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Originally published Sunday, December 2, 2012 at 5:10 AM

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‘The Storms of Denali’: when trust is fractured on a climbing expedition

Seattle author Nicholas O’Connell’s new novel, “The Storms of Denali,” imagines what happens when personal tensions threaten to sabotage the necessary teamwork on a climbing expedition. O’Connell reads from his book Wednesday at Seattle’s University Book Store.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Nicholas O’Connell

The author of “The Storms of Denali” will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E.; free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).

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‘The Storms of Denali’by Nicholas O’ConnellSnowy Owl Books, 295 pp., $23.95

Heights scare me. So, naturally, I marvel at what possesses perfectly sane people to rappel off vertical rock faces, much less scale the highest mountains. You call this fun?

Among other achievements, Seattle climber and author Nicholas O’Connell helps us understand the mountaineer mentality in his debut novel, “The Storms of Denali.” His neatly crafted tale of four men who tackle North America’s highest peak shows how the combination of adventure and physical risk attracts certain people like a drug.

O’Connell sets up the story as one of contrasts: His narrator, John Walker, has retired from the sport. He’s a partner in a Seattle mountaineering-supply store and is married with a young son. But he’s chafing in his low-altitude lifestyle. This makes him easy pickings when his former climbing partner, Wyn Mitchell, proposes a trek up an untested route to the top of Denali.

Wyn is John’s alter ego, with the reputation John might have had if he’d shared the same fearlessness and single-minded focus. But the taut, kinetic Wyn — I’m like a shark,” he says. “I have to keep moving” — is also egotistical and undiplomatic. This sets the stage for trouble as he alienates the team members brought on to pacify John’s wife.

Safety in numbers? Sounds plausible, but it’s not necessarily so at 10,000 feet and above, as “The Storms of Denali” shows. With storms swirling in from the Gulf of Alaska and the summit at 20,320 feet, the only tension you want to find up there is the kind that you get on a rope. So John and Wyn are taken aback when the climbers they recruited — Al, a Boeing engineer, and Lane, a firefighter — challenge Wyn, the self-appointed leader, with ideas of their own.

O’Connell successfully puts us in his character’s shoes as John witnesses the conflicting egos and survives the cold, avalanches, lack of oxygen and merciless terrain. John quotes a Polish alpinist who described high-altitude climbing as “the art of suffering.” At the same time, he marvels at a magical moonscape and vistas that only a mountain climber can witness firsthand.

“We entered a sublunar world of icefalls, broken rock, and faint stars. In this white wilderness, the world was reduced to elemental simplicity — black rock, dazzlingly white snow, and the merciless sun that would soon fry our faces, burn our necks, and bake our brains,” O’Connell writes in one of the book’s more poetic passages.

For the dedicated climber, it seems, contact with these elemental forces and the exhilaration that comes with reaching the top are more than adequate payback for their pains.

The novel is replete with terms familiar in the mountaineering world — belay, jumars, couloir — to the extent that a glossary might have been helpful. But O’Connell writes so clearly that we can infer what he means. More annoying were the few grammatical errors — minor, but still: As with climbing, there’s a technical side to the craft of writing, and details count.

As for the novel’s overall shape, O’Connell finds his larger theme in what can happen when trust is broken. Even those of us who don’t climb mountains can step into his fictional character’s crampons as John observes his teammates trading accusations and building the resentment that will cut them apart.

In most instances, the consequences of such a rupture are unfortunate. But on the mountain, they can be tragic. Clearly, “The Storms of Denali” alludes not just to the weather but also the storm systems that can disrupt human relationships.

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland writer and co-author of "Between the Covers: The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures."

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