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Better You Believe

Maybe true
Maybe not true
Better you believe

—Old Sherpa Saying

It’s all downhill on a descent. The oldest climbing joke of the lot, but only because it’s true. If I like any bit of it at all, it could never be that slow, painful climb down from the highs of before and the bone-deep exhaustion of after. People make mistakes on a descent because everything’s against them: altitude, time, their bodies. And always their mind. No one gets excited about survival—not like they do about standing on the top of the world. And no one gets a good write-up in Nat Geo or Time for managing to get back down a bloody mountain in one piece. Unless they’re Jean-Christophe Lafaille, I guess.

The air is raw, thin, dry. Acke Holmberg’s cough is worse; when ice walls throw up rare shelter, I can hear it rattle up from his lungs hard enough to start doing damage. Nick likes to tell me about the gross stuff when we’re in bed, warm and lazy, blissed out. One guy he climbed with ruptured his esophagus on Nanga Parbat, a few thousand feet above base camp. The blood spray froze in mid-air, Nick said with a grin, before pulling me back under the covers and him.

The wind is a demented banshee. Only fifty k, Nick said maybe twelve hours ago; on the summit it beat around our heads so hard, we had to crouch. Some of the Swedes were convinced they were going to be yanked off into the swirling white void. As if they’d be fuckin’ wheeched off, Nick said with usual scorn. As if it had never happened, when I know just how many dozens of times it has on this peak alone. But he’s earned the right to be scathing, I guess. Until today, Annapurna was the only eight-thousander he hadn’t summited.

But things are different now—I know that without being able to either see or hear him, somewhere further down the Lafaille line and attached to the same fixed rope. It’s dark and growing darker. It’s too late—much too late—I can barely see the low sun beyond Gangapurna’s peak, some 7,000 meters above the Marsyangdi River. The weather is moving. And the mountain is getting jittery; I feel its hackles under my frozen feet, like we’re ticks that just won’t quit. We’ve been inside the Death Zone for too long, but we’re too slow, too tired, and have too far to go.

Bad Things, I think, in Nick’s lesser spotted concerned voice, as I battle on down through the white and the wind, putting one boot in front of the other in the kind of trance that’s both helpful and dangerous. Bad Things are about to happen.

• • • •

By the time they do, I’ve managed to convince myself they won’t. The wind has died again; the flag cloud west of the summit tilts up and sharp against the dying sun. Up is good, flat is bad, down is fucked. I remember the big poster tacked alongside prayer flags in the med tent, and Nick laughing with one of the American doctors that it was a far more reliable indicator than any other base camp forecast. The mountains make their own weather, and it’s rarely kind.

Even though I’m still descending through the French Couloirs, the snowpack is harder, the incline less steep. I’m surprisingly warm, but I know much of that is a cocktail of O and illusion—I last felt my feet at Camp IV. I don’t feel bad, I don’t feel good. I don’t feel much of anything at all. Not even afraid.

There’s a subtle but sudden shift in the air around me, like a hush, a breath too close to my ear; my heart stutters a little to feel it through my hood and balaclava. And then Jakub Hornik appears from the gloom behind and above—maybe ten feet east, no more—face-first and flat on his belly, anchored to nothing. He doesn’t flail or shout as he slides down the snowfield; he makes no sound at all save the fast friction of his suit against ice. And he makes no attempt at self-arrest either, even though he’s holding his ice axe up like any moment he’s going to let it fall. His eyes are wild. They find my light and grow wilder, wider—holding onto it right up to the moment that the gloom swallows him back down and I’m left alone, literally frozen, the dropping wind washing out my mouth.

There’s a tug on the rope from below. Nick. Are you alright?

Not really, not at all, but what use is there in saying so; in being either one or the other up here? I’ll still be up here. I’ll still be needing to get down fucking there. A big shudder goes through me, it cricks my neck and finds a home in my belly. It’s never a good idea to puke more than halfway up a mountain. I think of Jakub’s eyes, his silent slide. I remember Kate renaming him The Horn, after he spent the whole first month at base camp trying to hit on her. My belly squeezes hard again.

Bad Things.

Because they’re never ever singular.

• • • •

The last Bad Thing was Felix Garcia. There are always deaths on a climb. Climbing seasons are short, summit windows shorter; at any one time, there can be dozens of teams within a few hundred meters of each other. But the threat of actually seeing someone die is surprisingly low, as easily dismissed as the threat of dying yourself. You hear about them, on the short wave or the satellite phone, or when you reach a camp: falls, accidents, strokes, disappearances. People go crazy. People get the shitty end of the stick. People just die. There are lots of ways to do it. And pretty soon those muttered summations become nearly routine, like all the frozen landmarks and trig points that used to be people. Red Legs. Green Boots. North Col.

Felix was different. Mountains attract arseholes; eight-thousanders attract Olympic-level arseholes. He and Nick clashed before we even left Everest base camp. Felix was a solo-climber, and that’s pretty hard to do on a mountain as rammed as Everest. Nick doesn’t like taking them on because they’re glory hounds and crappy team players, but he’s had to get a lot less picky now that he’s competing with Nepali companies for business. It was to be my third summit, Nick’s seventh, but we didn’t even get close before the weather doubled down and Pasang advised Nick to turn us all back and fast. Felix suffered the final indignity of being geared up with me and three Koreans on the snow fields at the foot of the Lhotse Face as we scrambled over crevasses on shrieking ladders, a snow storm blinding us, deafening us, making us stupid.

By the time I heard his scream, I was already being dragged so fast along the ice I couldn’t get my axe free. Our belaying had been too clumsy, the Koreans behind too quick, the rope too slack—Felix plummeted so hard and so fast down the hidden crevasse that by the time anyone managed to arrest our screaming progress along the glacier, I was flying over its edge too. The pain I didn’t feel. The horror of all that silent blue dark after howling white space, I did. I looked down at a still screaming Felix and didn’t see him, only the hard tight swing of the rope between us vanishing into black. The air prickled against my skin like blunted pins. I looked up at the shouting beyond the ice-rimmed circle of white, and I thought, they can’t hold us both. They can’t save us both.

And they didn’t.

I feel another yank on my harness. I’ve been standing still for too long; the fixed rope is taut, impatient. The wind has grown high again. The darkening sky looks heavy with snow, and when I squint west, I can’t see the flag cloud any more. I start moving.

Nick won’t have told the other Slovaks about Jakub. They were last to leave the summit, despite Nick and Pasang’s warnings about the time. They’re far too far behind us to attempt any kind of rescue, but they’d want us to try because the four of them were tight: Jakub and Hasan were as close as brothers. They wouldn’t accept that there’s no point; that at the edge of this snowfield is a short rock buttress and then a drop of over a thousand feet. I don’t want to think about that: about Jakub’s wild eyes staring at my light as he slid away from me toward the plummet of black, empty space that he must have known was coming.

Jakub’s silence; Felix’s high screams. Dark, cold yawns of nothing. What it feels like to fall, to be alone, to feel it coming, to know. I can’t think about shit like that. We’re still nearly a thousand feet inside the Death Zone—thinking about shit like that is for messy Khukri rum nights in Pokhara or Kathmandu. Or if you’re Nick, never. Easier just to pretend things didn’t happen at all.

• • • •

The snow starts heavy and doesn’t stop. It slows my efforts to catch up to Nick. Even though I know he’s already got his hands full with the Chinese couple who arrived at The Sanctuary with no equipment at all, and the always determined Tomie Nà from Hong Kong, who started showing signs of altitude sickness as low as Camp II. And Kate, of course. Following him around like a bad smell. Nick always does the babysitting, while Pasang rounds up the stragglers, the hardcore just-another-five-minuters. It’s always been this way, even though Pasang is the tolerant one, and Nick couldn’t be patient if he tried. But Pasang is the better climber too; certainly, he’s the better guide. Nick is the guy in charge, the guy people write the checks to, and even if that’s the kind of responsibility he’d sooner shirk than have to suffer, it lets him climb mountains. For that, he’d babysit an entire busload of Sunday hikers and Olympic-level arseholes.

I wonder what he’ll tell Jakub’s family. I remember an evening in The Sanctuary, one of those rare pre-climb nights of excitement and camaraderie not yet spoiled by the reality of weeks of acclimatizing in close, cold quarters. Pavol and Hasan were drunk and red-cheeked, laughing about Jakub’s wife, and how pissed off she’d be when she found out how much their trip was costing. That Nick will be the one to tell her what has happened, I have no doubt, but he won’t say how it really was: how long Jakub suffered knowing he was going to die on that hard, fast slide; that we were all still on that mountain, but he was already lost, already gone before he was gone.

Climbers have their own rules, their own language, their own religion. And these take years to earn, to learn, to understand. Climbers believe in dreams, as long as those dreams have a purpose, a summit. They believe in God, if God is a mountain, because they worship nothing but the climb—the endless, soulless, merciless demand of it. They believe in trying to help, in trying to save, until they can’t. Until they don’t. They believe in the individual: in their own strength, their own will, their own survival. And they also believe that mountains can hate, that the weather can be cajoled, that the spirits of those long dead can provide comfort to the dying and lead the living to safety. Even Nick believes—scornful, pragmatic, ever practical Nick—like a liar crossing his fingers, or a fisherman never setting sail on a Friday, or like Pasang leaving offerings to the mountain at the end of every day, while muttering low to the friends whom he has lost.

I trip on a rock under growing drifts of snow and stumble against the fixed line. It’s too much snow too fast. Anything over an inch an hour is bad news, and this is much, much more. Visibility is getting worse: I can no longer see the setting sun at all, and my headlight shines through a kaleidoscope of dense monochrome. I’m starting to wonder if we’ll make it back down to Camp IV today at all, and that is bad—worse than bad. Bivouacking in the Death Zone is never a good idea, but on the South Face of Annapurna, it’s pretty much suicide. I try not to think of all the stats that Nick—and so many other climbers—take such solemn glee in. The summit-to-death ratio on Everest is one in twenty-six. On Annapurna, he said, sliding a cool palm down my naked back and along my flank, making me shiver even though then I was warm, it’s one in three.

The first stirrings of real fear find me then, and it’s followed by a strange, slow sense of unreality. I should already be frightened. I should have been frightened when the Slovaks weren’t ready to leave Camp IV at midnight, or when we finally summited at five p.m. instead of three. I should have been frightened when Nick started moving folk back down the mountain so fast there was barely any time to celebrate our victory; when Acke started sounding like he was coughing up a lung; when the wind, then the night, then the snow started closing in, the mountain began trying to buck us off, and our descent became a disordered, scattered scramble. And I should have been shitting myself when Jakub slid past me on the way to his silent death.

Denial. A mountain climber’s best and worst friend.

Acke, I think. Acke should be behind me, higher up, but not so far that I can’t hear him. Only I can’t remember the last time I did hear him; the last time I remembered that I should be able to hear him.

“Acke?”

The wind screams back at me.

“Acke! Are you there?”

Maybe I hear him, I don’t know. Something hits my face: a stone or some ice carried on the rising wind, and when I press a glove against my cheek, it hurts; the balaclava sticks warm and wet to my skin. “Acke!”

Though I don’t want to, I start back up. Not far, I won’t go far. Just far enough to ascertain that he’s still there, still alive, still descending. In this direction, the wind batters at me hard enough to nearly drop me to my knees.

“Acke!”

There are different kinds of numb in the Death Zone, and denial is only one. Is my heart rate and breathing fast because of altitude or fear? Or because of cerebral oedema? Are my actions, my responses still rational? Do I think they are? Climbing above 7,500 meters is the same slow asphyxiation suffered in the Nightmare-Age of heavy-curtained four-poster beds. When we climb, we have night terrors, paranoia, depression. When we descend, the euphoria of returning oxygen levels can just as quickly cause psychosis. We’re not supposed to function up here; we’re not designed to function up here. Nick once saw a man launch himself off the Hillary Step like he was dive-bombing the deep end of a swimming pool.

I nearly stumble over Acke before I see him. He’s sitting in the snow, legs splayed out, trying to take off his gloves.

“Don’t!”

He stills, lifts up his face, winces against the wind and flying debris, but what he says is in Swedish; the only word I recognize is allena. Alone.

“You can’t stop. You have to get up. Where’s Bosse? Is he still behind you? Acke!” I’m shouting hard enough to hurt my throat now. “We can’t stay here.”

He shakes his head, resumes the removal of his gloves, and once he’s done that, his frostbitten fingers move to the carabiner connecting him to the fixed line.

“Acke, no!”

He pays me no mind. There’s a ring of blood around his mouth like old lipstick, and a brighter slash of it running into his frozen beard. And if he already has pulmonary oedema, then he’s probably not too far behind dive-bombing the deep end of a swimming pool either. Because disengaging from the line in a snowstorm is what you do if you’re crazy. It’s what you do if you want to die.

He grins and his teeth are bloody. “Stay with me,” he says. Shouts. But he’s not looking at me, he’s looking all around me—at the stone, the snow, the nearly night sky.

And then I hear it. The worst Bad Thing. The thing I’ve been trying the hardest not to think about on our painfully slow descent down this 2,500 meter gulley in a snowstorm; this funnel for spindrift and debris and worse.

By the time Acke hears it, I’m already turned around and running. Trying to run. The noise is terrific. My heart thunders in my ears, as I try to seek out somewhere—anywhere—to hide. But there’s nothing, nowhere. Because there never is. You’re fucked or you’re lucky, and that’s it.

I know when it’s about to hit me because Acke screams high and short, and I feel a cold wall of air rushing against my back, shoving me forward with invisible hands. An impossibly high shadow that eclipses even my own light. I think of Jakub. Dark, cold yawns of nothing. I think of Nick.

And then the avalanche steals away any sense I have left.

• • • •

Climbing is lonely. You think it won’t be. You imagine that the endeavor will be mutually achieved, an ordeal always shared, but the truth is, on some sections, particularly on a disorganized descent, you can go a whole day without setting eyes on another soul. I’ve learned if not to love, then to appreciate the stark, stripped isolation of those days. The very opposite of the long, crowded intimacy of lower camp life, or the breath-stealing wonder of the summit—whether your vista is the golden curve of Earth and low, white mountain peaks in a sea of clouds, or a whiteout of raging wind and snow. But that other isolation—that other allena—is what you dread while never allowing yourself to think of it. It’s the realization that you’re fucked. Like Jakub. That you’re still alive, still on the mountain, but suddenly you’re on the other side of a two-way mirror and you won’t ever be coming back. That is the worst Bad Thing. The only one. Whichever way it happens.

When I open my eyes, I think I’m inside that terrible crevasse again; the horror of all that silent blue dark after howling white space. Blunted pins and the hard tight swing of the rope vanishing into black. An echo of they can’t hold us both. They can’t save us both.

The cold is too cold to feel. I’m not in the crevasse because I can’t move. My limbs are folded tight and trapped; my lungs struggle to find space enough to breathe. Too much weight presses down on me. Panic starts crushing me from the inside out. Not this. Not this.

The circle of my arms around my head has allowed for a small air pocket, but it won’t last long. My wrist strap has snapped; my ice axe has gone. I think of Nick’s face: the dimple in his left cheek, the chip in his right incisor, the always paler circles of skin around his eyes. I think of his weight on me, pressing me down, filling me up, and it calms me a little. It calms me enough.

I breathe. I breathe. And then I spit. It dribbles down my cheek along the length of my right eyebrow. Upside down. Maybe 160, 170 degrees. I don’t know how deep I am, and the small space I have left isn’t enough to find out. Slowly, slowly, I burrow my hands down toward my torso. The snow is like cement. By the time my knuckles bump against the axe, I’m already hyperventilating again. I have cobalt blue boots, I think. The legs of my suit are black with red stripes.

I make myself remember the night we first met in a dark tavern off the main Kathmandu drag in Thamel. Me, pissed on Mustang Coffee and home-brewed Raksi, dancing among dozens of other sweaty gap year tits just like me. And Nick, sitting in a darker corner, disinterested, his mouth curled into a routine sneer until I asked him if he’d dance with me too. The first time we fucked, he gripped me tight enough to leave bruises and told me that he’d never come so hard in his life. The first time we summited—close to the end of the season on the Northeast Ridge of Everest—he swung me up to that golden curve of Earth and told me that he loved me; laughed when I said I was on top of the world.

I make myself think of the warm flat of his hands against my skin; the low and steady timbre of his voice, whether he’s talking about clove hitches and belay points, or about those spirits that save only people like us: explorers on the edge of the world. Stroking my hair and reading aloud from Ernest Shackleton’s South: the treacherous glaciers, icy slopes, and snow fields of his doomed Trans-Antarctic expedition; the fog, the dark, the blank map; the exhaustion, starvation, hopelessness. And the spirit—the voiceless, faceless Third Man—that had led him down to the safety of the whaling station on Stromness. Nick’s solemn eyes, his slow smile; quoting T.S. Eliot in a tickling whisper against my ear—

Who is the third who walks always beside you?

Where is my third? I wonder now, and my eyes sting. Where the hell is the bloody spirit that’s going to lead me down to safety? My tears feel hot and my throat tries to close up. I stop trying to think of anything at all.

Me. Just me. My own strength, my own will. I am all that can save me.

Slowly, slowly, I manage to turn around now, to bring the axe around. At first I can only twist and shimmy it against the hard-packed snow; I choke and try to turn my face away from what little I manage to hollow out. I feel panic rising again. I don’t want to be on the other side of that mirror. I don’t want to be a frozen landmark. A trig point. I don’t want people to take selfies next to my frozen corpse. My cobalt blue boots. My red-striped suit.

When the way becomes abruptly easier, I nearly sob with relief. I choke more as my axe excavates more, but now I don’t care. I’m reaching out of that dark blue echoing silence, up toward that ice-rimmed circle of white. I can nearly taste the mountain’s thin air; see its clear, starry sky.

But in the instant before I break through—in the instant before I know I’m going to break through, I hear Acke’s scream. No longer high and short, but long and horrified. And oh God, so, so much deeper. I have enough room now to clasp my left hand hard over my mouth. I can’t feel the press of its glove against my lips, my skin, my teeth.

And then I’m free. The snowstorm has died. My headlight is dead. The only remaining light comes from a half-crescent moon, hanging low over the Nilgiri Himal range to the northwest. I shuffle onto my knees, pushing away from my already collapsing escape shaft. After moving no more than ten feet, I look down at the hard-packed snow between my hands and knees. Acke. Acke. I don’t shout his name, don’t even say it out loud. If he hears me, he might think that I can save him.

Two months ago, in a trekkers’ lodge close to the edge of The Sanctuary, he laughed and sang along to Fernando while mixing terrible Brännvin cocktails. He had a boyfriend in the Swedish navy who’d bought him a house, but wouldn’t tell anyone he existed. He struggled to grow a beard, always trying: every morning he’d roll his eyes and tug on it, still sexy ass fluff, my friends.

So I stay. In the disorientating white-dark, I kneel in the snow over where I think Acke is, and I keep him silent company. I hear him coughing again. Maybe he’ll drown instead of suffocate; which is worse, I don’t know—don’t want to know. I reach round for my O. I don’t know when I last drank or ate something either. These are the things you must fight: numbness, confusion, lethargy. Mercy. What good will staying here do? How can Acke know he’s not allena, and what does it matter if he does? But I think of him shouting stay with me to the mountain, the snow, the sky, and so I stay.

I’m always exactly where I’m supposed to be.

• • • •

It’s no longer snowing. It’s no longer gloomy either. It’s dark. Night. I can’t hear Acke anymore. I wonder how long he fought. How long he pretended. If he’s pretending even now. Because denial has to be better than acceptance, if one side of the coin—the mirror—is death and nothing else. I shudder hard enough to again crick my neck.

When I try to get up, it feels as if I no longer exist below my waist. It takes too long to locate and change out my headlight, and the reward does not justify the effort: the thin revived glow casts only slow and frightening shadows. The drifts are high, unwieldy; the terrain is entirely changed, as if I haven’t made it back through the mirror at all. The couloirs are gone, their scars and fissures hidden under the weight of so much new snow.

I shine my light down on my harness. Its main carabiner is bent and twisted out of shape, probably when the avalanche wrenched me free of the line. It takes another long time to replace it with a spare; my fingers are slow, my mind slower. Finally, I move the light wider, over smooth swathes of black and white, searching for the way down. It takes the longest time of all for the truth to sink in. The fixed ropes are gone.

My panic is too slow. There’s even something close to relief in it. The thin air whistles around me like I’m an obstacle, a rock in a stream. Now I’m fucked, there’s no way I’m not. How can I ever negotiate my way out of the Death Zone alone and with no fixed lines? This is my worst Bad Thing. After years of dread, of anticipation, this, here, is how it happens. This is the way it happens for me.

“Sarah? Why you here?”

I swing around, slow like an astronaut; at the same time assuming the voice is inside my head. It’s a not unfamiliar question.

Pasang is standing less than ten feet away, looking none the worse for wear at all. He’s half-crouched, as if readying himself for a starter’s gun. He doesn’t look afraid or fucked—more startled. Because he never expected me to make it this far? I feel the pinch of familiar resentment when I should only be feeling relief. Pasang will help me. He has to.

“Jakub Hornik and Acke Holmberg are dead,” I say, and my voice sounds strange, thin, like the air. It’s very quiet, I realize. Nearly silent. After the storm and the avalanche, it’s still enough that I wonder if I’d hear one of those blunted pins drop.

Pasang doesn’t react. Chongba isn’t with him, so he must have left him behind with the Slovaks, while he’s come down the mountain to see how bad it is; if they can still make it down without having to bivy or call for an evac that’ll probably never come. How long did I stay kneeling in the snow waiting for Acke to die? It must have been hours. Pasang’s eyes scan the terrain ahead and then he looks back at the mountain behind. He never wears goggles and he never carries O. I sometimes wonder if he even needs to eat, shit, or fuck either.

He asks, “Who was higher than them?”

“Holmberg means Island Mountain. Did you know that?” I feel numb, but I no longer know which kind of numb. Something tugs at my mind, puckers my skin. Makes me remember to be afraid. I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing here.

He blinks. “Sarah. Who was higher than them?”

I know why he’s asking. It’s because I’m the first person he’s seen. And everyone else between us is gone.

“Bosse. Benoit and Savane. The Australians, I think. I don’t know.”

Pasang curses. This will be the end of the 8000er Experience, I think, and I feel a guilty spark of hope that must show in my eyes, because Pasang straightaway narrows his.

“Why you here?”

“What the fuck does that mean?” I look down at the snow under my boots, my crampons. Already my escape route has filled in as if it never was.

“You hate the mountains. Always.” His voice is not cold, though his words are. They sound angry. “Why you come back, every time?”

I swallow because even if I understand the question, I don’t understand why he’d ask it now.

“You don’t belong here.” His gaze grows softer. “You never belong here.”

But I don’t want to argue with him, because he’ll never understand. He’s never understood why any of us keep coming back, not really. Most of the time he manages to hide his contempt. Just about.

“You know why. I’m here for Nick.”

• • • •

The way is treacherous, of course. I’m clunky, a functional climber, Nick has always said, though I’ve never taken offense. It’s true. But now, clambering down barely settled snow, with no protection beyond my own gear, my own judgment, I wish that I loved it, I wish that I felt it. I wish that I could reach Nick by sheer force of want, of will.

Instead my descent is anything but functional: I stumble and I fall and I fuck up my handholds, my footholds. My rope snags and burns; my overhangs and hitches and anchors are poor—I move too slowly because I have as much confidence in my abilities as I do in the new ground beneath me. I only have the distant lights of Camp IV and Pasang’s directions to guide me, and I keep thinking of that cold, blue space and blunted pins, but I’m still doing it. I am doing it. And whether that’s down to his help or his scorn, I suppose hardly matters.

I knew Pasang would never come with me, but when he turned back to the dark shadow of the mountain, my belly clenched all the same, and I wanted to beg him to stop. Though I didn’t. His job is to look after the Slovaks. The fucking Slovaks who didn’t manage to get out of their fucking sleeping bags until two a.m. He has to trust that I can look after myself, and that Nick can look after his group. Alone. Just as I have to trust that Pasang will be okay, even if that suffocating dread behind thick, heavy curtains suspects better.

Nick. He’s all I can think about now. Not me or Pasang, Jakub, Bosse, the French Canadians, the Australians—not even Acke. Except to wonder if Nick has suffered the same terrible fate. I don’t think about the others in his group either. I don’t care about any of them—these idiots with too much money and too little of everything else. In that, I understand Pasang’s contempt. If my reasons for being here are stupid, then theirs are moronic. Nick despairs of their inexperience: their lack of knowledge, training, equipment; their sheer bloody self-entitlement. They’ve paid Nick and Pasang to get them to the summit and back, and nothing less will do. They haven’t paid for any kind of Experience at all. They’ve paid for a photo-op, a flag; Nick even prints them out a certificate. When Tomie Nà refused to stop after the docs at Camp II told him he could die if he climbed any higher, Nick rubbed his hands through his hair, spat into the snow, and then carried on preparing for the next section.

For all his faults—and I’m aware of them all, despite what everyone, including Pasang, believes—Nick loves these few places high above the rest of the world with a passion that could never be faked. And that’s why he’s here too. That’s why he puts up with everything else, all the other shit that he hates. Because he has as much choice as I do.

• • • •

But it isn’t Nick I find first. It’s Kate. Her sobs creep up through the darkness like the wind around ice pillars; I only realize it’s her when I see headlights less than fifty yards below. I don’t know how long I’ve been descending now, or how much longer before I leave the Death Zone behind me. The lights of Camp IV look hardly closer, though the moon has moved far enough to disorientate me completely. I’m struggling to breathe, and my O is getting too low. That slow, creeping paralysis is back; a numbness inside and out that’s nearly seductive. It makes me want to stop asking myself if I’m about to dive-bomb the deep end of a swimming pool. It makes me not want to care if the answer is yes.

Kate’s sobs are nearly hysterical. I shout, but she doesn’t hear, doesn’t stop, barely draws breath. I try not to move too quickly as I edge down over still-shifting snow. The drifts are higher here, creating precarious peaks of their own, but overall the terrain is flatter, more glacial. Here is where most of the avalanche came to rest, I think. Here is where deep, dark crevasses will be hiding, waiting, beneath all that treacherous new snow. I try not to hesitate, to stop, to look for Nick, to waste precious breath of my own in more shouting. Instead, I carry on descending, descending, fucking descending, and praying a little too, for good measure. He has to be alright.

“We can’t go! How can we fucking go?” After an avalanche, mountain air gets thicker and sounds flatter; Kate’s voice is a hysterical monotone. “What about Tomie and—”

“Tomie, Jìng, and Lì are already gone, and you know it.”

I allow myself the luxury of stopping, of staring at the second headlight. His voice still echoes. Nick.

“Jesus, how can you be so cold?”

“We’re both pretty cold, Kate. And getting pretty fucking colder. It’s not them you care about. It’s the fucking serac between us and fucking freedom, and I can’t help you with that.”

By the time I reach them, I’m close to collapse. I can’t feel my legs, but I know it all the same. I feel hot when I should feel cold—or nothing at all. And all I can see is Nick. He’s hunkered down under a high overhang of rock, head low, gloved hands dangling between his legs. Kate sits close alongside him, and I try—and fail—not to care about that. They’ve been there too long, I care more about that; about the stiff, tired threat in their bodies, their voices.

“We can’t free-solo around a fucking serac with fuck knows how many tons of snow weighing down on it!” Kate’s digging in. Her voice is calmer, stronger. Once she makes her mind up about something, that’s usually it. “We need to stay here, wait for an evac. You’ve phoned our position in. We can’t—”

“We’re still in the Death Zone. No one will be coming for us.” Nick’s voice is just as calm, as confident, but I know he’s horrified. I know he’s blaming himself. Even though it’s the fault of the bloody Slovaks.

“We can’t—”

“I will leave you behind, Kate,” he says.

“You’re a bastard.”

“No,” I say. “He’s what’ll keep you alive.”

Kate gasps, looks in my direction, and her breath catches formless in the air. I wonder if she can read something in my expression that I’m usually better at hiding. I’ve been free-soloing since Acke, but it would be pretty petty to say so. Though I want badly to bask in Nick’s uncommon approval.

Nick’s head drops further between his knees, and I hear only his chattering teeth. Still none of us move. Up here, we’re statues: half-frozen, half-thawed; half-numb, half-crazy. Half-alive, half-dead. It’s a miracle we feel anything at all.

Nick gets back on his feet with grunted effort. He swears again; coughs. The latter rattles down inside his chest. “Let’s go.”

• • • •

The serac is a block of glacial ice as big as a three-story townhouse. Near to the start of our summit ascent, the route alongside was lit by flare lamps and set with fixed ropes. Now, its threat is magnified by darkness and formless new terrain. And all the death and weight that we’ve brought back down the mountain with us.

Nick wedges a metal nut into one of the rocks close to the serac’s beginning. He clips a quickdraw to the wire, threading the rope through it and his own carabiner before feeding it backwards in generous loops. “We’re not decking out, okay? Not fucking today.”

Some color has returned to Kate’s cheeks. She picks up the rope, locks into the belay. I do the same—muscle memory triggering too many other less welcome memories: me and Nick, Kate and James climbing rock faces, ice pillars, mountains. Trekking and hiking and camping all over the world. Getting shit-faced in dodgy bars and on deserted beaches. At James’ funeral, Kate clung to Nick as if he was the only anchor on a Grade V vertical climb. She and I had been friends since high school, but she never again dragged me to karaoke bars or treated me to spa weekends in wanky Essex hotels, as if she’d lost me over the same sheer cliff as her husband. When I asked Nick how I could help her, he told me I’d be best leaving her alone until she came to me. And she never did.

• • • •

The serac radiates a different kind of cold than the mountain. It’s breathless, sharp, and thin. Fragile. Silent blue dark looking up into an icy white space and sky. Endless shadow.

Nick edges along the base of the serac too slowly. The ledge is narrow—less than a foot across in some places—and the drop on the other side is big; even in the dark it has the power to squeeze my stomach, water my eyes. And it’s always been Nick’s cautiousness that frightens me, never his selfish recklessness. He feeds back more rope in slow turning loops, but he doesn’t look around. “Don’t stop,” he says.

Close to the halfway point, Kate falters, one gloved hand getting caught in the gear as she tries to navigate Nick’s hastily improvised line. I dilute my impatience with the memory of the couloirs, the dread and relief of now I’m fucked, there’s no way I’m not when the avalanche stole the fixed lines. It’s too easy to stop thinking past doctored routes, too easy to start shitting yourself whenever you have to unhook from their security for even a few seconds.

Kate goes on fumbling, hesitating, trying and failing to free herself, to move. Powdered snow falls through the gap between us. The serac was never stable, but now fuck knows how many tons of avalanche threaten to overload it to the point of collapse. And if that happens, it doesn’t matter how careful and slow we’re being; how many ropes and anchors we do or don’t have.

“I’m scared,” Kate whimpers, and her hands still, shoulders hunch.

Nick is far enough ahead to be nearly out of sight, so she can only be talking to me. I remember the puja twelve hours before we left base camp: a Lama and two skinny monks bent over a stone altar, the smell of juniper reminding me of the gins from the night before; equipment spread around us and waiting to be blessed: harnesses, crampons, ice-axes, and helmets, even our expedition flag. Pasang chanting alongside the monks, placating the spirits, making his offerings of yak milk and chocolate and rice as the Lama talked to the mountain, asked it to let us climb to its summit. Kate, hungover and dull-eyed, her smile scornful as she stifled a yawn: Mountain says no.

She doesn’t know I hate her. She doesn’t know that less than six months after James’ funeral, Nick got down on his knees and told me how many times they’d fucked; that he held onto me so tightly, I was nearly glad that they had. She doesn’t know that he would never leave me. She doesn’t know him.

“It’ll be alright,” I say, and her shoulders drop, she finally tugs her glove free, clips back into the line.

And at the halfway point, I start to think it might be. That maybe—just maybe—the sheer number of Bad Things that have already happened are enough. But then I feel it: the air changing just like it did before Jakub came sliding out of the gloom on the other side of that mirror—a hush, a breath too close to my ear—and I know that I’m wrong. Again.

I unclip myself from the line, and I’m no longer slow, no longer afraid. My crampons find little purchase; my left foot slips off the ledge into dark space more than once, but I keep on going, faster, faster. Until I reach Kate.

“Go!” I push her so hard she shrieks—but either she can sense the danger in my voice or in the slow deadly shifts of the wall of ice against us, because she immediately obeys, abandoning the fixed line even as Nick is screwing in another anchor up ahead.

“Go!” I scream again. “Nick! Go!”

He turns just as my headlight finds him, his face slack and pale, and then he looks up at the serac in the very moment that it starts to scream.

We run. And run. And the world collapses around us.

• • • •

Kate is who I hear first. She’s sobbing again, but she can’t catch enough breath—the result is an oddly comforting squeak. She only stops to shout Nick’s name, and a sob comes out of me too when, finally, he answers in a hoarse shout.

I sit up, struggle to get to my knees. When I look back, the line is gone, the ledge is gone, the serac is gone. I’m finding it hard to breathe myself—I hear the thin air wheeze through my lungs—but my O is gone too.

I stand up and sway, but there’s nothing to hold onto. When Nick struggles to his feet a few meters further down, his headlight glancing off Kate’s helmet, her suit, I see a long streak of blood running from his temple to his jaw.

“Oh my God, Nick,” she says. She sounds exhilarated and broken at the same time. “Oh my God.”

He doesn’t answer, just keeps staring up at all the destruction behind us, eyes still wide and wild and black.

And I stare back, but even though we’re the closest we’ve been since the summit, I know I can’t reach any closer. My dread is exhausted, heartbroken. He’s safe. He’s alive. But it isn’t enough.

“You felt her too, right?” Kate grabs hold of his upper arms. “I know you fucking did. She was there! She was—”

“Don’t touch me,” he says, but he’s already shrugged her off, already backed away. He keeps on looking, looking, looking, and something in him finally breaks as he drops to his knees, as he howls into the black, the vast ocean of white.

I look away from Nick and back at the summit. The low moon throws light and shadow against the rock, the snow, the ridges and fissures, the pillars and gullies. I think of Jakub and Acke and all the others who’ll be left on this mountain, frozen in time and in place; disappeared, or dragged away from the path to become a landmark, a trig point, a cautionary tale. I think of Pasang and Chongba and the Slovaks trapped inside the Death Zone with no fixed lines, and an avalanche and collapsed serac between them and Camp IV. They may as well be on that moon.

And I think of them all sitting around that stone altar, laughing and eating. Smearing grey sampa flour on their faces; the promise that they would live to see each other become old and grey. Mountain says no.

Because the view from the other side of the mirror can so often look the same. Even when you know exactly what it feels like to fall, to be alone. Even when you know—as you look up out of silent blue dark into howling white light and life; as the air prickles against your skin like blunted pins—that it’s already too late. Like a slow-suffocating nightmare inside thick, heavy curtains. A leaving that never feels like going anywhere at all. To be gone, but not gone.

They can’t hold us both. They can’t save us both.

And they didn’t.

The shocking agony of plunging into that silent blue dark, Felix’s weight pulling me down faster, harder, the snapped rope showering snow. To feel it coming, to know. A breath, barely long enough to scream, but stretching out into infinity.

Denial: a mountain climber’s best and worst friend. Better to believe. Except we never do—those of us already on the other side of that coin, that mirror. Because then there really is no going back at all.

Nick still howls even as the wind picks up again and the night gets colder. But he’ll come back. He’ll always come back. Because this is where Nick lives. Not in our shitty Catford maisonette. Not even in base camps or trekking lodges. Only up here, in the clouds and violent snowstorms and hurricane-force winds; on the rock faces and ice fields and stony summits; in the gullies and crevasses, the ridges and jet winds and dancing tails of white snow. Up here, where people can’t survive; where we start dying faster the moment we start to climb. This is Nick’s home.

And mine. Because what I told Pasang will always be true. I think of Acke shouting stay with me to the stone, the snow, the sky. I am here because Nick needs me to be here. And so I stay. I will always walk beside him. It’s the only reason I’ve ever climbed any mountain at all.

Carole Johnstone

British Fantasy Award winning Carole Johnstone is a Scottish writer, currently living in Essex, England. Her short fiction has been published widely, and has been reprinted in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and Salt Publishing’s Best British Fantasy series.

Her debut short story collection, The Bright Day is Done, and her novella, Cold Turkey, were both shortlisted for a 2015 British Fantasy Award.

For more information on the author, see carolejohnstone.com.