by Phillip E. Carroll
read by Phillip E. Carroll
Play in this window
“Mr. Mark.” The hired Sherpa chattered in his staccato English. “You must inspect each piece of equipment for the final assent tomorrow morning. It is for your safety, and for mine as well.”
The summit of Mt Everest loomed above Camp 4 like a silent contemplative beast, hazy and surreal in the late afternoon sun, like an old photograph enlarged too many times.
Mark surveyed the array of equipment spread across the nylon tarp in front of their tents.
“Come on, Pingpong,” Mark said. It wasn’t the Tibetan guide’s name, but was as close an approximation as Mark cared enough to give. He waved his hand toward the equipment. “We inspected it yesterday, and the day before.”
He dropped heavily onto the snow next to the tarp and blew through pursed lips. “And we bought it brand new just two weeks ago. I really don’t see the need.”
“Oh, Mr. Mark,” the Sherpa said through smiling yellow teeth, though his eyes were cold and devoid of humor. “We argue this, the same, every day. We must inspect to be safe.”
The small man didn’t wait for another response, but picked up a shiny aluminum caribiner and flipped the gate several times to insure it moved freely and the spring was strong. Mark sighed with resignation and picked up one end of the climbing rope. Like a blind man reading Braille he passed the dynamic climbing rope between his gloved fingers and felt for inconsistencies in the continuous nylon fibers. Weakness or damage to the core, or kern, of the climbing rope was hidden from sight by the woven outer casing, or mantle. Weakness in the core could result in death in the event of a hard fall.
Mark felt the pressure of a hand on his shoulder.
“Hey, Mark. What are you working on?”
“Oh, sorry Jerry,” Mark said as he looked up from his terminal. “I was just deep in thought.”
Jerry sat on the edge of the platinum blue desk in the grey walled cubicle. He picked up a postcard from the neat and orderly desk and glanced a moment at the faint spidery script on the back before turning it over to look at the picture. He asked, “What mountain is this, Everest?”
“No, actually, it’s K2,” Mark said, took the card, shoved a pin through it and impaled it on the wall among other cards. Pictures of Big Ben, the Taj Mahal, Machu Pichu, Mount Fuji and many other exotic lands were arranged chaotically on one wall of the otherwise sterile cubicle. He pointed to one card in the center of the haphazard collage and said, “That one. That’s Everest. Biggest and baddest of the big and bad. I’ve heard it said that for every climber that makes it to the top, one of them dies before he gets back down.”
“That doesn’t sound like very good odds to me,” Jerry chuckled. “Sounds safer to stay right here.”
“Safer, true,” Mark said, turned back to his terminal and brought up another form to fill in.
“I’d rather die coming down from Everest, than rot away in this cubicle,” he mumbled as Jerry left for his own work station on the wall opposite where Mark sat.
Mark lay in the poly-fiber filled sleeping bag and listened as each labored breath ended with an abbreviated whistle. He pulled his brown wool balaclava down over his eyes and rolled onto his side to block out the light. He felt like a jack-o-lantern lit up for Halloween as the rays of the setting sun struck the orange tent and set it aglow.
“I can never sleep with the lights on,” he grumbled and coughed. Panicked, he stifled the cough as quickly as possible to prevent the Sherpa guide from hearing.
“He’s like an old woman,” Mark thought. “I can hear it now, ‘Mr. Mark. You cannot climb today. You are sick. let us wait another day and try tomorrow.'”
After weeks of preparation, of climbing, setting up camps, descending, and climbing again, they had finally arrived in Camp 4 at the edge of Everest’s death zone. They had placed the camp days before and descended back to their previous camp to further acclimate to the brutal, high altitude.
The Death Zone, above 26,000 feet, stretched from their final camp to the summit. Mark knew what challenges he would face in the morning. Temperatures could get so cold that areas of exposed skin would freeze in minutes. The snow would be frozen solid, and slick. More that a few unwary climbers had lost their focus and slipped from the trail. Their frozen corpses were still being ground between feet of the glacier and the rock of the mountain itself.
What frustrated Mark the most, the oxygen level was so low at this altitude that climbing became exhausting and breathing labored.
“I need to sleep,” he growled through clenched teeth. He needed to rest for his body to be strong and his mind clear for the most grueling leg of the expedition.
“Hey, Mark?” Jerry said from the opposite side of the temporary wall. “I don’t think I can take this job any more. It’s the same thing over and over; open a form, search the document, fill in the form, shoot it off to accounting. How can you stand it, day after day?”
When Mark didn’t respond, Jerry said again, “Mark, are you there?”
“Yeah Jerry,” Mark said, coughed into his sleeve and asked, “What do you need?”
“I was wondering how you do it. I mean, you’ve been here longer than anyone else and you just keep firing along, day after day. How can you stand it?”
“I don’t know, Jerry. I just try to stay focused.”
“Focus,” Mark said to himself and focussed his attention on the swaying circular smear of light cast by the halogen lamp, strapped across his forehead. The early morning sky was black velvet behind a veil of shimmering diamonds.
“Focus,” he said again and listened to the “crunch, pause, crunch, pause, crunch,” of the crampons strapped to his boots. With each weary step the sound of the razor sharp metal spikes as they bit into the ice reassured him he was moving forward.
“Focus,” he gasped. And tried to ignore the gurgling in his lungs.
“Mr. Mark,” the Sherpa had warned him before they broke camp. His eyes were pale ovals of reflected starlight in the blackness of the night. “I listened to you cough in your sleep. You are not well. You cannot go on.”
“Nonsense,” was Mark’s only reply as he clipped the caribiner through his harness and onto the climbing rope. He adjusted his head lamp, picked up his ice axe and turned his back on the diminutive Tibetan guide.
“That’s it, Mark,” Jerry said, again. “I don’t care what it takes. I have to get out of this grind. We’re here, what eleven, twelve hours a day? Sure, the overtime is great, but where are we in between; after we clock out, and before we clock back in? That’s what it feels like to me, our real lives are just a quick breather between rounds in this cubicle.”
A deep sigh, a loud, long sip of coffee and Jerry resumed, “I leave this place and hardly have time to eat, get drunk and sleep before I’m shoving my time card in the reader and I’m back on the clock for another day of mindless, soul rotting, drudgery. I don’t care if I have to flip burgers or sell pest control services, come tomorrow, I’m looking for something new. I quit.”
After a moment of silence, Jerry asked, “Mark? What do you think?”
“I can’t quit,” Mark mumbled.
The climbing rope grew suddenly taught and jerked Mark forward. The hired Tibetan man at the leading end of the rope turned to see why his charge had stopped, again. The Sherpa was a brown smudge, the snow, a bright amber background when viewed through the polarized lenses of his glacier glasses. They traversed the glacier toward the last leg of their assent. The angle was so great that Mark leaned to his side and rested against the glacier as it rose above him. To the other side, inches from his feet, the glacier sloped away in a virtually sheer drop of a thousand feet.
The sun hung in the cold mid morning sky, apathetic to the man who struggled toward the summit. The glacier shimmered in the sunlight, a billion stars twinkled on the snow. The sun and snow conspired against the climber, and teased him into believing the summit was closer than it was.
“I’m so close,” he gasped into his oxygen mask. A sudden fit of coughing doubled him over as he hacked and gasped over and over. He felt the expectorated mucus settle between the rubber of the mask and his chin. He knew he had much farther to climb than it appeared, and for the first time, began to doubt he could make it.
“Hey Mark,” Jerry started up again. “I’ve been thinking, maybe I won’t get another job right away. I think I’ll do some traveling, like you do. I was wondering, when do you get the time to go all those places. I mean, China, South America and Middle East. And Nepal. When do you get the time to go all those places? You know. I mean, Nepal? That would take weeks, and in, what, the last five years I’ve worked here, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you take any time off.”
There was only silence.
“Mark, are you there?”
“Yeah, Jerry, of course.” His voice was so faint it was almost a whisper.
“Are you feeling ok? What are you putting in your coffee,” Jerry joked, “you’re slurring your words.”
“No, Jerry. I’m ok. Just feeling a little dizzy.”
“A little dizzy,” Mark repeated, stopped and leaned on his ice axe.
“Just need to rest a bit,” he told himself and closed his eyes.
He listened to the wind as it whistled past, in harmony with the whistle in his wheezing breath. The wind reminded him of pleasant sunny days on a beach in Jamaica. He could feel the warm sun on his chest as a beautiful native, her white bikini an abrupt contrast to her dark skin, handed him a fruity drink in a coconut shell.
The crunch of crampons on the ice woke him. He felt like his chest was on fire, burning from the inside out. He pressed against it with one gloved hand.
“Mr. Mark,” the Sherpa shouted to gain his attention. “You must go back now. You will not make it to the summit.”
Mark shook his head and pulled the mask from his face.
“Pingpong,” he coughed and bloody mucus spattered the snow at their feet. “Speak English, You know I can’t understand your jabbering.”
Mark tried to move past the little man who stood solidly in the narrow trail.
“You must go down, now. Or you will die,” he said.
“You little thief,” Mark growled. “You would rob me of the thousands of dollars I paid for this expedition? I can see the summit. It’s right there.” He jabbed his gloved finger at the peak that still towered above them.
Indignation gave Mark renewed strength. He fumbled at the lock on his caribiner until it spun open. He flipped back the gate, unhooked his safety harness from the climbing rope, and pushed past the native guide.
“I paid you to get me up there, not hold me back. If you won’t help me, I’ll climb this mountain without you,” he said and stumbled up the trail.
The chatter of the Sherpa’s pleading faded as the ringing in his ears increased. Mark panted in shallow rapid breaths and darkness crept in to steal away his vision. The burst of adrenaline quickly faded and he sagged like a flag on a windless day.
He dropped to his knees and coughed. Great gobs of mucus and blood froze quickly to the ice.
“Tired,” he gasped. “Just rest a moment.”
He closed his eyes and leaned into the icy bank, for just a moment.
The ice felt warm and soft, like his bed at home, and Mark felt weightless, as if he were floating on air.
“I’m calling it a day, Mark,” Jerry said as he cleared the few papers from his desk. “Why don’t you walk down with me. We can get a drink on the way out; celebrate my new plans; maybe you can give me your travel agents phone number.”
When Mark didn’t reply, Jerry walked around the partition and asked, “Mark, are you ok?”
Mark still did not reply, but sat slumped in his chair. His bulging bloodshot eyes stared blankly forward and mucus mixed with blood trailed from the corner of his mouth and stained the front of his pastel blue shirt.
On the floor, where it had dropped from lifeless fingers, lay a new postcard. Darkly tanned women in white bikinis laughed and held drinks in coconut shells, under a colorful banner, “Come to Jamaica.”