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

WHEN I WAKE IT IS STILL DARK in the room, but the parchment on the monastery windows carries a faint glow. I hear no rain, only the rush of the river, but even at this distance it is an undertone that leaves a disquieting sense of its power. I unzip my bag, swing my legs and feet to the floor, and dress. I pick up my binoculars and the photographs of Minya Konka. I take care opening the thick plank door of our room and descend the steep stairs to the courtyard. It is just before daybreak, June 25, 1999.

Up valley, a gray blanket of cloud obscures all but the lowest flanks of Minya Konka. I remove the photographs from their envelope and study them. Then I look back at the mountain, but the clouds have descended and the buttresses have disappeared.

Over a breakfast of wok pancakes, Asia and I form our plan. We will take a minimum of equipment and food on a pack horse up the lateral moraine alongside the main glacier, to the high alpine meadow where, in 1980, we established our Base Camp. Then tomorrow we'll see if we pick up our old route.

The monks gather in front of the gompa and wish us good luck as we depart down a steep trail to the river. In a half-mile we reach the bottom of the valley. The river is rushing over glacial boulders in standing waves and foaming holes, and it's too swollen to cross. We scout upriver until we find a narrow channel with a single wet log spanning the whitewater. With some care we can step across the bridge, but it's clear that the horse cannot, and our guide leads him back to the monastery.

On the other side, we climb a steep slope thick with rhododendron and hung with dewy fog. We twist through branches and over roots, careful not to grab the thorny stems of wild rose that are thick in the undergrowth, and exit onto the top of the moraine, only to find piles of boulders bulldozed by the moving ice. In another hour we traverse the moraine back to the edge of the river where the bank is now wide enough to pitch a tent. I'm not sure where we are, and I have a sense it is still some distance to our old campsite, but a rain squall is darkening the head of the valley. I look around for a tent site. We no more than have the tent up when the downpour hits. Through the nylon fabric we can see a flash of lightning, and a moment later the thunder rolls down the valley, bringing a memory of the hours after the avalanche—when I was alone in Base Camp waiting for the others who had gone to help Yvon and Kim. The thunder that seemed like it was sounding for the departure of Jonathan's soul.


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