La La, Pass Pass

At the teahouse in Manang, Robert stood outside his room peering into a community mirror in the hallway applying sunscreen to his face. He had just taken his first shower in days, and the mirror, too, was the first he had seen in days. Even with the arguable benefit of a shower, he looked like crap. His beard was scruffy and his face bloated from lingering effects of the edema he had suffered at base camp. They were now only a couple days out of that camp, having abandoned their climb and committed themselves to continue westward on the Annapurna circuit. Manang was the largest village they had seen in a couple weeks.

“Look at that handsome face.” A woman’s voice in passing. He caught a shock of white hair turning a corner. At first he thought she was remarking on his vanity, but decided the tone was more in the line of complimenting-a-stranger-just-to-be-nice. He was a little defensive because his daily application of sunscreen, even at sea level, was obsessive since a couple surgeries for skin cancer the previous year. The doctors said most of the damage was probably done in his youth, but why take chances? Which, now that he thought of it, was pretty much why they had abandoned the climb. The risk factor had become unacceptable.

So, now they had the problem of traversing over Thorung La, the highest pass in the Himalaya. It was slightly higher than the camp where the edema had overtaken him. But almost five days had passed and he was confident Thorung La would be manageable.

His climbing partner, Neal, was trying to get an internet message out to the world, but Robert had found the connections too erratic and had given up. He wandered out into the street where he met a drunk with a missing front tooth who had a nice display of jewelry. Eventually he would buy a couple Tibetan rosaries carved out of yak bone, but for now they just talked, Robert fluent in the language of drunk. A pair of teens shot arrows at a target in an empty field near the center of the village. The bow was medieval, but the arrows found the target with a solid thud. A huge yak stumbled up a stone stairway toward him, but like all these bovine creatures wandering the streets, this one was somehow non-threatening. He reached the small temple at the main intersection, the cleanest, whitest structure in the village and joined a line of mumbling women in circumambulation, spinning the prayer wheels until he arrived back at his starting point and then he headed back to the teahouse, stopping again to chat with the toothless vendor en route.

The dining room was crowded and dimly lit, but warm. Robert and Neal lay claim to the last available table, in a windowless corner. Their guide, Lhakpa, took their order, but in a large dining room like this, ten tables, although he sat with them, he didn’t usually eat with them. The porters never socialized with clients when there were other porters about, strictly a class system. Robert looked forward to dinner, but wasn’t sure why; the meals were all the same, starchy and generally bland. Rarely was there edible meat and often not much in the way of vegetables either. Meals were strictly an exercise in carbohydrate loading and hydration.

At the table across from them sat a Swiss couple whose paths they had crossed before. The woman was mannish and wrote compulsively in a journal—tiny cramped handwriting of which there seemed to be no end. Robert himself kept a journal, and while he was reasonably disciplined about it, he was a bit envious of the woman’s graphomania. And yet, if your nose is in your own writing at every restful moment, doesn’t that somehow interfere with the here and now? Or so he rationalized.

The Swiss had quit their jobs, moved out of their apartment and put their few possessions into storage. Most Americans, Neal noted, would not do that. Which was why one saw so few Americans here in Nepal. Too tied down to things. Robert observed that the Swiss had no children.

The room could only barely hold exactly this many people. A young Nepalese trekker played the guitar, badly, Robert thought, to a nonetheless appreciative audience. The kid was the only native trekker Robert had seen — trekkers were almost exclusively Europeans and the only Nepalese they saw on the trail were villagers or porters. The kid with the guitar sang Bob Marley in a high falsetto and strummed the same two chords to every song he played. He knew the chords for maybe one song and the lyrics to about five, one in French, the rest in English. People clapped.

An American woman called out, “Play Yellow Submarine.” Yellow Submarine, Robert wondered, was there a worse Lennon McCartney song? Of course, the kid did not acknowledge her, but began another round of Redemption Song. Robert had not noticed another American in the room, and then he saw that the Yellow Submarine woman was accompanied by the white-haired woman who had passed him earlier in the hallway.

Perhaps there were a few trekkers older than Robert and Neal, but not many. The white-haired woman. One of the closest acquaintanceships they had struck up was with a German man and a much younger woman they had assumed to be his wife or girlfriend. Over lunch, they discovered the pair to be traveling companions not partners of a more intimate nature. They were discussing the age of the average trekker and the German man said, “I imagine we play in the same league.” That he was referring to Robert and Neal was clear, when under her breath the woman muttered, “Speak for yourselves.”

But they had parted ways with Germans when they had left the main trail for the climb. When they returned to the main trail just before Manang a whole new set trekkers was in play.

Early in the trek Robert would try to eat what the Sherpas ate, which was Dal Bhat, at every single meal. Dal Bhat was mostly rice, with a spicy curry-like sauce, sometimes a grisly piece of mystery meat. But he didn’t like the idea of being powered by such a huge mound of rice and now he usually ordered a pasta, which was usually bland, reminding him of a sauce made out of ketchup packets pirated from gas station diners.

Manang was very appealing, something about how it managed its blend of size, which was relatively large, and its medieval nature: the water buffalo in the streets, the absence of cars, the archer shooting at a target in the middle of town.

The next day the walk began its steady rise toward the crucible, the Thorung La pass, though pass is redundant as that’s how la is translated: pass pass. Robert found himself in step with the white-haired woman, perhaps, he thought, the oldest person on this journey. He found her . . . companionable.

At a tiny teahouse he and Neal stopped and lunched with the Polish couple, the white-haired woman, and the Sherpa known as Pumpkin who came from the same village as Lhakpa. Both had survived harsh apprenticeships as icefall doctors, fixing the way up the Khumbu for aspiring western Everest hopefuls, many of whom had never climbed without a guide and who were planning to tick off the seven summits. Lhakpa had summited Everest four times and Pumpkin, too, had been to the top many times. They were men of the world, landowners, employers. A trek like the one this had turned into what was for them a very easy way of earning a living compared to all that could go wrong on an 8,000-meter peak.

When they arrived at Yak Kharta there was a young Euro couple juggling and playing some weird hippy games in the courtyard of one of the teahouses. A group of porters watched them blank-facedly and it occurred to Robert the pair were under the spell of some kind of hallucinogen, sweating profusely and moving awkwardly.

This was where they met the Canadians, the loud ones. The man deeply muscled and making some public showing of his upper body in the chilling late afternoon air. Also, many Russians, grim-faced. Who knew the reason for their dissatisfaction?

Robert had not entirely given up the idea of skiing a line in the Himalaya. The last chance would be at the pass. He would scout for a line above Thorung La. A porter, usually Long Boy, had been carrying the skis around the whole circuit. And Robert felt guilty about it. Particularly about not even actually using the skis. Every night Long Boy deposited the skis along with his other duffels in their room. Among the items were his ski-mountaineering boots, as bulky in their own way as the skis themselves, also unused thus far. Now they were two days away from Thorung La and the gradual ascent was agreeing with him: he was imagining having the strength to ski. Imagined spotting the line. He liked the idea of being able to say that he had skied the Himalaya. Which, should it happen, would be gross exaggeration.

Robert took the skis out of the bag for the first time, and fitted his boots to the bindings. He inspected the edges, the release settings. At least, now, he could say he took them out. He locked the room, descended the stairs, and headed through the courtyard and across the path to the community tables of the teahouse.

The young Euro couple was cavorting in the courtyard, and they were sweating, somewhat manic. They still commanded an audience of porters and local people, but Robert was embarrassed on their behalf. There was something unseemly about their display.

Neal sat at the table reading, while around him trekkers from various nations pored over maps and drank tea waiting for their camera batteries to recharge. People were generally sociable, but only up to a point. Some wished to maintain the illusion that what they were doing was special when the reality was that this was very popular trek. Nonetheless, the only other Americans, unless you counted the Canadians, were the white-haired woman, Madeleine, and her daughter. Robert didn’t catch her name, the daughter’s. She seemed to engage mostly with Nepalese children.

The Canadians were loud and seemed to Robert much more American than the Americans. Russians glowering in the corners. People reading The Snow Leopard and Into Thin Air.

Madeleine said, “Did you see make a visit to the 100 Rupee Lama?”

“No,” Robert said, “I would have liked to, but wasn’t really aware of him.”

“He gives a blessing for success on getting over the pass.”

“For 100 rupees,” Neal adds.

“It’s not much more than a dollar.”

“Buying indulgences,” says Neal.

“It’s a donation,” Madeleine said, “He gives you this charm.” She showed Robert and Neal a plastic medal on a red string. Actually, Robert wished he had just such a blessing, even if the charm looked as if it had come out of a gumball machine. Neal wouldn’t dream of buying indulgences. Nor did he believe in God, nor luck either when you got down to it.

“Look,” said Madeleine, and she took out her telephone and showed a little movie of her bowing before the lama and receiving his blessing. She added that the lama was blind.

“A nod’s as good as a wink to a blind horse,” Neal said.

“Come on, Neal,” Robert said. He was looking at Madeleine’s hands, which looked like his grandmother’s. His own were not many years behind.

“I count it as among the most transformative experiences of my life,” Madeleine said.

To which Neal wished to know, how exactly she had been changed.

“It’s hard to say. Mostly I don’t fear the pass so much.” And then she talked about this time in Oaxaca when during a parade, a small child in a white communion dress left her float and walked over to her and presented her with a lush bouquet of lilies.

It was hard to describe why that meant so much to her, Madeleine admitted. That sense of being chosen, of being . . . anointed.

Across the trail in the courtyard the young jugglers were finished with their show and strode off up the trail, packless. There would be nothing between here and Thorung Phedi, a full day’s walk, and the hour was late.

“The drugs will keep them warm,” Neal said.

“No, really,” Madeleine asked, “Will they be okay?”

“Maybe they have a magic amulet purchased from the 100 Rupee Lama,” Neal said.

“They’ll be okay,” Robert said, though, in truth, he wasn’t sure.

The Canadians were talking about skiing, assuming wrongly that Robert was an expert, as they seemed to be. Also, about the Annapurna Sanctuary. Between the conversation and the books others were reading, Robert wondered why people just couldn’t be where they are? Why was conversation even necessary?

In the corner, one of the Russians raised his voice in anger and everyone in the place stilled. After a pause, conversations resumed in a whisper.

“There was one more time,” Madeleine said. Her daughter had wandered off. “And that was in a cave, in France. We were on a tour and the access was limited to this tiny train, with open seats. It was like in an amusement park for little kids. The train moved real slow and as it went by the wall paintings motion sensors lit the walls and illuminated the cave art in these slow-motion flashes. The cave would only be open for another year and then would be sealed to prevent environmental degradation, something to do with exhaled carbon dioxide.”

“So,” said Neal, “what was illuminated?”

“The art,” Madeleine said, and then after hesitating, “and me.”

“What do you remember about the art?” Robert asked

“Actually, very little. It wasn’t so much the art itself, but the experience of seeing it and this sense of connection through huge expanses of time to the persons who had made it. It’s hard to describe.”

“But it’s good to try,” Robert said. He was anticipating Neal possibly voicing skepticism, but Neal was immersed in his own book.

Lhakpa had imposed an alcohol ban until they had summited the pass. But the others, well, not Madeleine and her hippy-dippy daughter, but the Russians and the Poles, they were drinking plenty. When Robert and Neal walked across the road to the room they were still at it.

In the morning one of the windows was broken and the Russians were arguing with the proprietors about who was responsible. The owner was demanding reparations but the Russians were adamantly arguing against any such thing. They were imposing and there was no way it would end well for the owner.

Robert ate his lemon pancake and fried egg without appearing to be eavesdropping, not that he could understand any of the argument. Everyone was here for a different reason, but he could not guess at what the Russians’ reasons might have been.

He had not entirely given up on the possibility of a skiable line somewhere up from the pass. This would stop Neal from joking that he was taking his skis for a walk around the Himalaya.

They were two days away from the top of the pass and the next stop, Thorung Phedi, was to be one of the highlights of the circuit, a great staging ground for all the pilgrims heading over the pass, many of them psyching up for setting a personal altitude record, a physical feat perhaps greater than any they had ever accomplished. For Robert and Neal, it was something of a consolation prize.

Thorung Phedi was a kind of circus, a great international bottleneck with groups staying extra nights, some even hiring mules to carry them over. It was almost impossible to turn around and go back the way you came: at least a six-day walk to where a vehicle of some kind might be sent. Continuing over the pass and westward you could get to Tatopani in three or four days and have a car sent up from Pokhara, which was exactly what Robert and Neal had been planning.

All the people from the night before eventually straggled into Thorung Phedi, although Robert did not see the Russians. The teahouse was much larger than any of the others, probably because there was only one, no string of quaint little houses with outdoor gardens and flowers planted in empty paint cans. Despite that the dining area was filled exclusively and incessantly with the sounds of Led Zeppelin and Bob Marley the mood was . . . tentative and conspiratorial. The interior landscape was overseen by an imposing Tibetan with long braided hair and an enormous yak-herders hat. He wore heavy plastic glasses of an Elvis Costello-ish nature. He was somehow very worldly in a surreal third-world sense and it was said that at the end of the season he amassed so much paper money that three horses could barely haul it out, accompanied by a small Kalashnikov-armed militia.

Conversation between Robert and Neal was constrained mostly to “How are you feeling?” and “keep hydrating.” Madeleine Maines was there and the Poles. Every so often someone rushed outside to vomit or maybe just to escape the sense of claustrophobia induced by the altitude and the tight proximity of all the bodies, 50 or 60 people in close quarters. It was a party atmosphere for people who didn’t seem to have the energy to enjoy it.

But the individual rooms were ice-cold cubicles of concrete and stone and without lights. “Full-on gulag,” Neal said. You couldn’t really even read in there unless you used a headlamp and then just holding the book outside of your sleeping bag would numb your fingers in minutes.

“It’s hard to believe that at this time tomorrow we will have crossed the pass and be in Muktinath,” Robert said. He felt sometimes that the altitude had slowed his synapses to a crawl and that the most mundane observation might provide a sense of wonder.

“It’s better than believing the alternative,” Neal laughed.

Robert laughed, too, not really sure to what alternatives Neal referred.

Lhakpa and Pumpkin were, as always, in some dimmed antechamber with the rest of “the boys.” Lhakpa would come out to check on them every once in while, place a cup of tea in front of them, smile cheerfully, and retreat back to the room with the porters and guides. Once Robert had looked in on them there and found them dozing or playing cards, or, depending on the teahouse, because there was always such a room, watching soccer matches on an antiquated television. Their body language always reminded Robert of what he imagined an opium den would be like.

At breakfast they saw Madeleine Maines’ daughter, who said they were going to wait another day so that Madeleine, who was feeling “unwell” could better acclimate. Which made Robert wonder why, then, the daughter was up with the rest of the trekkers at four a.m.

Soon they were out in the cold night air. The stars were close and the trail rose above them and they could see the headlights of the trekkers zig-zagging upward to the pass. Robert was conscious that now the people whom they had shared the trail with, Madeleine Maines and her daughter, the Poles, Pumpkin, all these people would be dispersed and he would never see them again. Soon they were passing other parties, although it was hard for Robert to imagine going much slower. As on other certain popular mountains Robert felt this was a kind of pilgrimage, a shared enterprise. Rainier, Mt. Blanc, the high places on the planet that aren’t too technical and draw the seekers. He walked a bit in front of Neal and Lhakpa. This seemed natural, too, because Lhakpa was a kind of non-believer, too. He spun the occasional prayer wheel, as if by vestigial habit. Sure, he said, he was Buddhist, but not religious.

No climbing was involved and the trail, what he could see of it in the dim circle of his headlamp, was wide and smooth, well-traveled. Robert recalled a childhood friend who drew hazard pay for his construction work on high-rises. His friend had asked, “How do you fall off a sidewalk? With handrails?” This didn’t have handrails, but none were required.

Robert’s fingers froze like they always did at altitude and after an hour of work they began to thaw. This was familiar but intensely painful. The two porters were behind somewhere and Robert didn’t wish to be separated from his skis. He had not entirely given up on the possibility of a skiable line somewhere up from the pass. This would stop Neal from joking that he was taking his skis for a walk around the Himalaya.

They stopped at a corral and teahouse. This was the last chance for hiring a horse or a mule. Lhakpa brought Robert and Neal tea. No one spoke. Robert recalled the Spanish climbers who had met them at basecamp before they had decided to descend. He had asked if it were possible to ski the peak.

The Spanish were dazed and semi-hypoxic, but their leader was relatively unfazed. “That depends,” he said, “Are you a professional?’ And he smiled in such a way as to suggest he did not believe Robert was a professional.

Lhakpa appeared with another cup of tea.

By the time they left the teahouse the sun had been up for an hour and Lhakpa announced that they were making fine time and that there wouldn’t be any problems.

This time he was right. The pass was filled with people and prayer flags, littered almost. The ground was covered with what looked like Monopoly money but turned out to be some sort of prayer “cards.” Robert and Neal shook hands and had photographs taken. The highest pass in the Himalaya. Not so bad, a good thing really. They both felt great. Lhakpa had disappeared. Even here, Robert assumed, was a room where only the Nepalese hung out.

Robert scoured the peak for the mythical skiable line. It was there, too, right off the summit ridge of Thorung Peak. It might be about 2,000 feet, he thought. He imagined he could get to the top in three hours, and ski down in a half-hour, max. It was not even nine a.m. It could be done. But he knew Lhakpa would not be too enthusiastic as he would surely not let Robert go alone, nor would Robert want to, and that would mean splitting the party.

The weather was so good, the hour not too late, the skis carried all this way. Lhakpa agreed. Robert had almost wished that Lhakpa would have vetoed the idea and then Robert could have said that the matter had been taken out of his hands. Okay, Robert thought, now I will just have to do it. The happiest was Long Boy who now did not have to carry the skis. They would reunite at the first teahouse on the descent, or if they were too late, at a place in Muktinath that Long Boy and Lhakpa agreed on.

Robert and Neal embraced and Neal said, ”Don’t do anything that a professional wouldn’t do,” and snorted. Lhakpa tied Robert to a short rope and the teams split, Lhakpa and Robert upward and for Neal and Long Boy it would be all downhill.

They moved at about the same pace as they had on the trek up, but now that they were climbing it felt right. Although they had crampons they didn’t need them. There was one large crevasse, a sort of bergschrund, after which the climbing steepened. The snow hardened. Robert wouldn’t have called it ice, but when Lhakpa stopped and waved him up, Robert knew the crampons were going on. Still, he knew this snow would hold the edge of ski and he had skied steeper lines dozens, no, hundreds, of times, expert or not.

They hit the summit ridge after just two hours, and Lhakpa motioned for Robert to leave the skis there. If time had been a factor they would have just stopped and Robert could have skied down. But they had made excellent time, gaining a couple thousand feet in just two hours and though Robert was tired, his breathing was not ragged and his heartbeat, though elevated, was well within normal for the level of energy he had expended. He would ski the very line they had ascended, which had been the plan all along, but first, they would go to the summit, too. Jesus, Robert thought, in a flush of disbelief. He thought he might burst with pleasure. Lhakpa, too, he could see, was very happy. The summit ridge was broad and it was a stroll really. Lhakpa held several coils of rope in his hand and they walked only about ten feet apart. From the ridge they could see south to the majestic Annapurna massif and to the west Dhaulagiri in sharp relief against a surreally blue sky, so surreally blue that Robert wondered if he weren’t hypoxic after all.

He thought of this manic holy man in the streets of Kathmandu who had sprung at him out of the crowd and pressed a flash of marigold yellow onto his forehead before he disappeared back into a mass of humanity as suddenly as he appeared. Anointed, Madeleine Maines’ word. Neal had expressed shock that the man hadn’t demanded a fee. Neal should be here, but Robert knew that Neal would have zero regrets. He never did.

Then, as if suddenly, it was downhill in every direction. Robert and Lhakpa did an arm-in-arm 360-degree twirl, took a few snapshots and then headed back down the ridge. Back at the skis they, Lhakpa, laid down the rules: were there any unforeseen difficulties, any reason to hesitate, anything at all, Robert was to hunker down and wait. Lhakpa would be jogging down—there was no place so steep that he couldn’t descend facing outward and he didn’t expect to take more than an hour to get back to the pass. Robert was to wait there.

He locked into his skis, made the sign of the cross, the tip of his ski pole flailing in the air like a divining rod blessing the sky. Robert sidestepped, sluffed down about a dozen feet to a small dip. He turned back to Lhakpa and gave him a thumbs-up, Lhakpa’s huge smile glowing white against his dark skin and the blue sky. Robert pointed the tips downward and shoved off. The line was straightforward and not even that long, by his calculations. He was confident of the estimated casual half-hour to ski down and then the trick would be to stay warm until Lhakpa reached him on foot.

He made four or five pretty clean turns before stopping to catch his breath. He was still over 20,000 feet. Just below his skis a small slab broke off and avalanched down. The break lengthened and snow broke into large blocks rumbling down in slow motion. The blocks hadn’t looked huge, but the accumulation of them was soon massive, and it scoured a line well over a hundred yards long and the snow beneath what had peeled off looked hard, icy. His heart pounded, a lucky spectator.

He would test the surface before he skirted around to the left, which would be westward, he reminded himself. And just then the snow he rested on broke off and he was on the ice, not quite out of control, but in trouble.

Robert was thinking about the edges on his skis, so sharp he had cut his finger on them. They would hold, they would hold. And they did, but they flung him across the slope and he couldn’t slow himself down, couldn’t get the surface of the ski onto the ice and he dared not try to point them downhill.

He shot across the avy scar-like streak. Too fast even for a prayer, every bit of energy willed to those edges. As he neared the sheared edge of snow at the end of the ice he tried to jump over the edge but the tips of his skis didn’t clear and the skis hit the little wall and ejected him out onto the snowfield like a passenger in a head-on collision hurled through a windshield.

Robert lay panting on the slope, so gentle he hadn’t even rolled down more than ten or so feet. He lay on his back hyperventilating and doing a mental inventory limb-by-limb. He was shaken, shaking, but not injured.

He sat up and looked upslope to where he imagined Lhakpa to be, but didn’t see him. One ski was stuck tip first in the shear, vibrating slightly like a tuning fork. The other had disappeared, but there was only one place it could be, down where the avalanche debris fanned out. If these were the old days when the ski was connected to his foot by some kind of leash, this wouldn’t be a problem. These new brakes only sort of sometimes worked, condition dependent. Of course, if the ski had been attached to him it probably would have hit him in the face or severed a tendon. Something. He’d pick it up on the way down.

He sat and struggled to attach his crampons to his boots. He had to take his gloves off to work the straps and it felt like it was taking forever. His fingers numbed in the air. Took a drink of water. I’m a lucky man, he thought, anointed, fucking anointed. Waited until his breathing slowed to what felt average, and began his descent. He kept parallel to the avalanche scar but a good fifty feet over from its side.

The angle was easy. Neal would be entertained by this story, he thought. Neal would say that he had not purchased enough indulgences. He walked facing outward, occasionally traversing left or right in steep sections. He heard the crack and the gathering rumble somewhere above him and he began to run back toward the path of the first avalanche. He could hear the thing, an accelerating roar.

Robert tried to keep his eyes on the path ahead but he hit a patch of soft snow and went down to his knees. The tumult was fast approaching. He thought of a French climber whose last words were, “This one is for us, gentlemen.” No us, no gentleman. The wave was upon him. Anointed, he thought, and the blocks rolled over him like some kind of enormous white threshing machine, snapping his neck swiftly and plowing him under tons and tons of snow.

When Lhakpa arrived at the avalanche debris the rubble had set up like cement and not a sign of human existence showed anywhere on its surface. No glove, no boot, no hat. No ice ax or ski.

Neal sat in the sun on a terrace outside the first teahouse he came to on his descent. Luckily, he thought, they did not serve alcohol, the ban on which presumably Lhakpa would lift now that the pass had been successfully traversed. He dozed and plied himself with tea and thornapple juice. He kept an eye on the trail recognizing none of the trekkers, some indeed looking worse for wear, on their way down to Muktinath.

At three hours he began to watch for Lhakpa and Robert but acknowledged to himself it may be as many as six hours. Even though several hours of daylight remained he decided to book a cot at the teahouse and have a proper rest. When he awakened the sky was dark, and it was obvious that Robert and Lhakpa had walked on by. Whatever. Walking down the rest of the way now by headlamp would be ridiculous. He would meet them in Muktinath in the morning.

The walk down to Muktinath was easy in the chill morning air. The first structure he came to was the famous temple, where Long Boy sat on a bench outside the gates. Long Boy’s English was not the best, but Neal was able to understand that, in fact, neither Lhakpa nor Robert had yet arrived. Neal continued down to the hotel and took a warm shower and ate a huge meal, then walked back up to the temple to resume watch with Long Boy. Soon trekkers appeared with vague rumors of an accident.

Finally, a group of porters appeared, chanting, and with them was a small white horse, over which what was clearly a human body had been slung. Neal insisted they unpack the body and the porters laid it out. It had been wrapped in a blue tarp and tied tightly and elaborately together with a long single strand of hemp rope. The men began unraveling its knots and the unwrapping of the package.

Neal was beside himself and intervened in near panic. Underneath the tarp was a woolen blanket, also meticulously bound. Finding the shroud impenetrable he took his knife and slowly, delicately began opening the sacred package. To his shock and relief was released the thick white hair of Madeleine Maines. Neal sat on the ground and wept in a way that he himself knew to be a stifling of a kind of indecorous laughter, relief.

Soon another entourage appeared, at the center of which was the daughter of Madeleine Maines, she, too, riding a small white horse. She appeared weary and cried out. Neal hugged her and whispered condolences.

The daughter said, “And I am sorry for your loss, too.” And then, he knew. She filled him in on the few details she had heard. “Avalanche,” and “lost.”

The funeral procession continued toward town and Long Boy and Neal waited for Lhakpa, for the official news.

When he arrived, Lhakpa looked completely drained of life. Neal hardly recognized him. They went into the temple where Lhakpa, the famous nonbeliever, removed his shoes and knelt prostrate on the dusty floor. He lowered his head to the ground inching his way toward the altar, what Neal thought of as an altar. Neal watched for a minute, fought back a tear, and then knelt, too. He put his forehead on the cold floor and for a moment lost consciousness, or so it seemed. He began moving forward in Lhakpa’s wake, praying, to whom or what, he didn’t know. Praying for solace, for indulgence. :::

David Stevenson is the author of four books, including a fiction collection, Letters from Chamonix, winner the Banff Mountain Book Award for Fiction and Poetry in 2014.  In 2017 he received the H. Adams Carter Award for literary excellence from the American Alpine Club. His nonfiction has been noted twice in the Best American Essays series.  His most recent book is High Places, Sacrifices, Mysteries (2021). He divides his time between the Oregon coast and Alaska where he directs the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Alaska Anchorage.