With the final book in Matt Dickinson's Everest Files series now complete, we're offering you an exclusive opportunity to read an excerpt from the first chapter for free! Grab a comfy seat and get stuck in, and if you'd like to share what you think about Killer Storm we'd love to hear your feedback on Facebook or Twitter.
Killing the crow was how the trip began. I should have known that things could only get worse.
The violent death of the bird was telling me NOT to try and climb Shiva Direct that day. I was riding my motorbike at the time. My Tibetan girlfriend Tashi was on the back. We had finished work at the refugee camp and were heading out for a weekend’s climbing on one of Nepal’s most challenging cliffs.
‘It looks like another dust storm is coming in,’ Tashi shouted in my ear. ‘Sure you don’t want to change your mind, Ryan?’
A great reddish-brown cloud was massing ominously on the horizon.
These dry storms had become a regular scourge in this zone of Nepal. The monsoon summer rains had failed for two years in a row. Topsoil was blown off thousands of desiccated fields, countless tons of airborne dust particles merging with ferocious thermal currents.
The result was lightning, not rain.
The local farmers spoke of these storms in superstitious tones. They were generated by evil spirits, they whispered, by devils and demons.
Lightning bolts had struck the camp we worked at on numerous occasions in recent months. Forest fires had raged close by.
I twisted the accelerator. The motorbike engine throbbed like an angry wasp.
Ahead of us I could see the cliffs. A little kick of adrenaline swept through my body.
It was a well-timed trip. A wild experience out here would help me focus on my dilemma. My university back in England had written with a final ultimatum: take up my place to study as a vet, or lose the offer for good.
Trouble was I was still obsessed with climbing Everest. That was why I was hanging out in Nepal, hoping I could find a way back to the mountain. I saw an obstacle ahead, birds pecking at some sort of roadkill.
‘Ten points for a crow!’ I laughed. I accelerated a little, just for a joke.
The first of the birds launched skywards, flapping clear. Others followed. I saw the roadkill was a young deer.
One of the crows was not so sharp.
It hit the visor of my helmet with a sickening thud. Tashi screamed. The air filled with feathers and a thin spray of blood.
I stopped the motorbike. The bird was lying dead behind us. Crumpled. Broken. ‘Poor thing,’ Tashi shook her head, looking pale.
I took a tissue and tried to scrape my visor clean, succeeding only in spreading the blood across it.
‘Bad karma,’ Tashi said. A moment later she ran to the verge and was sick.
We kept heading north, the remains of the poor crow gradually congealing in front of my eyes.
I was seeing the world through a haze of blood. But I was too stupid to see what it meant.
A year had passed since Tashi and I had been on Everest.
We had shared an incredible adventure together on the North Face. But we hadn’t summited. The ultimate Everest experience was still waiting. Hardly a day went by that we didn’t talk about going back. Hardly a day went by that I didn’t take my precious Everest books out of the battered tin trunk that contained my possessions, poring over the images of that most magical of peaks.
Now we were working in a refugee camp in Nepal, helping to care for the thousands of Tibetans who had crossed the border in search of a new life. Tashi was Tibetan as well, forced out of her homeland by the repressive policies of the Chinese government. Most evenings, after the potato peeling and washing up had finished, Tashi and I would take a trek to the top of a small hill next to the camp.
From there we could see Everest. Far away in the distance. Enigmatic. Alluring. Inescapable. I normally took my camera and telephoto lens, capturing the ways the different moods of light played on the high slopes.
‘How are you going to get this mountain out of your system?’ Tashi asked me one time with a smile. ‘Is it even possible?’
‘Only one way,’ I replied. ‘Reach the top.’
She squeezed my arm. ‘You need help,’ she laughed.
‘I’d prefer 50,000 dollars,’ I said. ‘Buy my way on to a team.’
We walked back to the camp, hand in hand as the final rays of light fell across the Himalaya. Both of us knew my Everest dream was likely to stay just that – a dream.
Life was simple in the camp but these were uncertain times for Nepal. The collapse of the monsoon had cast a dark shadow over the lands around the refugee centre.
Hunger was in the eyes of the children who came to the camp gates looking for scraps. Dust storms whipped through the valleys. Vultures scoured the skies, looking for animals too weak to resist another day without water, without fodder.
A ticking environmental clock was pushing the people of Nepal closer and closer to the edge. A clock was ticking for me too. A different type of countdown, but one just as pressing.
‘I feel like I’m split down the middle,’ I confessed to Tashi. ‘One version of me wants to go back to England, qualify as a vet, help my parents with the family farm.
The other version … well, you know … ’
Tashi looked at me with those jet-black Tibetan eyes. She had been so patient with me, far more patient than I deserved.
‘You need a sign,’ she said.
‘A sign?’ I laughed. ‘Like a bolt from the blue?’
‘Could be anything,’ Tashi laughed. ‘Fate needs to decide for you.’
‘Why don’t we go to the Buddha Cliffs?’ Tashi said. ‘Climb one of those big routes we’ve had our eyes on? Maybe a change of scene will help you make up your mind?’
We filled up my motorbike with petrol and packed our climbing gear in a rucksack.
Two hours later, after the crow incident, we reached the Buddha Cliffs.
‘Got to love this place,’ Tashi said.
The location was spectacular; a vast wall of rock into which a ten-metre-high Buddha figure had been carved. Pilgrims flocked to the spot. Climbers too.
We had no money to pay for a guesthouse; our trip was low budget, wild camping in a leaky old canvas tent. Food was basic that night, a plate of pasta daubed in tomato sauce.
We camped close to the crag, pitching the tent on ground so baked by an unrelenting sun that it felt like sleeping on concrete.
I reached into my pocket for my lucky charm, the palmsized metal shrine bell I had been given by my Nepali friends Shreeya and Kami.
It was unusually cold to the touch. I shivered. The crow incident had been a real downer. I felt stupid for shouting that thing about ten points.
A sense of foreboding suddenly hit me.
A cluster of dark thoughts crowded into my mind.
Neither of us had ever been injured on our crazy climbing weekends.
But there was always a first time.
Breakfast was a muesli bar and a cup of sweet tea.
Then we were off to the cliff, ropes draped over our shoulders, harnesses jangling with the metal chinking of karabiners and other bits of climbing gear.
‘Let’s do a couple of warm-up routes,’ Tashi said.
The morning went well and my depression lifted. Half a dozen pitches with Tashi put me in a great mood, the climbing challenging and fun.
A couple of other groups turned up, students from a nearby college and some serious Nepali rock athletes we had seen profiled in climbing magazines.
We had sandwiches for lunch, sheltering beneath a twisted old jacaranda tree. A distant rumble of thunder broke the air and Tashi turned towards me.
‘How about the two of us try Shiva Direct?’
A jolt of adrenaline rushed through me.
Shiva Direct was a classic, graded at a level I aspired to but had never yet achieved.
Climbing it successfully would be a total rush.
We finished off our cheese butties and trekked up to the cliff face. Shiva Direct soared above us, a blunt and uncompromising wall of vertical rock many hundreds of metres high.
‘Better get a move on,’ Tashi said. She pointed to the south where the brooding front of a new dust storm was now gathered. ‘You want to lead?’ I didn’t need to be asked twice. We uncoiled the rope and I tied on. Minutes later I was making moves on the route, climbing rapidly up the strenuous first section, relieved to find a range of decent handholds and footholds.
‘Nice work, Ryan,’ Tashi called up. ‘Looking good.’
There were no bolts on the wall. The climb relied on my own skill at finding protection. Every five or six metres I had to find a natural feature, which I could exploit as an anchor.
A blustering wind began. My body swayed with the power of it. The rock became more challenging as the friendly features of the lower section gave way to a more hostile environment.
Handholds became finger jams. Platforms that could take a whole foot became narrow cracks in which a toehold was the best that could be hoped for.
I found myself losing track of time. The problem-solving aspect of climbing meant my mind was utterly focused and absorbed. All the everyday cares of life simply dissolved on a route like this.
‘Get some protection in,’ Tashi called up. I looked down, finding to my surprise that I had ascended almost half a rope length without putting in any safety gear.
I slotted a camming device into a crack and clipped the rope into it with a karabiner.
‘Come on up,’ I told Tashi. She began to climb, supported by the belay I had rigged.
Another wind front throbbed through the air. A blast of skin-stinging dust hit the crag. A handful of gravel came pinging down the cliff. I pressed my face close to the rock, the little stones clattering off the plastic shell of my helmet.
A warning. The wind was dislodging loose debris. Anything bigger could get serious.
I felt my hair prickle. The dust storm was loading the air with static.
‘My brain’s beginning to buzz,’ Tashi called up. Her voice was clipped, serious. ‘We need to get off this route.’
I stared down the cliff, my heart sinking as I saw how high we were. Abseiling down would be complicated and time-consuming.
I craned my neck in the other direction, staring up the cliff. Half a pitch above us was a break in the sheer rock. ‘It looks like there’s a ledge,’ I told her. ‘I’ll take a look.’
A slender crack split the route above me. I finger-jammed my way up it, my knuckles raw and bloodied by the sharp granite. Lightning flashed on the crag top. The air was humming with electric charge.
The dust was thicker now, a lung-clogging red haze. The route became overhanging. My feet scrambled for purchase in a crumbling crack. I could feel lactic acid building in the muscles of my arms. My breathing began to accelerate.
The route had a sting in the tail.
I gritted my teeth, hurriedly smashing in a piton, the steel singing with the hammer blows as a further electric roar filled the valley.
A sling gave me protection. Three stretchy moves got me through the hard section. I got to the ledge and jugged up on to it.
A quick glance told me what I needed to know. The ledge was a perfect refuge from the wind and lightning, a stony platform with a scooped-out little overhang at the back.
‘There’s space for both of us,’ I yelled. Just to the left of the cave was a convenient spike of rock.
I draped a sling over it and snapped the rope on with a figure-of eight device.
‘Climb when you’re ready,’ I called down. A muffled cry from Tashi came back and I tightened up the line as the anchor took her weight.
Five minutes later I could hear her panting on the crux section below me. The sound of her boots jamming into the tiny footholds. An occasional grunt. Then two rippedup hands clutched at the rock ledge and a dust-covered face popped up.
‘Nice find!’ Tashi exclaimed. She flopped on to the rocky platform beside me.
Two minutes of co-ordinated shuffling got us side by side, pressed into the tiny cave. I shivered as the wind rocked us again.
A flash of intense light ripped the air. Ear-splitting thunder a second later.
‘Dust storm getting closer,’ Tashi muttered. The sharp, explosive smell of scorched rock swept down. There was a sulphurous tang to the air. A boulder tumbled heavily down the cliff face, passing just a few metres to the left of our ledge.
‘You still call this fun?’ Tashi smiled. ‘Let’s have a brew.’
I shrugged off the little backpack, opening it up carefully and taking out the few items it contained. An emergency foil blanket. My drinks flask. A compact camera. A balaclava and spare set of gloves.
A glint of metal caught Tashi’s eye.
‘Should have known you’d have your talisman along for the ride,’ she said.
She picked up the object, the brass bell that I kept close to me at all times.
‘You know how it is,’ I told her. ‘Superstition and all that.’
Tashi turned the little bell in her hands, tracing the engravings one by one.
‘I remember how you carried this on Everest,’ she said. ‘Maybe it really did bring us luck.’
Tashi held the polished wooden handle and shook the bell, the delicate ‘ting’ sounding alien and bizarrely out of place amidst the elemental roar of the storm.
‘We might need a prayer or two,’ she remarked. ‘Help us get off this climb in one piece.’
She frowned, juggling the bell from one hand to the other. ‘Strange,’ she passed it back to me. ‘It feels like it’s alive.’
I cradled the bell in my hands, my fingers tingling as the object throbbed. The metal bell was acting as a conductor, the atmosphere alive with lightning charge.
I had experienced similar events in other electrical storms. Ice axes could spit out sparks as tens of thousands of volts raged through the air.
We could hear it buzzing in our ears. I could taste it, ferrous, on my tongue.
‘Whoa!’ The bell began to heat up. Suddenly it was red hot.
My fingers fumbled. I dropped it. The bell tumbled on to the ledge, bouncing instantly towards the drop.
Tashi gasped. I lunged out, snatching the bell as it bounced. At that precise moment a deafening explosion rent the air. A blinding flash came with it. For the briefest of moments I felt I had been speared through the shoulder.
I saw Tashi’s eyes wide with shock.
I smelled burning flesh.
Then everything went dark.
Told sensitively and with personal insight, Ruth Eastham’s debut children’s novel, The Memory Cage, explores both the loss of memories through Alzheimer’s disease and the conflict of identity as a result of expatriation and adoption. Alex is a thirteen-year-old boy brought to England by his adoptive family during the Yugoslav Wars. Suppressing his internal conflict, Alex creates a ‘memory cage’ scrapbook to help his grandad recover the memories he’s lost to Alzheimer’s. Now the book is available as a brand-new edition, we spoke to Ruth about the inspiration behind the book, issue-based novels and some of the story's key themes.
The Memory Cage was your debut book, what inspired you to write it?
Just like Grandad’s portfolio of photographs in the book, it was a collection of war images that set the idea moving. All of my novels since have been inspired by real life events, and I’ve always found photos really powerful starting points for ideas. I also wanted to explore memories and their effects. I imagined a refugee boy from a modern day war zone with a past he’s trying to forget; his Grandad in the first stages of Alzheimer’s, struggling with memory loss. My own Grandad had the illness and I felt I could bring that personal emotion to the story.
Many popular children's books deal with hard-hitting issues such as Lisa Williamson's The Art of Being Normal and John Green's The Fault in Our Stars. Why did you choose to focus on difficult subjects such as refugee children from conflict zones, Alzheimer's and adoption?
I believe that there are few limits on the themes that can be explored in children’s books, so long as the stories are handled sensitively, and that it’s important not to shy away from issues. I didn’t consciously set out to write about adoption or Alzheimer’s as such, but these naturally became part of the novel. Whatever the issues though, storytelling is ultimately about finding a compelling story with characters you really care about.
The scrapbook Alex created for Grandad is way of protecting Grandad's memories – and could even be thought of as a way of conserving Grandad's younger self before his Alzheimer's took over. The scrapbook itself could be seen as a kind of ‘memory cage’. For you, what does the book’s title The Memory Cage refer to?
I’m often asked about the title, and it’s really interesting to hear the different interpretations. Alex wants to ‘trap’ Grandad’s memories for him as he sees it as a way of combating the Alzheimer’s and helping Grandad keep his self identity. You might say too that both Alex and Grandad are trapped by traumatic parts of their pasts that they have locked away and daren’t let free. We could maybe think of all our minds as types of memory cages, couldn’t we? A place where we store up our experiences, whether positive or negative. Do we make a cage for the memories we want to remember, or the ones we want to try and forget? It’s an intriguing question!
Alex and Granddad seem to be drawn to each other for a number of reasons – they've both experienced war, both are suppressing painful memories and they are both outsiders among their family. Is Alex's mission to help Grandad recover his memories a way of helping himself to be accepted by his adoptive family? Alex's brother in particular is much kinder towards him once Alex shows the family the scrapbook.
Yes, Alex and his grandad are very close, but I think Alex’s disconnection from his adoptive family is a lot to do with the unresolved issues inside himself. He distances himself, and in turn his family seem less caring than they are in reality. Leon isn’t the loving brother he should be, but he has issues of his own, and it’s ultimately his unhappiness and immaturity, I think, that makes him act the way he does towards Alex. Alex is desperate to keep his promise to Grandad, to stop him being put in a home, and the scrapbook is the only way he can think of to try and combat the Alzheimer’s. Subconsciously, though, as Grandad says later, by focusing on someone else’s past, Alex avoids having to face his own demons.
Do you think the scrapbook helps Alex come to terms with who he is? He's been through so many changes at such a young age – moving countries, being adopted, experiencing another culture, going from a war-torn environment to suburban England.
I think the scrapbook is a big turning point in Alex’s life, yes. It brings out truths that will first divide the family, and then help them to connect in a way they never could before. The scrapbook – and more importantly the journey to the truth it takes Alex on as he creates it – will be the trigger for him to face what happened to him and who he is now.
Following the release of The Memory Cage, did you receive letters or comments from readers who had experienced similar issues to those addressed in the book?
Yes. I’m very touched when readers, adults as well as children, write to me about the connections they made between the book and their own families’ experiences. Their letters are often very moving, and you sense that as a writer, in some small way, the stories you create can reach out to people. It feels a real privilege.
Roman invaders, a Celtic warrior queen, spooky sisters and a deadly adversary ... Ahead of the publication of Ruth Eastham's new book, The Warrior in the Mist, we caught up with her to talk about ancient folklore, current issues and literary techniques.
The Warrior in the Mist is an intriguing title. Do you prefer titles that don't give too much of the story away? Why did you settle upon this one?
For me, the title The Warrior in the Mist, is full of mystery and intrigue. I love titles that raise more questions than they answer. Who is the warrior in the story? Some might say it’s the warrior Queen Boudicca who makes her ghostly appearances. But could the warrior also be Aidan, fighting for his home and his horse, or his eco-warrior friends Emmi and Jon? I’ll leave the reader to draw their own conclusions!
Fracking is a major issue in the UK, particularly in the north of England. Why did you decide to write a children's novel about it? Do you find this is a topic that comes up in the schools you visit? It must be an issue you know a lot about being from the north west of England yourself.
Yes, fracking stirs up plenty of heated debate. Though I don’t go heavy on the technicalities, I wanted to find a really up-to-date controversial issue of how land is used, besides the usual building of new runways or motorway bypasses! Would you believe in the past I was told by one publisher that fracking would be a flash-in-the-pan issue and that it wasn’t a good idea to put it in a book! On a regular basis, the controversy about fracking hits the headlines. There are lots of plans to frack in the north of England, near where I’m from, with more projects being approved all the time nationally. The truth is there are vast amounts of energy locked deep in Britain’s rocks and a lot of people are worried about the environmental impacts of extracting it. Are the anti-fracking claims exaggerated? Whatever your viewpoint, I think that the fracking issue will be with us for a very long time to come, and, as far as I know The Warrior in the Mist is the very first children’s/teen book to have fracking in the story!
What fascinates you about Queen Boudicca and does she have any connections to the area where you grew up? Do young people learn about the warrior queen at school? Will her story resonate with them?
Boudicca is so iconic, isn’t she? A legendary figure. Theories about her abound. Where was the last battle with the Romans fought? What really did happen to her and her daughters when the Celts were finally defeated? The only written accounts about her are sketchy, and only by Roman historians, so we’re unlikely to be getting a very balanced version of the reality! The fascinating fact is that nobody really knows the truth, and that gave me scope to really use my imagination for The Warrior in the Mist ... But if the tomb of Boudicca turns up anytime soon, I might be in trouble!
Boudicca's emblem, the hare, has paradoxical connotations in folklore. In paganism hares are a symbol of rebirth, good fortune and fertility. But they have also been associated with madness, witchcraft and ill-omen. What do you like about them?
Hares have long been associated with Boudicca. One intriguing story is it that she released a hare from the folds of her tunic at the start of battle, to invoke help from the goddess of victory. When the hare went off running in a certain direction her tribe were convinced they would win! Yes, that paradox surrounding hares really drew my interest. Like you say, in pagan times they were revered as magical and bringers of good luck. It was only later on that our poor hare got demonised. Their magical reputation for appearing by moonlight and vanishing into thin air became something sinister, associating them with devils and evil spirits to the superstitious folk of the time. I often catch site of hares in my travels around the Fens. Watching this beautiful and fascinating creature, for me it’s easy to see where the original mystique came from.
Is this book spookier than anything else you've written before?
The unquiet spirit of a Viking boy in my book Arrowhead was pretty spooky I thought, and the past definitely haunts scenes in The Jaguar Trials… I love creating ghostly goings-on, exploring what happens when the past seeps into the present and upsets the equilibrium… And yes, The Warrior in the Mist is definitely up there on the supernatural scale!
Ruth Eastham here, and I’d love to tell you about my new book, The Warrior in the Mist.
When land on the Carrus estate where his dad works is leased to a fracking company, Aidan is set to lose his home, his friends, and the horse he loves. But other, ancient, forces are at play, and after the eerie appearance of two phantom girls, Aidan sees his chance… Prove Carrus was the site of the last great battle between Roman invaders and the mighty Queen Boudicca, those two thousand years ago. Get the land the protection it needs. Stop the frackers being allowed anywhere near.
Together with his best mates, Emmi and Jon, Aidan sets out to find Boudicca’s tomb…
But a deadly adversary is on their trail…
Award-winning author and filmmaker Matt Dickinson has announced that Killer Storm, the third and final book in The Everest Files trilogy will be released this August.
The book will be launched at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Sunday 20 August ahead of the premier of Dickinson’s new play, Everest Calling, which will be performed by the pupils of Glenalmond College, Perth at the Edinburgh Fringe from 21–26 August.
Killer Storm concludes the adventures of teenage explorer Ryan Hart whose dream to summit Mount Everest reaches a dramatic climax as a terror attack sees him held hostage at Base Camp. The book is being published by Shrine Bell, the fiction imprint of Vertebrate Publishing – an independent publisher of adventure and outdoor titles.
Dickinson’s filmmaking career as a director/cameraman for National Geographic television and the Discovery Channel has taken him to some of the most remote corners of the earth – often in the company of the world’s leading expeditioners. Inspired by his 1996 ascent of Mount Everest with actor Brian Blessed, Dickinson’s popular Everest Files series has seen him make appearances at hundreds of high schools across the UK and abroad in a bid to promote literacy and cross-curriculum learning.
Commenting on the release of Killer Storm, Dickinson said, 'Killer Storm marks the end of a fascinating journey for me as a writer. Setting out to create the Everest Files trilogy was a huge challenge for me – almost as big a challenge as summiting Everest itself! During the research phase of the book I travelled twice to Everest to join expeditions in search of inspiration and background. So the project has been the perfect mix of real-life adrenaline on the avalanche-prone slopes of Everest and writing excitement as the three books came together. Now the summit is in sight with the impending publication of Killer Storm and my email inbox is filling up nicely with comments from readers who are eagerly anticipating it! I look forward to launching the book at the Edinburgh Festival this summer!'
The Everest Files trilogy forms the basis of Dickinson’s popular creative-writing programme, the ‘Everest Reading Challenge’, which aims to promote literacy and to open a window on mountain regions and cultures. Now in its fourth year, the scheme is available across the UK, with Matt planning hundreds of appearances at schools and events over the coming months.
Shrine Bell, the new fiction imprint of award-winning publisher Vertebrate Publishing, will release new paperback editions of all four children’s titles by award-winning author Ruth Eastham as part of a deal to sign her latest novel The Warrior in the Mist (Shrine Bell, 7 September, £7.99).
Eastham’s four books will be rereleased with all-new book covers over a six-month period, beginning in June 2017 with The Memory Cage.
The deal was put together by Eastham’s agent, Caroline Walsh, of David Higham Associates, who commented, ‘I’m delighted that dynamic new fiction imprint Shrine Bell is working in collaboration with award-winning author Ruth Eastham to bring her fantastic stories directly to teen readers.’
Vertebrate Publishing’s managing director Jon Barton said, ‘An opportunity to sign such a talented author as Ruth Eastham on a multiple-book deal doesn’t come along very often in a publisher’s career. The quality of her storytelling will be a great boost to youthful enthusiasm that we are developing here at Shrine Bell.’
Eastham’s debut novel, The Memory Cage won the 2012 Coventry Inspiration Book Award (7–11 category) and her second book The Messenger Bird won the 2013 Oldham Brilliant Book Award. Her third title, Arrowhead, was described as ‘absolutely breath-taking’ by Carnegie-Medal-winning author Kevin Crossley-Holland and her fourth book, The Jaguar Trials, was praised by Love Reading 4 Kids, which said it’s ‘a nail-biting read’.
Commenting on her new collaboration with the imprint, Eastham said, ‘I'm absolutely delighted that Shrine Bell are going to re-issue my books. It's fantastic to work with such a dynamic team and a publisher who believes passionately in its authors as well as fiction for young people.’
Eastham joins Matt Dickinson and Sarah Mussi on Shrine Bell’s roster of children’s and YA authors. Find out more about Shrine Bell at www.shrinebell.com.