Oh to reach the apex, to cross the rubicon, to land on the moon. This was the byproduct of men with money and time. They would traverse the great mother leaving plastic bottles and wrappers frozen in time beneath ice and wind.
If the world of men was to still itself by some great war and completely waive themselves from the face of the earth, thought Ang Phurba Phuti, the world would slowly wake, turn, and groan back to life. Humans would reemerge eventually.
They would reinvent everything; the wheel, combustible engines, then the atomic bomb. They would wrongly believe they were the first. The old ideas circling in the stars would fall down like snow and melt into their heads and they would say “Eureka, look what I’VE found.” The psychedelic angels would tug at the writers sleeve and they would say “Look what I’VE done.” Pioneers with a fugue of fugues.
Rainer Issova had come to climb Mt. Everest. Sagarmatha. He was told by his guide, it translated to something like the head of the earth touching heaven. He had little interest in the meaning of things. He had come here at an extremely healthy sixty-two to reach the highest point on Earth. Whether it was pride, insecurity, or both didn’t matter.
He had lived a disappointing life he was proud of. He had worked himself through a series of contracts for a financial firm until he had never worked again. His money would sit in places it could procreate and grow exponentially. His wife eventually left with his three year old daughter when it became clear he would rather be anywhere but home. He would be at a gym or a casino or the office or a motel with the same excuse; it was a business meeting and it was absolutely necessary and he was doing everything for them.
When she left, it was the first time Rainer felt loss and found a contract he couldn’t keep. It was the first time he felt like he didn’t have control. This nagged at him. Fiercely at first, dully over time, but prodding always.
He reframed the story as though she were ungrateful for all that he did for her; she instead became the one who was incapable of love. He surrounded himself with men who talked about all those “gold digger bogeymen,” who raved about their child support more than their child. But deep beyond the canvas he had painted was a picture he couldn’t escape.
The painting beneath was always there and he could feel its outline beneath all the colors he put over it. It was another life, one where he watched his wife Charlotte and his daughter Isabella unwrap presents on a contented Christmas morning; one where he was there when she graduated from Rutgers beaming beneath a saffron summer day; one where he watched her be wed to the man of her dreams that looked and acted fittingly like him.
He had come to summit a mountain as an attempt to put one more coat on. To reclaim control over what he lost, to be remembered immortally, to top the dull ache of a failed life. This pinnacle would erase the last of that thought. This declaration would vanquish the past and he felt when he got there that there would only be now. Now forever.
Sherpa Phurba Phuti came into basecamp four. A feathering of snow circled him as the startling cold reached out and ran across Rainers face. The sherpa was solemn and seemed more nervous than usual.
“I don’t think we can go,” he said looking down then in a lower voice that may have been for Rainer or himself, “I don’t think we should.”
Rainer snapped, “Why Not!”
“We’re too close! We go today!”
“The sky is-“
“Today! I don’t pay you for weather reports.”
Phurba said nothing for a minute. He was a guide. He could only advise. He knew well what he could and couldn’t control.
Finally he said, “then we should go now if we have any chance.”
Phurba went up ahead, carrying an army grade backpack with oxygen tanks tied tightly to the back.
Every step weighed more than Rainer had anticipated. He felt like he was moving through jello. The sky above was rolling and undulating in strips of torn up linen. It groaned and then would hiss across the uneven ground nearly blowing him back. All he could hear was his own thoughts.
“Just a little further to the Hilary Step!”
Phurba sounded small and lightyears away.
Rainer heard a whistle and blast of white blanked his vision. Then he was lost.
“Hey!” he bellowed.
The whistling grew steadily and then stayed evenly. He could hear Phurba faintly.
“Rainer you there?”
The voice seemed to be getting further away as he felt a cold rush across his back and head.
The voice shrank further and further away.
“RAINER, Rainer, rainer.”
Rainer closed his eyes and flexed his hand into a fist. When he opened them again, the sky was still and silent. He could see all the world. Tibet to the North and Nepal to the south.
Everything was beautifully frozen and perfectly framed. His first thought was, “I wish Charlotte and Isabella could see this.” He looked up and the sky was blank like a canvas.”
Then he heard his name. In a voice so small and remote. It sounded as if Phurba was only one inch tall standing on his shoulder. “Rainer.”
Phurba stood looking down at Rainer Issova's frozen body with his back against a large sheathe of rock and snow. Looking up with a blank expression and his eyes beginning to ice over. He reached down and rolled him lightly on his side and grabbed his passport from the side of his coat to bring back for identification.
As Phurba began his descent down he whispered to himself, “such a tragedy.” He looked back up the mountain sorrowfully at Rainer Issova one last time. He was lying less than 200 feet from the top of the mountain, minutes from his dreams, unable to touch heaven. Phurba said a silent prayer to himself then quickened his pace to leave the darkening sky behind.
As he stepped letting his weight drop him lightly downward he continued his thoughts from earlier. He wondered what the new names would be after men wiped themselves from the face of the earth. He wondered if they would continue believing they were the first. He wondered if the mistakes they made would be the last.