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The Boys of Everest
They left in the morning without their tent. They were too tired to carry it. They hoped to reach the glacier before dark. Snow continued to fall. They came to a difficult section of rock. Peter went first. He picked his steps carefully, taking tension from the rope as he scraped snow from rock and struggled to keep his footing on the steep ground. The others followed. Snow covered everything. Their crampons skidded and caught on the rock that lay beneath it. The climbers used their hands for balance. Their gloves grew soaked and their fingers went numb. Dick was very worried about frostbite. The three climbers kept moving, miserable and frightened. Joe reminded himself that they had failed decisively—there would be no need to return to the route. They could go home if they could get down.
It took six hours to descend another 800 feet. The light was fading. They were near the site of their fourth camp, but the snow had buried everything. They poked and dug until Dick uncovered a frozen piece of someone's excrement. They found the tent and huddled inside; they were not safe but they were now free of the obligation to move.
Joe made the evening radio call to the major, who had a surprise for them. Georges Bettenbourg's voice came on the air. The Frenchman was in the region to climb Broad Peak, and had come by to visit his friends. Georges was his usual self, cheerful and enthusiastic, carrying on in his ridiculous accent. The climbers on the ridge were very glad to hear his voice. They settled in for the night. They hoped to finish their descent to the glacier the next day.
Joe took a sleeping pill. That night he dreamed of a battlefield: tents and buildings collapsed; he could make out shapes of people inside the tents. He stood watching an American colonel. The colonel held a pistol to each head and calmly fired through the tent fabric.
The climbers woke in the morning and continued down. They were now back on the crest of the Ridge, safer ground, but slower going than open slopes. They lowered themselves on fixed ropes—their own as well as ropes left by previous expeditions. Dick dislodged a block of snow that knocked Pete off his footing. Pete slithered 15 feet before an old rope caught him.
They peered through cloud into the valley. It looked far away—but now in the growing dark they came upon their friends Gohar and Ali. The two Hunza had come as high as they could; they stood shivering in their light garments on a ledge at the start of the technical climbing.
Joe was the last to reach level ground. He lost his footing; Gohar rushed forward to receive him. Ali joined them and the two Hunza encircled Joe with their arms. Joe felt their concern for him as a kind of shock and he felt himself surrender to the notion that they were his protectors. He wept at this welcome.
The two Hunza carried the climbers' packs the last 300 feet to the glacier. They had erected tents. Ali made supper for everyone. The climbers are and thanked him and found their sleeping bags.
Gohar brought them tea in the morning. Ali had found a very small flower in the otherwise barren litter of the glacier. He picked the flower and offered it to the three young Englishmen. The little party crossed the glacier together. The climbers limped along, giddy without their packs; the Hunza carried everything.
The sky had cleared when they reached Base Camp. Georges had waited and smiled broadly as he ran toward them. Joe once again found himself in tears, glad for the sunglasses that hid his weeping from the other two—the major so utterly blind to their egotism and their earlier condescension, so delighted, so happy to have his boys back that Joe was happy and ashamed. Tears rose yet again to his eyes. He could not stop this weeping—he had not understood.
This feature is 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.