“Breathless” by Amy McCulloch

Amy McCulloch Amy McCulloch

Uneven terrain, low levels of oxygen, avalanches, and frigid weather are just some of the things to worry about on a Himalayan mountain more than 8000 meters high. When murder is added to the mix, it can be downright terrifying. Children’s author Amy McCulloch  turns to adult fiction with her new mystery, Breathless, set on Manaslu in the Himalayas, the world’s eighth highest mountain peak and a convenient place to stage murders.  

British journalist Cecily Wong is hand-picked to cover an ascent of Manaslu in Nepal after she writes an essay about failing to climb Kilimanjaro and Snowdon in Wales, the latter of which resulted in another woman’s fatal fall. Cecily was hailed a hero for calling for help on that harrowing climb. Charles McVeigh, a famous climber who had already submitted seven of the eight highest peaks in the world without assistance including supplemental oxygen, asked Cecily to join his climb on Manaslu and guaranteed an exclusive interview if she were to succeed in making it to the top. Cecily was game and felt this opportunity could catapult her career as a writer.

Scattered throughout are drafts of Cecily’s articles about this trip. When she and her climbing group—all chosen by Charles—leave Kathmandu for Samagaun, a village at the base of the mountain, Cecily writes about their helicopter journey.


Just after two p.m., we took off and soared low over the sprawling city of Kathmandu. The jumble of buildings soon gave way to rippling green terraces and dense jungle as we followed the meandering river below, dodging clouds and rain. Every now and then, the sky-blue tin roofs of isolated dwellings punctuated the green—it wasn’t exactly clear from the air how people accessed those remote homes. After a brief pit stop to refuel, the scenery shifted again; this time to stunning pine forests and mountain ridges as we headed higher in altitude, waterfalls cascading from the rocks on either side of us. Honestly, I think the views from that helicopter alone were worth the price of admission for the expedition.


Breathless, Amy McCulloch (Anchor, May 2022; Michael Joseph, February 2022)
Breathless, Amy McCulloch (Anchor, May 2022; Michael Joseph, February 2022)

Tranquil Samagaun is highlighted by a teahouse where Cecily goes to write and meet other climbers who have come to Nepal from around the world. She takes in the peacefulness of the area one morning when she wakes up before others in her group.


The smell of puri, the traditional Nepali fried bread, wafted up from the kitchen. More people stirred from their rooms, and the teahouse came alive with activity. Across the way, on the terrace of another blue-painted guesthouse, more hardy souls emerged, stretching and breathing in the fresh Himalayan air.


But before her group leaves the village for the base camp, a French climber is found dead under suspicious circumstances. Soon after another experienced climber is found with a rope around her neck, Cecily discovers a mysterious note in front of her tent: There’s a Murderer on the Mountain. Run. Cecily freezes up and wonders if it’s a warning or a threat.


She forced herself to think logically. Whoever left this hadn’t signed it. They wanted to be anonymous. Maybe that meant they were speculating. And unless others had received a similar note, it meant the warning was just for her. Why?  


But she still wants the exclusive interview and  doesn’t turn back when she has a chance. After a while it seems like the only people she can trust are the Sherpas and the only other woman on her trip, a French Canadian Instagram influencer named Elise.

McCulloch begins her acknowledgments at the end of the book by explaining that she started writing just after she herself summited Manaslu, while still in what’s known as the death zone, or the parts of the mountain that are extremely dangerous with very little oxygen. The death zone can make people loopy and she admits that whatever she wrote up there in the snow probably didn’t make much sense, but she knew from this experience—as the youngest Canadian woman to summit Manaslu—that she wanted to write a novel. She skillfully weaves in mountaineering lingo with her fast-paced story that doesn’t slow down until the very end.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.