–May 8th, 2016–
The team arrived at base camp of Mount Everest as the sun was beginning to set. A brisk wind blew across them and the couple dozen other tents already assembled, future expeditions waiting to embark like theirs or returning mountaineers taking some well-earned rest. The towering mountain loomed in the background, a stalwart black-and-white checkered statue to the insurmountable. Many have braved its precarious slopes and treacherous ice floes, but Steve Corson knew that few have been successful, and over 200 people have died trying to conquer the giant. Still, it was a rush just to see it in person.
Alan Cunningham, the expedition lead, kept the pace quick as they walked through base camp and found a spot suitable for setting up their gear. A life-long climber and thrill-seeker, his mountain climbing accolades could fill up a sizable book. Like Steve though, it was his first Everest climb.
“Steve! We’re here buddy! Could you ever imagine it?” Alan said as he laid his backpack down and began massaging his shoulders. “I mean, look at the size of that thing! The books and guides just don’t – no, can’t do it justice.”
“That’s true. It’s a whole different ballgame getting up front and personal with it.” Steve found he couldn’t look away from the mountain for more than a few seconds. No matter where you were, it was just waiting to pull you back into its grasp.
“Well, I plan to get personal with it. I’m climbing this mountain if it’s the last thing I do! Nothing will stand in my way!” Alan pointed his finger towards the mountain in an exaggerated dramatic pose. Steve imagined a pair of aviator sunglasses and a crooked cigarette hanging from Alan’s lips. Yep, totally fit.
“Oh you guys,” chimed in Wendy Davis, the third member of the expedition, “to hear you talk, you’d think you’ve never seen a mountain before.”
Alan grinned. “Big talk coming from someone who nearly puked at the top of Kilimanjaro!”
He dodged the snowball Wendy hurled at him while Steve continued to gaze up at the mountain. It was so majestic. He remembered gazing up at many summits across the world, but he had never once felt this level of insignificance. It was humbling to be in the presence of such a grand spectacle. He shivered inside his forest green climbing jacket. It wasn’t from the cold, the thick insulation and four additional layers kept the chill at bay; it was from sheer excitement. He rejoined the other two and went through inspecting their gear, triple-checking everything from the perlon rope to the crampons used for the icy sections. Well, who was he kidding? The entire damn mountain would be icy.
As they set their tents up for a couple of days rest to acclimate to the altitude, they met their Sherpa for the climb, a stout and tall young man who called himself Yadav. He was a man of few words, and Steve wasn’t sure if it was his personality or his lack of English. If he had to be honest, probably a little bit of both. Introductions were made and food was passed around.
“It is alive, this place,” Yadav said after a while of small talk, pausing in his chewing. “The mountain. It watches. It waits. Respect the mountain, and it will let you pass.”
“Yadav, buddy, it’s just a mountain. Sure it’s big, but still just another peak to climb. Another notch for Alan Cunningham!” Alan popped his fist into the air for emphasis.
Yadav gave the expedition lead a long sideways look, then let his eyes return to the bottom of his bowl. “Like I said, it watches. It sees all.”
“Oh come on! You people have some strange customs. Just you watch Yadav, in a few days we’ll be dancing a jig on top of Everest’s head, showing it who’s the real boss of this land!”
As Alan continued to boast and Wendy snickering at his bravado, Steve couldn’t help but look back up the mountain. Despite everything, he thought he could feel a little of what Yadav mentioned. The mountain, it occupied so much space in his vision, it was hard not to think that it was looking down on him. That it was watching. And waiting.
–May 12th, 2016–
Five hours into the climb, Steve could truly begin to appreciate how hard their path was.
The Khumba Icefall was what they called this area. For as far as Steve could see, nothing but ice-covered snow made travel slow and dangerous. The terrain was so rugged that it looked more like a pearly-white rock slide, the endless jagged sheets stretching up and around the mountain out of sight. Man-sized cracks were common and it took all of the mental and physical effort to avoid slipping into one of them. Even with the crampons strapped to their feet, each step was an intense labor of love frosted lightly with insanity.
Leading the group was Yadav, pushing everyone with a comfortable but steady pace. His red and green climbing gear made him easily identifiable against the pale unforgiving canvas. He spoke even less here than back at camp, with only the occasional, “Watch step here,” or, “Might slip,” to remind everyone that he could still talk. When it came to climbing however, Steve knew no equal. Every rock traversed and every face climbed was a work of grace. Yadav so deftly maneuvered in the Icefall that Steve couldn’t help but feel a bit of envy and admiration at the same time, like losing a game to your best friend.
Alan, not to be outdone by the guide, was on the literal heels of Yadav. Steve could hear the muttered curses Alan let out under his breath, damning everything from Yadav’s unlimited energy to the British Empire. His steps began to burrow into the snow as he tried to keep pace, sending flecks of ice flying through the air, miniature explosions that would pepper Steve’s face like shrapnel. He chuckled to himself and Alan whirled around on him. Even through the face mask and balaclava, he knew there were daggers boring down on him, and he stifled his laugh in a hastily improvised cough.
Wendy came up behind Steve, barely tagging along as well as she could, but Steve knew there was trouble already. Her breath came in ragged gasps, harder going out than coming in. Once or twice she tripped and slid in a spot where she shouldn’t have had any trouble. Steve would always go back and assist her back up. After the third time she fell, he hollered for the front two men to wait while he went back to help.
“Wait? Are you kidding me?” asked Alan. “Wendy just needs to learn to watch her footing. You go back and help her if you want, we’re going ahead.” With that, he prodded Yadav onward. There came no reply from the Sherpa, but Steve thought he could sense what he was thinking, about Wendy and about how serious it might become. Putting that thought out of his mind, he went back down to check up on his downed teammate.
“Wendy, is everything alright? We can stop and go back if you’re not used to the air just yet.”
Wendy slapped his hand away as she pushed herself back up, “I’m fine, thanks. Besides I wouldn’t let that one up there give me any shit for lagging behind.”
“But, if you get any worse we’ll have to turn back. It’s better to make the decision now for safety reasons. And besides, you know how Alan hates being forced to do anything. Why don’t we try to convince him to go back, just for one more day?”
“It’s not that Steve. It’s just . . . I want this so bad, he wants this so bad. I’m not about to let a little sickness ruin our chances. Even if we did go back, I’d never hear the end of it. You guys still tease me about the altitude sickness from Kilimanjaro.”
“Well, sure,” shrugged Steve, “but that was also a much easier climb. It’s no one’s fault if you need extra time.”
Wendy put her hands on her hips in the classic pose she was known for, and spoke softly and slowly. “Look, I appreciate you looking out for me Steve, but I’m fine. No, really I am. We need to get going anyhow, we’ve wasted too much time over me.” She set off back up the mountain with a brisk, forced energy in her stride. Steve could only wonder what would happen if he insisted the group turn back for another day or two. Alan would cut my tongue out and eat it for dessert. It was a humorous thought and cracked a smile on his face, but as they got closer to Alan and Yadav, Steve could tell something was wrong. When they reached them, he saw the problem, Yadav summing up the issue as only he could.
“Chasm. Ladder with no rope.”
That was the understatement of the year. The faded blue hue of the ice gave way to simple nothingness, a fuzzy black wall where distance seemed to disappear. Steve couldn’t see the bottom and wasn’t entirely sure there was one. On the other side of the gap several yards away, the edge was jagged and cracked from previous attempts to cross. Before them was one of the many crossing ladders in the region laid across the gap, the silver metal surprisingly easy to see against the dark void below. The safety ropes were nowhere to be found. Steve couldn’t bring himself to look over the edge and see if they fell. If he could see that far down.
“We’re – we’re going to cross that? Oh, ok. No big deal.” The worry in Wendy’s voice was obvious, despite her thinly veiled attempts to mask it. Steve just kept looking at the ladder. It looked as though it was being swallowed whole by the crevice.
“Of course we are!” Alan burst out, throwing his arms up in the air. “This is the first major test in our trek up the mountain! Don’t let the ladder scare you. And who needs ropes? I’ll bet we could dance a jig across to the other side!” He certainly seemed upbeat, but as he approached the crossing, even his steps slowed.
Yadav skipped across the ladder as soon as he reached it, his boots and crampons making soft crunching sounds with each step. In a matter of seconds he was on the other side, nodding to himself.
“Seems stable,” he shouted back at to the other three. “One minute. Make new ropes.”
“Nonsense, we can cross right now! You said it was stable so it should be fine. This’ll be a piece of cake, you just watch me own this. Watch and learn!”
Alan confidently strutted to the ladder and nearly slammed his foot down, shaking off bits of ice and snow in a brief shower of white. He wasn’t as fast as Yadav but made up for it in bravado. He even waved back at Steve and Wendy halfway through the crossing. A few seconds later, he was on the other side, pumping his fist in the air and clapping Yadav on the shoulder. The Sherpa just gave him a sideways glace.
“We need ropes.”
“No we don’t, that was easy! Alright, who’s next? C’mon, don’t be shy!”
Steve hesitated for a second then slowly walked forward. Wendy gave him a soft, encouraging pat on the back. Alan shouted approval and flashed as big of a thumbs-up as his expedition-weight gloves would allow.
With his first step, he knew he was in for a bad day. The crunch that had sounded so secure when Yadav walked across now sounded hollow and brittle. His next step was even worse, a sickly scraping as the spikes in his crampons slid across the metal surface. He felt the ladder under his feet quiver and he instinctively looked down for his footing. He instantly wished he hadn’t. The never-ending black void was perversely framed in-between the rungs of the ladder, a picture of unseen death waiting at the bottom that wasn’t there. On either side of the ladder, more emptiness. The chasm grew wider with each blink of his eye, and soon he found himself in the middle of a giant lake of a shapeless, starless midnight. He could feel his head swimming as his body struggled to stay upright. He urged his feet forward but they remained frozen to the ladder, the 1 ¼” rungs seeming more like silver paper matches against the drop. The entire world became a spinning blur.
Steve’s head snapped up at the sound of the voice in front of him. Someone was reaching for him with an outstretched hand, while another figure pressed close to the edge. The voice came again from the second person, this time more soothing.
“Steve. You’re fine. Just take your time. Take a step forward.”
Who was that? Were there other people here with him? Who else would come out to this suicidal place? He peered down again. Yep, still death.
“Steve? Buddy, can you hear me?”
Oh right. Alan. Alan Cunningham was here. Alan Cunningham, the same Alan Cunningham who he had climbed a dozen other summits with. Yeah. Alan Cunningham.
“Yes Alan. I can hear you.”
“Ok, that’s good. That’s good. Now, take a step forward buddy.”
“Alan. It’s really deep down there. Like, I can’t see anything. I can’t see the bottom Alan. That’s bad, right? When you can’t see the bottom, it’s a bad thing isn’t it?”
Steve finally recognized Yadav as the one trying to reach him. The Sherpa tested his foot on the ladder to try to get closer, and the cracking sound it made sent him recoiling back.
“Steve? Yes it’s deep, but there’s a bottom down there. It’s just that the bottom is black as well so it blends in. I’ll bet it’s only ten feet down. So you should go ahead and take that first step Steve.”
Steve locked eyes with Yadav and tried to imagine the chasm floor being a mere ten feet from the ladder. He formed the picture in his mind that the bottom was just blending in with the surroundings. He lifted his foot and placed it over the next rung, the crunch not as loud as it had been before. He took another step, then a third. He lost count after that, intently focused on Yadav’s frantic face, until his hand was within reach and he was violently pulled onto solid ground. Steve fell to his hands and knees, never as grateful as he was in that moment to have snow and ice under him. Despite the relative safety, his arms and legs were shaking, his mind still trying to convince himself that there was a bottom ten feet from the ladder.
Alan let out the breath he had been holding since Steve’s first step. Even Yadav was exhaling heavier than usual.
“Steve, are you ok?” Wendy called out to him as he was still doubled over in the snow. He slowly pushed himself to a standing position and flashed them his own thumbs up.
“Never better guys. Never better.”
Wendy giggled, then choked, then vomited over the side. Alan and Yadav rushed forward, nearly knocking each other over trying to cross the ladder. Steve waited for the resulting sound when her puke reached the bottom. It never came. The shakes intensified.
“Wendy! Wendy, are you ok? Are you light-headed at all?”
Coughing hard, Wendy was able to sit back from the edge, holding her legs close to her chest.
“Yes, I’m fine now. Just relieved from the moments before. I guess the excitement got to me.”
Alan looked at her for a long time, then slowly nodded his head, “Yes, well, it nearly got to me too. Well, no sense in waiting around. It’s time to keep going! Come on over, Wendy, and we’ll continue to tame this beast of a mountain!”
“Still need ropes.”
“Yadav, for the last time, we don’t need the damn ropes! We made it over just fine. I’m not wasting my energy fixing something that shouldn’t have broken in the first place. So let’s go Wendy! Daylight is burning!”
Steve looked over at Wendy, staring at the ladder with her wide eyes, and his shaking stopped. He knew what was going through her mind. Hastily, he stood up and crossed over the ladder again, his gaze firmly fixed on her figure. The only thing in his mind was Wendy. No chasm floor, no broken ropes, not even Alan or Yadav. Just her. Wendy was in trouble and he was going to help. He didn’t even notice stepping off the ladder and kneeling down.
“Hey, I’m here, ok? C’mon, let’s not give Alan any more reason to yell at us.”
Wendy laughed, louder than normal, then caught a dry heave in her throat. “Ok. Thanks. Really.”
“Maybe we should just rest for a bit. You don’t look so well.”
“Uh, hey sometime today!” Alan shouted back towards them. “I’d say get a room, but I don’t have that kind of time! And why couldn’t you cross like that the first time, Steve?”
“Alan, she doesn’t look so good. We need to wait.”
“Wait?! Are you cra—look. There’s nothing to worry about! She just got excited, she said so herself.”
Wendy laid her hand on Steve’s arm. Suddenly it wasn’t so cold anymore.
“Steve, I’m alright. Just, let’s get this over with.”
Steve helped Wendy to her feet and led her to the ladder. She looked down and gasped.
“Oh wow that’s deep. Oh man, ok. Ok! I can do this. Ok. Ok.” She lightly smacked herself a couple of times and put one foot on the ladder. The sound it made sent chills down Steve’s spine. Yadav’s face tightened.
“Need to hurry. Need rope.” Yadav produced a small bundle of rope from his pack.
Alan rounded on the Sherpa faster than a bullet, “Goddamn it, I will toss you over the side if you mention the ropes one more time. Wendy? You’re doing fine. Just take another step.”
“Excellent. You’re doing great. Now keep going, take another step.”
“Alright Wendy. You are doing awesome. You’re almost halfway there. You can keep doing it. Steve, a little help here buddy?”
For all his effort, Steve couldn’t open his mouth at that moment. It was like his voice just wouldn’t work. It was one thing to misjudge distance while on the ladder. It was another when it was someone else. She seemed so far away. His brain was telling him that the distance between her and him couldn’t be more than a couple of yards, but his senses made it seem more like 200 feet. He just stared at her. Hoping.
“Ok, that’s . . . good Steve. Wendy, keep your eyes on me. Don’t look away. Just focus on my impeccable good looks. You can’t see them through the gear but you can pretend.”
Wendy made a sound that was between a laugh and a cry. She took in a deep breath and spread her arms out like a soaring eagle. She walked another step. Steve even smiled. She would make it after all. Wendy looked back towards him flashing a smile of her own.
There was a loud metallic crack, then the screech of bending metal, and the ladder that Wendy was standing on pitched left, rolling Wendy off like a meaningless ragdoll.
She fell in slow motion. Steve tried to move fast enough to grab her from the ledge, but try as he might he couldn’t move any faster than she was falling. Alan yelled and dove for Wendy as well, but seemed just as stuck as Steve. Yadav also shouted as he threw out the rope he had been clutching in his hands. It snaked out like a slow-moving whip and Wendy frantically tried to grab for it. Closer and closer the tip of the rope came to her fingers. Feet became inches became millimeters. Time slowed to a crawl, almost freezing at the moment the rope touched the tips of her fingers.
Too late. The hand closed around thin air as the rope bounced from reaching the end of its length.
The scream that emitted from Wendy was a pitch no human could ever hope to hit naturally. He watched her fall, the jagged edge of the crevice like gruesome blue teeth swallowing another sacrifice to the mountain. The chasm seemed to widen again in his vision as she was enveloped in the darkness, her face the last thing he could see clearly before that, too, was obscured in the void. Her scream was the only affirmation she existed, growing fainter with each passing second as she plummeted. Steve looked down over the edge, his eyes scanning furiously but only seeing black. A dizzying black that never seemed to end and a bottom that never seemed to come. Oh God, where was the bottom of this –
The ladder hit first, the faint, dull resonating tone announcing the violent end of its fall. The sound of her body hitting the floor erased all other senses. It was barely there, almost a whisper on the wind like the ladder had been, but it stopped Steve’s heart. He could hear the appalling squish of flesh pulverized against rock or ice or whatever the hell was down there. He picked up the faint popping of bones snapping against other bones like distant firecrackers. However, the worse sensation was the scream, ending abruptly like someone cut the power to a radio. One second it was there, a cry in the far distance, and then the next second it was gone, along with everything else in the world.
Steve found himself hanging off the side of the abyss, desperately clutching at nothing. A breeze rolled through. It was as if the chasm was exhaling the life force out of its mouth. The cold breath of Mount Everest.
Alan himself was breathing with some difficulty as he struggled to stand up.
“Well. What’s done is done, and more importantly, we can continue on up. Now, Sherpa, I’m still paying you, so you will guide us to another ladder so Steve may cross over.”
Yadav looked at Alan as if he had just asked to have a baby with him. “A woman just died! We have to go back. We cannot continue.”
“Look,” said Alan in a low voice as he pulled out one of the climbing axes from behind him, “I’ve come too far and spent far too much fucking money to stop now. This is Everest. People die. Life goes on. We go on.”
Alan raised the axe higher. Yadav caught himself and swallowed hard, responding in a practiced and exaggerated monotone, “Yes sir. You are my employer and I am bound to honor your request.” His face was impassive, devoid of any emotion. Alan smiled and laughed, letting the axe fall to his feet.
Steve heard nothing. He felt nothing, saw nothing, could sense nothing except the black, merciless pit.
“I’m not going Alan.”
“You’re what? Not going? I suppose you’re just going to stay here then?”
“I’m not going.”
“Yadav is going to be gracious enough to show you another way! We can continue to—”
Steve brought his gaze to meet Alan’s. Empty. “I’m not going. She’s dead. I’m not leaving her side.”
Alan stood there. There was a madness in his eyes, even his eyelids twitched. He looked wildly from Steve to the chasm to Yadav and back again. Finally he threw his hands up.
“Ok, fine, Steve. You win! Just sit there and brood over it. You know what? You can stay there. Maybe you’ll become a frozen corpse everyone can use as a guide. Oh look, there’s the body of the quitter right next to Wendy’s Chasm! Won’t that be swell?!” And with that, he kicked some ice at Steve and started off, maniacal laughter providing harmony to the hard rhythm his heavy feet made.
Yadav watched him walk away, then looked over at Steve. They stared at each other for what seemed like an age before Steve spoke first.
“Go. He’ll die if you don’t.”
“But you need—”
Steve raised his hand. “I’m fine where I am. Just go. Please. Leave me.”
Yadav looked at him hard, then dug in his backpack for a minute before tossing something black at Steve.
“Satellite phone. Call for help. Stay warm.” Yadav turned and took off after Alan, who was climbing up boulder-sized ice blocks, his swearing interrupted by high-pitched laughter at irregular intervals.
Soon Steve was left alone. The cold wind was beginning to pick up slightly, another breath of the mountain. He looked at the phone Yadav had left with him. It seemed to be miles from his hand at four feet away. Wait, what was that? A phone right? He couldn’t be sure, but he knew it was important if . . . now who gave it to him?
He looked around. Where was he?
His mind began to empty as a singular thought formed. He shouldn’t leave her. Not like this. With automatic motions, he unpacked his tent. It felt hot all of a sudden.
He took off his hat and expedition jacket. Still felt hot. The tent poles snapped together with rehearsed motions. Hot.
He didn’t need his outer layers, right? And these damn gloves, making the tie-downs harder than they should be. There we go. His fingers felt good in the air. Still too hot.
Had he always been this tired? Tent was almost done, he could rest in there soon. Rest next to her like he always wanted.
–May 13th, 2016–
Yadav carefully navigated back down the mountain when he saw the tent in the distance. A ball forming in the pit of his stomach, he knew what it was before he could make out the details. It was his tent. The ball formed into a weight. This wasn’t good.
As he made his way to the chasm, he thought about his leaving Alan. Well, forced was more like it. Yadav cautioned him again and again. When he had to dodge the axe swings from the delirious monster, he knew it was time to go. No amount of money was worth being killed for a fool’s errand. He was in the hands of the mountain now, and they were not forgiving.
Yadav saw the corpse laying half out of the tent, most of the clothes strewn about. He saw the untouched phone he had desperately hoped this one would use. The cold, blue flesh of his bare hands stuck out of the snow like macabre weeds, marking the area in a grisly scene of serenity.
The Sherpa saw all of this. His heart was heavy as he looked back towards the towering peak of Everest. The mountain. It was watching. Yadav could feel the eyes gazing down on him, on the body before him. The eyes of a giant. Always watching.
G.M. Neary – For starters, I am about 78% sure that I’m a human male. I was pleasently conceived, which is exactly the opposite of how I was born. As to where I made my grand life entrance, I couldn’t say. As I was a baby, I had not the language nor spatial skills to deduce my living arrangements and address. All I knew back then was how to deficate into a magic white sack, which would then be changed regularly by my servants. How naive I was.
My life has been plenty eventful. I write and enjoy playing chicken with that asshole chipmunk who lives near my apartment complex. I’ve been known to embark on long walks, sometimes for weeks on end. As a charity, I perform card tricks for the blind and hearing impaired.