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After the Expedition

This fiction story first appeared in The Climbing Life in Alpinist 18–Winter 2006-2007.

[Photo] Alberto Cafferata/Wikipedia Commons

Cordillera Blanca. [Photo] Alberto Cafferata/Wikipedia Commons

A mountain had been climbed; no one had died or even lost extremities to the cold. Richards, the guide, sat on a hotel porch in Huaraz while the hotel owner, Jeemay, disappeared into the smoke-filled kitchen. He returned a few minutes later with two glasses of pisco puro.

As they drank, Jeemay asked Richards to shed light on the behavior of his rich American clients, that certain kind of gringo you can’t please no matter what.

“They’re as much a mystery to me,” Richards, an American himself, said, “as they are to you.”

They shared more glasses, speaking less and less frequently. Richards was mildly surprised, but not alarmed, to see particles of his personality drift into the twilight with the ash above the small cooking fire that smoldered in the yard.

As the day’s last glow ignited the snow-covered peaks, Richards began to repeat their names softly, from north to south, like a magic spell that would make things right: “Oshapalca, Ranrapalca, Pucaranra, Cayesh….”

Seven years earlier, before he’d drifted here and started guiding, he’d noticed nothing but the mountains’ beauty. He was immersed in his annus mirabilis, his year of wonder: three Himalayan expeditions and a new technical route on a 7000-meter peak. But at the end of the year, the accidents had begun, and now his successes would always be balanced against an unwritten page of his climbing resume, against the darkness.

Richards woke on top of his bedcovers, his boots paired neatly at the foot of his bed–not the first time Jeemay had carried him to his room. The air was already stifling with the early morning heat. After breakfast, Richards took his cafe con leche on the porch and looked out over the cock-fighting arena below, watching the young birds strut and peck.

He was joined by a young Spanish climber. The Spaniard was still a boy, shy, with somewhat feminine features; he climbed long and hard routes, always alone, three that summer. The first two he’d managed quickly; it was the first time either had been soloed. The last had never been climbed before, and it had taken the boy close to thirty days to finish. The boy told Richards of one more climb he hoped to do before returning to Spain.

Richards nodded. He was nearly overcome by the urge to tell the boy to return home immediately, find a woman, learn a trade. Instead Richards said, un momento, and went to his room.

He returned with his plastic boots–this year’s model. He gave them to the boy, who protested in astonishment, even though he needed such boots dearly. Richards assured the boy that he had no further use for them. If you get out of it with your life, Richards thought, perhaps you’ll want your toes.

Richards remembered the surgical tool that had amputated his: the gleaming, stainless pruning sheers with a curved beak. Spring-loaded. The sound it made. The thing was this: he had been lucky and no one, least of all himself, felt otherwise. He had surrendered three toes to a bivy high above the Khumbu, but his partner, Jensen, had surrendered the whole of it. That night they had agreed not to speak in the unlikely event that one of them managed to sleep. He didn’t think Jensen would just slip away like that. They had so looked forward to sunrise. Instead, in the morning, like a thief, Richards grabbed Jensen’s camera and journal, the chunk of turquoise around his lifeless neck, and cinched the hood of Jensen’s bivy sack tight. Son of a bitch, he said. God rest your soul. Then he staggered down to high camp.

As he was leaving the Spanish boy, Richards thought of one more thing he wanted to say, but when he turned he saw that the boy’s face had taken on the sad and wise look that was his natural expression. He already knows, thought Richards, backing away. He already knows.

When they were working on his feet, Richards, insensible with grief and painkillers, had felt as if he were in a barber’s chair. One of the porters had stood nearby chain-smoking in silence. “You go from peak to peak,” the man said, “from nothing to nothing.” He smiled as he backed away, hands folded as though he were praying.

Now Richards caught the bus to los banos at Monterey. He would soak out the sweat and the memories of his most recent clients, their childlike demands, their ceaseless fretting. He would soak out thoughts evoked by the Spanish boy’s youth and the emptiness that seemed vaster than ever–for his veinte minutos or longer, until the attendant beat on the door with his fist because whole families down from the mountains were waiting.

The people who used the baths and the people who used the pool, the terrace restaurant and the hotel were two distinct classes. These days, Richards belonged to neither. He reserved himself a place in line for the baths and wandered up to the terrace, where he ordered beer. There was one table of young men and another of old men. They wore linen jackets and mirrored lenses. New money. When they caught his eye, he lifted his bottle in a silent toast, drank from it and grinned. Richards was going the other way.

Luciano, an arriero who had accompanied him on some of his expediciones, was in line ahead of him. Since each bath was designed for at least four people, Richards asked Luciano if they could share. Luciano spoke Quechua; Spanish was his second language, too. When he finally understood, he looked startled. Norteamericanos were supposed to be able to afford showers of their own. But once Richards had shivered through the night with Luciano and the arrieros, wrapped in the same burro saddle blankets, and so now, perhaps for that reason, Luciano agreed. Gringo locos.

Luciano stared. Richards had risen from the tub and begun to dress in Luciano’s clothing. The pants contained the sweat and dirt of uncountable seasons of burro tending; their legs ended, predictably, three or four inches above his ankles. Richards put on each of Luciano’s three shirts carefully like a priest with his cassocks and surplices, then Luciano’s oil-stained, once-orange ski parka, the gift of some foreign climber.

Richards took Luciano’s blanket and slung it over his shoulder. He gestured to Luciano that his clothes, which he had removed with great deliberation and folded neatly on a single chair, were now Luciano’s. He took the money out of his money belt. There were four fifties and some smaller bills in American money and a thick wad of soles, worth about 3,500 to the dollar and rising daily. He indicated that he was buying Luciano’s clothes. Richards took out his passport and airline ticket, which he tried to explain were for Luciano as well and that he could sell them for enough soles to buy an old truck or even a small mud-brick house. When Richards began to open the door, Luciano opened his mouth to protest, but no words came out.

After the second day Richards was so dirty that not even the beggar children noticed him. Two weeks later he was many kilometers north of Huaraz. He had been feverish for days, lying in a straw-filled lean-to, in a high valley pasture. A guardiano had shared food with him, until, suddenly, the boy had seemed unnerved by his presence and hurried off.

When he returned with four other men, Richards first assumed it was out of curiosity. But they began gesticulating wildly. Policia, gringo, Sendero Luminoso. Peligroso, peligroso! The men had brought him a basket of food under the condition that he take it elsewhere.

Once he got moving, Richards felt better. The road led into the mountains–where else? Though a soft rain began to fall, the sky had a preternatural light that reminded him of the trek into Ama Dablam. His first expedition. He had been walking with Jensen, each of them giddy with packlessness, their first approach with porters.

They could hardly keep from running. A light snow had begun to fall. Then, the sky brightened. Richards and Jensen stopped, held their palms out to catch the flakes, opened their mouths skyward, laughing like children. This climb is going to be so great. And so will the ones that follow. All of life out there.

Jensen told him the story of a broken-down boxer dancing on his toes, gloves raised triumphantly in the air, crying to the heavens that he would take on all comers: “Anybody! Anybody!”

And then he and Jensen were up on their toes, arms raised, shouting, “Anybody! Anybody!” The snow continued to fall on the trail toward Ama Dablam.

Here in the Blanca, the rain had turned to snow and the two-track dwindled to a single glittering trail, almost filled in. So this is the shining path, Richards thought. He much preferred the Spanish: Sendero Luminoso. Such beautiful words.

At some point he had become soaked. Now he was shivering, but he continued. Darkness was upon him. And stars–it was clearing. He found a rock to duck under. He’d bivied in worse spots. Making a ritual of it, he ate slowly and put the last bread roll in his pocket for morning. All ten toes, phantom ones included, were tingling fire.

He was too tired to unfurl his body to stand and piss. Not tonight. Richards rested his head against a rock and curled into a ball, hoping dimly for one last night’s sleep.

–David Stevenson, Macomb, Illinois

This fiction story first appeared in The Climbing Life in Alpinist 18–Winter 2006-2007.