Was I dead? The pulsating oxygen rippled against my face in the dark, but I could not inhale. In terror I groggily struggled to free my gloved hands from the clutches of my mummy sleeping bag tight against my body, to rip the oxygen mask from my face. Muscles I did not know existed weeks before cramped and resisted as I maneuvered to a sit up, choking, gasping for a breathe, the freezing air biting as it was pulled deep into my lungs. The domed tent above me seemed more like a Stupa, a sacred Tibetan burial mound I had grown up near, than a safe haven. No, I was not dead, At least not yet.
The all-familiar crunch of snow greeted me as I lurched and final stiffened to a standing position outside my tent. A fierce gust of wind poured from the darkness shrouded summit above, charging against my quivering body and frosting my hoary morning stubble. A thousand frozen fingers weaved around my face and through my hair numbing my the leathery exposed skin and seizing violently the hood of my charcoal North Face down jacket leaving it defeated, flapping wildly in the wind.
“You better put that mask back on.” A warm familiar voice from a nearby tent seemed to subdue, for a moment, the effects of the wind.
“At this elevation you’ll be senseless in a few minutes, and you sure don’t want to be like that at the top.” He added.
I knew Mark was right, but the mind does not always easily heed commonsense. Irrational fears seem to thrive off of extreme life-threatening environments whereas the rational self wears quickly and soon is exhausted.
The pallid hospital rooms, memories I could no longer suppress. Each time the oxygen mask went on, the chance of survival seemed to drop to zero. Rationally I knew it was not the mask or the oxygen pumping through it that led to one death after another, but fear had the morbid correlation brazened in my mind. My grandfather, father, and finally my mother were taken by coronary heart disease, my father when he was fifty-eight, a few years younger than I, and if the doctors were correct, that soon also would be my fate.
The backdrop of thousands of stars made visible what could not be seen; the great abyss, the jagged-edged menacing silhouette of the summit of Mount Everest. One by one flashlights pierced the darkness darting in and out of the tents like enormous fireflies as our climber readied themselves for the final ascent. I carefully strapped the small wooden teacup to my pack, its ornately molded silver base glinting whenever seized by a flashlight beam. Our oldest family heirloom; I could not bear it being sold at an antique shop and flown time zones away after I was gone.
By the first of the pre-dawn light, our party of eight climbers and two Sherpa guides was well into “The Death Zone.” A step was no longer simply a step, not that it was ever simple on Everest. With eight-thousand feet drops on either side, I kicked the ice harder to drive the spikes of the crampon on the soles of my aluminum enforced boots even deeper into the blue ice, like attempting to scale a frozen waterfall. Every muscle fiber in my thighs burned; there had to be a moment when the fatigued muscles would turn to rubber beneath me, but there would be no recovery from a slip here.
A sudden squeeze in my chest halted my upward trek. I clutched with all my strength onto the safety line harnessing the ten of us together, turning to stretch my back out against the cold face of the mountain.
“Gephel, you ok?” Mark asked as he caught up to me.
No one knew about the disease, and I had to keep it that way. As I caught my breath the tension eventually subsided.
“I remember as a boy, watching this mountain devour the setting sun every night.” I reminisced.
Mark was my closest friend since university. I had spent most of my years working in his hometown of Los Angeles. Now I could finally show him mine. Pointing out with an arm still stiff with pain, I continued.
“My family has lived there for three hundred years, maybe longer. But it all ends with me.”
Mark already knew this, but there is a rare comfort to be found in sharing your heart’s deepest distress with an old friend. With no siblings and no children, I would be the end of my family line. With Mark’s clumsy gloved hand resting on my shoulder, I could just make out through the dense fog the familiar patch of land just below the horizon.
Every ice laden cavern breathed hushed threats, wind bursts shouted violent assaults. Everything around me pointed to that I, nor any living thing for that matter, should be there. But, I was. I had just summited Mount Everest.
Dropping to my knees I ripped the goggles and my undesirable companion, the oxygen mask, from my face and began to dig fervently with my ice pick. The fear, the guilt released through tears that filled my eyes and froze to my cheeks and eyelashes as I tried to blink them away. Nature and Fate have relentlessly warred against my family for generations, and though they may win in the end, for a moment we have conquered. Freeing the wooden teacup from my pack I gently placed it into the tiny bowl I had carved, as a forever memorial of my family, even if no one is left to remember us.
The Tibetan plain far below me was suddenly blazing with the piercing rays of the rising sun setting the entire mountainside aglow. The ever present howling wind hushed, almost in reverence of the moment.
With a sudden jerk the safety lined tensed then slacked. Mark was gone.