Learning to Fly


Here where the air is thin as lace, the blustering snow sparkles like stardust and whirlwinds of silver assault exposed skin.  We climb above the clouds here at the roof of the world—clouds like iridescent veils of spun sugar below our precarious perch.  Flung wide above the peaks, the soaring sky is so blue it burns.
      We've been above twenty-five thousand feet for three days now.  Trapped in the death zone.  Out of the south yet another storm obscures the sky, one of a series like pearls on a string, opaque and white.  Connor, the Australian, died at midnight, babbling incoherently until his swollen, used-up lungs forced him into gasping silence before he slipped away.  This morning, Damren worsened, half-paralyzed by a stroke, shaken by seizures.  Damren, friend of my youth.  We were still kids when we first climbed Mount Washington, crown of New Hampshire's Presidential Range.  Together we've summitted six of the world's highest peaks, including Everest.  We're back on K2 a third time only because Mari, his wife, had to experience what it was that drove Damren to these lofty summits.
      I wanted to fly, to slip the bonds that tied me to sea level.  Not just to fly, but to see the world spread out below me, to feel the rush of the wind and the hard sunlight stinging my skin.  I wanted to hear that pure white humming silence that vibrated with the voice of God.  Planes couldn't give me the sensations I longed for.  And so, I climbed.
      We'd descended to two hundred vertical feet below the summit when the first storm hit.  Late yesterday afternoon the bottled oxygen ran out, and with it, time.  It's just the three of us now, Mari and Jamling and me, and Mari's chances are fading by the minute.  Altitude sickness struck her not far above the Abruzzi Spur, and now anoxia's scrambling her brain.
      Jamling Kitar, Sherpa veteran of nine Himalayan summits, wipes hoarfrost from his fur-edged hood and peers out into the maelstrom.  "First break, we go."
      I agree.  As well to die trying as waiting.
      By noon, this storm passes.  In the sudden sunlight, we gather our gear.  Drifting snow has already buried Connor's body, so I say a quick prayer over the pure chilling quiet of his grave.  Then comes the hard part—I have to break Mari's ferocious grip on Damren's hand.  I do it without warning or apology. 
      As Jamling leads her away, I bend down and squeeze Damren's shoulder.  "Goodbye, old friend," I say.  His eyelids flutter, and one side of his mouth twitches.  I pray he understands.  Hard as it is to accept when it moves from the theoretical to the actual, this is the fate of the fallen here among the clouds.
      With every bit of her feeble strength, Mari struggles in Jamling's grip.
      We start our descent, Jamling in the lead, Mari, then me.  Mari's keening like my Irish grandmother at a wake.  I know she hates me now for not leaving her with Damren, but I won't see their four children orphaned.
      The slopes below us shimmer in the sun with all the tints of an abalone shell.  Along the horizon march rugged peaks crowned in gold and apricot radiance.  But far off to the south is the dirty smudge of yet another squall.
      If we can keep this pace, that storm won't arrive until we're out of the death zone.  But below us now lies a steep wall, six hundred and fifty feet nearly straight down.  I know that Jamling is as worried as I am that Mari does not have the resources for this arduous descent.
      She falls to her knees, and I'm afraid we've pushed her too hard, not that we've had any choice.  Jamling and I kneel beside her.
      "Mari," I say.  "We can't stop.  Not yet."
      Of the ragged torrent of words she unleashes, I can make out only two, "snakes," and "watermelon."  Then her eyes change, come into focus, and she wails, "Damren."  The next moment she's lost again.
      We pull her to her feet.  She struggles against us with less force than a soft summer breeze.
      "Mari," I tell her, "Damren would want you to keep going.  The kids—"
      With unexpected strength, she tears away from us, shoves me in the chest with both hands, and starts to scream.  I topple backwards, slip toward the steep precipice, and the ice ax I‘m carrying slithers away.  The top rope holds, though, as I manage to roll enough to catch the toe points of my crampons in the ice.  I cling to the slope, glad that fate isn't finished with me yet, and I'm unprepared when Mari slams face-first into my leg.  It twists, but my crampon holds.  From the knee I injured eight years ago in the Dolomites, pain bursts like a solar flare.
      Jamling sidesteps toward us, helps Mari up.  I can't bend my knee enough to stand, and even when he heaves me to my feet, I can't put any weight on it.  Cold sinks into my bones a little deeper.  I can tell by Jamling's eyes that he knows what I now have to face.
      "Good luck," I say.  "Keep her safe."  He nods.  If they can beat the coming storm, if time and luck don't conspire against them, Jamling and Mari still can reach safety below the death zone.  If they let me slow them down, we'll all be done for. 
      I watch my companions until they're black specks against the dizzying white vastness.  Eddies of snow spume up and spatter my face with starshine.  In my life, I have climbed as near to heaven as any human can, and now a part of me will inhabit these heights forever.  I think about death, slow as New Hampshire spring, sudden as a hawk.
      One thing I have dreamed of.  One thing is left that I have not done.  I unhook my biners from the top rope, shrug out of my pack and retrieve my other ice ax from it.  Then I drive the ax deep in the frozen slope and pull myself to the edge of the world.  Below me, the weathered gray peaks and virgin hollows are frosted in ten shades of white, in palest blue and violet, in pink and silver.  I take as deep a breath as I can manage, push myself up on my one good leg.  Spreading my arms wide, I freefall out into space.
      For one long and thrilling moment, the rushing wind holds me suspended.  I almost believe I could sail away.  Then gravity reasserts itself, and I'm floating down into nothingness, slowly, so slowly.  Hard sunlight stinging my face, vibrating white silence humming in my ears, I fly.  At last, I fly.  
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