Worth Writing About (abridged version)
By Mitch Lavender
How can I describe what it is like?
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 days ago sitting in your stomach. With sub-zero wind constantly buffeting you; so cold, you don’t dare expose naked flesh to it 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 that by ten and you will get an idea of what it is like at Base Camp 4 of Mount Everest.
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 feel I should 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 and 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 struggle to put the mask back on my nose. I change 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 shoulders and points to a rock mass sticking in an ice embankment. He unhooks the carabiner 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 crevices 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 aren’t any options. 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.” He thumped a leather journal in his hand. It looked new. “You should do something, too. Take care, my friend. Keep your soul.”
Then he left.
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 at my wedding. 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.
Ed told me that Andrew had gone missing on the mountain during a terrible storm while trying for the summit. 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. Here is where he sat down and never got up. I take the knife Ed hands me and step up to Andrew’s frozen body. I cut open his jacket and clumsily rummaged around for an interior pocket. His chest is 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 the word “Journal” embossed on the cover.
Ed taps my arm and points towards to 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 matters is understanding why Andrew thought it was so important.
I shove 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.
(c) copyright 2011, 2017 Mitch Lavender
“Worth Writing About” was previously published in Outburst Magazine, Issue #5, 2011, and in “Death Zone and Other Stories,” from Pantoum Press in 2011. If you enjoy it, please share.