He had been waiting for this moment for years. Countless hours of training and preparation have led up to this, and he thought he was ready. But nothing could have prepared him for standing at the base camp of Annapurna and looking up at the world’s deadliest peak. He was suddenly very aware of how small and fragile he was. It was 2 am and instead of sleeping, he stood outside in the frosty air contemplating whether he should wait another 24 hours or begin his ascent now.
“How does the weather look?” Tom asked, turning to his best friend and climbing buddy Ben who was standing next to him.
“Well, I just checked the forecast, and I think we are good to go,” Ben replied, arms crossed as he looked up at the night sky. “There’s like a 30% chance of precipitation, but the temp is supposed to stay in the high twenties and low thirties with minimal wind. I think now is as good of a time as any.”
“I say we go for it,” Tom said. Ben nodded, and they excitedly started gathering their gear. Living out of a tent and making all your meals off of a camping stove gets old pretty fast, and they had been at base camp for almost two months waiting for the weather to be suitable for the climb. One weather system after another blew through, and they were prepared to head back down and try again another year, but tonight looked promising. Tom grabbed his cellphone and sent a quick message to his wife before they found their backpacks and checked to make sure everything was in them. They filled up water bottles and made sure they had their extra yards of rope, crampons, spare gloves, and other necessities. These are starting to get heavy Tom thought as he watched Ben put two more oxygen tanks in his backpack. He had a total of three. Tom had two. Five total is fine he thought as he disregarded his third oxygen tank. My pack will be lighter now and we weren’t gonna need that oxygen anyway. He checked his watch and it read 2:15 am. They started moving a little faster, and made their way out of the tent. He touched the yellow fabric that had become so familiar and comforting.
“Ready?” Ben asked with a smile as he slung his backpack over his shoulders.
“Ready, Benny. Let’s go.” Tom replied.
They walked through base camp and watched the bustle of other climbers preparing to edevor on the same mission as them. The jagged edges of the mountain in front of them cut childish patterns out of the stunning night sky. Their headlamps bore small holes into the vast darkness they marched into, and excitement swelled within them as the reality of what they were doing sunk in. Save your energy Tom reminded himself. He wanted to run. Full-on sprint up the path. He had this unordinary drive to get as high as possible as quickly as possible, but he knew that over exerting himself now would not be wise. He slowed down to match Ben’s steady and slow pace.
“Ok, what’s our E.T.A. back to base?” Tom questioned.
“Hopefully around 4, quarter to 5 at the latest, but you know how mountains are. You don’t make the rules up there,” Ben said with an enthusiastic smile. Tom sighed, his breath visible in the frosty air. He definitely knew that was true. Mountains can be as unpredictable and unforgiving as the ocean. An uncomfortably anxious feeling turned in their stomachs as they recalled this one’s reputation of crumbling on top of people. You don’t go swimming when you know there’s going to be a storm, and you get out of the water as soon as you hear thunder. The problem with mountains is that once you climb up, there’s the problem of getting down. There’s no getting out.
“Look, there’s our tent,” Tom chuckled, pointing to the far left corner of the camp where their little yellow home was illuminated by a nearby lantern. A smile came across both of their faces. They were enough distance away from base now that they could see the whole collage of tents that made up the camp. It was like an elaborate quilt of colors covering the snowy ground. The men looked at each other, and turned away from base camp for the final time.
They trekked onward, one foot after another. They conversed about anything and everything, and sooner than they expected, the sun began to rise. They watched the sun travel along its predictable path as the hours melted together and they got higher. They walked up the snowy path that looked glittery under the bright sunlight, and followed the northwest face upward. We’re at about 18000 feet, Tom thought. The months at camp had acclimated their bodies to being higher above sea level, but as they climbed their words grew fewer as their bodies and lungs began to feel the increasing altitude. They persevered, spellbound by the white landscape that shifted and moved unpredictably. Over on a ridge not too far to their right, they saw a large section of snow break off and slide. Avalanches are many climbers’ worst fear and for good reason. They are terrifyingly beautiful; huge clouds of white that bury everything in their path. The men said internal prayers of thanks that they were lucky enough not to be in its way. Footsteps and heavy breathing became the only audible sounds coming from either of them, and after a few hundred more feet they took a pause.
“How are you feeling?” Tom asked, patting Ben sturdily on the shoulder.
“Good,” he replied, taking the metal-spiked crampons out of his backpack and strapping them to his boots. Tom did the same. “Come on, let’s get moving so we don’t get cold.”
Ben’s right, it is getting colder, Tom internally noted. He studied the sky and the interesting patterns of the clouds. They looked so close. The new vantage point was fascinating and he speculated what they would look like once he reached Annapurna’s summit. Another thing he began to notice was that the clouds to their east were very dark, and moving towards them. Ben also apparently noticed this.
“What do you think?” he asked, a concerned look creeping onto his face as he looked out at the darkening sky.
“I think we need to hurry, or turn around.” Tom said, looking at the snow-covered ground that blew up in flurries around him. The crampons on his boots were serving their purpose as the incline increased. As the path grew steeper, Tom’s concern also grew. It was impossible to ignore the dark sky and the chilling wind that blew brutally across their faces. Tom knew fronts always blow in quickly, but once the clouds were over them the shift happened so fast that they barely had time to think before it started to snow. They reached around 24000 feet, nearing the altitude where supplemental oxygen is necessary for almost every climber. They put on their oxygen masks and Tom took a deep breath finally feeling like he could fill up his lungs, but the relief didn’t last long. He looked around and suddenly realized how very alone they were. He knew rescues at this height are difficult if not impossible, and desperately hoped they would need one. His wife’s voice saying Be careful just like she did every time before he left played on a loop in his head.
They trudged on, replacing their oxygen tanks as necessary. They depleted them much quicker than expected.
“This isn’t safe,” Ben yelled, taking off his mask and cupping his hands around his mouth so Tom could hear him from a few feet away. He was struggling to remain upright against the wind. He leaned against the side of the mountain, half of his arm becoming invisibly buried in the snow.
“We have to turn,” Tom said, unable to look up at him. The snow cut into any exposed skin like glass, and made seeing basically impossible. They changed directions reluctantly. They were so close to the summit. Tom felt like a little kid having a temper tantrum. He had come so far, and didn’t want to turn around now. They trudged down the steep path at a painfully slow pace, struggling to see the line between the trail and the thousands of feet of air below them. The mountain that had once been so bright and beautiful had morphed into an absolute icy hell. With every step they took the weather seemed to get worse. Tom didn’t know it was possible for the wind to blow this hard. It pressed his goggles into his face like angry hands, and it seemed determined to tear him off the rocky edge that separated him from miles of air.
Then, they heard a crack. Tom stopped, and looked up at the face of the mountain above him. He didn’t even have time to say anything before the snow was on top of him. For a moment Tom felt like the world had just fallen, then he felt like he was in a giant washing machine getting tumbled, then he felt nothing at all.
When Tom came to his oxygen mask was still on his face. That must have been what was keeping him alive, because he was completely buried in snow. He desperately tried not to panic, because he knew that would just make things worse. Get out he thought, but he didnt know which way to dig. Up, go up, please he willed himself, then began digging. His instincts led him in the right direction, and he ended up on the surface. As soon as he reached it, he wanted to crawl right back down. The snow was moving sideways, and all he could see was vertical white slopes for miles. Elements are amplifeied on the mountain- everything is more extreme. Tom intellectually knew this, but he didn’t know what it was like to experience it firsthand. For half a second, he seriously contemplated climbing back into the snow, then he had a realization. I have kids, I can’t do this. And Ben, where is Ben? I have to find Ben. he heaved the lower half of his body out of the snow, and looked around for any sign of Ben, butall he could see was white. His visibility was so low that he could barely see his feet on the ground, much less a possible person or body somewhere off in the distance. He strained his eyes hard, looking for anything other than rocks or snow. Suddenly, something red caught his eye, and he began to walk towards it. He struggled against the wind, and made his way over to the object. Once he reached it, he realized it was a person. But it wasn’t Ben.
Oh my god, Tom thought as he looked at the stranger. He was unconscious, and Tom knew it was probably due to lack of oxygen. Or maybe this climber was a victim of HACE, a variety of severe altitude sickness where the brain swells, you lose control of your body, experience hallucinations, and eventually lose consciousness. Without thinking about it, he took the mask off his face and put it on the strange man’s face. I still have my backpack, Tom thought, I can get help, and took the pack off his back. In one of the many outer pockets there was a radio that was connected to one back at base camp. He grabbed it with gloved hands, and as he pressed the correct buttons it magically crackled to life.
“This um,” Tom began shakily, struggling to form words, “this is Tom, is anyone there?” he wasn’t expecting a reply. But he got one.
“This is Annapurna sanctuary trek, we copy,” Said a thickly Nepalese-accented voice. A spark of hope flared within Tom when he heard the voice.
“Yes, yes, there was an avalanche. We have a missing climber and a possible case of HACE. Can you get a rescue helicopter up here as soon as possible?” Tom said quickly. His hands were shaking as he held the receiver, anxiously waiting for an answer. This person is going to have to tell my wife and my mother that I’m dead, he thought. He felt nauseous thinking about his family and how much this would hurt them. His wife hated his climbing, but he insisted on doing it. He knew how much his climbing scared her, but insisted it was a part of his life that he couldn’t give up. He felt so selfish, and right now he was thinking she was right all along. He promised himself that if he made it down he would do everything he could to make up for all the fear he caused her. After what felt like hours, he heard static on the radio.
“I read you,” the operator began, “it’s too late now and the weather is too bad. You’re gonna have to hold out until tomorrow. How much oxygen do you have? And how many confirmed climbers are in distress?” he continued.
“Three climbers. And no,” Tom said, looking at the unconscious man laying in the snow beside him. He had given him the last of his oxygen, and there was none left in his bag. Damn it damn it damn it, he thought, why didn’t I bring that extra O2?
“Ok, stay on oxygen as long as you can and we will send a helicopter asap. Over,” the radio chopped up the man’s voice, which was already hard to hear over the wind. Tom suddenly had the sense to take off his glove and put his fingers on the stranger’s neck to check for a pulse. He had one, but barely. He put his glove back on and stood up to keep looking for Ben. He wandered a few steps in each direction, but didn’t see anything. He wanted to venture farther, but did not want to be too far away from the radio. It snapped back on.
“Tom, do you read? Try to climb down as far as you can. You’ll be safer at a lower altitude and a helicopter can reach you easier.” The man at basecamp’s voice was barely audible now. Tom didn’t reply. There’s no way I’m leaving this man here to die. He tried to stand to scan his surroundings again. Oh no, he thought. He was starting to feel dizzy. He needed oxygen. He needs it more, Tom thought as he looked down at the man who was now almost buried in snow. He sat, shivering as he watched the stranger’s chest rise and fall almost imperceptibly. Breath air breath air breathe, were the only things on his mind as his lungs began to tighten. Tom didn’t know if he was going to live, but was also worried for Ben. He hoped he was alive, but he knew the chances of that were low. Unexpectedly, Tom’s body began twitching. He grew extremely dizzy and rocked back and forth. His legs began making random spasms as if they had a mind of their own. Oh no, he thought. He knew what was happening. He had HACE. He heard the radio crack to life, and his own voice saying, find Ben. His body seemed to take control of him. He stood, and began to walk. To where? He didn’t know. His mind felt completely disconnected from his body. He stumbled forward through the snow for an unknown amount of time. The world around him seemed to glitch like an old video game; random flashes of vivid color, then blackness. The trees melted into shadowy figures out of a child’s nightmare and chased him. MOVE they repeated over and over.
Tom had never felt so scared in his entire life. For what felt like hours and hours he lived in a reality of glitches and ghosts. The snow gathered together around him and formed into another of his childhood fears- a yeti. The 10 foot tall figure kept lunging forward and repeating his name. Tom Tom Tom, itsaid. The world spun, and the path he walked on kept switching directions. On either side of him, crevasses appeared. A ways ahead of him, he saw Ben. Ben, Tom cried, or at least tried to. He didn’t know if he actually made a sound. Apparently he didn’t, because Ben never turned. Tom tried to run, but his feet felt like they were stuck in concrete. Then he saw Ben slip and fall into one of the crevasses. Tom cried out and desperately tried to move, but his body refused to listen to him. The yeti approached him and said, Get up, you have to move. Tom tried, but he couldn’t. All the tree ghosts flew over and circled his head. Their faces changed into those of his kids, his family, and best friends. Get down, they urged him. I can’t, I can’t move, I am going to die, help me, Tom tried to cry. He looked through the ghosts and at the sky. It was pink, then black, then old tv static, then black again. Ben is gone, Tom thought. He was in so much physical and mental pain. All his time and spatial perception was gone. One moment he felt like he was frozen, the next he felt like he was being sucked down a drain. He had no idea how long this went on before everything permanently went black.
The next time he was conscious, the first thing he saw was a bright fluorescent light right above him. At first he thought it was another hallucination, then he slowly realized he was in a hospital. As his senses began to return, he heard nurses indistinctly chattering in the hall. He tried to lift one of his arms, but felt a sharp pain and immediately stopped.
“Ow,” he groaned. One of the nurses heard and rushed into the room.
“Hello Tom,” she began, taking a pen out of her scrub pocket and quickly jotting down something on a clipboard at the foot of his bed. “Please be careful, don’t pull your IV out,” she continued.
“Ouch,” he said again.
“You’ve been unconscious for about three days,” the nurse said sympathetically, then went on, “you suffered a very severe case of high altitude cerebral edema. Let me know if anything in particular is causing you discomfort.” she said, walking over to the monitor that stood on the left side of his bed to adjust some settings.
“Okay,” Tom said groggily.
“You’re all the talk around here,” the nurse said as she tinkered with various machines in the hospital room, “it’s a miracle you survived. You’re very lucky the rescue team found you and your friend. Oh, you’re also a hero. The man you found will be okay thanks to you. Again let me know if you need anything, ok? I’m going to get the doctor,” she finished tinkering, then headed for the door.
“My friend?” Tom asked, straightening up a little.
“Oh yes,” the nurse paused inside the door, “would you like to see him?”
“Sure,” Tom said. There’s no way Ben is ok, he thought. Then, despite any and all of the odds and Tom’s expectations, the nurse came back into the room followed by Ben. Maybe this was karma working in his favor, or maybe Tom was just the luckiest person ever. But either way, he had never been happier to see his best friend’s face. They had a silent exchange that said many things they never could with words, then Tom spoke.
“I’m sorry,” he said, hugging Ben.
“For what?” Ben laughed, patting his friend on the back. Tears started to fill his eyes as so many emotions came over him all at once.
“We almost died,” Tom said, “and If I had let us turn around sooner it wouldn’t have happened.”
“No,” Ben started, “don’t blame yourself for this. It’s not your fault.”
Neither spoke but the silence wasn’t awkward, just reflective.
“Can I use your phone?” Tom asked, holding out his hand. Ben gave Tom his phone and respectfully stepped out of the room. Tom dialed his wife’s phone number and took a deep breath as he prepared himself for this conversation. She answered after two rings.
“I’m sorry,” was the first thing that came out of his mouth. She began to cry, not tears of sadness or anger, but relief.
There was so much he wanted to say, and he didn’t even know where to start. He didn’t know if there were words in any language that could express what he wanted to. He used to think he was untouchable. He selfishly chased his high like an addict, disregarding who he was hurting in the process. His favorite place was thousands of feet in the air, his head figuratively and literally in the clouds. He had come back down to earth, and planned to stay there. The next thing he said to her was I love you.