This story is by Alex Klark and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Are you insane?” Elizabeth asks me, though it’s more of a statement than an honest question.
I remain unamused.
“Samantha, you can’t be serious about this?” she continues.
I flex my jaw and swallow. “It was his dying wish, Liz.”
My father passed away three weeks ago. Pancreatic cancer.
“And a joke of a dying wish at that! He just wants to get you killed!”
“I’m not going to die, look,” I rotate the laptop screen at Liz. “It just takes money. There are dozens of expedition companies that will take me to the top of Everest. I don’t have to be a professional mountaineer.”
Elizabeth rolls her eyes. “Yeah, you might run a few miles in the morning, but I do not support my wife climbing to the top of Everest to scatter her father’s ashes—a disowning father who refused to speak to you in over eight years.”
Apparently, he also refused treatment when he was diagnosed. I learned of his finances when he passed. All debt and a foreclosing home, which I had less than a day to rummage through for some keepsakes before the bank rolled in.
“We have money Liz, I could have helped him. Paid for chemo…”
I’m a lawyer. A good one.
“Look, Sam. I just think it’s his last ‘F’ you. You don’t have to do this. You know he wasn’t serious in writing that in his will—giving you an impossible task.”
“It’s not impossible, if I actually do it—”
“If you actually do it, then you’re just playing into his vindictiveness.”
She’s right. My father was a bitter man; passive aggression was his status quo, and this was his dying move.
Liz and I argue for several more days, but I’ve already decided. There’s a compelling pull in me, an urge—I want to prove him wrong and spite him right back.
The sound of the tent unzipping draws my attention.
“Hey Samantha, we’re meeting in the big tent in five. Another weather update.”
“Got it, thanks, Frankie.”
Frankie is our guide. He’s a little young to be doing this. Upon meeting him, I questioned his experience, but he’s smart and motivated.
I roll out of the sleeping bag and put on my jacket—on top of my three other jackets—and slip on the heavy climbing boots. The sides of the tent are like flapping bed sheets in the wind and I don’t know how I haven’t just blown away like a tumbleweed. At 27,200 feet, our cohort is nesting in Camp VI, we’ve been waiting for good—better—weather to summit. There’s only enough oxygen to wait one more day.
I climb out of the tent, fatigued, pushing the snow aside and plotting a path with my hands. I used to consider myself a competent person, but up here, crawling on all fours, I am reduced to the stages of infancy. Despite the oxygen mask strapped to my face, the twenty feet walk (crawl) to the main tent is draining. Humans are not meant to be this high. Liz was right, I’m insane.
“Hey,” I reply to the cluster.
Frankie is dialing the satellite phone. And next to Frankie is Trey, who is on his third expedition. Trey has grizzly features; he belongs on the Night’s Watch with Jon Snow. His previous two attempts to summit failed, inclement weather. Then there’s Jeffrey, a math teacher fulfilling a lifelong dream. Krystal, an outdoor enthusiast completing a “summit series” and Everest will be her seventh mountain; National Geographic did a piece on her. And finally, Carl, a retired Marine indulging in his next challenge. I am the only one fueled by resentment.
Screw you, dad.
I’m surprised I’ve made it this far. We lost Jake and Emily two days ago, a younger couple. No, they didn’t die. Jake surrendered to severe elevation sickness and Emily descended with him.
Inside, the group is huddled around a laptop screen with projected radar images. It smells like fresh coffee and Ramen noodles. A nostalgia I used to associate with college, which this experience has far eclipsed.
“Winds are coming in from the east,” Frankie says and points at the top-right of the screen. “It’ll help buffer the storm. We have a good chance tomorrow morning, but we have to leave early to catch the opening front.”
“What time?” Trey asks.
“Three, maybe three-thirty.”
Jesus, that’s early.
Frankie wakes me up with a light brush on the shoulder. “Samantha, wake up.”
“Is it time already?”
I feel like I’ve slept for thirty minutes. A power nap, minus the power.
“Yep, it’s close to four actually.”
An extra merciful hour, I should be refreshed because I went to bed no later than eight; I’m not.
“Mmpphhh…” I groan and roll over.
“Morning, Sam,” he says with a smile. “Get ready.”
Within ten minutes, I clamber out of the tent into darkness masked by white, blowing snow.
“Sam! Over here!”
Ahead, rays of light cross like battling lightsabers and I turn my own headlamp on. I walk toward the group, clicking carabiners and tethering onto each other.
There is nothing glorious about climbing Everest. It’s just cold. Really cold and really windy. I can’t see anything, haven’t been able to since Camp III. I don’t know what I was expecting. Sudden ascension to a higher spirituality? Infinite achievement? Omniscient self-discovery?
“How are you doing back there Sam?!” I feel a tug on the line at my hip.
I pull the oxygen mask from my face. “Okay!” And give a thumbs-up.
The trek continues forward—upwards, and sometimes downwards. My head is heavy and my eyes are half-mast, I have a weak grasp of the rope but continue to trudge along. I haven’t felt my toes in days, but I’m too weary to care. This is miserable. I want to be on the beach with my numb toes digging into the hot sand and the heat of the sun on my face. I think of Thailand, where Liz and I spent our honeymoon. My father didn’t walk me down the aisle when we got married. “You shame me,” he had said, while spitting a wad of chew in his cheek, and polished it with, “and I ain’t gonna have no dyke for no daughter.”
His last words to me echo the edges of my consciousness.
“Sam! Sam! Wake up!”
Someone is shaking me. It’s unpleasant, violent even.
“Samantha!” It’s Frankie.
“You can’t fall asleep, okay? Look at me.” He checks my oxygen meter.
I must have fallen like a stone statue. Faceplanted, because there’s snow inside my mask.
“Sam, look at me.”
I look up and give Frankie another thumbs-up. He helps me stand, then unclips me from the main line and to his. Frankie did this with Jake. He made Jake walk in front of the group, so when Jake fell, Frankie could help him up. It’s my turn to ride shotgun.
I stumble more times than I can count and Frankie is literally shoving me up by the ass. The white billows of snow are endless and the closer I get to heaven, the more I feel like I’m in hell.
Unexpectedly, the wind calms and the clouds thin until I see a single pocket of blue. The pocket gets bigger and bigger like I’m surfacing from the depths of an underwater cave. Crisp sunlight begins to illuminate an infinite, magnificent, blue. I pause.
“Keep going, Sam!” Frankie yells behind me. “This is our window!”
I keep going. And not with more determination or renewed energy, I just keep going. I can see the top, a black tipped pencil piercing the sky.
“You’re almost there!”
Exhaustion compromises my gauge of time, it could have been twenty minutes or two hours. Finally, I reach the summit and I can hear the others cheering behind me.
Trey is second to summit. He takes me in a husky, ecstatic embrace. Krystal, Jeffrey, Carl, follow, and lastly, Frankie. Frankie runs a ubiquitous Tibetan prayer flag across us for a photo. We unmask for the camera, looking like a bunch of backwards raccoons with tan faces and large, pale circles for eyes.
“Take a few minutes people!” Frankie announces. “Then hook back up for the descent!”
I shrug off my pack and unzip my purpose. The clouds spool below me like a giant, white blanket that covers the earth. Slowly, I unscrew the canister and upturn its contents. The ashes are grey with specks of white. Most of it falls into the wind but some land on the face of the earth.
It hits me then—an unwelcomed churn rises in my stomach, my jaw turns sour and eyes, hot. I want to keep hating him, but I just can’t.
My body lets out a shuddering sigh and it’s not from the cold.
I forgive you, dad. I forgive you.