The Last Mountain

©Stephen McDonnell 2002

draft May 5. 2002

12. Kagebo, the wait and reverse of fortunes

First part of the climb
Waiting out the storm,

Lilly was right. I had time to research my novel on the flying Tigers while they climbed. I used the internet satellite connection that Zach had set up, one of his moneymaking deals, and I was able to do as much as if I had been home. The southern exposure of the mountain seemed to funnel the feed in, like an extra large antenna augmenting the gain from the smaller dish. We were this little scientific camp, with helicopters and support personnel. The Chinese army contingent were there for show and to guard us and to keep us under watch as well. In the long days that followed, we became friends and I learned a few choice Chinese words.

In a way, my life changed after they left. Other than the communication people, I was on my own, so I made the best of it.

The paper Lilly had given me was her email address that she could receive on the mountain, the signal would be piggy backed on to the other data streams. I wondered about it's
security, but she had given me a codeword.

Sigfried had given me an envelope as well, in light of my role as chronicler, and it held his own diary of the preparations and thoughts on the team. If only I had known what it contained, I would not have let Lilly go. She would have gone anyway, but things might have been clearer to me.

I continued to male notes on the ascent. Not being a climber, I would ask Scott his advice during the climb. As well the Llama hung around, it was a holly mountain, after all. We had lively discussions about many subjects; he was more learned than I could have imagined. No wonder the missionaries had such a hard time converting the local Tibetan peoples to a new religion. He and Mr Lu would play cards or Ma Jhong for hours, within the shadow of death. What psalm was that from? I will fear no evil, even as I pass through the valley of death.

What follows is my impression of the climb, as I witnessed it. Because I could exchange messages with Lilly, I knew more than what was shown on TV or on the Internet.

I opened Sig's envelope, curiosity getting to me, and I think I can interject it into the narrative now, so that what follows makes sense.

Sigfried was the leader of the group, the one chosen by Zachery, because he was steady, a good climber, and a proven one with several alpine and standard climbs to his credit. He also obeyed orders. Not a great thing to have in a leader, rather a detrimental one. A leader makes the decisions; he doesn't follow orders especially on a climb. Only the person on top can see what is happening around and to his team. But there was money involved. Sig writes that is not the main reason for the climb, for him. A million dollars to the first man or woman to make the top. He sites the pride that climbers have their drive.

He writes, 'all of them want it, they want it in their bones and in their minds. Yet who will survive to make it to the top and who will come back?' His rhetorical question now takes on new meaning.

Sigfriend has tabulated the group, arranging them by sex and age, and V02 factor- ability to use oxygen at high altitude. He had given them a rating, based on his estimate on if they would make it up the mountain or not. It involved all kinds of German logic, from birth order to race, to sexuality. How he came to his conclusions, astounds me even now. Scott had looked at the same chart and laughed; no one what will happen, who will be the hero, who the villain on the climb. Yet there were tidbits that were tantalizing and explained so much.

Jason's bio that Sig had written down included a detailed account of the ice climbing accident. Sig was morbidly curious about it, wondering no doubt if he could have survived such an accident. He added that Jason was addicted to Morphine. But was now on lesser doses. I saw Jason differently now, more an old wreck trying to redeem himself one more time; the elusive big peak that all climbers dream about. It wasn't the money, or the glory, it was the personal triumph that he would take to the grave. His own best.

Sig was not as lavish in his praise for Chip or Marie, the younger ones. The American was a "hot dogger" only able to perform in front of crowds, worst of all, Chip had a short-term attention span. And no respect for authority. But Sig had added, "trainable." How insightful and optimistic, in light of later events. I had seen Chip go like a rocket up a rock face, as if he had glue on his hands. There was no arguing his ability, and Sig had put him high on the scale of making it first to the top; but at what cost to his team?

Marie, the rock goddess, brought out the misogynist in the German. She was good at horizontal climbing, bouldering, but had no rope skills. Why had she been picked? Her resume showed a lot of climbs on mountains in South America, so she could do more than bouldering, yet he seem to dismiss her talents. Maybe he wanted to bed her, and did not want to think she was superior to the men. She scored high in Endurance, but low in wanting it. Sigfriend had added an S next to her name. S for sex? Sexy? Stupid?

The doctor was likened to one of the many amateur climbers that traveled the globe paying to be airlifted to the base camp, have a leisurely stroll up the mountain and then boast about back home. He had "done Everest" and several other top peaks. He was put down as a climbing "tourist." And then added, we may need a doctor on this expedition. David was also put down as arrogant and easily manipulated through his ego. David expects everyone to differ to him because he is a doctor, he thinks he knows it all. A hand written note says, "His arrogance may get him into trouble," and adds, "needs a father figure to take care of him." Sigfried also added a graph showing his climbing ability had improved, but not his personality.

I even had a laconic note added to my dossier. It said Garry from Louisiana is akin to the youngest American to climb Everest, Joby Ogwyn, who climbed the 7 highest mountains in the world. Now I knew why Sigfried had been impressed by my origins. It had rung a bell. If he couldn't get the best, he would get the worst.

Sig's notation also carried this one about my climbing ability, "Highest Mountain Garry has climbed was in Driskill Mountain near Arcadia Louisiana, 535 feet, near where Bonnie and Clyde were killed. He added that I had bouldered near Yunnan, "almost dirtied his pants." The last note hurt. But I had more coming. "Zachery needs his ego massaged, and I need a witness to what ever will happen so this Mr. Woth will be the instrument to accomplish both tasks."

As for himself, Siegfried Hass and his Austrian friend, Manfreid Guttenstein, Sig notes they are the best team, having done many climbs as brothers, or as Scott insisted, freres de cordee. Rope brothers. No can evaluate themselves, but he does try. He lists the mountains they have climbed, times and difficulty. The numbers should speak for themselves; the journal seems to speak a silent witness to their ability. No can learn climbing from a book, nor can they put down in writing who they are. I have learned that from experience. Every climber has his own mountain to climb, his own fears and weaknesses. Scott filled me in on the German team.

"They are homosexuals." I had never imagined it, having met Sig in a bar where he had tried to pick up women. A real heterosexual would have had more success, especially in Yunnan, as I had found out for myself. He hated women, or was jealous of them. He and Manfred shared a tent. So little evidence to back up Scott's whispers. Real men love real men. Like the Spartan warriors, they fought better as a unit. I hoped they climbed as well.

I knew as much about Lilly as Sig, except for her credentials. He had hastily penciled them in, on the last page. A lot of Chinese mountains. Also mentioned was a training course taken in England, an outward-bound school. Her father had sent her there, she had told me, to toughen her up for the outdoor work. A woman was not as tough as a man was, so her Yang had to be increased by ordeals.

So now my vision of the team was different, I no longer saw them as drinking buddies, but as parts of a puzzle, one that might not fit together.

Then there was the technical side of mountain climbing I wanted to understand. People died on mountains from strange ailments.

My researching into mountain climbing had gotten me to the worst part, the wear and tear it took on you, the danger of death from lack of oxygen.

from National Geographic and Yale Medical School:

When climbers reach the summit of Mount Everest, few feel as if they're on top of the world. The thin air at this extreme altitude offers only a third of the oxygen available at sea level. Lack of oxygen, or hypoxia, starts a chain of reactions that can result in altitude sickness.
Climbers also battle against
frostbite, hypothermia, and snow blindness.


Climbers risk altitude sickness any time they venture above 8,000 feet (2,400 meters). The region above 25,000 feet (7,600 meters) is called the death zone.

Starved for oxygen, climbers' bodies overcompensate by breathing more vigorously. Consequently, they exhale too much carbon dioxide, which in turn upsets the blood's pH balance. With their blood more alkaline than usual, mountaineers can grow dizzy or nauseated. Other symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS) include headaches, appetite loss, insomnia, and extreme fatigue.

AMS ranges from common discomfort to a severe condition called high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE). Because of the low air pressure, the body overcompensates and speeds up its blood circulation. The brain can swell from too much blood, causing disorientation. HACE can kill within a few hours.

Also, fluid may gather in the lungs, creating high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). A climber stricken with HAPE usually has a cough (sometimes accompanied by pink froth), tightness in the chest, tinges of blue on lips or fingers, and an extremely accelerated heart rate.

The cure for the potentially fatal edemas: oxygen and rapid descent.

We waited for news of the climbers who had departed at noon, making their way to the first high camp, already prepared by Sherpa. What we had not foreseen, nor had Mr. Lu, was a rapid drop in barometric pressure and a front that barreled through, bringing snow and mixed with freezing rain to sock in the climbers.

Finally a voice called us, Chip had kept his cell phone and solar recharge. He informed us all was well, they were having a bitchen time climbing the ice flow. Scott laughed, "The guy has to impress the chicks. He does have balls. I saw him flash El Capitane, do it in a day and the redo it the next day free style."

What happened next was classic mountain climbing; the front stalled and kept the climbers at their camp for two days. In a way it was a blessing, in disguise, as a decision had to be taken. An odd number of climbers was not unlucky by itself, but usually, everyone was teamed in couples. With the addition of Lilly, an extra climber had been added to the mix.

Arguments were flying back and forth at the camp, as they weathered the storm. Chip wanted to go out in it, start attacking right now. David, who usually seconded him, was not as enthusiastic. No one wanted to go out in the storm, they had found their island of calm, and their bivouac was a fine place to stop and recoup. Calmer head prevailed.

Next day it still was snowing.

I went back to Deqe town to see Michel; actually, he had ordered me back, sending a company land rover.

"Well, we are off to see the wizard, who lives on top of the mountain?" Micheal had been drinking without realizing the effects of high altitude and high amounts of alcohol blended together. "How is the chef d'oeuvre going?"

"Not much going on, right now, as you know. It is a bit like watching a golf game, except this one is happening thousands of feet above you." I shot back.

"Well, that is OK, I have something for you, " he winked, a finger sliding down the side of his nose, an attempt at a conspiratory look. "You still writing about those flipping tiger moths?"

"Flying Tigers."

"'Right, whatever. Well, they have found one at the glacier."

Michel sent me off on a wild goose chase, accompanied by Mr. Lu, my erstwhile interpreter, to the base of the mountain on the other side. We whiled away our time, trying to find the wreckage, and getting a run around. Ever since the province had been renamed Shangri La, the natives had been spotting downed aircraft. No doubt there were airplanes here, this was the hump, the air route that supplied China during World War II.

At least I got to see the spectacular water fall. The other side of the moutain was higher at its base, colder and more forbidden. To the east rose the dragon's scales of the Himalayas, rows and rows of unclimbed mountains, waiting for some fool hardy souls to make their name. I can imagine how a pilot must have felt in WWII as he went around in cork screw turns trying to attain enough altitude to cross them from Burma or India into China. No one knew about the jet stream then, the mass of almost supersonic wind that flowed like a giant air river, high and unseen, waiting to cause an airship wreck.

In fact, the glacier had given up a ghost. Evidently an airplane had hit the mountain and the wreckage had fallen down the cliff, to be swallowed up by the glacier. Now, years later, it had emerged in the loss, carried by the ice river to the foot of the mountain. I had seen a TV report on an airplane accident in Peru, where a passanger liner, a converted bomber, had been waylayed by the jet stream, in those days, they flew by dead reckoning. Thinking they were near the airfield, they had flown down into the clouds, into the side of a mountain.

Was this the tragic fate of a cargo plane or one of the flying tigers? I would let the experts decide. I was worried about the climb. Weather had cleared and they wer e on the move.

When we got back we were in for a surprise.

Marie Garibaldi was back in camp.


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