DESCENDING EVEREST, An excerpt from a novel
This current issue presents a text by the 2019 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow and CapitaLiterature participant Karen Outen
Mt. Everest, April 2011
He knew he could conquer the anguish. His head pounded against dehydration and thin mountain air, as if a tiny demon lodged in his ear canal, pitchfork raised, the same demon who might whisper to him, What are you doing here, heading to the top of the world? Are you who you think you are?
He trudged through the Western Cwm, the incongruously hot bowl across the belly of Lhotse, the mountain adjacent to Mt. Everest. The land lay nearly flat after the long, hard climb up through the Khumbu Icefall, a river of ice and crevasses and towering snow cliffs like sculpted meringue glazed with ice. He was headed now to Camp 2, higher than he had ever been. Only two more camps on the mountain before they attempted the push to the summit.
It seemed a gift, the gentle slope of the Western Cwm wide and open between the dark ribs of Nuptse to the right and Everest to the left, the plateau of the Cwm like a stage on which they played out their lives: this day they were climbers, Dixon and the eight other members of his team, along with the Sherpas and the three guides who led them in this real and invented life of strife. They were fully of their own making, which was a burden, a privilege, a calling that led them above earth and into sky, seeking her: the sherpas called Everest "Chomolungma, Mother Goddess of the Earth."
The wind calmed its bellow. At night in camp it often roared, a howling thing boring into your tent, scraping at its sides and trying to frighten you off, but here in the Western Cwm, there was relative quiet, there was respite from a steep climb, there was something nearly like welcome, nearly like familiar earth, low-slung and vast. The sun beamed on Dixon, hot and bright, the temperature in late morning already 70 degrees and rising to nearly 80 soon – who would believe this summer-like moment on Everest? Sweating, uncomfortable, Dixon slipped his backpack from his shoulders, removed the jacket of his bright blue snowsuit, and folded the jacket before placing it in his bag, all in languid movements as if he were underwater. He grabbed a handful of snow and piled it under his hat to cool himself, letting it melt and trickle like fingers down his neck.
He slogged along in a sinewy dream, sweating, bowing his head to the sun – it wanted you to know its power; even in this foreign world, it was the same hot sun he might recall from back home in Maryland, and he could not decide if that was a comfort or a taunt. The snow glistened, its icy crust melting so that it crunched under Dixon's footsteps. The wind called its warnings, and still, he rose, he willed himself, hunkering into the sweat and chill of sun and wind, the tightness of his parched nasal passages and the roof of his mouth – when was the last time he tasted his own saliva? – he dug one foot, then the next, then the next.
"Dixon! It's beach weather on the moon!" his brother Nate yelled back to him. Nate, just in front of him, panted lightly in the altitude but smiled, his black goggles a bit rock-star like, wide and gleaming on his face. Nate's dimpled cheeks wet with sweat, his medium-brown skin tanned a reddish-chestnut in the sun, and Dixon flashed onto childhood days at the Jersey shore, slathering on their mother's concoction of iodine and baby oil as suntan lotion then sliding slick and dark as eels into the water. He might be there just now, near some vast ocean, they might be boys playing if he squinted his eyes just right, the sun whiting out the world in front of him, the glare of it off the brittle snow like the glare off water. He panted hard, sweating, his head swimming and pounding. Nate came toward Dixon. Nate unzipped his one-piece snowsuit, slipped out of the top half, and let it hang behind him, stiff armed and bouncing from his waist – hadn't Dixon warned him to get a two-piece suit for just this reason? Dixon frowned slightly and Nate said, "How you doing, bro?" Nate looked strong, healthy. Hard to recall that just days ago he had been forced to descend to Base Camp, stricken with bronchitis. His hacking cough had been so bad at high camp that they feared he might break a rib. But healed now, he stood happily beside Dixon. Dixon whose temples reverberated with the pounding in his head. He peered at Nate across time and space and ever-thinning air. The suffering. He stood atop it and gave a thumbs up.
"Stupid luck, is all," Nate leaned close to him and nearly whispered though he must be shouting to be heard above the wind. "That the altitude would be kicking your butt, that I'd be –" he shrugged, then lowered his head as if ashamed not to suffer as much as Dixon. "Let's just take it slow," Nate said, and he fell in beside Dixon a moment, his arm across his brother's shoulder, then he headed back in front of him, grabbed hold to the safety rope, and peered over his shoulders. "You with me?"
Dixon raised his hand, waved towards Nate, towards the glare of sun that sparkled and skided across the icy mountain ridges, Dixon who was never left behind, Dixon who would conquer this.
At last, after hours of climbing, Dixon, Nate, and their climbing group arrived at Camp 2 at 21,000 feet, a cluster of tents sprinkled yellow and blue across a snowy mountain ledge. They were perched so high above the world that they looked down not on houses and land but on a village of snow peaks and glacial spikes, the inhabited world obscured. In fact, they were so close to the moon that it didn't fully hide itself during the day, its soft half-globe showing as if through a private stage door half opened; why not? They, too, were of the heavens now.
Karen Outen's fiction has appeared several times in Glimmer Train Stories, winning both the Family Matters (2010) and the Fiction Open (2000) contests; in The North American Review; in Essence magazine; and in the anthologies Where Love is Found and Mother Knows: 24 Tales of Motherhood. Her nonfiction essay "On Typing and Salvation" appeared in the anthology From Curlers to Chainsaws: Women and Their Machines, which was the Gold Medal winner of the 2016 Independent Publisher Book Award for Anthology. Her stories "Family Portraits" and "Watch Between" were performed on stage as part of the Writing Aloud fiction series at InterAct Theater in Philadelphia. She is a 2018 recipient of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers Award. She has been a fellow at the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Michigan and with the Pew Fellowships in the Arts. She has received awards from both the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and the Maryland State Arts Council. In 2004, she received her MFA from the University of Michigan, where she was awarded Hopwood Awards for graduate short fiction and for the novel. She has taught undergraduate writing at the University of Michigan, St. Mary's College of Maryland, and the University of Maryland University College. Karen was a visiting writer during Writers Week at the University of North Carolina –Wilmington and has given fiction readings throughout the Philadelphia area. She has participated in writing residencies at Hedgebrook writing retreat for women and at The Porches in Virginia. She is at work on a novel, Descending Everest.
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