Rock and a Hard Place is a beautifully written romance set against the stunning backdrop of the Patagonian mountains and it’s all about climbing. And as I did quite a bit of climbing in the past (anecdote to follow this review) I decided it was definitely for me.
The premise of the story is brilliant. Rhian Phillips is project leader for a marketing company tasked with producing a reality TV series showcasing a set of climbers (something I would seriously watch!). Jayden Harris, a world-renowned mountaineer, believes she’s put the rocks behind her forever following a devastating accident at Everest base camp. Both women are thrown together under a set of fairly traumatic circumstances. And both of them have issues stemming from their pasts which lead to secrets, insecurities and misunderstandings even as they slowly but surely fall in love with each other.
What I appreciated most about the book was its degree of psychological realism. I really felt that I could understand why both characters might behave as they did, and why they would be wary of each other’s advances. On top of that, the whole scenario of putting a bunch of first class climbers together led to any number of potential flash points, from the objective risks posed by the mountains themselves to some serious ego clashing.
The book was solidly researched, but the technicalities of mountain climbing were subtly woven into the narrative for a reason and never distracted from the main thrust of the story. It was a novel which had me longing for the hills, and at the same time longing for Jayden and Rhian to realise how much they meant to each other. Rock and a Hard Place is published by Ylva and is a finalist in the GCLS awards this year.
And now for that anecdote. So as I mentioned, I did quite a bit of climbing in the past, either at the rocks here in the Jura region of Poland, in the Polish Tatras during the winter and in the Alps in the summer. Anyway, our last alpine adventure involved a successful ascent of Mt Blanc du Tacul. On the way back down, my partner took this picture of me peering into a couple of crevasses – for some reason I can’t fathom: The day was getting warm and we were absolutely exhausted. You can see behind me in the photo a precariously slanting serac with a number of cracks running through it? It probably should have set a few alarm bells ringing, but to be honest we were too drained to worry.
Anyway, we made it back to our campsite which was at Les Bossons, right at the base of the massif. In the morning, we woke to the buzz of helicopters. And when we climbed out of our tent it became clear that a rescue operation was taking place on the same stretch of glacier where we’d made our descent. Later that day we went into Chamonix to get a coffee and that was when we heard the news. A guide and two climbers had been following the same route up the massif during the early hours of the morning in order to reach the summit of Mt Blanc. A serac had broken off and taken them down into a crevasse. They all died.
Even now, I find it quite hard to believe. Although we’d been in the mountains on many occasions, the risk never felt so palpable before that moment. Chamonix guides are trained for every eventuality but it’s hard to see how he could have predicted this situation. I guess the serac had melted, then refrozen and the tension on the fracture lines was just too great. Whatever the reason, I kept putting myself in the place of those people as they plummeted to their deaths and realising how close I’d come. I guess, though, it is the wonder and danger of these places which makes us return to them. I’ve been away from the mountains for a couple of years now, but the desire to revisit them only ever gets stronger.