The Eight-Thousanders

March 11, 2021

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Jason Sanford is a two-time finalist for the Nebula Award who has published dozens of stories in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, Interzone, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Fireside Magazine along with appearances in multiple year’s best compilations along with The New Voices of Science Fiction, edited by Hannu Rajaniemi and Jacob Weisman. His first novel Plague Birds was published in 2021 by Apex Books. Born and raised in the American South, Jason currently works in the media industry in the Midwestern United States. His previous experience includes work as an archaeologist and as a Peace Corps Volunteer. His website is www.jasonsanford.com.
Content Warning(s):
Death or dying, Self-harm and suicide

He spoke once, the words whispered by frozen lips on a face so frostbitten he looked like a porcelain doll. I found him below the summit as our expedition bottlenecked before the Hillary Step on our final ascent of Mount Everest.

And above the bottleneck, more climbers. Dozens of people snaking to the top in their insulated red and orange and bright-color parkas and boots and backpacks. 

As if the mountain bled a trickle of rainbow-neon blood.

I leaned against a rock overhang, numb and cold and exhausted and focused only on climbing higher. I thought the man sitting under the overhang dead until I saw condensation rise from his lips. Spindrift snow danced around him.

“Don’t let me die,” the man whispered.

No one else had noticed the man. Or they’d ignored him like all the dead bodies we passed on Everest.

I waved for Ronnie Chait, my boss and our expedition’s leader. Ronnie stumbled over in his red high-tech coat and pants. He was attempting his fifth summit of Everest and his first without a supplemental oxygen system. Back at base camp other expedition leaders had grumbled about Ronnie leading people to the summit while not using oxygen. But no one dared confront Ronnie. He was one of the richest men in the world and known for both his love of mountain climbing and his hard-ass attitude toward business and life.

Ronnie knelt before the freezing man. 

“He’s too far gone,” Ronnie said. “Must have been up here overnight.”

More climbers stepped past us. The longer we waited, the longer it’d take to summit. In one of Ronnie’s viral TED Talks he’d recounted what he’d learned during decades of venture capital and mountain climbing. How rescue was impossible on Everest. How if you died on Everest your body stayed on Everest.

His point was to live your life as if every day was Everest. That you couldn’t rely on others to save you. 

“Nothing to be done, Keller,” Ronnie said as he laid his hand on my shoulder. “We can’t help him. But staying here will keep us from reaching the summit.”

Ronnie’s eyes hid behind his sunglasses, but it felt as if he glared into me. As if this moment decided my future with him. I owed my career to Ronnie. He was helping me reach Everest.

He turned and climbed up the ropes, daring me to back out. 

I hesitated. The freezing man looked at me with a desperate gaze. I remembered my little brother’s final hours. How I’d wished I’d been there with him. 

I couldn’t leave this man to die alone.

Could I?

Nyima Sherpa, Ronnie’s main guide, hiked over. Nyima rubbed the man’s legs and arms, trying to return circulation, but his extremities were already half frozen. We tried to help him stand, but the man couldn’t move.

“He’s nearly dead,” Nyima said.

I should have felt something, but didn’t. I was exhausted and numb, not merely my body but my emotions. I knew logically that this was because my oxygen mask and cylinder couldn’t provide enough air to be clearheaded in the mountain’s death zone. But even knowing that, I didn’t care. All that mattered was to keep climbing.

“I’ll stay with him,” a voice said above the hiss of my regulator.

A short woman stood beside Nyima. She wore a parka so faded the red was nearly pink. Her insulated pants and boots were black and also faded while mountain goggles covered the top of her face in one big rainbow-reflecting lens. An older-style rubber oxygen mask covered her mouth, nose and chin, ensuring no skin was exposed to the sun or the cold. But the line leading from the mask dangled loose, unattached to any oxygen canister.

“Truth,” the woman said. “I’ll stay. Continue your climb.”

Nyima stared at the woman through his icy goggles. His oxygen mask shivered as if he couldn’t gasp enough air. He muttered something in the Sherpa language before grabbing my arm and hustling me to the line of waiting climbers.

When I glanced back the woman knelt beside the dying man in the shade under the rock overhang. Now out of the dazzling sunlight, she removed her rubber oxygen mask and gloves, revealing deathly pale skin. When she opened her mouth, I saw large fangs. She leaned against the man and whispered into his icy ears while gently running a finger along his neck.

“Keep climbing, Keller,” Nyima yelled. “Just climb, damn it.”

§

For the last decade I’ve reached toward Everest. Summiting larger and larger mountains. Exercising daily. Working forever-long hours for Ronnie’s venture capital company. Begging for a taste of the stock offerings in the new tech start-ups he continually funded and spun off.

Because it wasn’t good enough to want to climb. You had to have the means to climb. And that’s what working for Ronnie gave me.

Not that I hated Ronnie. Working for him was like aiming for Everest—it didn’t matter what we created, only that we reached the top. And in our spare time we bonded over mountain climbing. Tech bros convincing ourselves it was our genius and hard work which carried us here.

But I sometimes wondered. Now that I was actually on Everest the mountain felt like that gourmet burger restaurant Ronnie bought a few years back. Bad decor and overpriced food yet always filled with tech bros and hedge fund managers whose haircuts cost more than a hundred bucks. Ronnie loved the restaurant and took his top people there most weekends for beers and laughs. No matter that we were sick of the damn place. That we couldn’t eat another of those fancy burgers even if our mommies kissed our cheeks and begged us to swallow. 

But eat them we did. And convinced ourselves we loved them. Because Ronnie did.

As I climbed the last few meters to the top of Everest, I wondered why summiting felt like another weekend at that damn burger place.

My body was so weak it felt as if I swam through wet concrete. I gasped at the oxygen streaming into my mask. I stepped to the top behind Ronnie. We were the last to summit. Nyima was already descending with the others in our group.

Ronnie took a photo of me at the summit. When I offered to take one of him he shook his head and said we needed to descend. 

I stared at the distant Tibetan plateau. At the other nearby eight-thousanders. Lhotse. Makalu. Kangchenjunga. All mountains nearly as tall as Everest. All their peaks in the same death zone which was killing me, my body unable to grasp enough oxygen even with this mask.

“Someday we’ll climb them all,” Ronnie yelled. “We need to go.”

Distant clouds swirled one of the mountain ranges. For a moment Ronnie looked worried. He stepped forward and slipped, only his climbing axe keeping him from sliding toward the edge of the mountain. I wondered if the effect of not using oxygen was getting to him.

But I said nothing and followed him. Because at this point what else could I do?

§

By the time we climbed down the Hillary Step the clouds were closer. From this distance they looked pretty. But darkness was also falling, with the sun so low that the side of the mountain we climbed down was now in a giant shadow. We had to reach the temporary camp at South Col before the pending storm reached us. Below us in the distance I saw Nyima and the other expedition climbers—it looked like they’d make our overnight camp before the storm hit.

We turned on our headlamps and staggered forward.

I focused on following Ronnie, forcing my exhausted body to take step after step, and almost ran into him when he suddenly stopped. We stood near the rock overhang where the climber had been freezing to death. Maybe Ronnie wanted to see if we could still help.

But there was no one under the overhang.

Ronnie stumbled backwards, knocking me down. I slammed my climbing axe into the snow to steady myself as Ronnie backed up even more.

The woman in the faded red coat stood before us on the mountain’s edge, right beside a sheer drop of a thousand meters or more. Her face and hands were no longer covered now that the sun was hidden by shadows. She cradled the frozen man in her arms like a child and bit into his neck. Red sprayed across the spindrift snow. The man didn’t move, either dead or so far gone he felt no pain.

The woman turned toward me and Ronnie and smiled, the blood on her lips and chin instantly freezing.

“I waited for you two,” she said. “You’re already dead, you know.”

Ronnie held his climbing axe before him like a weapon, but I didn’t move. We barely had the strength to reach camp let alone fight. Besides, it would be so simple for her to knock us off the mountain if she desired.

The woman shook her head. “Don’t worry—I won’t kill you. But you started your descent too late. The jet stream’s shifting. The storm and wind will hit before you reach camp.”

Ronnie stepped forward as if to swing his axe at the woman. I grabbed his shoulder, stopping him. She was right. Down below us I saw the other climbers already blurring as the increasing wind stirred up the snow. 

The woman turned back to the mountain’s edge. She held the frozen man out as if offering him to the sky before tossing his body into the air. The man soared for a moment before dropping out of sight.

The woman stepped back to the rock overhang, allowing us room to pass. “You idiots call that the Rainbow Valley,” she said, pointing to the drop-off. “From all the dead climbers in their bright parkas and gear. For what it’s worth, I didn’t kill any of them.”

Ronnie staggered past the woman, keeping as far from her as he could without falling. 

I crept by closer to the woman, afraid I’d fall if I hiked that close to the edge. As I passed she said, “I’m Ferri.”

“Keller,” I said back, whispering inside my oxygen mask. I didn’t think she’d hear me. But she nodded as if she’d heard and followed me as I climbed down.

§

Ronnie and I made it to the South Summit before darkness and the full storm hit. But my oxygen tank had run out minutes before. I gasped at the dry air, my body hyperventilating but still not getting enough oxygen. Panic shook me. I felt like I was drowning. I prayed I wouldn’t pass out.

Nyima and the other guides had cached oxygen bottles here yesterday, but I didn’t know if I’d last long enough to reach them. As Ronnie lead me toward the cache between two rocks, the weather cleared for a moment. I saw the headlamps and illuminated tents at South Col and the lights of the other climbers who were nearly to the camp. Then the wind shifted and I again saw only a half-dozen meters in the swirling snow.

“There’s only empty bottles,” Ronnie screamed, leaning over the cache. A number of red bottles lay scattered across the snow and rock, left from when the other members of our expedition changed out their oxygen earlier. But one of the bottles still had the seal over the threads to keep out ice and snow — it hadn’t been used. 

“That one,” I said, pointing at the full bottle. “They left it for me.”

Ronnie picked up the bottle. But instead of handing it to me he threw it with a strength he shouldn’t have had. The bottle bounced off a rock below us and tumbled over the edge of the mountain.

“It’s empty,” Ronnie yelled. “Empty. But there’s air all around us. Breathe it, Keller. Breathe!”

I fell to my knees, lightheaded, as Ronnie began descending again. Was he going to leave me here? I collapsed onto the empty bottles, my gloves smacking each one, begging for one to have oxygen in it. Unlike Ronnie, I hadn’t trained my body to climb Everest without extra oxygen. I gasped for air, desperate to breathe. I couldn’t die here. I couldn’t.

“Your friend’s an asshole,” the woman in faded red yelled as she sat on one of the rocks beside me. “Yeah, he’s addled from oxygen deprivation, but he’s still an asshole.”

Ferri. That was her name. I tried to stand but my vision swirled and I crashed to the frozen ground.

Ferri leaned over and stared into my face. Her lips were glazed in frozen blood. She pulled her worn backpack off and opened it. Inside were the gloves and sunglasses and mask she’d worn earlier along with a fresh oxygen bottle. She replaced my bottle with the new one. My mind and vision cleared as oxygen again flowed into my mask.

“Thank you,” I whispered.

“I only did it to keep your blood fresh.”

Ferri stared at me with a blank expression, the right side of her mouth open slightly so I could see a single long fang.

“Sorry, bad joke. I always carry an extra bottle in case someone needs it.”

I stood up on shaking legs. “If I die out here …”

“If you die out here I’ll drink your blood.”

“Then maybe I shouldn’t die.”

“Always a good idea.”

I staggered after Ronnie as Ferri followed.

§

Wind and cold and snow bled the mountain and ripped through my thermal coat and gloves and boots. I had to make camp or die. But in the blizzard I couldn’t see anything. I’d already lost sight of Ronnie in the howling snow and could easily walk off the side of the mountain. Fall a thousand meters, my body never to be found.

Ferri walked behind me. When I stopped she stopped. When I struggled against the whiteout wind and snow, she followed. Never giving me a hint on which way to go to reach camp.

For a moment the snow above me parted and I saw the stars, bright as a million spotlights in the thin air. I glanced down and saw, a few meters away, Ronnie crouching next to a small boulder.

I stumbled over and collapsed beside him. His face was porcelain, his nose and cheeks polished into white river stones by frostbite like the dying man we’d seen earlier. He must have lost his insulated face mask at some point.

“Where’s camp?” I yelled over the wind.

Ronnie shook his head. 

The boulder partly protected us from the jet stream but we couldn’t stay here. We’d be dead in an hour if we didn’t get out of the storm. The camp was likely only a hundred meters away. But if we stumbled around we’d more likely fall off the nearby cliffs.

Ferri sat down beside us. Ronnie glared at her. “Where’s the camp?” he yelled.

“She won’t help us,” I said.

Ronnie yanked my face mask off, the precious oxygen bleeding into the blizzard. “She found you an oxygen tank,” he yelled, pointing his ice axe at her. “Where the hell’s our camp?”

I shook my head, not knowing. Ronnie turned his anger on Ferri, shifting his ice axe so the pick end pointed at her chest. His eyes, which had seemed hopeless moments before, sharpened into the fire which anyone who opposed him in the tech world knew only too well. 

Ferri stared blankly at Ronnie before she smiled. But not a real smile. More a smile given by someone who’d copied smiles she’d seen on the faces of others. As if Ferri had long ago given up on feeling any actual emotions.

Ferri blandly pointed into the whiteout around us. Ronnie staggered to his feet and stumbled in that direction. But was he heading toward camp, or had she directed him toward a cliff?

“You’ll die if you stay here,” Ferri said in a flat voice barely heard over the howling wind.

“I thought we were already dead.”

“You are. But if you follow him you may end up dying later.”

I stood and staggered after Ronnie. 

§

We stumbled through the white. With each step I expected Ronnie to vanish before my eyes, falling to his death down some forever cliff. 

I shook my head, trying to focus.

Ronnie stopped and I stood next to him. We heard a faint clanking.

“Move it or die,” Ronnie yelled as he grabbed my arm. As if he was again in charge of his own destiny.

We shuffled through the snows and wind until we saw a bright orange tent. Then a red tent. The wind blasted the tents so they barely stood, but I didn’t care if they were about to collapse as long as I could climb inside one.

A western climber stood beside the red tent banging an ice axe against an empty oxygen tank. Nyima argued with the climber, trying to convince the man to go out into the blizzard with him to find us.

They both stopped when they saw us.

“You two are damn lucky,” Nyima said as he shoved us into our tent. “Did you hear our banging?”

I fell on my sleeping bag, not even able to take off my boots or crampons. “Only heard it … right before we saw camp,” I said, my words shivering like my body.

“Then how’d you find us?” Nyima asked. He handed me a thermos of lukewarm tea, which I swallowed desperately.

Ronnie stared out the open tent flap looking for Ferri. We could only see a meter or two with the blowing snow. Who knew where she’d gone.

“We took a chance,” Ronnie said. “Took a chance.”

Ronnie wiped his frozen face and paused, reevaluating his words.

“No,” he said. “We made it work.”

§

The situation at camp wasn’t much better than what we’d experienced coming down the mountain. Despite the best weather forecasts used by Ronnie and the other expedition leaders, the jet stream had unexpectedly shifted and now blasted the camp. Nyima said that so far the tents were holding up, but no one knew if they’d last through the night.

“It’ll clear by morning,” Ronnie announced.

“How do you know?” Nyima asked.

“It will.” Ronnie pulled his sleeping bag around himself and didn’t move.

Nyima returned to his tent. The tent fabric beside my head rattled and howled, the support rods bending dangerously close to breaking. I rolled over and looked at Ronnie, whose face showed severe frostbite. Nyima had wanted to bandage Ronnie’s face, but Ronnie waved him away. I still wore my oxygen mask and, for a moment, considered offering him some of my air. Oxygen helped the body fight frostbite. If Ronnie used some, he’d have a better chance of avoiding permanent damage.

I would even swear to Ronnie that I’d tell no one. Anyone who asked would be told he’d climbed Everest without supplemental oxygen.

But I knew Ronnie. If I helped him he’d grow angry. Not today—today he’d be grateful. But back home, at work … when we returned to life … he’d find a way to hurt me. To show that he didn’t need to rely on me for anything.

That he was the master and I was nothing.

I rolled over, breathed deeply of fresh oxygen, and fell into a fitful sleep.

§

The storm continued the next day.

When I’d first seen Everest several weeks ago from base camp, I’d watched beautiful wisps of cloud and snow spiral off the summit. Only later did I discover those wisps were hurricane-force winds. Ronnie always paid for the best forecasting and had assured me we’d never be in the death zone when the weather was this bad. This was something that only happened decades before when people had climbed the mountain without adequate technological support.

I wanted to laugh but was too exhausted.

Even with a tent and sleeping bag it’s nearly impossible to sleep in the death zone. The oxygen mask gripped my face like a stranger’s hand strangling me. But when I removed it I couldn’t get enough air.

Still, I drifted in and out of something like consciousness. I remembered Nyima coming to the tent and telling Ronnie the other expedition leaders wanted to meet with him. The two of them crawled into snow blowing by like a jet engine, unable to stand without being knocked over. After crawling barely a meter they vanished in the blizzard.

They’d left the tent flap open and I tried to raise enough energy to sit up and zip it shut. Before I could, Ferri climbed into the tent and closed the flap for me. The tent was being blown almost flat and she lay on Ronnie’s sleeping bag so she could look into my face.

“This tent isn’t much protection,” Ferri said. “The wind’s blowing at more than 100 kilometers an hour. Your tent could parachute in the wind and drag you over a cliff before you’d know what’s happening.”

I stared at Ferri as I gasped at oxygen inside my mask. I remembered all the times my little brother was sick when we were children. He told me once his body felt so numb and exhausted that he pretended it was a puppet he controlled. Twitch a string and his arm moved. Touch another string and he’d smile to allay our mother’s concern.

I felt the same right now. My mind tugged a string and my head nodded to Ferri’s words.

Ferri leaned over me and sniffed my blinking eyes. “You’re dying,” she said. “I can smell it. Your body’s so weak your digestive system has shut down. Every second your cells wink out by the thousands, all of them angry as they scream for more oxygen.”

Ferri stuck her tongue out as if to lick my eyeballs before pulling back. “If you stay here much longer you’ll die. If you go out in this blizzard you’ll die. What are you going to do?”

“Ronnie said the forecasts are for the jet stream to shift again. The winds will stop and we’ll descend out of the death zone.”

“That’s what he told you?” Ferri asked. “Before I came here I listened outside the tent where Ronnie and the other expedition leaders are meeting. Turns out the forecast was always iffy but Ronnie convinced everyone to push to the top. And now the forecast isn’t supposed to change for several days.”

I twitched the strings holding my body together, making my body shiver slightly. Every climber knew what happened if you stayed for days and days in the death zone.

While Ferri stared at me the entrance unzipped and Ronnie climbed into the tent, pausing halfway in. He glared at Ferri, backed partly out, stopped again in the doorway.

“Want me to move over?” Ferri asked. “There’s room for all of us.”

Ronnie glanced outside at the snow gusting past.

Ferri picked herself off Ronnie’s sleeping bag and kicked it toward him. “I don’t need it,” she said.

Ronnie took the bag and disappeared into the blowing snow to find another tent.

“He doesn’t like you,” I said.

“He shouldn’t,” Ferri said. “But it doesn’t matter because he’ll be dead before he gets off this mountain.”

“He won’t like that.”

“Most men don’t.”

§

My oxygen tank emptied before nightfall. When Nyima checked on me and heard my gasps for air, he brought me another tank. But he refused to enter the tent to hand it over, forcing me to crawl outside.

“She’s dangerous,” Nyima yelled over the howling wind. “Bring your bag and we’ll double-up in my tent.”

I shook my head and climbed back inside. Nyima shrugged and crawled to his own tent.

I clicked the oxygen tank into my regulator and breathed sweet, deep air again. I collapsed back on my sleeping bag.

Ferri grinned her fake smile. “Should I like being called dangerous?” she asked.

“Does Nyima know you?”

“I’ve seen him up here many times. Seen most of the Sherpas and westerners over the years. Sometimes they recognize me. Most of the time they think I’m just another climber.”

“You from here?”

“No. From what you now call Italy, but centuries ago. I’ve been climbing this mountain for the last forty years.”

“Why?”

Ferri reached up and pushed against the tent fabric which the wind shoved down at our faces. “I mislike killing people. But I must feed. So many people die climbing this mountain that I can feed without killing. I come here every year or two.”

Ferri pushed harder against the sagging fabric. “No, I misspoke. When I say I mislike killing, that’s a lie. I don’t like or dislike anything. What I am precludes emotion. I exist. I have desires. But my emotions are dull and cold. Just like the people who climb into this dead zone. They’re exhausted. Shells of who they’d be elsewhere. It’s my only chance to be around others who behave like myself.”

“If you don’t like or dislike killing, why do you avoid it?”

“It’s a choice. One I decided a long time ago to follow.”

I thought of following Ronnie up this damn mountain. How I felt I had no other choice once I started our climb. Was Ferri mocking me? Was she serious?

But then I thought of that man freezing to death under the rock overhang. How he’d reminded me of my brother. Even though I still felt exhausted and numb, a shiver of sadness raced through me.

“That was an emotion you just felt,” Ferri said. “I could almost taste it.”

I rolled over so I didn’t have to look at her.

“What made you feel that?” she asked, crawling on top of my body so I couldn’t look away from her face. “Tell me. I’m always curious when emotions are strong enough that people still feel them up here.”

I looked at Ferri’s fangs, which hovered right above my eyes. But I felt no fear. And the sadness I’d felt a moment before had already fled, leaving me numb again. Was this how she lived all the time?

“My little brother,” I said. “The man under that overhang reminded me of him. My brother battled leukemia for most of his life, always in and out of hospitals as a kid. He loved reading about mountain climbing—I think he dreamed of being strong enough to climb. But one night he died by himself in the hospital, before me and my family could arrive to be with him.”

Ferri clicked her fangs against my cheek’s cold skin. “Too predictable,” she said. “I suppose now you’ll say you’re climbing Everest to honor your brother? That he’s why you work with Ronnie and risk your life doing this silly stuff?”

I pushed Ferri off me. I had been about to say that. I had always believed that. 

“Fuck you,” I said.

“It’s okay,” Ferri replied. “I don’t care what lies you spin to rationalize following Ronnie up here. But at least you felt something for a moment. That’s all that truly matters, right?”   

Unable to answer, unable to know how to answer, I rolled back over and slipped into something that was close to, but never quite the same as, sleep.

§

In the morning the winds hadn’t let up. Our expedition was running low on oxygen and supplies, as were climbers from other expeditions. Nyima came by my tent and said we were all going to try climbing down before we grew any weaker.

“The winds will die down if we climb low enough to get out of the jet stream,” Nyima said. “Get ready. We leave in thirty minutes.”

I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask and pulled on my boots and crampons. Ferri lay on the tent floor and watched me with a mix of interest and a deep lack of caring.

“Any thought on what I should do if I want to live?” I asked.

“I have no suggestions. You live and die on your own.”

“But you helped us earlier. You told Ronnie how to find the camp in that white out.”

“Did that actually help?”

I shivered. She’d said she didn’t have emotions and didn’t care what happened to us, aside from her choice to avoid killing if she could. If I returned to my sleeping bag, would Ferri stay with me as I slowly died in the coming days? Would the last thing I saw be her lips on my neck?

I stumbled out of the tent into the blizzard.

Nyima was readying our expedition’s climbers while Ronnie looked on in irritation. Nyima looked past me at Ferri emerging from the tent.

“You’re short-roping Keller,” Nyima yelled at Ronnie.

I paused. Was I in such bad shape that I needed to be roped to Ronnie to help me get down the mountain?

“I’m not doing that!” Ronnie said. “It’s on him to get down.”

“I don’t care if you use oxygen or not,” Nyima said, “but you brought Keller up here and you’re getting him down.”

Nyima roped me to Ronnie with several meters of cord. To my surprise, Ronnie glared at Nyima but didn’t protest again. If Ronnie wasn’t so exhausted from not using oxygen he’d likely have refused to do this. And I knew he’d fire Nyima for this embarrassment once we found safety and he returned to being his old self.

But for now that didn’t matter. We started down the mountain.

Each climber quickly disappeared in the white out conditions. Nyima led the main part of our expedition down the mountain but Ronnie and I were far slower. It didn’t take long to realize that Ronnie and I weren’t roped together to help me, but for me to help him. After going so long without supplemental oxygen, Ronnie couldn’t climb off the mountain on his own.

“Nyima knew if he tried to get you to short-rope Ronnie, the fool’d say no,” Ferri yelled as she climbed beside me. “This way his ego is safe because he thinks he’s helping you.”

Because the storm blocked the sun, Ferri didn’t wear her glasses or face mask. She stood straight up in the howling wind as she climbed down while I hunched over, using my ice axe to keep from sliding down the slope. Two meters below me Ronnie also hunched over, the rope between us tight as if that was all that kept him from losing his grip and tumbling off the mountain.

Ronnie glanced back and saw Ferri standing beside me. He tried to hurry faster down the mountain but slipped. The rope jerked forward and was about to yank me after Ronnie when Ferri grabbed the rope, stopping both of us.

Ronnie struggled to his feet and moved on. Ferri released the rope.

“He’s endangering both of you,” Ferri said. “That’s why Nyima put you two by yourselves—he didn’t want you or Ronnie taking other climbers with you when you die.”

“Fuck Nyima for leaving us.”

“He didn’t leave you. He merely realized you two were already dead.”

“How did he know that?”

Ferri blocked the wind with her body and leaned in so she could talk without yelling. “Because I’m with you.”

§

I was as dead as Ferri claimed to be. No emotions. No life. Nothing but one boot in front of the other. One gloved hand on the rope between me and Ronnie. The other slamming my ice axe into the mountain over and over to keep from sliding.

The whiteout completed my isolation. I saw Ferri beside me, striding against the wind as if daring it to blow her off Everest. Aside from Ferri, I was perfectly alone. Even Ronnie, only two meters before me, slipped in and out of the whiteout. 

Why had I done this, I wondered. Ferri had been correct—I used my brother as little more than an excuse for risking my life. As rationalization for following Ronnie as we marked off mountains like sexual conquests. I’d always told myself I was better than Ronnie. That I had an actual reason for doing this.

But in the end, mountains didn’t care why we climbed or whether we won or lost.

I paused, causing Ronnie to yank against the rope. He looked back at me. He waved for us to continue.

We had to keep struggling. We had to …

Ferri looked at me and smiled her emotionless smile.

We climbed on.

§

Ronnie and I crouched in a windbreak created by a rock overhang as snow howled past. We drank our remaining water but it didn’t help our exhaustion.

“It can’t be much further,” Ronnie yelled. “The jet stream will end if we climb low enough.”

I wanted to believe that, but couldn’t. All I could focus on was how hard it’d be to leave this windbreak and continue on.

Ferri stood above us on the overhang, leaning into the wind like an airplane wing. I don’t know why she did it because she didn’t look like she was having fun. According to her, she couldn’t even have fun. But still, there she was, leaning into the wind.

Ronnie ignored her. “This will amaze people,” he said. “How we escaped death. How we refused to give up.”

I nodded, already imagining Ronnie’s next TED Talk sweeping the world with his version of survival. Not that I cared. And Ronnie was in far worse shape than me. He’d collapsed into the windbreak when he reached it. I knew if I got him to stand up I might be able to help him climb a little further down the mountain. Maybe even to safety.

But helping him was also exhausting me.

And if we reached safety, he wouldn’t be grateful. He’d hate that I’d helped him. Hate that he hadn’t survived because of only himself. He’d find ways to hurt me.

I tried to remember my brother. To remember my pain when he died. To remember why I’d wanted to help the freezing man under the rock overhang. To force myself to feel anything.

But I couldn’t.

“We need to go,” Ronnie yelled. 

I stood up. Ferri looked down at me.

With my ice axe’s saw tool, I cut the rope between me and Ronnie and stepped away.

Ronnie grabbed the overhang, trying to stand, but was too weak. He glared at me from behind his snow goggles. His frostbitten lips opened, closed, opened again without saying anything.

“Don’t worry,” Ferri yelled, hopping down and sitting beside Ronnie. “I’ll stay with him.”

Ronnie pushed himself back into the small cave created by the overhang, as if trying to escape Ferri. She patted his leg.

I hiked on.

An hour later I cleared the jet stream and the worst of the storm.

§

I woke in the medical tent at base camp with bandages on my frostbitten face and hands. I vaguely remembered stumbling down the mountain after clearing the storm. At some point a rescue team found me, but I didn’t remember when or how.

In the tent the base camp doctor and two nurses worked on a dozen members of various expeditions. The doctor leaned over the face of a women who’d summited Everest an hour before I did. The doctor said the woman’s frostbite was the worst he’d ever seen.

“You’re lucky to be alive,” Nyima said as he pulled a camp chair up to my cot and sat down. His face was also bandaged, although not as badly as mine. “They’re landing a helicopter to medivac that climber out first—she’s in worse shape. You’ll be on the next flight.”

I whispered, unable to speak louder. Nyima leaned over and I repeated myself.

“She took Ronnie,” I said.

“Before or after you abandoned him?” he asked quietly so no one else could hear.

I looked away from Nyima and watched the doctor and nurses trying to save the other climber. So many people hurt. And another expedition of seven people had vanished during the storm and were presumed dead. 

But even though Ronnie had died, Nyima was already being praised for saving the rest of the climbers in our group.

“One of us Sherpas gets killed, no one cares,” Nyima muttered. “But you western fools die and the whole world pays attention. And Ronnie’s death will be big because of who he was.”

I understood. Everyone would be watching. If I admitted what I did, the world’s anger would crash down on me.

“You tried to save him,” Nyima whispered. “But some people refuse to be saved by others. Remember that.”

I nodded. Nyima patted my chest and walked out of the tent.

The tent fell quiet as the doctor and nurses carried the severely injured climber to the first medivac. That’s when Ferri entered. She wore a brand-new red coat and snow pants, both too big for her body. Ronnie’s clothes.

Ferri walked among the other injured climbers, tasting the air over each person’s cot before stopping at mine. She leaned over so her tongue almost licked my right ear. She pointed at her new red coat.

“Ronnie stripped naked before the end,” she whispered. “So delirious from cold he thought he was burning up.”

I nodded, even though I didn’t want to know details like this.

Ferri sniffed my right eyeball. “You’re going to lose your nose. And half your fingers and toes. But you climbed Everest. Was it worth it?”

I started to cry, the emotions which had been repressed by exhaustion and lack of oxygen flooding out of me. Ferri watched dispassionately. She was the same as she’d been on the mountain. No emotions. No cares on the choices she made.

She stood up as the chuck-chuck sound of another helicopter echoed across base camp. “I’ll see you when you return,” she said. “People like you always come back.”

I laughed weakly. “You mean people like us always come back.”

Ferri tapped her tongue to one of her fangs.

She walked out of the tent as the doctor and nurses rushed in and carried me toward the waiting helicopter. I wanted to scream at Ferri. To say I was lying—that I’d never see this damn mountain again. That I’d never return.

But would I?

The doctor and nurses strapped me into the helicopter’s spare seat and closed the door. I watched out the window as the machine struggled to gain altitude in the thin air. 

As the helicopter flew higher I saw Ferri walking back toward the mountain. She’d again covered her face with her sunglasses and unused oxygen mask so the sun wouldn’t hurt her. She passed the tents of hundreds of other climbers. 

No one saw her as anything more than one more person waiting to reach the top.

She was right—I’d be back. I wouldn’t let this stop me. And when I returned she’d be here, waiting.

I cursed. I was as stupid as Ronnie. I hated myself for that. But I also realized it didn’t matter.

Because in the end, once I finally killed myself on this mountain, she’d be there. I wouldn’t die alone like my brother. Even if she never felt a single emotion over anything I did in my sorry-ass life, I wouldn’t die alone.

© Jason Sanford
Originally published in the September/October 2020 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction.

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