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.

   
 
 
 

THE KONKA GOMPA monastery is perched on a small bench on an otherwise steep hillside overlooking the terminus of a large glacier that descends off the west side of Minya Konka (or Gongga Shan, as it's called in China), at 24,790 feet the highest peak in the Ta-hsüeh ("Great Snow") Mountains in China's Sichuan province, not far from eastern Tibet. On a clear day there is a stunning view of the mountain, but this afternoon the peak is shrouded in monsoon clouds. In the last light of day I stand beside Asia Wright, both of us leaning on the rail circling the second floor, looking at the prayer flags that hang like bunting under the eaves, and at the altar in the center of the courtyard, where a smoldering bough of juniper is sending a curl of smoke skyward. From the prayer room we hear the chanting of the senior monk, who is old enough to have lived and meditated in the original Tibetan Buddhist monastery before it was destroyed by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution.

Most of the people in these mountains are ethnic Tibetans, and, pooling their resources, they have done an admirable job building this new monastery, but even so, I can see it doesn't match the standard of its predecessor. When I was last here, in October 1980, my friends and I camped just below the ruins of the old monastery. The Cultural Revolution had ended only four years earlier, and the Chinese had just opened their doors to foreign mountaineers; we were the first Westerners allowed into eastern Tibet in 50 years. We were here to climb Minya Konka. Our team, most of which worked for Exum Mountain Guides in Jackson Hole, included Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and climber Kim Schmitz. The ascent was being filmed for ABC, and the camera crew included photographers Edgar Boyles and Jonathan Wright, a close friend whose daughter, Asia, then a one-year-old toddler, was back in Aspen with his wife, Geri. I was on the climbing team and part of the film crew. After the climb, Jonathan and I planned to journey westward to Lhasa and then continue overland to Kathmandu and on to the Khumbu, the Sherpa homeland on the south side of Everest.

We had an assignment from National Geographic to do a story on the newly chartered Sagarmatha (Mount Everest) National Park, and for both of us, filming on Minya Konka followed by the Everest assignment was a dream come true; we had big plans to collaborate on articles in the future—river-running in Borneo, ski-adventuring in Antarctica.

After we set up our tents, Jonathan, Yvon, and I explored the debris of the desecrated monastery. We said nothing as we stepped over the shards of roof slate and chunks of plaster and pieces of smashed doors. Finally Jonathan called us over to the most intact section of what was left of the walls. They had been painted with frescoes depicting various Buddhas and bodhisattvas, and all had been smashed to pieces—all except one.

"It's interesting," Jonathan said, "that this is the one Buddha to survive." He was only 28, but this was Jonathan's sixth trip to the Himalayas, and he was an avid student of Buddhist culture.

"Who is it?"

"Maitreya," he said. "The Buddha of Things to Come."

"You think there's a message?" I asked.

"Yes," Jonathan said, turning to me with a faint smile. "It's to remember that the first fact of existence is impermanence."

Now, 19 years later, I've returned to Konka Gompa on a pilgrimage to Jonathan's grave, high on the side of Minya Konka, with my old friend's daughter, Asia, who has just turned 20. This night, I lie in bed propped against the headboard, writing by the light of a candle sitting on the bedpost. My bed is along one end of the room, Asia's is in the middle, and the monk who is sharing his room with us lies in a third bed on the opposite end, chanting a sotto-voce mantra as he arranges his belongings on his nightstand: prayer beads, a bell, and two portraits, each in a hand-carved wood frame, of lamas.

I look up, and the flame from my candle dimly shows the plastered rock walls, the slate roof supported by a lattice of twined poles, the small table made of hand-hewn lumber, Asia's bed a few feet from mine, her dark hair and the cone of light from her headlamp shining on the photocopied pages of her father's journal. I reflect on what I wrote in my own journal so many years ago.

October 14, 1980, Minya Konka Base Camp

I need to get this down while it's still fresh. It must have been 9:30 a.m. by the time we got out of Camp One yesterday, but we all agreed that there should still be enough time to climb the 1,500 vertical feet to the next campsite, cache our loads, and get back before dark. I drew the first lead, postholing up the slope above camp. Then Kim took over, then Yvon. At noon we stopped next to a crevasse for lunch. Yvon bit off a piece of cheese, then turned to Jonathan. "Whenever you're on a glaciated section," he said, "always stop at the edge of a crevasse when you take a break. That way you'll know you haven't stopped on top of a hidden one. Same for setting up camps."

"Thanks," Jonathan replied. He'd asked us to give him pointers whenever we thought of anything, and Yvon is always obliging to anyone who wants to learn.

We finished lunch and continued. Soon our options narrowed to a steep section of chest-deep snow. I led and Kim followed. To secure my footing I had to pack the snow first by pressing my whole body into the slope, then my knee, and finally my boot. No matter how careful I was, I still knocked snow down on Kim.

"Sonofabitch. I'm getting buried."

"Sorry, I can't help it."

Kim looked up and grinned. "I wasn't cursing you. Just this snow flying down my collar."

I took another step, and knocked down more snow.

"Sonofabitch."

I smiled to myself and kept going. In another hundred feet the snow firmed. In a clearing between clouds we could see just ahead an area of large seracs where the shifting glacier had cleaved into blocks. I stopped and studied our options.

"Two ways to go. Up the middle through the seracs, or off to the right."

"Looks a little better to the right," Yvon said.

While Kim took the lead, Jonathan stepped aside and took several photographs. I paid out rope, then followed Kim as he angled up the side of a serac that then turned into a long, steep slope. The heavy packs and thin air made the effort debilitating, but we maintained a steady pace. I tried not to look up but instead to focus on the steps in front of me, hoping I might achieve a kind of self-hypnosis.

"Heartbreak Hill," Yvon called out.

The rope on my waist went taut. I looked up and Kim had stopped to wait patiently while I caught up. It was all I could do to match his speed, and he was the one punching the steps. I was tempted to unrope and go at my own pace, but there were still crevasses in the area. We had roped up earlier in the morning when we crossed the first crevasses above Camp One. That was before we got into the soft snow, but footing had still been difficult, with about four inches of new snow. Several times my boot skidded on the interior layer, leaving a streak through the new snow. In the back of my mind I knew this was avalanche potential. I wondered what Yvon and Kim thought, but if they were concerned they would have said something...


 
   
 

SO MANY TIMES on this trip with Asia, I have had this sensation of the past melting into the present. The sight of Asia hiking in front of me can carry me back in time just as a certain smell can carry you to a memory long forgotten. And there he is, hiking in front of me on a day long ago.

She has her mother's dark hair, Japanese eyes, and high cheekbones, but she owns her father's long legs and his fair skin. She wears a Tibetan necklace of turquoise and coral that was given to her by a friend for good luck on our journey, and she carries her father's Tibetan prayer beads. The day before we left, my 16-year-old daughter cut Asia's hair short, and the two of them sat on our veranda and giggled as the long locks of black hair fell to the tile floor.

When we began this trip together, I worried about Asia: about her asthma, her vulnerability to cold, even her bug phobia. And at first there was a kind of cautious formality between us. But I still knew that all the pieces of this journey would, when fitted together, create for her a clear picture of the life and times of her father. And I knew that our adventures would be the ones that Jonathan would be having with her if he were here.

Lying in bed at the Konka Gompa monastery, I decide to test my convictions.

"Asia?" I say.

"Yes?"

"What's the most important thing you're getting from your father's journals?"

"His ability to always improve himself, I think," she replies. "And maybe to realize it's a job that never ends." Then she pauses for a moment before going on. "But to really be honest, I think you're taking more from these journals than I am, because you knew him. I'll never know him the same way."

"I guess I have a picture of him in my mind as I read along."

"I'm getting more out of seeing what you get from them, because you're real to me. Your stories, too—I'm learning from those in a way that's different than reading my father's."

I thank her and think of those stories, the ones she now says have meaning for her—leaning against my summit partner on top of K2, for example, or sitting at the base of a nearly unknown massif of mountains in Bhutan and burning the map we had worked hard to create.

"Good night, Rick," Asia says as she turns off her headlamp.

I blow out the candle, and in the darkness I hear the rush of the river in the valley below. I take off my parka, shift into the sanctum of my sleeping bag, and fold the jacket under my head. Before I go to sleep, I have one final thought: If I were caught in the avalanche now, at age 50, would I have the wisdom to ride the cascading snow not in fear but in wonder? Like Alice falling down the hole, would I look to the sides, watching the world that I know speed by, wondering not in panic but in awe about the other world into which I am about to enter?


 
   
 
 

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!"


 
 
 
 

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.


 
   

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.


 
   

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."

"Where?"

"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."


   
   

DURING THE NIGHT I wake to hear the sound of rain hitting the tent. I locate my headlamp and shine it on the travel alarm near my head: 4 a.m. Pointing the beam on the small bush at river's edge, I can see that it's now within an inch of jumping its bank and flooding our tent. I know in this weather I won't be able to find the grave. I go through my mental checklist—compass, headlamp, lunch, camera gear, film, reference photographs, binoculars—and fire up the stove and make tea. I hand Asia her mug, and she sits up in her bag and thanks me. Then the rain stops. There is enough filtered moonlight to reveal the tip of a glacier hanging like a tongue out of the mantle of clouds.

"The clouds are starting to thin," I say. "Maybe we can pull this off today."

"Please let us have just one good day," Asia says.

It's 6 a.m. by the time we are on our way. We parallel the river, following an old yak trail. If my memory is accurate, we will follow this river as it bends around a corner, and continue along it until it leads to the high meadow where we established our Base Camp.

The last time I walked this path, my arm was in a sling. Yvon was behind me, his breath shortened by the pain in his ribs, and Kim was farther back. He had two cracked vertebrae and two broken ribs, and we had trussed his torso with two foam pads and given him two ski poles to hike with. He moved in halting steps, his lips were tight, and his blue eyes, clouded with morphine, seemed to focus on the middle distance, even when you talked to him.

Soon the moraine squeezes against the river, and Asia and I are forced to hop boulder to slippery boulder. There's a lower-angled gully that appears to lead to the top of the moraine; we climb the loose glacial till and on top we can see a faint trail along the crest of the moraine that, judging by hoofprints in mats of damp dirt between rocks, has been made by the passage of blue sheep and perhaps of tahr, mountain goats I recall seeing here 19 years ago. Straight ahead three parallel buttresses descend out of the upper layer of clouds. One of them is vaguely familiar. I stop to set my pack down, and looking through the binoculars I compare what I see with the photographs. Asia catches up and looks over my shoulder.

"So which one do you think it is?" she asks.

"The glacier has receded," I say, pointing to the photograph. "See, it was here in 1980, and now it's way up there. I can see where the avalanche stopped, which means your father must be buried somewhere in those rocks to the left."


   
   

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.


 
   

THE CREST OF moraine sharpens, and I have to walk with my arms out for balance. Straight ahead is the meadow that I recognize as our old campsite. Looking up, I can see the route we took to the bottom of the buttress. The best way seems to be to follow talus up to a series of cliffs.

I set a steady pace, one slow foot after the other, and Asia maintains a 20-yard distance behind. The layer of clouds that fills the lower valley continues to rise toward us. In an hour I reach the top of the scree and take out my water bottle. Asia is quiet and somber. Soon I recognize another feature: the boulder field where I stumbled and fell when I was running to get help. Another 500 vertical feet ahead is the slope where the avalanche came to a stop. I think, We must have buried Jonathan somewhere to the left of that.

I study the area above us with my binoculars, but if his grave is still there, it's hidden behind the foreground cliffs. I recognize the largest as the one I feared we might all plummet over. There's a passage to the right, but it's under a huge serac that teeters at the end of a glacier, waiting for the next slight shift of ice to send it tumbling. I have no memory of our path being this difficult, but 19 years ago we did find a way around the cliff, and we did it without fixed ropes or technical climbing gear.

Asia doesn't say anything, and she doesn't move. Finally, she says, "I'm scared."

I put my hands on her shoulders.

"It only looks hard," I tell her. "I know you can do it."

She shakes her head and says, "It's not that. I'm scared of what we're going to find."

I don't speak for a few moments; then I ask, "Do you still want to do this?"

She nods her head, then turns toward the rock. She still doesn't move.

"There's a foothold here, then two handholds right there. Go up a few feet, then left into that little dihedral."

"OK."

"Remember, I'll be right behind you."

She places her boot on the first foothold, and reaches for the handholds. I can only guess how strong her emotions must be, and that makes it even more impressive to watch her move with athletic grace. I make the same moves behind her, mindful to have my hands and feet locked on the holds, because if she slips I will need all my strength to block her fall.

"You're doing great. Now traverse left into that dihedral."

We're about 30 or 40 feet up, and I know if she falls and knocks me off, we'll both be hurt. The dihedral, a corner inset in the rock face, is going to be even trickier to down-climb, and if it starts to rain, we could be in trouble. Should we turn back? We're nearly at the top, though, and she's still moving gracefully. I decide to keep going. At the top of the dihedral I lead again, through another field of disconcertingly loose boulders. Above us a wall of broken black rock rears steeply.

The crest of the rib is now only ten feet away. I make five more steps and stop, then slowly look up. Above and to the right I recognize the slope immediately as the place where the avalanche came to a halt. On the left side is the place where Jonathan died.

I reach a small flat and remove my pack, look down, and see Asia about 50 feet away. I look up, and there it is. Jonathan's grave; it's right there. How can it be so close? It was so far that morning. But something's different. It's not as high as we built it. What has happened? Has it collapsed? What's that sticking out the sides? Faded nylon? Yes. And at the end of the platform, the leg of his climbing suit? Yes.

Asia is only a few feet away, but she is looking down as she focuses on her feet.

"Asia?"

She stops and looks up.

"I see your father's grave. Please prepare yourself, because he is not intact."

Her eyes freeze on her father's broken stone bier. Then she looks away, and for a moment she doesn't say anything. Neither do I.

"I don't want to go up there," she finally says.

"Come to where I am, then. It's a good place to rest."

She climbs the last few feet and stands next to me. Then she turns toward me and she starts to cry. Her shoulders rise and fall, and her tears come from deep within. I hold her head next to mine, and I look past her, to the place only a few feet away where I held her father's head on my lap as I breathed into his mouth.

Still holding her shoulders, I say, "Why don't you take off your pack and set it next to mine." She sets her pack down and wipes her tears.

"I'm going up there, to have a look. Are you OK here?"

She nods her head, still wiping her tears.

The grave is about 50 feet above us. I make slow steps toward it, not looking up. I feel the years somehow lose their sequence and overlap. I hear the slate shift under my boots; I feel his cold body on my shoulder, and the sun's heat on my face.

Then I am there. I look up. One leg of Jonathan's climbing suit is fully exposed. The nylon is old and brittle and holed. The other leg is still covered here and there by rocks. My friend is still mostly covered, but parts of his jacket show. I reach down to his exposed leg and move the fabric, and...he is not there.

Maybe a snow leopard, I think. It would have taken something big to move these rocks, but then the griffons would have finished the job. Yes, the griffons.

I go down on my knees next to the grave, not sure what to do. Then I lift one of the rocks we placed near Jonathan's head and see his long underwear top and on it the old-style label—somehow as bright as the day it was made. And where it is torn, I see that part of my friend is still there, his backbone and his ribs and his collarbone. I shift another rock and see his hair is still in good condition.

I hold the strands between my fingers, rubbing them slowly and gently. And I'm there, and I'm here, I'm in the past and in the present, and now I'm crying and bent over the grave and I hear myself saying, "Jonathan, my old buddy."

Then I'm here again. I clear my tears, take a breath, and turn to check on Asia. I'm surprised to see that she is coming up. She's only 30 feet away. "Asia, your father's clothes are here. But some of his bones are gone. You sure you want to come up?"

"I'm coming."

Rick Ridgeway is the author of four previous books, including Seven Summits and Shadow of Kilimanjaro. This article is excerpted from Below Another Sky, which will be published in January by Henry Holt and Co.


 
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