. Wainwright. This book (a novel of fiction, lest you forget) is impressively detailed in its outrageous yet believable story line that is intimately and passionately told. You may never again think of mountaineering’s most famous unsolved mystery quite the same. Did Odell really see Mallory and Irvine going “strong for the top” above the Second Step on June 8, 1924? And how did the famous ice axe (identified as Irvine’s by its three short parallel nicks carved into the wooden shaft; I’ve seen it) come to rest near the First Step? And most entrancing of all: did Mallory actually reach the summit? The novel’s only-at-first incredulous premise demands that I don’t tell you more. Secrecy is absolute, “till death do we part,” and a gentlemen’s honourable pact. In this year of Everest and the Titanic, even the great ship gets a couple of pages! (Quite logically, I might add.) Read this book and delight in reconsidering the myriad riddles of the intertwined mythology of George Mallory and Mt. Everest. This profound investigation of the mountaineering psyche, of the climber’s life, blinding ambition, and high-altitude death—succinctly rationalized by Mallory’s infamous quote “because it’s there”—will leave you reeling.