- Published: 1 March 2022
- ISBN: 9780241534830
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 320
- RRP: $32.99
This year's most gripping thriller and Sunday Times Crime Book of the Month
In a cramped hotel room high above the prayer-flag-strewn streets of Thamel, the main tourist district of Kathmandu, Nepal, Cecily snapped her laptop shut. The opening to her article wasn’t right, but getting something down early soothed her jangled nerves. Far easier to whip a weak lede into shape than face a blank page.
She used to think a blank page was her greatest fear. Now, thanks to Charles McVeigh, she was about to face something far more terrifying.
The death zone of the eighth-highest mountain in the world.
Her head pounded after her excursion to Tom & Jerry’s the night before. She hadn’t intended to drink much, but one of her new teammates – Zak, the American – had been buying, and a hangover seemed like a small price to pay for the bonding she’d done with him. She needed to be on her game for this expedition, yet already she was starting off-balance.
A sharp knock on her hotel-room door brought her to her feet. She opened it, allowing her expedition leader, Doug Manners, and head guide, Mingma Lakpa Sherpa, to enter. They’d met her at the airport the day before, Doug instantly recognizable by the shock of silver hair against his mountain-tanned skin. Yet today, his shoulders were hunched and he seemed tired . . . not like the bold pioneering mountain man, legend of the British alpinism world she had pictured. She’d read a lot about his accomplishments in the high peaks: five Everest summits, from both the south and north side, along with numerous first ascents on some of the lesser-known peaks in the Karakoram and in the Andes. He’d spent many years guiding for one of the world’s premier high-altitude commercial expedition companies, Summit Extreme, before leaving to branch out on his own with Manners Mountaineering. He was known for his no-nonsense approach and his high regard for safety.
Mingma next to him was a slip of a man, and yet she knew he was a fifteen-time Everest summiteer. Cecily could barely wrap her head around the steel and bravery it would take to accomplish such a feat.
‘All set?’ Doug asked.
‘I think so.’ She flipped to the kit list printed and glued into the front of her notebook, and allowed them in to inspect the gear laid out neatly on the double bed. She’d already checked it a dozen times that morning, carefully marking off every item she’d been asked to bring. Nothing forgotten. Nothing left behind.
This time, on this mountain, she was determined to be prepared.
‘Feeling all right this morning?’ asked Mingma, a twinkle in his eye. He’d helped her make her way back to the hotel last night, providing directions to the Nepali taxi driver.
‘Yes, fine!’ She forced a grin, and he patted her on the arm, not pressing further.
She watched as Doug cast a critical eye over her gear. He lifted a piece of footwear, inspecting the sole. It was one of her enormous triple-layer, eight-thousand-metre-ready boots, wrapped in wasp-yellow gaiters that came up to her knees. Hers were pristine, unworn. They would be critical in protecting her toes from frostbite in the extreme cold, but hers were so big, she’d had to layer the inside with extra insoles. Almost all the high-altitude mountaineering gear – summit suits and boots – was made for male bodies. She had to adapt it all to fit.
‘Thank you both again for having me on this expedition,’ she said. ‘It must be strange having clients with you – I know you’ve been supporting Charles alone on his mission so far.’
‘It is our pleasure,’ said Mingma, his sparse moustache tickling the underside of his nose as he smiled. His warmth was a stark contrast to Doug’s grunts. Doug’s frown deepened as he moved on from her boots to inspect her orange-handled ice axe and harness.
‘I hope that one is OK,’ she said. ‘I googled the best harnesses for mountaineering and it had good reviews.’
‘It’ll do. One that clips round the legs would have been better.’
Her cheeks reddened. ‘Oh. I didn’t know.’
‘You should have asked – Google’s not going to save you at eight thousand metres.’ Doug placed the harness back on to the bed, careful not to tangle the loops. ‘Normally when I run an expedition, I only take climbers with the right experience. You never know when a mountain will turn on you. It’s not just your own life you put at risk up there.’
‘My last summit attempt taught me that,’ she said, suppressing a shudder. ‘I actually wrote something about it online. I don’t know if you saw . . .’
Doug looked blank. ‘I don’t really keep up with the internet.’
‘Oh, of course you don’t. I only thought you might’ve seen it because Charles says it’s the reason he invited me on the expedition . . .’ She was embarrassed to have brought it up, but pleased at the same time. At least one person on the trip hadn’t read her now-infamous viral blog post ‘Failure to Rise’ – all about her total inability to reach the summit of the mountains she attempted. Once Zak had realized who she was, he’d insisted on buying another round of shots.
‘Looks like everything is in order here. I need to check on the others,’ said Doug. ‘When you’ve packed up, leave your duffels in the room and Mingma will bring them down. Meet in the lobby at eleven hundred sharp, then we’ll head to the airport.’
Cecily straightened. ‘Got it.’ She surveyed the vast amount of kit to pack up. This was her life savings. Everything she owned was on this bed. She caught Mingma’s eye. ‘Do you think I’ve brought too much?’
Mingma laughed. ‘You should see Mr Zak’s list. I think he is bringing a photo album of his children to the summit. What are you taking to the top?’
She chewed on her bottom lip. ‘To be honest, I haven’t thought that far . . .’
‘You haven’t?’ He blinked, taken aback. ‘They sell flags all over in Thamel. Why don’t you see if you can get one? You have a bit of time.’
‘Really? Great idea. Thanks, Mingma. I’ll go once I’ve finished here.’
He bowed his head, before following Doug out of the room. Cecily folded her clothes into packing cubes, stacked them inside the duffel bag, and checked each item off her list again.
‘Summit flag’ wasn’t on it. Of course she should have something to take to the top, to hold up in a photograph. Why hadn’t she thought about it before?
As she made her way out on to the bustling streets, the answer was obvious.
Because you don’t think you’re going to make it.
Could a building sweat? If someone were to ask him, Walter O’Brien would say no.
AnnieLee had been standing on the side of the road for an hour, thumbing a ride, when the rain started falling in earnest.
CARTER VON OEHSON MIXED himself a tall gin and tonic from behind the polished mahogany bar of his father’s billiard room, topping it off with a squeeze of lime.
The first three men came stumbling into town shortly after ten a.m., babbling of dark shapes and eerie screams and their missing buddy Scott and their other buddy Tim, who set out from their campsite before dawn to get help.
Matthew Butler cocked his head to one side, considering the big-boned blonde in front of him.
The Pratt & Whitney radial engines rasped and hunted as they struggled to inhale the high-altitude air.
The dead man lived up the hill. We could have walked, if the world wasn’t ending and we didn’t have to bring him back.
I ’m not afraid of flying. The chances of dying in a plane crash for the average frequent flyer are one in eleven million.