“C’mon kid. We’re close.”
He had said those words hundreds of times in the last month. But at 29,000 feet, through the blistering cold and the unfiltered rays of the unforgiving sun, the words had a different meaning. Up here, they were always close to something—mainly death. But finally, after a struggle few can comprehend, they reached their final goal.
The goal in question was the summit of Mount Everest. And for Blue Jennings, this wasn’t the first time he had made this journey.
But even though he had been there before, the summit always had a different feeling. The environment was similar no doubt: the endless entombment of his body and equipment in ice, the burning of his fingers, toes, eyes, ears, and even organs as the cold ensconced him, the constant laboring of breath as his lungs screamed for air—all these were familiar feelings. But as Blue trudged up the last few feet of snow, a sense of invincibility washed over him. It wasn’t the first time he had felt this.
Blue stopped just shy of the summit and peered behind him. Just below was one of his clients, 23-year-old Robert Newcomb. This was the kid’s first attempt at Everest and he was about to accomplish something nearly impossible. Blue was proud he was the one leading him to the top.
With shaking hands, Blue reached up towards his face and tugged away at his oxygen mask. The ice had accumulated around his beard, but after a few attempts, he managed to rip the crusty tool from his head. The cold stung at his exposed skin, but for the first time in months, he didn’t feel it.
“Rob…that’s it. Keep pushing!”
Robert stumbled in front of him, but Blue caught him. “I can’t…carry you now kid…” he panted out. “You’re close.”
“Not bad…for a poker player,” Robert said, smiling. He was spent. Blue knew it. Getting down the mountain would be very hard for Robert, but Blue would worry about that later.
He gave him a pat on the back. “It’s all you.”
Standing on the summit of Mount Everest, one could almost grasp the curvature of the Earth. When coming home, Blue Jennings always found this his hardest sight to describe. Some parts of this view he wanted to keep to himself because, well, he had earned it. But a sense of duty towards others made him an unselfish man. Except on one occasion.
Blue shed his sunglasses and gazed longingly out across the Himalayan peaks. He closed his eyes and listened to the snapping of the Buddhist prayer flags in the wind. It was utter peace.
Robert also removed his oxygen mask and breathed in the thin air. “If my tears wouldn’t freeze,” he said, “I’d cry right now.”
Blue laughed and pulled a camera from his backpack. “You did well kid…now smile.”
Blue snapped some victory poses of Robert, then took a few of the peaks below him.
“The roof...of the world...” he panted to the kid.
Blue would never take the view for granted. As he saw it, the last nonviolent place on Earth was this very summit, a space no larger than a picnic table. Voices from a crowd behind him, however, reminded Blue that it was no longer the most peaceful.
There was a time when Everest wasn’t a tourist attraction for the rich. Only the best climbers in the world could tackle this mountain, and even then, most of them couldn’t. Now, all it took was finding an experienced guide—and a hundred thousand dollars, of course—and the dream could be bought.
Most of these tourists disgusted Blue. But then again, he’d be out of a job if it weren’t for them.
He imagined the traffic jam of people stacked up at the Hillary Step, the final obstacle to reaching the summit, and he tried his best to enjoy his final moments in solitude on the ceiling of Earth.
“Fourth time’s the charm, huh slick?” a muffled voice called out from behind him.
Blue put the camera down and saw a woman ambling with ease up to the summit. Her long-limbed, bony features, plus the lack of any kind of oxygen equipment, gave her away immediately.
“’Bout time, Domino,” he heaved out. “I was getting worried…”
She put her hand on his shoulder. “Don’t wear yourself out, big guy,” she said through a circular wired-mask.
Domino had been Blue’s climbing partner for the last eight years. When Blue founded his climbing company, Alliance Expeditions, she was his first choice at helping him run his team. Despite her spidery figure, the woman had physical and mental strength matchless to any man he had ever met. Throughout their work relationship, he watched her get teased for being a woman in a so-called man’s world. But it never fazed her; she thrived in this type of environment. Domino had already proven herself climbing Everest without supplemental oxygen, and she was about to prove herself again.
For the third time.
“You got a crowd headed your way,” she reminded him.
Blue nodded. He was too busy staring out at the peaks below. A slap on the shoulder courtesy of Domino broke his concentration.
“Hey, stay focused,” she said sharply. “Don’t let that mind wander.”
She was right. The hardest part about the climb was actually descending. The brain suffers from a drop in oxygen, and mistakes are made easily as a result. And when easy mistakes are made up here, there are no second chances.
Robert staggered over to them. “I couldn’t…have done it…without you guys.” He bent down with hands on his knees and coughed violently.
Domino grabbed his shoulders, pulling him back up to eye level. “You all right, kid?”
Robert nodded. “Just a little winded.”
Domino fastened the oxygen mask back around his face and checked his levels. “You’re low on O2,” she said.
“I am?” he said, surprised.
Blue took a look for himself. “You must’ve accidently touched the valve.” It was a common error but also one of the most punishing.
Robert definitely looked confused. He was reaching a perilous state, and Blue realized he needed to get down immediately.
“Listen, kid. Tenzing is posted down at the Hillary Step. He’s got an extra O2 tank.”
Tenzing was Blue’s Sirdar, or head Sherpa. One cannot climb Everest without help from a Sherpa; their superhuman strength and endurance surpasses that of any climber who has ever lived.
“Right.” Robert glanced one last time at the awe-inspiring view, then headed down.
Blue watched him bump headlong into a crowd of excited climbers nearing the summit. He knew he should go down with him, but he also wanted to enjoy what might, as always, be his last time up here.
“Well, at least one of our clients made it,” Domino said underbreath. They had started out with two others, but both of them had decided to give up upon reaching Camp Four.
Blue shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe one day.”
A Southern voice drawled out from a group of approaching climbers. “If the creek don’t rise!”
Blue didn’t need to turn around to know that the “Cowboy of Everest,” or so he styled himself, had caught up to them.
“Alex Greene. Where’ve you been?” Blue smiled falsely and they shook hands.
Greene bowed to Domino. “Howdy, gorgeous!” he said with extra Southern charm.
Domino, too tired to put Greene in his place, just returned the nod to make him go away.
Greene breathed in the crisp air. “Lemme learn y’all sumthin’, Blue, this one nearly kilt me.” He looked out across the vast, white region beneath him. “Took longer than a month of Sundays, but goddamn, always worth it.”
“That’s a new one,” Domino mumbled.
Greene’s climbing company was fairly new. He had begun just a few seasons after Blue, and this was only his second time on the summit.
“Y’all got any knickknacks to leave up here?” Greene asked, reaching into his pack.
“Not this time,” Blue said.
Greene presented a photograph to Blue. The picture was of himself as a kid, with none other than the first man to summit Everest: Edmund Hillary.
“Met him when I was a young’un. I told him I would run with the big dogs one day.” He dug a small hole with his gloved hand, then carefully placed the photo in the snow. “Wish I told him I was gonna summit twice.”
Nausea suddenly slapped Blue in the face. He bent down, hands on his knees, and sucked hard for air.
Domino came over and tenderly put Blue Jennings’ oxygen mask back around his face. She started on checking the O2 levels when Blue’s radio crackled to life.
Blue straightened up, seizing the radio clipped to his jacket. “Say again?”
“I think that’s Tenzing,” Domino assumed.
The radio squawked. “Mr. Newcomb—no good—”
“Rob?” Blue grew alarmed. He studied all the faces in the oncoming crowd. Something was wrong. He could feel it.
“I’m going down,” Blue said to Domino.
“I hope he’s all right,” she offered.
Blue began to hike down, but an urge to take one last look at the summit overcame him. He saw Greene taking pictures with some of his clients. He heard people laughing noisily, hugging and high-fiving one another. Someone tossed a candy bar wrapper over the side.
The new Everest, he thought.
The radio hissed to life. “Mr. Jennings!” Tenzing yelled, panic-stricken.
Blue keyed the radio. “Coming.”
After a few tense minutes of pushing past the flow of climbers, Blue was standing at the peak of the Hillary Step. He gazed downward and followed an assembly of climbers gathered around a lump in the snow. Grabbing a free rope, Blue clipped in and began the descent.
When he reached the bottom, Tenzing intercepted him before he could reach the attraction.
“It’s no good, Mr. Jennings!” he said over and over. “It’s no good!”
Blue moved him aside and raced over to what he could now see was a body.
Robert Newcomb. He was sprawled on his back, his face completely mashed into a bloody pulp.
“Jesus Christ,” Blue managed. He fell to his knees in the snow and grasped one of Robert’s lifeless hands.
“What happened?” he said without looking up.
Tenzing explained frantically that when Robert was halfway down the Step, a large chunk of ice broke loose above him. He had looked up just in time for it to break his face apart.
Blue shook his head.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Jennings.” Tenzing placed a hand on his shoulder.
Reaching into his backpack, Blue removed a tarp and draped it over Robert’s body. There was no way to get him back to base camp. He would remain here, at the bottom of the Hillary Step, forever consigned to the slopes of Everest.
Climbers continued to pass them by, callous to the situation occurring a few feet away. After a long time, Blue stood up.
“I gotta make the call,” he told Tenzing, then stiffly began to work his way back down.