Below Another Sky

One climber broke his back. One wandered in a daze. One tried, and failed, to save a friend. They all left behind a moment and a place that would haunt a dead mountaineer's daughter for decades. A pilgrimage in search of a lost father.

Dec 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

THE CREST OF moraine sharpens, and I have to walk with my arms out for balance. Straight ahead is the meadow that I recognize as our old campsite. Looking up, I can see the route we took to the bottom of the buttress. The best way seems to be to follow talus up to a series of cliffs.

I set a steady pace, one slow foot after the other, and Asia maintains a 20-yard distance behind. The layer of clouds that fills the lower valley continues to rise toward us. In an hour I reach the top of the scree and take out my water bottle. Asia is quiet and somber. Soon I recognize another feature: the boulder field where I stumbled and fell when I was running to get help. Another 500 vertical feet ahead is the slope where the avalanche came to a stop. I think, We must have buried Jonathan somewhere to the left of that.

I study the area above us with my binoculars, but if his grave is still there, it's hidden behind the foreground cliffs. I recognize the largest as the one I feared we might all plummet over. There's a passage to the right, but it's under a huge serac that teeters at the end of a glacier, waiting for the next slight shift of ice to send it tumbling. I have no memory of our path being this difficult, but 19 years ago we did find a way around the cliff, and we did it without fixed ropes or technical climbing gear.

Asia doesn't say anything, and she doesn't move. Finally, she says, "I'm scared."

I put my hands on her shoulders.

"It only looks hard," I tell her. "I know you can do it."

She shakes her head and says, "It's not that. I'm scared of what we're going to find."

I don't speak for a few moments; then I ask, "Do you still want to do this?"

She nods her head, then turns toward the rock. She still doesn't move.

"There's a foothold here, then two handholds right there. Go up a few feet, then left into that little dihedral."


"Remember, I'll be right behind you."

She places her boot on the first foothold, and reaches for the handholds. I can only guess how strong her emotions must be, and that makes it even more impressive to watch her move with athletic grace. I make the same moves behind her, mindful to have my hands and feet locked on the holds, because if she slips I will need all my strength to block her fall.

"You're doing great. Now traverse left into that dihedral."

We're about 30 or 40 feet up, and I know if she falls and knocks me off, we'll both be hurt. The dihedral, a corner inset in the rock face, is going to be even trickier to down-climb, and if it starts to rain, we could be in trouble. Should we turn back? We're nearly at the top, though, and she's still moving gracefully. I decide to keep going. At the top of the dihedral I lead again, through another field of disconcertingly loose boulders. Above us a wall of broken black rock rears steeply.

The crest of the rib is now only ten feet away. I make five more steps and stop, then slowly look up. Above and to the right I recognize the slope immediately as the place where the avalanche came to a halt. On the left side is the place where Jonathan died.

I reach a small flat and remove my pack, look down, and see Asia about 50 feet away. I look up, and there it is. Jonathan's grave; it's right there. How can it be so close? It was so far that morning. But something's different. It's not as high as we built it. What has happened? Has it collapsed? What's that sticking out the sides? Faded nylon? Yes. And at the end of the platform, the leg of his climbing suit? Yes.

Asia is only a few feet away, but she is looking down as she focuses on her feet.


She stops and looks up.

"I see your father's grave. Please prepare yourself, because he is not intact."

Her eyes freeze on her father's broken stone bier. Then she looks away, and for a moment she doesn't say anything. Neither do I.

"I don't want to go up there," she finally says.

"Come to where I am, then. It's a good place to rest."

She climbs the last few feet and stands next to me. Then she turns toward me and she starts to cry. Her shoulders rise and fall, and her tears come from deep within. I hold her head next to mine, and I look past her, to the place only a few feet away where I held her father's head on my lap as I breathed into his mouth.

Still holding her shoulders, I say, "Why don't you take off your pack and set it next to mine." She sets her pack down and wipes her tears.

"I'm going up there, to have a look. Are you OK here?"

She nods her head, still wiping her tears.

The grave is about 50 feet above us. I make slow steps toward it, not looking up. I feel the years somehow lose their sequence and overlap. I hear the slate shift under my boots; I feel his cold body on my shoulder, and the sun's heat on my face.

Then I am there. I look up. One leg of Jonathan's climbing suit is fully exposed. The nylon is old and brittle and holed. The other leg is still covered here and there by rocks. My friend is still mostly covered, but parts of his jacket show. I reach down to his exposed leg and move the fabric, and...he is not there.

Maybe a snow leopard, I think. It would have taken something big to move these rocks, but then the griffons would have finished the job. Yes, the griffons.

I go down on my knees next to the grave, not sure what to do. Then I lift one of the rocks we placed near Jonathan's head and see his long underwear top and on it the old-style label—somehow as bright as the day it was made. And where it is torn, I see that part of my friend is still there, his backbone and his ribs and his collarbone. I shift another rock and see his hair is still in good condition.

I hold the strands between my fingers, rubbing them slowly and gently. And I'm there, and I'm here, I'm in the past and in the present, and now I'm crying and bent over the grave and I hear myself saying, "Jonathan, my old buddy."

Then I'm here again. I clear my tears, take a breath, and turn to check on Asia. I'm surprised to see that she is coming up. She's only 30 feet away. "Asia, your father's clothes are here. But some of his bones are gone. You sure you want to come up?"

"I'm coming."

Rick Ridgeway is the author of four previous books, including Seven Summits and Shadow of Kilimanjaro. This article is excerpted from Below Another Sky, which will be published in January by Henry Holt and Co.


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