by Kate Connors
Virologist Tashi Dawa Sherpa never believed in yetis...until he met one.
| They’re complaining about the view. Not the wind or the cold or the lightness in their heads—the view. Nothing any of them can fix. Tashi ignores the chatter and the pull of the next team member’s weight on his harness and takes the last step over the saddle. Digs the down points of his crampons into the ice sheet, afraid the argent void on the other side will drag him down. Breathes until breathing doesn’t burn.
On the edge, he offers a hand to the colors still struggling up the south face. One by one snowsuits accumulate on the ridge—orange, red, dark blue, yellow, and light blue with orange accents. Everyone is here. Yellow and red sit down in the snow to catch their breath and orange doubles over with its hands on its knees. First blue stares into the abyss. Light blue still hasn’t let go of Tashi’s arm. He counts them one more time. Five. Well, six, but Tashi can pretty easily keep track of himself.
First blue whistles. “Ain’t that a view?” The expeditioners with enough air in their lungs laugh. “Maybe if we all blow really hard the clouds will clear. You got a hairdryer handy, Tashi?”
“Left it at camp.” Tashi touches second blue’s shoulder, who lets go of his arm. “You alright?”
“After the pace you set I don’t think I’ll ever catch my breath,” the snowsuit pants.
“I’ve had a few years of practice.” Tashi pulls his sleeve back to check the time. 13:19. “Five minute break, everyone. That glacier isn’t advancing.”
They laugh again, and then they’re silent. Most of them can’t afford the oxygen. Tashi, though nearly recovered, is uneven without the horizon for reference. He knows it’s there, pale shards of a perfect circle between the distant peaks, but the part of him still broken from his first fall is skeptical. He isn’t afraid of heights—only heights he can’t judge.
At 13:24 the team sets off, neon ducklings behind Tashi, following the route he and a climbing sherpa laid yesterday. The terrain, which plummets into oblivion on their left and right, gave them one option: straight up the shoulder. Where the mountain widens Tashi feels the pull of gravity loosen its grip, almost forgets the two mile drop within spitting distance. Gets lost in the clouds, falls all the way down where it narrows. With every step orange tugs Tashi by the harness back to the ridge, and his crampons have never come out of the ice. Orange has a problem. The whole team has a problem.
“You alright?” Tashi asks, stopping. Watch, he thinks, teeth gritted, as the line stumbles.
“Yeah, sorry,” orange wheezes, hands on his knees. “You can keep going.”
“No offense, Rav, but I can’t walk straight with you behind me.”
Unable to straighten up, orange coughs. Tashi frowns. Hooks one arm under the duckling’s shoulder. Helps him settle into the snow beneath their boots. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
“Because we were going straight uphill and I figured chest pain was a non-Sherpa symptom of breathing this air,” orange says.
Sighing, Tashi kneels beside the suit he called Rav, who’s really Ravi, but after six years using his full name feels a little like scolding him. Sort of how Tashi’s wife uses his full name when she’s at her wit’s end. He shoulders off his alpine backpack. Takes out an oxygen canister he carried for himself but knew wouldn’t end up in his lungs. So it goes. “I’ve had edema at 18,000 feet before.”
“Yes, really. Anyone can be overworked.” Tashi touches the climber’s shoulder. “Are you out of oxygen?”
“I couldn’t tell,” Ravi pants. “I don’t think it was working—I felt like I was suffocating.”
Reaching around his backpack, Tashi reads the gauge on top of the canister. Only half empty, but no oxygen is flowing. “Did you turn it off?”
Ravi’s voice rises a few steps when he says, “Yes?”
“Ravi.” Now Tashi is scolding him.
He offers Tashi a weak smile. “Sorry.”
Tashi turns up Ravi’s oxygen flow and pats his shoulder. “We have a decision to make.” He’s looking at Ravi, but the decision belongs to the able-bodied expeditioners. “Dr. Patil needs to go back to camp and rest for a while. We can all go down together, or one of us can wait here for Dorje to come up and help. The rest can go to the glacier.”
A pause. Ravi wheezes. Synthetic fabric rustles as dark blue raises his hand. “I’ll stay.”
“Do you have your radio?”
“Yessir,” dark blue says.
Tashi pulls his own handheld radio from his breast pocket and holds down the button. “Dorje, we need you up here,” he says in Sherpa. “Are you there?”
After some silence, a voice crackles through the handset. “I’m here. What’s wrong?”
“Ravi has mountain sickness. He needs to come down.”
“Can he walk?”
“Yes. Slowly.” Tashi glances at the blue snowsuit. “We just made it to the shoulder—who’s in dark blue?”
“Decker is dark blue.”
“Then Decker is staying behind.”
“I’ll be there in a half hour. Do you need oxygen?”
“Bring up an extra bottle if you don’t mind. Thanks, Dorje.” Tashi pockets the radio. “I’ll leave you two with one of my canisters.”
“I’m old,” Ravi says through a sigh.
“You’re not old—you’re at 22,000 feet. Nothing works right up here.” He shoulders on his backpack and stands. “If he gets worse, call me.” Glancing back at Ravi he adds, “I think we caught it early enough that you can recover on the mountain. If you don’t touch your oxygen tank.”
Ravi coughs—into his arm, for some reason—and leans his head against Decker’s leg. “Okay.”
“Cross my heart.”
Tashi half-smiles. “See you tonight. Everybody else ready to go?”
He takes their silence to mean yes—they’re always vocally unhappy about something, aside from Ravi, who Tashi wishes would be a little unhappier—and sets off again. They’ve barely gone a few meters when Ravi calls out, “Love you, Tashi!”
Cracking another smile, Tashi looks over his shoulder. “Love you too, Rav.”
Yesterday, without the team slowing them down, Tashi and Dorje made the glacier in an hour and a half. Today, now that Dorje’s been replaced by a French Barbie doll, a Brit whose mood is only improved by a pint, and a Canadian who shivers at 15° C, they’re going on hour three. With a thousand vertical feet to go. Tashi had debated spending another day at camp, allowing them some more time to acclimate, but he doubted how much one more day would help. Barbie’s best mountaineering experience comes from a ski resort in Austria, the Brit’s from a walkabout in Scotland, and the Canadian’s from “I saw Mt. Denali once.” Tashi spends most of the climb waiting for them to catch up.
With barely two hours of daylight left, the remaining expedition members settle down underneath the glacier to take a break and eat dinner—which Barbie immediately rejects—while Tashi works. He’s happy to climb in the dark. Just not on ice. But he doesn’t like ice in the daytime, either. Tashi freezes when he hears it shift, hears the ice suckle underneath its own weight. Maybe underneath his boots. Maybe above the expedition’s heads. Kneeling at the edge of a crevasse, he bites his lip, trying to shake the thought of them crushed by calving ice. Easier said than done. He’s seen it before.
Another rupture takes Tashi by the shoulders. Some of the clouds have parted, exposing the ice to the sun. More thunder will follow as it shifts in the heat. His teeth chatter. He can’t stop shivering, but he’s sweating while he secures an anchor point and a backup at the edge of the crevasse. When he’s (mostly) satisfied they’ll hold, he threads a rope through the metal rings, loops the other side through his belay device and harness, and dumps his backpack some distance away. Then he backs over the edge.
Even if the others didn’t start retching as soon as they stopped, he doesn’t trust them with the ropes, doesn’t trust them with his lifelines. Alone, and pleased to be alone, Tashi inches downward, stopping every half meter exactly to chisel the ice into pieces small enough for the test tubes, labeling the samples by depth. His hands are uncooperative. He wants to see the bottom of the crevasse. Maybe that would make it worse. On Everest they laid ladders across the voids and tried not to think so hard about their depths because it never mattered. Deadly falls are deadly falls; knowing only makes their possibility harder to forget. Nose pressed against one wall of ice and shoulders against another, Tashi can’t forget it now.
Hanging, a shard of sky above and empty darkness below, Tashi rechecks the belay device. His hands are shaky and wet. Lucky he’s wearing gloves. Front points of his crampons lodged in the glass, one foot a little higher than the other, shoulders flush with the opposite wall, he chips away at the ice in a haze. Tries to ignore gravity’s pull. Fills a few more test tubes with samples and slips them back in his pocket.
“Sirdar!” a voice calls from above. The test tube in his hands tumbles into the abyss.
Tashi sighs. Looks skyward. Three sets of eyes peer at him from the pale blue. “What?”
“We’re ready to work!”
“I can hear you. You don’t have to yell,” Tashi says, wrenching one foot from the wall. “Actually, I’d prefer that you didn’t.”
“Why?” asks the same voice at the same volume.
The glacier groans and so does the voice in Tashi’s head. He bites his cheeks. “Because I’m an unwelcome guest.”
“Glaciers only move a few meters a day!”
“And how wide do you think this crevasse is?”
A pause. “Probably about a meter?”
Tashi raises an eyebrow and leans back in his harness. Kicks his other foot a little higher into the ice. Some scientists are stupid in a way Tashi could never afford to be stupid. They know everything in their fields and nothing else because they live in their fields, not in the world. “I got all the samples I wanted from this one. I’m coming back up.” And all the time Tashi wonders why the others have to be here. He and Dorje could have gotten the job done in a day or two. Maybe it wasn’t really about the research.
When he’s most of the way to the top, light blue offers Tashi his hand. Their eyes meet and Tashi waves him off. He doesn’t take help from a dependent. A stranger. Not while his hands are barely steady enough to do up a zipper.
Dragging himself the rest of the way out, Tashi lies down on the ice, under the big sky, legs dangling over the edge. He breathes the thin air. Urges his heart to slow. Clouds creep over their heads. He’s turning green.
Someone touches his arm. “You alright, Tashi?” The Canadian. Yellow. The one who yelled into the crevasse. Tashi waves him off too.
“Fine,” he says. “Space, please.”
“Are you dehydrated?” asks yellow, not moving.
“Are you sure you’re—”
Tashi rolls onto his side just in time to vomit all over the Canadian’s lap. He still doesn’t move. Lucky Tashi hasn’t eaten anything in a day or two. Still shaky, he sits up, takes inventory, and says apologetically, “I hope that suit is waterproof.”
The Canadian sighs. “Me too.” He pats Tashi between the shoulders. “That’s okay. You told me to move.”
“Yeah.” Tashi wipes some of the sweat from his forehead. “I did.”
“Are you sick?”
“Nope. Just afraid of ice fields,” he says. “We still need samples from the terminus.”
“We took those during lunch,” says the Brit in orange and light blue. “We’re not totally unproductive.”
“Good. We can start working our way down.” Tashi grabs at his backpack. The Canadian pulls it out of reach.
“Easy. Maybe you should lie down for a while.” When they’re sitting close, yellow looking at Tashi like he’s a child, light blue barely trying to seem interested, red’s attention somewhere far beyond the clouds, they’re Dr. Cleary, Dr. Creed, and Dr. Favreau. And nothing is different up here than it is at camp. Except usually Tashi is looking at Dr. Cleary like he’s the child. “What else are you feeling?”
“I’m not sick.”
Dr. Cleary motions to his soaked thighs. “Really?”
“I—” Tashi puts his hands up. “I’m not sick. You’ll just have to trust me.”
“Dr. Favreau got sick too. There must be something going around.”
“Nothing is going around. We’re at 23,000 feet. You’ll throw up and have headaches for a couple days—no way around it.”
“But you shouldn’t have symptoms.”
“I don’t want to talk about this with you.” Tashi gets to his feet and yanks his bag away from Dr. Cleary. “I’m fine. Take my word for it.” Uneven without the horizon to blame, he sets off across the ice field, backpack hanging off one shoulder.
They work separately and silently until the sun goes down. Tashi gathers the expedition members, whom he told to stay put until he came to get them, in darkness. When they’re all together again, Tashi takes them down the mountain. Outside the cirque, wind that smells like ice tears into their down suits, their gloves, their lungs. But sometimes the strings of stars above, many of them invisible in Kathmandu, almost make mountaineering worth the trouble. Almost.
On the other side of the saddle, shielded from the wind, the team stops to give their knees and thighs a break. Dr. Cleary tries to take a photo of the bright stars, to no avail, and has to ask Dr. Favreau for help. It’s the first time anyone has spoken since leaving the glacier. After explaining that Dr. Cleary needs a trépied, or a well-lighted shot will look granuleux, he takes a couple shots with the camera’s light-sensitivity set as high as it goes. And one accidental shot of Dr. Favreau with the flash on. While her eyes recover Dr. Cleary sits down beside Tashi on the edge of the trail they’ve worn into the snow. They’re staring into another abyss, no moon to illuminate the neighboring peaks, only the milky stars. Tashi is shaky and thirsty and annoyed at their slowness. But mostly he’s tired. Too tired to tell Dr. Cleary to go away, or maybe he doesn’t mind somebody beside him in the quiet.
“I dried,” he tells Tashi over the rustle of his suit. “I’m water resistant apparently. Not waterproof.”
Tashi puts his head in his hands. “That’s disgusting. Sorry.”
“Well, once again, you told me to move.” Cleary snorts. “Are you okay?”
“I’m okay. I should probably apologize for being short with you while we’re here.”
“Well. I know I can be a mother hen. That’s why I’m here, though.” The outline of Dr. Cleary’s head turns to look at Tashi. “Have you been eating anything? Whatever you threw up on me was mostly water.”
Wishing he didn’t owe Dr. Cleary some explanation, Tashi blushes. Lucky it’s dark. “I usually skip meals for the first couple days. There’s not much point in eating. You were with Dr. Favreau earlier.”
“Yeah, but I brought up acetazolamide. She took some.”
“I’m glad we’re discussing this. Because I’m allergic to acetazolamide.”
Dr. Cleary stutters. “Are you?”
“You didn’t read our medical histories, did you?”
“I mean, I started.”
Some scientists don’t live in the world. Tashi is sure now. “I get it. There probably wasn’t enough time to read them all on the flight from Vancouver.”
“Ha.” Cleary sniffs. “Ha.”
“Like I said, I wasn’t sick.” Switching on his headlamp, Tashi stands and offers his hand to the Canadian. “One bad experience in a crevasse and you’re scarred for life. But you’d need a psychology degree to hear that story.”
“That was my undergrad,” Cleary says, taking Tashi’s hand.
“Yeah.” He shrugs. “One of them.”
“Said the trilingual Everest summiteer with a doctorate in virology.”
Tashi rolls his eyes. “Okay. Sure. Except I didn’t spend four extra years in school for fun.”
“I didn’t do it for fun,” Dr. Cleary says as the rest of the headlamps click on. “I was two years in and I had good grades.”
“Over—” Tashi puts miles between words, “—achiever.” He turns toward the other headlamps and calls in their direction, “Can you see, Cosette?”
“I can see!” she calls back. She sounds like she’s smiling. It’s contagious.
“Okay. Let’s get going.” Tashi checks his watch. 21:04. “I have an hour and a half before my wife starts to wonder where I am.”