The storm scoured him with shards of ice and his eyes were frozen shut or were they frozen open? He clung to the side of Mt. Everest like a gnat on an uncaring grey elephant and wondered what his sister Jen was doing. Did she realize he was stuck in the Death Zone, the area above 8000 meters where your body began to eat itself, your brain swelled and your lungs filled with fluids? Her response would be sarcastic and scathing like the winds that held him tight against the ice.
He was going to make it. His energy was still good. His stamina had been compared to the legendary Sherpa climbers who were born on the mountain. Some study said their thicker skin and thinner blood allowed them to thrive in the oxygen depleted air. They were alpine gods and so was he.
Sherpas believed that climbers who died on the mountain must be brought down or their spirits would linger near their bodies forever. Since it was so freakin dangerous to drag a frozen body down the treacherous mountain, most climbers agreed to have their body dropped in any nearby crevasse rather than put rescuers in peril.
Ken laughed when the expedition discussed it and said he and his twin, Jen had matching burial plots in Wisconsin. He was coming down the mountain. His body shook so hard, he banged against the ice. Shivering was good. He still had time.
If you didn’t summit by two pm on Mt. Everest, you turned around and started planning for next year. Otherwise, climbers risked descending in complete darkness and brutal cold. A summit after 2pm was a death sentence for most. But he wasn’t most climbers.
He and another experienced climber, Rolf, left the group and continued up. It was a selfish decision to go on once his team turned back but climbing was a selfish endeavor as his twin Jen often pointed out. He was fast, though, freaky fast. He would make it.
Rolf stopped after a couple of hours. He couldn’t keep up. Like many who died on Everest, he just sat down and gave up. After a few tries to rouse him, Ken continued around him on the narrow trail. It wasn’t callous, it was what you did on the big mountain. Trying to save people just got everyone killed.
Ken hadn’t counted on the freak storm. At first, the weather was perfect and the winds manageable, but it was a ruse. The storm hit like a hammer and when he tried to crest the Hilary Step, he got blown backwards. It was a miracle and a tribute to his strength that he wasn’t blown off the ridge. As the winds approached hurricane strength, he was pinned to the ice just below the summit.
He relaxed against the sheer rock face. At a 70 degree inclination, it was the only thing he could do as the storm whipped around him. The tingling pain in his legs and feet had come and gone hours ago or was it days?
A few people had survived a night on the big mountain. He shoved his frozen hands deeper into the ice. He would make it. If anyone could, it was him. The storm went on into eternity.
At base camp, his twin, Jen checked her gear again. She was bringing not one, not two but three Sherpas. They would do all the work, but she wanted to go as far as possible with them. They would continue on if she turned back, and bring Ken’s body down.
She’d begun training when Ken did and she was in the best shape of her life. “You should join us on the expedition,” Ken joked but Jen saw no point in conquering a rock, as she called it.
When his group came down without him, she knew, in the mysterious way of those who shared a womb, that he was dead. They advised her to wait, people had walked out of a storm before. Miracles could happen.
What did they know? They weren’t twins. She was going to get him. The night before they left, she dreamt she was frozen in the ice. She woke drenched in cold sweat with hands and feet numb, determined to find him.
She climbed easily and the Sherpas joked she might join their ranks. Between grief and muscle pain, she struggled with self doubt and wondered if they should go on without her. The Khumba Iceflow cooperated and she was blessed with perfect weather.
They found him where he’d tried to last out the storm. He was trapped; arms frozen into the ice as if he were part of the mountain. The Sherpas sighed. They would have to chip out his corpse.
The head sherpa asked respectfully if she wanted to go on to the summit with one of them while they used their pickaxes to free him. By the time she got back, they would have the body packaged and ready to go down. She considered but the sound of the chipping ice forced tears out of her eyes so she motioned for the guide to lead the way.
Technically, once past the Hillary Step, the climbing is simple. Their climb had been blessed easy by Mt. Everest’s standards. She stayed a moment at the summit, admiring the view and wondering if Ken had been on his way up or down when the storm hit.
When she returned to the Sherpas, her brother’s corpse was ready, rolled in heavy plastic and trussed like a roast. His head was still exposed and she leaned over and whispered, “I get it, Ken, I get why you do this.” She kissed his forehead, the skin cold and unyielding.
He felt the spark of dawn over the peaks as the storm retreated. Warmth touched his forehead like a kiss and his spirit soared into the thin clouds over the glorious mountain range.