Aspen Times Weekly: Reaching for the ‘Summit’
Harry Farthing had summited Mt. Blanc, the Matterhorn, Kilimanjaro, and McKinley. He’d climbed in the Himalaya and on Everest, adventured in the Arctic and the Amazon. But the Brit had never taken on the challenge of writing a book until he retired to the U.S.
Farthing’s debut novel, “Summit,” was published this summer. It combines the tactile details of Farthing’s climbing experiences with his passion for history to make a page-turning tale that’s part Mount Everest adventure, part alternate history and all thriller.
“I wrote it as a bucket list thing, really,” Farthing, 52, told me recently over coffee at the Spring Café in Aspen during a stop on his Colorado motorcycle trip.
Books, he found, were an intrinsic part of his mountaineering travels. At Mount Everest base camp and other hotspots, novels were invariably passed around among climbers — they tended to be long books for long flights and long nights before ascents, popular fiction like James Ellroy’s crime potboilers and the “Harry Potter” series.
“The prerequisite was that it was going to be an interesting, thick book,” he says. “And I thought, ‘Nobody’s ever really done it with mountaineering.’”
He wanted to write the kind of book that might get passed around among climbers.
“Summit” opens with Englishman and Everest guide Neil Quinn guiding a teenage son of privilege to the summit. The ascent turns tragic. And Quinn’s discovery of an antique ice axe and camera on the peak link him to a Nazi-sponsored expedition up Mount Everest in the late 1930s, which draws him into an underworld of neo-Nazis and international gangsters.
It’s a book of vividly drawn villains and heroes, but its backbone is the realism of its details about the climbing experience and its fascinating use of kernels of climbing history. The book also has some wicked fun with the dark side of commercial climbing operations.
“There are amplifications of behaviors I’ve seen — of summit glory, pushing people to get summit bonuses, people making money on the side with oxygen, people ending up in court over bad oxygen,” Farthing says. “Sure, I’ve seen all that.”
Farthing was a voracious reader and dutiful journal writer during his climbing days. But rather than going pro, he “sort of sold out” and went into commercial real estate to help bankroll his adventures (the job also enabled him to live in the Alps for a dozen years).
Several years ago — when he retired early, moved to the U.S. and settled in Charleston, South Carolina with his family — he finally sat down to write the novel he knew he had in him.
“I said, ‘OK, I’ll take a year or two out and just write,’” he recalls. “And you hope that it’ll be the next big thing but you suspect that probably 200 people will read it, your mother will say it’s lovely and your friends will say, ‘Alright, don’t give up your day job.’”
He finished the book and self-published a version of it in 2014. That book drew the notice of the Gernert literary agency and led to a book deal with Blackstone Publishing, who released a more polished version this summer.
It may not yet be “the next big thing,” as Farthing put it, but it has drawn some notice online and may be on its way to becoming the kind of cult novel that gets passed around at base camps. As a debut author, Farthing is putting in the legwork to spread the word about the novel — which is part of what sent him tramping around Colorado for the first time this fall.
When we met downtown he’d just sped down Independence Pass, out-running a fall snowstorm. He made his way here from Camp Hale, where he was researching a new historical novel involving the 10th Mountain Division.
“In my climbing days, I met so many people from Colorado and I’d always hear, ‘You gotta go to Telluride, Breckenridge, you’ve gotta go here!’” he recalls.
With two young kids at home, his international climbing days are on pause for now, but a solo motorbike trip was doable. So he rented a Harley in Denver and zig-zagged the Centennial state sightseeing and talking to bookshops and writers about “Summit.” With the wide release of “Summit” from Blackstone, Farthing wanted to get it in the hands of high-country Coloradoans for the obvious reasons.
“If they don’t get my book in Colorado, they’re not going to get it anywhere,” he says.
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