AHEAD OF ME, Anna’s body flickered through shadow, then light, as we wheeled through the crusty snow, pedaling and skittering our bikes up the trail to Professor Falls. It was the middle of January 2016. The air was still, a brittle -25?C.
My lungs bellowed. Eventually, Anna tossed her bike next to a larch tree and began running up the narrowing path. Stuffed under the lid of her pack, the rope trailed its tail end in the snow. I ditched my bike and took off after her. It was the first time we had ice climbed together, and I think we both had something to prove: speed, efficiency, strength, hilarity–but that day, mostly speed.
We arrived at the base of the mottled turquoise waterfall, and I got ready to climb as fast as possible while Anna uncoiled the rope, her blue helmet half-cocked over her right eye where it would remain all day. We climbed quickly, rappelled quickly, had a quick sip of whisky and bolted out on foot and wheel as fast as we’d gone in. It was too early for lunch when we made it back to Canmore, and I wondered if I’d be able to keep up with her on bigger adventures. As the sun streamed through the windshield, I caught Anna’s unrelenting smile out of the corner of my eye.
THE MORNING of our flight to India, September 20, 2016, Anna sent me a text message: “I think I’m having a total nervous meltdown right now.”
I replied right away. “Listen to me and believe me when I tell you I got ya. I will guard your life like my own sisters’. If all we have is an adventure with no summits, I’d still be happy.”
Anna responded quickly. “Oh, I’ll get over it.”
Rein it in Criscitiello, rein it in, I thought. This gal does not need taking care of. I recalled our exchange during the next couple of weeks, mostly because it was a microcosm of the two of us: we were opposites in almost every way imaginable, end members constantly bringing one another closer to an elusive center. Her longing for wildness balanced my need for order. Her boldness quickened my tempered strides. As a scientist, I couldn’t turn off the analytical, hyper-organized side of my mind. Anna, who had recently left her Parks Canada job to climb full time, was wholly dedicated to unhindered and often spontaneous exploration. There were many moments when we had to make hard decisions, and at all cost I defaulted to what I told her I would do: guard her like a sister.
AFTER OUR ARRIVAL in India, Anna and I confronted almost immediately the number-one axiom of all expeditions: Plan on shit not going as planned. On my previous trip to India in 2010, my climbing partners and I had skirted the monsoon landslides by getting high on the Nun Kun massif quickly. This time, however, our main objective was in the Garhwal region, where the monsoon had already arrived. Across the line of our approach, muddied earth and rock slipped into the black torrent of the Bhilangna River. For a year, I had fixated on grainy photos: the granitic teeth of the Brahmasar peaks, the illuminated repose of the west ridge, the plummeting shadows on the cold face. I had mapped the landscape in ink and mind, planned the route with backups and backups to the backups. There was so much inertia hurtling us toward the Garhwal, and then suddenly it was gone.
Anna cracked two beers with a lighter, and we clinked bottles, making a promise to return to the Garhwal together next autumn. Then we started poring over our photos of the Miyar Valley: Plan B. Sheltered from the monsoon, deep in the Himachal Pradesh, moraines winded toward glinting spires. The promise of frozen brittle worlds loomed high and hidden in the back corners of each side valley. I emailed New Hampshire climber Freddie Wilkinson to ask for advice, since he had established some daring routes there in 2007. “If you want a more exploratory endeavor,” he advised, “check out the side valleys on the left (west)…alpine gnar galore.”
Without any time to feel prepared, Anna and I stepped out into a realm truly unknown to us. Perhaps we would walk a few kilometers up the main valley, and I would see a heaving, incandescent-blue glacier I couldn’t resist. Or perhaps after days of trekking, Anna would glimpse a rise of rock so sublime she would dream of dancing up its flutes. We decided to let the mountain pick us.
FOR MONTHS, I had been buzzing with thoughts of all that Anna and I could accomplish together. In many ways, our dichotomy made us a perfect team. The mountaineer and the climber, the slogger and the technical sharpshooter. She told me she was thankful for my speed and endurance, my ability to carry huge loads, my body’s disregard for altitude and cold. I was grateful for her unmatched strength, her ability to lead what I never will: overhanging ice, bare pitches of unprotectable Rockies rock, and everything in between the frozen and unfrozen vertical realms.
Earlier that year, in July, after storms forced us out of the Bugaboos, Anna and I had driven to Skaha, British Columbia, with two friends for some relaxed sport climbing. I had just returned from a long run through the dusty trails when I watched her walk over to a tree where she had hung a bag of red wine. She took a swig, tossed her cap on the ground, and wiped the wine off her hands onto her fluorescent blue pants before starting up an almost featureless, overhanging route. Again and again, she reached high for tiny handholds, stretching her arms leisurely and methodically, holding her legs close to the wall without effort. As she glanced at the route above, she appeared to be in friendly conversation with the rock. No way I’m going up that, I thought. Instead, I ran and ran and ran, unable to remain still; I was bursting with so much admiration.
Months afterward, without her presence, I would feel as if I had poised myself at the top of a steep couloir, only to look down and find my skis were shattered.
ALL DAY, as the road ascended out of Manali, I felt as though I were rising through layers of dreams. Flashes of home life–turning on the kettle for coffee, watering the jade plant that sits on my pine desk–came vibrantly to mind, then faded away. One shade of green surged into another, from rich river lands to lush ribbons of planted earth, evoking the vast quantity of life in a bucketful of ocean. Weathered bridges stitched together small towns split by the cleaving Chenab River. At the crest of Rohtang Pass, our truck hurtled along an impossible narrow boundary where the crush of warm green and cold white somehow coexisted, and the fertile and the frozen fell off below in all directions. I held onto a feeling that sparked just after descending to where the Leh-Manali road turns northwest and careens into the Tandi-Kishtwar. A sense of emergence, of surfacing.
Anna and I stepped out of the truck at Shukto, in the far north of India, where the dirt road ends. Prayer flags dotted the verdant terraces of cultivated land between the peaks. Pakistan and Tibet were close, now, flanking us on my mind’s map, across invisible political lines. The low hum of a distant chant rose as we unloaded our gear beneath a waning, three-quarter moon.
The next morning, we started our two-day walk up the Miyar Valley with six horses; two horsemen; our local guide, Bhagwan Thakur; two cooks, Janga Gurung and Bharat Shahi Bahadur; and five plump, unpredictable chickens to be dished up at base camp. Bhagwan led the menagerie, glancing behind him every few minutes with a smile, as if to make sure that his pace was OK. I studied the clouds for pending weather. The fragmented cirrostratus hinted only at a weak front.
When we stopped by the river to rest, Anna found a wet, silt-slathered rock that perfectly held her resting silhouette. She lit a smoke and closed her eyes. “Don’t want to get muddy, do you,” she said to me, in a mocking, loving voice, as she relaxed into the contours of the rock. She looked so content, the tips of her hair tinged with mud and a sleepy smile on her face. My gaze drifted from her repose to the bend in the river up ahead, where it curved beyond my view.
Deeper into the valley, the shattered, crumbling rock cliffs turned into impenetrable pinnacles, the green, tended terraces into pulverized moraine. The Miyar River became increasingly turbulent, its rolling tumbled gurgles transforming into a sharp roar. The rounded, eroded stones of the outwash plains gave way to newer, jagged rocks hidden under the constricted torrent between the incised banks. Isn’t this always the case? The younger and the more contained, the more furious? A baby gasping instinctively for her first breath: a subglacial surge crashing out of a terminus into its narrow and precipitous birth canyon. As we followed the braids of the Miyar River toward its source, the current seemed to be fighting something always just up-river and out of sight.
EARLIER IN THE WINTER of 2016 in the Canadian Rockies, at the base of the second approach pitch to Whiteman Falls, Anna and our friend Ben and I stared at the ice that covered a deeply eroded waterfall pool. “I wonder if we can step on that,” Ben said. It looked thin. I saw dark shadows around the edges, spindrift caught in the mayhem of a previous freeze-thaw cycle. The sound of moving water lapped too close to the surface for my comfort. In the split second it took me to think to myself, Dammit we’ll have to climb this mixed garbage around the sidewalls to get around it, I watched as Anna, ahead of Ben on the rope, walked directly across the center of the ice. One step, two steps, and Anna was gone.
She plunged into the bottomless chasm of water. Though this all happened quickly and without a word, I could sense that Ben and I defaulted to the same plan. We hauled hard on the rope, and Anna surfaced. Ben grabbed her arm and pulled her to firm ground in one strong movement. She stood for a moment, her breath still held. The water dripping off her turned to ice. She laughed and said, “Well, this is as far as I’ll go today!” As I rummaged through my pack for insulated pants that she could change into, and Ben finished packing for us to descend, Anna swiftly began down climbing. “Give ‘er,” she shouted, already out of sight. “See you later today at the car after you climb Whitemans!”
Once again, Anna was gone. Ben and I weren’t sure what to do. “Should we follow her out?” I asked Ben. Temperatures were in the -20s ?C: what if she got hypothermia on the five-kilometer ski to the car? “Well, she made her decision I guess,” Ben said. This girl is nails. What history etched across years has made such toughness? Late in the day, after we climbed the falls, we found Anna snoozing peacefully in the back of my car under a nest of blankets. She woke and looked up at us, patient and smiling, wondering how good the ice was.
THE METAMORPHOSED PALEOZOIC GNEISS and amphibolite of the Miyar shear zone ceded to dark, intrusive rock. The Zanskar fault folded layers of earth like putty, foisting the older strata above the young, toying with age. The provenance of such an altered landscape remains hidden, except to those who know how to read rocks. And what of our own metamorphosed beginnings? The collusion of age and environment with genetics and epigenetics? Practically encased in ice, how did Anna know she could make it alone out from the Whiteman Falls canyon? Her own history taught her that, and gave rise to her daring.
I wondered if I would let her down on this climb. I had learned to have a higher aversion to risk than she had, somehow. Southwest-dipping, sheared rock layers passed underfoot. Strike slip, strike slip. The Miyar and the abutting Gianbul valleys ascended to their domed junction. Two deformation events lay recorded in the stratigraphy. The intrusion of young rock arched the landscape and created the regional-scale anticline, the opportunity to walk up a valley and tread through slices of time tilted 20? toward our feet. The old had been exhumed, exposed again to sunlight after a long senescence. Crystal orientation offered evidence of paleo-stresses. Mineral deformation hinted at the direction of previous struggle. Ask Anna about her scars. Tell her about mine.
Later, I wondered: Can we ever fully read the mystery of another person’s life?
WE SET UP A LUXURIOUS BASE CAMP at 12,950 feet on the east side of the Miyar River between the Chhudong and Takdung valleys. Janga used a small, clear stream as a fridge, building a retaining berm with pebbles and then submerging our vegetables in the crisp lagoon. The chickens grazed on dry, low grass. My gaze flitted between two unclimbed lines on Rachu Tangmu, a mountain across the river and up a drainage on the west side: a steep, thin drip of ice that led to a col and a sharp half-hidden ridgeline that arced to the corniced summit knife; a broad north-facing couloir that thinned about 1,500 feet from the top into an impossibly overhanging rimed rock corner.
“You know that I’m looking at the route with more rock. And I know you’re looking at the ice,” Anna said. She wasn’t asking. And in the end, I wanted to follow her into the un-oxygenated unknown by whatever route she found irresistible. Saying what she likely already knew, I replied, “The rock corner line. That top section is all you.”
EARLY THE NEXT MORNING, I dunked my unruly curls in the river, trying to maintain at least a semblance of hygienic order. Anna emerged from her side of the tent with her black Batman cap atop her dusty mess of hair, a breakfast cigarette dangling from her lip beneath the dark brim. Dammit, she is infinitely cooler than I’ll ever be. We packed a load and crossed the Miyar River to peer into the alpine world above.
Anna, in her usual way, stripped down to nothing and waltzed through the water before I had even changed into my designated river-crossing shoes and pants. We began ascending what I dubbed “Mt. Chosserton,” and Anna fondly termed “the shitpile from hell”: more than 3,000 vertical feet of loose moraine. Its upper half overlaid detached glacial ice. My hope was to carry to an advanced base camp at an altitude of at least 16,500 feet, but by the time we reached 15,500 feet, Anna’s pace slowed. I turned around: she was resting heavily on a rock, the weight of her pack lopsided as she tried to shift its heft from hips to granite. She was short of breath. Her lips had blanched. Before I could speak, she threw up.
My heart thumped against the stillness. Shit, she has AMS. “We’re going down,” I said. “Are you OK to go down with me?” I kneeled and looked straight into her searching eyes, but I was unable to focus her attention. She mumbled something that didn’t make sense, and I smelled a distinct fruity, acetone scent. My heart and mind accelerated. Fuck fuck fuck. This isn’t AMS. We both knew it was ketoacidosis. I held her for a minute, feeling her rapid breathing, trying to remember everything I knew about insulin and blood sugar. I knew she had sporadic issues with her blood sugar, but I didn’t find out how serious it was until long afterward.
During the descent, she stumbled even as I gripped her arm. “Thank you for being so patient with me. I’m thirsty. I’m so thirsty,” she said, though she had drunk all our remaining water. I heard the trust in her voice. I let her arm go, and she continued meandering down down down as I ran toward any depression, any chasm, any hint at a water source still within view of her. What do I do in a world where water does not hydrate? I envisioned a stream, flowing over a landscape and sucking it dry, desiccating the land it wove through instead of bringing life.
FOR THE NEXT THREE DAYS, Anna shuffled around slowly in a thirty-foot radius of our base camp tent. The first night, I lay awake, listening to her breathe. “Go explore,” she said to me early in the morning, before she disappeared again into her sleeping bag.
A faint breeze whispered across the dry grasses. A thin, dreamlike haze hung low to the valley bottom. How is she asking me for time to get stronger? She is the strongest person I know. While I seek gentle updrafts, rising slowly with the current of the wind, she rides the shearing offshore katabatics for fun. She is katabatic. I saw her committed force in the commanding spine of that Himalayan skyline, in all its sheer and jutting authority.
At night, my mind drifted compulsively to thoughts of what would happen if she got sick again. What are the contraindications between individual memory and shared ambition? Between unbreakable determination and the body’s preexisting trajectory? The questions proliferated, hurled into the vastness of the hollow sky, shattered against brittle stars and returned to me, in silence.
I was scared and I wanted her near a hospital because I didn’t understand what was going on with her body. She wanted to wait it out at base camp to monitor her blood glucose level and see if she got better. We never came to a resolution. Ultimately, I told her I knew that we could only make decisions for ourselves and our own bodies. I said that I respected her decision despite how incongruous the world felt to me at that point. All I could do, in climbing as in life, was to trust her.
While she rested, I hiked into the three valleys on the east side of the main basin: Takdung, Chhudong, and Dali. There are details to a landscape that are impossible to delineate with words. I walked alone through fields of wild oregano, memories of my Italian grandmother’s kitchen whispering through the low brush. Fractals of burnt-orange lichen spilled across boulder fields; creek water lapped against glinting mountain passes; ten thousand feet of impossible, foreshortened relief existed in one frame. There were countless almost-flawless moments during those three days–imperfect because I wasn’t sharing them with my climbing partner. I felt the weakening of my lifeline, my strong connection to Anna. I wanted her roaming those hills by my side.
Each day, I returned to base camp with photos of frozen lines. In the evenings, Anna and I ogled images on my tiny camera screen. We quickly determined our second objective: a buttress hidden in the Chhudong Valley that we dubbed “Brahmasar of the Miyar” because of its striking resemblance to that rise of shadow deep in the Garhwal.
One evening, Bhagwan, Janga and Bharat tried to set up a Tyrolean across the Miyar River so Anna and I wouldn’t have to ford it again. On the near side, they used a bolt I’d placed the previous afternoon on a fifteen-foot boulder, during my obsessive practice with a new hand drill. With no decent high anchor point on the far side of the river, they eventually quit the impossible task, and they took turns encouraging each other to the top of the boulder. Bharat went last, nimbly picking his way up a crack in his flip-flops. I felt relaxed watching them, enveloped by the warm normalcy and joy of the moment. While they walked back to camp, I kneeled at the clear stream next to the cook tent, my sleeves rolled up neatly as I washed our bowls. Anna joined me after a few minutes, laughing at the way her dog-chewed merino cuffs dragged through the water.
By the third night Anna reported feeling 100 percent, and she seemed it. She said she was checking her blood sugar levels regularly with a blood-glucose monitor. A shallow wind drifted in from the south, and my mind felt at ease. Her personality was back, her audacious humor, her booming laugh. She was there again with me in the Miyar. I wasn’t alone. We decided we would try to reach an advanced base camp the following morning, with my stipulation: we move at half pace, take regular stops and check in honestly with one another, and truly, truly set out with the expectation of turning around. We shook on it, ate one of the chickens (we named that one Sweet Chili) and had a rowdy, perfect night.
WE WOKE UP early when the river would be low. On the moraine, I set a slow enough pace to listen to Anna step and breathe behind me, and to talk together in the thinning air about love and home and what might lie ahead for each of us in the next few years. When we stopped to drink water, she handed me my favorite snack from her pocket. I took them from her with a “Oh hell, yeah!” and she winked back. She knew they were my favorite. We moved past our 15,500-foot cache to 16,200 feet where a large glacial erratic offered an island in a moving landscape of ice on rock, rock on ice, forever shifting.
After we shuttled our cached load up, I filled water from a frozen supraglacial lake while Anna cooked dinner, and then we sat on our perch to eat. As the sun swung west of the cold-horned summit, the light played tricks on the north face of Rachu Tangmu, creating illusions of gravity-defying overhangs where we knew there were none. Side-lit, the summit cornice looked as if it were rising. Its shadows hinted at the true depth of its undercut. The bulging terminus of the glacier appeared defiant too, rebelling against its cirque, heading willfully skyward. To the south, the three forged prongs of the southwest face of Mahindra dominated a sea of ice-studded peaks. Our whole world, emanating in every infinitesimal direction from our quiet epicenter, was magic. Are my eyes seeing what yours are seeing? Will you remember this forever? I will.
While darkness devoured the skyline peak by peak, Anna set herself up to sleep atop the rock pedestal in her tiny tent. It was a windless and relatively warm night, so I decided to sleep under my tarp, which was all we would bring on the climb. Anna said I’d have to come into the tent with her at some point, so we could take a photo for the manufacturer. She found it endlessly entertaining that two petite climbers couldn’t fit into the allegedly two-person tent she brought.
“When we get off that summit and back down here, two girls one tent!” I hollered. The echo of her thunderous laugh seemed to magnify in the cirque above and reverberate back to me. I saw the flash of her mischievous grin as she settled into the tent. I blew her a fist-bump, and crunched over to my bivy spot. My down booties gripped onto the hoar frost that had begun to form. As I turned out my headlamp, the illuminated circumference of my world vanished into vacuity. It was probably around 10 p.m. when I fell asleep listening to her almost comforting little snores. Farther away, the low locomotive rumble of an avalanche rose and fell. The last thing that passed between us wasn’t words, but wonder and laughter.
AROUND 6 A.M., I got up to smash the surface of our little lake so I could turn an icy half-liter of it into coffee. In retrospect, I think some part of me already felt something was wrong. She had been as excited as I was to scout the route that day, and there was no way my intentional banging about wouldn’t have woken her. It took all the courage I had to unzip her tent door at 7 a.m. I covered the rock beneath me in tears and beat it with my fists. The word No echoed off the cold and shadowed face of Rachu Tangmu. In less than a minute, I unleashed the emotions that I knew I would lock down for weeks, until I got us home. I closed my eyes and wiped my face. Calm and even, I did CPR for an hour despite the obvious signs that she had passed away. It is what you do, so I did it.
I wrapped her in her sleeping bag. Some irrational part of me wanted to keep her warm, unable to let go of the idea that she would suddenly wake up. I forced myself to eat a bar, and I sent a satellite message to Kaushal Desai, my friend and logistics contact in Manali, requesting evacuation assistance. I didn’t want to leave Anna even though she wasn’t alive, but knew I had to alert the three at base camp immediately. I began sprinting down down down.
I remember tearing through the river. I remember Bhagwan, Janga and Bharat running toward me when they saw me. I remember that when I dropped to my knees, Janga knelt with me, offering me his hand to hold. I made myself eat and drink water before I crossed the river again and ran back to Anna in a blur. Stay strong, stay strong, stay strong. In the end, I returned to her in four hours–the only four hours after she died and before I got back to Canada that she was not within arms reach of me. Eventually, I did the single hardest thing I have done in my thirty-five years: I sent two messages–one to Anna’s mother and one to her partner–telling them. It took a long time to find the words.
Memories of home flooded my mind. I saw myself reading on my twin sister’s white couch while the warm sun streamed through the open barn doors facing the Pacific. I heard my mom calling us in from the swings for dinner on a cool summer evening; we were six years old with mud crusted between our toes beneath faded sundresses. I saw Anna proudly playing the French horn as a youngster. I saw her sitting on her kitchen floor in Canmore making ice cream for her mom. I glimpsed her hand held in the palm of someone she loves. What, really, was contraindicated? Oxygen-starved alpine objectives and a family and community at home held close? Climbing and falling in love?
I received a message from Kaushal saying a team was on the way in on foot, and I should descend again to base camp to wait. There was no practical reason to stay up high–there was nothing that could harm Anna. I knew she would have told me to go down to base camp and have a damn drink. But I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to leave her alone. I didn’t feel brave. I didn’t feel strong. Seeds of convoluted phantasmagorias had already taken residence in my unconscious mind. For two nights and three days, I fragmented into memories and hallucinations: I thought of the crisp lines on her hands, the cracked skin of her right thumb; I pictured her feet lying close together, magnified and illuminated as if by candlelight; I saw a woman in a seaside bed and breakfast cooking scrambled eggs as I sat at an old French farm table and drank coffee, listening to a crashing tide; and just as I tried to focus on the calm and the detail, the scene suddenly dissolved into the spiral of a yellow tent door flailing in a windstorm, the grin of a cat flashing before it attacked.
I made lists of what to do. I obsessively checked the angle of the sun, adjusting my solar panel and charging everything that had a battery. I packed our equipment into large, one-person loads–the motions of maintaining order and control, the motions of distraction. My family, twelve hours off my time zone, switched the schedules of their lives to message me. Their words were my tether to another world.
At night, I shattered into the landscape. Images of Anna–skipping across the river ahead of me, watching tennis and eating sesame bagels in Canmore, shaking the tent on Mt. Robson with laughter, running and climbing and drinking whisky in Skaha–suddenly lost shape and faded, and I descended into murky, bogged woods where a shape-shifting threat waited behind an oak tree at night, hiding something behind its back. Terrified of getting out of my sleeping bag, I talked to Anna and clenched tiny prayer flags in my fist. I repeated Om mani padme hum for hours until the sun rose, dim auburn on the horizon. My only true belief is in science. It is absolutely absurd and out of character that I was chanting. I did anything I could to distract my mind.
BY THE THIRD MORNING, I felt less alone. The international mountaineering community inundated me with messages of support. I imagined each of those writers standing behind me. “It’s a loose belay from a long distance, but we are here, holding your rope,” wrote Matt, a climber I had never met. I cried not from fear but gratefulness. If not for you, I would still be sitting in thin air with my friend, waiting for a dim light to grow brighter. I owe you everything.
On that third afternoon, six men showed up and helped me get Anna from 16,200 back to 12,950 feet. I was moved by their strength and agility as they took turns carrying a makeshift stretcher down ice and moraine. After I crossed the Miyar River for the sixth and final time, I turned around and thought, Anna would have just been so pleased. She was held high above their heads–six men and zero pants. Back at base camp, I sensed a storm on the horizon: the wind swelled and changed direction as the sun dimmed. Thirteen policemen trekked into the Miyar to question me, their voices muted by the reverberating tent walls. I sat like a statue in front of Anna, guarding her. The wind was relentless–a roar that seemed to emanate from the molten outer core of the earth.
The following evening, the police finally allowed us to walk to the road with our horses and Anna, also on a horse. Bhagwan and I took off, followed by Janga and Bharat who held the reins of Anna’s horse, all of us trailed in the distance by the police. A couple hours down the valley, Bhagwan and I noticed we were walking in bear tracks. We followed them for an hour in disbelief. As the southerly winds picked up, we had, I felt, an entire conversation without speaking. Look how deep that paw print is. We took a break from the wind behind a large granite boulder as the clouds blazed overhead, and he told me he had never seen or heard of bears in this place. There is nothing for them to eat here–no animals, no foliage. Eventually the bear tracks veered from our course, crossing the river to the west and trailing out of sight. It’s Anna. It’s Anna. Look how she crossed the river.
We walked on through waxen, deep red autumn leaves and reached Shukto just before nightfall. The dusky evening sun filtered through high clouds, casting a glowing sidelight upon the small village. There, at the road head, I had to wait for the police to allow me to begin the next part of my journey out–toward Manali, toward repatriation. By the following morning, I was in Udaipur, where I hoped to get the autopsy completed, but the local officials explained that I would have to travel to Keylong, instead, with Anna. Bhagwan, his hands in his pockets and his shoulders stooped low, shook his head. He looked down at the ground, mouthing, “I’m sorry,” to me. I would adapt in a few minutes, but right at that moment, the sense of fragmentation began anew.
Just then, Jeff Shapiro and Chris Gibisch walked into the little chai hut where I was sitting. Fresh from a new line on the south face of Brammah II, Jeff and Chris were also en route to Manali. Chris sat right down across from me, his arms resting on the table, his face sunburnt and inquisitive. Jeff sidled up next to me on the bench. I told them briefly what I was going through. Jeff rested the weight of his hand on my back. A pulse, finally, added to my own. His arms then rested by his side, but in the periphery of my view, they appeared as wings. I knew he’d lived through similar stories of loss in the mountains, but he sat, whole and unruffled, next to me. Chris’s kind eyes looked directly into mine. The wind ripped down the center of the dirt road outside, whirling eddies of dust and whistling against the open wood door.
Through the doorway, a mountain loomed. The shifting light and weather altered its appearance, changing the height of the clouds that danced above its summit, the trajectory of the blowing snow that streamed off its lee side, the forms of the new shadows on the clean face, but not the essence of the mountain itself. The landscape in view appeared profoundly adiabatic–no heat entered or left the system–yet great change occurred within. I thought of the word migmatization, which in geology describes the process whereby a rock undergoes partial melting during a period of extreme metamorphism, disintegrating because of imposed change. I will smash my eroded edges back to their former jagged shapes. If I can discern the inscribed memory of the Miyar’s garnet-rich foliated gneiss, reading its history with eyes and hands, I will embrace my own migmatization, resulting in a new being that is the miraculous sum of what came before, and all the processes of change that have occurred since. I will absorb this experience into my own fabric. I will climb again. I will love others, and the wild unknown, again.
After I went on to Keylong to have the autopsy performed, I rejoined Jeff and Chris in Manali. I stepped out of the truck into the calm of the night. They were waiting up for me, a third glass of whisky on the balcony table beside theirs. I saw their kind faces, and I knew I had lost a sister, but gained two brothers. They symbolized why I climb: that sense of a rope that stretched, invisible, between me and another human being. From the moment that I no longer had Anna tethered to me, I felt the profound loss of those woven fibers between us that were so much more than nylon filaments held tightly in their protective sheathe. Now my rope was, once again, attached from my heart to someone else’s.
ON A CLOUDLESS AFTERNOON, along the shores of the Beas River in the heart of Manali, we cremated her. Wrapped in clean bright cloth, Anna lay surrounded by the rushing sounds of the clear water that sparkled faint blue in the full sun of the day. It was a simple ceremony: keep the bonfire going until everything merged with water, sky and earth. A stranger walked up to me and asked if Anna was my family. Yes, she is my family. He told me that she must have a big heart: this was an auspicious day according to the Buddhist calendar.
Leaning against a grey cement wall, dressed in deep red robes with golden sashes, five monks hypnotically drummed for hours, hands rhythmically matching their chanting. I could feel the ritual penetrate my marrow. It took eight hours for the pyre to burn. One by one, Chris, Jeff and I threw wood into the blaze and closed our eyes. I stood still with the heat for as long as I could. I wrapped my arms tight around Jeff, and his rooted being seemed to ground me to something larger. I wished that her parents, her partner, our entire Canmore community, her Golden, British Columbia friends, could have been there next to me. Flanked by Jeff and Chris, I left finally as the early evening shadows began their lengthening, and the sky turned to quiet, intangible dusk.
Jeff offered to keep Anna’s ashes in the room he shared with Chris; he said he hoped I might be able to sleep with a little distance. I did sleep a few hours those nights, knowing she was safe and still within feet of me, but not my burden to bear alone. Each morning, I emerged to find Chris and Jeff already sitting on the wicker chairs on the porch, soaking in the cool, ethereal vista. We drank coffee together. Most afternoons, when I took breaks from sorting out Anna’s repatriation paperwork, we wandered through Manali together, winding down ancient leaning streets in the oldest parts of the city where temples drew us in with their heavy, numinous carved doors. In the evenings, we returned to the porch to share ciders. These rituals that formed between us, almost unknowingly, brought a sense of calm, of familiar routine, of family.
As I connected to the outside world again, I learned that the drive for people to know and understand one another’s stories is a veritable force. “Climbers imagine themselves in that space and want to know how they might avoid a similar circumstance,” my friend Wayne Merry wrote to me. In retrospect, I know this impulse stems, in part, from sympathy. At the time, reading news reports about me and Anna–when I had told the full story to no one, and when the unfolding narrative was far from over–felt deeply violating. While I was throwing wood into a funeral pyre, how was someone else composing our story? It felt like the burning of the top of a page, before the bottom was written.
On the morning of October 14, two weeks after Anna died, I slipped the last of the paperwork and the ashes into my backpack. On the plane home, I pictured myself sinking, again and again, into my bivy nest. I felt, once more, the cold power of the north face of Rachu Tangmu rise next to me, the anticipated refuge of oncoming sleep and warmth; the awareness of my place in space profoundly juxtaposed against my unawareness of my place in time.
TWO MONTHS LATER, I wonder what we are each left with when the roar of the media dies down, the crowds disperse, the wind shutters through our thoughts again, and the autumn leaves lie trampled underfoot without the hum of friends above them. In our own way, I suppose we are each left with the adiabatic work of living with a memory, of deciding what is contraindicated within our own lives. I’ve become determined to trust my own migmatization, my own deformation.
The effort of deciphering the past currents of our own histories–the braided paths they took, the oxbow lakes that were severed from the main flow during the iterations of their landscape–tells little about their future topography. Like the glacial outflow whipping off the flanks of Rachu Tangmu, which finds its path miles down valley only in the exact instant of wetting an upturned dry stone, my own change comes just as unexpectedly, during the exact circumstance of a moment’s least resistance.
Back at home, I keep the woodstove burning hot. I wake up in the middle of the night, sleep coming only in short bursts, and tend the flames like my life depends on their glow. I see Anna in that elemental blaze. Pushing herself so persistently, she was better, perhaps, at surviving than at living. A boring life, a prescribed life, a defined life were the enemy. I found her rebellion exquisite, feminist: she bucked any system that tried to define her neatly and cleanly with words. Her strength emanated from her core; her spark set my aspirations afire. I watched her convince herself through doing. The moment of becoming convinced occurred precisely on the sharp knife-edge between rising and falling.