In terms of sheer hostility to human life, this remote and little-known range is second to none. One unlucky climber finds out why a third of all who summit The Mountain do not return to tell the tale.
Narrated by Marissa Chin
Written and produced by Doryen Chin
Sensitivity Reader: Auden Granger
"Echoes of Time v2"
by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License
"Spirit of the Dead" by Aakash Gandhi
The Beacon Jar - Copyright 2018 Doryen Chin
Transcript and Content Warnings under the cut:
[content warning: gaslighting, descriptions of corpses, descriptions of mental illness]
Note: The audio you will hear is slightly altered from the text below, but the transcript is accurate for most purposes.
Written by Doryen Chin
My name is Agatha Bembridge, and it is by pure, dumb, terrible luck that I am alive. So that no one will go seeking to verify my account for themselves, I will keep the name of The Mountain a secret. Some of my peers may be able to guess its identity by deduction through any clues I unintentionally provide. But, it is my sincere hope that my reputation and this warning alone will be enough to give them pause.
The two-week hike up to Base Camp was as slow and arduous as I'd heard, even after eighteen months of training and planning. I was traveling with a handful of guides who were native to the region, as well as a wealthy European couple making their second attempt at the summit. We had to stop several times along the way to visit various temples and villages, so that our guides could pray for safe passage into these barren lands. On the evening of the twelfth day, we arrived.
Normally, the first night at Base Camp is spent in relatively good spirits. Just getting here is a small miracle in its own right, and it's rightly celebrated by most who make the trip in one piece. However on the night of our arrival, we were greeted by ashen, solemn faces. News from a party descending the summit had just come in. One of their climbers had died. The party leader, Helen Schwarzschild, had lost her son, William, shortly after they began their downward climb from the peak. We sat in relative silence, our dinners growing cold on our plates as the remaining survivors emerged from the darkness.
The fact is, nearly a third of all climbers who reach the summit of The Mountain do not return. In terms of difficulty, there are several more challenging peaks in the world. But in terms of sheer hostility to human life, this remote and little-known range is second to none. The thing which makes the mountain so deadly is a subject of contention, however. You see, most deaths which occur on The Mountain aren't the result of a bad fall, or an avalanche, or an injury of any kind. Though, that does happen on occasion. No, most people who die on The Mountain, simply stop climbing, sit down, and never get back up again. They call it, “Mountain Sickness.” According to Captain Schwarzschild, the manner of her son's demise was congruous with the others. He was tied to her life line when he perished, and she had to cut him loose with her own knife.
There's a saying, popular among many mountaineers and alpinists familiar with the perils of high-altitude climbing. “Those who die on The Mountain, stay on The Mountain.” Despite the best efforts of the local government, most who perish near the summit must remain there indefinitely. Too costly to find, or too inaccessible to reach. But, the attempt must be made. The European couple offered to cover the cost of the extra climbing and retrieval gear for the guides, as well as any incidentals incurred along the way. At first, the grieving mother was reluctant to accept their charity, insisting that the insurance would cover it. But it didn't. The only indignity it spared her that day was the “littering” fee imposed by the local government, for leaving the boy's corpse on the mountainside.
In the morning, it was decided that our local guides would accompany us up the mountain to assess the possibility of retrieving the boy's body, and, if it was feasible, bring him back down. After a light breakfast, while the weight of the evening's tragedy still hung on our hearts, we were given the go by the Weather Team to set out on the first leg of our expedition. Due to the extreme altitude, we could not actually attempt to summit the peak for several more days. The first week of our climb would be spent between Camp One and Camp Two as our bodies acclimatized to the low oxygen environment.
Like many of the world's highest peaks, Camp One on The Mountain lies nearly a thousand meters above Base Camp, on a narrow ledge accessible only by ascending a treacherous ice fall. For those who don't know, an ice fall is basically a river of solid ice, running down the mountain like a glacier at a rate of about six feet per day. It can calve without warning, sending boulders of ice the size of houses, weighing twelve-hundred tons each, crashing down on you. If you're lucky, you die instantly.
We reached the ice fall as the sun was beginning to rise over the eastern range, and began our ascent once we had checked in with the Weather Team. There are no fixed ropes on the ice fall. It's a six-hundred-meter free-climb over ever-shifting terrain, across crevasses up to thirty feet wide and immeasurably deep. In order to cross, several steel ladders must be lashed together and laid over the chasm. Then a guide may carefully traverse this makeshift “bridge” and anchor a rope to the other side. Our guides had done it so many times, they simply walked across. The ladder jostled and creaked under their feet as they did so. Watching them, I could not help but imagine how easy it would be to slip into that crushing abyss. Unable to climb out again. Unable to be rescued. Sliding helplessly down razor sharp ice walls and disappearing into darkness. I actually don't remember crossing that first time. I know I must have. I just remember being afraid and then, around mid-afternoon, we arrived at Camp One. Memory is a strange thing. We don't get to choose what sticks. Forced to remember things we wish we could forget, yet somehow always forgetting where we put our keys.
While the rest of the team prepared Camp One, the guides continued to climb to Camp Two to see if they could spot William's remains from that clearer vantage. Several hours later, just after the sun had disappeared below the western horizon, they returned. We had dinner waiting for them, and as they sat down to eat, one of the Europeans asked the question nobody else wanted to ask. Had they seen him? The head guide, who I'll call Tam (though that was not his name), shook his head and explained that high winds had ruined visibility on the upper mountain. They would have to continue up with us to Camp Three and then decide if it was worth it for them to carry the cumbersome rescue supplies any further. Under that pall of uncertainty, we tucked into our tents to sleep.
I was awakened in the middle of the night by the sudden howling of frozen wind. Bewildered, I clicked on my flashlight and found myself staring out the open entry of my tent. The outer flap whipped around like a flag against the darkness. My sleep-dull mind struggled to comprehend what I was seeing until I realized, with mounting shock, someone had zipped open my tent while I was sleeping. My heart pounding, I scrambled to the front of my tent and reached outside to pull the flap closed again. Idiot. It was like dunking my hand in a freezing river. The bitter wind burned as I fumbled with the zipper. Once I had finally re-sealed the tent I collapsed, cradling it.
I must have sat there for ages, replaying the evening over and over in my head. I knew that I had secured my tent. Someone must have opened it, either on purpose or by accident, and left the flap open, exposing me to hypothermia, frostbite, or worse. I got on the radio and demanded to know if anyone else was awake, if anyone else had heard anything. After a minute, one of the Europeans came on and asked if I needed help, if they should contact Base Camp. I told them what happened, and to their credit, they took the situation seriously.
Within an hour, they had awakened the entire team, and the guides, and demanded an explanation. As we sat shivering in our own tents, huddled over our radios, some folks became understandably defensive. No one would admit to leaving their tents after dark, and all happened to have a credible witness to their whereabouts. Then the questions were turned on me. Was anything missing? Was I touched inappropriately? Was there any evidence that anyone had actually been in the tent? I explained that no, nothing was missing, the only thing that was violated was my privacy and safety from the cold. One of the other members of the team suggested that perhaps I hadn't properly secured my tent that night, and it was my fault that it came open. We didn't speak much after that.
The following morning was tense and uncomfortable, our optimism dampened by interrupted sleep and accusations of impropriety. In light of... what happened later, I struggled over whether I should have apologized. In the end, I came to the conclusion that no matter the true perpetrator of the infraction, I was well justified in my actions and behavior. It's bad enough to be endangered in such a way, much less to have my own competency questioned rather than the intentions of others. I simply wish that the others gave my experience as much credit as they did their own professions of innocence. It was made clear, not in words but in actions and the silences, that I would from now on be treated only with kid gloves and polite tolerance. That is, except for the European couple, who seemed to genuinely sympathize, and offered to let me share their tent. I regret that I declined. Though if it might've done any good in the end, I really can't say.
We spent the next week, climbing back and forth between Camps One and Two, until we were given the all-clear to proceed to Camp Three. As they had done before, our guides - who were still committed to retrieving the remains of young William Schwarzschild, climbed on ahead of us on the first day to see if they could determine his location. Again, they failed. As a means of boosting morale, the European couple broke out the special food they had been saving for Summit Day, and shared it among the rest of the camp. We spent the evening singing songs and telling old climbing stories until we had nearly forgotten the emotional challenges we had faced so far on our journey. For that brief moment, the mountain was just a mountain, and we were all just good friends.
To say that the climb from Camp Three to Camp Four is challenging is less of an understatement and more of an outright lie. There is only one passable route, and only one climber at a time can negotiate it safely. It involves twenty feet of inverted free-climb, and the fixed ropes have a tendency to bunch and tangle there, which slows progress to a crawl. It is understood that the most experienced climbers always go up first. This, of course, meant the guides, followed by the European couple, then me, then the rest of the team. Dangling by your hands from frozen rock, with only half an inch of slack nylon between you and certain death, is an enlightening experience. You're so high up that the sky seems to be all around you in almost every direction. It's easy to get confused, lose track of “up and down.” At one point my brain panicked and insisted that I was falling into that blue-black abyss, and that I should turn around and climb back to safety. A nano-second later, my training kicked in and I froze in place, clutching my life line in a death grip, realizing that I had just nearly let myself fall. My heart pounding in my ears, I slowly and deliberately ascended the remainder of the climb to Camp Four.
With all climbers present and safely inside Camp Four, we proudly radio'd to Base Camp that we had completed the first half of our expedition to the summit. From there on out, the summit attempt was broken into smaller teams. For obvious reasons, I had already decided to partner with the European couple, and when it came time to break into teams I made my preference known. This was when the friendly facade of the group finally began to crack, because it would mean that the most experienced climbers were all grouped together, while the lesser experienced ones would be left to fend for themselves. The guides tried to explain that they would do their best to spread themselves evenly between all teams, but for one climber in particular, this was not a satisfactory solution. This was the same man who had suggested that it was my own fault that my tent had come open on our first night on the mountain. It was eventually decided that he would be partnered with the European couple, and that I would help lead one of the lower experience teams. Finally, under a tense peace, we turned in for the evening.
I couldn't sleep. Between the stress of the climb, the worsening social friction, and the decreasing prospects of retrieving the boy's remains, my mind was a whirlwind of doubt. I was lonely and desperate for company, perhaps that's why at around 1:30 in the morning I found myself clutching my radio in my lap. The channel open. Just listening to the static. I had just nearly began to drift off when the radio emitted a sharp, piercing squeal. I was so startled I reflexively threw it across my tent where it landed behind my pack with a soft thud. The squeal continued, now muffled, and I don't know if it was just my mind playing tricks on me or not, but, I swear it sounded like someone screaming.
Feeling immediately foolish, I nevertheless couldn't bring myself to retrieve it. In the back of my mind, I suppose part of me hoped that someone else would hear it and respond, but no one did. It got louder and louder until I couldn't stand it and had to cover my ears and squeeze my eyes shut. The screeching went on for over a minute and then, without any drama whatsoever, it stopped. Cautiously, I opened my eyes and leaned forward, afraid that it might start up again any moment, but it didn't. When I finally worked up the courage to crawl over to it, I found that it was dead and would not turn on again. I pulled open the battery compartment and checked the internals, but everything seemed to be fine. No sign of a blown fuse, no melted plastic. Aside from a faint whiff of ozone, there seemed to be absolutely no sign at all of anything wrong with it. The adrenaline wore off pretty quickly after that, and in the ensuing lethargy I finally found sleep.
In the morning, I quietly asked one of the Europeans if their radios were working okay. They said that as far as they knew, they were working fine. I asked if they had heard anything or been woken up by any loud noises, but they again said they'd experienced nothing of the sort. When I saw the barely hidden worried look they gave to their partner, I stopped pressing and just asked if they had any extra batteries I might borrow. They kindly obliged, and when I told them not to mention it to the other climbers, they silently agreed.
With clearance from the Weather Team, we were given the go-ahead to ascend to Camp Five, which would be the staging point for our summit attempts. Each team would go up and come down in turns while the rest of us waited behind in order to keep the lanes clear. Everything above Camp Five exists entirely within the Death Zone, where the oxygen content of the atmosphere is around 30% of that at sea level. Most folks bring their own oxygen regulators, which can be heavy and cumbersome. Many more “adventurous” climbers choose to do without.
I was halfway up the nearly vertical rock face when out of the corner of my eye, I saw him. I knew exactly what he looked like. That young man's face was burned into my memory ever since my first night at Base Camp. And now there he was. Crouched in the snow, eighty feet above me was William Schwarzschild. I screamed. I couldn't help it. I had seen the bodies of fallen climbers before. It's an occupational hazard. But something about seeing him there, out in the open like that. It turned me inside out. Hearing my scream, the other climbers halted to check if I was alright. My arm tight around my support rope, I pointed with my free hand toward William's body. However, it would seem that due to the awkward angle of the slope, surrounded as it was by jutting crags and uneven ice, I was the only person in the entire team who had a clear line of sight to the corpse. And, since I was the last one up, there was no-one behind me to corroborate. Tam, the head guide, agreed to climb down and check for himself once I had pulled myself up to Camp Five.
Not wanting to wait behind and miss their summit window, the first two teams embarked on their run while my team and I waited for Tam to verify what I had seen. After nearly an hour had gone by, I began to worry. The other two members of my team sat huddled together by their tent, whispering to each other while I waited at the edge of the ridge for Tam to return. The first team had already summited the peak and were on their way back down by the time he finally appeared again. He explained that he had taken a long time because about a quarter of the way down, his ropes had gotten tangled and he had to stop to sort them out. By the time he had reached the point where I was able to spot William's body, the sun's position had shifted and made it difficult to discern it from the surrounding rock and snow. He said he had no way of being sure whether it really was William's body, and if it was, it was much further from Camp Five than he had expected it to be. According to Mrs. Schwarzschild, William died close to the camp, and therefore his body should have been much more accessible. He explained that if it truly was William's body, the likelihood of retrieving him was, he was sorry to say, slim to none.
We waited patiently for the first two teams to return from their summit attempt. When the first team arrived the guides that came with them conferred with Tam and confirmed his assessment of the situation. It simply was not worth the risk to attempt to retrieve William's body from the place where it had come to rest. As the second team trickled into the camp, Tam radioed down to Base Camp to relay the news and offer his apologies. The mother was inconsolable. She flew into a rage and demanded that Tam and his team perform another, more thorough search. She was absolutely adamant that William had perished not fifty feet from Camp Five, and could not have moved or fallen in the intervening days since. Somehow my name was dragged into the ensuing dispute, as I was the first person who spotted the body, and she got it into her head that it was my testimony alone that informed the decision not to attempt the retrieval. Ultimately she handed off the radio and refused to continue talking to us after insisting that she'd put together her own rescue team and bring him down herself.
By the time the situation had been thoroughly deliberated, and my team was preparing to make our summit attempt, we got word from Base Camp that a weather system was moving in and the mountain would be impassable within a few hours. Sure enough, a thick haze had enveloped the entire eastern face and the winds were growing fiercer by the minute. We decided to hunker down and make our summit attempt in the morning while the other two teams were descending back to Camp Four.
We each took our dinners alone in our tents, listening to the wind moan and scream through the camp. I read while I ate, grateful for the dog-eared copy of We Have Always Lived in the Castle that I always kept in my bag. Knowing I would need to be well-rested for my summit run in the morning, I took a sleep-aid with dinner and kept my lantern as dim as I could read by. I went to bed not long after I finished dinner and fell fast asleep.
From deep within the well of sleep, I slowly became aware of the sound of a deliberate, rhythmic scraping, somewhere nearby. Do you know what somnambulance is? It's the scientific word for walking in your sleep, and a known but rare side-effect of the particular sleep-aid which I had taken that night with my dinner. A sleep-aid that I have personally used for years, without any problems, complications, or issues whatsoever. I don't remember exactly why I woke up, only that I when I did, I found myself inexplicably outside in the dark, about thirty feet away from the safety of the camp.
It was such a surreal feeling that at first, I thought I must have been dreaming. Then I became aware of my hands, tightly gripping a fixed rope. After a moment's examination, I realized that somehow I had gotten dressed, laced my boots, strapped on my headlamp, left my tent, and was preparing to rappel down the mountainside when I awoke. Or at least, that's what I thought. But then, that sound came back to me. The odd, rhythmic scraping. I turned to look and found myself facing the edge of the ridge, beyond which was the 90 degree rock face between camps Four and Five, not twenty feet away. Then I felt it. A gentle tug on the rope in my hand. I stared down, watching it. With every little soft scrape in the distance, the rope tugged a little at my clenched hands. I immediately dropped the rope and fell against the icy slope. The scrapes were growing louder, nearer. Suddenly the rope became taut and creaked liked it was supporting something heavy. I couldn't look away. I just sat there, watching and listening as the rope creaked and twisted. Something was climbing the rope, that was the only explanation. And all I knew in that moment was that whoever it was... whatever it was... I did not want to see it.
Panic knotted my gut, and I began to fearfully pat myself all over, searching my pockets and belt, until finally, as the taste of bile rose in my mouth, I produced my pocket knife. The thing was barely a few feet from the edge of the ridge as I once again took hold of the rope in my trembling hands and began to saw through it. I squeezed my eyes closed tight against the freezing wind and the fear of even catching a single glimpse of what was coming, and worked through the sturdy cord for what felt like an eternity until finally, with a soft snap, it gave. The rope slipped from my hands and slithered quickly over the edge and disappeared into the endless void beyond. Sitting there in the snow and wind and darkness, thousands and thousands of feet above the rest of the world, I listened hard for the sound of impact. For a scream. For anything. But there was nothing. Only the wind.
I struggled to push myself out of bed the following morning, the possible ramifications of what I'd done weighed heavy on my mind. What if I'd made a mistake? What if it wasn't... Then I remembered. The two teams who had made the summit yesterday were descending this morning. Whatever I had cut loose in the night would be discovered within the hour. I hastily threw on my gear and joined my team outside, wanting to appear as calm and unassuming as possible. My teammates were already agitated, and asked me why I wasn’t responding to my radio. I told them that I had unintentionally slept-in and that my radio had been on the fritz for the last few days. As we knelt down to discuss our plan of attack, Tam the guide came over and quietly asked if he could speak with me alone for a moment. My blood ran cold, but I did not let my anxiety show. I nodded and stood to join him. Walking away, I could feel the eyes of my teammates burning a hole in my back as they stared.
Once we were alone, Tam gave a wary glance back at the camp and I could see the exhaustion in his face. Something was bothering him. He looked back and me and he held my gaze and told me that, I shouldn’t blame myself. It wasn’t my fault. I must have looked confused, because he asked, hadn’t I heard? And I responded, hadn’t I heard what? His expression turned grim, and said, he thought I knew. Apparently, sometime in the night, Helen Schwartzschild, William’s mother, had disappeared from Basecamp. I was gutted. The world turned under me and Tam caught me as I fell. I was sick in the snow, and began to weep openly, in ugly coughing sobs. Everyone nearby immediately went silent and turned to watch my humiliating breakdown. After several minutes, I realized that someone had brought me toilet paper and tea. As I blew the snot from my nose, Tam sat beside me and told me that, it would be okay if I didn’t want to attempt the summit today. I could go back down with the first two teams and he would lead my team for me. I wanted to. God. I wish I had. But I didn’t. I shook my head, “no” and told him that I had come this far already. I told him that I owed it to William and to Helen and myself to keep moving forward. In reality, it was cowardice that made me do it. In the end, I simply did not want to face whatever was waiting at the bottom of that fall. If only I’d known.
We began our summit attempt before the first two teams had even finished packing their gear. I took lead, and Tam brought up the rear. There are a few different routes which one can take to reach the summit from Camp Five. Each has their own benefits and drawbacks, though only one is significantly more challenging than the rest. More challenging, but not necessarily more dangerous. This was the route I had logged in my flight plan, and I saw no convincing reason why I should’ve changed my mind so late in the game. So that was the one we took. Perhaps it was pride, or perhaps it was just the simple fact that it’s difficult to dwell on other things, while your life is hanging on the strength of your fingers and toes, as you cling to a steep wall of wind-blasted ice and stone a over a mile high.
As we approached the peak, breathing heavy into our O2 regulators, I began to feel a sharp pain in my chest. It spread slowly and made me shiver in a way that had nothing to do with the frozen air around me. I could see the summit. And beyond it was... absolutely nothing for miles and miles. That sensation akin to vertigo gripped me again, and I fought to maintain my grasp on perceiving up from down as gravity itself seemed to become confused. I heard a muffled voice call out and realized that it was Tam. I turned and saw him behind me, and he was scared. Seeing his fear, I took a deep breath from my regulator and gave him a thumbs up. We were almost there. Have you ever been so exhausted, so relentlessly tired, that your body somehow takes over for you? Puts you on autopilot? That’s how it felt, scaling those last few dozen feet toward the final precipice at the top of the mountain. At precisely 1:37 PM, I set foot on the summit of The Mountain.
Being the first up, I helped the others one by one as they joined me at the summit. Remarkably, it was Tam’s first time. I only found that out after he had joined me there. There was cheers and shouts and celebration from everyone, and for a moment I forgot my fear. I forgot the cold sharp pain that continued to grow under my ribs. Everyone posed for a few photos and I guess I must have as well, though I don’t remember it. No, the next thing I remember is the call. Tam’s radio chirped and he answered it, still cheesing from the rush of his achievement. As he shouted back and forth into the radio, I felt that the hairs on the very back of my neck had begun to prickle and stand up. Who was he talking to? I couldn’t make it out over the roar of wind in my ears as it rushed over my parka. I saw him look at me. He nodded and shouted into the radio, then leaned over to ask me something. I looked at him, saw that his lips were moving, but I couldn’t make out a single word. I just frowned and shook my head.
I’ve forgotten so much. They say that happens when your brain is exposed to a low-oxygen environment for too long. You get gaps in your memory, develop behavioral problems. Over time, through therapy, they can reverse most of it. Of all the things I’ve forgotten from the expedition, I wish I could forget what happened next. Within moments, the others had begun to descend from the summit, and Tam helped me to follow him. But after a few feet I stopped. For the first time since reaching the summit, I did the one thing I dreaded more than anything since we set out that morning. But I had do. There was no avoiding it. I looked down. And there, beyond Tam, beyond the other climbers of my team, on a bare outcropping of rock amongst the sea of snow and ice, she stood. Unable to look away, I croaked, “Mrs. Schwarzschild.” Tam, who was reaching out to take my hand, froze as I spoke, and said, “Aggie, it’s not your fault.”
“What?” I asked, blinking hard against the blinding sun and the tears stinging my eyes. “There was nothing you could have done.” He said. As I stared at Mrs. Schwarzschild, I saw that her skin was rough and taut. Her hair was tangled and matted with ice. Chapped lips framed her mouth which hung dully open. Tam seized my hand and coaxed me forward, but I froze. “She’s there.” I said. He looked around at the other climbers, exasperated. “Aggie, they found her body. Didn’t you hear?” That did it. I looked at him as he indicated his radio. “She froze to death on the ice-fall, a few hundred feet from Basecamp.”
My heart dropped as I turned back to where I had seen her and saw that somehow, while I had averted my gaze, she had halved the distance between us and now stood only a hundred feet below us. Not only her. Over her shoulder, crouched in the snow as I had first seen him, was William. But they were not alone. All over the mountainside I perceived them. Dozens. Hundreds. Twisted, desiccated corpses with yawning mouths and sun-yellowed teeth. Staring helplessly out of shrunken, dried sockets. But they weren’t truly dead. They were still here. All of them, trapped here. Trapped inside. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move. My body was dying.
The terrible icy pain in my chest had spread throughout my entire body and I was paralyzed. Tam watched me sink to my knees and reflexively reached out to catch me, and in doing so he lost his own balance and tumbled down onto the icy slope below us. The slack ran out on his lifeline and I was immediately yanked down behind him, and somehow, in the rush of falling, I felt my hand take hold of my pick. My training, the countless hours of purposefully sliding and falling took over, and it was pure instinct that dug my pick into the rapidly passing ice and slowed our fall enough for Tam to regain control.
It’s been almost a year since it happened. a take medication for the nightmares, and these days I don’t dream at all. But the thing I long for most is solitude. I cannot remember the last time that I was alone. Unable to visit me in my dreams, I am forced to endure them in broad daylight. They say that what dies on the mountain, stays on the mountain.
I wish that was true.