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

IN 1980, MINYA KONKA had been climbed only twice, first by an American team, in 1932, and later by the Chinese, in 1957. For us, however, the climb was only half the attraction; the other half was simply getting to the mountain. Each day in China was an encapsulated adventure: three days in Beijing, or Peking, as it was still called in those days, then a two-day ride south on a train pulled by a coal-burning locomotive. When we arrived in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan, the only hotel in town was a nine-story concrete block of proletarian functionalism called the Jin Jiang.

Twenty years later, Asia and I check into the Jin Jiang, and I'm startled when a uniformed doorman salutes as we enter a lobby with a marble floor and crystal chandelier perhaps 15 feet in diameter. In 1980, the floor was concrete and the walls painted in the pale institutional green then favored by both Chinese and Russian communists. At the desk the Chinese officer gave each of us registration forms, and under "occupation" Yvon entered "capitalist."

"Finally I'm in a place that can appreciate what I really am," he said.

The liaison officer read the form and nodded toward Yvon. "Ah, Mr. Chouinard, you are a capitalist. Very good! This means you also are very rich?"

"Yes," Yvon said. "Very rich."

Hardly. And we weren't traveling in style. From Chengdu it was a three-day trip over rough roads to the trail to Minya Konka. One night, in Ya'an, we stayed in an old government building converted to a guest house. I roomed with Jonathan, and that night I had a fever from a bad flu. Unable to sleep, I turned and saw him in the bed next to me, covered by a veil of mosquito netting. His head, arched over the pillow and framed by the blanket folded beneath his chin, was illuminated by pale moonlight. He was sleeping with his mouth open, and his breathing stopped, started again, stopped, started.

A few weeks later, on our way home, we stayed in the same guest house, and I stayed in the same room. Only this time I was with Yvon, and he moaned from the pain in his broken ribs as he lay down. I told him about my distorted vision, about the visage of Jonathan's face through the gossamer netting.

"He looked different, in a way I'd never seen him before," I said to Yvon. "I realize now he looked like he did just after he died."

A little over a month after I returned from that disastrous 1980 trip, Jonathan's widow, Geri, and Asia visited me in California. In the years that followed, however, I didn't see much of Asia. Other things filled my life—marriage, expeditions, my own three children. But her mother told me that Asia was a good student, that she loved skiing and hiking in the Colorado Rockies, where they lived. Geri never remarried, and they remained a household of two. In high school, Asia discovered snowboarding and made the U.S. Junior Team.

Then, toward the end of her freshman year at the University of Colorado, Asia called to say she hoped to come to California for the summer and wondered if she could stay with us in Ojai. Her ambition was to follow her father's footsteps and become a professional photographer. By then I had started an agency representing outdoor photographers, so she worked part-time for me that summer.

After she had been with us a couple of weeks, I took her to a small café for lunch. I told her about the avalanche. I told her how her father had died, and how we had buried him high on Minya Konka, in a cairn of rock that overlooked Tibet.

"I don't know," she said, shaking her head. "Somehow it still seems like a story. All my life, people have asked, 'What does your father do?' and I've answered, 'He was a National Geographic photographer, but he was killed in an avalanche on a remote mountain in China when I was a baby,' and they answer, 'Wow, that's incredible.' It doesn't sound real to them, and in a way it's never been real to me.

"The only physical connection I ever had were his photographs, mostly pictures of Nepal and the Himalayas. I knew that was his favorite place, and that's why he gave me my name. When I was about eight, I had this i

I assumed she was going to ask me to help her get to Nepal. I was already forming my answer—that I could contribute half but she would have to work for the other half—when she told me what she had in mind.

"Would you take me to Tibet?" she said. "To Minya Konka? To help me find my father's grave?"

I remembered the journey Jonathan and I had planned. What if I did the same trip with Asia, in reverse? We could start in the Khumbu, one of her father's favorite places, then go to Everest Base Camp. Then, after joining the pilgrims who gather each year to walk around Mount Kailas, in Tibet, we could also visit Tibet's Aru Basin and explore the 20,000-foot peaks that biologist George Schaller calls the Crystal Mountains. From there we could head to Minya Konka

Her reply was instant. "Yeessss!" she exclaimed, with the same enthusiasm her father had used when calling out, "Woo-wee!"


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