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 DAY AFTER the avalanche, I left Base Camp alone at first light. I arrived at Jonathan's side about an hour before the others. He was as we had left him, covered with a blue nylon bivouac sack. His knees were bent and his arms crossed over his chest. I folded back the opening of the sack to touch his head.

His pack lay partially under him where I had placed it to keep him as warm as possible. I opened it, looking for something to take back to Geri. I wondered how long it was going to take to send the news, and how would it affect their little girl. I found his camera, damaged but with the film intact, and put it in my pack. Then I saw his baseball cap. It had somehow stayed with us the distance of the avalanche. He had worn that cap every day of the trip. Sweat stains discolored the rim where he had marked his initials, a stylized monogram derived from the Buddhist mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, and often inscribed on prayer flags. There were also bloodstains, so I wasn't sure I would ever give it to her, but I put it in my pack anyway.

Looking around, I noticed a rock promontory that stood in relief from the slope, a sentinel over the plateau of Tibet. It was sloped, but the slate stones seemed well suited for constructing a platform, so I began building the grave there. A short time later Jonathan's fellow photographer Edgar Boyles arrived, and in silence we worked together. I stripped to my long underwear. Some of the others arrived on their way to dismantle Camp One, but they paused only a moment before moving on; Edgar and I had been his closest friends. When the platform was ready, the expedition's team leader, Al Read, and team doctor Dick Long offered to help us carry Jonathan's body. We lined up two to each side and lifted him high. His body was frozen through, and he was heavy. The footing was difficult up the steep slope, and as we stepped closer to the platform I tasted salt on my lips, listened to the flat stones clink under my boots, felt the cold of Jonathan's body through the nylon resting on my shoulder.

We laid him on the platform. His bent knees fit perfectly inside the slight curve of the tumulus, and we covered him with more flat stones. We planted two bamboo wands and strung prayer flags between them. The flags fluttered gently in a breeze that blew across the grave, carrying aloft, as the Tibetans believe, our prayers. Above us the great west-face glacier tumbled to the moraine valley, its meltwater beginning the journey to the Yalong, the Yangtze, the China Sea. The grave too faced westward, toward the valley's opening and the distant peaks of Konkaling.

We were silent. Edgar reached down and touched the swatch of nylon, and I did the same. Then Edgar picked up a last stone and set it in place, and we both turned and descended.


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