by Matsuo Basho (松尾場所)
As Andy continued to assert that there were no full bottles at the South Summit, Mike looked at me quizzically. I looked back and shrugged. Turning to Andy, I said, “No big deal, Harold. Much ado about nothing.” Then I grabbed a new oxygen canister, screwed it onto my regulator, and headed down the mountain. Given what unfolded over the hours that followed, the ease with which I abdicated responsibility—my utter failure to consider that Andy might have been in serious trouble—was a lapse that’s likely to haunt me for the rest of my life.
Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air
Dim light from the other camps filters through the thick plastic of my tent. I can hear other climbers moving quietly around, Sherpas walking from tent to tent, offering morning tea. The Khumbu Icefall groans quietly in the early morning, ice shifting as the glacier moves further from the summit of Everest. Even in a tent and a sleeping bag, the air has a bite to it. I can feel each ragged breath as it moves over my sore lungs. But down here, the air is thick. In a few days, I will miss the comfort of its weight in my lungs.
In the sleeping bag next to me, Mike shifts. His messy brown hair brushes against his forehead, covering a scar he earned when we climbed McKinley. A small stone had fallen and brushed against his forehead, cutting deep, leaving a thin white line from his right temple to the top of his nose.
Limbs still heavy with the early morning and the rarefied air at Base Camp, I move closer, enjoying the warmth of his body against mine. His strong arms pull me against his chest, wrapping tightly around my waist. He’s lost weight since we arrived two months ago. It always happens like this, the steady loss of muscle and fat as the body fights for calories. I’ve lost twenty pounds so far, but Mike’s all ripcord, his veins and pulse standing out firm against his skin. I can count his ribs, even in the half-light of shifting headlamps.
My chilled fingers run over the hard ridges of his stomach. I trace my way through the hills and valleys of his abs. My callouses catch against him, pulling softly against skin, brushing against the thin trail of hair that leads underneath the hem of his boxers. Mike stirs, then breathes in sharply when I grasp him, half-hard, through the thin material.
“Good morning to you, too,” he murmurs into my ear. He brushes his lips against the sensitive skin there, then bites gently. I sigh, then smile. He’s hard in my hand, and I can feel the slow, languid rise in passion that always comes when I am with him. I press against him, my cock sliding against his leg and the softness of cotton.
“We won’t have a chance to do this for a while,” I whisper, sliding my hand underneath his elastic waistband, fingers wrapping around soft skin around steel. He sighs, resting his forehead against mine. His eyes are dark and warm as they meet mine. He pushes against my hand, then pulls my hips against his, grinding his leg gently against my erection. I moan, and my eyes slide close.
“No, we won’t.” He nibbles against my lips, then dives in, his tongue moving against mine slowly. My blood heats. My heart races. I can’t tell if I’m breathing hard from the lack of oxygen or passion. I run my thumb over the head of Mike’s cock, feeling the slickness that seeps out. Carefully, delicately, I move my hand around him. He moans into my mouth. My back arches, pressing my cock against his hard thigh.
Mike rolls me onto my back. I can feel rocks biting into my skin through the sleeping bag and the tent, but the pain is dimmed by the pleasure of Mike’s lips moving against my neck, traversing the ridge of my collar bone. His beard is rough against my flushed skin. He pushes into my hand, increasing his pace. Sweat slowly trickles down his back, and I run my free hand through it as I grasp the hair at the base of his neck.
I am hard and aching, but he makes me wait. His fingers, calloused and sure, move over my hip. They bite into the skin there, holding tight as he continues to pump within my grasp. I tighten my fingers, just the way I know he likes it, and he groans. He thrusts, holds my hip tight, and breathes out a quiet curse as he comes. It’s warm and sticky on my stomach, and I hold back a cry as Mike licks me clean.
When he pulls me free and wraps his lips around my hard cock, I swear I can see the rest of the world falling away from me. His mouth is warm around me, and I thrust deep. I can feel the back of his throat close around the head of my cock, and when he moans, I shiver and hold my breath. His hand joins the smooth motion of lips and tongue, fingers following his lips as he pulls away. I groan quietly as cool air caresses hot skin. His cheeks hollow as he draws me in. I can’t look away. He reaches a warm, calloused hand between my legs and gently runs a finger from the base of my dick to my ass. He slowly pushes inside of me, his mouth tight around my dick. I can feel his smile, and then I am shattering, my orgasm sliding through my body like an avalanche as Mike swallows me down.
We sigh afterwards, snuggling close for just a moment, before we start getting ready. Today, we start our final trek up Everest, to make a push to the summit in three days. It’s been months of preparation leading up to this, and we can’t delay our clients and their chance to stand on the top of the world for a few minutes of afterglow. We slide into clean clothes, a nice change from the sweat-stained shirts and pants we’ve been wearing for the past few weeks. Then are the layers. Gore-Tex over warm fleece, down jackets, lightweight boots with heavy insulation. I slide the zippered opening of our tent down, then step out into the darkness. One of our climbing Sherpas, Ngawang, hands me a cup of hot tea with a mumbled “David, sahib,” then moves on. I take a sip, then pass it to Mike as he steps from our tent.
“I need to go check in with Jangbu about the higher routes and mountain conditions. Do you think you could get the clients ready to go?” He passes me the tea back, half-gone.
“Not a problem.” I grin wryly. “I have done this a time or two before.” Mike laughs, grinning widely.
“Oh, I know. But you can never predict the Mother Goddess and her whims. I just want to make sure we have everything in place. And with Jeff’s cough acting up, I just want to make sure we’re all where we need to be for the climb.”
I nod, then finish the thick tea. “Let me know what the weather conditions are when you hear. I want to try out that new jacket, but if it’s too hot on the Cwm, I don’t want to carry the extra weight.” I smile, then hand him the now-empty cup. “Twenty minutes.”
As I wind my way through the mess of tents that make up our expedition’s camp, I can’t help but smile. Only five years ago, David and I had started talking about leading an expedition on Everest. In our third year as a guide company, we had summited twice. We hadn’t lost any clients, though a few had fallen ill or been too tired after the Lhotse Face and turned back, and we had had to raise our prices to cut back on demand.
David has been climbing for almost twenty years. Still young at forty-two years old, he tackles every mountain we climb with equal parts passion and respect. I met him right after I finished college, while climbing in the Italian Alps. I grew up in the foothills of Colorado, and there hasn’t been a time in my life where I haven’t loved mountains. David was my first true Alpine climbing instructor, teaching me everything he knew about high altitude ice climbing. We had formed a quick friendship that first year, and somewhere between climbing McKinley and deciding to tackle Everest, we had fallen in love.
Our first time together was in a small tent, perched on a steep cliff face as we waited out a blizzard that threatened to tear everything around us to shreds. He had turned to me, both of us lying on our sides in our sleeping bags, backs against the walls of the tent to stop the poles from bending, and in his no-nonsense way told me he wanted me. It was a frantic night, our bodies acting on pent-up emotion – part fear, part excitement – and lust. We had woken up in the same sleeping bag, with the storm and the mountain quiet around us.
Now, as I ready our five clients – two Americans, one German, and two New Zealanders – to make our push for the summit, I feel a sense of deep-seated happiness. I love my job. I love my partner. The cold air rushes into my lungs, and even when I cough, my body shaking from the force, I am happy.
Our clients are sluggish in the early morning, but quickly start moving. Mike and I want to start our trek through the Icefall before it gets too warm. After double-checking crampons and packs, Mike and I meet up to discuss the morning. He will be starting as sweep, keeping an eye on the clients and covering the back of our group. I will be cutting the trail with our sirdar, Jangbu. He has already scouted the route and says that the ice looks stable. Still, we will need to be careful as we cross the Icefall, which is filled with broken pieces of the Khumbu Glacier and moves three to four feet a day.
Jangbu has climbed with us the last two years we’ve been at Everest. He’s a very strong climber and started working on Everest when he was a teenager, porting goods up the mountain for expeditions. His father had been a climbing Sherpa and trained Jangbu to ice climb when he got older. Along with Jangbu and Ngawang, there are two other climbing Sherpas with our expedition. Tendi, Jangbu’s cousin, has signed on for his first season with us, and Koshing, who climbed with us our first season, has returned after spending a year working at K2. Along with a few more Sherpas at Base Camp, and our expedition manager, Susan, and our doctor, Frank, we are one of the smaller groups climbing this year.
Our line of climbers sets off in the early morning, crampons biting into ice and snow. Jeff, one of the Americans, is near the back. He’s a tall man, with a lean, climbers body. He has been faring the worst out of our group, though he has been on Everest before. Something he ate in Base Camp has been troubling him for a few days, and dehydration and a high altitude cough have played havoc on his system. Mike stays nearby, helping Jeff navigate some of the more strenuous obstacles.
Near the front is Fredrich, our German. A short, stocky man in his mid-thirties, this is his first time to Everest. He’s been a strong climber so far, and both Mike and I believe he’ll make it to the top without too much trouble. In between, the New Zealanders and our last American — Dale, Rich, and Aaron respectively — keep a steady, solid pace through the treacherous Icefall. All of them have a strange sense of humor, and they have formed a strong friendship while climbing the mountain. It’s not often that they aren’t together, joking about something the rest of us don’t fully understand. It’s a small relief to have our clients looking out for each other. Mike and I haven’t needed to be as overprotective as other years. We both agree this might be our best group yet.
Overhead, in the dim light, seracs loom. People have died, unable to do anything to save themselves, when these towering pinnacles of ice and rock have collapsed under the pressure of the moving glacier. Avalanches have taken even more lives here. I see at least one body, its bright down suit fluttering in a slight wind, as it lays on the bottom of a crevasse. Jangbu and I move quickly, but carefully, through the ice, testing fixed lines and ladders before moving across them. Crevasses echo back the sound of crampons on aluminum rungs, the huge cracks in the glacier gaping open beneath us.
It takes us four hours to get through the Icefall. It’s slower than last year, and as the sun begins to rise, I can hear the ice cracking and popping. I breathe a deep sigh of relief once I see Mike and Jeff step out into the opening of the Cwm. The Icefall is my least favorite part of the climb, and terrifies me once the air begins to warm.
We start setting up camp, Jeff coughing in the quiet of the Cwm. The weather is clear and the winds are low. Mike catches me stretching, pack set on the ground next to me, mouth parted in a smile, and his laugh gets me moving again.
We rest, drinking warm tea and talking about the climb to come. Dale, Rich, and Aaron start telling jokes, which get all of us laughing, even Jeff, who coughs for a few minutes after a particularly funny one about a priest, a rabbi, and a pimp. I smile at Mike, who nods to me from the other side of the camp. These early camps are the easy ones. Once we get further up the mountain, the mood will change.
As the day goes on, with each of us checking equipment, sharpening crampons, breathing deeply while the air is still full of oxygen, small avalanches of snow and ice move down the Cwm. While none of them are large or particularly dangerous, our camp falls silent with each one. I can’t shake the feeling that Everest is talking to us, letting us know that she is still waiting, that the way is still hard. I share these thoughts with Mike as we lie in our tent that night. He smiles and runs a reassuring hand down my face.
“You worry too much, Dave.” He tweaks my nose, then kisses it gently. “The weather is perfect, our climbers are strong, Jeff’s cough is getting better, and he’s been keeping his fluids alright. We’ll be fine.” He kisses me, his chapped lips gentle against my own. I let him sooth me, trusting to his experience and instincts. Our bodies press close in the darkness. He runs his hands down my back, the touch more comforting than sexual. I rest my face in the gentle curve of his neck, and drift off curled into the protective slope of his body.
The next day starts cool and quiet, but as we move up the Cwm, the temperature starts to rise. Still cutting trail, Jangbu and I shed our heavy jackets, rolling them into small bundles and stuffing them into our packs. It’s close to sixty-degrees Fahrenheit and still early, and I do not look forward to what will prove to be a very hot day on the mountain. Jeff seems to be doing better, and he climbs closer to the front than the day before.
The air is thinner as we move higher and higher, and conversations are short and broken frequently with long moments of breathing. Mike continues to sweep, though it is in name only. Besides Jangbu and I, who are much further along the route than the main group, everyone is bunched closed together, a string of people trailing down the face of the Cwm.
Thankfully, the heat doesn’t rise much higher as clouds start to break up the blue of the sky. I cast Jangbu a considering look.
“What do you think?” I ask, gesturing upwards.
He pauses, taking a deep breath and leaning back slightly. I hear his back give a quiet pop as he watches the light clouds move quickly overhead.
“The wind has picked up. And clouds are something to worry about.” He shrugs, a careful shift of his shoulders. “I would call for a weather report.”
I nod, then fish my radio out of my pack. Susan responds quickly, letting me know that some clouds have moved in, but the outlook is still good for our summit push in two days. She asks how everyone is doing, and I give her a quick update on our progress and status. As we talk, the rest of the group draws closer. Mike signals that we’re going to take a quick break and comes up the trail to join Jangbu and me.
“Those clouds going to be a problem?” He asks. I assume his radio is somewhere he can’t hear it easily, and quickly fill him in. He nods, taking a quick drink of water.
“That’s good, then. I’d hate for us to get so close and have to turn around for weather.” He offers the water bottle to me, and I take a few grateful swallows. We stand in the sun, quiet. There is a peace here that we rarely get anywhere else. Something about the subtle shifting of wind and ice and rock, the crisp bite of thin air in our lungs. Our fingers brush when I pass the water back to Mike, and I feel a thrill down my spine to be in this place, at this time, with this man.
Jangbu and I push ahead soon after, waving goodbye to the rest of the group. Three hours later, we reach the rocky base of the Lhotse face. It towers over us, a huge almost vertical sheet of blue ice and stone. There is another expedition camped, and Jangbu and I say hello to the other trip leader, Jason. He’s leading a film crew up the mountain, trying to chronicle the accumulation of garbage on Everest and the difficulties of removing it, especially in higher elevations. We chat for a few minutes, sharing our weather reports and finding out where we’ll be putting in fixed lines and breaking trail. After Jason agree to start off tomorrow together with our group, we part ways. Jangbu and I are about to finish getting our tents set up when the rest of our expedition arrives.
Jeff’s lips are tinged blue, and Mike is trying to get him to take oxygen. I finish getting my tent tethered, then walk over.
“I don’t want it,” Jeff says, panting and pressing a hand to his side. “Not yet.”
“Look, if you aren’t going to listen now, when we’re at camp and only six-thousand meters up, what am I supposed to think is going to happen when we get to eight?” Mike frowns, thrusting the oxygen mask into Jeff’s hands. “You need to get your head on straight now, or I’m going to be sending you down with Tendi. We’re getting to the point where we can’t take any risks, not even small ones.”
Jeff winces, then places the mask over his face. In a few minutes, his color is already improving. He still has a hand pressed against his side.
“You crack a rib?” I ask, nodding my head towards his hand. He nods back.
“It’s not that bad,” he says. “I’ll wrap it up once I get in my tent, and I should be alright.” He takes a deep breath, then winces. “If it hasn’t put me down yet, I’m not going to worry about it. I just need some rest.”
Mike grumbles something about the arduous climb we’ll be on tomorrow, but quiets down as Jeff takes another deep drag of oxygen. He does look tired, so I tell him to rest and leave him with Mike, then get started on setting up Jeff’s tent in camp. Tendi lends me a hand, and we’re soon finished.
I finally take a moment to look out over the view from Camp 2. It’s breath-taking, and not just because of the thin air. Clouds roll through the lower mountains surrounding Everest. We are a tremendous twenty-one thousand feet above sea level here, and with the world stretching out beneath me, I can feel every single one of them solid under my feet.
Dinner is a friendly, upbeat event. We share a meal of tsampa, roasted barley flour that clings to our spoons, and bacon that Tendi cooks over a small burner in Mike and my tent. The calorie-rich food tastes amazing, and I can feel it, warm and clinging to my stomach, as I fall asleep, Mike pressed against my back in the dark.
Mike leaves the tent before I do the next morning. He, Jason, and Jangbu are leading together today, giving me a slight moment to catch my breath and check in with our clients. Mike and I like to switch things up like this every once and awhile, just as a way to make sure everyone knows what everyone else is doing. In high altitudes, it helps to have someone else to double-check work. Hypoxia leaves everyone a little muddled, and Mike and I don’t like taking unnecessary risks.
The Lhotse face is dark when I latch my jumar onto the climbing rope, our clients stretching out above me as small lights dancing against the ice. It’s been a cold year, and the wall is thick. My crampons fight for purchase, but the extra work I put into sharpening them pays off as I quickly find my rhythm. Ice axe, step, step, shift. The soft ringing of metal against ice, the dull thud as my crampons bite in, lulls me. Jason’s sirdar, Dorje, climbs with me, and the sound of our upward progress makes a strange, almost musical beat against the quiet rush of air around us.
I occasionally look up, checking on the progress of those above me. Jeff is closest and making slow progress, but his steps are sure and steady. Sometimes shards of ice are knocked down from his boots, and they occasionally slide into my down jacket, leaving cold, wet trails down my neck. Every once and awhile, I can see those before me stop to breathe, and I take the time to rest myself. While we are still out of the Death Zone, still beneath eight-thousand meters, the air is painfully thin, and my lungs and brain are starved for oxygen.
The day’s climb is mainly uneventful. I reach Camp 3, tired and breathing hard, and Mike meets me with a cup of hot tea. Camp 3 is nestled against the side of Everest, hanging precariously on a ledge that juts out of the Lhotse face. We all stay clipped in, even when we step out in the night to go to the bathroom. Ropes trace lines from tent to tent, keeping everyone secure and away from the dangerous edge. From here, if a climber were to fall, they would plummet four-thousand feet to the bottom of the Lhotse face. I double-check my carabiner whenever I leave the tent or move around camp, making sure the rope is within its oval and the gate is firmly locked. The air is thin, and while I am an experienced climber, I still slide my oxygen mask on for the night, enjoying the slight rush I get as I place it over my mouth and face. I sleep soundly, the quiet hiss of oxygen soothing and steady.
The next day is tense with excitement. I can see the realization that tomorrow we’ll be poised to take the summit on every one of our client’s faces. Dale, Rich, and Aaron are unusually quiet as we finish gathering our gear, tightening crampons, fitting regulators, and double-checking our harnesses. We all clip into the fixed lines, ready to complete the final part of the Lhotse face, tackle the Yellow Band and the Geneva Spur, and reach Camp 4 and eight thousand meters.
As the final hours of the climb pass, I take the time to look out across the Karakorum range. Mountains dominate the view, their tops covered in thick snow and ice. Glaciers coat the lower reaches, spreading out into rock and gravel covered expanses. I can’t see base camp from here, rocky peaks blocking the view, but I know that the small mass of yellow, orange, and blue tents would be like ants from here. Clouds shift in the air around us, the weather having cleared up only slightly overnight. Still, the winds are fairly low and the air, while cold, does not bite so terribly.
Everest looms above me. I can feel the weight of the summit as is towers above. The dark triangle waits, silent and watchful. The Sherpa people call Everest ‘Jomolungma’, the Holy Mother. I feel as though She is climbing beside me, Her eyes following every solid thud of my crampons, the careful swing of my axe, the small clouds of moisture that gather around my mouth inside my mask as I exhale. The winds against my skin, what little of it is bare, are Her gentle fingers. The burn of air in my lungs, Her cleansing fire. I offer a silent prayer as I finish climbing through the rocky expanse of the Yellow Band, and the feeling passes.
It is quiet, aside from the wind, at Camp 4. The air is so thin, I am panting even standing still. I can feel ice forming inside my mask as I exhale, and I wipe away a thin layer of frost from my stubble and mouthpiece as I remove it. Mike is standing near the edge of camp, talking into his radio, and I walk over. From what I can hear, he is trying to find out more about the weather. Susan’s voice is unconcerned.
“Look, I know there are still clouds up there, but it’s going to be clear and quiet tomorrow. Honestly, it’s probably going to be the best chance this season for anyone to make it to the summit, and you just happen to be lucky enough that there’s not a lot of people up there.”
“I understand that, but I don’t like that those clouds haven’t cleared up as much as the forecast predicted. What do the other expedition’s reports say?” Mike shakes his head as I walk closer, and I frown slightly at the amount of worry I see in his eyes. I take a few deep breaths as we wait to hear back from Susan.
“I just don’t like it,” Mike says, letting his arm and the radio drop to his side. He looks around the rocky expanse of Camp 4, eyes sliding from cloud to cloud. “I want the damn forecast to be right.”
“Give it time. You know how it can get up here. And it is clearer than it was last night.”
Mike frowns, then nods. The radio crackles to life with a hiss.
“Seems like everyone else is getting about the same information we are. Winds should be slowing, the Jet Stream’s going to be off your back for the next day or two, and those clouds should be clearing up.”
There’s a long pause as Mike looks out at the expanse around us. I wonder what he’s thinking when Susan comes back on.
“Are you getting a feeling up there, Mike?” There’s some concern in her voice. “You know how important instincts are when you’re up that high. I’m not going to keep telling you to go when your gut’s telling you to wait it out.”
“No,” Mike answers, face still creased in a frown. “I think I’m just being overly cautious. Dave thinks the clouds have gotten thinner since yesterday, and you know how he is with weather.” He smiles quickly at me.
“Let Frank know that we’ll want him near the radio tomorrow. Jeff cracked a rib while climbing to Camp 3, but it looks like he’s doing alright. Other than that, though, we’re all good up here.”
“Okay, boys. Be careful. I’ll be checking in with you tomorrow. Go get some rest. Base camp, out.”
“Camp 4, out.” Mike stuffs the radio into a pocket on his jacket, then nods in the direction of the tents. “Let’s get you out of your gear. I’ve got some tea and Snickers bars back at the tent.”
“Sounds great,” I say, shifting my pack and walking towards our tent. We share a quiet meal, then quickly check on our clients to let them know about the summit push the next day. Jeff has his oxygen going and is tucked into his sleeping bag. He nods when we tell him to be ready for a summit bid tomorrow, then shifts further into his bag and closes his eyes. Fredrich is already asleep, his mask wrapped carefully around his face. I shake him awake, tell him quickly that we’ll be trying for the top tomorrow, then let him go back to sleep. Dale, Rich, and Aaron are having a final cup of tea, huddled together near their tents. Even they are quiet when we tell them about the bid tomorrow. Mike and I tell Jangbu and the other climbing Sherpas last. They nod, then get back to organizing the bottled oxygen for tomorrow. Four bottles per climber, each one carefully weighted and checked as they are laid out next to the tent.
Mike and I sit quietly in our tent, sipping tea and taking bites of chocolate and peanuts. Once we figure out who is leading tomorrow, we fall silent. Once our regulators and masks are set, we settle into the relative warmth of our sleeping bags, still wearing our clothes.
It is dark and still when Mike and I wake up to start getting ready. I glance at my watch, happy to see that it’s still before eleven at night, and I am feeling as rested as I can at this altitude. It takes me a few minutes to get the covers for my boots on, but Mike finally helps me wrestle them on. We step out of our tent and begin gathering our clients. Dale is slow to get up, but with some gentle teasing from his tent mates, he finally gets going. Jeff is groggy, but his color is good, and he only coughs once while getting ready. Fredrich is up when we get to his tent, his boots on and regulator fixed to a new bottle of oxygen. I am reaffirmed in my belief that he will make it to the top today without any problems.
The climb towards the summit is pitch black. Outside of the light of my headlamp and around the edge of my oxygen mask, there is nothing. Jangbu is close behind me, helping to check the fixed lines. When the wind stills, it is absolutely silent. I can hear Jangbu breathing heavily next to me when we stop to catch our breath, but otherwise, there is only us and the heavy weight of Everest.
My crampons cut into ice. My carabiner slides over the fixed ropes. My ice axe reaches ahead, testing the depth and stability of the snow around us. Behind us, the headlamps of the rest of the expedition dance across snow and ice. Somewhere in the back, I know, is Mike, making sure everyone is moving forward at a solid pace.
My head is muzzy. Walking becomes routine until I have to stop to breathe. My toes are tingling in my boots, and I wiggle them every few minutes to keep the blood flowing and to stave off frostbite. I shift my pack, rolling my shoulders, trying to find my strength. I always forget how it feels up here when I am back in thicker air, but it comes back to me now in a sluggish recollection of stillness and the short space in front of me.
We are at the Balcony as the sun is rising. I watch the stars disappear as the sun lightens the sky. It is a dark blue, almost purple, this high up. There is a quality to it at this altitude, like lacquer or dark glass, that I have never seen anywhere else. Jangbu and I stop to breathe and rest, watching as the world awakens beneath us, the sun cutting through valleys like a knife through old rope. We switch to new bottles of oxygen, then move on.
As the air warms, I feel rejuvenated. I start walking quicker, my footsteps more sure now that I can see the ground around me. I can see the South Summit from here, and knowing that we are only fours hours away from the true summit gives me a rush of adrenaline that sets my heart racing. I can see the other climbers behind us, and notice that another expedition, most likely Jason’s, has joined us today for a summit bid. Over twenty people dot the lines behind us, and I hope that we can avoid any major slowdowns near the Hillary Step.
The climb along the ridge is slow and careful. Jangbu and I have to stop and set some fixed lines, as the ropes that should be there are missing. He and I grumble about the delay, but since we are some of the first climbers of the season, we take it in stride, pulling loops of rope from both of our bags, tying ourselves together with a short length, and moving carefully towards the South Summit. As we lay the new ropes, the rest of our expedition catches up. Jangbu and I watch as climbers begin to bunch up, and I can see Mike move up the line, unclipping as he passes people. It makes me nervous every time he is off the ropes, and I watch, breathless and terrified, as he makes his way towards us.
“What’s going on?” He asks, gesturing towards Jangbu, who is fixing rope as I belay.
“Looks like something didn’t get set up quite right. There’s rope ahead of here, but nothing got laid at this point. We’ll need to talk to Ngawang and Tendi, I think they were laying rope earlier.”
“This is going to hurt our summit time.” Mike frowns.
“I know, but there’s nothing much we can do at this point, besides turn around and try tomorrow.” He shakes his head at that.
“No, the weather’s too perfect right now to turn around this early. Just get everything fixed, and we’ll try to make it up after the Step.”
I nod, then keep an eye on Mike as he makes his way towards the back of the line. His bright blue suit catches the light, his hair peaking out from a knit cap and shifting in the wind. When he is safe, I turn my full attention back to Jangbu, who has reached the end of the un-roped section of ridge.
Clipping in, I move forward as quickly as I can, trying to alleviate some of the bottleneck that has formed. Jangbu and I start pulling away from the main group, and, after an hour and a half of quick climbing, reach the base of the South Summit around ten o’clock. We’re running just a little behind schedule, but it’s not enough of a delay to turn us around. Not yet.
The South Summit is a small white dome of ice and snow, and I take a moment to breathe and look towards the true summit of Everest, so close I swear if I reach out a hand, I can touch it. I have to check myself as my arm stretches forward at the thought, and I disguise the motion and check that I am firmly fixed to the ropes. Jangbu cocks his head towards me, looking concerned. I give him a thumbs up, then adjust the flow on my oxygen and enjoy the quick shot of clarity the extra oz gives me.
The final ridge line of Everest stretches before us. Jangbu and I find the rest of the way fully roped, and I wonder at the missing stretch of fixed lines. It is likely that one of our newer climbing Sherpas did not place the line correctly, but Mike and I vetted everyone carefully before allowing them on the expedition, and I do not know who would have forgotten to place rope along such a dangerous part of the climb.
Beneath my feet, on both sides, the mountain drops away. A misstep to either the left or the right means inevitable death from the fall. I am thankful that neither Jangbu nor I have to free climb and set more ropes right now, and when I switch to a new set of our ropes, I also clip into an older fixed line that still clings to the mountain.
Soon the Hillary Step towers over us. Forty feet of bare rock, it has been tamed by an aluminum ladder, set in place over thirty years ago by a group of Chinese climbers. Jangbu and I still check the ropes that assist in the climb, then clip in and ascend. It takes us around a half-hour to climb the steep rock wall, and as I look back, I can see our group spreading out behind us, Fredreich in the front and fast catching up. Mike is a blue smudge in the distance.
By noon, Jangbu and I are perched on the top of the world. Everything sits beneath us. Prayer flags and mementos are scattered around the top. I take a quick few pictures for our company’s website, pulling a Sony digital camera from one of the inside pockets of my jacket. As it starts to freeze up, I grab one last picture of the rest of the expedition trailing behind us and coming up the Hillary Step. Fredrich’s head is perched just over the edge, the midday sun glinting off of his sun goggles and oxygen mask as my finger presses down on the shutter.
I spend about forty minutes on the summit, snapping photos of Fredrich, then Dale, then Rich with their cameras as they join us at the top of the world. When I check my oxygen and see that I need to switch bottles soon, I pat my clients on the back, congratulate them again, then start heading back towards the Step.
There is a line of climbers ascending, so I unclip from the lines and sit down on the edge, resting and waiting for the way to clear. It’s nearing one o’clock, but it looks like all of our clients will make the ascent by our two o’clock cut off. I see Mike at the back of the group, talking quietly with Jeff. Clouds continue to roll over the mountain, thicker than this morning, and occasionally obscure the path that we took to reach the summit.
As Aaron, the last in the line of climbers from Jason’s and our expedition, reaches the top of the Step, I slide my oxygen mask off, and smile widely.
“Great job. You’re almost there.” I give him a quick thumbs up, then stand and clip back into the lines. “Don’t forget the cut off. Mike’ll keep you honest, but once two o’clock hits, you’re turning around, alright?”
He nods, then starts moving forward again slowly. I begin my descent, moving over the fixed lines easily and rather quickly. Mike and Jeff are still at the bottom when I arrive.
“You alright, Jeff?” I ask, then stop to catch my breath. He shakes his head.
“I need to turn back.” He presses a hand against his ribs, curling in towards his left side. “I think I cracked another rib on the way up, from the cough.”
“Alright, I’ll head down with you, then. Mike, you got just enough time to get up there before two. Good luck, be safe.” I clasp his hand in mine, giving it a tight squeeze. He nods, his eyes hidden behind dark googles, his smile disguised by his breathing mask.
I get behind Jeff, and the two of us begin the slow descent back to Camp 4. The clouds are piercingly cold as they brush against us. Water vapor clings to my snow goggles, then freezes. Every few minutes, I have to reach up and wipe a thin layer of frost from my view. Jeff seems to be having the same problem, occasionally stumbling as his vision is hampered. I walk as close to him as I can, keeping a careful check on his physical state. Still, the enforced focus is tiring in the thin air, and I can feel myself starting to drag.
Jeff and I reach the South Summit after an hour and a half, gravity helping our speed. Jeff is stopping often, taking great heaving breaths of his oxygen. I check his regulator, and I’m surprised to see that his flow is set at three liters an hour, almost a liter more per hour than usual for a summit climb. The increase in flow has also depleted his canister.
“Jeff,” I say, reaching into a cache of bottled oxygen that our Sherpas had laid out earlier, “you need a new canister.”
He shakes his head, then slides the mask from his face.
“I just need to get down,” he coughs for a long moment, then replaces his mask.
“Sorry, guy. If the leader says you need more oz, you need more oz.”
He concedes the point, and we quickly switch him to a new bottle. I notice some pink flecks around his mouth, and I start to worry.
“How bad is your breathing, Jeff?”
He looks at me blearily. “Pretty bad.”
At this altitude, I worry about pulmonary edema. I tell Jeff to get moving, give him a quick shot of dexamethasone to stop any swelling, and quickly radio Frank back at Base Camp.
“I think Jeff’s starting to develop HAPE,” I say, quietly. “We’re descending now, but he’s having trouble breathing, and I think he’s got some blood in his lungs. I just gave him some dex, in case. I’m going to try and get him down to Camp 4, maybe 3 if he can handle it, as soon as possible.”
“Alright. Keep an eye on his breathing, make sure he’s getting enough oxygen, and let me know if he starts to deteriorate.”
“Alright. What’s the weather report saying?” I ask, wiping more frost from my goggles. Susan’s voice crackles over the radio.
“Well, the report this morning said it was going to be clear, but the newer ones are saying there’s a storm coming in from the north side. How is it up there?”
“Cloudy,” I look around. “I think the wind’s picking up, too. Mike, what’s it like on the summit?”
There’s a long pause, Jeff’s heavy breaths and cough breaking the dull whine of the wind. Then Mike comes over the radio.
“It’s still clear up here, but the cloud cover is definitely getting thick. Everyone’s made it, though, so we’re going to be turning around soon. Probably another ten minutes at the most. You be careful descending. Summit out.”
“Alright. South Summit, out.”
Jeff seems to be doing better with the extra oxygen and the dex, and we start moving forward again. I take the front as the clouds have become an almost constant layer of mist around us, and it is difficult to see too far ahead. Jeff and I both clip into secondary lines as we move down the ridge. I check back every few minutes, watching Jeff as he carefully places his feet in the steps I leave.
When I reach the end of the current fixed line, I reach forward for the next piece of line and am shocked to find there’s nothing more to clip into. I’m not sure if I’m just hypoxic or just not paying attention, but I look again and find nothing by empty cliff face and a few ragged bits of the bright orange and blue climbing ropes that our expedition uses.
“Fuck!” I gesture to Jeff to stay where he is, then pick up my radio.
“Mike, the damn rope’s gone again.”
“What?” His voice is almost covered by the gust of wind that suddenly slams against the ridge.
“That rope that Jangbu and I laid earlier today? It’s gone.” Another gust smacks into the ridge. I hear a sudden whoosh, and then the rock and snow in front of me starts to slide down the mountain. I take a quick step back, reflexively grabbing for the ropes next to me. Jeff stumbles, then slips. I can feel the tension in the ropes as they catch his weight, and I can feel the whole world slow down as he looks at me, terror stark across his face as his harness catches him.
“Shit!” I yell, then turn, lunging for his flailing arm. I grab him, and pull him back to his feet. Meanwhile, the avalanche has stopped. For a few moments, all I hear is the rush of my blood in my ears, the wind whipping around us, and the low thunder as the avalanche makes its way down the rest of the mountain. Jeff and I stare at each other, eyes wide, and I slowly realize that Mike’s voice is screaming from the radio.
“Dave? Dave, you fucking answer this radio! What happened? Where are you?”
“I’m fine,” I gasp, realizing that I’ve kept my finger pressed on the talk button the whole time. “We’re fine. Jesus.”
There’s silence from the other end of the radio, and Jeff and I take a few seconds to gain our composure.
“What. Happened.” Mike’s voice startles me, and I take a deep breath before answer.
“Avalanche. The whole damn ridge in front of us just went.” I step forward, trusting to the lines I am still clipped into to keep me safe. “It looks like the whole snow layer just went. Might explain why there weren’t any lines earlier.” I take a shuddering breath. “I’m gonna have to fix more lines.”
“I’m sending Tendi your way. Just wait until he gets there, alright? And move away from that damn area.”
Jeff starts coughing, then bends over, clutching his chest and leaning into the side of the ridge.
“Mike,” I start, moving closer to the ridge face, “I don’t think I can.”
Jeff looks at me, then takes his mask off to spit. It lands in the snow, pink and frothy. His face is covered in a thin film of pink, and I can see that the inside of his mouth is filled with blood. I can read panic and resignation in his face, and as he coughs again, I get back on the radio.
“I’m going to have Jeff belay me, and I’m going to get some rope fixed. I should have enough between my pack and Jeff’s, and then I have to get him off this mountain. I’ll radio you when we’re done. Cornice traverse, out.”
I stuff the radio deep within my jacket, and I can barely hear Mike yelling through the thick down. I shift out of my pack, then grab the final length of rope I brought with me. I had only brought it in the case of an emergency, and I am not happy that I have to use it now. Jeff turns his back to me, and I wrestle out the fifty-foot coil he has stuffed in the bottom of his bag. I slip out of my mittens, and my fingers are almost immediately frostnipped. The wind is still whipping around us as I tie a careful knot between the ends of the two ropes. I check to make sure they’re secure, then slide my fingers back into the gloves and put my pack back on. I turn up my oxygen, then hand Jeff the end of the rope.
Jeff takes it and slides it through his belay device. If I fall, he’ll be able to push his hand down and catch my weight. Assuming he doesn’t come falling with me.
I unclip from the fixed line, then take a careful step on the now bare ridge face. The dark stone crunches underneath my crampons, and I make hesitant, careful steps forward. Thankfully, there is a thin lip of stone that runs almost parallel to the ground. Still, I take the time to carefully reach into the stone and carefully place pitons every few feet. The rock is smooth from where the snow has shifted, and I have to be careful placing the route. Step after careful step, the orange and blue rope trailing behind me into the thick mist of the clouds my only sense of where I came from, my only guide to where I need to go.
I have no idea how long it takes me to finish placing the ropes. I can still hear Mike’s voice every few minutes emanating from inside my jacket. I try to ignore how angry and scared he sounds, and just let the melody of his voice sooth me. I don’t know how many times I have free climbed a route, placing pitons and quickdraws, while Mike yells advice to me from the bottom of the wall, offering advice as he belays. To your left, straight up from your shoulder. There’s a nice handhold, if you can just dyno a bit. I pretend for a moment that I’m not twenty-six thousand feet above the ground, that I don’t have a desperately ill client as my only safety, that I am not in what is slowly turning into a blizzard with an unstable cliff face pressed against my front. I pretend that Mike and I are climbing in the Red River Gorge, somewhere low and safe and warm, and I let my instincts and training take over.
When I reach the next length of fixed ropes, I fight back a sob. I clip in, then lean heavily against the cliff face. I can feel my tears freezing on my face, and I turn and yell back to Jeff to come across. I hear his quiet reply, the wind whipping fiercely around us, and grab my radio.
“We’re good, Mike. Jeff’s on his way across.” I smile when Mike comes over the radio, cussing.
“You scared the everliving shit out of me, Dave. We’re all heading your way now. Get your asses to Camp 4, you hear me? This storm is picking up, and we’re right on your heels.”
“Got it. I’ll have tea waiting for you at the tents.” The radio is shoved back into my jacket, and I watch as Jeff makes his careful progress over the ropes. When he reaches the end of our newly laid rope, he grabs hold of my arm and pants. He wearily clips in, and we start moving forward into the growing darkness of the storm that is building around us.
Thankfully, the rest of our trek towards Camp 4 is uneventful, beyond the stinging slap of wind and snow. The ropes are solid beneath us, and as we move past the Balcony, I start feeling like we will be able to make it safely down. There is a Gamow bag, a pump-inflated pressure chamber, that will help simulate lower altitudes and help Jeff’s HAPE. There is also a warm tent and my sleeping bag and, eventually, Mike. Even though Jeff is suffering, having to stop fairly frequently to take heavy drags of air and to cough, we make good progress. When I see a bright light shining through the clouds and newly falling snow, I have to fight to stay upright against the huge rush of relief that pulses through my body.
Jeff and I walk into camp, exhausted. I’m quickly met by Ngawang, who has stayed at camp in case of trouble. He hugs me tightly, slapping me hard on the back. I smile inside my oxygen mask, then work on getting Jeff comfortable. Ngawang and I take turns on the Gamow bag’s foot pump, until I am so exhausted from the simple movement that he sends me to my tent.
I take a quick walk around camp. It’s almost six o’clock, and I am anxious that Mike and the rest have not shown up yet. With the storm still coming in and gaining strength, I worry about them at high altitudes, far from the safety of camp.
When I see headlamps bobbing through the clouds, I finally, completely, relax. I start walking towards the lights, smiling and ready to meet Mike and the others as they come back from the summit. My heart is light, and if I could get enough air to run, I would rush to meet them.
That’s when my foot punches through the snow, and I am falling, and the wind rushes around me an-
My head is pounding. There’s something frozen on my cheek, and I can’t move my left leg. When I crack open my eyes, it’s pitch black. I reach my hand towards my face, and I can’t feel anything in the tips of my fingers. They burn, frozen and stiff, against my skin. Wind howls around me, and when my hand drops to my side, I can feel ice and snow against my palm.
I’ve fallen into a crevasse. I think. I’m going to die here.
I fumble for the extra pair of gloves I keep within my jacket, and use my teeth to pull them onto my frostbitten fingers. I brush bits of frozen blood from my face, and I am happy that the cold has stopped the large cut on my head from bleeding any further. The radio is a heavy weight against my chest, and I pull it out, fighting back panic and tears.
“Mike, this is Dave. Over.”
Static crackles back at me. It echos through the crevasse, bouncing off of walls I can’t see. Snow falls steadily down, tickling against my face and melting into the tears that I can’t stop.
“Dave?” Mike’s voice is panicked. “Where are you? Are you all right?”
“No. I fell in a crevasse. I don’t even know how I’m alive right now,” I choke on a sob. “I think my leg’s broken.”
How long have I been down here? I wonder. How long have I been missing?
“I’m sorry,” I whisper into the radio. “I should’ve been more careful.”
“No, Dave. No.” Mike’s voice breaks. “We’re going to get you out of there. You can’t be far, and we’ve got everyone here. We’ll get you out.”
I laugh softly. We both know he’s lying. Getting injured people down from these heights is difficult, even when that person can move under their own power. And we also have Jeff to think about.
“How far are you from camp?” Mike asks. I can hear him shifting around the tent, the rustle of synthetic materials as he shrugs into clothes.
“Mike,” I sigh, letting my head fall back onto the ground. “Mike, you know that this isn’t possible.”
“Don’t you fucking talk like that.” He barks back over the radio. I hear him sob, and I have to close my eyes. “Don’t give up on me.”
“I love you.”
He’s silent. Frank comes on over the radio.
“Dave, you said you think you broke your leg. What can you tell me?”
I push myself upright, then reach out towards my leg. It’s freezing cold, but when I shift my weight, I can feel the bones grate against each other in my ankle, and I gasp.
“Looks like it’s my ankle,” I say, reaching out to touch the joint. “It’s pitch black in here, and I don’t have a headlamp, so I can’t tell you what it looks like, but it hurts.” I take a few deep breaths, the thin air rasping over my lungs as I fight against panic. I don’t have any oxygen, and I know that shock and panic will only make the hypoxia worse.
“Where were you when you fell?” Mike asks, his voice subdued.
“Heading out of camp, back towards the trail. I can’t be sure, it wasn’t great visibility. There were people coming down.” I gasp, lying back down.
“How’s Jeff?” I ask, trying to stay calm.
“He’s doing better. We’ve got him on oxygen, and he’s been in the Gamow bag for a few hours.” Mike pauses. “We’re going to get you out.”
“No,” I take another deep breath. “No, you’re not. You’re going to get Jeff down this mountain, and you’re going to move on, and you’re not going to risk your life and everyone else’s lives when I won’t even be able to get down from Camp 4.”
“Don’t talk like that,” Mike sobs quietly into the radio. Frank and Susan and anyone else listening, they are all silent. I pull the hood of my snow suit up around my face and hunker deeper into what little warmth it offers. The wind is so fast in the crevasse, and my ankle is throbbing, and I can’t feel any pain in the tips of my fingers or my nose.
“We’re going to find you.”
I wait a long moment. I am beginning to feel calm, a strange effect of hypoxia and shock. I feel like I can breath easier, and I take a slow, careful inhale, then let it out gently, feeling the moisture collect and freeze around my mouth.
“Dave? Are you there?” Mike sounds panicky again.
“Yeah, I’m here. Just a little tired.”
I try to open my eyes, but tears have frozen the lashes together. I turn on my side, sliding my broken ankle underneath my right leg for protection.
“I think I’m going to rest,” I say into the radio. “I’ve got the radio right next to me. I’ll be in touch.”
I set the radio down, and rest my head against the softness of my hood. I count my breaths, trying to gain some clarity, but then I feel myself begin to drift, and I fall into a restless sleep.
I don’t know how long it is between speaking to Mike and coming awake, but there’s dim light in the crevasse now. I can see where my blood has stained the snow and ice around me, and also the large rock that is resting near my leg. Looking up, I can barely see the sky, a small hole in the snow the only sign that I have fallen in.
I shift again and wince as I bump against my broken ankle. Taking a closer look at it in the light, I can tell something is wrong by the way my boot bends drunkenly in the middle. I pull the outer liner off and carefully unzip the boot. It’s slightly frozen together, blood making the zipper stick. When I finally pull the boot off, I have to fight against nausea. My ankle is twisted unnaturally. I get on the radio.
“Frank, this is Dave. Over.”
“We’re here, Dave. What’s going on up there, how’re you doing?” His response is almost immediate.
“Well, my ankle’s broken. It’s pretty bad.”
“Mike is organizing a rescue party for you, but we’re going to need you to help us if we’re going to get you out of there. I want you to try and wiggle your toes for me, can you do that?”
I nod, not that he can see, and try moving my toes within my blood-matted sock. I see them move, and then the pain hits me deep in my chest, and I gasp.
“Yeah, I can move them,” I moan, “but I really don’t want to again.”
“Okay, that’s good. That’s good. Hold on for me, alright?”
I wait. I wonder who Frank is consulting with, what might be happening on the other end of the radio, and I start day dreaming about Base Camp and Mike’s body warm against mine, his mouth pressed to my lips, and I come awake suddenly when I hear him calling my name.
“Dave!” It echoes through the crevasse, and I watch as bits of ice and snow fall from nearby. “Dave, are you down there?”
I look up and see a face wrapped in blue looking down at me. There’s a sudden cry of joy, and it disappears.
“Mike?” I call through the radio.
“We found you,” he crows. “We’re gonna get you out of there.”
I lie back down, the cold radio pressed against my face.
“Mike, I’m not going to be able to walk. Don’t do this.”
The radio is silent, and then I see his face through the small hole in the snow.
“I won’t leave you up here.” His voice is warm and soft through the radio, stubborn and so Mike, I have to smile. “Not like this. I’m coming down there, I don’t care what you have to say.”
I watch as his face disappears again, as the sun shines down into the depths of the crevasse. I drift in and out, watching as the spot of light that comes through the hole I made falling moves closer. When it’s shining directly on my chest, Mike starts to lower himself down the crevasse. It takes him some time, and I watch his slow, careful descent.
He gets to the bottom and carefully moves closer to me. His eyes are filled with worry and love, and I feel like my chest is going to cave in from the weight of sadness pressing down on me.
“Oh, love,” he sighs, running those deep brown eyes over my body.
“Hi.” I smile, then cough violently. The air is so thin, I can feel it cutting across my lungs. He moves closer, then passes me an oxygen mask. I take a grateful gulp of air, then gasp as my senses creep back, and all I can feel is pain.
“God, I hurt.” I hold the mask to my face, then close my eyes.
“I’m going to take a look at you, alright?” I can hear Mike move. I gasp when he touches my ankle. He is silent, his fingers gentle on the exposed skin.
“You left your boot open.”
“I forgot about it.”
He carefully zips the boot back up, making sure to avoid touching my ankle. I appreciate his care, though I am too exhausted to let him know.
“It’s bad,” he says, coming back to sit near me. He takes my hand between his, our gloves rustling against each other.
“I know.” His fingers are strong around mine, and I fight against the ball of grief that is sticking in my throat.
“I didn’t think it’d end like this.” His head is bent over our clasped hands, eyes hidden beneath the fringe of his hair. I can see his scar winking out from behind his bangs, and I want to reach up and brush them away so I can see his eyes, but I’m so tired.
“I love you.” Mike’s voice is choked, tight. I squeeze his hand gently.
“I love you, too.” I turn onto my side, resting my head against his legs. “You’re going to be alright, you know? You’ll get through this.”
His laugh is stilted and thick with tears.
“I’m not sure I want to get over this, Dave. You’re my life.”
I snuggle closer to his warmth and pull his hand to my face.
“Then go out and live for me, alright? I never summited K2, you know? We always talked about doing that. Never got around to the Seven Summits, either.”
He’s silent, his hand cradling my cheek. For a moment, I forget that I’m going to die on Everest, that Mike is going to have to leave here without me, and I simply enjoy the solid weight of his body underneath my head. I can hear him breathing, and the sound lulls me into a half-doze while he holds my hand the entire time. Frank’s voice over the radio breaks the sense of peace.
“Mike, how bad is it?”
He looks at me, eyes bright with tears. He grabs his radio and responds.
“I don’t think we’re going to be able to get him down.” His voice is resigned and empty. “There’s no way he’s going to be able to walk down on his ankle, and he’s hit his head pretty bad. There- there’s a lot of blood.”
I hold Mike’s hand tighter, letting myself drift as he and Frank discuss my condition. I’m starting to feel warm, finally, and I slip my glove off to grab Mike’s hand more firmly. He wrestles the glove back onto my hand, but I manage to feel a few of his tears splash against my skin and freeze.
He spends a long time with me at the bottom of the crevasse. We talk about mindless, stupid things. Quiet moments. Favorite places. I ask him to tell my mother I’m sorry, and he starts to cry. I let him, trying to give him what support I can. When Jangbu’s voice crackles over the radio, telling Mike they have to descend soon, I press his hand to my lips.
“You are the best thing I have ever known,” I say quietly. “I want you to know that. I have never regretted a moment of this, not once.”
He sobs, then leans over to press his lips against my face. I fumble for his lips, and we’re kissing passionately. It’s like that first night, so long ago, backs pressed against tent poles, fronts pressed against each other. There is passion and desperation and sadness, both a welcome and a goodbye, in that kiss. When we break apart, breaths clouding around our faces, I smile softly.
“Get down safely, alright? You’ve still got a lot of things left to do. For the both of us.”
Mike rests his forehead against mine, and I close my eyes. I am suddenly exhausted, and as I watch him leave, climbing carefully up the side of the crevasse, I have to fight to keep my eyes open. His blue suit disappearing over the lip is the last thing I see before everything falls into blackness.
I’m warm and floating. Somewhere beneath me, I can see a staggered line of people moving down the slopes of Everest. There is a blue dot near the end, and I feel drawn towards it. A hand on my bare arm stops me from going after it.
There’s a woman next to me, her dark hair whipping about her face in a wind I cannot feel. Her skin is smooth and white, and her eyes, when she turns to look at me, are blue like lacquer or dark glass. Her hand against my arm is cold and soothing, and I turn towards her. She smiles, and her teeth shine like ice in the sunlight.
“Rest, Child.” She says, pulling me into her arms. “It is finally time for you to let go.”
I press my face into her throat, breathing in the clean ozone of her skin. I watch has my breath leaves frost against her skin.
“Let go of what?” I ask, wrapping my arms around her. I feel her lips drop to the top of my head, pressing a gentle kiss into the softness of my hair.
“Of life, Dear One.” Her voice echoes through my mind, and for a moment, I am freezing and in pain and trapped in a crevasse in darkness. Then her lips press against my forehead, and I am again soaring above the earth, warm and content.
“What about Mike?” I whisper into her throat, not able to turn around and watch him walk away.
“He will survive,” she says, her hand running in soothing circles over my back. “He will find love again. He will have a son, and name him David. He will climb all of the highest peaks in the world, and he will always leave a small picture of his son, and of you, on the summit. He will live a long and fulfilling life, and he will never return to this place, though he will think of it often.”
I smile against the graceful column of her throat.
“That’s good,” I say, eyes closing. “That makes me happy.”
I look through the fall of her hair to the snow covered slopes of Everest. It’s beautiful, in a desolate way. I watch as clouds caress its slopes, gentle as a lovers touch against the stone and ice. Early morning sunlight brushes against the Cwm, cuts across the Hillary Step, dances on the summit. The air is thin in my lungs, and I laugh and cry and wonder at the great thing beneath me.
“I think I’m ready.”
I feel her smile against the top of my head, and then we’re moving upwards, floating through the thick clouds that still surround the top of the mountain. The world stretches out underneath my feet, and I watch a small dot of blue as it disappears.
And then I am drifting like so much snow caught in a breeze, and I smile and am gone.
“If you get killed,” she argued with a mix of despair and anger, “it’s not just you who’ll pay the price. I’ll have to pay, too, you know, for the rest of my life.”
– Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air