Author: Detman, Robert M
Date published: January 1, 2012
I glimpsed the doomed party as we returned from the summit: they became visible through the sheeting snow, a chain of trekkers in a blinding field making faint progress. A row of ants. I thought how we must look like this to them- if they were going in our direction. But of course, you don't look back from where you came when everything is looking up. They were stuffed in their boots and lost in their heads, just like us. Moving forward. Facing oblivion.
Only I was looking back to the summit.
There are greater inconveniences than the ones bothering me. But the lesser ones become writ large. I had been told of the extreme temperature differences, but nothing prepared me for the day to night contrast. In sunlight, swathed in down and fleece you sweat as if in the dry heat of Phoenix. Yet at night, exposed to the unforgiving fold of nature, the cold overtakes your limbs, a slowly rising lake freezing around your body, inch by inch.
I have learned to ignore pain. At these altitudes, my lungs strain to get oxygen and my heart rattles tight in my chest. We are not meant to be here. I suck at my oxygen with ferocity, gasping to get enough, breathing gas. Sometimes I simply want to slip down, curl up, surrender.
I recall that my son didn't want me to go.
We spend so much time planning, taking hours to climb up to higher and higher elevations, and then returning back to the base camp, to become acclimatized. The craggy slopes have become familiar. The immense mountain, blasted by updrafts and crystal snow sparkling in the air, awaits us. We prepare for the auspicious day, at any time a week away from our goal. Yet I am so ill-accustomed to the physical effects: lack of appetite, inability to sleep, and a constant, unmitigated fatigue. I have avoided thinking about how little I eat each day since we began. But like everyone here, I am caught up in the single-minded determination to summit.
We are a group of five men, including our guide, and two women, along with five sherpas who are our support and who take turns handing off duties to each other. Multiply these figures by the dozen or so groups comprised of Australians, Russians, and Japanese with the same objective. They are, to me, faceless numbers.
Apparently, the sea of tents packing the plain at the base camp means an unusual number of people intend to make the climb. I don't know this from experience; I'd heard our climb group's guide, Reger, mention the attraction of the media and high-profile sponsorships and how this frenzy has "unnecessarily stacked the decks." Uncomfortably, I thought, every man and woman for themselves, just as I reminded myself, don't let yourself get into trouble up there. But in the moment of peril, of course, you recognize that you can't do anything here on your own, alone, and by then it is too late.
That's what we trust our guides for, to look out for us.
The Nepalese name for the mountain, Sagarmatha, sounds more majestic and less sinister than the insurmountable metaphor that has become what we in the West call Everest. The dangers of climbing Everest are frequently debated. But when things go wrong, and they will, nothing can prepare you. A man on this mountain is less than a mite on a bear. Very quickly, you sense your insignificance. Since coming here, I have heard every tall tale of survival and heroics that has floated around since the first climbers shunted back and forth to the base camp in the quest to scale this perilous mountain.
In the light of day the sherpas are wary, and unflappable. They have a fortitude and ability to carry themselves with dignity, even ease, before so many unseasoned climbers. Their avoidance of us overeager Westerners, for whom they might not otherwise scale their blessed mountain, gives their activities an unusual urgency. Before we leave, I watch them take their turns at the chorten-a. small Tibeten prayer monument. I am eager to relate to their simplicity, a theistic regard most visitors here are confounded by.
They are quiet. This can seem as if they are ready to abandon us at a moment's notice. During the evening they seem to disappear. But we are too preoccupied with ourselves to consider them as we hunker down in our tents for a few hours of rest and to relish our sweet exhaustion. As much as they might benefit financially from our presence, they must resent us for coming here and disrupting their simple way of life. As if we have ushered death to their door. I see this firsthand when the sherpas go around and offer tea to several of our expedition who are recovering in the tents. The sherpas look as if they are confronting ghosts. They pull back and step away, unwilling even to look us in the eyes. I think I understand their attitude, their wariness- after all, we are visitors here.
Of the Westerners, my amateur companions, when not confronted by immediate danger, their faces are unrevealing. They won't show their weaknesses. I take their poker faces for granted, knowing these are masks. No one looks to anyone else with anything other than how they will be useful. I'm embarrassed to engage with them because I question my fitness for the climb. But Reger, whom we all look to unconditionally, seems taken with me, or at least, accepting, and Reger does not suffer fools. Did I trick Reger into thinking that he and I are, somehow, equals?
Early morning is when we prepare for the final ascent to the summit. I find this time the most fraught, as the sun goes down, knowing we must sleep for a few hours before moving on. This is when the enthusiasm for making the summit dwindles, replaced by nameless dread.
We set out in the middle of the night. The night of the inversion, I say, because I'm on the other side of the world and my inner body clock is still disoriented after a month and a half of high-altitude exercise. I wake as if intoxicated from a marginally dream-invested sleep that offers me momentary relief from the reality around me: I am home in Bolinas digging into the soil with my bare hands, the warm sun at my back. I awake frustrated by my sudden awareness of the climb, by the oxygen that I lack, by the tingling in my fingers and toes that levels me into the present. Dreams are an insufficient escape. Your entire existence up here feels like a dream, so what good are they?
Exposed under the firmament, moving toward our goal, I keep looking up at the sky. I could not have imagined such an immense dusting of stars overhead. It is awe-striking. Reger, noticing my dreaminess, says, "Those are all the suns of a million Everests." A curious thought that has me wondering, did he mean sons or suns? I'm not sure if he is being poetic or expressing a scientific fact, and I want to get my mind around the words, want to understand this man, to ask him why he returns here after so many brushes with death. But I will be asking this when I can't find the answer for myself why I am here.
As day breaks we are closer to the summit. Trouble begins early when several of the expeditions are lagging behind due to the bottleneck at the Hillary step. Everyone seems in good spirits, though anxiety, or perhaps even mild paranoia, can manifest as overeager excitement to be this close to the goal.
Initially, we make steady progress toward the summit. The air is pure, clear, and deathly. We have established the routine, a movement forward that gives me less time to marvel at the landscape. With the sun high overhead, time is ticking away. I have to stop looking around if I don't want to disappoint Reger, who insists I lead.
We are in the last of the groups, just before the group led by Yothers, a so-called friendly rival of Reger 's. At times our team is spread out enough that I imagine we'll lose track of individuals. I accept being near the end of the groups to summit, knowing that we are more or less hedging our bets- I'm hoping and expecting that there are members with more experience who will bring up the rear.
Reger's steps are not like ours. He is confident, striding onward. When he stops to assist our team's members, I can see his body angle, leaning to urge these slow folks forward. Or, what I strangely sense, he is reading their defeat, and is ready to suggest we turn around right there. This is the fatigue that comes with dealing with his charges, of enduring so many treks with the inexperienced and getting by on luck. He might only be thinking of the money; without us unseasoned guinea pigs, so avid a few days ago, now so tenuous, he probably wouldn't be here. We are climbing slugs. Even with oxygen masks we are gasping for breath, taking each step like it is up to the gallows.
Reger wears his oxygen mask but I know he can manage without. He is used to high-altitude climbs; supplemental oxygen has become a matter of indifference to him. If not for the rest of us here, I suspect he would go without. My guess is that he wants to lead by example.
I have heard him sigh when dealing with the members who are lagging behind. When I was young, I equated a sigh in older people with tedium. When someone catches me making that disgruntled exhale, it makes the weariness at its source so much more blunt. That's what a sigh sounds like, coming from Reger.
Reger signals me to slow down when I'm getting too far ahead. He stops and waits patiently for the others. Reger looks down on them, physically, from his height. I think we represent the entire history of climbing this mountain- how it has come to this. He has a daunting task, leading us on this trek. He must be slumming with us, the less adept.
We have finally, after hours of toil, arrived.
From here, a knife's edge, I can see the curvature of the earth. Thousands of miles across Nepal, Tibet.
The sensation faintly reminds me of those gray days on the frozen lake of my Midwestern childhood. Time tinged with a dread of the unknown: when the world you have yet to enter is made up of notions, of rites of passage and terrors heard about but not yet experienced. The openness, the emptiness, this is what it is to be alone.
Reger deadpans, "This is the highpoint of your trip."
I can't help but feel reaching the summit is anti-climactic.
Reger, as if reading me, says, "It's all downhill from here."
There is something to this day that, as spectacular as the vista is, I have to remind myself to appreciate the journey, the getting here, as the majority of my time will become preoccupied with what awaits us. The long return is ahead.
Having been on dozens if not hundreds of expeditions already, Reger 's enthusiasm is tempered with frank reality: he wants us to move on from the summit before it becomes crowded. Before it's too late to safely return. He tells us to enjoy it for a few minutes before sending us back down.
Reger bids me to follow the tracks before me, and, where I can see them, landmarks. I imagine that I am leading them- and yet Reger is, I'd be lost without him- while the rational part of my brain checks such hubris.
For several hours I am to walk at the edge of a precipice, and my confidence to stay at the front wanes. I notice that my oxygen is running low- as it probably is for everyone here- realizing how far we have come, and how far we have to go. The sun has melted a slick sheet across the ice.
It is now four o'clock and I pass the last party going up. I hear Reger mention that this is Yothers and company. They somehow fell behind, but are continuing on. It is far too late for them to summit and return to the camp before dark.
By two o'clock, everyone should have hightailed it off the summit. Reger says this matter of factly.
Then I saw them as ants. I didn't know yet that they were doomed, or even a party. Doesn't the notion imply something celebratory? I was relieved, then, in my self-sanctuary, relieved to be returning, looking back toward the summit. A group nameless to me but for the names that will remain with that mountain.
We left the summit four hours ago.
The twilight has begun to settle; the icy plain glows for peaceful minutes. This is the first wide-open vista that gives me some relief because we are close to the camp, possibly within an hour of the South col.
The sun is setting and the horizon is a long beam of nebulous light, the edge of an abyss. And yet we are already in an abyss. Puffs of fog roll thick off the ridge. It seems ominous, crafty, with a sinister determination to obliterate any trace of us. I am aware of how precarious our position is; what lies before me is a slope of about twenty degrees, easy enough to lose footing on. There is a relief to be returning to safety. It's difficult to think about someone in this world, this life, connected to me. It feels like a lifeline.
When I look back I am too far ahead of the group. They are hidden. The idea that I can recognize where we have been before, climbing up, becomes ludicrous. Evening settles quickly, and I have to stop and wait for the others.
I have an immediate, unsettling awareness.
Where before I could see my fellow climbers several hundred yards behind me, now I see a whiteout.
I am in a wind tunnel. Or worse.
Blowing snow has wiped out the path ahead; I can no longer see the tracks and I stop. I stand there for twenty minutes and am startled when some of the group push forward to where I am standing, their hands groping around in the dark.
We are unsure of where to go.
Arms stretched out to keep feeble track of each other, we move together. The blind leading the blind, shuffling along on an ice shelf with zero visibility where the next foolish step might be like stepping off a skyscraper. I am relieved to see Reger.
We come together in a huddle, unable to communicate a plan. Reger is yelling at me to go this way forward, or that, and then he hesitates. He has no idea.
He can't get ahead of us, and acts as if he expects me to decide.
Our oxygen is running low if not completely out for some; I can hardly breathe. The cold and the ice batter us, needle-like pellets. The clattering ice clamps onto everything, so intensely, my instinct is to get to shelter- which is impossible. Patiently, I keep my hands pressed under my armpits though I can't feel them anymore. A prickly sensation creeps up my legs.
The gale is howling, unrelenting, wanting to peel us from the mountain face. We wander for an agonizing hour until Reger forces us, finally, to stop. We should wait it out rather than blunder forward. A few of our group are unaccounted for. Reger has to be thinking about them.
"Hang on until the light," Reger calls out, his face a smear in the dull beam of my fading headlamp. But light seems a long way off -and the storm bears down. Stay still and freeze to death or move forward and fall over the edge. With one wrong step we will all slide off this precipice. I have a vision of our falling, en masse, and it plays and replays. How we'll tumble like dumb buffalo into the gap never to be found. The air will be sucked out of our lungs but dropping through the frigid atmosphere will kill the pain.
Hang on until the light.
Reger 's words become an endless loop, a mantra that I keep repeating until it makes no sense. Handgun unearth delight. Hangdog under fright.
As there are only a few headlamps to see by, and mine is one, I can't bear to look the others in the eyes; their grunts and moans harden me. We are raccoons in fugitive anonymity. I read their fatigue in their postures, by the ease and indifference with which pain denies dignity. They want to let go and they do. When the crying and lashing and trembling cease, bodies go slack.
Perhaps this is the inclination toward death: mind and body. To believe you are unworthy anymore, the journey, not strong enough to continue. You failed your test and are ensuring the last mistake you'll ever make in this life.
I crouch with the others. Beside me, a man shakes and leans against me. He sobs like a girl. This weakness annoys me. I pull away, hiding any defeat. He rattles with such force that my first impulse is to want to slap him out of it. I think of myself as strong, yet I don't believe it. Still, huddled there with my head surrendering back into the hood of my jacket I don't want to give up.
My irritation is tempered with self-pity when I realize I, too, am shuddering uncontrollably.
An idea takes hold of me, makes me bold, resolute. A well-timed strike at him will vent my irritation.
As the night leads us into its impassable depths, the storm worsens. We press together not in camaraderie, but to steal the warmth from the last of us who still have some.
I am failing myself. I barely know these strangers- have not bothered to get to know them- and yet I am resigned to dying in this cold circle.
I shut out the present. Imagine my garden back in Bolinas. Nourishing sunlight, a breeze shimmering the bougainvillea. I close my eyes and am there; I see myself raking the soil. I can conjure what my spiritually inclined friends refer to as the Eastern experience- and what I 'd read of a monk who was imprisoned in Myanmar- to survive his torture and irk his captors he told them that he would transport himself back to the monastery through meditation. To gall Everest I might think of an ocean. At the edge of the Pacific I might imagine being on the summit.
God forbid that my son will read of our disaster in the back pages of the international news. I am determined to make contact, to reassure him of my safety. This is paramount. I want the news that reaches him to offer hope. News that isn't newsworthy, but benign, mildly celebratory.
There is a sharpness in my chest, and tingling in my hands and feet. My face is hot and numb. I notice ever more keenly the cold seeping along my spine.
My hands, though I can just barely see them, do not feel normal. The sun has fried the tip of my nose and burnished my cheeks to a dull leather. Yet the sun is so far away in this frozen night, my body is losing its memory. What I see is the last of my consciousness. Body separate from mind, two entities struggling for control.
I don't want to be an additional burden to Reger. He has his hands full.
The others continue to cry, their voices cracking. Their labored breathing breaks through the moaning wind.
I want to sleep badly.
Reger smacks me, hard, awake.
"You'll die," he screams at me. "You want to die?"
I know this is not the Reger I had come to imagine, and yet, he looks on at me, a lingering look and an impish crack in his eyes. He laughs. I can't say why.
I see his frightened smile.
We stand or crouch and stamp our feet like futile wind-up soldiers. We totter and shake and wait, too disoriented to know what comes next. Reger is trying to work the radio now.
The winds have slackened. The storm is letting up. Now it's simply too cold to bear.
Surely I am dying. My vision is disturbed by fields of neon blue, pulsing orange in a jaundiced sky. Reger is talking again and from his tone I know the words are directed at me. Reger guides my headlamp to his face. He jokes with me, I think. It's his devil face again. This makes me uneasy. Singled out. The sting of his strike still throbs in my jaw. I want to ask him why.
Instead, I try to ask, What can we do for them? As if I can be of any help.
But I can't speak. My tongue fills my mouth, where words cannot.
It is pitch dark. When I regain my composure, I see a figure trudging along the plain- a headlamp coming toward us. My body is soaked through to my clothes and I shiver uncontrollably. I am incredibly thirsty and know this is a sign of hypothermia. I can't respond to Reger. Maybe I catch every fourth word he says. Follow. Found. Tents. Yet I am hyper-aware. I understand that we will find our way back now. I use all of my strength to stand.
I am awakened as if out of a drugged sleep, hearing a name called out repeatedly with the determination of one who knows his call is futile. I open my eyes and am under a red tent. I search around for my cold gear, eager to put a face to this voice.
Reger hands me a hot cup of tea. I can't hold it. He guides my trembling hand around the handle and tells me, "You can sleep now." He is insistent, but gentle, which is confusing. The certainty is gone from his voice. I 'm afraid to put the tea to my lips as if it's molten lead I'm about to imbibe. Reger leaves me in the tent as I cradle the burning cup with my curled hands.
Yothers and Ganfil are unaccounted for. They are the last members of the group after ours who attempted to summit. We have all gone through a night of anguish; some on Yothers 's team had found partial shelter in the lee of some rocks, hunkering down as we did, waiting the storm out.
No one yet knows if Yothers 's group actually made it to the summit. There was intermittent radio contact when the storm came up; Reger said it was nearly impossible to work the radios under those conditions.
As the sun begins to break over the ridge, Reger and a small team- all of whom must have gone through last night's misadventure-assemble to search the plain of the South col for the missing party. In spite of my weakened condition, I scramble out to help.
One of the sherpas wails as he stabs at the frozen crust with bare hands.
We return near where our group had been stranded all night, surprisingly close to the camp. But for the great drifts of fresh powder heaped before us, the setting is oddly placid. The sky is an uncanny, clear blue. The sun that banished us to die returns to assert its relentless life force. We confront a site of horror. Huddled together are three people. I don't think I've ever seen them before. They are in terrible shape. The only one moving is the sherpa, Tengin. The other two are Caucasians. In their critical state they are unrecognizable to me; Reger tells me this is Blaine and Peele.
The man, Blaine, his nose and bare hands black with frostbite, is far gone. The woman, Peele, claws with her barely functioning arm at her marble-like face. She looks as if she is a corpse under water. Pale and iridescent. Tengin had kept vigil over them all night and into the morning, waiting for help.
Beyond Blaine, Peele, and Tengin, what was feared is true. Ganfil and Yothers are lost up near the summit. Early in the morning, someone at base camp contacted Yothers on the radio. There was no more word from him after one brief dispatch. He was with Ganfil near the summit. Ganfil had apparently been hobbled from an injury and yet was so near the goal he wished to make the summit. He must have realized he had nothing more to lose. Yothers, I'm not sure. He was trying to fulfill Ganfil 's seemingly simple, yet reckless, request.
They were caught in the death zone. The atmosphere there is unbearable for any length of time, let alone overnight, made worse during the storm that blew in. Ganfil was slipping from consciousness-this is only speculation- his injury had slowed them to a crawl. Facing extreme exposure, Yothers, trapped near the summit with his injured companion Ganfil, managed to get on the radio. He wanted to talk to his wife.
Recalling the seduction of that sky in the clear twilight, Yothers 's futile gesture turns all those stars into arrows for me. There is nothing to be done. What separates us are mere miles and yet that man will never see his wife again.
Reger and Yothers are probably matched in experience and yet anyone who went through last night will tell you none of this matters when blindsided by a storm in the coldest hours on the mountain. You realize you will live another day to see the sun crest the horizon or you will be dragged soundlessly into the abyss. I can imagine Reger sees himself in Yothers 's boots- a bitter reckoning. Reger is someone who has been in battle and witnessed death many times. He must wonder when his time will come.
If this expert mountaineer Yothers will not survive, my own survival had but a slim chance. Reger 's ability to have come back here leaves me dubious. He is of a different breed of men.
Reger volunteers to go on reconnaissance to retrieve them.
When the news of our cohorts travels around, the hush is palpable.
Finding out the fate of our companions means that we are finally safe, on our way home. For many of the group this afternoon at base camp, it is the first real dropping of guard with each other. There is an inevitability to the outcome, even a relief and pride to have survived.
I hope when I am away from here I will remember the few moments when I might have been of use. Well away from anyone, I would have looked up to feel that expanse, what enveloped me, within. It just as easily could have been me with my curling fists stuck to my face, tucked into a crevasse.
I might have never come. But the events would have happened with or without me.
I feel vindicated but miserable that I stood next to them- this was not a war. And that Reger took to me because he sensed I had what it takes? I am sick inside.
Sagarmatha demands respect. Not the trekkers who trample thoughtlessly, the tour groups who take the applications, cash the fivefigure checks, and send the ill-prepared up to kiss oblivion.
We are ashamed to call attention to our itchy limbs. Our bandaged hands- in excruciating pain- and the fingers we can no longer feel are an indication that they might have to be amputated, forever to remind us of our luck and foolishness. Will we ever use these hands the same way again? Something of these events is cleansing. A terrible thing to say, perhaps, but then I've chosen not to share my insights with the group.
I tell myself to not analyze how I am relating to the experience as it is happening. Has happened. I am in it. The desire has been fulfilled, I made the summit. I am here now. How long will I be away before I want to return to this chalk- white peak? I'll probably get numb feet when I think back to now. I have made it through the worst and have survived, my body intact. I can still hold a pen. This morning the sunlight blazes on the peak and I can summon the feeling that I am standing before a God I've never believed in.
I know of no way to convey the price that is paid to survive. Relief does not allay guilt.
Perhaps I could have given more, or been able to make a difference. None of this makes sense to me yet at the same time I feel oddly emboldened. I 'm not proud of it. I know how my thoughts point to my odd character and I think- no, I did make an effort, I did what I could. Around camp all I see are the shell-shocked, the walking wounded. Am I not one of them, too?
Reger walks away from the group commiseration and goes to stand before the chorten to make a gesture for Yothers, his long-time colleague and fellow climber; no doubt he also has thoughts for the less-experienced Ganfil. I watch a solemn Reger who places a pair of gloves there and stands head down for several minutes. A wave of sadness comes over me. My body and mind altered, I try to take solace in knowing that I'll be back tilling the earth in my garden a mere week from now; telling my son, finding the words to justify the outcome.
When I look up again, Reger has walked away. I think he must have left early. Someone mentioned that he was going back to summit again, alone.
Robert M. Detman, a graduate of the University of Michigan, received his MFA from Goddard College. He has published fiction in numerous literary journals, including Santa Monica Review, Wisconsin Review, and Evergreen Review. In addition, his short stories have twice been finalists for the New Letters Literary Awards and have earned him a fellowship to the Abroad Writers Conference.