Unexpected things have a way of turning up in Kathmandu, a lingering characteristic, perhaps, of its position at the crossroads of ancient Asia. The day before the flight out to Lukla, I found myself in a tiny used bookshop in the Thamel district, seeking reading material for the upcoming trek to Everest Base Camp. On a high shelf in the room’s back corner, separate from the sections alphabetized by author, was a pile of largely nondescript tomes, at the top of which I spotted a worn hardback copy of Yukio Mishima’s The Decay of the Angel, the final volume of that long-departed author’s magnum opus. I’d read the full tetralogy it belonged to long ago, but now, having spent two of the intervening years living in Japan, I thought I might be able to appreciate aspects of it in a new light.
The price on the sticker was 2000 rupees, which I thought quite high, but the words First Eng edition, rare were scrawled above it in blue pen. I knew from past perusals in that shop that it had a penchant for acquiring such books, so I bought it, thinking it would make a good souvenir when all was said and done. It was the old Brahmin owner who’d no doubt chosen the sticker price, and I couldn’t in good conscience try to haggle it lower with the timid teenage boy who was working the counter that day. Besides, I’d already shelled out half my life’s savings for a shot at Everest’s summit, so I was past the point of feeling frugal.
I’d no sooner returned to the dusty street, immersed once more in the invisible river of incense smoke perfuming that district, than I spied a familiar face coming the opposite way, ambling with his long stride through the sea of foreign trekkers and watchful Nepali vendors. Leslie Fisher was an old pal of mine, a British Columbian native who’d cut his climbing teeth in the Rockies as a youth. Square-jawed and thickly bearded, he came off as a lumberjack of a man—all he’d need to complete the illusion was red plaid shirt and an axe resting over his shoulder.
He hadn’t yet noticed me, pausing to wink and flash his winning smile at a young woman who’d called to him from a shop front, telling her that he might come back for a look through the store later. The woman offered him the polite nod of one who’s heard variations of that unfulfilled promise a thousand times, and returned to beating the road dust out of the bright yak-wool shawls that hung across the storefront.
“With clothes that Sasquatch manages to blend in,” I commented behind him.
Leslie whirled around, his face all teeth and sparkling eyes. “I go by Yeti out here,” he said with a laugh, and drew me into a hug, slapping my back—a bit painfully—through my t-shirt. He was more accustomed to performing such acts of physical camaraderie through several layers of thermal clothing. “The small world strikes again!”
“It does,” I said. “Had no idea you’d be in town. Where’re you off to?”
“No way. You climbing?”
“Nah, once was enough for a lifetime. Just miss being out there on the trail. You?”
“Base camp as well.”
Leslie gleamed as he studied me, cocking his head. “Don’t tell me…”
“No shit, buddy! Look at you.”
“I’m freaking out a little, but pretty psyched. Think I might have you for company on the way?”
“I’d love that. When you heading out?”
“Flying to Lukla tomorrow and meeting up with one of the guides there. We’ll hook up with the rest of the team at camp.”
“Awesome,” said Leslie, clapping my shoulder and giving it a shake with a large, ruddy hand. “Mind waiting for me in Lukla then? I’ve got a ticket for the day after. We can trek in together.”
I agreed, glad for the opportunity to catch up with my friend on the trail.
Leslie was older than me, in his early forties, and had summited Everest when he was closer to my thirty-four years of age. I’d met him shortly afterward, when we wound up working for the same company in Shanghai. Prior to meeting him, the only experience I’d had at altitude was an overnight climb of Mount Fuji, but his enthusiasm for the Himalayas was infectious. In the course of the four years that we shared an office, we ended up visiting Nepal multiple times, trekking the Kanchenjunga and Dhaulagiri circuits, Sherpani Col, and at last climbing Baruntse, which was the first time I’d ascended above 7000 meters. Leslie was relocated to Vancouver for work after that. He’d settled into a romantic relationship there and our communications had become less and less frequent, bordering on nonexistent.
The next morning my plane touched down at the world’s most dangerous airport, where the silk curtain between human lives and accident statistics wears thin. Lukla’s single mountainside runway, at an elevation over 2800 meters, is marked by a steep drop on one end and a wall of earth on the other. The sky was sunny and clear on approach, but the wind, sliced and funneled into strange updrafts by the mountains below, swished the small plane back and forth as though it were floating atop an angry sea. The landing scared the hell out of me.
As arranged, I’d wait for Leslie to arrive the next day. Not feeling social, beyond small talk with the barista at the town’s clever faux Starbucks, I retired early to my room near the airport. Digging for my washroom bag, I came across the Mishima book and considered reading a chapter or two. I fanned the pages absently, front to back, but handwriting on the blank second-to-last page caught my eye and made me stop. The name Yukio Mishima was written there.
I traced a fingertip over the words. If the signature was authentic, then this book’s value went far beyond simply being a first edition. I Googled the writer’s autograph on my phone, picking impatiently at a hangnail while my one bar’s worth of WiFi summoned an array of images. With mounting excitement, I discovered, as far as I could discern, that the online photos of Mishima’s English signature—with its carefully rounded o, spiky M and looping h—were identical to the one before me.
Deciding not to subject my new treasure to a reading, I closed it, as though the bare bulbs above me might fade the ancient fountain pen ink with their sallow light. I stowed the book in aplastic bag, wary about the prospect of it getting wet from rain.
Early the next morning I went down to the combined front lobby and dining room, where I was to meet my climbing guide. Pemnuri Sherpa was sipping sweet masala tea, his shoulders draped in blue light filtering through the window behind him. He evidently recognized me from my application photos, as he rose upon my entering the room and addressed me by name. He had a quick smile and earnest, calculating eyes, which even as he shook my hand seemed to size up and weigh my inner convictions, probing my motivations for the long trial I’d committed to, in which, ultimately, I planned to risk my life on the south side of Everest. I knew he’d met my type before, seeking to conquer themselves in the rarefied air above 8000 meters, seeking glory and a downward view from the pinnacle of the world—all enabled by him and his fellow Sherpas, who’d be risking the same for five grand or so.
“You are ready for Everest,” he said, half question and half statement.
“I will be in a month, I hope.”
“Hah. You not worry about this. You are strong man, I see.” He was still smiling, but the mind behind his gaze continued to pick me apart, sifting me, I felt, through a mental classification system of the moneyed Westerners he’d sweated and strained for in the past. Standing before him, I didn't feel strong in the least.
Clouds had rolled over the town, obscuring the end of the runway. How far out the clouds stretched we couldn’t tell, but Leslie’s plane, to my surprise, had been given clearance for takeoff from Kathmandu. His L-410 materialized wraithlike out of the mist, tilted on an angle, and leveled out seconds before its tires met the airstrip with a bounce.
Leslie’s face was flushed as we met him outside Arrivals, his scuffed trekking bag packed to capacity on his back, with a sleeping bag and down jacket lashed to either side.
“Fucking hate that flight,” he said moodily, his joviality from two days previous nowhere to be seen. “You see that landing? Christ.” Seeming to notice Pemnuri by my side for the first time, he nodded and grunted a namaste. “Leslie Fisher. Nice to meet ya.”
We lingered in Lukla to have lunch, departing in the afternoon and staying in Phakding for the night. The next day we rose early and made for Namche Bazaar. After crossing the Hillary Bridge, suspended high over the roaring waters of the Dudh Kosi river, we started the long climb to the Sherpa capital.
It was on this climb, familiar to Leslie and all but routine for Pemnuri, that through a break in the pines I got my first distant view of Everest’s shining summit, peeking above the Lhotse Face—a sheer wall of glacial ice over a kilometer high. The ice wall dominated the horizon like the swell of a biblical tsunami, flash frozen in the moment of destruction.
That night in Namche, I answered a knock on my hotel door to find Pemnuri, who apologized for disturbing me.
“I don’t take your relax time,” he said. “But have some problem.”
“What is it?” I asked, seating myself on the edge of the bed.
“It is Mr. Leslie. I get not a good feeling from him.”
Leslie had been acting gruff ever since Lukla, and I’d noticed him more than once issuing petty orders to Pemnuri. My guide hadn’t known Leslie previously, but telling him that this was out of character for my friend wouldn’t serve to justify the latter’s behavior.
Pemnuri continued, “There is some darkness about him.”
“I just say, you are my client. I follow you. So you have no problem, I no problem too. But I think he should not speak bad to me.”
“You’re totally right. I’ll speak to him first thing in the morning. He’s got no right at all to be telling you what to do.”
“Thank you, sir.” Even as he said this, Pemnuri’s eyes, keen yet world-weary, studied me closely, as though reading fluctuations to my shape that I couldn’t myself detect.
In the end, I didn’t say anything to Leslie about it. The next morning his mood appeared to have improved. Perhaps, I thought, reaching higher altitudes—now above 3000 meters in Namche—had returned his adventurous spirit to its comfort zone. Taking a rest day to acclimate, we left Pemnuri to his own devices and spent our time in the town’s cafes and bakeries, eating and caffeinating ourselves while we recounted old adventures together, sending one another into fits of laughter.
The next day we departed Namche, climbing to Syangboche and drinking in the exquisite vistas all around. I wanted to descend into Khumjung from there, to visit the village monastery where a purported yeti scalp was kept in a glass box, but Pemnuri dissuaded me by saying we should make for Tengboche that day. He pointed out that I could always stop in at Khumjung on the return trek.
“You’re not missing much,” said Leslie.
“You saw the scalp?”
“Way back, yeah, before I did Everest. It looks like the top of a gorilla’s head, but the hairs are reddish. If there were ever real yetis, they must be gone now anyway. All of us crawling over the mountains out here, everyone with a camera, and no one sees a thing anymore.”
“Maybe they went deeper into the mountains, staying away from the trails.”
“Or they just learned to blend in, like me.” Leslie stroked his beard, dark brown with a scattering of wiry red hairs.
“How about you?” I asked Pemnuri. “You believe they’re real?”
He shook his head. “I think it’s a bullshit.”
A change came over Leslie again that evening as we arrived in Tengboche. During our late dinner a gloom appeared to descend upon him, as unpredictable as the snow clouds that come to shroud the high peaks, transforming them into wind-torn realms of grey ice. Seeking to cheer him up, I went to his room carrying my special purchase from Kathmandu.
“Picked this up at the used bookstore right before I met you,” I said, showing him the cover.
“Decay of the Angel,” said Leslie. “I’ve read it.”
“Then check this out.” I opened it to the page in the back with Mishima’s signature.
Leslie frowned. “You know that’s fake, right?”
“I thought you were the Japan know-it-all guy. That’s Mishima’s last book. The morning he killed himself, he left the final chapter of the manuscript behind for his publisher to pick up, then he went to some military headquarters and did the, er, thing.” He mimed plunging a sword into his belly.
“Yeah, that. Anyway, he obviously wasn’t around to sign the published novel.”
Utterly disappointed, I stared at the hoaxed autograph, wondering how long ago it had been done.
We rose at dawn the next morning. Setting out, I was captivated by the soaring pyramid of Ama Dablam to the east, crowned in bright amber against a salmon-colored sky. We lost sight of the mountain as the trail took us downhill and wound through a lush rhododendron forest. We crossed the Imja Khola, a river of glacial meltwater rushing furiously for lower elevations, free from its ancient entrapment, and began to ascend once again from there. The trees grew sparser, replaced by scrubby juniper bushes. The thin, crystalline air made us fight to keep our earlier pace.
Dingboche is nestled on the floor of the mighty Chukhung Valley. Seen from above, the village looks like a cluster of turquoise stones resting on a dry riverbed, owing to the uniform color of its buildings’ roofs. The sun was brilliant and harsh as we approached; its radiation seemed to have actual mass at this elevation, beating upon us in showery curtains of light, heating only the air it touched and leaving every shadow in frigid cold. The March wind still had claws and teeth, but the gusts that had been assailing us dissipated somewhat as we entered the relative shelter of the village.
Our rooms weren’t insulated, so the air inside them was the same temperature as that without. We took to the combination dining room and lounge, where most other trekkers and climbers were gathered, relaxing in the warmth from the central yak dung stove. We ate dinner, charged our phones, and then tucked into some large thermoses of lemon tea to pass the time until retiring back to our rooms to shiver ourselves to sleep. A dusting of snow had fallen, turning the village and its barren earth a milky, luminous white.
Around 1 a.m. I woke to a commotion outside. There was a lot of excited chatter going on, and a steady parade of footsteps sounded in the hall beyond our door as people left their rooms. Leslie, in the next bed, woke up a minute later, while I was still donning my down jacket. He threw his own outerwear on as well.
Through the hallway windows we could see the wide plot of ground directly outside. The snow that had fallen earlier had a greenish tinge, and everything was brighter than should have been possible even under a full moon.
“What the hell’s going on?” said Leslie, his tone betraying more wonder than frustration, and we jogged down the corridor, past the shadowy forms of others who had just arisen from sleep.
The door at the end of the hall swung open, and in the ghostly light cascading through it we saw the outline of Pemnuri, who’d been sleeping in the dining room with other porters and guides.
“I was coming for you,” he exclaimed. “You must see it!”
The sky outside was consumed by a shimmering green aurora, the likes of which I had never beheld, in photos or otherwise. The upper atmosphere burned with it in every direction. As we watched, the green flared into ultramarine, altering the hue of the placid snow world around us, while arcs of ethereal red flame lashed through it. All of us stood transfixed, dozens of motionless bodies with heads craned upward. Our long shadows blackened deeper with every new ribbon of luminescence that wove into existence overhead.
“It can’t be the Northern Lights,” said someone. “We’re way too far south for that, aren’t we?”
“I thought so,” said a woman nearby. “I don’t know. The elevation maybe?”
Someone else chimed in: “I’ve seen the Northern Lights in Iceland. Nothing like this. This doesn’t even…it doesn’t seem real.”
“I never see this thing,” breathed Pemnuri, then spoke something quickly to the other Nepalis standing close to us. They muttered responses, shaking their heads, eyes filled with the ceaseless light. The air seemed electrically charged with the phenomenon, almost fizzling; I wondered if anyone else felt it too.
I fished my phone out of my inner pants pocket, where I kept it during sleep to prevent the battery from being killed by the cold, and raised it to record video of the aurora. Others were already doing the same, creating a sea of phone screens aglow with identical images.
After half an hour the lights had dimmed and the cold from physical inactivity was settling into everyone’s bones. A number of people departed for their rooms and Leslie and I decided to go as well. Blowing on my stiff fingers, I zipped my sleeping bag up and opened Facebook on my phone to post the video I’d just taken. It was only then that I realized there was no internet connection. Thinking my Everest Link WiFi must have timed out, I went to reconnect by putting my code in again, but discovered there were no WiFi signals detected whatsoever.
“The hell…? Leslie, you getting any WiFi on your phone?”
He checked. “Nope. Nothing at all. Huh. It was working when we were in the dining room.”
“Weird,” I said, unhappy that I’d have to wait to reap new attention on social media. At any rate, fatigue was catching up to me, so I put it out of my mind and went to sleep.
The next morning, we learned during breakfast in the dining room that no one was picking up any internet at all. Not only that, but there was no phone reception for the locals, or anyone else for that matter, including the satellite phone carried by a climbing expedition team. Even the owner of the lodge was distraught, complaining to Pemnuri that he couldn’t get updates on when porters would be arriving with food or stove fuel.
An air of unease settled over the village, among Nepali nationals and foreigners alike, suggesting that not only was this an unprecedented occurrence, but that most were assuming connections between the aurora and the loss of communications. We saw a number of trekkers leave that morning, some back in the direction of Tengboche, others on to Tuklaand then Lobuche, but many more remained, seeming unsure what move to take. This was a planned acclimatization day for Leslie and me, so we wouldn’t have been going anywhere anyway.
In the late morning a helicopter was spotted flying into the valley. Leslie, myself and a number of others went down to the helipad as it landed, hoping for news on what might be going on. With the rotor still spinning, the pilot, his expression grave, deboarded with a partner and ushered us a short distance away. Already he was being asked by those assembled if he had information on the communications blackout.
A man of marked importance, who I later learned was the village head, approached with a small entourage; the pilot evidently recognized him, and waited for him to arrive before addressing the growing crowd in English.
“We came from Kathmandu,” he said, raising his voice for all to hear. “I’ll tell you as much as I can based on the information we’ve been given. It’s believed that Earth was struck by a massive solar flare last night. It appears to have knocked out orbiting satellites, including the Global Positioning System. There’s also reason to believe it fried electrical grids on the daytime side of the planet.”
A series of gasps went up from the assembled foreigners, one from my own mouth, while the pilot’s partner launched into a Nepalese translation of the message.
“This is speculation from military headquarters,” the pilot continued. “To be clear, all communications are reportedly down in Kathmandu. Official personnel were sent to alert the Aviation Authority early this morning. The government is trying to re-establish a connection of some sort with China or India. The power is currently on in Lukla, and I hope here as well. That’s all the information I have. From here we’re going to make a pass up to EBC and then fly back to Kathmandu. We suspect that rescue missions will be sent if the situation doesn’t improve.”
“You’re sure about that?” asked Leslie.
The pilot fixed him with a cold gaze. “I said we suspect. Nothing is sure. You know as much as I do now.”
I watched as anger crawled across Leslie’s face, and willed him to keep quiet.
“So pass the news on,” said the pilot, “and deter people from continuing toward base camp from here if possible. Good luck, everyone.”
His partner finished translating this last part, but the locals appeared somewhat less fazed by the news as they listened; perhaps they betrayed their feelings less readily than we, the foreign majority, to whom the English had been addressed. With that, the two of them boarded the helicopter again. We stood at a distance, all the crowd, absorbed with watching the blades as they spun into a blurry disk, and the craft lifted off in a plume of dust. It was spotted once more an hour later, on its return from base camp. It disappeared over the walls of the valley, the pilot navigating, I suppose, by his familiarity with the landscape.
Leslie and I went back to the lodge and tried to enter the dining room, but we were told at the door that it was closed until the situation at hand had been discussed. I glimpsed Pemnuri inside, sitting at a table with locals and other native guides. He noticed me and gave a nod, his face inscrutable. “I come be with you soon,” he said lowly. Somehow, it was at that moment, rather than our time with the pilot, that a tremor of fear rippled through me—a delayed reaction to what we had just learned.
“The fuck is going on?” said Leslie, as we tromped back to our room.
“Take it easy, dude. No one really knows.”
“What’s there to take it easy about? The Sherpas decided to have a secret meeting already, separate from the rest of us. You think that's a good sign?”
“They’re free to chat without us if they want.”
“You seem calm. Is that fake, like your stupid Mishima autograph? You realize what all this means?”
“What what means?”
“Worldwide communications lost. Electrical grids knocked out over half the globe, probably more. If that’s the case, then this is the end.”
“The end of what?”
“The world as we know it.”
“Oh, come on, you’re freaking out and jumping to conclusions.”
“No, this’ll cause a collapse of the global economy. Societal breakdown will be instant. Complete chaos. My god, we won’t even be able to get home. Don’t you fucking see that? No internet, no communication, no GPS, sure as hell no more international flights. It’s done.” His rough-hewn face crumpled. “My wife. She’s back there all alone, everything falling apart around her. And my parents… Oh god, oh god…”
My heart thundered, blood singing in my ears. Leslie’s words were perturbing me more by the second. I swallowed the lump that had risen in my throat. “Leslie, listen to me,” I said, struggling to keep my voice even. “We have no idea what’s really going on. You heard what the pilot said. All speculation, every bit of it. Don’t let panic get to you. Things will be okay.”
I heard myself say these things, but the quiet, frightened part of me had become detached from the speaker, drifting further and further away, out into the bleak and beautiful wastes of the Khumbu, and higher still, witnessing a planet lit solely by the sun, one side at a time.
That evening, as darkness fell, we tried the lights and discovered the power was out.
The days passed and no helicopters were seen. The skies were silent. Our dining room, and the dining rooms of the other lodges, became the community focal points, along with a smattering of bakeries and tea houses elsewhere in the village. These were the heated areas. In our dining room the big stove was kept continually stoked, the conversation all around coming in little bursts, but the silent stretches grew longer as the eerie sense of limbo deepened.
Porters trickled into Dingboche, bringing deliveries of rice, cooking oil and flour, or leading mule trains weighed down with jugs of kerosene. Some were bound for Lobuche, Gorak Shepand, finally, Everest Base Camp beyond, but most chose to stop in Dingboche indefinitely, wary of continuing further into the high, frozen extremes given the current circumstances. Wind of the news they brought eventually came to me and Leslie via Pemnuri—that the villages along the way were all facing similar situations. No electricity, no reception, and dwindling porter traffic.
On the evening of the fifth day since the aurora, a lone porter, who had left Lukla more than a full day after the celestial event, trudged into the village—the last such person that would reach us. All outgoing and incoming flights into Lukla airport had been cancelled immediately, he reported, and the power had gone down before he departed. He’d stopped seeing helicopters in the sky by the time he got to Namche Bazaar, which had descended into an unprecedented state of tumult. The town was long-accustomed to reliance on a steady arrival of goods and necessities via porters, and the signs of interruption to that system were already obvious. There were foreign trekkers there, confused and fearful, who were causing a ruckus, demanding of hotels and other businesses that communications be brought back online, while droves of others were striking off for Lukla, few of them seeming to fully comprehend the reality of the situation.
With flights nonexistent, the only way out of Lukla would be on foot. The nearest roads, as far as I knew, were a two-day hike away for even a strong, well-fed trekker.
But how long, I wondered, would we continue to be well-fed? I didn’t dare broach the topic with Leslie, who was growing more paranoid by the hour.
The dining room stayed open and we continued to purchase our meals there. It wasn’t long before the vegetables—bits of carrot, broccoli and cabbage—ran out, then tomato sauce for the pasta, along with other ingredients. In a week the only item being served was dal bhat, reduced to its two defining components: white rice and lentil soup.
On a morning where fresh snow frosted the ground once more, as it had the evening before the aurora, Pemnuri came to our room at the red crack of dawn and told us to relax in our rooms rather than come to the dining room.
“Keep your jacket, many clothes, everything on,” he said.
Soon after, he returned with a steaming platter of rice and a quarter-full pot of soup.
“Lodge owner says using too much for keeping the stove hot all day,” he explained, “so today no one stay in the dining room. Just eat in here.”
He told us this with his usual—if a bit forced—cheery demeanor. He looked back and forth between Leslie and I, waiting for a reaction. Leslie didn’t speak, staring down at his rapidly cooling rice, holding a spoon tightly in one fist without making a move to eat. For the sake of conversation, I said, “Ah, that’s why you wanted us to keep all our clothes on.”
“Yes, right sir,” said Pemnuri keenly. “So you don’t get cold. If get deep cold, hard to get warm for today.”
“Sure, got it,” I said. “We’ll bundle up.”
During this exchange, Leslie had leaned over the bed to root through his pack, still having not touched his food. He produced his wallet, pulling several rumpled notes from it. He held them out to Pemnuri. “Here.”
“No, no,” said my guide. “No worry about this.”
“Don’t worry about it? What do you mean? It’s money for the food.”
I saw a thought, quick and sharp, flash behind the Sherpa’s eyes: winter-light glinting on dark ice.
“I make a tab for you,” he said. “Both. You pay later.”
“Just take the mon—”
“That’s fine,” I said stolidly, cutting Leslie off. “Thanks.”
Leslie glowered at me as the rickety door clacked shut with Pemnuri’s departure.
“Don’t you see what’s going on?”
“For fuck’s sake, what now?”
“A tab? That’s BS. You know it is. They’ve been taking pay directly for every night and every meal since the flare hit, so why do you think tabs are starting now?
“I don’t know, enlighten me on their business protocol. Why?”
“They’re not taking it because they realize money’s going to be useless soon, if it isn’t already. Rupees, U.S. dollars, doesn’t matter which. Without central banks backing it there’s no value. It’s just paper. Skill and labor, whatever you can produce—that’s the only currency.”
“It’s barely been a week and you’re in full dystopia mode. We’re going to ride this out.”
“We’ll be riding it to our deaths then.”
I couldn’t help my vexation from rising to the surface. I jabbed a finger at him. “What on earth makes you so sure of that? You’re going to be the doomsayer here that runs around screaming about the sky falling?”
Leslie gripped his plate so forcefully that it shook, spilling rice and soup to the floor. He looked ready to fling it at my face. “It already fell!” he roared. His bearded jaw trembled. The walls were thin and those in the nearby rooms had no doubt heard him.
“We don’t speak the language,” he hissed. “We’re not of this land. We’re not farmers or porters or mule herders or anything else. We have no family here, no property, no history, nada. We’re outsiders, useless to them. We do nothing but eat a lot and get catered to, and it only happens for money. Money that’s worthless. This whole species is going to fracture back into tribes, a new Dark Age, with all the pillaging, slaughter, rape and torture that comes with it. You know as well as I do that humans are all monsters under the skin.”
“Stop this shit now,” I snapped. “You’re actually freaking me out and there’s no point in it.”
“They’ll purge us,” continued Leslie.
“Or they’ll leave us to starve. The portions have been getting smaller. They’re weakening us.” He scooped up rice, holding the spoon tightly in his fist.
“I’m going out,” I said, rising.
“You know I’m right,” said Leslie through a mouthful, bits of half-chewed rice sticking to his lower lip. I couldn’t tell whether he was on the brink of laughing or crying.
He lowered the spoon into the pot, from which steam was no longer rising, but the soup spilled off of it before it could reach his mouth.
“Don’t touch my rice,” I told him, and stormed out the door.
After some wandering, I found Pemnuri out behind the main hall, washing a pile of pots, plates and cutlery with a bucket of water. His wet hands were bare, reddened through his sun-coppered skin, and he blew on them methodically between powerful scrubs with a sponge. It was like antifreeze ran in his veins, I thought, for his fingers not to stiffen up completely.
“Ah, some fresh air for you,” he said, noticing me.
“Just needed a break from Leslie for a while.”
“Ah hah, yes.” He set a dripping pot upside down on a rock, placing a fresh stack of plates into the water.
“You have to wash dishes here? They expect you to help?”
Pemnuri chuckled and craned his head up to me, grinning. “Not expect. But we stay here for now, and lodge owner is giving us food, not taking the money—you know that. So I help him too. We help each other.”
Pemnuri stood, shook glittering droplets from his hands and jammed them into the side pockets of his knockoff North Face jacket. “Yahhh, so cold,” he said. “Take a break.” From one of the pockets he drew a lighter and a pack of cigarettes, offering me one. I refused.
“I didn’t know you smoke,” I said.
“Only here, up high. It’s good here.”
He lit up and dragged deeply, returning his hands to his pockets as he exhaled a dense white plume.
We gazed down the central footpath of the village, the buildings huddled on either side of it dwarfed by the towering walls of the valley. The high icy ridges of the mountains were still burning with the slanted light of sunrise.
“How long do you think we’ll be staying here anyway?” I asked.
“We can’t know that,” said Pemnuri. “I think no one knows.” He coughed as he took another drag. “Ah, the taste is sharp.”
I found myself disconcerted by his apparent lack of worry. Even his previous chuckle, his grin, ran counter to the situation at hand. I wanted to tell him, just to gauge his reaction, that I hoped he was enjoying his smoke, because with no more porters arriving there’d be no more cigarettes once we’d worn through the supply in Dingboche’s handful of shops. Instead, I simply told him the truth: “I’m worried. I’m getting a little scared, actually.”
“Scared?” Pemnuri turned his head slowly to me. His eyes swam contentedly as they settled on mine. “Why scared?”
“Because we don’t know what’s going to happen to us,” I sputtered, as though I were debating with him about the color of blood. “We don't know what’s going on out there. Everyone I know—my family, my friends, the people I love…” I stopped, throat constricting, pressure building behind my eyes. I didn’t want to get teary in front of Pemnuri.
“I understand you,” he said softly. “My family is in Kathmandu. I know.” He tossed the cigarette to the ground and stubbed it out.
“The world might be destroyed—civilization just wiped away by this. I hate Leslie talking like that, but he might be right.”
Pemnuri nodded, head dipping gently up and down. After a pause, he said, “Maybe the world was destroyed many times before, in the far past—but it’s only appearing like it, to be destroyed. Really, the world was changing shape, but still existing all the time. It’s same as us: our body is destroyed again and again, many times—but something of us, some part, lives into the next body, to exist into the future.”
In the distance a long wisp of snow was blowing from a mountaintop, caught in a sustained violent gust. I watched it spiral and disperse to the point of invisibility, less appreciative of Pemnuri’s bizarre attempt to comfort me, if that was his intention, than I was resentful of his spiritual maundering.
“That’s an interesting thought,” I said, fixing a contemplative expression. “Thanks for that. I’m going to take a walk around. Stretch my legs.”
I spent the next half hour tracing the perimeter of the village. The valley floor all around was composed of barren plots of soil, hemmed in by walls of stacked stone. In one area, villagers were dismantling a wall between two of these plots by hand. Through a wide gap that had already been opened, a man was guiding a yak-drawn plough, the blade turning over the frost-kissed skin of the earth to reveal a gritty brown underbelly. It appeared that the early planting season was approaching.
Having seen the plough at work, I hurried back to the lodge, with the idea of suggesting to Leslie that we offer our labor in the fields, even if just helping move stones around, to alleviate his worry—and increasingly my own—that the locals would see us as useless drains on their resources.
Coming back to the room, I found Leslie sprawled on his bed, shoulders propped against the back wall with a pillow. It was immediately clear that something was off. His eyes were rheumy and his face flushed scarlet, his wide nose like an overripe piece of fruit. I spotted the half-empty bottle of Crown Royal whisky in his hand, even before he lifted it and swished its contents back and forth.
“You brought that all the way from home?”
“Course I did. Had to have a little something to keep me warm.”
He unscrewed the lid and tipped the bottle to his lips. His Adam’s apple rose and fell beneath the tangled nest of his beard.
“Jesus, slow down on that.”
“What, you want some?”
“More for me.”
He took another long swig, grimaced and wiped his lips with the back of his free hand.
“I was coming back to tell you about something we can do to help out.”
“Help out? Why? So they don’t get rid of us when things get desperate? They’ll do it anyway. To me at least.”
My frustration returned instantly, approaching full-blown disgust at this spineless parody of the friend I’d known. “Leslie, enough of this fucking crap.”
“It’s not crap,” said Leslie, unaffected. “You believe in karma?”
“Not as some cosmic principle, no. I believe what goes around comes around, because people make sure it does.”
“Close enough. What goes around comes around. Maybe they’ll keep you alive. You’re a good man. But it’s not gonna happen for me.”
“What’re you even talking about?”
“They’ll let me die. Same as I did.”
“Same as…let who die?”
“I never told anyone. Not a soul. Not exactly as it happened.”
“Then tell me!” I exploded. “Or else shut up about it.”
Instead of reacting with anger of his own, Leslie’s teak-brown eyes grew more watery still, until they overflowed. A cloud shadow darkened his rocky countenance.
“I had a climbing partner on Everest,” he said. “Hugh Steltson. Old mountaineering friend. We had a Sherpa guide with us, name was Noru. On the morning of the summit push, just under the Balcony, Hugh started stumbling and collapsed. HACE, probably. By the time I got to him he’d already vomited all over himself. He couldn’t get back up, was muttering something about seeing the abominable snowman or its footprints or something. Started begging us to take him back down to camp.”
I sensed what was coming, the intuition coming on strong, almost nauseating in its sudden clarity—as though I’d heard the story before and simply tried to forget.
Leslie explained how he’d ordered Noru Sherpa to go on ahead and fix the ropes as planned, threatening to withhold his tip if he insisted on helping Hugh down. Noru obeyed reluctantly, and with some effort Leslie dragged Hugh to the lee of a snowdrift formed against a rocky outcrop, leaving him there.
“We couldn’t take him back down and still make the summit in time. That was my one shot. I couldn’t go it alone, either, so letting Noru attempt a rescue… just wasn’t happening.”
Others would pass the drift in the following hours, but there in the Death Zone, against the howl of the wind, they wouldn’t notice the stationary, blue-faced man breathing in desperate, shallow gasps. The ropes had been fixed on the opposite side of the outcrop from Hugh.
Leslie and Noru made it to the summit two hours later than planned. Leslie had his five minutes of looking out over creation, brain fuzzy with exhaustion and too weakened to pump his fists in triumph, then they started the descent, determined to make it back to Camp 4 before the loss of the sun increased their odds of dying on the mountain.
They passed the small team of late climbers who, shortly after, would stop at the Hillary Step and turn back, their summit dreams dashed by the advanced hour.
“Even before we got back to the outcrop, I knew neither of us had the energy to carry Hugh down. At that point we’d be risking our own lives to attempt anything. I was nearing the end of my last oxygen tank, and Noru had finished his.
“Hugh wasn’t where I’d left him. He’d managed to pull himself back around the outcrop, through the snow, and was lying close to the rope line. He’d opened his jacket down to the waist and pulled his hood off. The snow he’d crawled through was knee-deep powder and he was coated with it. I thought he was dead already, but when I crouched down close, he started moving his head back and forth. His eyelids were frozen open and his eyes were glazed, not moving. I think he was blind. I said his name and he made this… this moaning sound, trying to speak, but his lips had trouble closing. He might’ve been saying my name. But you know I couldn’t help him. You’ve gotta understand that. Not from there. It took everything we had just to drag him back around the outcrop. I zipped him up and pulled some of the drift down to bury him. Just left his head free. Maybe I thought it’d insulate him, or maybe it was because he was good as dead anyway. You need to understand how fucked up your head gets above 8000 meters. I barely knew right from left at that point.
“Then we kept descending, back to camp. I knew Noru was furious with me. Really upset. The only time he spoke to me the next day was to ask if I wanted tea, but he couldn’t hide his disgust. I was a murderer in his eyes.”
I didn’t say anything, grasping for appropriate words and coming up with none, but even in the silence a force was gathering in the room, centering on Leslie, building up volcanic pressure inside him. The whisky bottle fell from his hands, contents sloshing onto the floor, and he burst out, “They see it in me! All of them! Don’t you see that they know? They know what I did to get to the top of that fucking mountain. I’m sure Noru passed the story around, of Leslie Fisher, who threw a man’s life away even while he begged… But it doesn’t matter what stories Noru told. They see it anyway. The Sherpas see it when they look at me. They know, and they’ll make me suffer for it.”
“Leslie, calm down,” I said, finding my voice at last. “What you’re saying about the Sherpas is insane.”
“I saw it in Pemnuri’s face at the airport in Lukla, right when I arrived. It was all cloud when we flew in, zero visibility. The plane was shaking so hard I thought it would tear apart, people were screaming—then somehow, we were bouncing onto the runway, and it was only then you could see anything out the windows at all. I’ve been thinking more and more that we never really made it, that the plane hit the mountainside, and this, all of this, is some kind of afterlife. It’s my punishment, because death came quicker than I deserved.”
“All right, you know what?” I lunged across the room and grabbed the liquor bottle off the floor, a fifth of the whiskey still inside. “No more of this. Drink some water and sober the hell up.”
“Give that back,” Leslie hollered, leaping from the bed. The alcohol had left him unbalanced, and I was ready for him, shoving him hard in the chest. He fell onto the mattress, hitting the back of his head against the plywood wall with a thud. The fight went out of him immediately. He sagged into his blankets and put hands over his face.
I went outside, downed the rest of the whisky in several gulps, and stashed the bottle behind the outhouse.
When I returned to the room an hour later, Leslie was in a drunken doze. I woke him when Pemnuri brought dinner around—dal bhat again—and we ate together without speaking.
The next morning, I was shaken awake before sunrise. Leslie hovered over me in the dark.
“I’m going to the Tukla Pass,” he said.
“I need to. It’ll be a day trip.”
I blinked, unable to distinguish anything, and blearily stated that I would come along. The sober surety in his voice, the firmness that lay like bedrock beneath it, suggested that his desire came from a rational place—wherever that place was.
The distance to the pass wasn’t too great. In a reality where the solar flare hadn’t struck, we would have crossed it on the day we departed Dingboche.
We ate breakfast without telling Pemnuri where we were going. We dressed in our full outdoor gear and loaded a backpack with the last of the personal snacks we’d been carrying: half a jar of peanut butter, a bag of trail mix, two Mars bars and most of a can of Pringles. This would have to serve as our lunch.
The sun was only hinted at on the horizon when we climbed out of the village, and we were soon making headway. A line of jagged mountains towered to the west on our left, a frozen white river snaking along the valley below them, glowing against the black earth as our nearest star climbed unseen in the east.
Tukla village was no more than a handful of small, simple dwellings, where trekkers once stopped for lunch or hot tea, either before or after traversing the pass above. It held an air of abandonment; no smoke or steam emanated from the homes and no one responded to our calls.
Leslie removed his gloves and to reopen a Mars bar. “People here must’ve gone to stay in Lobuche or Dingbocheafter the flare,” he said, as a blinding sliver of sun leered at last above the peaks to the east.
We grew warm as we climbed, opening our jackets and removing our hats. The way was steep. Looking back, during a stop to catch my breath, I watched a mass of grey-black clouds creep over the mountains, curling around their crowns like tendrils of heavy smoke. As we reached the pass at last, trudging beneath a string of ragged prayer flags lashed between two large cairns, the clouds overtook us, accompanied by the gusting wind that had ferried them. The temperature plunged.
The pass was a ghostly place, filled with stone monuments, of various sizes and shapes, to those who had died on Everest. I spotted the one belonging to Scott Fischer, who’d perished in the infamous 1996 disaster, his name writ large in black paint. A smaller one belonging to a Japanese climber caught my eye, owing to a brocade Shinto charm pouch that had been left at its base, pinned down with a pebble.
“Where is it?” Leslie asked the dead earth, casting about. “Where is it!” His voice was frantic. He crossed back and forth for several minutes, scanning the ground fervently. “Help me look,” he called to me. “I need to find the—ah… here.”
I went to join him where he’d stopped. Of the monuments I’d seen already, this one was the most modest. A small mound of brick-shaped rocks fastened crudely with mortar, with a bronze plate bolted to it. Hugh Steltson’s name was engraved at the top of the plate, along with the inscription, Died living out his life’s dream.
“I arranged for it to be put here,” said Leslie. “But until now I’ve only seen photos of it.” He looked at me and I was taken aback by his grin. “That’s the reason I came back here. I needed to visit this. I owed it to Hugh.”
“It’s very nice,” I said.
“It’s not much. You get what you pay for.”
Leslie took off the backpack with our food and handed it to me, crouched to clear some stones from beside Hugh’s monument, and sat down.
“This is where I stay,” he said. “You go back.”
“Uh, how long are you staying here?”
He regarded me warmly. The smile from before hadn’t left his eyes. “I mean I’m not coming back.”
“You go. Go and live. I’m where I’m meant to be.”
He shook his head. “Don’t fight me on this. My fate, my choice. I’m tired. I’ve got nothing left, and there’s nothing out there anymore to go back to. This is where my bones should be.”
I searched his face, finding no hints of a lie or mean-spirited prank. “Wh-what if you’re wrong?” I stammered. “What if there’s just some light infrastructure damage and things get fixed? The power could come back on next week for all we know. Internet, phones, electricity—everything. You’re wife’s back home waiting for you.”
“If she is,” said Leslie serenely, “and if everything turns out to be okay, do me a favor and get in contact with her. Tell her something good about me, even if you have to make it up, like how I died saving someone’s life.”
“For God’s sake, but what—”
“Let me die. It’s my choice. Let me die and move on.”
I paced back and forth over the stony earth in a tight line, boiling with turmoil. Not knowing what else to do, I held out the bag to Leslie. “Keep the food then, in case you change your mind.”
“No.” He shook his head, eyes gazing inward, probing a wilderness I had no access to. “I said no. Now go. Please.”
I stared mutely, waiting for a crack to form in his act, but his face grew impassive, wooden.
“Go on,” he said quietly.
So I did. I left him.
I looked back once before I passed beneath the string of prayer flags. The blowing clouds had thickened, swallowing the pass. Leslie was almost completely obscured, so much that I couldn’t tell whether he was watching me go or if he’d laid back and closed his eyes. The place displayed no other signs of life; it was as the earth was in a primordial age, before anything grew or crawled upon it, and Leslie, as long as his heart continued to beat, as long as he drew breath and felt the cold settling into his flesh, was its specter. I believe he knew that.
Not far below the pass, I descended out of the clouds, and the empty realm of rock and snow and sky yawned before me. I passed by Tukla village without stopping, its vacant dwellings as unconcerned as the mountains with whether they ever saw a human form again.
By the time I reached Dingboche I felt on the verge of blacking out. The meager diet of late had left me weak, and the hike to the pass had depleted me entirely. No one seemed to have found my absence curious, and I stumbled back to my room at the lodge, where two cold platters of dal bhat had been left by Pemnuri for lunch. I ate all of mine, leaving Leslie’s untouched in case he came back.
Unable to keep my eyes open any longer, I crawled into my sleeping bag on the bed and draped a balaclava over my face. In the dark I saw The Decay of the Angel open before me, invisible fingers flipping to the second-to-last page. I wondered, for the first time since the night in Tengboche, if the signature there might not be a forgery after all. I wondered if Leslie could have been wrong, and that Mishima, obsessed with suicide though he was, had ultimately had a change of heart after completing his masterpiece; he’d handed the last chapter over to publishers and begrudgingly lived on, at least long enough to autograph copies of Decay for collectors and fans.
But there was no way to know for sure. Without the internet, without even a library, the only knowledge was that which was locked away in our heads, subject to corruption by dreams and doubts, our desires and our fears. Subject to deterioration.
We’d arrived, I thought, at a place and time with so little memory. Soon, almost nothing would be known for certain.
I slept for many hours, and when I awoke, dawn was spilling beneath the door. Leslie wasn’t there, but the platter of dal bhat meant for him was gone. His side of the room appeared otherwise unchanged.
The sound of chanting came to me, men’s and women’s voices together, drifting into the lodge and down the long hall from somewhere outside. I rose, still dressed for the outdoors, and slipped into my boots.
I followed the chanting down the footpath, until I caught sight of a group of people in one of the barren fields where I’d previously seen the stone walls being dismantled. They were gathered in a ring around a young local woman, a Sherpani, and a young man, who were both dressed in traditional garb and dancing in time with the chant. Several other early-rising foreigners were there, standing just outside the circle. Taller than all of them, unmistakable, was Leslie.
He didn’t notice me until I’d strode into the field and come up behind him.
He turned. “Hey, look who’s up early.”
“You came back,” I said, stunned. “When did you get here?”
He looked puzzled. “Came back? What’re you talking about?”
“From the pass.”
“The Tukla Pass,” I nearly shouted. “You said you were going to die up there. You… when did you get back, then?"
Leslie’s frown deepened, then smoothed away as he broke into a laugh. “Die at the pass? Hang on—is it April 1st?”
“Screw off with this, I’m not joking.”
The chanting had grown louder, livelier, hemming our conversation in, obscuring it to other ears. Leslie slapped my back with his wide hand, just as he’d done when I ran into him in the Thamel district. Even as that recollection came to me, our meeting in Thamel seemed impossibly distant, like a half-salvaged memory from earliest childhood, its context elusive and warped by oceans of time.
“The thin air still doing a number on ya, buddy?”
“No, I’m…I’m just… Leslie, what did I tell you I was going to do? In Kathmandu when I met you. Do you remember?”
“Huh?” he chuckled. “I dunno, you probably said you’d do a lot of things. Why?”
Cheering arose from those gathered with us around the chanting circle, and my eyes were drawn helplessly to the dancers in the center. Their movements were fluid, yet precise, tightly controlled, handed down to them from their forebears. The dance was telling a story of struggle against the wind and cold, of soaring peaks and deep valleys, of lives committed to hard physical labor—but the woman’s body, with her every slight sway and tilt of the hips, spoke also of virility, of the promise of new life.
“Are we going or returning?” I asked as we watched.
“I don’t know what you—”
“The mountain!” I gritted. “Everest! Are we on the way there or coming back?”
“Hugh? That’s…I’m not…”
But what I meant to say was lost to me, dissolved into a mist. I tried to delve backward, retracing my steps through everything prior to Dingboche, but I was met with the same impenetrable fog. A cloud had settled over history itself—my history, our history, the history of us all.
The opposite side of the Earth might be careening back to the Stone Age, I thought, or even devoid of human life, scorched by lethal radiation. We couldn’t know. We couldn’t know what was happening across the rest of Nepal, or beyond the Khumbu, or any further than our legs could take us from this village. We couldn’t, I realized at last, even know what was happening outside of our own minds.
We were stranded, each of us, on our own night side of being.
The chanters broke into cheers and applause. The male dancer had stepped away, backing up to the edge of the circle. The young woman, arms held out, began to spin in place with seeming abandon, her long dress fanning out below her.
“I can’t be Hugh,” I said, directing it to no one, but the crowd roared their encouragement to the rose-cheeked girl, drowning out my voice. No sooner had the words left my mouth than I could no longer be sure that I’d spoken them. I was being buried, not only beneath the roar, but beneath something heavier: snow, as white as oblivion, covering me up, weighing me down.
“Leslie,” I croaked, turning—but he wasn’t at my side. I whipped around, scanning the crowd and seeing no sign of him. “Leslie!”
No one reacted to my shout. All were staring rapt, lost in the finale of the dance, mesmerized. The dance was the aurora. It was the whirling blades of the helicopter.
Blanketed in the soft rays of spring, the Sherpani lifted her face to the cobalt sky. Faster and faster she spun, an axle around which the whole of our reality revolved, repeating the movement that had come to her as an echo across the depths of time. The passage of ages was cast from her form, flung off like water droplets, and it was possible to believe that the world had begun anew.