Death Zone was previously published with the title, Worth Writing About in Outburst Magazine, Issue #5, 2011, and in Death Zone and Other Stories from Pantoum Press in 2011. If you enjoy it, please share.
by Mitch Lavender
Imagine putting a plastic bag over your head and binding it closed around your neck. Then, punch a pinhole in the bag where your mouth is and try to breathe. Try to do that for two weeks straight. With a lump of stew you ate a week ago sitting in your stomach. With sub-zero wind constantly buffeting you; so cold, you don’t dare expose naked flesh to it for more than two minutes at a time for fear of extreme frostbite. Wind so loud, you can barely hear what a person is saying, even if they stand right next to you and shout in your ear. If you can imagine this, then multiply by ten and you will get an idea of what it is like at Base Camp 4 of Mount Everest.
The human body is not equipped to survive at extreme altitudes, in sub-zero temperatures and atmosphere so thin your brain is starving for oxygen and your body eats itself because it can’t process the food and water you’ve consumed. You can only nap at ten or fifteen-minute intervals, but real sleep is impossible. It’s an environment that at best is abhorrent and at worst, kills you.
At Base Camp 4, the elevation is about 26,000 feet above sea level and about 3,000 feet below the highest point on the planet, the summit of Mount Everest.
Standing here now, I can’t tell what time it is but it’s very early and it’s still dark. The wind is gusting at gale force and it’s a struggle to maintain my balance. Our team wanted to try for the summit early. We’re all tethered together; all of Team Altitude ‘10, pulling ourselves by a rope, one after the other into blackness that our headlamps barely penetrates ten feet.
My joints and muscles ache. With each step, the stew I ate days ago at base camp three shifts a little. The process is painful and slow. I take a step, sometimes two. Then I hunch over, clutching my knees for balance and gasping for breath. Each step takes its toll on my body as if it was a fifty-yard dash. I check my oxygen bottle and it shows half-full. The oxygen is rationed carefully during the climb, just enough to fend off unconsciousness, just enough to keep the vital organs from shutting down.
Two weeks ago, in Base Camp 2, every sensible thought I had was to go back down. Things were uncomfortable to say the least, and I knew they would get worse. Still, I pushed on to Base Camp 3 because there was something I had to do. When the team pushed on to Base Camp 4, I was right there along my comrades; the other fifteen paying customers, minus three, who had enough, tapped out and went back down.
They call this area the Death Zone, between 26,000 feet and the summit. At this altitude, your body does not function properly. Stay here long enough and it will just give up and die, even if the hostile elements don’t get you.
There is another reason they call it The Death Zone – if you die on the mountain, this is where it usually happens. You die trying to get to the summit, or trying to get back down. And when someone dies in The Death Zone, they leave them there. Even if the body is discovered, they leave them. Climbers barely have the strength to carry their own weight in this cruel and hostile environment much less carry another person, and the atmosphere is much too thin for a helicopter to fly in and attempt a recovery. The bodies are left on the mountain where they were found or are consigned to a crevasse, if one is nearby.
People get very spiritual about this – about dying on The Mountain. They will say, The Mountain claimed another sacrifice, treating The Mountain as if it was a
moody god trying to nap. As if we are all children, trying to sneak past without waking it up. The local inhabitants in Nepal make references to ‘respecting’ The Mountain. If we really respected it, we would go home and leave it alone.
On Everest, Buddhism is common, and I’ve seen my fill of Buddhist altars all the way up to Base Camp 3. Most are littered with weathered pictures of people who didn’t make it back. Pictures of people that, I bet, aren’t Buddhist. Go figure.
$50,000 and enough determination can attempt to make it to the summit. There are adventure tours that do this every year. Right now, there are over 200 climbers on the mountain. Most of these paying customers have limited experience with serious mountain climbing. They are adrenaline junkies and desk jockeys, looking for some experience to make them feel alive.
I’m not standing at the foot of the death zone because I want to see if I can make it to the highest point on the planet. I’m not here for the summit. I’m here
because I have something I to do. Something I never would have imagined doing three years ago, when Andrew looked me squarely in the eye and told me he was quitting his job. When he told me he was going to do something with his life, and I should, too.
It’s a long, arduous climb and the images caught in my headlamp seem surreal in the darkness. The sound of the wind as it pummels my body is a constant and disorienting companion. My oxygen-starved brain moves my oxygen-starved body forward mechanically. Step. Hunch. Gasp. Step. Hunch. Gasp.
Eventually, the sun comes up and the bent, bundled bodies of the climbers in front of me cast long shadows on the ice and snow. Looking behind, I see one of the
leaders, Ed Withers. Withers has been to the summit six times out of nine attempts. He knows the way, and he’s watching for stragglers in the group. I’m the last one on the line.
I remove my oxygen mask so I can talk to him. It is held to my face by two elastic straps, but pulling it down from my face was a monumentally complex task to my weary brain.
I take a step over to Ed and yell in his ear, “How close?” I wheeze and hunch over, gasping.
Ed pulls his oxygen mask to one side and says, “Hour.”
He continues past me as I struggled to put the mask back over my nose. I changed the oxygen cylinder and the rope tugs at my waist. I’m holding up the rest of the group. I mechanically take a step. Hunch. Gasp. Take another step. Hunch. Gasp.
I don’t know how much time has passed when Ed grabs me by the shoulder and points to a rock mass sticking in an ice embankment. He unhooks the carabineer from my waist so that I’m no longer tethered to the rest of the group, and we plod slowly toward the rock.
Five feet away, I notice the blue coat first, half buried under the snow. Then I make out the black pants and the icy figure of a man, sitting almost casually against the rock. I look into the frozen face, weathered and bruised by the elements, the contours and eye sockets filled in with snow and ice. Andrew.
Staring at the icy eye sockets, I remember what he said to me the day he quit.
“It’s a terrible thing to hate your job. To hate something you have to do, day after day. There’s something polarizing about it.” He said this with a calm commitment. It was monk-like. He continued, “And the more I resent it, the more trapped it makes me feel. The more compromised I am. Like there isn’t any choice. But I’ve had a revelation – there are options.”
“Fine, but you’ve got to have a plan. You can’t just up and bolt for the door with no idea of what you’re going to do. It’s just not smart,” I reasoned.
“I’ve spent my entire life confined by boundaries that only existed because I have allowed them to. I’ve just been letting life happen to me, or worse, I just let life pass me by. Either way, I am reduced to being a passive element in my own life, and I’m sick of it. I’m going to do something that I will remember forever. I’m going to do something that will be worth writing about – something worth reading about. You should too. Take care.”
Andrew was my best friend. He was an anchor for me while I weathered a nightmarish divorce, and he took me to the hospital when I overdosed on tranquilizers. He was the one I saw when I woke up in the hospital room. He introduced me to Julie, whom I later married. He stood beside me as my Best Man. He even pulled some strings to get me a job where he worked. Through the stormiest period in my life, Andrew was the one constant.
But then Andrew quit his job, cashed out his 401k and bought a spot on an adventure tour to climb Mount Everest. That’s what he did to break out of the confines of the boundaries he allowed to exist. That’s what he did because he was sick of being a passive element in his own life. His words, not mine.
I remember the report of his death and Ed Withers strained voice on the phone. I remember telling Annie, Andrew’s wife, that she was a widow.
Withers said that Andrew was trying for the summit and went missing on the mountain when a storm kicked up unexpectedly. Two days later, another expedition found his body about 600 feet below a treacherous part of the climb near the summit called the Hillary Step. Apparently, he got separated from the group and injured his leg. He froze to death. The climbers who found his body left him there, with the reverence that is bestowed on the people the mountain claims. Ed said this is the way it’s done.
So here is Andrew – where he sat down and never got up. I take the knife Ed hands me and approach Andrew’s frozen body. I clumsily cut open his jacket and rummage around for an interior pocket. His chest was frozen solid. I don’t find what I’m looking for. I cut one of the outside pockets. It was double sealed, Velcro and zipper. Inside, I find a small leather-bound book with a strap tied around it and “Journal” embossed on the cover. It was just as Annie had described.
Ed taps my arm and points towards the group, still visible, heading up the pass. Stepping away from me, he plods after them without looking back.
For a moment, it occurs to me that I had come this far. Why not go to the summit? Why not go all the way? Why not accomplish what Andrew had considered so important he lost his life attempting it? But it didn’t matter to me. What mattered is understanding why Andrew thought it was so important.
I shoved the book into my jacket. Looking up the pass, I see Ed Withers just moving out of my line of sight. The sun is full in the sky, and the wind has dropped to a steady ten knots.
You said this would be a book worth reading, Andrew. I turn and start back down the footprint-laden path; back to life.