Stolen - By Daniel Palmer


You’ve reached twenty thousand feet above sea level. The sky is a color blue so deep, so rich, so damned infinite, it makes you want to weep. But your eyes are too frozen to form a single tear. You’ve got the best protective gear you can afford. Still, your body is chilled to the point where cold feels hot. Even though your hands are nested inside thick waterproof gloves—yes, the ones with QuickDry technology—your fingers feel like icicles. Your boots do their darndest to ward off the cold, but at this altitude you can ask for perfection and take whatever you get.

The sun taunts you. It’s so close, seemingly an arm’s reach away. You think it should melt the snow. Instead, its reflection is blinding. The wind kicks up as you inch higher, lashing your face with biting cold tendrils, just another reminder of your insignificance. You ignore the pain dulling your body, though it’s persistent and relentless. You warm yourself by celebrating each small victory—another foot forward, a good purchase on the ice. You focus all your energy on one goal: summiting. You’ve done your homework. The weather looks good. You’ve been making great time. It’s going to happen.

You think about all you’ve sacrificed to get here. The wife you left back home. You’ve been gone two months, with another week still to go. Tibet is a faraway place, but the Labuche Kang is like a planet unto itself.

People think you’re crazy. Selfish, some have said. You ignore their criticisms. Your wife understands, and that’s all that matters. You can stifle the itch to climb the same as you can will your heart to stop beating. You don’t have a death wish. No, you have a life wish. Up here, in the clouds, you feel your soul connected to God. You got a taste of that feeling when you were fifteen years old. Now, you’re twenty-five, and the passion to climb has only intensified with the years.

You see your companions below. David Clegg, a Boston police officer seven years your senior, husband and father of two. The guy hasn’t taken a vacation day in three years. That’s how long he’s been planning this trip. Behind David is Brooks Hall, a newly minted anesthesiologist from Acton, Massachusetts. Brooks is like you, a DINK, double income, no kids. You met Brooks through the New England Mountain Climbing School and went on several expeditions together. Brooks met Clegg after his wife’s appendectomy. They got to talking post-op and discovered a shared passion for the mountains. You don’t know the names of Clegg’s kids but think Hall’s wife is Amanda. Mostly what you’ve talked about is the mountain. Which route to take. How the snow is feeling. Gear. Weather patterns. Altitude adjustments. How amazing it feels to stand on top of the world.

You’re climbing up the West Ridge. To reach the summit, you’ve got to cross a cornice ridgeline. The mountain face is a mixture of bare rock, solid ice, and powder snow. The cornice is nothing but a mass of snow sent down from the ridgeline, deposited there by fierce howling winds that blow from right to left. The elegant cantilevered structures leave a drop-off where no snow can accumulate, reminding you of ocean waves sitting atop a mountain.

You test the stability of the cornice. You think it’ll hold. But just to be safe, you walk single file. You’re in the lead, with Clegg and Hall tied to you by two climbing ropes to safeguard a fall. You’ve got hundreds of feet of ridgeline to cross. Each step is more exhausting than the last. You try to focus on the moment, not the summit, but it takes effort to concentrate.

Your legs are burning now. You’re going too slowly. You know you could lose your one and only opportunity to summit. You decide to walk along the flattest part of the cornice to speed things up. If your muscles could talk, they’d thank you. The relief of a horizontal surface soon becomes addicting. Your mind tells you that it’ll hold, because that’s what you want to believe. You ignore the fact that the flattest part of the cornice is also the most dangerous.

One step . . . then another . . . and then . . .

The crack is loud, but partially concealed by rattling winds. Suddenly you remember being stranded in the middle of a frozen lake in March, the ice breaking all around you, and your father screaming, “Get back to shore!”