Lost souls, lost on a mountaintop (fictional mountain wilderness setting inspired by Mount San Jacinto, overlooking Palm Springs in California’s desert Coachella Valley, present): The Mountain Story is an impressive mountain survival tale that stimulates our senses. The strength of the sensory prose is cumulative, visually making us aware of a place, its smells and sounds, its timelessness. By doing so, you’ll quickly step into the shoes of four lost souls lost on a mountaintop 8,000 feet up, without food, water, or basic orienteering tools. Their stories unravel in life-and-death moments and in the ebb of time stretched to its limits. Our heightened sensitivities stir us because we know, like the four, no one is searching for them. They didn’t leave much behind.
“What happened up there changed my life … Hearing the story is going to change yours,” you’re told at the outset. What you’re also told – inside the jacket and introductory three-page letter addressed to the son of the male narrator, Wolf, one of the imperiled four – is Wolf got lost on that mountaintop with three female strangers for five days; three survived and he was obviously one of them since he penned the letter years afterward. You’re also told Wolf came to that mountaintop to end his life. You might call these spoilers. But they don’t spoil a thing!
Be assured, then, this commentary will also not spoil the thrill of this tense ride. Which means here you will not find out why 18-year-old Wolf wanted to kill himself on his birthday, the same day as his best friend’s, Byrd. Nor will you learn how the three women are connected, or their reasons for coming to the mountaintop, since that’s not revealed until page 60+.
It’s the sensory prose I want to talk about. For it deepens the emotional impact of Canadian author Lori Lansens’ gripping fourth novel.First, the locale. The author has fictionalized the name of the mountain wilderness area and tweaked geological details. But the tram the four ride up in, which “takes you from the Desert Station – the climate of Mexico – to the Mountain Station – the climate of Northern Canada – in less than twenty minutes. Palms to pines” is the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. According to the website, this tram is a 2 ½ mile feat of engineering genius, climbing to Mount San Jacinto. There’s only two others like it in the world: the tramcar’s floor rotates. This one is the world’s longest. You decide, then, if you’d experience this dangling, rotating transport marvel as “exciting” as Web commentators wrote, or react more like Lansens’ jittery women, who set a dicey tone for this nightmare in the wilds.
Enclosed in this high-wire, jolting tram, Wolf sizes up the women, before he even knows their names. He picks up on distinguishing features. So that’s how I’ll introduce them, noting names matter: Red Poncho, Green Flip-Flops (hmm, clearly not prepared; neither was Wolf, the most experienced mountaineer among them, for he came here for a different purpose), and Yellow Ponytail. When the tramcar lets them out at Mountain Station, there’s still a climb to the peak. “The climb speaks to our character, but the view, I think, to our souls,” says Wolf.
The real tram overlooks the wealthy resort city of Palm Springs. It contrasts sharply with the fictional town of Santa Sophia where the sad mobile home community Wolf’s been living at for the past five years, Tin Town, is located. The window we see bears the stereotype of white trash, marked by their lack of character and dignity rather than money. Wolf’s lot are a disgusting, out-of-control family: a repugnant, uncaring, loser of a father Frankie (“one of those guys people loved until they hated”); and a low-life aunt interestingly named Krikit, her coarse boyfriend, and crew of unkempt children fathered by many nameless. (Their dialogue can’t possibly be enchanted.) Something happened to Wolf’s mother, lovingly named Glory, which led Frankie to leave Michigan for the desert, accelerating his disgrace.
Already, a stunning contrast between Tin Town and the exalted mountains Wolf is addicted to “beyond love.” Already, we understand the pull of this place for Wolf. Here is where he searches for the answer to: “Could a guy learn on his own what it means to be a man?” Yes, he can, over five ill-fated days.
Mountain Time is perceived through five long chapters, each representing one intensely long day lost on the mountain. This is not the time zone but that floating perception of time when you lose yourself in Nature; or, in the most harrowing of imaginable and unimaginable wilderness crises, when time agonizingly stands still.
When faced with the impossible – rapid-fire crucial moments or five fighting days-worth – strangers fast become intimates. It’s partly why the novel is not fatalistic, but uplifting. Wolf bonds with the women, understandably a “comfort as I’d never known,” shining a bright light on the profoundness of human connections when tested in extreme situations.
Since names matter, let’s discuss Wolf’s. He has a “keen sense of smell.” Like wolves (and dogs), with something like 200 million olfactory cells versus our 5 to 6 million. There’s a name for Wolf’s acute sense of smell: hyperosmia. Wolf calls these smells “Endorphins. Inhale enough and you’re a mountain junkie.” When he smells butterscotch in the Jeffrey pines we almost taste sweetness. But it’s the camphor of wet sterasote bushes and the “quiet blue fragrance [that] meant rain” that counts when struggling to stay live. And these women are counting on Wolf. Feeling needed is intoxicating: Wolf has found the will to live and a heavy “sense of duty” to save them all.
When Wolf breathes in “ancient odors that spoke volumes of loss” he speaks for the Cahuilla Indians who once inhabited these mountains. He’s one-sixteenth Quebec Cree, so he’s been interested in Native Americans. Their healing arts, physical and spiritual, are woven into the dialogue and serve a crucial role.
There’s place names like Angel’s Peak, Devil’s Canyon, Secret Lake. Awe-inspiring and awe-frightening, like the “magnificent batholith” landscape that energizes versus the “horrible rock-ship” that torments. Again, the stark contrasts of Nature.
There’s rare mountain phlox around Secret Lake, a “magical oasis” intentionally not shown on maps, another challenge. Wolf identifies ironwood and lodgepole, with qualities that could aid. There’s also danger that a “large, loose boulder that could break off at any moment – or cling for another thousand years. That’s how it is with the rocks.” Rocks as “big as cars.” Rocks likened to “skyscrapers of gold-veined quartz.”
This wilderness is a meteorological roller-coaster. Wild and unpredictable. “The wind blew hard and mean, invading the spaces between the trees and rocks and us and courage.” The “fickle wind” plays disheartening tricks on the mind. “Mountain acoustics,” Wolf explains, means “you think you hear things – waterfalls, airplanes, voices.” Rescue that’s not there. Hope comes from someplace else, deep within us.
Wildlife is teeming. Again dramatic differences: lovely “singing finches” and majestic sightings of golden eagles, but lookout for coyotes and rattlesnakes that can sneak up on you.
Survival on that mountaintop brought “clarity, charity, perspective.” It lay bare, then transformed four lost souls. They showed us the heroes among us.