Writer Amy McCulloch starts writing the idea for Breathless while still on Manaslu
(Photo: Amy McCulloch)
Adventures in Audio

A Thriller from the Death Zone

Writer Amy McCulloch starts writing the idea for Breathless while still on Manaslu

Writer Amy McCulloch was a young adventurer looking to challenge herself when she set her sights on 26,781-foot Manaslu, in the Himalayas. On a guided expedition, she encountered the expected risks of high-altitude mountaineering, as well as a darker threat she’d never imagined: members of her own team harassing and sexually propositioning her in an environment where she was incredibly vulnerable. She returned home with a harrowing true tale of resilience—and an idea for an epic novel. Her resulting debut thriller, Breathless, is a chilling story of murder in the so-called Death Zone. In this episode, McCulloch shares her path into the world of climbing and the unsettling experiences that became the basis of her book.


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Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

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Maren Larsen (host): From Outside Magazine, this is the Outside Podcast.

Every year during the month of May, we at Outside Magazine fix our eyes on Mount Everest. Spring is the busiest time of year on the world's highest peak, as expedition teams gather at Base Camp to launch their attempts on the summit. For climbers and guides and Sherpas, an ascent of Everest is the culmination of intensive planning and training that can take years; a chance to do something remarkable that requires risking their lives.

For the journalists covering Everest, the quest to climb the world's tallest peak presents an always fascinating series of stories -- of physical feats, but even more profoundly, of human drama. Which is why Outside often has a reporter based close to the action.

Ben Ayers: I'm Ben Ayers, Outside's Everest correspondent, coming to you from Kathmandu, Nepal.

Maren: Ben is a filmmaker and freelance writer who has been based in Nepal for a number of years. We wanted to connect with him before we get into today's story to get a broad picture of the climbing season in the region, as well as an understanding of the dangers that teams face on Everest and other high-altitude peaks.

Ben: Kathmandu is a noisy place, so I'll do my best to answer the questions outside of background noise. The season really kicks off in mid April when people arrive in Nepal and begin their trek up to base camp and their initial acclimatization rotations. The season continues based on weather, through may and by the 1st of June, pretty much everybody has wrapped up their attempts as that's when the monsoon pattern tends to hit Nepal and the weather prevents any further ascents.

Maren: There's no achievement in the world of adventure sports that offers the same cultural cachet as reaching the summit of Mount Everest. But many of the same obstacles that make standing on the roof of the world such an impressive feat are also found on the 13 other peaks that rise more than 8000-meters, or about 26,000 feet, above sea level.

8,000 meter peaks are kind of the holy grail for modern mountaineering simply because they're the tallest peaks on earth. The first known attempt to climb one of them was in 1895, and the first successful summit was in 1950. Since then, reaching the tops of these giants has become increasingly common, in part due to the rise of commercial expeditions in the late 1980s and the accompanying skyrocketing interest in high altitude mountaineering.

Ben: You can set an ambitious goal of climbing every peak within your lifetime, or within a few years, or if you're particularly well-funded and ambitious, even within, as quickly as six months.

Maren: That's what Nepali mountaineer Nimsdai Purja accomplished in 2019, in a venture he called Project Possible. As chronicled in the recent Netflix documentary "14 Peaks," Nims, as he's often known, completed the circuit in 6 months and 7 days, absolutely crushing the previous record of seven years, 310 days.

The eight thousanders are all located in the Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges. From lowest to highest, they are: Shishapangma, Gasherbrum II, Broad Peak, Gasherbrum I, Annapurna, Nanga Parbat, Manaslu, Dhaulagiri, Cho Oyu, Makalu, Lhotse, Kangchenjunga, K2, and, of course, the biggie: Mount Everest.

Ben: 8,000 meter peaks outside of Everest certainly don't get the same amount of attention, but they are every bit as challenging. And in many cases, even more challenging. The way you understand that difficulty is you can look at kind of two major factors. One is how vulnerable climbers are to what we call objective danger. Those are things like rockfall or avalanches; events that happen on the mountain that you really can't control or that you can't eliminate the risk of. The other thing that makes it difficult is just the actual layout of the mountain itself. The distance between camps and how difficult it is to set up the, the fixed ropes on your way up to the summit.

Maren: What makes all of these mountains especially dangerous to climb is the simple fact of their elevation. The 8,000-meter cutoff is significant because it marks the beginning of what is known as the Death Zone.

Ben: The Death Zone is the point at which your body can't replenish the oxygen that it's using, to survive at that altitude. And the rule of thumb is basically, for most humans, if you spend an extended period of time in the death zone, you will die.

Every minute that you spend up there, you are slowly running out of oxygen. So the question doesn't become will you survive or not? The question is can you get in and out of this zone fast enough,That you utilize your remaining stores of oxygen before it's too late.

Maren: Talk to climbers who've spent time in the Death Zone, and they'll tell you that, up there, your body can betray you, simply ceasing to put one foot in front of the other. Your brain can make you see things, hear things, and as a result do things that no sensible person would ever do.

For all these well-known reasons, the Death Zone is an inherently dangerous and frightening place. And yet, for some mountaineers, there's a whole other category of risks that we don't often talk about.

Amy McCulloch: I'm Amy McCulloch and I'm the author of breathless.

Maren: and you're also a Mountaineer, right?

Amy: yes I am. Although I find it strange to call myself that because, although it's true, I guess I still struggle to kind of identify that way.

Maren: Amy is a Chinese-White writer based in London who, until very recently, made a living writing science fiction and fantasy novels for young adults. But earlier this year, she published a very different kind of novel. Breathless is an adventure thriller that takes place on Manaslu, a mountain in Nepal that, at 26,781 feet, is the eighth highest in the world. The central character is a journalist summiting her first Himalayan peak. She encounters everything the mountain can throw at her ... as well as a threat that's even more terrifying than an avalanche or hidden crevasse. Lurking somewhere between the hanging searcs and expedition tents ... is a serial killer.

The book is definitely not for the faint of heart. But what makes it especially unsettling is that the menacing threat at its core derives from Amy's real, lived experience in the Himalaya. For this week's episode, we're going to tell Amy's epic true tale of loss, adventure, and resilience. It begins with how she came to be a mountaineer, which, as she'll tell you, is not something she ever thought she would be.

Amy: I've had kind of a rapid rise, I suppose, in mountaineering, excuse the pun, in that I sumitted my first mountain on new year's day, 2018. So I'm actually, you know, I've never really considered myself to be a particularly outdoorsy person. I wasn't like a child who grew up in a mountainous region.

I was born in Kingston upon Thames in London, England, which is a very flat part of the country. I did move to Ottawa Canada when I was 10 and I that's where I learned to ski for the first time.

But despite that I still wouldn't have considered myself, I guess, that outdoorsy or, or even, That active a child. so it was really a pursuit I came to much later in life

Maren: What finally brought Amy to the outdoors was heartbreak. She had been in a relationship for 10 years, and she and her partner had gotten married with visions of starting a family together outside of London. But it didn't work out: they were divorced within a year, and Amy found herself starting over at 31.

Amy: I actually went through kind of a seismic life change. and I found that future just crumbling in front of me and I didn't really know what to do with myself. And so I kind of felt like I had two choices, one of which is to wallow in my bedroom under a duvet cover, which was really tempting to do. or the other was to kind of follow the, the Cheryl strayed model and try and put myself in the way of beauty while I was trying to deal with these big emotions that I was feeling.

and so I actually chose, Ireland's longest way marked trail the Kerry way, which is a 250 kilometer, trail around the coast of Ireland. I'd never done anything like that before.

Amy: So for me, it was a real test. You know, I had no idea if I could walk 30 kilometers in the day. PAUSE I flew out the day after my husband left, I flew to Dublin and then the next day I started walking on the, on the trail and it was incredible experience. I was seeing truly beautiful scenery while I was in Ireland, coastline, green fields, mountains.

And I was so present, I had to just focus on putting one foot in front of the other and enduring this kind of physical challenge and an ending each day so exhausted that I was able to kind of give my body the rest and recovery that it needed from this big trauma that I was going through.

and at the end of it, I was just, I was in love with walking, and I knew I wanted to do more of it.

Maren: Amy wasn't just hungry for more. She was after a bigger challenge.

Amy: And so my next destination was to head to Nepal and try and do one of the classic treks that you read about. So I chose the Annapurna circuit, which obviously takes in some of the, highest mountains in the world, including Manaslu.

So I saw Manaslu for the first time, that was the first big 8,000 meter peak that I ever saw. and I could never have dreamed that only two years later I would be standing on the very top of it.

Maren: Amy had only been back in London for a month after her trip to Nepal before she was off again -- this time on an even more ambitious trip to climb the 13,000-foot Toubkal, in Morocco's Atlas Mountains.

Amy: I started going on dates as well, and I met someone who had just come back from Kilimanjaro and he suggested that we do a mountain together. and he was going on a trip to summit Toubkal Morocco, which is the highest mountain in north Africa.

And I read up about the trip and it said that it was really achievable for a first time Mountaineer. It's a kind of three-day trip, but it's, it's challenging, but it's really beautiful. and so. Flew out to Marrakesh and drove into the Atlas mountains and started this climb.

And we summited on new year's day, 2018 at sunrise. And I just watched the sun to come up over the Atlas mountains and the Sahara desert in the distance. I just had this truly magical experience.

And that's when I say I kind of caught summit fever. You know, I just, I was so amazed by what I was seeing. So blown away by what my body was capable of. And I just wanted to chase that feeling even more.

And the mountain guide who was leading us in Toubkal, he had summited Everest several times. He led, expeditions out to the big peaks all around the world. And I asked him what it would take for someone like me, to one day summit Everest,

And he didn't laugh at me, which was step number one. and number two was that he said, if you can, keep on trying to climb higher and higher mountains to test yourself at altitude. if you can feel like you can endure, expedition life itself, which is, often one of the more difficult aspects, cause it's psychologically difficult.

You're spending a lot of time living in really rough conditions with sort of no running water, you know, without proper nutrition,

with, with people that you don't necessarily know, if you can handle all of that and you can put the training. To develop your mountaineering skills if you can do all of that, then there's no real reason. Oh, wait. And also, if you can get the money together, there's no real reason that you couldn't go out in summit Everest. And that kind of, it shattered a lot of the limitations for me about what I thought mountaineering was.

And I really thought it was something that was so, so out of realm of possibility for me that it wasn't, it was, would it be like going to Mars? You know, I really thought it was that far out of my, the realm of possibility of my life and when I realized it wasn't and when I realized I didn't necessarily have any reason not to try not to go for it anymore, you know, I, I was no longer on a path of kind of try and start a family, i, I didn't know what direction my life was headed. I thought maybe I can give mountaineering a go.

Maren: And so, fresh from the summit of her first significant peak, Amy started to think about what it would take for her to become a legitimate mountaineer. That effort would soon take her into the Death Zone, where she would endure both the expected dangers, and a more menacing threat that gave her the idea for a very different kind of high-altitude adventure book.

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Maren After reaching the summit of Toubkal in Morocco, author Amy McCulloch realized she was capable of far more than she thought in the mountains. Even as she continued to work on writing a series of youth science fiction novels, she began to take climbing seriously, and to consider the real possibility that, someday, she might even be able to reach the summit of Mount Everest. But first, she'd have to test herself on a difficult, high-elevation peak.

Amy: And so I decided to, go to Aconcagua which is the highest mountain in the Americas. It's in Argentina and it's often considered a good test of high altitude, conditions and how your body handles high altitude without being a massively technical mountain.

Maren: Summiting Aconcagua, which reaches a height of nearly 7,000 meters, or about 23,000 feet, requires an expedition-style ascent, so Amy needed a team. And she found one, lead by a man who was about to get very, very famous.

Amy: And I joined on the team of, a British Nepali climber called, Nims Purja, who, obviously now is a big mountaineering superstar and star of 14 peaks, his own documentary. But at that time he hadn't done project possible. So he was kind of trying to get his mountaineering expedition company off the ground.

Maren: The Aconcagua expedition was a success, but not without challenges. And those challenges would turn out to be a very good preview of what it would be like to summit an eight thousander.

Amy: We ended up summiting that in intense conditions. You know, it was really cold minus 45 degrees centigrade and, and really strong winds. you know, they were saying it was like 80, 90 kilometer an hour gusts. it, it was really, terrible conditions on the mountain, but, because some of us on the trip had been, had an 8,000 meter peak in our sites. and we're using Aconcagua as a training ground for that. I had kind of purchased the big summit suit, the big 8,000 meter boots. So in that gear, I was able to reach the summit in those kinds of conditions and under, Nims's guidance.

so after that I was really had grown in confidence in my ability to handle myself on the mountain and to thrive there even. And so when NIMS was telling me about his project possible and how he was going to take a team on some of his mountains, because he was struggling to raise funds to, to support his mission.

Amy: For me, it was kind of a no brainer. He asked me if I would go to Manaslu and. I thought this was my opportunity to go and watch mountaineering history being made. And that's what really intrigued me as a writer as well, you know, to go and be on the mountain at the same time that NIMS is, trying to do something that's never been done before.

and that led me to Manaslu and, I, I have to say I trained really hard.

to try and get my skills ready for an 8,000 meter peak, because I knew at that point that I could, I felt like I could handle the altitude. and then I flew out to Manaslu in September, 2019 and,

Amy: consider myself to be really lucky because I had a great expedition. It went very smoothly from a climbing point of view in the sense that, we had incredible weather

and, summited later on that month.

Amy (tape from Manaslu, wind blowing): Hello from the summit of Manaslu. It is 6:30 AM on the 27th of September, 2019. I made it.

Amy: and at that time I was the youngest Canadian woman to do so, which, was great to kind of have that little accolade, but it, it amused me because actually there were only six Canadian women at that time who had done it in history.

So, you know, it was being the youngest of a very small pool and it just kind of reminded me how few women still participate in this sport.

Maren: She's right. Fewer than ten percent of all the people who have sumitted Everest have been women. The first woman to summit Everest didn't do so for 20 years after the first ascent by men in the 1950s. Women mountaineers are still, in many ways, catching up. And the culture on the mountain is, too.

Amy: But it was really interesting to me because I found the climbing and the actual being out in the mountain part really incredible, but I had some difficulty with the other people on my team, and that was something that I hadn't really prepared myself for because I had been really diligent in my preparation But what I had never really understood or realized was that, of course, you're going out there and living with people that you don't know.

and as a woman on the mountain, I found it incredibly confronting because there were several moments, instances on the mountain where I felt, where I was, you know, involved in sexually charged banter, or they were making approaches toward me that were unwanted. And I had to reject them on the mountain and it made it very uncomfortable for me to be there.

Amy: And it made me feel very vulnerable. And there were times when I realized that there was only kind of a thin sheet of plastic between me and someone who might want to approach me, when I was in my tent on my own.

That was w that was, that was actually quite terrifying. In fact, more terrifying than what I'd had to think about, from a climbing perspective, becauseI hadn't really mentally prepared myself for that.

And I just, I found that really difficult and it wasn't until I spoke to other women who climb in these high altitude regions that, it was not uncommon at all, to have to negotiate or to,to handle yourself in a place where you are often subject to kind of unwanted sexual harassment.

It's almost like when you're on the mountain, you can't really let your guard down for a second sometimes because of the actual dangers of the mountain itself. And sometimes because of the danger of the people around you

Maren: For Amy, that fear of her fellow mountaineers is what planted the seed of the idea that became Breathless.

Amy: I actually have the inception of breathless stored in my WhatsApp archive because it, it came from a conversation that I had on the mountain with a group of my friends back home, where I was actually kind of complaining to them about, my experiences with one of the men on the mountain. And one of them jokingly said,can't you push him down a crevasse, which made me laugh.

And then I said, oh, only in fiction.

another friend was like, well, you have to write that book. And I thought, oh my gosh, yes, death in the deaths zone.pauseAnd I actually did sit down while I was in the death zone and I took a notebook out and a pen, a Sharpie, and I started writing to try and kind of capture what it was like to actually be up there.

Maren: So the chill-inducing core of the fictional story in Breathless is based on Amy's lived reality. But so are the safe places that her main character finds while she wades through those terrors.

Maren (interview): there was this thread throughout the whole book, I think, without, without giving too much away that men were dangerous as dangerous as the mountain and not just one man, like it wasn't just the one who ended up being the killer. Like there were many men who were very dangerous on that mountain. to counterbalance that there was also this sense of the women around you being safe. Was that something that you experienced? Did you also have like women with you on Manaslu who you felt safe with and close to?

Amy: Yeah. the, there were absolutely, there were two other women on my trip with me, on the expedition. one of whom she was a climber from Andorra her name is Steffi true. J she has done, I think three, 8,000 years, without oxygen. And she's on a mission to do all of them without oxygen. She is an app. Just an, a pillar of strength and, and so much fun and, and so warm and competent in the mountain,

So she was huge inspiration for me as a Mountaineer, but also became a great friend and the process, and then the other women on the mountain was a similar experience level, I suppose, to me. And she was Nepali or she's a Nepali actress, but living in London. And so she and I bonded kind of over our shared, shared feelings of, of whether we were going to make it, you know, the, the, those, those fears, those questions are, we prepared enough and we were kind of helping each other along, as we got higher and higher.

I actually mirrored one scene, almost exactly of something that actually happened, when we were on our expedition, which was that when some of the men on the team found out that Stephie was going to climb Manaslu without oxygen, they all then said that they did not want to use oxygen on the mountain, because it was almost like, well, if she can do it, I can.

but Nims obviously just totally shut that down because there was no way he was going to allow inexperienced climbers to climb without oxygen. You'd just be putting everybody at risk and especially the Sherpa team who are supporting those individuals.

Maren: While Amy is quick to say that her experiences on Manaslu were much more positive than those of her main character -- there were no serial killers that she knows of -- her own climb fueled many aspects of the book

Amy: I thought really making my main character, someone who liked me was a relative novice to the world could sort of work as an introduction to high altitude mountaineering in a way that making her a really experienced climber, might make her more inaccessible to your everyday reader so although I tried to keep her quite close to me in that sense. Obviously what happens to her on the mountain is very different to what I experienced, but also she's a mixed race character and I'm mixed race as well. And that, for me, it was just really important. So it can definitely seem autobiographical in that sense, but, but the events on the mountain and the people that I met and,were not directly taken from the mountain.

Maren: Listening to Amy's own story and reading Breathless, it's easy to see why mountaineering skews so heavily towards men. Women, along with other minorites, in many ways face a double set of challenges. And when you look at it that way, it makes sense that the mountaineering record books are full of white men.

Amy: Sometimes I thought, well, why didn't, why didn't I leave the mountain? But I didn't want to be the one to have to sacrifice this experience that I was having. because I was being harassed

And, and it doesn't just, you know, it's not just the kind of sexual harassment that I face, but it was also even the acquiring of the equipment. That was really, challenging for me because none of the, the 8,000 meter suits, none of the 8,000 meters boots, are designed for women. you know, when I'm going to a hiking shop, now I can find female boots and female backpacks and things.

And I feel like that's more accessible, but still that there's like a ceiling for the moment. And it, and once I was trying to reach those, 8,000 meter peaks, I was met with a lot of skepticism, a lot of questions, and then a lot of gear that just simply didn't fit.

Maren: None of those hurdles stopped Amy from reaching the summit of Manaslu. And today, her hunger for new adventures -- and new stories -- hasn't been sated.

Amy: I've actually just come back from my latest expedition. I'm kind of in recovery at the moment, which is I just completed the marathon day sob, which is 156 mile ultra marathon through the Sahara desert in Morocco. And that was, again, something I'd never run an ultra marathon before, but because of lockdown had kind of caught me off from a lot of the mountains I had taken to running around my neighborhood and guest, had discovered that I had a little passion for running as well.

And then I heard about the marathon de sob again through documentaries and, and stories that I had read about people doing crazy long distances in the Sahara in absolutely extreme conditions, but this time extreme heat and wind and sand. And I thought, oh maybe I could do something like that.

the fastest runner did it in, I think, 18 hours. And I did it in 60. So it's an incredibly different race. When you are on your feet for 60 hours, but it was so incredible.

I actually had the time of my life. I really enjoyed it. and of course I was, I was doing it hopefully in the name of research for a book one day. but this time following the ultra running community, cause I think it's just as fascinating as the mountaineering community.

Maren: Amy is going to keep writing about her adventures. And in her writing, she is going to keep carving out a space for people like her to exist in extreme environments and go on incredible adventures.

Amy: My main character in breathless, often hasn't felt like she belonged in any world anyway, and has always struggled with that sense of identity and belonging. And I think that's really what I wanted to explore.

You know, the environment of the mountains is terrifying. but it's also beautiful and it was a healing place for me,

And I think what I wanted to show was a woman kind of coming into her own in an environment where she didn't feel that welcome. And just to show that those spaces are and should be accessible to those who want to go there.

Maren: You can read Amy McCulloch's book, Breathless, out now from Anchor Books.

This episode was written and produced by me, Maren Larsen, and edited by Michael Roberts.

This episode was brought to you by NOW, a company that offers more than 900 safe and effective nutritional supplements at a price that feels good. To learn more, visit NOWfoods.com/feelgood.

The Outside Podcast is made possible by our Outside+ members. Learn more about all the benefits of membership at outsideonline.com/podplus. We're offering new members a 25% discount: just enter the code pod25 at checkout.

Maren (interview): Because I worked for outside magazine and the main character is a journalist who's on assignment from a magazine. is this is wild outdoors kind of supposed to be outside magazine? Is it like, based off of, I'm curious,

Amy: If I could have gotten away with it, from a legal point of view, I probably would have given her the assignment from outside magazine. obviously, some of the great mountaineering books in history have been written by journalists, some of them from outside magazine.

Maybe they’ll give her her next assignment.

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.