Michelle Paver’s (Chronicles of Ancient Darkness) eerie, atmospheric writing is magnificent. As soon as I began Thin Air, I was transported to the Himalayas of 1935, ready to join the expedition to conquer Kangchenjunga (the third highest peak in the world) and seek my own fortune and gain complete and utter glory.
For that is how Thin Air begins. A team of explorers is preparing to set off for Kangchenjunga, which had yet to be conquered. Stephen Pearce, a young doctor, heads to India to join his gung-ho brother, Kits, and three other men on the adventure of a lifetime. Kits worships the adventure-diary/memoir of a man named Lyell, who was the first to attempt this climb 25 years ago. He is using the memoir, Bloody, But Unbowed, as his guide and the team set about following the same track that Lyell’s expeditionary team took.
But Lyell’s team did not conquer the mountain and the title of his memoir gives away that the expedition didn’t exactly go to plan. One of their company died. His body was never found.
Before his team sets off for the mountain, Pearce runs into a member of Lyell’s team, Charles Tennant. Charles has chosen to remain in Nepal, but he is wheelchair-bound due to frostbite wounds that he accumulated on that ill-fated climb. Tennant snaps when Pearce mentions his quest. He warns Pearce not to go. The mountain holds more secrets than anyone knows.
Despite this ominous message, Pearce and his team set off for Kangchenjunga.
It’s Paver’s atmospheric scene-setting that makes Thin Air such a compelling read. I read it whilst sitting in the sunshine and, yet, I kept finding myself shivering. I expected to look up and be surrounded by snow.
The story just gets better and better as the team makes their way higher up the mountain. The climbing becomes more challenging and the weather closes in; their visibility is lost as they can barely see 3 feet in any direction. The writing gets incredibly claustrophobic as “mountain sickness” sets in.
The characters become paranoid and crazed as oxygen lessens and they slowly suffer from hypoxia. Paver’s writing suffers the same fate and the words become delightfully disjointed.
Because Thin Air is set in 1935, the characters aren’t carrying oxygen tanks or other such apparatus. Their only option for managing the lack of oxygen is to sit out the hypoxia and that’s when the story gets very creepy. Pearce takes Tennant’s warning to heart and continuously sees a figure following the team’s progress, but no one else believes him.
The ghostly descriptions of this figure made me feel so uneasy that I was very glad I was reading this in the sunshine otherwise I might’ve had to switch to something a little less scary. I wouldn’t say that Thin Air is a horror story, but it does have a few jumps in it. It is a perfect ghost story that left me very unsettled.
The description of the Sherpa helping Kits’ expedition was utterly fascinating. There were over 20 of them and they carried everything for the foreign (white) men that had set out to conquer one of their most sacred peaks. The presence of the Sherpa and the little insights into their mystical beliefs and stories surrounding the Himalayas made this book even more engaging and it really made me think.
When history discusses these great expeditions, one only really hears about the white men and their successes. You don’t hear that they had 10+ locals supporting them as they scaled these glaciers, conquered these mountain peaks and climbed to the top of some of the tallest places in the world.
The story of the Sherpa people vs. the Western World didn’t end last century. I recommend watching the brilliant documentary Sherpa. It does an incredible job of looking at the current politics that continue to play out for these mountain people.
Just as the Sherpa/ Westerner relationship continues today, Kits and his team chooses the route, choose where to make camp and lead the way, but it is the Sherpa who bring the supplies and ferry them up and down the mountain. They don’t query the route, though they probably know a better way up the mountain and never seem to complain. It did make me wonder how far these teams would’ve made it without the help from the Sherpa people.
Thin Air is the perfect mix of atmospheric claustrophobia and historical tidbits. I really felt like I was transported to 1935 and could feel, taste and smell the Himalayas. It chilled me, thrilled me and made me think – what more could you ask for in a ghost story?