This story was inspired by Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void, and – of course – Jeff’s photo. Special thanks to Anne Michaud, for her relentless editing talents.
Photo credit: Jeff Waye
Stone monuments to the dead line the path to Everest. There’s no way past them, no moving beyond the reminder that one in four people will die in the attempt to summit and return. I remember resting a hand on those rough stones, breathing a muted prayer to the souls that walked this route before me. The little colourful flags danced in the breeze. Fog hung heavy, obscuring and softening the verdant valley.
That was the last time I saw colour. It seems fitting that in my final moment, those prayer flags would be the image lingering in my mind.
Whiteness. Nothing but shades of white – swirling, dancing, colliding and hammering against my face. I reached into my pocket for a cigarette. I’d promised to give them up, but it didn’t really matter anymore. Pungent tobacco bit through air so thin and sterile, it wouldn’t carry any scent I didn’t bring along with me: fear, sweat, laundry soap, wet wool.
Fingers stiff and white, the blackening notes of frostbite forming on the tips, I fumbled with the lighter. It snapped and sparked, finally bearing a pathetic flame. I sucked at my smoke, gave my butt to the wind, and tucked my stubby digits into my mitts. I cursed my bad luck, my stupidity, my physical inadequacies; the guide who abandoned me.
There was no point to going on. I was lost, and left behind. So much for Joe’s promise to get me home. My fault, for choosing to climb without canned air. The guide made the right decision: sacrifice the idiot, spare the team. A quiet comfortable sleepiness stole over me. No pain, no drama. A gentle surrender.
“Mister Alex. Wake up. Come now.”
I raised my head and rubbed my eyes. “Sherpa Joe. You came back for me.”
“Where’s everybody else?”
“Down below,” he said. I shuffled along in his wake, the hunched form of his backpack making him look misshapen. He paused whenever I lagged behind, and waved a hand. “Not far now.”
The black-white sky flashed. Thunder rumbled, echoing into the longer chaos of another avalanche. Fear paralysed my limbs, shutting me down, until Joe’s words broke the spell.
“Hurry. Not far now.”
I clung to his voice, the only shred of sanity in the swirling blizzard.
The air thickened as we descended. My lungs gratefully sucked in the extra oxygen. Muscles burned in fatigue; I wanted to lie down and quit. But hope won when the humped forms of tents rose from windswept rock. We’d made it all the way past Camp Four, down to Camp Three. I’d been too tired to notice the passing of the time. It could have been an hour, or the whole night. My headlamp winked out, battery dead.
“Now you can sleep,” Sherpa Joe said, as he unzipped my tent.
I gripped his hand. Tears stung my eyes, wasted moisture in my dehydrated, delirious state. “Thank you for coming back for me.”
“I promised you, Mister Alex. I swore on Sagarmatha. Now put your hands like this.” He stuffed his fingers into his armpits.
I wondered where everyone else was, why it was so quiet. No sounds of snoring, talking, swearing; no drone of radio cutting the silence. They must all be exhausted beyond belief. I crawled into the warm cocoon of my sleeping bag, and let go of the world.
The moisture in my breath clung to the insides of the tent, snowing down when I bumped my head against the canvas. My fingers hurt. I tugged at the mitts, afraid to look, but they weren’t any worse than yesterday. Maybe I’d get to keep them.
Pristine white greeted me everywhere I looked; barely a sign of our tents popped up sun-bleached red and khaki between drifts. The campsite was deserted – not even marred by track marks of the quiet, competent Sherpa Joe.
I couldn’t find my lighter, but there was a spare in somebody else’s pack. I lit a fire on the campstove, melted some water, and shovelled a can of cold beans down my throat. Bland and tasteless, like the water.
I waited the whole day, alone, while the mountain hung silent and brooding. The weather was perfect for climbing, inviting, like a Venus fly trap, alluring, beautiful, welcoming – until it snaps down its jaws.
The last rays of sunlight bathed the peaks in glowing orange and pink. I slept fitfully, the wind howling spirit sounds, tangling and invading my dreams. Agony, pain, all mixed up in a haunting melody.
The loneliness was oppressive; I could not endure another day in this stark solitude. I packed up my few things, rolled up my sleeping bag, and headed down for Base Camp. It was frightening being alone again, lost like before Joe found me, my mortality dangling with each tentative footstep and handgrip. The mountain reigned like a living menace, eyes boring into my back, sending rocks and boulders tumbling as if to hurry me off the barren slopes.
Shattered nerves, shaking hands, eyes burning from the glare, but I made it. The tang of unwashed bodies rose on the breeze. Pots clattered, voices rose and fell; music buzzed on a radio.
Silence descended as all eyes fell on me. I could understand the shocked expressions – I’d been written off as another casualty of arrogance. But where were my friends, my team mates? The guide who left me behind? Where was Sherpa Joe?
They’d all perished in the avalanche that took out Camp Four. While I was having my pity party on the ridge, they were gasping their last breaths under a crushing blanket of snow. The bodies were retrieved, one by one, lined up for identification. Arms cradling skulls, legs curled; fear, horror, resignation etched on frozen faces. And there was Sherpa Joe, my cigarette lighter in his pocket, the only one peaceful like a sleeping child.
There are plenty of ways to explain what happened, and they all involve human error. Maybe I was wrong about seeing Sherpa Joe. He couldn’t have come back for me – he was already dead. Maybe it was my imagination, bizarre hallucinations from the dehydration and fatigue, the lack of oxygen messing with my brain. Maybe the radio dispatcher got the times wrong, or the translator got some of the words mixed up.
But I saw Joe standing next to the stone monuments, a smile lighting up his earnest, serious face. He faded away as I drew near. He’d made a promise to me – an oath on his sacred Sagarmatha – and he hadn’t failed to get me home.
I grabbed a rock, the biggest one I could lift, and started building Joe his own monument. Rest in peace, my friend.