How high can I go? Break-up inspired writer to climb and set her thriller in a base camp

Amy McCulloch, author of Breathless, first cleared her head in Kerry then aimed higher

There was a time in my life, not so long ago, that I thought I was destined to walk a clearly way-marked trail. I’d met a man in my early twenties, we dated, moved in together, got engaged and married – all the steps I thought I was meant to take.

So when after 10 years together, my then husband announced he was leaving, I watched that path dissolve in front of my eyes.

I was a thousand miles from any of my closest friends and family, my young adult writing career had stalled, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was at a crossroads, with no signposts to show me the “right” way forward. My initial instinct was to stay put and bury myself under my duvet. But instead I wanted to do something good for my mind and body, while I wrestled with the wreckage of my future. I googled “long distance walks” and came across the Kerry Way – Ireland’s longest way-marked trail. The next day, I was on the plane across the Atlantic to Dublin.

The day after that, I arrived in Killarney and started walking.


Walking felt like the only thing I really could do in that moment. It helped to ground me inside my body, revealing strength I didn’t know I had. I walked every day around the stunning Iveragh peninsula, soaking in the incredible views, writing bad emo poetry and screaming at sheep that I met along the way. I’d collapse into my room each night, too exhausted to stay up and overthink: inevitably what I would have been doing had I stayed at home.

I fell in love with the ever-changing countryside – the waves crashing against the shoreline, green fields so intense I thought I had wandered onto the set of The Wizard of Oz, dense woodland with the ground carpeted by bluebells. I was taking the advice of another famous walker before me – Cheryl Strayed – to put myself in the way of beauty. It helped me realise that the world was big and full of magic that I might have missed had I stayed the course.

After Kerry, my marriage never recovered but I found a new love in walking. I wanted to see where else my feet could take me. My next trip was to Nepal, where I walked the famous Annapurna Circuit solo. On that trek, I saw my first 8,000-metre peak: Manaslu, the eighth highest mountain in the world. I was moved by the beauty and majesty of the Himalayas, and a spark of wonder ignited: could I go even higher?

I decided to test myself. I joined a trip to climb the highest mountain in Morocco, with no expectation of achieving my goal. Yet when I reached the top of Mt Toubkal on New Year’s Day, I watched the sun come up over the Atlas mountains, the Sahara desert sparkling in the distance – and I was hooked.

My new question to myself became: can I do a little bit more? For my next mountain, I chose Aconcagua – the highest mountain in the Americas. The trip leader was a former Gurkha turned mountain guide called Nims Dai.

I approached my first big expedition with a huge amount of trepidation. Only a third of those who attempt to climb Aconcagua reach the summit. And it lived up to its fearsome reputation. I remember huddling in a hut almost 7,000m above sea level with my eyelashes – the only part of my face that was exposed – completely covered in frost, shivering, thinking that we must have to turn around. But we kept on pushing – kept putting one foot in front of the other. Despite some of the most difficult conditions imaginable (-40C temperatures, 90km/h winds, driving snow), we pushed through to reach the top.

I thought reaching the summit in those conditions would spell the end of my mountaineering journey. But once again, life had other plans. Nims impressed me with his ambition: he wanted to be the fastest man to climb all 14 mountains in the world higher than 8,000m. One of those was Manaslu, the first big mountain I had ever seen. Would I come with him to climb it, he asked me?

I couldn’t say no. It felt like an opportunity to witness something truly amazing. His feat would go on to be recorded in the Netflix documentary 14 Peaks, and I was right there on the mountain, watching history being made.

On September 25th, 2019, I realised my own ambition, becoming the youngest Canadian woman to stand on the summit of Manaslu. Yet it was so much more than just a climb for me. It was there that I finally found inspiration for my writing. I realised what a perfect place a base camp was for a thriller: isolated, miles from any authority, riddled with danger from the natural environment, and with a ready-made cast of characters with fascinating backstories.

So on an icy glacier in the Himalayas, Breathless was born. I even sat down in the death zone to write a few words.

When I look back, I think of those first steps I took on the Kerry Way, and how I returned from Ireland a changed person. I still didn’t have all the answers, but walking gave me clarity on the type of person I wanted to be, on the type of life I wanted to live from that moment.

It might no longer be a life so clearly marked. But I was going to have an amazing time blazing the trail.
Breathless by Amy McCulloch is published by Michael Joseph