The Lions of Everest
I am the butterfly.
Eyes glittering, she tears the butterfly's wings from my body. The maimed butterfly flutters, quivers and dies. Her lips form a moue of feigned surprise.
Rage at that insolent smirk engorges my muscles with rich, red juices. I leap off of large holds onto steep, tilted rock and climb.
This buttress arches like the spine of a dragon. A corner opens fifty feet above and twelve feet to my right. She smiles and taunts me from there.
I swarm up the cliff face toward her, fingers and toes making decisions The holds are in-cut, perfect. Then my right foot skids off a toehold. My left foot holds an edge for a second and then slips off. My fingers bite sharp edges and are bitten in return. I glance at her. False solicitude wrinkles her brow. Eight thousand feet below is the East Rongbuk Glacier.
Fingers scream for attention. Let them scream. They are good for a minute, perhaps more. I look at my treacherous feet and find treacherous rock, glacial polish. Ice has been here, but a glacier's kiss is never complete. Small imperfections remain. Sometimes they are enough. A coin-sized flaw just above my right knee will be useful. Not yet. Balance first. That edge where my left foot formerly rested will do for a microsecond. Then I must make an upward surge, an unceasing surge. I take a deep breath and explode into motion.
Weight flows onto my right foot. Fingers leave the bitten edges. Finger pocket, toe-edge, almost nothing, a good side-pull - the polish is below me. I surge on. My breath roars like breaking waves. My forearms knot with strain. I tumble into the corner's alcove with the last of my strength. My vision dims to gray until my gasping forces oxygen back into starved muscles and brain. Awareness returns. I glance up the corner.
She is gone.
After rock, comes ice.
She's farther on, peering up. Something higher concerns her. Poised there, beyond contrivance, she's again beautiful to me. I remember her beauty in moonlight, the crystalline curve of her breast in moonlight.
Hopeless desire engulfs me, for consummation is of the lowlands, a consummation of shared touches, a vision of something beyond consummation. Mountains offer only desire and desire blasts me from my stance onto bad ice.
It crumbles like sand beneath my crampons. My ax-pick breaks out, but the hammer-pick holds. I thrash and smash and claw to the base of an ice bulge. My tools finally bite deep.
I breathe blue blades of freezing air deep into my lungs and am thankful for the pain. Breathing wounds, yet I must breathe.
And I must continue.
I plant the ax high, bring a foot up, set my front points precisely and do it again, again. At last, the hammer bites above the bulge. I plant the ax next to it. I keep my arms straight as I hang from both tools. I'll have only one chance for this.
Now! I pull up for my life. My eyesight dims. I lurch above the bulge with the last of my consciousness and crawl to where she stood.
She is gone.
Where is she?
Perhaps upon the summit? Perhaps she awaits me on the top of Everest? The vision of a vision pulls me on. I step upward and death's fingernails prickle my spine. This crust is false, a cornice. Ten thousand feet of Chinese air lies below it. I ease to my left onto loose, unconsolidated snow. I move slowly, compacting each step before I transfer my weight. A careless step will cause this fluff to sweep me into Nepal. I must be patient. I must hurry. I must hurry and be patient.
And there's a lion, too. It's a medium-sized male, but it's not an ordinary lion, aloof and indifferent. This one stares at me intently, a predator's stare with red gleams behind purposeful stillness.
I keep to the left of the cornice fracture line and step toward him. His lips writhe in a silent snarl. His canines gleam like ice and he leaps.
I feint toward the cornice and then dive straight ahead. The lion twists as he passes over me. Claws rake my parka. I roll to my left and bring my ax up in defense. The adze blade nicks my ear.
The lion is gone.
Blood drips down the front of my parka and spots the snow, but the summit is close and she must be there.
The reporter smiles like a friend, or a mother. He confides, "I'll bet you're glad to be back in Katmandu."
I nod and glance at him.
He bought his shirt from a Durbar Square street vendor. He should have shopped longer. He opens his laptop and looks up. "This route you did may be the most extreme solo climb yet done on Everest."
The reporter leans close. His breath is redolent of cinnamon gum and hashish. "So what is the most important factor in soloing a Himalayan route like this one?"
I speak, but my mind is silent. "Well, you know, high altitude is tough. You have to concentrate up there. You can't let things distract you from the ice and rock in front of you. You've got to focus on the next move. You've got to concentrate."
"Focus? Concentration? That's it?"
I nod, "Absolutely."
This reporter is better than most. He knows that he's missed something. He looks at me skeptically, thinks for a moment and finally asks, "You once said that your experiences during a climb always add to your knowledge for the next climb. What did you learn from this climb?"
She peeks over the reporter's shoulder and smiles impishly. I look away. "Not enough," I answer. "Not enough."