Beneath Thin air

I promised to write a post on why I wrote ‘Thin air‘, and actually I just really want to tell you this. I didn’t write that story out of the blue. It is the result of some coincidental things. A few weeks ago I was in a bar, and suddenly they played Rammstein’s Ohne Dich (Without You) there. I liked the song (as far as I could hear it there), so I decided to search for it on YouTube. This song has a video clip in which the members of the band climb a mountain. While doings so, the lead singer falls badly. He’s still alive, but you can see his situation worse. In the end they reach the summit, where the lead singer dies while having an incredible view.

This video clip reminded me of an article I once read. We don’t have a newspaper, but when our neighbours go on a holiday, we get theirs. So it was just coincidence that I read this article on climbing the Mount Everest. Apparently some Belgian guys had summited without using oxygen. But this article was more on the corpses spread on the Everest, where they are used as landmarks.
This terrified me.
I just couldn’t get my head around this – all these people would go to the Mount Everest for fun, slalomming in between the dead bodies. That’s like having your birthday party at a cemetery! How can you stand the idea of all those dead people there? How can you ignore the fact that they once lived but died there? There was one story in particular that stuck with me, and after having seen the clip to Ohne Dich I decided to read more about it.

The story is about a woman now known as Sleeping Beauty, who is also used as a landmark on the Everest. Her real name is Francys Arsentiev. She was 40 years old when she died there, leaving behind a son. She was climbing together with her husband, Sergej Arsentiev, whom she had met on another climbing expedition. She wanted to be the first woman to summit without the use of oxygen, and she succeeded.
But that’s where everything went terribly wrong.
Because they didn’t bring oxygen, they advanced slowly and summited late. On their way back down they became separated. When Sergej reached the camp the next day, he saw that Francys hadn’t yet arrived. He realized she was dangerously high on the mountain, so he went to search her, carrying oxygen and medicine.
Meanwhile an Uzbek team found Francys and carried her down, as she was unable to move on her own. But because they gave their oxygen to her, they became too fatigued to continue, so they had to leave her behind again. When they made their way back down to the camp, they met Sergej, who was on his way to his wife in order to help her.

Ian Woodall and Cathy O’Dowd encountered her on the next morning. They said her face was waxy because of frostbite, making her look a lot younger, like a porcelain doll. She must have noticed there was someone around, as she started talking. Apparently she kept on repeating the same sentences over and over: “Don’t leave me!” “Why are you doing this to me?” and “I’m an American.” But the couple believes she wasn’t talking to them, as it seemed more like a record that was stuck. They gave up their chance to summit in order to stay with her and try to help her, but they too were unable to do so – Francys was too weak, and they had to leave her behind to not risk their own lives as well.

Francys died there later on.

Francys

Her husband, Sergei, was lost at that point. He was found the next year, and is believed to have had a fatal fall while trying to rescue his wife.

This is a kind of tragic I can’t get my head around. I just read that article and the information over and over while trying to understand how it must feel to be alone in the freezing weather, unable to move, or to try to save someone whom you eventually have to leave behind to die. It’s something so cruel I still can’t capture it. Perhaps that’s the reason I felt I should write about it. While I was reading about Sleeping Beauty, I felt this story growing inside me. I knew it would write itself. I knew it would be good, because somehow, this wasn’t my story, this wasn’t something I would write. It seriously felt as if it was all ready somewhere, just waiting for my fingers to type it out. So that’s what I did. One day I felt like I shouldn’t wait anymore, so I sat in front of my computer and started writing.

This wasn’t easy. I was afraid it would drag me in and give me nightmares, because it’s such a horrible thing to imagine. It was somewhat emotionally challenging. After having written it, everything I worried about before didn’t seem important anymore. I was glad to have it out of me.

The reason I changed their names is because it’s fiction. Of course I did my best to give an impression of what she must have gone through, and I also tried to show the encounter with Woodall and O’Dowd, but I left her son out, for example. I just couldn’t imagine how it must feel to be a mother dying. I knew I was unable to write that part of her story, so I decided to go for fiction instead. After all this is but a possibility and nothing more. No one can known what was really going on inside her.

I still can’t get my head around it, but I’m glad I wrote that story, however challenging it was. I hope this is some kind of memorial for all those people who died up there. The man with the green boots for example, is also a real person who died there and is now used as a landmark. The couple that encountered Francys have given her some kind of burial, removing her from view.

It’s a tragic thing.

My information comes mainly from Wikipedia. I even stole some sentences. I’m sorry.

Thin air

“Are you cold?”

He turned around and looked at me, with his light blue eyes. I tried to wrap myself up in my scarf and said: “Of course, we’re in Russia and it’s snowing.” There was frost on the windows of the little bus taking us to the base. You could almost see your on breath. I shivered.
The man smiled and said: “You’d better get used to it, if you want to reach the summit of the mountain.”
“I will reach it”, I said.
“Good”, he answered approvingly. “We’ll be both there.”

I didn’t think we would make it. I didn’t dare to hope so. And yet we made it, and promised each other we would make it to the summit of the Mount Everest. We would make it. One day. I remember that promise.

And here we are, on our way down. Why is this so much harder? And it’s cold here. It’s so cold…

It was the first time I met him. He and I climbed the mountain together and helped each other out the following days, and inevitably we started enjoying each other’s company. Alexander was such a nice man, and those eyes, they were too blue to be real. That’s what I remember from the first days. And then we reached the summit, made that promise. I didn’t believe it would come true. But life has its own ways.

“Don’t sit down to rest. That might kill you. Keep moving, always keep moving.”

But I’m tired.

I don’t think my mother believed we’d make it. When we told her we would be climbing the Mount Everest, she looked at me, hesitated, and then said: ” Are you sure, Vic?”
“Yes, of course! This is special, mom. I will regret not going.”
She nodded, then looked me in the eyes. “Come back home safely, Victoria.”
“I will, mom.”

That’s a promise, isn’t it? Like the one I made to Alex. We would make it to the top. And we did. It was beautiful. Snow. Everywhere this snow, a white world. It’s freezing. Such a landscape, as far as you can see…

Alex, where are you? We made it to the top. Where are you now?

It seemed so far away when we got here. The summit was covered in mist, and it seemed the closest to heaven you could possibly get alive. I remember the start, the excitement and disbelief that we would get there, so high. The thrill, it’s unbelievable. You can feel it in your fingers, in your blood and bones, crawling underneath your skin.
Like the cold does now. I feel the wind cutting through my bones.

We would make it.

“Go to the right up there, and then left again.”

“Over there?”

“And watch out for the man with the green boots. We’ll meet up there.”

“Okay.”

They said it was dangerous to do without oxygen. I wanted to prove them wrong. It’s dangerous to climb this mountain anyway. I would want oxygen now. I wish breathing wasn’t so hard. This should not have happened.

“Don’t sit down.”

I was too tired and too cold and I sat down. Mom, I don’t now if I’ll make it. I’m sorry, mom. I don’t want to be here, not now, not when it’s dark. I sat down and now I’m lost. There is snow everywhere and here I am. Alex, where are you? I’m scared. I want to go home now. I promised. I said I’d be there.

Find me.

There should be other people around. We met so many others. Just like us. Aiming for the top. Wanting to reach it more than anything now. They will find me. They should. Please don’t leave me in the cold. I’m so alone here. I want to go home.

“Mountains are so majestic and strong”, Alex said. “There’s nothing you can compare to them. Reaching the summit is like sitting on the shoulder of a giant.”
“It is incredible”, I agreed. “I can’t wait to be there.”
We had a cup of coffee in a cosy bar with orange walls. Outside it was raining, but inside it was warm and nice. Pictures of the Everest were spread on the small table. Alex drew circles on it, pointing out the places we should see, important and dangerous points. Preparation is important. I warmed my hands with the cup of coffee and smiled at the thought of reaching it.
“It’s gonna be amazing.”

“You know what to do. Keep that in mind. It can get tricky here, so be aware of that. Watch out!”

I wish Alex was here. I wish you were here, Alex. I don’t know what to do. I feel terrible, it gets worse with every second passing. I should move. I can’t. I no longer can. What’s happened? Why aren’t you here? Why are you doing this to me?

“Watch out for the man with the green boots.”
He fell and froze to death. Will I freeze to death? He fell. Now he’s there. A body. Landmark. People die here all the time and nobody cares. Corpses are spread all over the mountain. I didn’t care. I should reach the top. The top, Alex. The top.

They said I should enjoy that. They said I should have fun. We embraced each other and smiled. Take pictures. I will. Then I got on the plane. The ground far below quickly changed. It was nice to see, and the clouds were comfortable.

“Which hand would you mind the least to lose?”

That was a joke. I don’t want to lose my hands. Stop freezing.

Don’t stop moving. I wish I could.

“Are you sure, Vic?”
“Yes, of course! This is special. I will regret not going.”
She nodded, then looked me in the eyes. “Come back home safely, Victoria.”
I cried.
“I can’t, mom. I’m cold. I can’t come home, mom! I want to go back, I really want to go back… But I’m so cold…”
She took my hands. A thousand pieces of glass through my bones.

Is that wind? Is that Alex? Where are you, Alex? Don’t leave me alone. Why are you doing this to me? Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me!
Take my hands. Where are you from? I’m an American. My husband should be here. Can you hear me? I don’t hear myself. Where are you from? Please stay. My husband will be here. Don’t leave me. I’m an American. I’m cold. Please help me. Oxygen. Are you cold? I’m so cold. Feel my face. What’s happening?

No.

No, come back.

Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me here.

“Come back home safely, Victoria.”

“Watch out for the man with the green boots.”

Mom, I think I’m dying.

“It’s so sad that he’s used as a landmark now.”

She took my hands.

“It’s cruel, but what can you do?”

Get him out.

Can’t they get the body away. Traces. Cover it in snow. Burials here, why should they not? Was he freezing to death? People freeze to death. Or exhaustion.

Do I hear you, Alex? Is that you? You should be here.

“Come back home safely, Victoria.”

Do your research. Before you even set out to climb mountains, do as much reading as you can.

Alex, I’m here. Please take me back home.