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

JUST BEFORE I WAS ABOUT to be carried over the next cliff, the avalanche stopped. I crawled to a rock at the edge of the jumbled ice and sat panting until I caught my breath and the dizziness went away. I felt my legs, moving them carefully. Then my arms, my ribs, my back. Bruises, bad ones, but apparently no broken bones.

Yvon had come to rest at an angle below me, 30 feet away. He was buried to the waist, but his arms were free and he was working slowly to free himself. There was blood running down his face. I looked up the narrow slope where we had stopped and saw Kim. He was staring back at me. Our eyes held, and his were like blue diamonds. There was blood on his face and trickling out of his mouth, staining his teeth. He screamed. It was an animal scream, and I looked away.

Jonathan was only a few feet from me, at the edge of the ice. He was lying on his back with the rope around his waist

stretched tightly to where it disappeared into snow that was now set hard as concrete. He was trying to say something, but I couldn't tell what it was. I looked again toward Yvon. He was still buried to the waist, and now he was sitting back on the snow as if he had given up trying to get out. He still had his glacier glasses on. How could that be? I called to him, "Yvon, are you OK?" He turned and looked up at me, but only stared.

"Yvon, are you hurt?"

"Where are we?" he asked.

Kim was on one knee, struggling in a frenzy to stand up. "I can't breathe," he yelled. Panic in his voice. He started madly pulling at the rope. Help Kim first, I thought.

I stood and made a few steps toward Kim but then looked at Jonathan. He was moaning. "Jonathan, are you OK?" He mumbled something, but I couldn't understand him. Then I thought, No, better help Jonathan first; his head's downhill and he's having trouble breathing.

I bent down and looked into his eyes and said, "Jonathan, we're all alive. We all made it. Everything is going to be OK." Then I asked him where he was hurt, but he couldn't answer. Our eyes met for a moment, and I said, "Don't worry." I reached under his head and tried to get my hand along his back in case it was broken. He was heavy, but lifting slowly I straightened him out. "OK, buddy, that should be better." He still didn't answer, but again his eyes met mine.

I looked over to check on Yvon, and when I looked back at Jonathan's face my stomach tightened. His eyes had rolled back in his head. No, I thought, it can't end this way. I knelt and put my face close to his mouth. He wasn't breathing. I put my hand on his neck and felt his pulse. It was quick and strong. I lifted his head in my lap and placed my finger on his tongue and breathed into his mouth. Once, twice, three times. Nothing. Again, once, twice. Nothing. Then I saw his chest rise and fall. He started to breathe again. He's going to make it, I thought.

Then the breathing stopped. I waited, breathed into his mouth once, twice, and again he started breathing on his own. But there was a sound from in his chest. I thought, No, no, this isn't going to happen. He breathed three times, and stopped, and I breathed again into his mouth. He breathed, stopped, I breathed into him, he started. His pulse was still strong.

I stood up and looked around. Yvon was now on his feet, standing and staring at me, and Kim was crawling off the ice, still crying in pain, blood trickling from his mouth. Our red rope wove in and out of the jumbled blocks of snow and ice like a string of intestine. Jonathan had stopped breathing again. When I breathed into his mouth, his chest would rise, hold, fall, not move, then rise again on its own, fall, rise, fall...stop. I would watch, wait, then put my mouth again to his and start over. I kept my finger on his neck, and his heart was still beating.

I glanced up and saw that Yvon had moved closer. He was stiff and in shock, standing like a scarecrow.

"What happened?"

"We were in a big avalanche, Yvon. We just fell 1,500, maybe 2,000 feet. I don't know, a long ways. We're all alive. But Jonathan is hurt bad."

"What mountain is this?"

"Minya Konka, Yvon."


"Minya Konka, in China."

"What are we doing in China?"

Each time I breathed into Jonathan there was that sound in his chest. His head rested on my knee. I moved my fingers through his hair and watched his face. His lips had lost color. All of a sudden his face paled, as though some part of his being suddenly evaporated. In less than a second he was different. I held him in my lap as I continued to slowly stroke his hair. I bent down and gently kissed him, then set his head down and folded his arms on his stomach so he looked comfortable. Yvon stood watching. He didn't say anything, and I couldn't tell if he understood.

"Yvon," I said, looking up at him, "Jonathan just died."


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