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The Boys of Everest
Nothing happened for a time. It was dark in the tent. He thought of a river near his home, the river now nameless to him. He slipped in and under and swam along the bottom. He touched mud and debris. He couldn't see and the darkness seemed to reflect his mind; it derived from his mind rather than his circumstances, which he suddenly recalled. He was sheathed in this tent, buried under snow in this vast mountain night. He went back to sleep.
And woke again. The snow had set around him; he couldn't move his body. The slide had stopped. He couldn't draw a deep breath. The weight on his chest prevented it. It was still very dark. His fear awoke, shards of light through a web.
He remembered a small knife in the pocket of his wind suit. He could move one arm and he used it to find the knife. He tried to open the blade and nearly dropped the thing; at this a wave of terror nearly swamped him. He waited and the fear subsided. He forced himself to move his hand again. He moved it very deliberately. He opened the blade. He stabbed at the tent where the fabric pressed against his face. The quality of the air had changed. He was able to wonder what might happen now—whether he could get out and what he would find if he dug up the others.
But they were digging for him. Joe heard voices and felt the weight on his chest give way. The voices grew louder and now he could reply. Peter and Dick finished digging him out. He sat up in the tent and began to pass out gloves and flashlights. Peter told him to stay in the tent and gather what gear he could find. Peter and Dick cleared snow from the ledge and worked the tent back onto solid ground. The avalanche had moved the shelter so that Dick had hung over the abyss, suspended by the tent fabric.
Joe found boots and inner boots and handed them out to the others, who pulled them on over wet socks. He was sitting up now. He looked around for more gear and here was the sound of hissing snow. He took more blows to his head and pressed himself into the bank of snow at his back and felt the slide bury him. He imagined the others swept into the void; this time there would be no one to dig him out. The slide stopped. A vision of death by suffocation rose up to appall him. He felt unbearably alone with this prospect. He shouted for the others.
Tears rose in his eyes when they shouted back. Peter had tied himself to the anchor after the first slide. He'd managed to throw his arms around Dick to keep him from going over the edge in the snow that ran through their camp like a river in flood. Peter and Dick dug Joe out for a second time. The climbers moved quickly to depart. There was no question of continuing up the mountain now. Their task was to get down. They must descend 9,000 feet, wading across open slopes of deep snow where any step might trigger an avalanche. They had worn their clothes to sleep and so it was a matter of boots and gloves and stuffing food and gear into their packs. They needed to be gone from this place but they had to wait for the light even while new snow continued to build on the slopes above and below them. They were too afraid to set off across freshly loaded slopes in the dark.
Dawn came. Joe led them down. He kept to rock as much as he could. His crampons caught and skittered. The climbers were roped together and Joe knew that if he fell here he would kill everyone; he knew the others knew it too. He stepped back off the rock and into snow that came up over his knees. He pushed through the snow with a childish sense that it was unfair; they should not have to do this. He felt bitterness rise in his chest even as he prayed that the snow would hold the climbers' weight and that they would be spared more slides from higher up the mountain. The danger of avalanche grew more severe as they descended. Joe was aware that he might be stepping in snow that would later find and bury him. There was also the chance that a patch of snow would break away under his feet. Dick and Peter might be able to hold him but probably not.
They had come here knowing that the mountain had buried Nick. And now they were doing something far more dangerous than anything Nick had done. Joe worried that he was piling up a debt that would come due and claim him; he could not believe that a debt of this magnitude would be forgiven. A mountain would decide the matter. He thought of school, the seminary—men and boys praying to a patchwork vision.
They descended in cloud and falling snow. Nothing was familiar to them. They found the great gully they had crossed the previous afternoon. They crossed it again. Snow collapsed under their feet; some huge beast stirred in its sleep. Joe stayed in front looking to pick a way down. He was moving more strongly than the other two—he had lost their names for a moment. He stared through the mist and snow in hopes that a familiar rock or feature would appear. The ground here wasn't steep.
Peter and Dick moved ahead after a time, forcing their way through deep snow. Joe was tired now. He worried he would not be able to stay with them. He sat down in the snow. He heard the voices of the other two and crawled to them. Peter had found the campsite the party had occupied two nights before.
They had descended a mere 900 feet in six hours. It was nine o'clock in the morning but they were finished for the day. They had brought their battered tent down with them and they pitched it now, coping with the torn fabric and bent poles. They were too tired to dig a platform; so the floor of the tent lay at an angle. The three climbers shivered in their sleeping bags; they were almost dead with fatigue. They had lost their spare gas cylinders and much of their food; now they used most of their remaining gas to light the stove and melt snow for drinks. They needed to drink more but they slipped into a collective daze and then drifted off to sleep. They came awake during the afternoon to recall the events of the previous night and then dozed again. They drifted, featherlike. They were slipping away, becoming ghosts who shimmered and disappeared and reformed without reference to time. They had no opinions and no knowledge. They forgot their predicament and even talked of coming back here, back up on the Ridge.
Joe at moments would awake to this nightmare. The snow was still falling but they had to leave in the morning. Their bodies would deteriorate quickly if they stayed high any longer, especially without fuel to melt snow. They spoke to Major Sarwat on the radio that afternoon. The transmission was fuzzy. Major Sarwat seemed to think the climbers were regrouping for another assault on the summit. Joe felt himself near tears; not even the major understood their predicament.