Stories at the confluence of people, planet and play
The Two Burials of Jonathan Wright
The Two Burials of Jonathan Wright

The Two Burials of Jonathan Wright

THE KONKA GOMPA monastery was perched on a small bench of an otherwise steep hillside overlooking the terminus of the glacier that descended the west side of Minya Konka. I knew that on a clear day there was a stunning view of the nearly 24,900-foot peak, but that afternoon the mountain was shrouded in monsoon clouds. In the last light of a dim day, I stood beside Asia Wright, both of us leaning on the rail encircling the second floor of the monastery, looking at the prayer flags that hung like bunting under the eaves. At the altar in the center of the courtyard, a smoldering bough of juniper released into the still air a single tendril of smoke. From the prayer room, we heard the chant of the senior monk, who was old enough to have lived in the original monastery before Mao’s Red Guards destroyed it in the 1970s.

The Khampas, the ethnic Buddhists of eastern Tibet, had done an admirable job rebuilding the monastery, but even so, I could see it didn’t match the original. Twenty years before, we had camped next to what was left of the old monastery, and Yvon Chouinard, Jonathan Wright, and I had spent the afternoon inspecting the ruins, admiring the fine joinery in the remains of the beams and joists.

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Jonathan Wright on the train from Beijing to Chengdu. Reading his journals, I found an entry quoting his Buddhist teacher S.N. Goenka, “Your name or your person, which is dearer? Your person or your goods, which is worth more? Gain or loss, which is the greater bane?”

Rick Ridgeway

Now, nearly two decades later, I was in the same place with Jonathan’s daughter, who had just turned twenty, and who was with me not on a journey but a pilgrimage. That night I lay in bed writing in my journal by the light of a candle secured in a pool of wax atop my bedpost. My bed was along one end of the room, Asia’s in the middle, and the old monk’s (he was sharing his room) on the opposite end. He was chanting sotto voce as he arranged his belongings on his nightstand: prayer beads, a bell, and two portraits of lamas, each in a hand-carved wooden frame. Asia was also awake, the cone of light from her headlamp illuminating the photocopy of her father’s journal she had brought with her.

So many times on the trip with Asia I had the sensation of the past melting into the present. The sight of her hiking in front of me would carry me back in time, and there he would be, Jonathan, walking ahead on a day long in the past. She had her mother’s dark hair and Japanese eyes and high cheekbones, but she had her father’s long legs and fair skin. She wore a Tibetan necklace of turquoise and coral given to her by a friend for good luck on our journey, and she carried her father’s Tibetan prayer beads. The day before we left, my sixteen-year-old daughter had cut Asia’s hair short, the two of them giggling on our veranda, as the long locks of black hair fell to the tile floor.

When we began our journey—our pilgrimage—I worried about Asia’s asthma, her vulnerability to cold, her phobia of bugs. At first there was a kind of cautious formality between us, but after a week we had grown more comfortable around each other. I was confident that when the pieces of the trip fit together it would give her a clearer picture of her path forward. It was my idea for our journey to be just the kind of trip her father would have taken her on. Now, lying in bed in the Konka Gompa monastery, I decided to test my assumption.

“Asia, what’s the most important thing you think you’re getting from your father’s journals?”

“I think his ability to always improve himself and maybe realize it’s a job that never ends. But to be honest, I think you’re getting more from his journals than I am, because you knew him.”

“You’ve got a good point.”

“You’re real to me. And your stories—I’m learning from them.”

“Thanks for telling me that.”

“Good night, Rick.”

She turned off her headlamp. The old monk was in his bed, asleep. I took off my parka and blew out my candle, and in the darkness I cozied into my sleeping bag. I thought of some of the stories I had told Asia during our journey, about standing on the summit of K2 not as a victor but as a survivor, about coming home and over time realizing that if I could do that, I could do a lot of things. About meeting Yvon and then Doug, and what I had learned from them; things like sitting at the base of a nearly unknown massif in Bhutan and burning the maps we had worked so diligently to draw.

In the darkness I could hear the rush of the river below the monastery. Before I fell asleep, I had one more thought: if somehow today I were caught in the same avalanche, now that I am fifty years old, would I have the wisdom to ride the cascading snow not in fear but in wonder?

* * *

In the years following Jonathan’s death, I had continued to connect with Asia and her mother every two or three years. Asia’s mother had never remarried, and they remained a household of two. When Asia was fourteen, I stopped in Aspen to see them. Asia’s cheeks had freckled, and she was growing into a beautiful young woman. At first she was shy, even distant. Asia was on the JV volleyball team at her high school, and her mother and I sat in the bleachers and watched her play. Afterward, I offered to take Asia and some of her volleyball friends to dinner. They asked to walk to the restaurant, and I was sure it was so Asia could tell them about me.

Waiting for them at the restaurant, I asked Asia’s mother if the two of them talked very often about Jonathan.

“Not really,” she replied. “I gave her a framed photo of Jonathan getting on the plane, when you guys left to Minya Konka, but I don’t know what she did with it. She’s bitter about growing up without a father.”

Asia and her friends arrived, and after a while she began to open up. She told me she was an avid snowboarder (later she would make the US Junior team). She said she was also interested in learning to rock climb.

“Maybe this summer Yvon and I can take you up the Grand Teton,” I said. “First we can give you a lesson on a practice climb called Baxter’s Pinnacle.”

“Wow, that would be terrific,” she said.

I got busy with other things, though, and I never followed through. Toward the end of her freshman year at the University of Colorado, Asia called to say she hoped to come to California for the summer and was wondering if she could stay with us in Ojai. Her ambition was to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a professional photographer. By then I had started an agency representing outdoor photographers, so that summer she worked part-time for my company.

After she had been with us for a couple of weeks, I took her to a café for lunch. I told her about the avalanche: how the four of us roped together were trapped in the tons of cascading snow sweeping down the steepening slope; how as the snow catapulted over a cliff I knew I was dead; how it then slowed and stopped, and started again, and finally stopped; how I was somehow still alive but the others—Yvon, Kim, and her father, Jonathan—were all injured to varying degrees. I told her how I had held her father in my arms, locking eyes with him and telling him it would be okay, we were all still alive; how his eyes had rolled back in his head and his breathing stopped and I breathed into him and it started and stopped. I told her how we had carried her father’s frozen body to a nearby promontory and covered him with rocks and strung prayer flags above his grave.

“I don’t know,” she said after I finished the story, shaking her head. “Somehow it still seems like a story. All my life, people have asked, ‘What does your father do?’ and I’ve answered, ‘He was a National Geographic photographer, but he was killed in an avalanche when I was a baby,’ and they answer, ‘Wow, that’s incredible.’ It doesn’t sound real to them, and, in a way, it’s never been real to me.

“My mother didn’t want to talk about him,” she continued. “The only connection I ever had were his photographs, mostly pictures of Nepal and the Himalayas. I knew that was his favorite place, and that’s why he gave me my name. When I was eight, I had this idea that if I could somehow go there, I would be able to figure out who he was. I still want to go.”

I assumed she was going to ask me to help her get to Nepal. I was already forming my answer—that I could contribute half, but she would have to work for the other half—when she told me what she had in mind.

“Would you take me to Tibet?” she asked. “To Minya Konka? To climb up the side of the mountain and find my father’s grave?”

* * *

I didn’t give her an immediate answer; I had to talk to my wife.

“Of course you’re going to take her,” Jennifer said. “Asia isn’t just asking you to help her find her father. She’s asking you to be her father.”

I remembered the journey Jonathan and I had planned to take following the Minya Konka climb, when we intended to travel overland across Tibet and then to Everest, to do the story for National Geographic. What if I did the same trip with Asia, in reverse? We could start in Nepal, hiking to Everest Base Camp, going with some of the same Sherpas who had been her father’s friends. Then we could go overland to Tibet. Maybe we could climb a peak? But the snow on the mountains in eastern Tibet was often wet with monsoon moisture, creating avalanche conditions; even considering that gave me goosebumps. But in western Tibet the snow was dry and stable. If we went there, we could also join the pilgrims making the kora around Mt. Kailash, the circumambulation of the most sacred mountain in Asia, and something Jonathan had dreamed of doing. We could continue to the remote Chang Tang Plateau, perhaps to the Aru Basin, the area where for nearly a century the only Westerner to see it had been the famed wildlife biologist George Schaller, whose books and articles I had devoured. What if I reached out to Dr. Schaller? Maybe he would help me find a mountain there to climb in what he had named the Crystal Mountains. I knew it was an entire range in which no mountaineer had ever set foot. Then Asia and I could recross Tibet, to Minya Konka, to climb the flank of the mountain and find her father’s grave.

Her reply was instant. “Yeesss!” she exclaimed with the same enthusiasm her father had used—“Wuuwee!”—whenever he encountered anything that delighted him.

Our journey to Nepal and Everest, across the open alpine steppe of the Chang Tang Plateau in western Tibet to the monsoon-swept mountains of eastern Tibet, took two months. In the Khumbu, on the south side of Everest, we hiked with the Sherpas who knew and revered Jonathan. We joined hundreds of Buddhist pilgrims making the three-day trek around Mt. Kailash. In the Crystal Mountains, we reached the summit of an unclimbed, unnamed 21,000-foot peak. Returning overland to Lhasa—an off-road drive of more than a thousand miles—we flew to Chengdu and arranged for a vehicle to take us on the three-day drive to the trailhead leading to Minya Konka.

* * *

When I woke in the Konka Gompa monastery in the small room with Asia and the old monk, it was still dark, but the parchment window carried a faint glow. There was no sound of rain, only the rush of the river, but even at a distance it was an undertone that left a disquieting power. I quietly unzipped my sleeping bag and, with my envelope of travel notes and binoculars, I descended the steep stairs to the courtyard. Outside the monastery, I could see that a gray blanket of clouds obscured all but the lowest flanks of Minya Konka. I removed photographs from the envelope and studied them. I had circled on one of the photos the place on the buttress where we had buried Jonathan, but there were too many clouds to see it now.

Over breakfast, Asia and I formed a plan. We would take a minimum of equipment and food and hike up the lateral moraine of the glacier to camp in the same alpine meadow where, in 1980, we had set up base camp. Then the next day, weather permitting, we would try to find her father.

The monks gathered in front of the monastery to wish us good luck. In a half-hour we reached the river rushing over glacial boulders. It was too wide to cross. Scouting upriver, we found a single wet log spanning a narrow. On the other side, we climbed a steep slope thick with rhododendron, dewy in the heavy fog. We twisted through the thicket, careful not to grab the thorny branches of wild rose.

We gained the crest of the moraine and followed it for an hour. There was a dark squall approaching. I wasn’t sure where we were, and, reaching a narrow flat, we decided to camp. We had just finished pitching the tent when the squall hit. Inside, through the nylon fabric, I could see a flash of lightning, and it brought back a memory of the hours after the avalanche, when I had descended to base camp and everyone had then grabbed their packs and left to help Yvon and Kim. I was alone, and there was lightning and then thunder that seemed to sound for the departure of Jonathan’s soul.

All night, I listened to the sound of the rain hitting our tent. I found my headlamp and shone it on my travel alarm: 4:00 am. Pointing the beam out the tent door and onto a small bush at river’s edge that I had identified earlier as a marker, I could see that the river was within an inch of jumping its bank and flooding our tent. In this weather, I thought, I could never find the grave. Still, I went through my mental checklist—compass, headlamp, lunch, camera, film, reference photographs, binoculars—and started the stove to make tea. I handed Asia her mug, and she sat up and thanked me. Then the rain stopped.

“What do you think?” she asked.

In the moonlight I could see the tip of a lateral glacier hanging like a tongue out of the clouds.

“It’s starting to thin,” I answered. “Maybe we can pull this off.”

By dawn we were on our way, following a yak trail paralleling the river. The last time I had walked this path, my arm was in a sling. Yvon was behind me, his breath shortened by pain in his ribs. Kim was farther back, with an injured back and knee; he moved in halting steps, his lips tight, his blue eyes, clouded with morphine, seemed to focus on the middle distance, even when you talked to him.

The moraine squeezed against the river, and Asia and I were forced to hop from boulder to slippery boulder. We decided to climb the loose moraine, where at the crest we found a faint trail. Ahead I could see three parallel buttresses descending out of the clouds, one of them vaguely familiar. Looking through binoculars I compared what I saw to the photographs.

“Do you know which one it is?”

“I’m not sure,” I answered. “It doesn’t look the same.”

Then I realized what had happened. In twenty years, because of global warming, the lateral glaciers had receded so much that I didn’t recognize them.

“Look,” I said, pointing to the photograph. “The glacier was here in 1980, and now it’s way up there. But see these rocks? I think this is the one where the avalanche stopped. We buried your father just to the left, right about here.”

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After we tied prayer flags between two glacier wands, I placed the final stone on Jonathan’s grave.

Edgar Boyles

* * *

The crest of the moraine sharpened, and for balance I walked with my arms extended. Asia was about fifteen yards behind me, seemingly as absorbed in her thoughts as I was in mine. I was reliving that day I had carried her father to his burial platform, how the sun had warmed one side of my face while his frozen body cooled the other side.

Ahead I recognized the meadow where we had set up our base camp. Looking up, I could see the route we had taken to the base of the buttress. I angled toward it, keeping a steady pace, looking back to check on Asia. She was maintaining our separation, and I had the feeling she wanted it that way, maybe to collect her thoughts. The layer of clouds that had filled the valley continued to lift. In an hour I reached the top of the scree and stopped to drink from my water bottle. Asia arrived and we were quiet. I could see a few hundred yards above us the place where the avalanche had stopped, and, over to the left, where we had buried Jonathan.

I studied the area with binoculars. If his grave was still there it must have been hidden behind the foreground cliff. There was a route upward to the right, but it was under a sérac that teetered at the end of the glacier. I had no memory of the terrain being as difficult as it appeared. We continued to the base of the steep section.

“I’m scared.”

“It only looks hard,” I said, putting my hand on her shoulder. “I know you can do it.”

“It’s not that. I’m scared of what we’re going to find.”

“Do you still want to do this?”

She nodded her head.

“You go first, so I can spot you,” I said. “There’s a foothold here, then two handholds right there. Go up a few feet, then we’ll go left into that little dihedral.”

“Okay.”

“I’ll be right behind you.”

Asia placed her boot on the first foothold, then reached for the handholds and moved up. I didn’t know for certain what was going through her mind, but her body moved with athletic grace. I followed her, mindful to move only one hand or foot at a time to maintain a firm grip so I could stop her if she slipped.

“You’re doing great. Now traverse left, to that dihedral.”

The dihedral, an inset corner in the rock face, looked tricky, but my larger concern was down climbing it, especially if it started to rain. Should I turn back? I decided to keep going. At the top of the dihedral I led again, through a slope of loose rocks. The crest of the rib was now only ten feet away. I made five steps and looked up. I recognized the slope immediately: it was the place where the avalanche stopped and where Jonathan had died.

I took off my pack. Asia was about fifty feet below me, moving steadily. I looked up and to the side. There it was. Jonathan’s grave. How could it be so close? It had seemed so far the morning we carried him on our shoulders. But something was different. The grave wasn’t as high as we had built it. What had happened? Had it collapsed as his body had withered? What was that sticking out of the side? Faded nylon? Yes. And at the end? His climbing suit? Yes.

Asia was now only a few feet away, but she was looking down, focusing on her foot placements.

“Asia?”

She stopped and looked up.

“I see your father’s grave. Please prepare yourself because it is not intact.”

She looked past me, and her eyes froze on her father’s broken bier. Then she looked away and didn’t say anything. Neither did I.

“I don’t want to go up there.”

“Come to where I am. It’s a good place to rest.”

She climbed the last few steps and stood next to me and started to cry. Her shoulders rose and fell, her tears coming from deep inside. I held her head next to mine and looked past her to the place where I had held her father in my arms as he died. I was now with him again, with his head in my lap, as I held his daughter and she continued to cry.

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Rick Ridgeway and Asia Wright on the cover of Below Another Sky, Ridgeway's book about the pilgrimage to Minya Konka. (Gongga Shan).

“Why don’t you take off your pack and sit down.”

She wiped her tears and sat on a rock.

“I’m going up there, to have a look. Are you okay here?”

She nodded her head, still wiping at her tears. I stepped slowly toward the grave. I could hear the clink of the flat stones under my boots and remembered again how cold he had been on my shoulder. Then I was at the grave. One leg of his climbing suit was exposed. The nylon looked old, faded, and brittle. The other leg was still covered by the stones, but parts of his jacket showed. I reached down to the exposed leg and moved the fabric and . . . he was not there.

Maybe a snow leopard? It would have taken something powerful to move the stones. But then the griffins would have finished the job. I bent and lifted another stone, and there was his long underwear, still bright blue as though it were new. And the label, the old, oversized chest label that said Patagonia. Where the underwear was torn, I saw parts of my friend; his backbone and his ribs and his collarbone. I shifted another rock. His skull was gone but his hair was still there, in good condition.

I rubbed the strands between my fingers and was back in time, fingering his hair and looking up at Yvon who didn’t understand, and saying, “Yvon, Jonathan just died.” I was in the past and I was in the present and then I was crying.

“Jonathan, my old buddy.”

I cleared my eyes and stood. I would have to bury him again, replace the stones over his remains, and set up the new prayer flags we had brought. Maybe then Asia would come up, to be at the grave. Then I looked down, and to my surprise she was already heading toward me.

“Asia, your father’s clothes are here. But some of his bones are gone. You sure you want to come up?”

“I’m coming.”

Excerpted from Life Lived Wild: Adventures at the Edge of the Map © 2021 by Rick Ridgeway. Reprinted with permission by Patagonia.

* * *

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Photo by Jimmy Chin

By the time he was thirty, Rick Ridgeway had gone on more adventures than most people do in an entire lifetime. Called “the real Indiana Jones” by Rolling Stone magazine, Ridgeway doesn’t shy away from unknown territory. In fact, he seeks it. Ridgeway is recognized as one of the world’s foremost mountaineers. He was part of the 1978 team that were the first Americans to summit K2, the world’s second-highest mountain, and he has climbed new routes and explored little-known regions on six continents. Ridgeway is also an environmentalist, writer, photographer, filmmaker, and businessman. For fifteen years beginning in 2005 he oversaw environmental affairs at the outdoor clothing company Patagonia. Before joining Patagonia, he was owner/president of Adventure Photo & Film, a leading stock photo and film agency. He has authored six previous books and dozens of magazine articles and produced or directed many documentary films. He was honred by National Geographic with their Lifetime Achievement in Adventure award, and was awarded the Lowell Thomas Award by the Explorers Club. Ridgeway serves on the boards of Tompkins Conservation, the Turtle Conservancy, and One Earth. He lives in Ojai, California.

Purchase Life Lived Wild here.

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