THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US
by CHARLES MARTIN
Broadway Books | 2010
Paperback: 331 pages
Review Source: Purchased
We climbed into the [small] plane. . .Two minutes later we were airborne and climbing. . . [Look out the window.] The High Uintas Wilderness – the largest east to west mountain range on the continent. . . [E]ver seen the movie Jeremiah Johnson? . . .That’s where filmed it.
[Grover] coughed. . .grunted. . .grabbed his chest. . .
Then, as if he’d done it a thousand times, he pancaked the plane against the mountain.
My friend had just finished reading the book The Mountain Between Us and recommended it. Our “cotton-head” gang of old friends will be heading to the theater to view the movie and she thought we should first read the book. I rated this 4 out of 5 stars but this rating came with mental adjustments from what I expected and what I found between the covers.
Adventure/survival stories snag my attention every time. If they involve struggling in snow and ice, all the better. I was raised and played in the mighty Adirondacks and loved the dead of winter. So I want to clear up something right away – it would be impossible in the real world for these two to have survived.
I suspended my hopes for a heart pounding adventure as I smelled a contrived story ahead. Foregoing expectations of something like Jon Krakauer’s Into The Wild, I settled down and found the story entertaining in its own way.
Ashley Knox, a magazine writer, strolled by Dr. Ben Payne, an emergency room trauma surgeon, in the airport and I knew right away where all this was headed. Pretty woman meets married but separated doctor. When I finished the book, I was mostly right with my preconceived ideas.
A big bad storm of epic size is bearing down on the western states. Commercial aircraft are unable to de-ice their planes and cancelled all outgoing flights. Dr. Ben Payne has numerous surgeries to perform the next day and needs to leave town. He arranges a flight out with an elderly charter plane pilot. Moments before they leave, Ben sweet talks the pilot into taking a second passenger – the sweet young thing he had been eyeballing in the airport. Ashley had confided to Ben that she was to be married in a couple of days and needed to fly out immediately for a wedding rehearsal.
Conveniently as it turns out, the doctor had attended a medical conference and traveled with his backpacking gear. Great care was taken to detail what was in that backpack. The crusty old pilot, while preparing the plane for flight, takes the time to tell them he stores a sleeping bag under his seat and keeps a fishing pole and hunting bow with arrows on the plane at all times.
Moments before Grover has his fatal heart attack, he tells them that this is the largest god-forsaken wilderness in America. Suddenly, with the pilot dead, the broken plane nearly invisible in the snow, a non-functioning locator beacon, no flight plan filed, and no record of the passengers aboard the plane, the survivors must fend for themselves with nothing more than a bag of gorp for food.
Ashley is severely injured in the crash. She is bleeding profusely from several lacerations and sports a maligned leg caused by a broken femur. Ben has broken numerous ribs and a deflated lung and a history of breathing issues at high altitude. Disregarding his own problems, he sets Ashley’s broken leg and splints it with parts from the plane. He finds Grover’s fishing gear and sews up her wounds.
The action now slows down and leaves the two survivors with only two options. Stay where they are huddled in the fuselage, no one knows they’re there. Or head out into the unknown wilderness in a blizzard hoping to find civilization and food.
Ben fashions a sled for Ashley out of a broken wing. He gathers all the survival goodies stored on the plane and stuffs them into the sled with Ashley and heads out in thigh deep snow pulling the sled with a harness created from plane parts strapped over his broken chest. For a month he drags Ashley up and over mountains, across rivers, through subzero weather and frequent snow storms.
Amid the swirling snow, sub-zero temperatures, harsh terrain, and wildlife, Ben assumes the role of porter, doctor, hunter, and guide. Ashley, incapacitated by injuries, can offer little help but her upbeat spirit and sense of humor offers levity in the bleak story. Their repartee is a relief to the danger of the situation. The pilot’s Jack Russell Terrier has also survived the crash and his indomitable personality makes him my favorite character.
Ben trudges hour by hour through the snow thinking of his wife and their last argument that has kept them apart. When settled for the day, he whips out his voice recorder and dictates long conversations about his day, difficult childhood and of the deep abiding love he feels for her to this very day.
The conversations between Ashley and Ben are interesting and it is easy to see that neither of them will ever forget the strength of character and compassion each exhibited through starvation, pain and the isolation of the wilderness.
There’s a surprise ending. Sorry no hints. I didn’t see it coming.