The Courage of My Companions
I didn't always appreciate his taste in clients, and he didn't always stand up for me in an argument, but you can only ask so much from a white guy.
MY NAME LOBSANG SHERPA. I am Sherpa. Carry big load up mountain. Climb Sagarmatha, mountain you call Everest, seven time. My English not so good. OK to speak Sherpa, you make into English?
That's better. I can speak enough English to make myself understood on the mountain—I know the words for crampon, altitude sickness, and Gamow bag, which is a device that simulates the air pressure of lower altitudes—but for a story like this, I'll need to employ a greater degree of nuance. And my English is—how do you say?—inelegant.
I first met Andrew Assenmacher at Base Camp on April 11 of last year. I'd never heard of him, but he stood out from the other climbers because he was tall and handsome with curly gray hair so pretty it looked as if he had flown in a stylist from Kathmandu, which I found out later he had.
It was morning, and I was sitting on a flat rock drinking some tea. I'd had a long hike the day before—I was just joining the group—so it felt good to stretch out in the sun. Assenmacher walked up wearing a Gore-Tex snowsuit with about 70 zippered pockets and squinted at me.
"Do you golf?" he asked.
I didn't know what the hell he was talking about.
He pointed at my chest and I realized that I was wearing a Tiger Woods T-shirt I'd gotten at Pacific Place mall in Seattle. I also surmised that he was the type who likes his natives picturesque. So before he could say "I thought you fellows all wore homespun yak's wool sweaters," I flashed him a big grin and said, "Gift from mighty American climber, Sahib."
Assenmacher nodded and walked off. Naturally he didn't pick up on the Sahib. That's an Indian thing, not a Sherpa thing. I felt a little dumb giving him the shuck-and-jive, but it worked. He left, and I was alone with my tea.
The reason I was late joining the party was that I'd just come down from K2, where I'd guided three Germans on their first attempt. They weren't the friendliest bunch of guys, but I totally dug their shtick. They wore matching outfits with their names silk-screened on the back and did calisthenics together every morning, shouting, "Ein! Zwei! Drei!" We didn't summit—after an avalanche killed the leader, numbers zwei und drei decided to pack it in—but I admired their team spirit.
So anyway, with the K2 thing ending early I had time to hump over to Everest and join Cal Vinson's expedition. I hate doing back-to-back climbs, but Everest is where the real money is.
I'd met Cal a few years earlier in a bar in Kathmandu. I was putting the moves on this Swiss girl, a blond trekker who wanted to charge her crystals at all the holy places. I was telling her that I personally knew the head lama at Kopan and she was getting all giggly, and I was pretty sure we were going to make yak butter when this guy who was about five feet tall and four feet wide walked up. He introduced himself as Cal Vinson, Mountain Climber, and told me he was looking for a few good Sherpas.
I'd heard of Cal, of course. He'd climbed all 14 of the 8,000-meter peaks in order from shortest to highest, doing one every three weeks so he could finish in less than a year. I'd pictured someone built a little less like a Volkswagen, but his reputation preceded him. He was well-known in the Himalayas for saying "the Alps are for pussies," so I couldn't help liking him a little, even though we'd never met.
I told the Swiss Miss to keep her marshmallows toasty while I did a little business with Cal.
As it turned out, Cal had just lost his North Face sponsorship over an incident in which he supposedly caused the company's leading spokesmodel to lose three fingers and an ear to frostbite, and he was looking for a little more reliable income. He was starting a company called Peak Performance that would guide climbers up Everest or any other mountain they could afford to be photographed on top of.
I said fine and we discussed compensation.
Your typical guide outfit includes the main guide, like Cal, the assistant guides, who might be making their first ascent, and then the Sherpas, who'll be making their 20th. The guides might get ten, twenty thousand bucks. The Sherpas? A tenth of that. The reason, they always say, is that "it goes so much further in your country." Never mind that I live in Seattle.
But there's no collective bargaining among Sherpas: turn down a job and there's always a Panchen, a Pemba, or a Pasang waiting to take your place. So when Cal offered me $1,500 to help take eight bankers to the top, with a $500 summit bonus, I said sure.
I went up with him every year after that. He was a pretty good guy and fairly safe. I didn't always appreciate his taste in clients, and he didn't always stand up for me in an argument, but you can only ask so much from a white guy.
So back to last year. Andrew Assenmacher.
Cal called a meeting that morning so he could bring everyone up to speed. There were three guides, five Sherpas, and six clients. The guides were Cal, another American named Trent Gatlin, and an Austrian named Dick Ausgezeichnet. The clients were Piers Jetty, a retired geologist who'd taken up mountain climbing to "fill his spare time"; Gerald Lochte, a triathlete who'd climbed a lot of mountains but never in snow; Tanya Richardson, a strong alpinist who'd joined the group to avoid the logistical hassles of arranging her own trip; Sam Brown, a rangy Texan who'd apparently made a fortune by trademarking U.S. brand names in foreign countries and then selling them to the rightful owners; Dave Pappadum, a half-Indian film producer who reminded me of a very tan Richard Branson; and Assenmacher.
The Sherpas were me and some guys I knew from around.
Assenmacher was the heir to a pharmaceutical fortune and had spent his life shooting, hooking, eating, and mounting over 1,000 species of fish and game. A major benefactor of the Bone and Marrow Club, he'd joined the elite ranks of hunters by killing at least one of every type of mammal with a mature weight of over 50 pounds.
Seeking new challenges, he'd taken up mountain climbing, hoping to become the first person starting after the age of 50 to have climbed all the 8,000-meter mountains. Naturally he decided to start with Everest, to "get it out of the way."
"You all better watch what you say around Assenmacher," said Cal. "He's a journalist."
"Strictly amateur," said Assenmacher, "but I do write about all of my adventures in my blog. It's very popular. So I hope none of you mind if I make you a star."
The lady climber said she did mind, but the rest of us just shrugged. It's embarrassing, but I have to admit that back then I didn't even know what a blog was. I may live 20 miles from Microsoft headquarters, but I'm not really into the whole Internet thing.
I wasn't too thrilled about the physical fitness of Jetty, Brown, Pappadum, and Assenmacher, but what can I say? We're paid to take 'em to the top.
Cal laid out the plan, which was designed to allow the lowlanders to acclimatize to the altitude. It's pretty much the same thing every time: we spend about two weeks in Base Camp, making climbs up to Camps One, Two, and Three. After that, everyone is as ready as they're going to be for the thin air up top. They're also miserable, with nagging coughs and a noticeable decrease in muscle mass. So just when they're ready to fly home and take hot showers again, we start climbing for real.
That night I was looking at pornography with some of the other Sherpas when Cal knocked on the door of our tent. Well, he didn't exactly knock—he kind of cleared his throat until someone opened the flap and looked out. He wanted to talk to me. I put my copy of Leg Show in my sleeping bag and stepped outside.
"So how was K2?" he asked.
"Pretty good," I said before remembering that we'd lost one of the Germans. "I mean, two out of three ain't bad."
Cal nodded. "For K2, that's above average. You're OK, though?"
"Yeah," I said. "Basically."
"That's my guy." Cal looked as if he was going to clap me on the shoulder, then thought better of it. "Look," he said, "about Assenmacher . . . "
"Can he climb?" I asked.
"He did Mount Agassiz a few years back."
"No idea. Look, I want you to make sure he gets to the top. Be his personal guide. A lot of people read that damn blog of his, and that could mean terrific PR for Peak Performance."
"I don't know," I said.
"I'll pay you an extra $500."
"All right," I said, "as long as I don't have to carry him."
Cal laughed. "You won't have to carry him."
I know a lot of you purists are going to think I sold out my talents, or sold out the mountain, but $500 represented a month and a half of rent on the three-bedroom apartment I shared with two pizza-delivery guys in the U-District.
The next day was a fairly short hike up to Camp One and back. Assenmacher showed up wearing new climbing boots and carrying an ice ax that looked like it belonged to a gold rush prospector.
"It was my grandfather's," he said proudly. "He went up the Matterhorn."
I took it from him and threw it into a crevasse. "Let him climb with it," I said. I went to my tent and grabbed a spare SMC Himalayan, top of the line.
Assenmacher was sputtering when I returned. I could tell he needed to be mollified.
"Old axe anger mountain spirit," I said. "No want anger mountain spirit."
Satisfied, Assenmacher volunteered to climb "top of the rope," but I had to explain that we'd be ascending via ropes and aluminum ladders that had been fixed weeks ago. He seemed to think this was unsporting. I pretended not to understand, figuring he'd change his mind once he was tiptoeing over a crevasse, trying to slot his slick metal crampons onto the bent rungs of a beat-to-shit ladder.
When we approached the first ladder, I heard him snort behind me. "We're going to reach the top of the world courtesy of Home Depot," he said.
He took his sweet time crossing though and kept looking down after I told him not to. Even I don't look down. It's just too creepy, thinking about all the high-quality climbing gear, good as new, strapped onto the freezer-burned corpses at the bottom.
When he was halfway across he froze completely and I had to go back and get him. He shoved me, like he didn't want me touching him, and I could tell he was locked in some kind of a feedback loop. So I spit in his face. That snapped him out of it.
"What the hell?" he said.
"Start moving feet," I said. "Ladder not strong enough for two man."
"Hell no. It going break any minute."
He practically climbed over me trying to get to the other side. When we had made it, he kicked the snow angrily.
"I can't believe you spit on me!"
"Spitting good luck," I said. "Sign of respect, Sahib."
He wiped my loogie off his cheek, looked at it, and then started following me up the glacier.
The rest of the day wasn't easy—we got back to Base Camp a couple hours after everyone else—but there weren't any more freak-outs. By the time Assenmacher unzipped his tent he was docile as a lamb.
The other acclimatization climbs went OK. By the time we were ready to move to Camp One, he didn't even need me to come get him off the middle of the ladders anymore.
Finally, it was time to climb for real. Since we'd only done day hikes I hadn't had to carry Assenmacher's pack yet. When I arrived at his tent, he was still loading it up. He had all the usual stuff plus a couple of luxuries, like a six-pack of caviar and a leather-bound copy of The Razor's Edge. Those were no biggie. But he also had a laptop, a satellite uplink, a matching plaid bathrobe and slippers, and a four-square waffle maker that had been jury-rigged to run on jet fuel for high-altitude performance.
And he had a gun: a thin black pistol that looked like the one James Bond uses in A View to a Kill.
"Don't think you going need waffle maker," I said. "Or gun."
"I always travel with a gun,"
he said. "Don't worry; it's very lightweight."
"No animal on Sagarmatha," I said.
"But there are climbers," he said. "And man is the most dangerous game."
He started to put the pistol in his pack, reconsidered, and zipped it into his parka. He turned toward the trail. I squatted, put my arms through the straps of his pack, and stood up. Fucking thing must have weighed 100 pounds.
It wasn't an easy trip up the ice fall. Some of the crevasses are so wide that it takes two or even three roped-together ladders to bridge them, and by the time I reached the middle, wearing Assenmacher's ginormous pack, the ladders bowed so badly that I had to climb hand over hand to get up the other side.
Assenmacher had apparently overcome his fear of the ladders and would sit in the snow to watch me from the other side. I wondered if he was watching so closely because he was worried about his stuff.
That may have been why he didn't leave me behind, too. I mean, I'm a strong guy, but I'm no donkey, and I wasn't able to go very fast. Everyone passed me, even Dave Pappadum. It was getting chilly and the shadows were long by the time the tents came into view.
"You're an interesting guy, Lopsang," said Assenmacher.
I touched my forelock. I was too tired to say, "Yes, Sahib."
"I mean, you work with people from all over the world, but you still act like a good old country boy."
"Can take man out of village, but no can take village out of man," I said.
"Yep," he said, and we walked in silence for a minute. "You wouldn't be shining me on, would you, son?"
I couldn't give up that easily. "Yes, sun shining pretty good," I said. "Was nice day."
We had reached the edge of camp. Assenmacher shook his head and pointed at a tent that was twice as large as the others. "Have it your way, Lopsang," he said. "You can put my bag over there. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to blog."
I watched as he opened his computer, plugged it into his satellite uplink, and pulled on some fingerless gloves. He looked up and saw me staring. I tried to cover with a casual glance toward the summit but he was already waving me over. Reluctantly, I went.
"Can you make me a latte?" he asked.
It turned out he had paid another Sherpa 50 bucks to carry an espresso maker up with the tents the day before. Wishing I would have held out for more than $500 from Cal, I primed the gas canister and fired it up. Really, Assenmacher didn't save any time by having me make his latte for him. First I didn't grind the beans fine enough, then I didn't grind enough of them, and finally I couldn't make the foam "airy" enough. By the time he told me it was OK the sun was beginning to go down.
He made a funny sight, sitting there in the snow, his laptop screen projecting a slide show on the chest of his fancy blue parka. Around him, the tents glowed like lanterns. It was a clear night and above us the stars looked close enough to touch.
I zipped myself into a tent with one of the other Sherpas and killed an hour or two talking about who was sleeping with who on which expedition.
THE NEXT DAY, BEFORE WE STARTED our climb up the Western Cwm, I threw the waffle maker into a crevasse. It must have weighed 10 or 15 pounds; the pack felt a lot lighter and I started up with a kick in my step.
The Cwm isn't hard to climb. It's just a broad, gentle valley. What surprises the hell out of the Assenmachers is that it's hot. Usually there's not much wind, and if there aren't any clouds, the sun and snow turn it into an oven.
When Assenmacher saw me climb out of my tent wearing shorts, he called me a show-off. An hour later, dripping with sweat, he stopped and started tearing at his zippers and flaps and things. When I reached him, he handed me a balled-up mess of clothes and told me to put them in his pack. I didn't mind. Now that the waffle maker was gone there was plenty of room.
Sounds carry really far in the Cwm. I sang:
Jenny Jenny you are girl for me
You don't know me but you make me happy
I try to call you before but I lose my nerve
I try my imagination but I was disturb
Assenmacher turned around. "A little folk song from your village?" he snapped.
I shook my head and gave him an aw-shucks grin. "No, Sahib. Learn song from American climber. Is folk song from your country. You no know this song?"
"No, I no know this song." He turned around and started up the trail again at a pace I knew was making his legs and lungs burn.
WE RESTED A COUPLE OF DAYS at Camp Two. Assenmacher kept asking me what happened to the missing waffle maker, even though it was pretty obvious what had happened to it. I just shrugged and told him I didn't know, my features an inscrutable mask of orientalism.
"I've always had waffles," he said. "Ever since I was a kid hunting deer in Michigan. Have you no respect for my tradition?"
I was in the middle of making him a latte that I already knew he would say was too weak. It was just too hard to get the water to boil at high altitude, never mind getting the milk to foam.
Fuck it, I said to myself. I picked up the espresso maker, walked to a nearby cliff, and pitched the whole thing over.
Assenmacher was up and on his feet, swaying slightly, his skin a mottled red. "You little prick," he said. "I'll have your job!"
I nodded at his 85-pound backpack. "That Lobsang job," I said. "You want Lobsang job?"
I turned like I was going to walk down to Base Camp right then and there. He pulled out his laptop and started typing, like he'd suddenly remembered something really important for his blog.
All in all, he was holding up better than I'd expected. Of course, we were only at 21,300 feet, with the toughest climbing still ahead of us. But I didn't expect him to do well on the next leg. Getting to Camp Three is what weeds out the dilettantes. And he did have an incipient high-altitude cough, which was promising.
ONE NIGHT, AS WE SAT in the snow watching the sun slide behind a forbidding wall of rock and ice, I asked Assenmacher, "What you write on . . . " I mimed typing as if I didn't know the right word.
"My laptop? What do I write on my laptop?"
I nodded and chuckled, a simple man pleased that he'd been understood.
Assenmacher sighed. "I write magazine articles for outdoor enthusiasts. But most of the people who subscribe to hunting, fishing, and exploration magazines don't actually do those things. So we pretend to make it 'how to,' but in reality it's more 'how I did it.'"
"How you shoot wild boar, how you climb mountain," I said.
"Exactly. There are a lot of people who don't have the courage of their convictions. They're safe, coddled. They want to feel danger but fear makes them afraid." He stopped and frowned down the glacier. "Not that there's anything wrong with that. We can't all climb Everest—there's not enough room."
I gave him a good chuckle, making sure to open my mouth so he saw the place where I'm missing two teeth.
"How many times have you been on Everest, Lopsang?" he said.
I scratched my head and made some marks in the snow. "I no know number, Sahib."
"How old are you?"
"Twenty-eight winter," I said. It sounded like a good native way to measure time.
"How do you know so many Top 40 songs?" he asked.
I smiled in a way that suggested I no longer understood what he was talking about, but was too embarrassed to admit it. "Question make Lobsang sleepy, Sahib," I said. "Sahib need write bong in lamptop. Then sleep early for climb."
I walked away thinking about the gun and how to get it away from him.
IT WAS GRAY AND A LITTLE WINDY on the way to Camp Three. With the climbing season winding down, the weather was more likely to get worse than better. So we pushed up, everyone in the group staying more or less together, except Assenmacher and me. We were getting farther and farther behind.
The Lhotse Face is one big slab of ice. There's a rope going up it about a mile long, and you climb by kicking your crampons into the ice and pulling yourself up.
A couple hours out of camp, Assenmacher hunched over, breathing hard. His cough was getting worse. I climbed to within a few meters and waited for him to start moving again. Fifteen minutes later, I was still waiting.
"Sahib?" I said timidly.
Assenmacher lifted his mask and spit. Most of it landed on his parka.
"I'll pay you $500 if you make sure I reach the top," he wheezed. "I know that's a lot of money to you people, but I'm serious. Five hundred American dollars."
I had serious doubts about Assenmacher's ability to summit, but there was no harm in saying yes. If we reached the top, he gave me a tip, enough for a down payment on that plasma TV I had been thinking about; if we didn't, he didn't pay me. Big deal.
I patted him on the shoulder. He recoiled at the touch of my mitten.
"No worry, Sahib. You stand on top Sagarmatha. Money help buy new well for Lobsang village. Clean water make children much happy."
Assenmacher didn't move. I could see my face reflected in his goggles. With the oxygen mask, his voice sounded like Darth Vader, only with more gasping.
"A new well? Will $500 really pay for that?"
I shook my head. "Five hundred dollar dig halfway. But will help."
"Tell you what, if we can take a picture of me handing you the money in your village, I'll make it $1,000."
I nodded solemnly. I could always find some Sherpa village where a bunch of kids would crowd around looking pitiful.
A handful of quarters would do the trick.
ASSENMACHER COUGHED ALL NIGHT. It's hard to sleep at 24,500 feet anyway, when your tent is trying to turn itself into a hang glider and fly off the tiny shelf of ice you've carved out of the face, but another guy's ragged hacking doesn't make it any easier. I'm pretty good at tuning out my neighbor's surround-sound system, but the coughing was like water torture.
I wasn't the only one who heard it, that was for sure. As the rest of the party climbed out of their tents, Cal made a beeline for me.
"Did you hear Assenmacher last night?" he asked.
"Does the Dalai Lama shit in the woods?" I said.
"How is he?"
I told him I didn't know. Assenmacher hadn't come out of his tent yet, but, like I said, I figured this was probably the end of the line. Cal went over and asked him a bunch of questions, then made him spit in the snow. He radioed down to Base Camp and described the spit to the doctor there.
"The doctor says it's up to Assenmacher," Cal told me. "Assenmacher said there's no question—he's going to keep climbing. What do you think?"
"Um . . . "
"I mean, obviously, his health is our number one concern. Obviously. We don't want him to keep climbing if we think there's a significant risk to his health or the safety of the party."
"Yeah . . . " I began.
"But on the other hand, I hate to overrule a climber if the doctor's given him the go-ahead," he said.
"Well, sure . . . "
"You know, talking it through with you it seems much clearer. I don't think it would be appropriate for me to take him off the climb right now, so I won't."
"OK," I said.
"Thanks, Lobsang. Keep up the good work."
While Assenmacher put on his climbing harness, I rummaged through his pack looking for more dead weight. I pulled out the bathrobe, the caviar, the book, a bottle of insect repellent, a two-pound bag of espresso beans, and a framed picture of Assenmacher standing on top of a dead elephant.
In the very bottom of the pack, hidden underneath a fleece vest, there was a magnum of Roederer champagne. I was staring at it, mouth open, when Assenmacher finally stuck his head of out his tent.
"Don't open that!" he snapped. "It's for the summit."
"Not healthy take strong drink on mountain," I said.
"Anger spirit of Sagarmatha,"
"Spare me your silly superstitions."
"Is heap big bottle," I said. I don't know where the hell heap came from, maybe some western I saw late one night on KCTS, but at any rate, Assenmacher didn't notice.
"Well, how's it going to look if I open a bottle of Cristal and don't have any to share?"
I put the champagne back in the pack, thinking I'd throw it off the Kangshung Face when we got closer to the top.
"That other stuff, too," he said, pointing at the small mound of nonessentials I'd piled next to the pack.
"But Sahib . . . "
"But nothing—those are my belongings and I'm not leaving them on the side of a mountain for the next guy's Sherpa to paw through. I'll give you another 50 dollars to carry the champagne to the top."
He actually went into his wallet—he kept it in the same pocket where he was keeping the gun—and pulled out a fifty right there. I guessed the rest of the money was IOU.
It was kind of a weird day, weatherwise. It started out sunny, but pretty soon a wind kicked up and clouds started crawling over the ridges, graying things out pretty good. It got cold, but it wasn't really a storm per se, so Cal gave the go-ahead to keep going to Camp Four.
It's only 1,500 feet from Camp Three to Camp Four, but your body's already starting to die a little from the altitude. Assenmacher was so slow I worried we'd get caught in the open if a storm really did blow in. I took a piece of rope, ran it through a carabiner on his climbing harness, and knotted the other end on mine. I got ahead of him and started chugging. It was like towing a loaded shopping cart with a broken wheel.
BY THE TIME WE MADE IT to Camp Four the winds were 60 miles an hour and rising. I got Assenmacher's tent up, pushed him into it, and crawled in after him. With visibility down to a few meters, I wasn't sure I would have found the Sherpa tent anyway.
Assenmacher's eyes were glazed and he seemed too tired to cough. I made some tea, fed him a protein bar, and made sure he had fresh oxygen. The clock was ticking on our summit attempt. We could only stay up here as long as our bottled oxygen held out.
The wind blew and blew and blew. The sides of the tent sounded like popcorn popping. If we'd gotten out the tent would have whipped off the mountain and blown into Tibet.
The next morning Assenmacher looked a little bit better and felt well enough to type a few lines in his blog. I fed him another protein bar and he regained some strength, enough to have a few decent coughing fits.
Around noon we had a short conversation between sucks on our oxygen masks.
"Do you think we'll make it?" he said. "To the top?"
"Depend on how long Sagarmatha make wind blow," I said. "Cal patient man, not reckless man."
"Not too patient. I mean, we only have so much oxygen, right?"
I counted our bottles. We had eight between us, enough for one more day. There was a stash outside somewhere in the snow with four more bottles for each climber—enough to make it to the summit and back to Camp Four. If we were going to have any oxygen at all for the climb down to Camp Three, we would have to start for the summit at midnight. I did the math for him.
"Are you going to come up with us?" he said. "I mean, all the way?"
I really didn't know what to say to that one. There was no way he was going to make it to the top without me, and yet he clung to the notion that the summit was strictly for gentlemen.
"If Sahib is willing," I said.
He thought about it. "Yeah, I guess you've earned it," he finally said.
"You don't think, maybe turn back? Sahib very tired."
"I didn't come this far just to turn back. Besides, if I make it, maybe I'll get a book deal out of it. At my age, it's still considered quite an accomplishment to climb Everest. But who wants to read a book about a guy who turned back one day from the top?"
"I read book, Sahib."
"No offense, Lopsang," he said. "But you'll need to work on your English first."
I gave up on trying to get him to reconsider. If he wanted to keep going, that was his business.
The storm began to let up that afternoon. By ten at night it had mostly lifted. The wind was still brisk but the stars were out, and with the white snow visibility was pretty good.
Around 11 PM, my radio crackled. It was Cal: "We're going."
It took Assenmacher nearly an hour to get dressed. Then it took him 15 minutes to put on his crampons. High altitude makes everyone slow, but this was really slow.
While he was fumbling with his harness, I climbed out of the tent. Midnight may seem like an odd time to start, but it's actually pretty standard. The idea is that you arrive at the summit by midday so you can get down the tricky parts while it's still light. More people fall going down than going up. They're tired and they forget that climbing down is still climbing.
The South Col is kind of a saddle between Everest and Lhotse, about the size of a soccer pitch and a couple of parking lots. It's covered with empty oxygen bottles, broken climbing equipment, shredded tents, and the odd corpse. A couple of guys have tried to clean up the mess by paying Sherpas a bounty on the extra crap they bring down, but it's kind of like the bottle deposit they have in Oregon—some guys need the extra five cents and some don't.
I stashed Assenmacher's champagne, book, bathrobe, caviar, insect repellent, and picture under some rocks. If, by some act of God, he actually did make it to the top, I knew from past experience that he wouldn't feel like drinking champagne. At that point most people are lucky to remember their own names.
Assenmacher came out of the tent. He had his climbing harness on wrong, so I helped him sort it out while he stood there looking around. Because we'd arrived in the storm, it was his first real chance to see the South Col. "My god," he said. "Who do these people think they are?"
IN THE END, CAL WAS WRONG about Assenmacher. I did have to carry him.
He climbed to the Southeast Ridge on his own, but after a ten-minute break he wouldn't get up. I told him we were going back down. He offered me $1,000 on top of everything else he'd already promised.
"Five," I said.
I thought he was going to give me shit but he just nodded. I roped him to me and we started up toward the South Summit, 1,000 feet above us. This time it was like towing a shopping cart that had had its wheels taken off. I'll admit it: I was feeling pretty tired.
When we reached the South Summit, it was after noon and Tanya Richardson, Gerald Lochte, and Sam Brown, led by Dick Ausgezeichnet, were already passing us on their way down. Even though they were exhausted, they gave us thumbs up.
"It's like nothing in the world, Andrew," one of them told my shopping cart. "It makes everything worth it."
Assenmacher might have nodded, or it it might have been an involuntary jerk when I tugged on the rope.
I knew we were running way too late and that we should probably turn around, so I guess maybe I'm partly to blame for what happened. I mean, I could say that Assenmacher held the gun on me, but the truth is I wanted my $6,500 bonus. That wasn't just a down payment on a plasma TV—that would pay for the whole thing.
A few hundred yards along we saw two more pairs of climbers. Trent Gatlin was climbing down with Piers Jetty, and Cal was helping an obviously exhausted Dave Pappadum.
Piers Jetty took off his mask just long enough to say, "It's like nothing in the world!"
I told him we got the picture.
"Everyone's made it but you guys," said Cal. "How are you feeling, Assenmacher?"
Assenmacher proved he was still at least partly alive by giving a double thumbs-up and shouting into his mask, "I'm going up!"
Cal put his head by my ear. "Lobsang," he said, "it's your call. No pressure. If he makes it, the publicity will make us all famous and I'll promote you to climbing sirdar. If he doesn't make it, well, I'm sure we'll all get by somehow."
"I think we might be able to do it," I said. "But . . . "
He thumped me on the back before I could finish. "You Sherpas are a tough bunch. We'll have hot tea waiting for you."
Once Cal and Dave Pappadum were well below us, Assenmacher wrapped his arms around me and clambered onto my back. Fuck it, I thought. If I pull this off, I might just be the greatest Sherpa climber in history. We kept going.
On the more technical parts I had to shake him off my back, because there's no way to do those piggyback. He couldn't walk, but I was able to drag him up by a rope.
By late afternoon I knew I had done it. The summit was about 20 or 30 feet above us. I didn't know if I had enough strength left to get us down again, but I knew I could get us on top.
Suddenly, Assenmacher started kicking his legs and whacking me on the head. He was saying something, but I couldn't understand what it was. I plunked him down in the snow and put my ear close to his mask.
"I want to do it by myself," he said.
I shrugged and stood aside as he tried to climb to his feet. After a few minutes he accepted my hand and let me help pull him up. He took a few hundred baby steps and then there he was, on top. I went and stood next to him.
There's something about a climber's brain that's wired differently from regular people, something hard to explain. Maybe it's the fact that, at the moment of greatest accomplishment, you're so physically and mentally fucked that, not only can you not express it in words, you can't remember what it was later. But there's an endorphin rush, a primitive sense of having separated yourself from the pack that tells you the misery was worth it.
Plus, the view is pretty sweet.
The bad part of the view was watching the clouds boil up from the valleys below us and the sun start to go down over the shoulder of Nuptse. It's kinda sorta possible to climb down after dark because the snow reflects the starlight and the moonlight. It's like sleeping over at someone's house and using the bathroom with just a night light on: you can usually see well enough to avoid making a mess, but if there are clouds, well, someone's going to have to clean up after you.
Assenmacher was standing still as a statue. I would have wondered what he was thinking except I was starting to feel like I might have made the worst mistake of my life, all because I wanted to watch Fear Factor on a 42-inch screen.
As I looked downhill, I realized that carrying Assenmacher down was out of the question. One wrong step and we'd wind up in Base Camp looking like two bags full of tomato soup. If he couldn't walk, I'd have to lower him on a rope.
"Can you walk?" I asked him.
He nodded. He took a last look, a slow, wobbly panorama, then fell off the peak.
Thinking back, it's amazing he didn't fall farther than he did. If he'd gone east, he'd have fallen 10,000 feet. But because he'd fallen precisely the way we came up, he only fell 150, skidding and sliding most of the way. He ground to a halt in some rocks sticking out of the snow.
I reached him as fast as I could. He looked dead, but when I lifted his goggles his eyes met mine. I'll be honest: I kind of wished he was dead. Lowering an injured man down 3,000 feet in the dark? Well, let me just say it's easier if it's someone you like.
He motioned me closer. I bent down but couldn't hear anything. He pushed his oxygen mask out of the way.
"You're going to have to go on without me, Lopsang," he said.
I was sure I must have heard him wrong.
"Come on, Assenmacher," I said halfheartedly. "Get up. We're going to get you down this fucking mountain."
He smiled. "What happened to 'Sahib'?"
"At least try," I said.
He shook his head. "The mountain has bested me."
I hesitated. I was happy to get permission to go, but it's weird to just suddenly walk away from a guy and leave him for dead. You're not sure exactly how much small talk to make first.
"Just do me one favor," he said. "Get my laptop out of the pack. And the satellite uplink."
When I started down the mountain, he was as comfortable as I could make him, sitting wedged between two rocks in a hollow in the snow. He had his laptop in front of him and the satellite uplink was on top of one of the rocks. He was doing his best to type with his mittens on.
He saw me looking at him and waved. I waved back. Then I turned around.
IT WAS A BEAUTIFUL SUMMER in Seattle. It hardly rained at all. A lot of people bitched and blamed it on global warming. I was just psyched to be able to wear flip-flops.
I had hightailed it out of Nepal pretty much as soon as we got off the mountain. Cal acted like he was all concerned about my health, but I could tell he was pretty pissed about the whole Assenmacher thing. He kept saying, "Nobody here questions your judgment," which to me obviously meant they'd all spent a lot of time questioning my judgment.
I didn't blame Cal, Assenmacher, or even myself for what happened. We're all grown-ups, which is to say we're kids with the resources to act out our stupid ideas. And in case you're wondering, I never did get any of my bonus money. Cal paid me my regular share but left off the five hundred bucks, saying there wasn't any photographic evidence that I'd carried Assenmacher to the top like I said I did. I considered calling Assenmacher Pharmaceuticals to see if they'd pay me the rest, but I pretty much knew how that one would turn out.
I could have used the money, because my climbing career was over. I just didn't feel like doing it anymore. But I had no idea what else I could do. Pretend to be Tibetan and wait tables at the Free Tibet Cafe?
There was a little bit of hype in the media and not just the climbing magazines, either. Some newspaper articles, some TV stuff. Jon Krakauer left me a voice mail. I pretty much ignored all of it.
Then one day a couple months later, my roommate Francis, one of the pizza-delivery guys, looked up from his laptop and said, "Holy shit! Dude, that's you!"
He'd been reading some article about mountain climbing when he stumbled across a link to Assenmacher's blog, Trophy Hunter. Francis seemed genuinely shocked to see a picture of me in climbing gear. That was probably my fault: when I went off to climb I always told him I was visiting my grandma.
"You were with that dude who died?" said Francis.
I admitted that I was. He shoved the laptop into my hands. There was Assenmacher's final blog entry, the one he'd been typing as I started down toward Camp Four.
"It is colf here," he wrote, "amd I knowe that I will; soonm be deads."
Remember, he was typing with mittens on. But I'll leave the typos out for the rest of it.
Also, the battery on my laptop is dying, too, so if I should be cut short, then either I am dead, or my laptop is, and I will be dead soon thereafter.
It seemed like a lot of words to waste if you were pretty sure your battery was about to quit, but he probably wasn't thinking very clearly.
I have released my loyal Sherpa, Lopsang, from my service. Had I not done so, I have no doubt he would have sat valiantly by my feet until his own death. A senseless tragedy, for his village needs him, and they need the deep well with clean water which he has vowed to build with the money I have given him.
Today I stood atop the roof of the world, upon Everest, the mountain my man Lopsang calls "Sagarmatha." Had I lived I would have a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions that would have stirred the heart of every American. But they shall have to make do not with my lecture and slides, but with this final blog entry.
I think now, in my final moments, of my kindred spirit, Ernest Hemingway, and how like him I will not wait for nature to claim me to her cold bosom. I will instead administer my own coup de grace. They say no man can choose his own end—but, as they are so often, they are wrong.
It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.
And so, farewell. Anyone wishing to turn my blog into a book should contact Michael McLusky, my attorney. It is my wish that such a book should be entitled, He Dreamed as High as a Mountain.
A chill ran down my spine. Realizing he had planned to kill himself to avoid freezing to death, I really, really regretted taking the bullets out of his gun while he was sleeping.
Francis had been doing bong hits on our milk-crate coffee table. He exhaled a huge, aromatic cloud of Humboldt Gold and grinned at me. "You're famous, dude," he said.
For all his faults, Assenmacher had been a big dreamer. Francis and Wayne, my other roommate, dreamed mainly of primo bud, two-for-one porn mags, and giant burritos. Our living room had a big plastic trash can full of empty beer bottles in the corner and the walls were lined with skid marks from indoor mountain-bike parking. True, Everest was covered with the petrified shit of American mountain climbers, but the view was incredible.
I read Assenmacher's final blog entry again and closed the laptop. I was going back to Nepal. There was, I realized, an excellent chance that I could land my own book deal.
First published December 29, 2006 (Chicago Reader)
© 2006 Keir Graff