He'd come shatteringly close, within six hundred meters of the summit. But K2 had receded into the mists behind him and the necklace was still in his pocket. How could this have happened? He wiped his eyes with his sleeve, disoriented by unfamiliar tears, and attributed them to the altitude. He certainly wasn't himself. After seventy-eight days of primal struggle at altitude on K2, he felt like a faint, shriveled caricature of himself. He simply didn't know if he had the reserves left to walk fifty more miles over dangerous terrain to Askole.
The sharp, shotgun crack of a rockfall brought him back to his surroundings. He watched a boulder the size of a three-story house accelerate, bouncing and spinning down a slope of scree, then pulverize an iceberg on the trail ahead of him.
Mortenson tried to shake himself into a state of alertness. He looked out of himself, saw how high the shadows had climbed up the eastern peaks, and tried to remember how long it had been since he'd seen a sign of other humans. It had been hours since Scott Darsney had disappeared down the trail ahead of him. An hour earlier, or maybe more, he'd heard the bells of an army mule caravan carrying ammunition toward the Siachen Glacier, the twenty-thousand-foot-high battlefield a dozen miles southeast where the Pakistani military was frozen into its perpetual deadly standoff with the Indian army.
He scoured the trail for signs. Anywhere on the trail back to Askole, there would be debris left behind by the military. But there were no mule droppings. No cigarette butts. No food tins. No blades of the hay the mule drivers carried to feed their animals. He realized it didn't look much like a trail at all, simply a cleft in an unstable maze of boulders and ice, and he wondered how he had wandered to this spot. He tried to summon the clarity to concentrate. But the effects of prolonged exposure to high altitude had sapped Mortenson of the ability to act and think decisively.
He spent an hour scrambling up a slope of scree, hoping for a vantage point above the boulders and icebergs, a place where he might snare the landmark he was looking for, the great rocky promontory of Urdukas, which thrust out onto the Baltoro like a massive fist, and haul himself back toward the trail. But at the top he was rewarded with little more than a greater degree of exhaustion. He'd strayed eight miles up a deserted valley from the trail, and in the failing light, even the contours of peaks that he knew well looked unfamiliar from this new perspective.
Feeling a finger of panic probing beneath his altitude-induced stupor, Mortenson sat to take stock. In his small sun-faded purple daypack he had a lightweight wool Pakistani army blanket, an empty water bottle, and a single protein bar. His high-altitude down sleeping bag, all his warm clothes, his tent, his stove, food, even his flashlight and all his matches were in the pack the porter carried.
He'd have to spend the night and search for the trail in daylight. Though it had already dropped well below zero, he wouldn't die of exposure, he thought. Besides, he was coherent enough to realize that stumbling, at night, over a shifting glacier, where crevasses yawned hundreds of feet down through wastes of blue ice into subterranean pools, was far more dangerous. Picking his way down the mound of scree, Mortenson looked for a spot far enough from the mountain walls that he wouldn't be crushed by rockfall as he slept and solid enough that it wouldn't split and plunge him into the glacier's depths.
He found a flat slab of rock that seemed stable enough, scooped icy snow into his water bottle with ungloved hands, and wrapped himself in his blanket, willing himself not to focus on how alone and exposed he was. His forearm was lashed with rope burns from the rescue, and he knew he should tear off the clotted gauze bandages and drain pus from the wounds that refused to heal at this altitude, but he couldn't quite locate the motivation. As he lay shivering on uneven rock, Mortenson watched as the last light of the sun smoldered blood red on the daggered summits to the east, then flared out, leaving their afterimages burning in blue-black.
From Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson. Copyright Greg Mortenson 2005. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of Viking Press.
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