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

OUR JOURNEY from Nepal, across the open alpine steppe of the Chang Tang Plateau and the monsoon-swept mountains of eastern Tibet, took two months. But thanks to a road extended since my visit in 1980, it took Asia and me only one long day to walk to Konka Gompa. Twenty years before it had taken three.

Back then we had planned to ascend the mountain in traditional style, positioning camps as we climbed, and we had established Camp One at about 19,000 feet. Then we waited out a snowstorm, and when it cleared, Kim, Yvon, Jonathan, and I pushed the route up a buttress to the crest of the northwest ridge, where we cached supplies on a small flat—Camp Two.

Before descending we sat on our packs and had a second lunch. Through brief windows in the clouds we could see the ridge dropping to a col and rising again to two higher summits. The yellow-green plateau of Tibet emerged below us.

"Woo-wee," Jonathan said. He said it almost to himself, but I knew it revealed his excitement because he had been saying it continuously since we had arrived in China nearly a month before.

"Two more camps and we can make the summit," I said.

"Ten days, if we have luck with the weather," Yvon added.

We made good time heading back toward Camp One, slowing to test bridges over crevasses—or, as Kim preferred, to broad-jump them. We down-climbed, belaying one another with our ice axes as anchors. When the angle eased, we decided to glissade, sliding down on our butts, one going faster than the other, laughing and yelling, the rope going taut, pulling one, then the other, then continuing down in big jumping steps.

It went that way for a half-hour. We were moving fast, and our spirits were high. We arrived at the hill above Camp One and spotted our three yellow tents below. We decided to make another glissade. Yvon went first, then me, then Jonathan, then Kim. I heard Kim give a whoop, and I answered with a yahoo. Snow built up around me and flew in my eyes. It was hard to see where I was going, but I didn't need to because I was following Yvon. Then I sensed something was wrong. There was too much snow building up around me, and I realized we had to be careful or we would load the slope.

Then it happened.

The snow all around me started to boil. Get off to the side, I thought. Quick. Stand up and run. And then the snow exploded underneath me. No way to get out now. Someone yelling, "Oh, Christ, here we go!" Start thinking. Think fast. We can't get out, but we still might stop. If we stop, I might be buried. Smothered. Backstroke. Backstroke, hard.

Everything spinning. Oh my God. I'm buried. Eyes open. Curl up tight. Trap air in front, have an air pocket when it stops. The guys in camp, they're watching. They'll dig. Ice pulsing around me. I need air. Am I still alive?

Then suddenly my face surfaced. I sucked air as fast as I could, then backstroked until my chest, then my knees, pulled out. Around me the snow was still heaving and pulsing, as if it were taking huge, deep breaths. To the side an outcrop sped by in a blur. Then below, beyond my feet, I saw the slope steepen, then disappear. It was the cliff, the rock face below Camp One, and it went several hundred feet down. I looked ahead and to the side as the whole slope of snow we were riding, the tons and tons of it, pitched into space, and I recall very clearly my next thought.

October 13, 1980. Thirty-one years old. Buried in Tibet.


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