Descent

Steely Dan was almost loud enough to drown out the deadening hum of the Airbus A320's engines. Aaron Mann adjusted his headphones and tried to close his eyes and see his father. This had been Dad's favorite album. He could see the elder Mann wobbling his head in rhythm with Walter Becker's guitar and the washboard road under the tires of their mud-caked 4Runner on the way to another weekend ramble through the mountains. Dad. And Steely Dan. And that rusted blue 4Runner stuffed full of rope and harnesses and a dutch oven with a broken handle. And the hum of the road like the hum of jet engines, only softer. Less angry. Less violent.

Aaron moved his hands to his lap to give Bill-the-accountant-from-Atlanta a turn with the armrest. He let his head fall to his shoulder and peeked through the window at the jumbled landscape below. The cataclysm punching those mountains toward the sky must have been enormous. The chain stretched beyond his view from forty-thousand feet, through Myanmar and into China. It was a squalid terrain where nothing living was allowed to stay, scraped by glaciers stained brown like the skid marks of nature, dotted with bitter peaks that threatened to claw the belly of the airliner. Up here, Aaron thought, it was all blues riffs and armrests, the dull drone of engines and sun-lit memories of his father. Below, it was all icefalls and tallus and spindrift. 

And murder. 


+++


Aaron watched his dinner companion drink the poison, but it brought him no joy. Six years of plotting and seething were over. He had succeeded. And it was over so quickly, so casually. Just another drink like so many passed around the tavern that night, raised to smiling lips, drunk with hungry forgetfulness. Just another dead old man like so many others. Just another day in the shadow of the Mother Goddess like millions before. 

The tavern was little more than a windowed closet on the upper floor of a dusty brick rowhouse along a narrow street. On the floor below was an office of some sort where men wore ties clipped to short sleeved white shirts and did their best to appear professional and developed despite the frequent sound of fistacuffs from the market across the street. It didn't matter, Aaron thought, looking down at the street through stained windows, trying not to watch too eagerly for the oncoming visitation from death. No one in the "professional" or "developed" worlds was paying attention. 

The poison had been easy to get. The Nepalese version of the DEA, if there was such a thing, was apparently unconcerned with a myriad of mood-altering drugs being sold openly in bodegas, in street markets, and on street corners by bleary-eyed teens carrying their inventory in plastic milk crates on the back of scooters propelled by black smoke. It didn't take many quesions to lead from dealer to supplier to cook who could provide a drug that would alter more than one's mood. It was risin, or some Hemylean version of it. The druggist, whose shop occupied a cinder-block hut which jutted into the alley behind a butcher shop, had said it was odorless and tasteless. 

Aaron's dinner companion sipped his tea slowly at first, blowing and casting stern looks across its surface as if he wasn't sure of its quality. But as the tea cooled, his consumption sped until he was gulping and calling for a second cup.

"It is so good to see you, Mr. Aaron. I am so glad you are here in Nepal. So glad to sit and have tea with Mr. Mann again, eh?" He raised his cup. "To your father."

Aaron felt a twist in his gut at the mention of the man whose death he was avenging, but he raised his cup and smiled. "Yes, to my father."

Aaron's companion was Dawa Lob-sang, a sherpa of legendary longevity with twenty-five ascents of Chumalungma to his credit, if anyone asked, which no one ever did. Summit ascents were counted and congratulated by white men. Dawa was toothy and thin. His balding head shot forward from his torso and his shoulders were slender, bony and hunched. They looked pressed together as if some invisible giant were constantly squeezing him in an unwelcome hug. His face was vacant and joyful, punctuated by China teeth and a permanently-raised brow that made him look as if he was constantly expecting a punch line. 

"I miss him," Dawa Lob-sang said, wiping the poisoned tea from his lips. "Your father was a good man."

Aaron Mann seethed at the guile of his father's killer. The innocence of his manner only made his feigned allegiance more vile. Aaron wondered if Dawa had been this calm when he cut his father's rope, or when he raided the tent, or when he created the cover story about a micro-blast. "A good man," Aaron repeated studying Dawa for a tick or downward glance that would betray his guilt. None was there. He turned again to peer through the grime on the window. In the street, one of the office workers was leaving loudly, shouting at someone in the office below and holding high two middle fingers. 


+++


The guest room was barely part of the permanent structure below it; more of a rooftop garden covered by corrugated metal and plywood. It wasn't plumbed. To pee, Aaron had to descend a cascade of wooden steps to a half-rotted platform that failed to hold level with the threshold of a metal bathroom door whose rust clashed viciously with its ochre paint. His room did have electricity, which is to say it had a single bare light bulb and a duplex outlet, half of which was permanently occupied by an electric space heater that threatened to set half of Kathmandu ablaze. Outside a small square window, the shadow of two buildings seemed to lean in toward one another as if peering in at Aaron's little nest. And between then, behind them, Aaron could see the sharpened, indigo peak where his father died. 

There was a gentle knock on the door; Aaron jerked and spilled tea on his leg. He pulled an ice axe from a pile of equipment and leaned it beside his chair before he answered, "Come in!"

A tall man stepped into the light of the single bulb and let the door swing closed behind him. He smiled deeply, openly, without pity. His teeth shone brighter than his eyes which hid behind smudged walnut cheeks. 

"Mr. Ghode?"

"Aaron. I bring you greetings. It is good for you to visit us," the man said loudly. He crossed the room faster than Aaron could stand so that his outstretched hand almost caught Aaron in the forehead as he rose. 

"Please sit," Aaron said, studying his visitor carefully for a long moment while he levered his frame into a squatty wooden chair. The light bulb swayed narrowly above a metal card table and the two men. Aaron had only met the visitor once, years before, on his first visit to the Himalaya. Prenesh Ghode was a titan of Nepali industry. His "brokerage" (Aaron thought "slave market" might be more accurate) supplied more than three-fourths of all the sherpas on Everest. Though he had never climbed higher than the steps of his office building, he dressed the part of an explorer. He wore thick boots, wool slacks, and a down vest right out of an L.L. Bean catalog. Aaron sat and then remembered his manners. "Tea?"

"No, thank you friend. I hope you don't think me rude, but I cannot stay long. I have many men coming to the mountain this season. some arriving tonight." 

"No worries," Aaron said and then waited for more. But the visitor only looked around the tiny room, taking inventory of its contents. Then, satisfied that he had cataloged Aaron's possessions, he turned his gaze to Aaron's eyes, as if taking measure of his thoughts. "I didn't expect to see you. How— how have you been?"

"No, I'm sure you didn't expect me," Ghode smiled. "I wasn't sure I should come but—" here he trailed off and resumed his study of the room.

"Why did you come?" Aaron asked.

"I heard you were in town and…and I'm sure you have heard about Dawa?" 

"Yes. Terrible." 

"Well, your arrival and his death coming so close together, I thought…I saw it as a sign. An opportunity."

"Oh? An opportunity for what?"

"To betray a secret. 

Involuntarily, Aaron's left knee started to bounce as if keeping time with a rapid, barreling tune. He tried to respond casually, "Secret, huh? I'm all ears."

"Dawa Lob-sang was a dear friend. We worked together for many years. He was the best guide in Nepal."

Aaron remembered Ghode's habit of using the title "guide" for his sherpas, and the title "sponsor" for the foreign climbers charged with getting their increasingly unqualified clientele to the top of the world's highest peak. 

"I was glad to see him once more before he died," Aaron said quickly.

"Yes. It's convenient that you were here when he did," Ghode paused again and eyed Aaron carefully.

"Why is that?"

"Dawa has left you an inheritance."

"What?"

"He was a frugal man with no family. After Aapti died, he had no one. His family was his fellow climbers…your father among them. He leaves you four million rupees."

Aaron was blank. Why would Dawa leave money to him? Out of guilt? A buddhist penance? And how on earth did Dawa Log-sand have almost forty thousand dollars? 

"There is something else; the secret," Ghode said.

"Tell me."

"Dawa was not there the day your father died. Your father climbed alone. Dawa refused to leave high camp that morning. There was weather and—"

"Bullshit! Dad would never have climbed alone. What the hell are you talking about?"

"I know it is hard to hear, Aaron," Ghode's tone was slower but no softer. "But it is true. They fought. And Dawa thought that Robert would not climb without him. Dawa thought he was calling a bluff. But Robert wasn't bluffing. He attempted to summit alone."

"Where are you getting this bullshit?" Aaron was standing now, looking down at Ghode with his arms crossed and his head canted aside. The bulb lit his jaw and the steep slope of his chest, but left his eyes dark. "Who's telling you this? And why now?"

"Dawa told me on the day of Robert's funeral. He told me so I would allow him to work, but he swore me to secrecy in order to protect your father's name as a climber."

"That sonofabitch let my father die! He killed him! He made up a story so he could keep his job and you believed him?"

"That sonofabitch saved half his salary every year from that to this and has left it in an account in your name at Rastriya Banijya Bank. I have the account number," Ghode produced a slip of paper from a zippered vest pocket and laid it on the table. 

"There were witnesses, Prenesh."

"Two. Trevor Turner and Sherpa Tonsing. Tonsing doesn't work for me. He refuses to discuss that day with me or anyone else. And Turner is…" Ghode looked at his unscuffed boots. "also not talking." 

"And you've asked?"

"Not exactly."

"Because he's Western?"

"Kiwi. It's not wise for me to make trouble, Aaron."

"I see. Bite the hand that feeds you and all that, huh?"

"Something like that."

Aaron took his seat again and let his arms hang from slumped shoulders. He stared toward the window and fingered the tip of the ice axe still leaning against his chair.  

"What, exactly, are you saying? Turner and his sherpa lied to cover Dad's ass?"

"I don't know their motives. And I don't know what happened that morning," Ghode said. "I just know it happened without Dawa Lob-sang. And I'm giving you four million reasons to believe me."

"So what am I supposed to do now?"

"That's up to you. You don't have to do anything, Aaron. Take your money and go back to America. I'll cancel your climb this year." Ghode wrestled himself out of his chair and put a hand on Aaron's shoulder. "But if you want to know how your father died, you'll have to ask Turner."


+++


Trevor Turner arrived at Advanced Base Camp like Charlemagne, leading a procession of people and equipment so colorful and so expensive that it was hard to interpret it as anything but a claim to kingship. Turner was the most visible and most successful among a crop of Everest guides from New Zealand who enjoyed playing the mountaineering underdog. Their assertion was that, despite the starstruck claims of Europe and America, of Reinhold Messner and Alex Lowe and George Mallory, New Zealand was the cradle of mountaineering greatness. And all the knighthoods and accolades from the West only reinforced their zeal. 

Sunlight broke through a week-long cloud as if to trumpet the arrival. From the uphill edge of camp, Aaron watched Turner shake hands with other guides and their clients, working the crowd like a politician at a black-tie fundraiser. It was the same job, Aaron thought; stealing loyalties, forging alliances, asking for "support" in the form of guide fees that rose to Himalayan heights. He wore red from head to toe, the most high-tech gear and clothing, splattered with the logos of climbing's biggest sponsors, and gilded by a sweep of wavy blond hair that framed his broad, skull-capped head. His gait was easy and even, almost floating across the jumbled tallus field, greeting and hugging fellow climbers, welcoming them into his exclusive fraternity of the mountaineering cool. Turner smiled his way to the communications tent — the only collection of shared equipment on the mountain and a sort-of command post for all twelve expeditions making their bid that year. When Turner ducked into the tent, his caravan was still appearing over the moraine ridge in two lines a quarter mile behind him. 

It was May 1. The best guides had been on the mountain for three weeks already, spending valuable resources on the invisible processes of planning and acclimatization, and waiting for the skies to clear. The forecasts called for clouds to move out in the next few days; that's when the ascents would begin. It had been an unusually wet winter and every expert was predicting a short season. By mid-May, the snow would be too unstable for an ascent. Two weeks to reach the top of the world. Two weeks to confront another of his father's killers. 


+++


Aaron crouched over the tiny burner in his tent, aware that he was playing with fire. And poison. Poison had worked once, he thought. He hoped it would work again. This time, Aaron only wanted to cause illness, not death. It was a risky move — so many variables. If he diluted the risin too much, he would miss the opportunity. If he left it too strong, he could kill innocents. And there was no telling what effect the altitude would add. 

He was at Camp Two, the busiest and most boring stop on the journey to the roof of the world, the place where dozens of climbers were leaving and arriving every day, ferrying gear up from lower camps, wrestling through thin sleep, willing their bodies to adjust to the air. Most of the time spent here was in tents, trying to sleep, melting snow, and waiting through the slow and unreliable process of acclimatization. It was evening. Through the unzipped vestibule of his tent, Aaron could see a blood red sun dropped into the slot of sky between the walls of the Western Cwm. Above the sun were hundreds of colors as varied as the tents in the little nylon village at Camp Two. 

Of the twelve expeditions on the mountain, nine had climbers at Camp Two. Though high and cold and cramped, there was a festive atmosphere. Climbers shouting to one another from tent to tent. Jokes and hopes passed on the whistling wind. Aaron screwed the cap on the thermos of poisoned tea and set out to offer it to two men he had never met. 

Trevor Turner had made four successful ascents of Everest, each time with at least two sherpas. While most climbers took only their most trusted aid to the top, Turner felt the need for additional support. That meant three men in one tent, which meant a larger tent, which meant a bullying campaign to find a wide enough spot to pitch it. Aaron forced himself to smile when he called out through the logo-rippled nylon. 

"Room service for the Turner Trio?"

There was a chuckle and a grunt and then the tent's vestibule zipped open. Trevor Turner's gold-topped head erupted from the zipper. He looked both confused and pleased at what he saw. Aaron held out two mittened fists, one with a Thermos of tea, the other with a metal flask. "A drink for good luck?"

Aaron had to squat in the entrance of the tent, not able to crowd in past the vestibule. Turner greeted him with an energetic but furtive smile. Said it was good to see him on the mountain again. Aaron did his best to create a jovial reunion. He passed the Thermos to one of the sherpas, met his eyes, smiled, and gave a little bow with his shoulders. Then he unscrewed the cap on the flask and handed it to Turner, "Tea for the buddhists. Something stronger for us."

Aaron asked about Turner's clients — a middle-aged couple who were both here for the first time and had almost zero qualifications for their attempt save for the two that meant the most to Turner — their large bank account and their New Zealand citizenship. They were in the tent next door, probably asleep. Turner talked about the weather like he had planned it. They talked about rugby because Turner must always talk about rugby. They talked about Dawa Lob-sang and Prenesh Ghode. In less than fifteen minutes both the Thermos and the flask were empty and handed back to Aaron. He pocketed them and slipped on his mittens. 

"Aaron," Turner said. "It was good of you to stop by. I should have reached out more since since your dad … I should have checked on you."

Aaron tried to smile. "I thought you and Dad had a falling out."

Turner shifted uneasily on his sleeping bag. "I guess we disagreed, but there's no use holding on to that now."

"About what?"

"It's not important."

"It might be to me. What did you disagree about?"

Turner shifted again and studied Aaron's face. He wasn't going to escape the question so he sighed and said, "Business. I climb for business. He climbed for love. He wanted to keep the mountain for people like himself."

"You mean climbers?"

"Everyone on the mountain is a climber, Aaron."

"The couple next door? They're climbers? He's a surgeon, right?"

"He's camping at sixty-one hundred feet; he's a climber." 

"I see. And you and dad fought over that?" 


"I'm sorry to say we fought on the morning he passed."

Aaron gathered his feet under him and reached for the zipper. He turned to the sherpas with a smile. "I hope that keeps you warm tonight," he said. "Big day starts in a few hours."

Both sherpas smiled, mute. 

"He was a good man and a great climber," Turner said, his tone trying to rescue something.

"Yes, he was."


+++


Aaron lunged forward and hooked his ice axe around both of Turner's ankles. The Kiwi fell hard and slid off the mountain.

For an instant, Aaron was surprised at how smoothly the plan had worked. As expected, both sherpas had taken ill, but Turner's clients had insisted that he take them to the top. Aaron stepped in to offer his sherpa who could care for the clients, leaving Aaron and Turner to climb together behind. The only other obstacle had been detaching Turner from the fixed ropes. Just as dawn was breaking they had taken a knee to catch their breath just above the South Summit. From there, the climb was steep but smooth up to the Hillary Step. The path followed just a few feet on the Chinese side of a ridge that marked the top of an upturned slab of snow-covered granite the size of a city block. The slope pointed sharply toward a glacier four thousand feet below. Aaron looked above and behind. Four climbers could be seen in each direction, but none were close enough to see what would happen next; none close enough to assign blame. Aaron unclipped his climbing partner as he stood from the breather, waited for him to turn to face the mountain, then, without really considering his actions, without remorse, like an athlete who had trained for this very move, lunged at Turner's legs. 

That's where it should have ended. Aaron was just about to exhale, just about to breathe deep for the first time since his father's death, just about to see the sunrise over endless craggy peaks. But that didn't happen. It couldn't. The mountain was out of balance and had to right itself. 

Aaron felt his right foot jerk away from the snow. Turner had slowed his slide enough to fling his unclipped rope toward Aaron. It wrapped around his leg and now both men were trying to arrest their slide. 

Aaron came level with Turner. They were stopped but clinging desperately to ice axes with barely a half inch of purchase. Turner's red cap had fallen off and his face was a pink smudge of blood and snow. He hissed at Aaron.

"What the hell, Aaron? What are you doing?"

Aaron struggled to kick into the ice with his crampons and refused to answer. Turner reached for him and Aaron slapped him away. 

"I'm killing you. Like you killed my dad."

Turner stopped struggling and stared at Aaron, breathing hard, his exposed face already succumbing to frostbite. "I—"

"You what, Trevor? What happened to, 'He was a good man and a great climber,' you lying sack of shit?" Aaron tried to kick at Turner but his axe slipped and sent him six more feet down the slope, his head even with Turner's feet. He saw turner slide a foot back along the snow and then bring it forward fast to kick at him. Aaron grabbed the foot, one of the crampons digging into his wrist through the down parka.

"Let go, you little prick!" Turner screamed. "I swear I'll kill you too!"

Aaron reached higher and caught Turner's harness, then his shoulder. The Kiwi was flailing and swinging his free hand, but couldn't land a punch. Aaron lay on top of him now, both of them breathing hard through frozen blood and spittle. Turner jerked his head back square against Aaron's nose. Aaron felt the warmth of his blood running over his beard and down the neck of his parka. "Why'd you do it?" he whispered, his head right next to Turner's ear. 

Turner coughed and choked. Aaron's weight was pulling the parka against his throat. "Your dad was an asshole. He was sticking his nose in my business."

"You mean because he didn't want you bringing fat cat retirees up here?"

Turner jerked his head back again. He missed this time, but the jerk started another slide. They went twenty more feet down the mountain before Turner's axe stopped them again. Aaron looked over his shoulder. Two hundred feet below, the granite slab ended and the free fall began. There was a truce, both men trying to catch their breath. Aaron looked to his left. Sunlight was just reaching the jagged horizon now. Purple peaks tickled the bottom of a pink sky. An airliner glided silently over the mountains to their west, below them. Turner said, "I'm sorry," and Aaron thought he heard him cry. 

The wind was calmer this far down from the ridge. It was quiet for several long minutes except for their breathing and Turner's faint whimpers. Aaron closed his eyes and breathed deep. He could smell his blood and his sweat and the ropes, the crisp, bitter cold, the sunlight and snow and harness and a broken handle and a dutch oven and a cheap, tinny stereo. He laughed. 

Turner must have interpreted that as forgiveness; he said, "Let's get off this slope."

Aaron thought of his father, and of Dawa Lob-sang. He smiled again and reached for Turner's axe. "Yeah, he said. Let's do that." And he lifted the axe from the ice. 

Turner bumped and jostled under him as they slid, a jarring ride like the stiff old suspension in that mud-caked blue 4Runner. Aaron watched the landscape speed past and felt himself sliding over washboard dirt roads. Turner's screams were pitched high and thin. They warbled and soared like a guitar solo. They were all together: Aaron and Trevor, Dawa and Dad. Sliding and bouncing into eternity, across sun-speckled granite, through daybreak breezes, to another mountain ramble with Steely Dan.

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