Gerald L. Berkin
All rights reserved.
Dangling from the end of a three-quarter
inch line Martin Anders clawed at the vertical rock face but couldn't
find even the smallest toe hold on the cliff's smooth, impenetrable surface.
Numb with cold he pounded on the unyielding stone and cursed himself for
having agreed to make this insane climb. Terrified and having passed the
limit of physical endurance, Anders was about to accede defeat to the
mountain when he heard from high above him the booming voice of Hirgut,
his Sherpa guide, ringing out with words of encouragement.
"You find place to hold, Mist Onders.
No scared. Hirgut got good hold on you."
The Sherpa's cheeriness notwithstanding,
the middle-aged American from New Jersey gasped for air, his heart pounding.
Yet in spite of his fear he couldn't resist stealing a quick look down
to the floor of the Kharta valley, about a thousand feet below where it
joined with the Bhong Chu basin to make a sort of shoulder at the foot
of the great mountain. Martin Anders didn't spend much time admiring the
view, though, because the more he scrabbled at the rock face, the more
his acrophobia swelled to paralyzing terror.
The neophyte climber whimpered with fear,
his mind closed to everything except his sickening swaying at the end
of the rope. After what seemed an eternity, however, he at last felt himself
being hauled up the cliff face. Limp, exhausted and unmindful of his body's
scraping against the granite wall, Anders was pulled up and over the edge
of the precipice; Hirgut then propped him up in the lee of a jutting rock.
Smiling, the wiry Sherpa put a flask to
Anders' cracked lips and laughed.
"You okay, Mist Onders," he declared.
"Now you drink. This make you better okay."
Anders sputtered as the guide forced him
to swallow the foul-smelling liquid. Then he shook his head and in a voice
barely audible above the keening of the wind, replied, "Thanks, Hirgut,
you saved my life and I'm grateful. But I can't take any more of this.
Please get me out of here."
The snow-capped peak of Mount Everest,
or Chomolunsma as it is known to the Sherpas, was hidden in a swirling
mist but Anders felt its brooding presence nonetheless. He also realized
that his surrender to his phobia had now placed the prize beyond his grasp
but he sought solace in the fact that he had at least gotten all the way
up to the base camp near Ri Ring. It was from this camp that he and Hirgut
had set out to establish another base at the foot of the Great Couloir
before trying for the summit. "How insane," he thought, "to
have even had the nerve to come this far; Lord knows I've done my best
but I just can't go on."
From where he and Hirgut crouched on the
high ledge, Anders was able, when the mists momentarily cleared, to see
the glorious peaks of Chomo Lonza and Makalu, the towering companions
of the great Chomolunsma. He breathed the cold, clean air and reveled
at his success in reaching these heights in spite of his neurosis. "This
is incredible," he whispered, but his euphoria withered with the
thought of his now having to descend from these lofty slopes. So he began
to tremble again.
"We wait you calm down, Mist Onders.
Then we go. I help so you not scared. Okay?" Hirgut took a long swig
from the flask, smacked his lips and stowed the stained leather bottle
in his pack. Then he looked at Anders and smiled again, his discolored
teeth the same coppery hue as his weather-beaten face.
Helped to his feet by the imperturbable
guide, Anders took a firm grip on his ice ax and watched as Hirgut tethered
both of them together. Then, with a wave of his fur-mittened hand, the
Sherpa set off along the route he had mapped out for their descent. He
had explained to Anders that they would return to the base camp where
they would spend the night and then go on to Chobuk and from there to
Tingri. They would be following, as it were, the route taken by the ill-fated
Mallory and Irvine expedition of 1924.
"Mist Onders," Hirgut shouted
over his shoulder, "you look where you walk. Not good you look down
Martin Anders' throat was too dry to answer
so he waved his arm in reply and started after Hirgut as the line played
itself out. He kept his eyes riveted to the snow and rocks before him
and avoided looking to the left or right. Keeping the line taut and following
the guide he let the hours slip by, his spirits buoyed with each step
and the realization that barring an accident, he would soon be back at
the base camp.
But the fear was always there, simmering
and ready to explode in a paroxysm of uncontrollable panic. Anders' dread
of the mountain was such that in spite of the freezing cold, the palms
of his gloved hands were damp even as his beard glistened with ice formed
by his labored breathing.
He and Hirgut worked their way down, often
slipping and sliding and listening as each loosened stone clattered its
way into a bottomless crevasse or skittered over the edge of a sheer cliff.
"God," Anders reflected as he forced one foot to follow the
other, "I should never have done this. It's an awfully stupid way
to overcome a phobia." But eventually they came to the last slope
at the base of which lay the camp. Then and as if to confirm his hard-won
manhood, Anders unhooked the tether that secured him to Hirgut and bounded
The Sherpa felt the slack in the line and
he turned to look over his shoulder. When he saw Anders plodding on alone
he waved his arms and shouted, "No, Mist Onders. Must stay with Hirgut."
Before he could call out to tell the Sherpa
that he was all right, Anders felt the snow give way beneath his feet.
Startled, he tried to steady himself with his ice ax but it was too late.
Momentum carried him forward, screaming, as he slid towards the edge of
"Get his helmet off and turn up
the pod's temperature. He's going into deep shock!" Dr. Galbraith
rushed to a bank of machines and manipulated knobs and switches with a
dexterity born of much practice.
"Good Lord," his assistant gasped.
"Do you think he's all right?"
"How the devil do I know?" Galbraith
replied as he raced back to the therapy pod.
The two medical men opened the pod's hatch
and dragged Martin Anders out of the harness. They laid him on the floor
of the control chamber. Anders was dead, nearly every bone in his body
broken or smashed as if he had fallen from a great height.
"But that's impossible," Galbraith
murmured, staring up in shock at the virtual reality pod.
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