I climbed through the death zone of Mount Everest and noticed the frozen bodies in the summit’s shadow. I passed them on the way up but focused on the summit I didn’t look at them. I was the slowest climber, the last to leave the summit. I stayed there for a long time waiting for a ghost from my past to appear. It never materialized. The haunting presence of the dead caught my eye on the descent, I glanced at one body and it appeared to move. “That had to be the wind or I’m suffering from mountain sickness,” I said aloud. I walked closer. The woman’s skin appeared smooth and milky white. She resembled a porcelain doll.
I touched her face and she flinched. I fell backward. “My God, she’s still alive.” The woman blinked and whispered in a foreign language.
“I don’t understand. Can you speak English?
“Don’t leave me,” she said.
“I won’t,” I looked up at the summit. It looked farther away every minute I lingered here.
I used my radio. “Alex, there’s a woman here who’s alive, but in bad shape.”
The radio crackled. “Can she walk?”
“What country is she from?”
“Does that matter?” I fumbled with the radio. My hand started going numb since I took my glove off.
Alex didn’t answer, but after a few minutes, the radio clicked on. “Your teammates are already at the camp. They are not in good enough shape to go back up the mountain.
I shouldn’t have lingered at the summit, but after my brother died, I quit college and stayed at home until I saw a show about Everest. He was a mountain climber and he dreamed of reaching the summit of Everest. He planned everything then COVID struck and the mountain was closed for climbers. It crushed him. He drank a lot and stayed out late at night walking around the town then a drunk driver hit him. It was a hit and run. He died alone in the street. I climbed Everest in his place. I could complete his dream and find peace. People said I wouldn’t find him there, that he was gone forever, but I needed to find some way to feel closer to him. After months of training, I made it to the summit. I didn’t find him there.
“Can anyone come up and help me get her down?”
“I’m checking if anyone has the strength left to do it. You’re the last climber coming down.”
The fallen climber moaned.
“What’s your name?”
She tried to sit up, but she was too weak.
“Where are your teammates?” I asked.
“They had summit fever. They were so happy at reaching the summit they forgot about me when I fell behind.” A tear formed in Jelena’s eye as she said, “I climbed the six highest mountains in six different continents; this was the last one for all seven.” She struggled to show me a crumpled picture of her on Mount Kilimanjaro. “I would have been a hero in my village in Serbia.”
I put my hand on hers.
“I didn’t think anyone would ever stop.” She looked at me. “But you did.”
Guilt washed over me as the thought of leaving kept coming to me. I looked at the dead bodies scattered around us then saw that Jelena’s eyes closed, I feared she joined them. I wanted to keep her talking, so I asked, “Do you have any family?”
“I have a son.” She blinked back tears. “I should have stayed home with him.”
“I’ll make sure you get back to him.” The camp got farther away. “We survived COVID, we can get through this.”
It didn’t help.
“I should have stayed home,” Jelena said. “I wish I could go back in time; I would stay with my son.”
My radio crackled. “Chloe, this is Alex. The Sherpas are helping climbers down to the lower camps. You’re the last person coming down. It will take a long time to reach you.”
Jelena coughed so hard I saw blood on her mask. I noticed that her oxygen bottle was almost empty.
Snow flurries floated down as ominous-looking storm clouds formed nearby. My head throbbed so I turned up my oxygen. Then the camp called.
“Chloe, there’s a storm coming, you must leave now. It looks terrible.”
“She’s still alive,” I yelled.
“You can’t save her.”
I clicked the radio off and put my glove on, I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore. The snow intensified as I huddled next to Jelena.
The radio crackled with warnings about the approaching storm.
“Please go,” Jelena said. I didn’t want to tell her it was already too late. I would encounter the storm on the way down. It was impossible to make it through a storm.
She tried to reach out to me, but she gasped for air.
I noticed her oxygen bottle was empty. I put my mask on her.
The radio crackled. “Chloe. You must leave now.” The snow blew sideways. My hand was too cold to work on the radio, so I didn’t bother to answer.
“Please take your oxygen back.” Jelena tried to remove the mask.
“No,” I pushed her hand away.
She blinked back tears. “Chloe, please save yourself.”
“I have to stay. My brother was killed by a drunk driver. He died alone on a desolate road.” I wiped my eyes. “I can’t leave you.”
“I’m sorry,” Jelena said. Snow accumulated around us. I realized we were alone now. Jelena’s eyes were closed as I huddled next to her.
“I think I’m in heaven because I see an angel,” she said.
“No, it’s only me.” I moved closer to her. “If I die, leave my body here. I feel closer to my brother here and closer to heaven itself.”
Jelena tried to grasp my hand. “If I die, dream a little dream of me. Picture me with my son, not like this.” I thought she was crying, but frost covered the mask.
“I won’t let you die,” I said, but my heart broke in pieces. I closed my eyes as my hand went numb. Darkness spread across the mountain bringing deadly temperatures. I angled my body to block the snow from covering her. The snow buried me and I knew that if I fell asleep, I might never wake up again. Before long, my eyes closed until my frostbitten hand tingled, and warmth spread through my body. I looked up and my brother smiled at me, and held my hand. I then saw a bright light and I never felt more alive.
But I wasn’t alive. I floated above my dead body; as peace overcame me. It was like all the worries in my life dissipated at the same time. My brother was by my side.
I saw the Sherpas place Jelena on a stretcher. One of her eyelids fluttered. She was alive in the Death Zone. The snow let up and streams of the morning sun streaked through the nearby cloud-covered mountains meaning we stayed on the mountain all night. It was a miracle she survived the night.
“Chloe?” Jelena mumbled. A Sherpa I recognized from the base camp shook his head.
“She saved my life.” Jelena sobbed as they carried her down the mountain. My body was left in the Death Zone, but I was no longer there. I looked around and saw amazing views that I never noticed on the way up. I looked at the peak of Everest, then I looked down at Jelena and into her opened green eyes, and realized she would be with her son again. Relief washed over me as I saw my brother waiting for me and I reached heights higher than the summit of Everest.
About the Author
William Falo studied Environmental Science at Stockton University. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The UK journal Superlative, The Raconteur Review, Train River’s first fiction anthology, and other literary journals.