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The Death Zone – Chapter 11.13

Brig awoke from an uninterrupted sleep feeling better than he had in months. Due to the altitude, it was difficult to breathe, but Brig felt energized and eager to be on his way. Another cruel irony, Brig grinned and prepared himself for his final act. He sat up and turned on the light next to his bed, swinging his long skinny legs out from beneath the covers and setting his feet on the cold cement floor. Since the room didn’t have a clock and his phone was dead, he had no way of knowing what time it was. It was pitch black outside with no sign of dawn. He guessed it was still early morning.

“It’s December 4th. What am I waiting for?” Brig grew somber, and his energy dipped as he remembered his mother, and what had happened to her twenty-two years ago.

He looked up and spoke towards the ceiling, “See you soon Mom.” He paused and listened, hoping for a sign that she was with him, but if she was, Brig wasn’t feeling it. “Probably getting my new place ready.”

He lifted his small pack from the floor and onto his bed. It was beat-up but still as functional as the day he had bought it. He opened the bag and dumped its contents onto the middle of the bed. He then separated the mostly junk into two piles. The first pile was for stuff that still had value. The second pile was for trash. He started the first pile with the iPhone that Happy had given him in Xining. It was cold, black, and dead, having been drained of energy days ago, but with a charge it would be good as new. He would will this to James, who needed an upgrade. There were a few other odds and ends that James might find useful, but the trash pile was much bigger than the value pile. At the last minute, Brig pulled his journal and the worn, dismembered copy of  ”Into Thin Air” from out of the trash and placed them thoughtfully into the other stash, thinking the books might be entertaining to someone, maybe his father.

He returned the remaining Chinese yuan, about ¥2000, and a few other personal items, to his small backpack. He would leave the climbing gear and the Ortovox mountaineering pack also to James. Last, he set the keys to the Jeep next to the iPhone, knowing James would eventually make his way to Rongbuk to retrieve the vehicle, perhaps even today.

At around 3 a.m. Brig exited the Rongbuk monastery. Sunrise was still another four or five hours away, but the town’s few street lights illuminated Zhufeng Road. Stepping out of his room and into the storm, Brig saw that an additional six inches of snow had fallen. The slog to EBC wouldn’t be easy, but it was less than two miles away, and Brig was confident he would make it before sunrise.

It was soon apparent that Brig had underestimated the storm’s strength and overestimated his own. Soon, his pace had slowed to a crawl. Hurricane force winds blew ice in every direction, ravaging and stinging his face, like a million winter wasps. The temperature had fallen to a life stealing -30C, and even at only 17,000 feet the air was so thin he was forced to stop and catch his breath after every four or five steps. Brig’s headlamp offered him little advantage in the blizzard that reduced visibility to next to nothing. He had been out fighting this storm for what he guessed was about an hour, but it could just as well have been three. In this environment, and with his objective so near, time became ethereal and inconsequential.

Brig pushed on. After another few minutes (or was it hours?), Brig’s lonely, exhausted figure stumbled upon a pile of rocks that offered protection from the storm. He sat down heavily, resting his back against the impromptu barricade. He was surprised, and a little disappointed, that he could still see the faint glow of light from what he assumed was the Rongbuk Monastery.

“This is the place!” Brig yelled, laughing hysterically at his inside joke. Thousands of Mormons in Salt Lake City would have understood. The mingling of the freezing air he sucked directly into his lungs collided with the warm air that was already there, causing him to double over, coughing so violently he thought he might die before he had had time to prepare himself. Brig focused on his breathing, forcing himself to relax. Eventually, the coughing ceased, availing him the opportunity to do the things he needed to complete before he could declare victory and check himself out.

 It wasn’t that funny, he thought as the coughing subsided. Brig prepared himself for what came next. He had a few more things that needed doing before he could declare victory and check himself out.

Brig pulled his gloves off of his frozen hands with his teeth. Despite buying the best gloves money could buy, he could barely feel his frozen fingers as he unzipped his coat pocket and retrieved the BYI (Brigham Young International) Hotel’s “Do Not Disturb” sign that he had carried with him from Salt Lake City to display here, at his grave, his final resting spot. A few days ago he had found a length of string in the back of James’ jeep and had fashioned the material into a noose. It was a nice touch, Brig thought, as he tightened it around his neck. He grew frustrated as the sign flapped uncontrollably in the relentless gale. Brig hadn’t counted on the wind. The opposite side of the sign read, “Please Clean My Room,” which didn’t send the same subtle message he wanted his father to receive after his death, and would likely confuse the unfortunate soul who would find his frozen body when climbing season began again in the spring. He rolled a medium-sized rock onto his lap, which he used to pin the placard against his body. The wind still threatened to dislodge it, but Brig hoped that the sign would freeze, right side up, to his parka.

He put his gloves back on awkwardly. His plan had been to position his arms and exposed hands so that they would freeze with Brig forever flipping a double bird, but now decided that that was too crass, even for him. Besides, he was too tired and too cold to care.

He had read somewhere that, as a person froze to death, they might engage in a behavior called “paradoxical undressing,” which was when, for some unknown reason, the “freezee” became irrationally hot, stripped down to nothing, and tried to burrow into the smallest place they can find. Brig felt none of that. On the contrary, he felt calm, peaceful and complete. Against all the odds, he had made it to Mount Everest, the rooftop of the world, his final resting place. He was ready. Brig turned his headlamp off and looked down the broken path of snow he had just plowed.  The light he had noticed earlier seemed to be getting brighter and moving towards him. Had he turned himself around and mistakenly walked back towards Rongbuk?  The trek to EBC wasn’t steep, but there was a noticeable rise, and he had definitely been going up.

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