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The Boys of Everest
Excerpted from The Boys of Everest by Clint Willis, by arrangement with Da Capo Press. Copyright (c) 2006. To read more about the book, or to order a copy, please visit www.theboysofeverest.com.
The west and south faces of K2 (8611m), Karakoram, Pakistan. [Photo] Michael Kennedy
They could not climb in these conditions. They considered retreat. The snow piled up outside of their tent as they talked. The Major radioed a forecast of clouds but no wind or snow the next day—July 12—with clear skies for July 13. They resolved to carry on. It was still snowing when they awoke the next morning but they set off in hopes that conditions would improve. The Ridge narrowed as they climbed and soon they were moving carefully across steep snow, afraid of triggering a slide that would sweep them from the mountain. They reached the gully. It was 400 feet wide—an obvious funnel for avalanches from the ice cliff above it. Joe imagined a vast white wave heaving out of the mist and breaking upon them. Any avalanche here would carry them for a time and fling them into space.
The snow in the gully was deep. They moved as quickly as they could, gasping in the thin air but afraid to stop for a rest. Each climber felt a sort of superstitious need to show his attachment to life. It might help to move as quickly as they could: some powerful witness might take note on their efforts, might be moved to intervene on their behalf. The climbers—fantasies distracted them from the knowledge that pressed at them here—that death was real and that they were not prepared for it.
They crossed to rock at the far side of the gully. The snow came down harder now. They climbed higher, searching for a place to pitch their single tent. They sought protection from the avalanches that would come; the mountain would shrug off much of the new snow during the night. Peter found himself back in snow that came up to his thighs. Dick and Joe trailed after him but it was hard to keep up. They were vastly tired. The climbers came upon a rock ledge below a wall. The risk of avalanche seemed less grave here than on the slopes that surrounded them—slopes that at moments seemed alive, as if the climbers waded through a sea of snakes that slithered and hissed at their boots.
They pitched their tents and melted snow for tea. It wasn't enough, but they were tired. They quit while they were still thirsty. Peter and Dick lay down in their sleeping bags with their heads at the tent's narrow entrance. Joe lay with his head at the back of the tent. The snow continued to accumulate on their shelter. Joe felt the snow fill the gap between his side of the tent and the rock outside. He worried that the snow would smother him in his sleep. The others were anxious, too.
The three of them talked about their situation. They were 1,500 feet below the summit. They hoped to reach it in the morning. But this snow might make it impossible to climb or retreat in the morning. They might be stuck here while the altitude continued to wear at their bodies. Their talk died and they lay still. They felt themselves at the very border of some mystery. Sounds seemed to drift in from a world remote from even this remote place. They did not take sleeping pills. They might need to come awake quickly.
Joe drifted into a sleep like a tide that every so often tried to cast him up. He half woke several times—each time to a sense that he had fallen asleep in a tunnel or cave; or else on an unfamiliar beach or road—and then he woke fully to darkness and squalor. The tent had collapsed as if to merge with the mountain; a river of snow flowed over the climbers. They were buried in it; they were like the villagers who died in mudslides. Joe tried to heave himself upright. He could almost move his head and shoulders—but snow hammered at his neck and forced him back; here was some astonishing powerful brute without mercy or malice. He knew death was upon him and he had no description for it. He shouted for Peter and then for Dick but now he felt Pete's foot pressed against his own elbow. The foot didn't move. The snow pounded at Joe's head. He wondered if the pounding would tear the tent from its position. A bag of three bodies would slide down the mountain to tumble and smash for 10,000 feet, the corpses sliding across one another in a bloody, splintered jumble to end as a mindless pile, rags and innards from a butcher's bin. Joe stood aloof from the possibility. It struck him as sordid. He was grieved that no one would find them or know what had happened. There would be guessing and questions; the remnants of the dead climbers would lie undiscovered. He was aghast at his own incompetence—his inability to meet this dire outcome in some satisfactory way.