Above All Things by Tanis Rideout: A Britmums Bookclub Book Review
In the past, I have found that I have enjoyed reading novels based on historic events like Victoria Hislop's The Island which is set in the Greek island of Spinalonga, off the coast of Crete, at the time it was used as a leper colony. I also really enjoyed Hislop's The Thread, again looking at historical events in Thessaloniki through the lives of fictional characters.
And so I found that I also enjoyed Above All Things. But this time it was different knowing that the characters were based on real people. Specific individuals whose tragic fate is all too known with George Mallory and Sandy Irvine never returning from their attempt to be the first to reach the summit of Everest.
But the book was just the beginning. After finishing the book. I kept wanting to pick it up again, to read more, to find out more about how Ruth and the children were coping. To read again of what must have been some of the most breathtaking views on the planet. To try to better understand that balance between wisdom, passion and the 'driven-ness' of wanting to be the first to conquer Everest.
At the end of the book the author explains a little more behind the fascination with the George Mallory story and the research that went into the book. And it left me wanting to see for myself who these people were, what they looked like in their mountain climbing clothing of the time, and what the thinking was about whether they did actually reach the summit.
I found myself randomly doing google searches, seeing photos of Everest, seeing photos of the 1924 team, finding details of lives lost on that mountain.
Lacking the time to be organised I didn't keep a list of sources or links but some of the fascinating things I found from my google searches blurred into my mind intertwining with the story I had just finished reading.
I found it interesting that despite the perils of the mountain and the tragic loss of Mallory and Irvine, both Mallory's grandson and the grandson of Somerville followed in their grandfathers' footsteps climbing Everest many years later.
It was also incredible to read about how when Mallorys body was found in 1999, that despite many of his belongings such as receipts and notes on oxygen cylinders had been preserved, the photo of Ruth that he'd promised to leave on the summit wasn't on him, leading to further speculation that he had indeed reached the summit.
I found my mind desperately trying to make sense of just why they carried on that day despite being behind on their own timings which they had wanted to stick to which would have helped them abort the mission and return in time to not be caught out by nightfall.
And then I came across this piece which explains 'summit fever' really well and along with the photos helped me to understand that George Mallory would not have wanted to turn back at that point.
It seems, even today, that summit fever is still an ever present danger with many dying on the slopes of Everest by being caught out by that deceptively close summit when in the final stages of their climb.
This story is far from being only relevant to the past as it fascinates and captures the imagination even now. Recent events inspired by the 1924 expedition include tests being conducted in replica clothing to see if Mallory's and Irvine's clothing would have been up to the job of getting them up Everest. And a relatively recent film (2010) made about the 1924 attempt - Only weeks after the film being made, Natasha Richardson who had played the voice of Ruth, was killed in a skiing accident. A tragic and stark reminder of just how dangerous mountains are.
There also remains the possibility of history being re-written if the camera they were carrying is ever found. Thought to be with the body of Sandy Irvine, it could contain clues about summit success or otherwise. Leaving the story still unended and without full closure.
As I've found myself pondering Above All Things over the past few weeks since finishing the book, I flit between wondering how they could have let themselves be caught out by the mountain and pay the ultimate price out there. Surely they cared more about their families and loved ones than about the mountain. Then a moment later, I find myself understanding their decision not to turn back - to want something so desperately that they lose sight of the bigger picture. To want something so much and for so many - they must have felt an immense pressure on them particularly in light of a failed 1921 attempt, the difficulties of the war years and Everest being considered the third pole.
So why was it not enough for them? They'd already achieved new height records. The world of science and exploration already had a lot to thank them for. Why push to the limit? Why pay the ultimate price? Why not put safety ahead of success and be satisfied with returning home to family?
Perhaps we all have Everests of our own. Ok so they may not be as high profile or as spectacular. Perhaps we are not faced with having to pay the ultimate price. But it did make me think whether we are all guilty at times of wanting something so much, of losing perspective, of putting things ahead of our families that really we shouldn't do.
I am thankful to the book for reminding me of that. For reminding me of what I have and what I treasure most and to remember to put my loved ones first 'Above All Things'.
Read other reviews of Above All Things on the Britmums Bookclub linky here.
Disclosure: As a member of Britmums bookclub, I received a copy of the book for the purposes of review. All opinions are my own.