Review: The Everest Files

The-Everest-Files

The Everest Files, by Matt Dickinson (Vertebrate Publishing 2014)

As a parent, as well as an author and book reviewer, it has recently come to my attention that there is a scarcity of adventure stories of the kind I grew up on—the traditional kind, where the young heroes would encounter physical challenges in far-flung parts of the world, occasionally dealing with a few criminals along the way. Most recently published books aimed at older children and young adults have tended towards fantasy or adolescent travails, often both at once. There is nothing wrong with either of these genres (I am writing a fantasy series myself), but those old-style adventure stories had the advantage of transporting the reader to a world that was fresh and exciting and yet, at the same time, real.  For this and other reasons, I jumped at the chance to review Matt Dickinson’s The Everest Files.

Reports of Everest expeditions tend to be dominated by images of well-known climbers standing alone and triumphant at the summit. What has not always been obvious is that their achievements may have been impossible without teams of remarkable Sherpa climbers, who offer invaluable assistance and carry huge quantities of equipment and supplies. Uniquely, The Everest Files adopts the point of view of a Sherpa, 16-year-old Kami, in describing the ascent of the world’s highest mountain.

The novel begins as a fairly straightforward mystery.  Teenager Ryan Hart travels to Nepal to work with a charitable organization during his gap year and is tasked with delivering medical supplies to a remote village. A rapid series of misadventures results in Ryan falling ill and being nursed back to health by local girl Shreeya. To repay Shreeya for her kindness, he agrees to help her discover what has happened to Kami, a friend who has been missing since he accompanied an expedition to Everest.

The real plot of The Everest Files begins when Ryan finds Kami and begins to learn his story. When he was eight, an illegal ceremony had bound Kami in a marriage pact with another Nepalese child, Laxmi. To escape this marriage pact and marry Shreeya, whom he really loves, he must pay Laxmi’s father many thousands of rupees.  It is in the hopes of earning this money that Kami decides to take part in an Everest expedition led by Alex Brennan, an American politician whose presidential ambitions play a potent part in the unfolding plot.

This setup sounds quite complex, but Matt Dickinson’s direct, fast-paced style of writing proves to be more than enough to keep the reader engaged. By approaching the story of Kami from Ryan’s perspective, Dickinson quickly turns the young Sherpa into a character who is both interesting and sympathetic. The author skilfully moves the plot forward, throwing in a brief detour in which Kami and Shreeya endeavour to rescue a snow leopard and her cubs from a poacher, before bringing the story to the place where it really wants to be, the treacherous slopes of Everest itself.

It is when the story reaches Everest that Matt Dickinson’s skills as a writer really come into their own. Unlike many adventure story writers, he is not working purely from imagination. Dickinson has climbed this mountain all the way to the summit himself, and as the story progresses, the reader begins to get some understanding of what this entails. Those ascending the mountain pass the dead bodies of earlier climbers, and the very fact that it is not possible to retrieve these climbers’ bodies shows just how dangerous the mountain is.  For the people making the ascent, these encounters must be chilling beyond belief. Dickinson is never gratuitous in his portrayal of this disturbing aspect of the Everest experience. He affords the dead the same profound respect he shows the mountain, and respect is something Everest clearly demands. As Kami and his companions ascend into a world of unimaginable cold, violent storms, sheer icy slopes, sudden avalanches, sporadic rock falls, and altitudes that are beyond the capacity of most human lungs, it becomes clear that anyone who climbs Everest is on a journey that is as much psychological and spiritual as it is physical.

I have to admit, I tried rock climbing only once, when I was about 16.  The slope was not much steeper than your average playground slide. The distance from ground to summit (and the word summit in this context is decidedly tongue-in-cheek) was about ten feet. I gave up half way. In retrospect, this was slightly illogical, because descending at that point was probably more difficult than continuing to the top.  I bring this up now, because reading The Everest Files made me question my subsequent decision to avoid any kind of challenge that involved ropes, rappels, and harnesses. I am not saying that I am preparing to throw on the crampons and head out to buy an ice axe right now, but Matt Dickinson brings the mountain to life to such an extent that, for all its immense risk, it exerts an ethereal appeal.

So is The Everest Files a traditional adventure story? In many ways it is; it is an exciting, fast-paced yarn set in an environment that is exhilarating but real. However, it is also underpinned by a powerful sense of nature as something to be respected rather than conquered, a viewpoint that did not necessarily feature in the adventure stories I read as a child.

This book is aimed at teenagers, but I have passed it on to my ten-year-old son, and he is enjoying it immensely. Parents should bear in mind that Matt Dickinson’s depiction of the Everest ascent is unremitting in its realism, and consequently some parts of the story may be a little bit frightening for younger readers. Nonetheless, I recommend The Everest Files wholeheartedly for readers aged 12 and over.

This article was originally published on The Swallows Nest Children’s Books Site. It is reprinted with that site’s permission.

© Safie Maken Finlay 2014

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