by Alisa Lu
Art by Audrey Wong
Issue: Nostos (Winter 2019)
29,029 feet above sea level stands an unrelenting mountain smothered by snow. The tallest point on the planet, a towering beast to overcome. It mocks the rest of the world, casting a looming shadow over everything below it. The hopes and dreams of reaching the greatest height in the world, the legacies and flags of those who were successful, and the bodies and belongings of those who weren’t as fortunate, are all housed within the mountain’s howling winds and raging avalanches. Its white surface is littered with stories that may never be told.
An adventurer, seeking to conquer the mountain, the edges of his beard sticking out from his oxygen mask and crystallizing with frost, trudged up the slope to his paradise. There was a quiet, almost magnetic determination about him, compelling him to move upwards. To get to such a seemingly unattainable place was comparable to heaven in his mind. His group marched towards their goal. One step, two step, three. Wordlessly, they moved as a unit, connected by their past, present, and future, each with a mutual understanding tied together by twenty years of friendship. Twenty years of talking about their dream, of planning their voyage to the top.
The air tapped on their faces and whispered into their ears. Getting no audible response from the bodies, its tapping turned angrily to knocking, and its whispers into howls. Finally, after hours of silence, it resorted to slithering its way into the crevices of their clothes and pores of their skin. The three bodies turned numb, but they were still fueled by motivation. By their dream, their paradise.
From inside their clothes and skin, the thin, suffocating air urged them to climb faster, to reach the top quicker, to be better. Paradise, it hissed. You can reach it. But, after experiencing 28,528 feet of the same empty white landscape, the painstaking difficulty of each heavy footstep chained their actions to match their low energy. Their eyes, covered by bulky goggles, brushed over the sparse landscape, desperately hoping for some change from the overwhelming, shining white.
Their silence was broken. “Look, it’s Green Boots,” murmured the man with the frost-infested beard. After such a long silence, his voice, a low timbre, seemed to echo within their minds, as if they had been empty performance halls.
“Hey,” a tired yet determined voice responded, pausing to adjust her volume to match the vast empty space. “We’re almost to the top.” Her presence was tiny compared to the white landscape, but she was brash—her fatigue had stripped away the last of her reserve.
“Gross,” the last climber replied, his eyes still glued on the body, “I don’t want to look.” He was the smallest of the trio, brimming with energy like that of a small dog.
Taking the opportunity to tease him, the tired, brash climber snorted, “Still squeamish even after we’ve seen so many? Classic.”
“Shut up,” he retorted. “I wish they’d remove the corpses from the mountain. It’s so depressing, how they sit there and serve as mile markers.”
“Well, I’d like to see you try to carry those rotting bodies down the tallest mountain in the world.”
“You guys, focus on the climb.” The bearded man paused in his steps. He surveyed the landscape and sighed, feeling small and insignificant. “You know, now is just not the time for your dumbassery. Just like how it’s not the time for me to be thinking about my ketchup waffles.”
“It’s never the time for your ketchup waffles,” the energetic voice retorted. “And let me guess, you’re still thinking about them.”
“They actually taste good.”
“You think I haven’t tried them after all the times you were drunk as hell and threw them at us?”
“Hey, now we’re really getting off focus!” the tired voice scolded the others. “You guys better stop debating about ketchup waffles for the millionth time, or you’ll become one of those corpses!”
“Hey, you need to focus too!”
“Yeah, let’s just get going.”
“Fine.” The smallest climber took the lead, followed by his two closest friends. To get the last word, he hollered into the mountain in front of him, “THEY’RE STILL GROSS THOUGH!” His voice dissolved into the air ahead of him, and his two friends chuckled.
The howling wind, the force of gravity, and their anxieties pounded down on them. They grasped tightly on the rope, holding onto their dream of reaching the summit. When they took a step, it felt as if the mountain had moved with them so that they had made no progress at all. They were being mocked, for not having reached the top. For not being fast enough, for not getting to their paradise.
The cold revisited them. It danced about their noses, entered their ears. More than ever, it reminded them of how much they wanted to escape the white landscape ahead. They wanted to be in their dim cabin again, with the comfort of fuzzy socks and blankets, the crackling of a fireplace, the warm, sweet smell of ketchup waffles filling the air.
Paradise. You can reach it.
The silence was broken again. A deep, loud groan pierced the air, and the rope that connected them pulled the group backward as the bearded man grasped it heavily. The group turned around, their chests tightening in fear, their eyes tracing the rope to a hole in the ground.
They approached the bearded man’s grunts of pain and heaved him upwards from the crevasse, resting his body on a stable surface. They sat down next to him, numb from shock and confusion, tired from the relentless climb, and afraid of what was to come.
The man struggled to catch his breath. “I tripped,” his voice floundered. He mumbled to himself in a low voice, “You sure screwed up now, you goddamn amateur.”
“Is the injury bad?” She yearned for him to say no, that they could continue climbing the mountain together. They had to reach the top, they had to be together to see the fruition of their dreams.
“I don’t really know… I think I fractured a bone.” He tried to move his leg, but instead let out a pained yelp, the unusually high tone ringing in his companions’ ears like a thousand triangle players had flooded their performance halls. Unaccustomed to hearing a tone other than the man’s usual deep baritone, they were shocked into silence. Blood gushed from his kneecaps. “Just leave me behind, I’ll be okay.”
He looked up at his wordless companions, his head aching, the ringing in his ears enhanced by the unbearably bright scenery.
“Stop it. Don’t give me that.” His voice faltered. The ringing in his ears intensified, and his vision began to blur. He didn’t fully understand what he was saying before he spoke. Our dream… our dream. Go achieve our dream.”
Still, he received no response. “I’ll stay here…” he paused and giggled, “with my ketchup waffles.” Sitting on the ground, he excitedly threw the snow up into the air as if he was a baby encountering winter for the first time. He sighed, letting his torso fall back into the snow, and looked up towards the sky.
“Our dream,” the small man sobbed, “was to reach the top together.” He faced away from the bearded man; he could not bear to see the blood.
The woman clenched her fist. She wanted to say something, but nothing came from her mouth.
“You know, the first time I met you and you actually tried my ketchup waffles, and you talked about how you wanted to climb Mount Everest, and you laughed with me, I was like, man, I found my people!”
He heard voices swirling around in the atmosphere. He’s not okay. Yeah, he’s not usually like this. What should we do? I don’t know, this is reality. Yeah, it’s reality. We’re insignificant specks on the tallest mountain in the world right now. We’re ten thousand miles away from home. You-
He stopped listening. Home.
He heard a small whisper. Paradise. You can reach it.
The man’s vision began to blur, and he could no longer hear anything. He smiled weakly, looking up at the two figures sitting next to him. On the snowy landscape, so far away from home, he felt reassured. Comforted. At home.
* * *
He opened his eyes, and his pain subsided. Surrounded by the white landscape, he chuckled to himself. They’re gone.
He heard a thin voice from behind. “Do you speak English? Are you okay?”
Turning around, he was grateful to see a sherpa, an experienced mountaineer he could climb to the top with.
“I fell into a crevasse, but I’m all good now,” he replied, stretching his arms and legs. “Are you heading to the summit? Can I join you? I want to meet some friends I was climbing with.”
“Of course; you’ll get there very soon.”
The climb upwards was a breeze. Each step felt weightless, and his mind felt clear of any distractions and fears. He embraced the cold fully, allowing it to crawl into every corner of his consciousness. Was this the ease of traveling with a sherpa? He felt confused by the strange feeling, but he didn’t mind.
He seemed to drift his way to the very top of the mountain, above all of the world, where everything seemed possible. The place where so many struggled to reach and couldn’t, the fruition of his dreams. He saw two figures standing together, and ran to join them, tears streaming down his face.
The sherpa sighed. You reached it. Home.
* * *
28,530 feet above ground, a pair of climbers make their way to the summit. Their eyes dart about the vast, white landscape. They see three bodies, one lying on the ground with the other two sitting next to it.
“More corpses,” one climber mutters.
“These are strange,” his sherpa replies. “Every time we look at them we can only assume that they couldn’t bear to leave an injured friend behind.”
Peering at the bodies, a strange feeling overcomes him. On this mountain so far away from home, alone without friends or family, he feels reassured. Comforted. At home.