The Death Zone – Chapter 11.14

“Fuck it! I’m dying here,” Brig yelled into the storm. He closed his eyes and waited for hypothermia to set in. Snow had already begun covering his body when Brig thought he heard a motor. He blinked his eyes open and saw three distinct lights moving towards him.   Brig remembered reading stories of people that described how they had died and seen themselves floating above their dead bodies, and something about a bright light. Was he supposed to move towards, or away from the light? Brig wasn’t certain, and impulsively stood and yelled at the lights, “Mother! I’m over here!”   

The sound of the motor, or motors, grew closer. Was God coming to usher him to heaven on a motorcycle? Or was it Satan, come to drag him to hell on Harley? He hoped it was the former, but thought the Devil was more likely to be riding a motorcycle on the slopes of Everest.

It turned out to be neither of them. Brig was not dead and watched as three snowmobiles charged up the hill, tracking him down. Brig slowly realized he was being rescued, and thought, “Why didn’t anybody tell me they had snowmobiles?”  Then, remembering where he was and why he was there, Brig hurried to hide behind the rocks, hoping he hadn’t been seen. He moved slowly in his bulky climbing gear, like a bundled-up toddler making his way outside to play in the snow.

The snowmobiles pulled up to his gravesite and came to a stop as Brig struggled to scale the waist-high wall. A figure that had been sitting on the back of the lead vehicle, leaped off and ran effortlessly toward Brig.

“Brig!” he heard the form yell. “It’s me. Jesus!”

Awkwardly straddling the pile of rocks, Brig stopped and turned around, confused. “Jesus?”

The apparition grabbed Brig by the shoulders, pulled him down off the rocks, and steadied him.

“Brig! It’s me, James.”

Brig was suddenly angry. “God damn it, James. Go away!  You know why I’m here!”

“Brig, I know. But Tommy’s here, too. You need to hear what he has to tell you.”

“Tommy’s with you?” Brig asked.  James pointed towards one of the other figures that had been riding on the back of a snowmobile. A man roughly the size of Tommy struggled to get up from his seat and fell to his knees. The driver of the snowmobile rushed to assist him.

“Hurry! He’s not doing well.” James prodded.

Brig’s shoulders slumped, realizing he had run out of options.  He obviously couldn’t run. He had tried that already. He apparently couldn’t die. Everest was supposed to have taken care of that and failed.  

Brig allowed James to tow him to the bent figure he said was Tommy. The man was coughing violently, not unlike Brig had experienced earlier. Brig knelt down and looked at the man’s face.  He could see the resemblance, but it wasn’t Tommy. This man was thinner, older, and weaker than the man he knew as Tommy.

“James. There’s been some mistake. This isn’t T….” Brig began, but was interrupted by the man as he ceased coughing long enough to blurt out his name.

“Brig!” The man’s entire body shook as he fought to suppress the coughing. The snowmobile drivers had joined them and were pointing nervously at the ground. Small flecks of blood sprayed the white snow where the man had been coughing.

Brig bent down again and reached for the man’s shoulder. “Tommy?”  

“Brig, you must listen to me!” The poor lighting and his diminished form had made it difficult for Brig to identify him, but the deep, commanding sound of Tommy’s voice was unmistakable.     “Tommy! What the fuck are you thinking!?” Brig had never seen it before, but Brig had read enough about Everest to recognize the symptoms of HAPE. “I begged you not to follow me.”

“Brig. Stop talking!” Tommy commanded in a voice louder than seemed possible. Blood-tinged sputum frothed at the corners of his mouth. “You have to return to Hong Kong! Happy’s pregnant. With your son!”

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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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The Death Zone – Chapter 11.12

Brig spent the rest of the day, contemplating his life, and writing final messages to the ones he’d loved, and who might think of him when he was gone. He tried turning on his phone, but it was out of battery, and somewhere in his travels he had misplaced his charging cable. No matter. Brig had his journal, and he was confident James would see that it made its way to his Father.

To James he wrote:

Yo Jesus Bro – Thanks for letting me borrow your ride. I made it to Rongbuk, no problem. Obviously. You were a good friend, and I wish you all the best. Brig.

PS: Don’t forget which hand you eat with. 😉

PSS: Would you make sure this journal makes it back to my Father? Thanks!

To his father:

Dear Dad. Please forgive me. I sincerely believe you were a far better father than I was a son. Love Brig.

To his sister:

Big Sis – It’s been a wild ride. I wish things would have worked out differently. You’re going to make an excellent President and CEO someday. Have lots of beautiful children and name one after me. 😉 Your little Brother – Brig.

To Buddha:

My “ride or die.” The last time we saw each other, we had some harsh words. I hope you know that it was the drugs talking. You were the best friend I ever had, and I consider you my brother. You’ve made an excellent life for yourself, and I’m proud of you. I see nothing but joy, happiness, many children, and a long life ahead of you. Love you man. — The Prophet

To Happy:

Hi Gorgeous! I should hate you, but I can’t. I’m done hating. (Except for Chang. I hate Chang, and I hope he burns in hell for eternity!) I know you never would, but just in case, don’t blame yourself for my death. It may sound stupid, but I’m doing this for me.

I’d like to tell you that you’re a good person, but I’m not sure you are. Besides, one thing you’ve taught me is that good and evil are subjective. If you’re evil, then the woman I loved, the only woman I ever wanted to spend my life with, was evil.

Stay bad! Brig

Lastly, he wrote to Tommy:

Tommy – What a crazy time we had, no? Or was that just another day in the life of the Reluctant Scholar? I hope you’re well. I know that you followed me to Lhasa and then Shigatse, and I hope that nothing has happened to you, but this (suicide) was something I had to do, and I suspected that you would try to stop me. I was/am determined to make Everest my tombstone. I need to finish this.

As I wrote to Happy. I should hate you both. But I don’t. The Ho family has done some awful things to me. But you are forgiven, and soon forgotten. Don’t think my suicide had anything to do with you. Killing myself has been in the works long before I met you. I wish you well. Brig

He closed the book and went to set the alarm on his phone for 6 a.m. when he realized he couldn’t use his phone. He considered asking Pat for a wake-up call but had little faith he could make himself understood, nor could he take one more “Welcome!” Brig laughed at himself when he realized how absurd it was to be setting an alarm for his suicide. Brig decided he wasn’t likely to sleep much, anyway.

“See you soon Mom,” Brig said to the empty room and switched off the light.

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The Death Zone – Chapter 11.11

The road to Rongbuk was treacherous, and even the Jeep’s heavily chained tires occasionally had difficulty finding traction. There were several times Brig thought he would have to abandon the vehicle and walk the rest of the distance to the monastery, but each time the jeep dug in, and Brig was able to continue.

The storm had lessened significantly in the last hour, but Brig could still only see a few hundred feet through the Jeep’s windshield. He had to be getting close, and indeed a few minutes later the blurred lines of a building gradually came into view as if in a dream. Brig hoped it wasn’t his eyes playing tricks on him.

Brig eased the Jeep to a stop, just in front of what he hoped was a place to stay for his last night on earth. The same single story, Tibetan stone buildings lined the snow-covered roadway. There was nobody in sight. Old rusted out oil drums stood sentry to an ornately adorned red door that caught Brig’s attention. Brig knocked on the door, and a few seconds later a Buddhist monk appeared.

“Welcome! Welcome!” uttered the bald cenobite.

“Thank you,” Brig responded. “Sorry to bother you. Is this a hotel?”

“Welcome! Welcome!” the man repeated. Or was it a woman? Brig couldn’t tell. He named the gender-ambiguous host Pat after the androgynous fictional character on Saturday Night Live. Pat’s English seemed limited to the one word.

“Um. Is…there…anybody…else…here…I…can…speak…to?” Brig asked slowly and extra loudly, hoping the pace, clarity, and volume would help his greeter better understand what he was saying.

“Welcome! Welcome!” the monk replied, equally slowly, and loudly, and pointed to a sign that Brig had failed to notice when he entered.

The sign read, “Welcome to the Rongbuk Monastery Guesthouse! Foreigners welcome! We greatly honor your most hospitable visit! May Buddha bless you with safety and happiness!” The room rate was published below. “1 Room/1 Adult/1 Night/¥100.”

Brig reached into his pocket and withdrew his remaining renminbi. He gave his host two red, ¥100 yuan, and thanked Pat again.

“Welcome! Welcome!” Pat repeated, pointing and shuffling back towards the door that they had entered. He assumed he was being shown to his room. Upon exiting the “lobby,” Pat pointed to the right, saying, “Eat! Eat!” miming the action of shoveling food into his/her mouth with his/her hands. Brig nodded that he understood. They moved to another door to their left. Pat stepped aside to let Brig enter.

“Welcome! Welcome!”

“Thank you! Thank you!” Brig stuck his tongue out at Pat, who laughed hysterically, returned the gesture, and closed the door behind her/him as he/she left.

“Thank Buddha,” Brig said aloud as he laid his pack down on one of the ten beds spread throughout the room. There was no sign that any other guest would share the room with him tonight. Thank Buddha twice, Brig thought. Perhaps he would finally get a good night’s sleep. Brig laid down on one of the filthy beds, and though this time he remembered he threw caution to the wind and put his head down on the unprotected dirty pillow.

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The Death Zone – Chapter 11.10

That night Brig slept fitfully, partly because of his partner’s snoring, but also because of the high-altitude. He no longer suffered from headaches, but at this altitude, he struggled even harder for every breath. He couldn’t fathom how some elite climbers were able to summit Everest without oxygen. Freaks of nature. Brig thought respectfully.

At around 4 a.m, while James slept, Brig prepared for his next move. The storm continued to rage and had added another twelve inches of new snow during the night. Brig worried that James would once again try to postpone their ascent to EBC. Brig rose from his bed and dressed as quietly as possible. James had conveniently placed the Jeep’s keys on a table that sat near the room’s exit. Brig withdrew the remaining wads of money from his pack and set them on the table as he picked up the keys. Before opening the door to leave, Brig looked down at the slumbering New Zealander. James had rolled over on to his side, and his snoring had stopped for the moment. Brig sighed and thought how ironic and sad it was that he had developed such a strong friendship with James in such a short time and at this point in his life.

Brig resolutely turned away and prepared to make a run for the Jeep. He knew James would wake up as soon as the door opened, but James would be in his underwear and bare feet, surprised and unprepared to stop Brig from driving away in his Jeep.

“Goodbye James,” Brig whispered as he laid his hand on the doorknob.

“Safe travels my friend,” Brig heard James respond from beneath his covers.

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The Death Zone – Chapter 11.9

“Look mate. I’m not arguing with you. We’re stopping here for the night,” James yelled at his traveling companion. They had completed the drive from Changwuxiang to Tingri without incident, but it had taken longer than expected, and it was getting dark outside. “This is a dangerous storm. I can barely see five feet in front of me, and we’re in the last town before Rongbuk. Everest is only fifty kilometers down this road. We will get there tomorrow for God’s sake!”

Though Brig was inclined to push harder, he’d spent enough time with James to tell that he would go no further. They had had this argument all day at almost every town they had passed through, and Brig had been able to keep James and his jeep moving forward until now. Now James was angry, exhausted, and dug in. Brig finally relented, jerked his backpack out of the jeep, and slammed the vehicle’s passenger door like a spoiled child.

They bent their heads against the driving wind and snow as they forced their way to what they assumed was the hotel lobby, that wasn’t actually a hotel, but more of a hostel, the kind of place James had described to Brig in Shigatse. He could tell by looking at him that Brig didn’t approve. To Brig’s credit, he kept those thoughts to himself. James knew from experience they had few options. It was this place or another place just like it. The only ones that made the trek this far out were serious mountaineers, or day trippers who only stayed long enough to snap a few pictures and then quickly back to a lower elevation.

“You know, if it weren’t for the storm you could see the north face of Everest right there,” James pointed up and directly south. “At certain times of the day we’d be standing in its shadow. We’re that close,” James proffered as they entered their rustic room and laid their packs down on their rustic beds. There was no television or even a closet. There was a bathroom, however, but Brig sighed when he saw his nemesis, “the squatter.”

“Great! There’s no fucking toilet paper!” Brig complained. “How the hell do they wipe their asses in this place?”

“Use the hand you don’t eat with,” James suggested, laughing at himself.

Brig realized he was acting childish, but he was in a bad mood and James was the only one around to take it out on.

There was also a sink and a showerhead that hung dangerously close to the open hole that was their toilet. Brig made a mental note to be careful if he had to get up and take a piss, or God forbid, a dump, in the middle of the night. Brig turned the hot water handle on the sink to see if he would at least be able to take a warm shower in the morning, and to his surprise the water turned warm, if not a little brown. James had found the “on” button to the room’s space heater, and the room warmed quickly.

James was looking at his phone for messages, and Brig considered turning his on to see if he had received anything interesting. “Are you able to get a signal?”

“Yeahnah. Haven’t been able to get one all day. We’re definitely at the arse end of nowhere,” James responded. “Funny thing is, the closer you get to EBC, the stronger the signal. Some Chinese telecom company put up a base station back in 2008 when China hosted the Olympics. Now you can stream your favorite porn when you’re bored and need to rub one out.”

Brig gave James a disgusted look.

“What’s that look? You know somebody’s done it.”

Brig kicked his boots off and laid down on his bed.

“Hey! You forgot to do your t-shirt trick with your pillow,” James observed.

“Oh, shit!” Brig’s head rocketed off his pillow like it was on fire.

“You’re an odd bugger. A mountaineering germaphobe.”

“I’m not a germaphobe. I’m just uncomfortable breathing in someone else’s…” Brig almost said germs. “…deadly virus?” Brig slid one of his last clean t-shirts over a pillow.

“Germaphobe,” James said decisively. “But don’t be afraid. There are no germs on Everest.”

“Oh really? Why’s that?” Brig asked skeptically.

“If you were a germ, would you live here? Fuck no!” James said, answering his own question. “You’d live somewhere wet and warm, and make lots of germ babies. Like the jungle. Lots of germs in the jungle, bro.”

“So why do you live here? There’s probably fewer Kiwi’s on Everest than germs.”

“You’d be surprised. Lot’s of New Zealanders make the pilgrimage to Everest at least once in their lives. Rob Hall and Andy Harris were Kiwis,” reminded James. Rob Hall was the leader of the climbing team that Krakauer was a member of when he wrote Into Thin Air. Andy Harris was one of Rob Hall’s hired hands. Both men perished during the 1996 disaster. Harris’ body was never found. “As was Sir Hillary,” James added.

“That’s right! I’d forgotten. Still, none of that explains why you live here.”

“I was chased out of New Zealand by an evil bitch. My ex-wife.”

“She wasn’t triad was she?”

James laughed. “No. But she was a master torturess. When we separated, I came here and decided to stay. It’s much harder for her to get alimony from me up here,” James explained.

 “Anyway, I’m bushed. If I keep you up again with my snoring, turn me onto my side. I’m told that I’m not as loud when I’m curled up.”

“Maybe I’ll stick your thumb in your mouth while I’m at it. The one you don’t use to eat with.”

When they had stopped laughing, an awkward silence filled the room. The men listened as the wind outside threatened to blow the door down.

“You’re still planning on killing yourself aren’t you?” James asked flatly and without emotion.

Brig took a moment to consider his answer. Should he continue the lie, keeping James off balance? Or should he come clean and let the cards fall where they would. They had become friends, and he respected James. Besides, he thought, he was too close to EBC for James to stop him now, at least not without getting physical. James was a tall, muscular man that could easily overpower a recovering opiate addict. But violence wasn’t part of the Kiwi’s character.

“Yes. I am,” Brig pronounced as he turned off the light.

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The Death Zone – Chapter 11.8

Tommy had also risen early that morning, intent on catching Brig before he reached Everest. When he had arrived at the hotel the evening before, he could barely see straight from the pain in his head. He would have liked to have arranged for a driver then, but it was all he could do just to get himself checked in. But as he got out of bed, the first thing he noticed was the absence of pain. He moved his head back and forth, and side to side, and was delighted to feel nothing. It was going to be a great day, Tommy decided.

At 5 a.m. the hotel lobby was deserted. Even the hotel’s front desk stood vacant. Tommy yelled out for service. A moment later, a young man with bed head and sleep in his eyes stood up from behind the desk. Service was still hit or miss in this part of China, but Tommy knew how to get the young man’s attention. Before a word was said, Tommy laid  ¥1000 yuan down in front of the boy.

“I need somebody to drive me to Everest Base Camp.”

The young man stared at the money, trying to wake up and make sense of his good fortune. He wasn’t entirely sure that this wasn’t a dream. “Okay,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “But it’s early and….”

Before the boy could tell him how long it would take, Tommy had placed another ¥1000 yuan down on the desk.

“And I need him here in an hour.”

The boy smiled widely, nodded that he understood, and began to collect the cash. Tommy quickly and forcefully placed his left hand over the money. Gauze covered the stump of his severed finger.

“When you get me the driver. One hour.”

Seventy-three minutes later, the young man ran into the lobby from outside the hotel looking cold but happy and announced that Tommy’s driver had arrived. Looking at his watch, then back at the boy, he made sure that the boy noticed his gesture. Tommy stood and withdrew the ¥2000 renminbi from his pocket, holding it out in front, between him and the boy. He counted out nineteen of the bills and put them back into his pocket, handing the boy the remaining ¥100 bill.

“He’s late.”

The boy’s face fell realizing that he would have to postpone his plans for early retirement. ¥100 renminbi was still a lot of money to the young boy, Tommy reasoned, and it would be a good lesson for him.

“You’re welcome.”

The boy wasn’t pleased, said something angry in the local dialect, and ran back out the lobby doors. Tommy followed. Exiting the hotel Tommy’s senses were attacked by extremes. It was bitter cold. The exhaust from his idling ride was being blown directly in his direction. The storm had already dumped several inches of snow on Shigatse and was still falling. The bright yellow truck stood out starkly against the white background. The boy, standing in front of the vehicle was speaking animatedly to a short, balding man that Tommy assumed was the truck’s driver. Tommy walked over to the pair. The young boy seethed and pointed angrily at Tommy as he approached.

“Good morning. You must be my driver,” Tommy interrupted.

“Not so fast.” The driver said, between puffs on his morning cigarette, “I understand you have cheated my young friend here.”

“Sir. We had an agreement. I specifically told the boy that I needed the car in an hour. You arrived ten minutes past the deadline. I am in a race to catch a friend of mine, who is already on the road and getting well ahead of us. I am trying to beat him to Everest Base Camp, and every second counts.” Tommy looked down at the boy, who sneered back at him. “I knew my request would be difficult, which is why I offered such a large reward. Which I would have paid. As it is, I still gave him ¥100 yuan, which is probably more than he makes in a week.”

The driver said something to the boy in the local dialect, who was still upset.

“He’s not happy. So I’m not happy.”

The driver took another drag on his cigarette and stood his ground.

Tommy withdrew ¥500 yuan and handed it to the boy. He wasn’t entirely appeased, but it was a step in the right direction. Tommy then handed the driver ¥1000.

“And I’ll give you ¥2000 more if we catch my friend before nightfall.”

Tommy’s ride was a jacked up Ford Raptor with metal studs poking out of four oversized tires. A snow plow was attached to the monster truck’s front bumper. Tommy’s confidence soared. He thought he might now have a realistic chance of catching Brig. The truck’s driver, an overtly happy Tibetan, named Pema, chain-smoked and spoke with a machine-gun like tempo. Unfortunately, Pema spoke mostly in the local dialect that Tommy couldn’t understand.

 Tommy recalibrated his earlier prediction, (It was probably going to be just a good day), and settled into the passenger seat.

The Raptor made an unusual clicking noise as the studs in its tires hit the bare cement of the hotel’s covered entry, and then went eerily quiet as the tires reached the new snow that had fallen on the road during the night. Pema punched the accelerator as soon as all four tires cleared the hotel’s concrete driveway, pinning Tommy’s head against the headrest. The truck’s rear-end fish-tailed slightly and then rocketed forward as the spikes grabbed the ice beneath the new snow.

Pema whooped and laughed, impressing himself with his driving skill and the truck’s power. Tommy smiled unconvincingly, but it was enough to encourage Pema, who increased the speed to a point that Tommy found uncomfortable. He motioned with his hand for Pema to slow down. Pema laughed but eased off the gas.

“I thought you were in a race.”

“I am, but I get disqualified if I die,” Tommy responded, feeling the early signs of the headache he thought he had gotten rid of.

Tommy estimated that he was within twenty kilometers of Brig. Even if he didn’t overtake Brig on the road, Tommy knew that he was bound to catch up with him eventually as there was only one road that leads to EBC.

After Shigatse, the highway became steep, with what seemed like hundreds of switchbacks and hairpin turns. Tommy had started the day headache free, but with every cigarette Pema consumed and every foot the truck climbed, the pain in his head grew worse. He choked down more pills and again motioned for Pema to slow down. Pema laughed, saying something that Tommy imagined was something like, “Don’t be such a pussy!” The clouds outside had grown too thick to see how high they had climbed, but Tommy sensed that it would be a long drop if they slid off the side. The longest tire studs in the world wouldn’t be able to save them then.

A few hours later, the storm had intensified, causing even Pema to stop talking and concentrate on the road. It was warm in the Raptor’s cab, and Tommy had dozed off, not noticing the look of concern that had developed on Pema’s face. The truck’s tires still got good traction, but Pema struggled to see the road in the near white-out conditions. Tommy jerked awake as Pema yanked the steering wheel hard to the right, avoiding a massive boulder which was nearly as large as the truck. The vehicle’s air bags deployed as the blade of the truck’s snow plow cut through the ice and snow and into the hillside that ran along the highway.

Although Tommy didn’t feel fortunate at the time of impact, he was. Had Pema yanked the steering wheel to the left, the truck would have vaulted unimpeded off the cliff on the left side of the road. Tommy and Pema would most certainly have been killed. As fate would have it, Tommy was alive and pushing the truck’s airbag away from his face as Pema jumped out to assess the damage. They hadn’t been going very fast, and there didn’t appear to be any significant harm done, at least to the body. However, when Pema climbed back into the truck and turned the ignition, nothing happened. The beast was dead.

This cannot be happening, Tommy thought to himself as he rubbed his temples. His headache had returned, and it had gone nuclear. Tommy realized that his chances of reaching Brig had fallen to somewhere between zero and one percent, What a shitty day this turned out to be.

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The Death Zone – Chapter 11.7

James and Brig woke up early to continue their assault on the Tibetan Plateau. Brig had slept poorly as the Kiwi turned out to be a world-class snorer. Brig had tried to quiet the big man several times during the night, even inserting a dirty sock into his mouth, but nothing had worked.

“Dude!” Brig cried as they prepared to leave their room. “Do you know what a moose is?”

“ ‘course I know what a moose is. What’re you gettin’ at?”

“You know the sound they make during mating season? That’s what you sounded like last night.”

 “It worries me you know what a moose sounds like when it’s mating,” James taunted. “My bum is feeling a bit sore this morning.”

“From now on, separate rooms,” Brig demanded.

It wasn’t as cold as it had been the day before, but it was still well below freezing. Fresh snow covered the no longer so friendly Friendship Highway. Yesterday’s sun had surrendered the sky to dark storm clouds. There were no longer any other vehicles on the road as the predicted storm had arrived. James knew it was crazy to be out driving in this storm, but also knew it was hopeless to try to convince Brig to wait. James had promised Brig that he would get him to Everest, and his pride wouldn’t let him do otherwise.

By 11 a.m. the pair had reached Changwuxiang, a town at the crossroads of the G318 (Friendship Highway), and the G219 National Road. It had taken them roughly five hours to traverse a stretch of road that in the summer when the roads were dry took James a little over two hours. The light snow from the morning had turned into a blizzard, and James tried again to persuade Brig to bivouac until the storm had passed. James explained that if they got stuck, out on the road in this storm, it would, at best, be very uncomfortable, and at worst, they would freeze to death.

Brig pulled out the nearly destroyed copy of “Into Thin Air” from his pack, searching for a specific passage as James pulled the jeep off to the side of the road. Fortunately, the passage he was looking for was still intact. He held the book out for James to see.

“’Into Thin Air,’ by James Krakauer. Have you heard of this book?”

“I’ve read it,” James asserted, pulling a set of tire chains out from under the back seats of the Jeep.

“Do you remember the story about Beck Weathers?” James nodded that he did. “Page 263. ‘Hey Pete, he called to Athans, Check this out. Somebody’s coming into camp. The person’s bare right hand, naked to the frigid wind and grotesquely frostbitten, was outstretched in a kind of odd, frozen salute.’ Yadda, yadda, yadda, ‘As the mummy lurched into camp, Burleson realized it was none other than Beck Weathers, somehow risen from the dead.’” Brig turned a few pages and continued, “The storm had blown both sleeping bags from his body, leaving him exposed to the sub-zero wind, and with his frozen hands he’d been powerless to pull the bags back over himself or zip the tent closed.”

James stopped, laid the lug wrench he was holding down, walked over and grabbed the book roughly away from Brig. James looked at the book, turned a few pages, and began, “Chapter 20. Page 271. Walt Unsworth said this. The guy that actually wrote the book on Everest. ‘The one great advantage which inexperience confers on the would-be mountaineer is that he is not bogged down by tradition or precedence. To him, all things appear simple, and he chooses straightforward solutions to the problems he faces. Often, of course, it defeats the success he is seeking, and sometimes it has tragic results,’” James emphasized the word tragic, “‘but the man himself doesn’t know this when he sets out on his adventure.’” Having made his point, James tossed the book back to Brig, resuming the task of putting the chains on the tires.

“Careful! Geez!” Brig demanded but was impressed by James’ ability to turn immediately to a section he obviously knew. “Oh, hey, you forgot to finish! Let me do it for you. ‘Maurice Wilson, Earl Denman, Klavs Becker-Larsen – none of them knew much about mountain climbing, or they would not have set out on their hopeless quests, yet, untrammelled by techniques, determination carried them a long way.’”

“Yeah well, Wilson died on his summit attempt, and the other two lived because they had the sense to turn back!” James countered.

“How do you know so much about Everest?” Brig was astonished.

“It’s my job! I’ve read just about everything there is to read about this area. Twice!”

“Respect, Bro. But here’s my point. Beck Weathers survived two nights at 29000 feet in sub-zero temperatures. I think we’ll be O.K., in the daytime, at 15000 feet.”

The point was moot. Both Brig and James knew they would continue, otherwise, why was James continuing to chain up the jeep? James and Brig pulled out of Changwuxiang, unaware that Tommy was gaining on them.

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The Death Zone – Chapter 11.6

After dinner, Brig and James were silent as they made their way back to their hotel room. Having spent every minute of the last twenty hours together, it was safe to say that they were getting on each other’s nerves. They walked the halls and rode the elevator in an undeclared rule of shutting the fuck up.

Brig unlocked the room’s door and entered. James followed, dropped his baggage, and collapsed in a heap on to one of the rooms queen-sized beds. Earlier they had decided to share a room since they would only be staying at the hotel for a few hours, but now they regretted the decision. Both men would have paid handsomely for a little privacy. It was too late now. All either wanted to do was sleep.

Brig laid his backpacks down next to his bed and opened the large one that carried his clothes in search of two clean undershirts. He stripped off the clothing he had been wearing all day and put one of the undershirts on to sleep in. He pulled the cover and sheets midway down the bed and slipped the other undershirt on over one of the pillows.

James, who had been quietly watching asked, “Bro? What the hell are you doing?”

“Bro,” Brig mocked. “This place is gross. Look at these pillowcases. They’re yellow. How many people do you think have drooled on, spooned with, gotten sick on, or done worse on these pillows?”

“You spent a month in a Chinese prison, and you’re skeeved about sleeping on an old pillow?”

Brig paused. “You make a good point. But they didn’t give me a pillow in prison. My pillow was the cement floor or a rolled-up shirt.”

James laughed and rolled over on to his other side, away from Brig, “Oh you’re gonna love the next place we stay. Goodnight Bro. See you in the morning.”

“You’re not going to brush your teeth? Get more comfortable?”

“Too knackered. I’ll be out in two seconds.”

Although Brig had recently been forced to go weeks without brushing his teeth, he couldn’t imagine, if given the opportunity, not doing so. When he emerged from the bathroom, James was snoring loudly. Brig realized it would be a long night.

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The Death Zone – Chapter 11.5

Tommy exited the train with the rest of the passengers after it had reached Shigatse, the last station on the line. An intense, throbbing headache that made him feel as though his brain was trying to exit his skull forced him to sit down and rest. He had already taken three painkillers that a doctor in Xining had provided him, but they didn’t seem to have any effect. The mind-over-matter exercises he had learned in prison didn’t seem to do any good either. He took another painkiller and massaged his temples.

As he stood to continue his journey, his phone rang. It was Happy.

Where are you?” Happy asked in full Dragon Head mode.

I just got into Shigatse. I’m on my way to a hotel where Brig might be staying.

Shigatse? I thought he was in Lhasa.”

He was. I missed him by a couple of hours. He’s picked up a traveling companion, which may complicate things.

You sound like shit.

I’m alright. Just tired.

Should I send Yellow?

By the time he arrives, Brig will either be dead or returning to Hong Kong with me.

Okay. Let me know when you find him. I don’t need to tell you how important it is that you persuade him to help us.

I’m well aware and well armed. If I can catch him, I’ll turn him. Have you tried calling?

Yes. From three different phones. It looks like he’s turned his phone off for now. I’ll keep trying.” As they ended their conversation, Tommy lamented that their relationship seemed to be one of “boss to subordinate” and not “father to daughter.” However, he supposed that with all that had happened, that should be expected. There would be time to reconnect once he got back home. But first, Tommy had to find Brig.

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