In 1948, no one had ever climbed Mount Everest and come back. No one knows for certain if Irvine and Leigh Mallory made it to the top in 1924 -- only that they didn't survive to return. The view of them from below was obscured by the weather, and when it cleared they were nowhere to be seen. The camera they were using has never been found. An ice ax was found thousands of feet below, bent and twisted.
Following a strange compulsion deep within them, two Oxford students set out to try to be the first to climb Everest. After purchasing thousands of pounds of equipment and hiring dozens of porters, they begin their ascent to the world's highest peak. Obsessed with discovering what there may be at the summit which no man has ever seen, the pair rise higher and higher -- reaching a point where every breath is a struggle.
It was in 1953 that Edmond Hillary made the first successful ascent of Everst, but only with the aid of oxygen canisters. Reinhold Messner, who along with Peter Habeler became the first to climb Everest without the aid of oxygen on May 8th of 1978, explained the experience: "In my state of spiritual abstraction," he said, "I no longer belong to myself and to my eyesight. I am nothing more than a single narrow gasping lung, floating over the mists and summits." The characters in "How Beautiful Upon the Mountain" find themselves similarly both deflated and inspired. At first it is a spiritual quest, acting on the ancient human conviction that the mountains are the abode of the gods. Later, the pair come to see Everest as a beautiful bride and the deadly plume as a flowing white veil of ice crystals.
"Could it be that the gods have tired of retreating, and have set a barrier on this, their last refuge against the men of the plains?"