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By A.F. Rützy
When my native guide plunged to his death, just seconds after he had stepped on a firm-looking glacier, I remembered Reinhold Messner’s words. “Mountains are not fair or unfair, they are just dangerous.” Somehow the sheer cruelty of that sentence has never bothered me until now. Not even when I started mountaineering twelve years ago. Not even when my dad turned into a Popsicle on Mount Everest or when I lost my pinky toes, thanks to an Artic storm I encountered while descending from Imja Kanguru. You live and you learn, although the living part is currently what I’m not too sure about.
The chain of events leading to this moment started about twenty months ago. I was sipping coffee in my Eighth Avenue apartment, enjoying a sunrise that colored the city’s silhouette with shades of red and orange. The newspaper had arrived on time, but when I sat down to read it, the phone rang. Unwillingly I abandoned my morning routines, got up and answered the damn thing.
“Ray, you won’t believe what I just heard.”
It was Chris, my younger brother, who was currently working as a research assistant at the University of Chicago.
“What are you talking about?” I asked. My coffee was getting cold.
“Do you remember what we talked about last Friday?” he answered with a question.
“About mountains?” I said and forgot all about my precious coffee.
“Yes!” he shouted enthusiastically, then lowered his tone. “Do you remember how you said that the mountaineering isn’t the same anymore since there are no unconquered peaks to defeat?”
“Yeah,” I said. My heart was beating more rapidly and I waited for Chris to say the words I wanted to hear. This was too good to be true.
“Well, I think there just might be one more left.”
We spoke for an hour. I didn’t care about my coffee anymore and I even missed my ten o’clock appointment with my sponsors who were ready to finance my upcoming expedition to the North Pole. Chris told me that the North Pole was nothing compared to what he had discovered. One of his co-workers from the geology department had just arrived from Nepal where his team had conducted high-altitude field experiments for six months. One afternoon, when they had started descending from ten thousand feet, the weather had changed rapidly and they were caught wondering aimlessly in an uncharted part of Rowal Valley--somewhere near Mera Peak.
“He thought they would die there,” Chris said, “but one of his local guides insisted that they keep on going.”
“And then what?” I interrupted.
“They were following a zigzagging mountain stream and suddenly the storm died away. They found themselves about twelve miles from a mountain which was at least twenty thousand feet high, remarkably higher than any other peaks in that region.”
Chris paused for a moment and continued with growing enthusiasm.
“The mountain wasn’t on the map, but the guides knew about it and were able to use it as a landmark to calculate their location. Since the crewmembers were cold and hungry they were thankful to find a safe passage out of the Rowal Valley. They had no wish to risk their lives again by climbing the sucker.”
My mind was already ahead of things, speeding like a rodent on a treadmill. An uncharted mountain. There wouldn’t be any trouble getting sponsors this time and I would finally get my finest hour.
“So what’s the deal?” I said.
“He wants to climb with us and get geological samples before others. He doesn’t love the great outdoors like we do so ten thousand feet will be sufficient. He’ll gather the samples and wait for the summit team’s return.”
“Sounds fine by me. Set it up.”
“Okay, I’ll call you later.”
“Thanks, bro. I owe you one.”
“You owe me plenty, but what are brothers for?”
After he hung up I just sat there, allowing my vivid imagination to lift me high above the boundaries of everyday life. How I had yearned for something like this to happen! “Screw the North Pole,” I thought while going through my Rolodex. “It’s for tourists anyway. But this! This mountain that has remained well hidden in Himalayas’ bosom, that’s what I’ll call a challenge.” I had to calm down before calling my sponsors, who were all willing to forgive my absence from the meeting when I explained the reason for it. Three weeks later Chris and I were in a position where we could pick the sponsors we wanted. Isn’t life great?
Since I had been slacking off for six months, my biggest task was to get back in shape while preparing the forthcoming expedition that lay only eighteen months away. The timetable had to be pushed to its limits because rumors about an unconquered peak were spreading through the worldwide mountaineering community quite rapidly. The undisputed truth was no one remembers who climbed Mount Everest the second time.
Based on our research we understood that it wasn’t going to be a spring picnic. Fortunately, Chris’ co-worker, a sturdy man in his forties whose name was Stanley, had video footage and some photographs of the mountain that had been named Ran Kanga by the Nepalese guides. Ran Kanga’s summit was leaning heavily towards the south and therefore it was only climbable from east, west or north, where a uniform slope broken by crevasses rose from the rock-strewn lower buttresses above the Rowal Valley. To an expert’s eye the mountain didn’t look technically too difficult to climb though it had some high passes that were going to require crossing and were vulnerable to rock falls. Within four weeks we made up tens of scenarios and decided that the north face was our best chance.
“I know we can do it,” I announced at the press conference held a day before we left the States. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting here.” The flashbulbs went flash-flash and the reporters were shouting on the top of their voices, desperate to lay their dull questions at my feet. If only my father had seen me then.
“There have been rumours that you tightened the schedule once you heard about a Swiss team preparing for the same mission. Do you care to comment on those rumours?”
The reporter was a young woman in her late twenties. She had black hair and emerald-green eyes and, my God, I wanted to rip her clothes off and have my way with her. “Maybe I’ll give her an in-depth interview when I come back,” I thought.
“Miss,” I said with a courteous smile, “my father and grandfather were both mountaineers and I can assure you that I’ve learned my lesson. Both of them died while climbing in the Himalayas and I have no desire to follow in their footsteps. For those of you who are in doubt, I can say that every safety procedure has been planned with great care.”
I corrected my posture and ended the event with a quote.
“Like Junko Tabei, the first woman to climb Everest, said, ‘Technique and ability alone do not get you to the top; it is the willpower that is the most important. This willpower you cannot buy with money or be given by others. It rises from your heart.’ That’s what I believe mountaineering and life are all about. Heart.”
The applauses proved I had chosen my words wisely and the cameras went flash-flash when I exited the room. Elvis had left the building.
Twelve hours later we - me, Stanley, Dr. Johansen and Chris - who would not even get to Ran Kanga’s base camp because of a severe case of Thrombosis - were sitting in an airplane, making the first leg of our voyage towards the summit of Ran Kanga. Now, when my biggest adventure yet was well on its way, I felt exhilarated like a superhuman or a demigod. The tingling sensation growing in my stomach was surely worth the sacrifices, even that thing with Lisa.
Lisa, a kindergarten teacher with a knockout smile, had been my girlfriend for a couple of years. From the start our attraction to each other was based on physical desirability and that was also where our similarities ended. Her ideal future consisted of a house in the suburbs, a minivan and few kids. Yes, she wanted the whole nine yards, white picket fences and everything, and therefore our relationship had been off and on at least half a dozen times. For her, my lifestyle was something adolescent boys did to compensate for the smallness of their penises.
“No more,” she said when I told her about Ran Kanga. Her eyes were flaming like hot coals when she started packing her things into a large, worn-out suitcase.
“C’mon baby, this is the last one. Look, when I get back we’ll call that real estate guy I met in the Rockies and we’ll get the house thing started, okay?”
“No,” she said. “My mistake all along has been that I’ve believed you could change; but now I know you won’t. You’ll climb those mountains until you end up as dead as the rock in them and I don’t want to be around when it happens.”
She shed few glimmering tears, kissed me and said, “Goodbye.”
I could’ve chased her and caught her by the elevators and told her, “Okay, baby. I won’t go. You win,” but I didn’t. “I don’t need her,” I said to myself and believed it to be so.
Shortly after we landed in Katmandu, Chris started complaining of exhaustion and pain in his chest and because the weather was changing rapidly - like it does in those parts of the world - Doc didn’t want to take any risks and ordered Chris to the nearest hospital for a chest x-ray. The only thing Chris said was, “Bummer,” although all of us knew how much the situation twisted his insides. Eighteen months of preparation and he wouldn’t even get to see the damn mountain.
In mountaineering you’re always making risk assessments, weighing the situation at hand to get where you want to go and stay alive. Most commercial climbers won’t take their chances if there is less than an eighty-five percent probability of success. Explorers and other extremists are willing to push their luck if the chances are somewhere near fifty-fifty. For Chris, in his present condition, the rest of the voyage would mean facing almost a ninety percent probability of failure, which would lead to imminent death. He knew better than to pull a stunt like that. Before the ambulance took him I shook his hand and said, “Hey, it’s just a big pile of rocks. Nothing to lose your life for,” but I didn’t mean it. Actually I was glad it wasn’t me who got Thrombosis and although it had picked my only brother I felt slightly irritated because of the time we were losing while waiting for the ambulance and separating his stuff from ours. He dodged my forced cheerfulness and nodded and kept swallowing the tears that weren’t far away from reaching the corners of his eyes. In the mist I saw a glimpse of envy, or perhaps even hatred, and for a moment we were Cain and Abel. Luckily he was in no condition to slay me.
The next day Doc landed a rented Cessna on a gravel runway near the town of Chuli. It was midday and the weather was changing for better after a night of hard winds and rain. The sun revealed itself behind a cluster of mountains rising in west and the Drobau Glacier glimmered beneath its rays. The sheer beauty of it all filled my heart with anticipation and joie de vivre different from my previous climbs. This time I was going to make history.
We spent best part of the day double-checking our equipment and in the evening we fuelled ourselves with fluid, protein and carbohydrates. In the process we were making acquaintances with our local guides, Imja and Singu, who had been leading Stanley’s research team at the time of the discovery. Since then Singu had circled the mountain twice and climbed the north side up to five thousand feet. As we were comparing our notes to Singu’s practical knowledge about Ran Kanga I asked him what he liked best about being in the mountains. Before answering, he wrinkled his eyebrows and turned his face toward the skies.
“For my people, it’s the best way to get close to God.”
“God?” I asked. I had to bite my tongue to keep myself from laughing. “I think you need slightly taller ladders.”
“And you? Do you have any better reason?” he asked.
“Well, sure,” I said, bewildered by his question. “It’s a tremendous rush. And to be truthful, the money is good. It is not possible to get sponsors without success.”
Doc and Stanley were laughing about my little anecdote, but Singu just smiled and turned away. Somehow I envied him, just like Chris had envied me the day before. Singu was ready to face the upcoming challenges and dangers without a doubt in his mind. He did everything with a remarkable easiness that resembled impenetrable trust or, even better, faith. He had something that I would soon need more than anything else in the world and it was floating through the chilly night air, teasingly fondling us with a sense of overwhelming warmth. It felt like somebody was watching over us.
Following a good night’s sleep, we geared up and headed for the deep Rowal Valley that would lead us to Ran Kanga. The valley, which was overshadowed with a series of lower mountains west from Ran Kanga, was barely passable and heavily wooded with rhododendron and bamboo. The alpine pastures above crawled with wildlife and one time Imja disappeared for an hour or two, just to return with a pair of Markhor sheep’s horns, which are in demand for traditional Asian medicine. At nightfall we camped and in the morning we headed northeast, reaching Ran Kanga before lunchtime. After a few hours break we ascended to five thousand feet without difficulties and set up our base camp there.
Over the following days I was more or less switched on autopilot since doing these sorts of things was my bread and butter. At ten thousand feet we set up another camp for Stanley and Imja, who would be keeping contact with the rest of us by the means of a radio. After that we started acclimatizing ourselves to the high altitudes by climbing no more than one thousand feet per day. At first everything went as planned. The wind blew from south and the loving sun kept us warm throughout the following five days. The altitude was the only thing bothering Doc and me. Doc urinated constantly and I was having weird dreams about Lisa. In those dreams she was rocking a white wooden cradle in a nursery room illuminated with some kind of celestial light. I could hear her singing a nursery song and I could see her smiling that lovely smile she had always possessed. The cradle rocked and rocked until Lisa lost the control of it and it tipped over. Though I knew the dream was caused by the lack of oxygen, it haunted me and made me absentminded and increasingly edgy. Altitude is the great equalizer.
Things started going haywire at eleven thousand feet. The blizzard entered our path and the wind started to blow from the north. The radio failed us for unknown reason and Doc fractured his foot and was forced to stay at twelve thousand feet. We left most of our extra rations with him so we could climb faster.
Now here I am, two and half days later, looking at a mark in the snow that is all there is left of Singu. He dived to his death just a few seconds ago. Before the tragedy took place I said to him, “We are going to die up here.” Singu and I were desperately testing our physical boundaries, ascending as fast as humanly possible to get to the summit. In the roaring wind he turned to me and said, “Whatever happens is God’s will.” Then he smiled and stepped off the glacier and disappeared. I understood that the mountain was ready for me.
The wind beats me like a violent mugger and yes, the mountain is dangerous, but after all the sacrifices and misfortune I know, no, I believe, that my destiny awaits me at the top of Ran Kanga. It isn’t adrenaline or money or fame that keeps me going. I feel like a giant, gasping lung that is on the brink of collapsing. I know what Singu meant with his words. I know God and what he wants me to do. I know my position in his plans. I must keep on going.
The altitude sickness has wrecked me and I don’t know how many days I have climbed by myself. Everything familiar has been erased from my mind with the exception of the dream about Lisa and the cradle, which is rising toward the roof of the world in my soul. I can’t feel my toes anymore and every mouthful of air cuts my lungs like a switchblade. My body’s numbness has made my soul even more aware of its seemingly perpetual bliss. Though my legs can’t carry me, my spirit will. Though my eyes can’t see the summit my heart knows it is near. Oh Lisa, I forgive you. And Chris, my brother, I love you. I love you all. There are no words big enough to express my thoughts and wishes. Maybe you’ll feel them once I reach my goal.
The winds have paused and I keep on crawling on all fours. I can sense how the sun appears behind the clouds and gives its warmth to me. Thank you, sun. I can feel the mountain, the mighty Ran Kanga. In spite of its objections, I’m ready to worship its magnitude. I feel like the Son of God, giving his life at the cross. The last ridge is there, at my grasp, and I struggle forward, stretching my hands toward my beloved Father. Finally I can feel the nothingness around me and tears of joy start rolling down my cheeks. They freeze and I can feel them pinching my face. My legs wobble and I fall down, kissing the ice and the snow that has witnessed the strength of my spirit. This is why I came here. This is why I abandoned the North Pole and Chris, my dear brother. This is why I abandoned Lisa and our unborn son. Only those who are willing to make great sacrifices can achieve great things.
A brief wind passes by, shaking something under my nose. I force my sore eyes open and I see it. It’s a candy wrapper. This can’t be true. Not after all I’ve been through. Disbelief follows amazement and my numb hand tries to pick up the damn thing. Has somebody been here before me or was it brought by the wind? Before I start sobbing like a newborn baby, demanding an explanation from my maker, I read the words written on the wrapper by an anonymous author. “The disadvantage to becoming wise is that you learn how foolish you've been.”
A.J. Rützy is a freelance writer, living and working in Finland,
Europe. He has a degree in public relations and has also studied psychology. For over three
years he has worked in custom publishing (domestic and international magazines). Currently
he is working on his first novel.
Contact Ari at
Contact Ari at email@example.com