A High Place

Four times the size of the Matterhorn, it rose more than 9000 feet beyond where he stood. A rough pyramid of rock, ice, snow, and blood it was the second tallest mountain in the world. Those few who understood such things, considered it the most demanding climb in the world. K2. 28,251 feet of cold indifference. An impersonal designation was enough as if no mere mortal's name should sully it. Everest, more than 1300 miles to the east, had been summited by ten times as many people.

The man looking up was one of the few who had seen the view from the top of K2. Less technically demanding, Everest might be summited by a well equipped and supported poser on occasion. K2, never. K2 killed the best of the best. It was near impossible to make it to its base, let alone its summit. One in four of those who tried never left the mountain. One in four out of a cadre of the greatest mountaineers in the world.

He hoped that it would be a little more forgiving this time. He and his beloved Christy were going to make one more trek up its slopes. He was way too old to be attempting this, even without the cancer. But it felt right. Made a strange sense to him. The completion of a circle that had started here 31 years earlier. When he’d died and been reborn on this mountain. He'd left the dark parts of his soul at 25,000 feet. A very different man had returned to base camp from the one that had departed days earlier. Without that rebirth, he’d never have known Christy. Hopefully now, he’d be able to show her where their journey had really begun so long ago. Before they’d even met. Share one last adventure. His vision clouded just a bit when he had that thought. That happened a lot lately.

Five feet 10 inches of wiry wit, intelligence, courage, and enthusiasm. And love. More love than any person should be capable of generating. That was his Christy.

She was a visual stunner but really the thing everyone remembered was her laugh. Not her chuckle, chortle, or polite Ha-ha. Her knock-down-walls laugh that welled up from some place beyond this world and slapped a smile on the face of anyone within earshot. It was impossible to feel down when she laughed. A person would do almost anything to get her to belt one out. But it was a kind and empathetic laugh. Just like her. Crass or hurtful things would never get it going. Subconsciously it made everyone a better person because it got them thinking about silly things that were a joy to share at no one’s expense. Those were the things that would make her really laugh. It was a sound that could vanquish any demons. He’d been privy to it more than any other.

Christy was making this last journey strapped to his chest. Her ashes cradled in a rough sewn pouch that had been given to them by a Sherpa guide after they had summited Everest together many years ago.

He’d gone along because she’d wanted to go. Not because the feat completed a multi-year quest and entered his name into the history books as one of a handful to summit all 14 of the worlds peaks over 8000 meters, but only because she wanted to. Three years earlier than their shared Everest climb he’d lost his interest in completing that task. Lost it on K2. Thirteenth on his list of 14. After the summit and the legendary descent, he’d decided to stop. Not because of any of the reasons that most people imagined. He let them imagine what they wanted. He didn't care.

Next to Christy were his hand written logs. The personal record of his climbs. All his experiences and thoughts along the way. A lot of people including his kids thought he should have published his notes or written a book about it. He never did. Christy’d understood. There was no need. The memories belonged to him and the mountains he’d climbed. Climbers would know without his words and everyone else wouldn’t understand anyway. A mountain couldn't be experienced vicariously.

His friend Ali stood behind him. The last two survivors of that legendary climb. Sharing a bond forged on these very slopes. He alone amongst the living understood why his friend had lost interest in summiting the last of the 8000 meter giants. There had no longer been a need. Nothing else to prove. He’d lost his fear. It’d been devoured by this mountain when his legend had been born.

Christy and Ali were the only people he’d ever told - ever explained his version of what happened on that day.

Ali’d made it possible for him to be here now. No doubt there would be hell to pay when word got out, but Ali didn’t care. He’d been living on time gifted to him 31 years earlier by this man. By this man and this mountain on his behalf. He could see the Abruzzi Ridge above. The place where the legend had been born.

The details of the climb were well documented as had the miraculous events that prevented Ali and 4 other climbers from falling 4000 feet to their deaths during their descent. Ali, his friend and two other men had summited. On the way down a climber had fallen taking 4 others down with him through a cascading series of events. All 5 tangled together suspended freely in space over the edge of the ridge. Realizing that they weren’t dead, they looked up to see him holding onto the rope. The rope that held them to the mountain. His other hand wrapped around an ice axe he’d buried into the mountain while simultaneously reaching out to grab the rope as it raced by. It was an impossible grab. If he’d been an inch shorter than his 6 foot 2 inches, he’d have missed. It was impossible that he held on until they could pull themselves up over the edge. Five men who swore an oath to repay this man anyway he deemed fitting. He never asked anything of them except this one time. Ali’s position in the Pakistani government made it easy for him to grant this request. Access to the Mountain for one last climb.

Unconsciously patting the place where kept all that remained of Christy, he stood quietly and remembered that day. After the euphoria of joining a very exclusive club of individuals who had summited K2.

The sights and sounds of dying men as they slid off into the abyss one by one. His aim had not been his own. How the axe had struck that one place able to support the weight of 6 men, was a mystery to all but three.

He remembered losing his strength and grip. The face of his comrades suspended over 4000 feet of air. The look of resignation in Ali’s eyes that said “Let us go, and save yourself". And that other presence. In his mind he felt rather than heard something telling him to ‘Let go, it’s not your time’.

He’d started climbing as a means to control his fears. It was his way to show that it didn’t control him even though it had. Every climb was harder than the last as he ticked off each one of the 8000‘ers. Until he’d come here. This place that terrified the most seasoned climbers had felt like home. It was the strangest sensation. The dread that had always preceded a big climb was replaced by an impatience to scale its unforgiving face. Usually he was careful to avoid looking up at the peaks before a climb. It was part of his preparatory rituals. This time he couldn't stop looking up. He couldn't shake the feeling that his destiny lay somewhere up there.

He made his choice. In that moment his fear lost hold of its grip and he was at peace for the first time in his life. It was surprisingly easy. He would die with his team, rather than let go. He resigned himself and began to release his grip on the axe.

Then the power over took him.

K2 had chosen to spare him. Once it sensed that he was bound in spirit to his comrades it gave him the strength needed to save them as well. Or that’s how it seemed at the time.

Ali and Christy had believed him. He was never sure that he believed it himself. But the strength had come from somewhere. Ali had said that "if God existed this was where he would live". He’d held on until his comrades were safe. Lying on the ice, they’d lacked the wind to say what their eyes conveyed but words would have trivialized it anyway. And they needed what breath they had left to get down the mountain. They all made it back to base camp and spread the legend. A lot of people wanted his story. He never obliged. Others wanted to climb the last of the 8000‘ers with him. He’d declined.

He’d decided to live by the mountain’s example. To just be. Prove nothing, lament nothing. Labels given by others, ignored. Just be.

Grateful for the gift of nothing save existence.

Fear gone, he went on with his life. He met Christy by chance on a plane, and they were in love before touch down. Thirty years of adventures large and small, grand and intimate. Always together. They raised a fine family and watched them grow. She’d died quietly in his arms as he’d whispered lovingly into her ears. They’d had an extraordinary life. He knew he’d follow her shortly, the cancer would see to that. But that was an end for other men.

Instead he chose to come here. To a place unchanged. To a mountain untamed. Close the circle. Pay his debt. He’d said his goodbyes and headed into the thin air.

“Thank you.”

The only words exchanged between the two old climbers. It meant something different to each, but left nothing unsaid. Ali gave his friend a small flag with a distinctive design that made both men laugh.

Christy would approve.”

He and Christy started the climb. Supporting camps along the route had been positioned and provisioned just like a major expedition. All involved thought it was unnecessary window dressing, but they did it for the legend.

Ali stood there for hours until clouds enclosed the lower levels of the mountain. Odd that the upper levels remained clear.

He never saw his friend again.

Some time later, forward crews for an expedition arranged by the children of the lost climber surveyed the camps left behind in the wake of that last climb.

Unmistakable evidence of his having visited each was found. It was impossible but irrefutable.

A year later, a group of climbers summited. At the summit, they’d found a small flag with a distinctive design that seemed odd. A small news story circulated about the discovery. Ali saw it and smiled. Convinced that his friend and his beloved had been spirited away by the mountain that had changed all their lives.

They finished their journey as they had lived.
Together forever on a high place.

A few weeks later a minor stir occurred in the geology literature. Of course no one else noticed it. A recent resurvey of K2 indicated an actual height of 28, 263 feet.


Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Suggested by the events of the 1953 expedition to K2.

David B. Beaver said...

I love the story, and the photo you use is breath taking. Thanks for sharing