Below Another Sky: A Tibetan Journey of Remembranceby Rick Ridgeway
A renowned adventurer travels to Tibet with a young woman in search of her father's memory and gains a fresh perspective on his own life.
Combining gripping adventure writing with intimate memoir, Rick Ridgeway takes readers to the mysterious mountain domain of Tibet, and into the remote corners of his past. Twenty years ago, in the wake of a massive and/b>
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A renowned adventurer travels to Tibet with a young woman in search of her father's memory and gains a fresh perspective on his own life.
Combining gripping adventure writing with intimate memoir, Rick Ridgeway takes readers to the mysterious mountain domain of Tibet, and into the remote corners of his past. Twenty years ago, in the wake of a massive and terrifying avalanche, Ridgeway cradled his dying friend Jonathan in his arms and pledged to keep watch over Jonathan's infant daughter, Asia. Now Asia is a vibrant, headstrong young woman; hoping to help her connect with the father she never knew, Ridgeway takes her to the Himalayas Jonathan so cherished. Together, they search for the place where he died.
Their trek through remote and forbidding terrain-under constant threat from lethal storms and jumpy Chinese military patrols-is a fitting backdrop for the precarious emotional journey that Ridgeway and Asia share, as they venture into alien landscapes of memory and self-discovery. Ultimately, the truths they both seek are revealed, not in the images of a life long gone but in the bright promise of future possibility. In a stunning conclusion on a treacherous and wind-battered mountain face, both Ridgeway and his dead friend's daughter finally embrace the deepest realities of death, and of life.
- Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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Minya Konka Base Camp
OCTOBER 14, 1980
I need to get this down while it's still fresh. It must have been nine-thirty by the time we got out of Camp 1 yesterday, but we all agreed that there should still be enough time to climb the fifteen hundred vertical feet to the next campsite, cache our loads, and get back before dark. I drew the first lead, postholing up the slope above camp. Then Kim took over, then Yvon. At noon we stopped next to a crevasse for lunch. Yvon bit off a piece of cheese, then turned to Jonathan. "Whenever you're on a glaciated section," he said, "always stop at the edge of a crevasse when you take a break. That way you'll know you haven't stopped on top of a hidden one. Same for setting up camps."
"Thanks," Jonathan replied.
Jonathan had asked us a few days earlier to give him pointers whenever we thought of anything, and Yvon is always obliging to anyone who wants to learn. We finished lunch and continued. Soon our options narrowed to a steep section of chest-deep snow, so we had no choice but to tackle it. I led and Kim followed. To get footing I had to pack the snow first by pressing my whole body into the slope, then my knee and finally my boot. No matter how careful I was, I still knocked snow down on Kim.
"Sonofabitch. I'm getting buried."
"Sorry, I can't help it."
Kim looked up and grinned. "I wasn't cursing you. Just this snow flying down my collar."
I took another step and knocked down moresnow.
I smiled to myself and kept going. In another hundred feet the snow firmed. In a clearing between clouds we could see just ahead an area of large seracs where the shifting glacier had cleaved into blocks. I stopped and studied our options.
"Two ways to go. Up the middle through the seracs, or off to the right."
"Looks a little better to the right," Yvon said.
While Kim moved up to take the lead, Jonathan stepped aside and took several photographs. I paid out rope, then followed Kim as he angled up the side of a serac that then turned into a long, steep slope. The heavy packs and thin air made the effort debilitating, but we maintained a steady pace. I tried not to look up but instead to focus on the steps in front of me, hoping I might achieve a kind of self-hypnosis.
"Heartbreak Hill," Yvon called out.
The rope on my waist went taut. I looked up, and Kim had stopped to wait patiently while I caught up. It was all I could do to match his speed, and he was the one punching the steps. I was tempted to unrope and go at my own pace, but there were still crevasses in the area. We had roped up earlier in the morning when we crossed the first crevasses above Camp 1. That was before we got into the soft snow, but footing had still been difficult, with about four inches of new snow over the older surface. Several times my boot skidded on the interior layer, leaving a streak through the new snow. In the back of my mind I knew this was avalanche potential. I wondered what Yvon and Kim thought, but if they were concerned they would have said something. Still, I noticed that whoever was leading stayed on the edges of crevasses, and close to the sides of seracs, avoiding whenever possible the wider slopes that might be dangerous.
Kim kept leading until the slope laid back, and I took over kicking steps for a long time. I was hypnotized: one foot up, breathe a few times, then move the next foot. I remember Jonathan yelling up, "Rick, you need relief?" Ahead I could see a flat spot on the edge of a crevasse, so I made that my goal.
"Thirty more yards."
When I reached the spot, I plopped down, leaned back on my pack, closed my eyes, and breathed heavily. The altitude was now over 20,000 feet, and I wasn't yet fully acclimatized. In a few moments Kim and Yvon arrived.
"Good effort," Yvon said.
Jonathan arrived. "Way to punch steps."
Kim just kept going, lifting his legs and pushing steps into the smooth snow. When the rope caught up, I had no choice but to peel off my shoulder straps so I could stand up, then saddle the heavy pack once more and start following. Ahead, in a glimpse between clouds, we sighted the top of the ridge only a hundred yards farther. The wind strengthened to thirty miles per hour, and the clouds now raced over the snow and again obscured our vision. Through another fleeting hole in the clouds I could see above that the best route was more to the side.
"Traverse left ... to the crest ... out of the wind."
In a few minutes we were on a flat bench sheltered in the lee of the ridge. We unshouldered our packs.
"Good place for the tents."
"Welcome to Camp 2."
We sat on our packs and had a second lunch, finishing our Fig Newtons and the last of our lemonade. Through brief windows in the occluding clouds we could see the ridge descending to a col and rising again to two higher summits.
"Must be Redomain and Dedomain," Yvon said. We had learned the names of these two peaks from reading an account of the 1932 expedition. The clouds opened further, and beyond we could see the yellow-green plateau, and once more I paused to consider our good fortune. The Chinese had just opened their doors to foreign mountaineers, and we were the first Westerners allowed into eastern Tibet since the 1932 expedition, fifty years earlier.
"Wuuwee" Jonathan said. It was his favorite expression, and even though he said it calmlyalmost to himselfI knew it revealed his excitement because he had been saying it continuously since that day nearly a month before when we had first arrived in China. We turned and looked toward the summit ridge, now obscured in clouds. We had an idea what it looked like, though, from studying the 1932 photographs.
"Two more camps and we can make the summit," I said.
"Ten days, if we have luck with the weather," Yvon added.
We rested for a few more minutes, then, in the first clearing, picked up our empty packs and headed down toward Camp 1.
We made good time, slowing to test bridges over crevasses, or, as Kim preferred, to broad-jump them. In only a few minutes we were back at Heartbreak Hill. We down-climbed, belaying each other with our ice axes as anchors. When the angle eased, we decided to glissade. We slid down on our butts, one going faster than the other, laughing and yelling, the rope going taut, pulling one, then the other. I felt like a kid in a giant sandbox of snow. It seemed like only seconds and we were at the bottom and on our feet and continuing down in big jumping steps.
It went that way for another half hour. We were moving fast, and our spirits were high. We arrived at the hill above Camp 1. We could see below our three yellow tents, and on the trail through the snow leading into camp, three figures. We knew that would be Edgar, Peter, and Jack, moving up to camp. Harry was probably already there, in one of the tents. Everything was on schedule and according to plan.
We decided to make another glissade. Yvon went first, then me, then Jonathan, then Kim. I heard Kim give a whoop, and I answered with a yoo-hoo. I remember thinking that those guys coming up will get a kick out of watching us slide down.
Then it happened.
I was in Yvon's track, and I quickly gained speed. Snow built up around me and flew in my eyes. It was hard to see where I was going, but then I didn't need to see since Yvon was first and all I had to do was follow his track.
I remember my thoughts.
This is great, we'll be down in a few seconds. The rope is tugging on my waist, though. Yvon must be going awfully fast. But wait, he's first so he can't be going faster because he's making the track. That's funny. All this snow building up around me. There's too much snow. Something's wrong. We've got to be careful. Too much snow, and we'll load the slope. We have to stop glissading. Now, right now, stop! Stop! Oh my God, it's too late.
It was as if the snow all around me had started to boil.
Get off to the side. Quick. Stand up and run. Can't get up. You have to. Get up. Can't.
Then underneath me the snow seemed to explode.
No way to get out now. It will stop, just below the tents, has to. No, we're gaining speed. No, no. There's someone beside me. Jonathan? Kim? Can't tell. Someone yelling, "Oh, Christ, here we go!" Who was it? Kim? Jonathan? No, Kim. Start thinking. Think fast. We can't get out, but we still might stop. If we stop, I might be buried. Smothered. Remember what they say, "If you're in an avalanche, start swimming to stay on top." So try to backstroke. You're still on top, stay there. Backstroke, hard. It'll stop. Oh no, losing control. Can't, have to stay on top. No, I'm flipping.
I made a complete cartwheel, snow, sky, snow blurring across my vision.
Everything spinning. Tumble, up, down, up. Then in. Oh my God. I'm buried. Under the snow. Eyes open. White, everything still moving, moving fast. Curl up tight. Like you're supposed to do in a plane crash. Trap air in front, have an air pocket when it stops. That way I'll last long enough until those guys dig me out. Those guys in camp, they're watching. They'll know where we are and be right here. They'll dig. Air pocket, curl up. I'll make it. Look past my arms. Ice pulsing around me, like it's breathing. Must still be going fast, can't breathe. I need air. Spots in front of me, black and white. Am I still alive? I must be.
Then suddenly my face surfaced. I sucked air as fast as I could, then backstroked until my chest, then my knees, pulled out. Around me the snow was heaving and pulsing, as if it were alive and taking huge, deep breaths. To the side an outcrop sped by in a blur. Then in front, past my feet, I saw the slope steepen, then disappear over an edge. It was the cliff, the rock face below Camp 1, and it went several hundred feet down. Then I remember how suddenly everything slowed. I must have breathed deeply, and exhaled deeply, because I paused, and in that brief second I managed to calm my thoughts. I looked ahead and to the side as the whole slope of snow we were riding, the tons and tons of it, pitched into space, and I recall very clearly my next thought:
October 13, 1980. Thirty-one years old. Buried in Tibet.
Inside the snow again, curled up in the airplane-crash position. Something hits hard. Ice blocks punching my back, then my arm. Hard, hard on my arm. Am I dead? My arm hurts, pain. Am I being broken? I see myself as they dig me out, all rag doll. It's okay. Listen, mom, dad, brother, everybody. I know you love me and I love you but listen, it's okay, this isn't that bad.
Hit again. Still alive? Dead yet? Pain. I feel pain. Must be alive because I feel pain. I'm still buried. Open my eyes. Snow. Big ice blocks in front of my face, moving in and out, shifting ice blue shifting and moving. Any moment now, any second and that's it, one final blow.
Surface ... I'm on top. Breathe, I can breathe. Suck in the air as fast as I can. Can I survive this? Maybe, so breathe fast, hard. If I go under again, I'll need it. Pull my arm out, good, now the other arm. Legs out. Pull hard, strain. Legs are out. Ice moving all around me, pulsing, breathing, moving fast. Roaring noise. To the side, rock cliffs whirring past. Must be in the gully, going down the rock face.
Think fast. On top, made it this far. I can make it. Maybe. Have to fight. Fight for everything, everything. Swim. Breathe fast, stay on top no matter what. Backstroke. Look, there's Yvon in front of me, right there. His head is up too. Stay on top, backstroke. Wait, it's slowing. The avalanche, it's stopping. It's stopped.
Get out. Can't move, the rope so tight on my waist, can't get out. Knife? My pack? Where is it? Oh my God, the snow, it's moving again. It's going to start again. No. Get out, quick, out, out. God no, here we go again. There's the lower cliff. We're heading toward it. God, I remember, it's a big one. We can't survive. Sliding slowly, toward the cliff. Pull, pull as hard as you can. This rope! Cliff getting closer, no, no! Not after we have stopped. No, no ... wait ... wait ... it's slowing again. Slowing, slowing, slowing, it's going to stop, going to stop ... it's stopped. Now get out, quick. Out of the rope. There, I can slip it off. Off my waist, slide the loop down my legs, over my boots. Okay, now go to the side, crawl if you have to, careful so the snow doesn't start sliding again. Probably have fractures, so go slow but quick. Slow and quick, like this. To the side, crawl, yes, keep going. To that rock. The rock is safe, off the snow. There, I made it. I'm safe. Okay breathe, breathe again, again. Alive. God, I'm alive ... alive ... alive....
The strain on the rope as we each tumbled helter-skelter had widened the loop around my waist enough so I was able to slip it over my legs, then flee from the mass of ice blocks I was certain would start moving again, sliding toward the next cliff. When the avalanche had stopped the first time, then started again, I had lost hope. I felt cheated. I had accepted death, then had been given a reprieve, then was sentenced again, all in a minute or less. Now the ice had stopped a second time, and I feared it would again start moving, this time toward the cliff just in front of us, a cliff I knew would spell our end. I had struggled like a caged wild animal to remove the rope so I could crawl off the avalanche ice to the security of a rock I had spied a few feet away, at the edge of the jumbled ice.
Once on the rock I sat panting, unable to do anything until I caught my breath and the dizziness went away, anything except repeat to myself over and over that I was alive. I was certain to be injured, but where? I felt my legs, moving them carefully. Then my arms, my ribs, my back. Bruises, bad ones, but apparently no broken bones. I wasn't seriously injured.
What about the others? I looked over and saw Yvon, at an angle below me, thirty feet away. He was buried to the waist, but his arms were free and he was working slowly to free himself. There was blood running down his face. I looked up the narrow slope where we had stopped and saw Kim. He was staring back at me. Our eyes held, and I remember they were eyes like blue diamonds. At that moment he may have thought he was dead, or that maybe the ice was going to start moving again. His eyes had the look of an animal that knows it is about to be killed. There was blood on his face and blood trickling out of his mouth, staining his teeth. Then suddenly he screamed. It was an animal scream, and it made me look away.
Jonathan was closest, only a few feet from me, at the edge of the ice. He was head down, with the rope around his waist stretched tightly to where it disappeared into the snow that was now set hard as concrete. He was trying to say something, but I couldn't tell what it was. I didn't move, but continued to lie on the rock thinking that somehow we were all alive and we were all going to get out of this. When my breathing slowed, I realized I needed to think of what to do next. We were all alive, but the others seemed hurt. I wasn't hurt, and I needed to help them. Who first?
I looked again toward Yvon. He was still buried to the waist, and now he was leaning back on the snow as if he had given up trying to get out. Blood was running out the corner of his mouth. He still had his glacier glasses on. How could that be? Then I called to him, "Yvon, are you okay?" He turned and looked up at me but only stared, not saying anything.
"Yvon, are you hurt?"
"Where are we?" he said.
Kim screamed again, and I looked back at him. He was on one knee, struggling in a frenzy to stand up. Maybe he still thought the ice would move again. "I can't breathe," he yelled. Panic in his voice. "Get this rope off." He started pulling the rope where it disappeared into the ice. He pulled like a madman, screaming as he yanked on the rope. "I can't breathe!" Help Kim first, I thought.
I stood and made a few steps toward Kim, but then looked at Jonathan. He was moaning. "Jonathan, are you okay?" He mumbled something, but I couldn't understand him. Then I thought, Better help Jonathan first; his head's downhill, and he's having trouble breathing.
I bent down and looked in his eyes and said, "Jonathan, we're all alive. We all made it. Everything is going to be okay." Then I asked him where he was hurt, but he couldn't answer. Our eyes held for a moment, and I said, "Don't worry." I had to get him upright, but then I thought, Careful, he might have broken bones. Move him carefully. I reached under his head and tried to get my hand along his back in case it was broken. He was heavy, but lifting slowly I straightened him out. "Okay, buddy, that should be better." He still didn't answer, but we looked at each other and then I heard Kim scream again, "I can't breathe! The rope. Get the rope off." Kim was on his feet, charging against the rope like a wild animal against a leash, screaming. I looked at Jonathan and said, "Hang on, I've got to help Kim. He can't breathe. I'll be right back. Everything's okay."
When I reached Kim, I told him to stop pulling against the rope. "Can't breathe," he screamed in panic. "My back. I'm hurt. Can't breathe."
"Relax, relax. Take the strain off the rope so I can untie it."
Kim collapsed on his knees. I coaxed him to move a few inches, to relieve tension on the rope. But the knot was too tight to untie. I thought, Should I keep working on it, or help the others? How is Yvon?
I looked down. Yvon had nearly dug himself out, but he was again leaning back against the snow. He seemed dazed.
"Yvon, are you hurt?"
"What happened?" he said, looking up.
"Are you okay?"
"Where are we? What happened?"
I couldn't tell if he was seriously injured. I managed to untie the knot in the rope around Kim's waist.
"Okay," I told him, "now I've got to help the others."
I stepped across the avalanche debris to Yvon.
"Are you hurt?"
"I don't think so. What happened?"
"We were in an avalanche. Stay right here. I've got to help Jonathan."
When I got to Jonathan, I bent down to ask how he was doing. I looked in his face and felt my stomach tighten. His eyes had rolled back in his head. I thought, No, it can't end this way. We're all going to come out of this okay. I knelt close to his mouth. He wasn't breathing. I put my hand on his neck and felt his pulse. It was quick and strong. I thought, He's still alive. Have to get him breathing, fast. I held his head in my lap and placed my finger on his tongue and breathed into his mouth. Once, twice, three times. Nothing. Again, once, twice. Nothing. Then I saw his chest rise and fall. He started to breathe again. He's going to make it, I thought. Things will turn out okay. We're all going to get out of this alive.
Then the breathing stopped. I waited, but he had stopped breathing. I breathed into his mouth once, twice, and again he started breathing on his own. But there was a sound from inside his chest. I thought, No, no, this isn't going to happen. We've all got to come out of this okay. We're all still alive. It has to stay that way.
He breathed three times, and stopped, and I breathed again into his mouth. He breathed, stopped, I breathed into him, he started. His pulse was still strong. I had to keep him going until the others arrived. The others. Where were they? Edgar, Peter, Jack? They saw us go down, so surely they were right behind, coming down to help. They should have been here by now, though. Wait. Maybe the avalanche was so wide they had been swept away, too. They could be buried in this snow.
I stood up and looked around. Yvon was below, now on his feet, standing and staring at me. Kim was crawling off the ice, still crying in pain, blood trickling from his mouth. Our red rope wove in and out of the jumbled blocks of snow and ice like a string of intestine from a gutted animal. But no sign of anything else. I thought, If the others were in here, they're all buried. No, that couldn't be, because the debris isn't that thick. If they were here, I'd see some sign. So they must still be coming down.
I turned back to Jonathan and saw that he had stopped breathing again, and once more I started mouth-to-mouth. His chest would rise, fall, I would breathe in his mouth and his chest would rise, hold, fall, not move, then rise again on its own, fall, rise, fall ... stop. I would watch, wait, then put my mouth again to his and start over. I kept my finger on his neck and his heart still beat. He stayed alive, and I kept hoping.
I looked up and saw that Yvon had walked over and was standing a few feet away, watching me administer to Jonathan. He was stiff and not moving, standing like a scarecrow. There was blood on his face.
"Are you sure you're not hurt?"
"We were in a big avalanche, Yvon. We just fell fifteen hundred, maybe two thousand feet. I don't know, a long ways. We're all alive. But Jonathan is hurt bad."
"What mountain is this?"
"Yvon, go help Kim."
Yvon looked toward Kim who was now off the ice, lying on his side, doubled up and moaning.
"What mountain did you say this was?"
Yvon then started toward the place where he had been buried. I was afraid he would walk off the cliff that was only a few yards away.
"Yvon, don't walk around. Come over here; help Kim."
Yvon turned and started back my way, still in a daze. I needed more help. Where were the others?
"Help!" I shouted. "Down here. Help!" There was no reply, and I called again. Yvon was now standing nearby.
"Where are we?"
"Minya Konka, Yvon."
"Minya Konka, in Tibet, in China."
"What are we doing in China?"
I turned back to Jonathan. He had stopped breathing, so I resumed mouth-to-mouth, but each time I breathed into him there was that sound in his chest. I waited. His head rested on my knee. I moved my fingers through his hair and watched his face. His lips had lost color. All of a sudden his face paled, as though some part of his being suddenly evaporated. In less than a second he was different. I held him in my lap as I continued to slowly stroke his hair. I bent down and gently kissed him on the forehead, then set his head down and folded his arms on his stomach so he looked comfortable. Yvon stood watching. He didn't say anything, and I didn't think he understood.
"Yvon," I said, looking up at him, "Jonathan just died."
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(John Balzar, author of Yukon Alone )
Meet the Author
Rick Ridgeway, a mountaineer-ing legend, is well known for his writing, photography, and filmmaking. His articles have appreared in numerous magazines, and he is the author of four previous books, including The Shadow of Kilimanjaro, which was named one of the Ten Best Travel Books of 1998 by The New York Times. He lives with his family in Ventura, California.
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