Ben Payne, an orthopedic surgeon, can't return home to Florida after a medical convention in Colorado Springs. Due to an advancing winter storm, commercial flights are cancelled. But Grover, a seasoned private pilot, will take him and a fellow passenger, Ashley Knox. Ben has invited Ashley, a writer from Atlanta, because when they casually met at the airport, she confided that she was on her way home to her wedding. He cherishes the memory of marrying his beloved wife, Rachel, and can't resist offering the young woman the chance to get home in time for her own nuptials. Although the tremendous storm is advancing rapidly, Grover is confident that he can outrun it.
Ben, Ashley and Grover talk about marriage after Ben listens to a voicemail message from his wife --- a message that sets up an intriguing mystery about their relationship. Grover has been married for decades, while Ben's 15th wedding anniversary is approaching. The two men share tender thoughts about their wives with Ashley. Grover also mentions that they are flying over Utah's High Uintas Wilderness, which happens to be 1.3 million acres of remote wilderness. The elderly pilot also lets them in on the fact that, since he is flying by sight, he doesn't need to file a flight plan. Then he starts coughing --- an ominous sound that causes Ben to recommend he see his doctor as soon as he returns home, since he confesses to a cardiac condition.
Grover talks about taking his wife flying…and those are his last words. His heart fails, yet he manages to land the plane, although it spins and somersaults. The plane is terribly damaged, and so are its two remaining living human passengers (Grover's dog also survives the crash). Ben has broken ribs and possibly a collapsed lung. Ashley suffers a dislocated shoulder, a broken leg, and probable internal injuries. Of course, it's snowing, and when Ben comes to, he realizes that they won't last long in the freezing cold. He discovers that the impact of the crash buried the plane in a snow bank, forming a snow shelter that at least keeps the temperature warmer than the outside. When he examines Ashley, who is unconscious, he must figure out how to care for her. He knows he must set her leg before she rouses; otherwise, she won't be able to bear the pain.
Their situation is dire, at the very least, if not hopeless. No one knows that they went up in Grover's plane. When the plane's tail broke apart, the Emergency Landing Transmitter, which would normally send out a warning signal, was destroyed. This all adds up to one grim fact: they will not be rescued.
Ben and Ashley have no food beyond a small bag of trail mix, and they have minimal pain medications for the type of injuries they've suffered. When Ben manages to make his way up the nearby mountain, he sees no signs of man anywhere in the snowy wilderness. The elevation, over 11,000 feet, is also taking a toll in altitude-related symptoms, such as increased difficulty in breathing. When he returns to the plane, he notices something that terrifies him: the unmistakable signs of a large animal tracking them. Ben knows that, in order to survive, they must take action. Meanwhile, as days turn into weeks, he works to provide as well as he can for Ashley, who is completely dependent on him.
THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US is not only a page-turner of an adventure story; there is a moving emotional counterpart to the physical journey these characters undertake. Ben records messages for Rachel on his tape recorder that recall their relationship, starting with the first day he met her, and Ben and Ashley discuss his private thoughts about his and Ashley’s situation. Thanks to Ben's refreshing take on marriage and romance, this story manages to avoid an obvious path, which makes it quite unique. Readers can expect to be riveted by Ben and Ashley's struggle to survive, affected by poignant occurrences and surprised by an unexpected twist or two. This is excellent, can’t-put-it-down reading that I devoured in less than a day, and I am already looking forward to Charles Martin’s next novel.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on January 7, 2011
The Mountain Between Us