Why do some people climb mountains? As the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung wrote, quoting the poet Friedrich Holderlin, “Danger itself fosters the rescuing power.” It’s an observation backed up by the lower suicide rate recorded during the London Blitz.
For some, to shuck the comforts of civilization is a primal urge.
Or, as Queen Anne resident Nicholas O’Connell, 55, husband and father of three, has put it: For some, life is a beach; for others, a mountain.
His debut novel, “The Storms of Denali,” has garnered impressive reviews — “a page- turner,” wrote David Guterson; “thrilling ride and danged satisfying read,” wrote Charles Johnson — and puts new life back into that most shopworn of book-review clichés: “taut thriller.”
O’Connell’s fictional account of four young men pioneering a new route up the tallest peak in North America is told with the clarity, detail, horror and refrigerated beauty of someone who has been there: O’Connell summited the 20,320 foot Denali (formerly Mount McKinley) in the Alaska Range in the 1980s.
As to why he did it, “Denali” narrator and O’Connell alter ego, John Walker, a family man like O’Connell who happens to live on Queen Anne, provides insight: “There was great beauty here, but also great danger. It was hard to separate the two.”
O’Connell, author of several nonfiction books, teaches writing at the University of Washington and is founder of www.thewritersworkshop.net. He leads travel-writing workshops to Tuscany. The academic does not disdain civilization or its trappings.
And, yet, “Mountaineering contradicts our desire to be warm, comfortable. It’s a challenge,” O’Connell said in a late November interview at upper Queen Anne’s Caffé Ladro. “It’s so beautiful. It stirs something approaching awe. It touches a switch that is an older way of being. For me, it’s that edge; I like pushing up against it.”
A ‘straight adventure story’
In his novel, the sometimes-fractious interplay between the two lead characters — John and group leader Wyn Mitchell, a Nietzsche-reading, world-class mountaineer — is as intricate and consequential as the positioning of ice picks and crampons on a wall of ice.
Danger does not iron out the differences between the four; ultimately, the book is about the behavior of humans in extreme conditions. Though narrator Walker is the group’s voice of reason, moderation in pursuit of a summit may be no virtue. Or, as the go-for-broke Mitchell puts it, “Speed is safety.”
Descents are almost always most perilous. The group breaks up, fracturing a cardinal climbing rule: Frostbite, hypothermia, hunger, high-altitude sickness play into their overtaxed brains.
When tragedy strikes, it resonates in complex ways.
O’Connell, at one level, has written a straight adventure story, the way the “Odyssey” might be considered a straight adventure story. Readers who take O’Connell’s journey will know they have been somewhere else — Northwest flatlanders may never complain about a little winter chill again — but deeper and abiding questions about human behavior mark the way.
“I wanted to create a specific world,” O’Connell said. He did.
“The Storms of Denali,” published by University of Alaska Press. 296 pages. Hardcover, $23.95.
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