Excerpted from the novel In the Shadow of Sagarmatha
I awake as we glide in over the haze of a city the color of concrete, the sun a glowing orb in a pink sky. On the horizon, the buildings materialize from the mist. After an eight-hour flight from London, I arrive in Islamabad at Benazir Bhutto International Airport.
I brought the bandage gloves with the prosthetics, but in London I feel the first gust of freedom and decide to bare all for an indifferent world. If not indifferent, maybe the denizens of the world won’t notice the deformity of the odd American. My two hands with their odd scarcity of fingers. Maybe I’ve just been more self-conscious on home soil. But I have to consider that security might see these curious gloves and think they conceal a terrorist device. Sarah thought that wearing them would call more attention to my hands, than without. I don’t believe I am motivated by vanity now as much as I am sparing the onlooking curiosity of strangers. I might even throw the gloves away, but for their costliness, and for my wish to have one gesture left to reveal to Reger. Maybe the greater psychological impact of the climbing disaster will touch him when he sees my disfigured hands.
I had been trying to reach Reger for weeks. I did not know what to expect after the last fraught phone call I received late and unexpectedly, at my home in California. I was trying to follow up to schedule a face-to-face interview that did not seem was ever going to happen.
Reger had suggested I could meet with him at the New Standard hotel in Islamabad, a short taxi ride from the airport. I lost track of time zones several hours ago in my sleep-induced flight. I have to hope he got the message that I’ve arrived.
The New Standard smells of deep fryer grease. The hotel lobby has a rundown, untended quality. The floors are swept but look embedded with grime. The construction on the place is half-finished, but the effect is more like it was never intended to be finished. Fluorescent tubes hang listlessly and hum above, washing out any warmth the few cushioned chairs try to instill. I reach for and fumble with my temporary cell phone, but my hands disturb me, so I push it aside.
Long hours of travel have caught up with me. I look at my watch which reads 9:25, though I’m not sure what the time zone is. The day is nondescript. A white haze hangs about the air and it could be any hour between nine and six.
“Excuse me,” I say to the manager.
“Mr. Reger will be down,” the man says.
“Thank you,” I say. “I wonder if you have the correct time?”
“Half past nine, sir.”
“In the morning.”
The man looks at me with slight puzzlement and keeps his attention on me as if I have a further question. “Yes, sir, of course,” he says. “It is morning.”
I nod and wait, realizing my question made no sense, trying to collect my thoughts for my interview with Reger.
“Friday?” I ask aloud.
The man looks up. “No, sir. It is Saturday.”
I left San Francisco on Thursday, mid-afternoon.
I see my face reflected in the lobby window, which looks out onto a busy street scene, constant traffic and people rushing past, the sound inaudible. It could be a crowd heading to a rally of some kind. I recall that they’ve had frequent car bombs in Islamabad—blast glass?—though this might be impractical. I am no safer here than on the street. The fuel smell rises to my nostrils. The hotel manager on duty sits watching a small television with the volume turned low and chewing on something. I look again to where Reger should appear, catch the eye of the man, who smiles and nods.
“Soon, Mr. Brand,” he says. “I assure you.”
Reger appears in the doorway, in an unusual look to me of a shalwar kameez and baseball cap. The odd combo, on second thought, seems apt for the man. He hesitates there, trying to decide if I am the person he expected to meet. I recall him flying with determination up the Hillary step, and consider how much older he seems than when I last saw him.
He strikes me as somehow craggier in the face, and I’m committing a possible intentional fallacy, but there it is. Though he’s not tall as I had recalled, he’s still a formidable presence. His cheek hollows are concealed by an unruly beard that covers his face like an unkempt garden. He is thinner, though just like everyone on the expedition, I’d only ever seen him in layers of bulky outerwear. Just as on Everest, he seemed to be on the move to somewhere else, tentative, unaccustomed to staying still for too long.
“You look good,” I lie.
“Sure, Brand, whatever,” Reger says, and dismisses analysis. “This,” Reger says, explaining himself. “When in Islamabad.”
“The baseball cap,” I say. Atlanta Braves.
Reger slides the chair back and sits down. “You’ve come a long way,” he says. “I hope it was worth it.”
What to do with my hands has become a big part of my self-presentation. I had to accept them, not hide them behind their gauze screen. It is never easy, but I could imagine it might become easier once I got used to them. Not in front of Reger, who notices them and laughs.
I really do not know what to do. I expected empathy, or thoughtful words. Not laughter—a laughter that brings him to tears.
I want to be indignant and try that for a few seconds. But his laughter is infectious, and the fingers are never coming back.
Reger holds up his hand, revealing a missing index finger.
“You could say we got lucky, Brand,” Reger says. “Peace.”
Reger holds up his hand to make the peace sign, but the resulting middle finger has us both in stitches.
There’s nothing like empathy to break the ice.
“Annapurna,” Reger says. He gestures to my hands, which I am still trying to conceal, and says, “you and half the team. It was that or a body bag.”
His bluntness is stunning.
“Considering the odds,” Reger says, “we shouldn’t even be here.” I try to pick up where we left off.
“I’m glad you agreed to meet.” Whatever I say feels tenuous, as if I am on shaky ground. “I don’t know if I even have the right to ask you about what happened on our climb.”
Reger pulls out a pack of cigarettes, taps one out, cups his hand with the missing finger around one and lights it carefully.
“Unequivocally, I can offer this,” Reger says. “There were too many inexperienced members on that climb. But I don’t take responsibility. You all signed the contracts.”
“We’re talking about people who died,” I say.
“Trying to run a normal team in profoundly challenging conditions is one thing.”
“You couldn’t know how it would go,” I say, half sarcastically. “Obviously.”
I have the eerie sensation of an alternate universe, sitting there with Reger, and feel a chill running the length of my spine. Time and distance have asserted their discombobulation.
“You have other ideas,” Reger says. “Of course.”
“I just wanted to hear your recollections,” I say, which brings me back.
“I’m not interested in replaying minute by minute what happened. You must realize you were one of the less experienced there—but I think you handled yourself well, considering.”
This gets me to sit up.
Reger continues. “As for the casualties—this is just between us, please— do not take responsibility for Blaine’s or the young woman’s poor choices. Someone should have helped them. I was not in a position to do so. They might have better helped themselves. If I sound like I’m faulting them, maybe to a degree, I am. Maybe you could have helped them, too.”
“It’s just that no one followed the training. No one did as I said. You were all through the climb, defying me. It became a drain on the entire team.”
Insofar as I could say I had seen it, I did not pass judgment on anyone during the climb. Who was I, after all?
I’d only seen Reger in adversarial transactions. It’s what makes the mentor and mentee relationship so unnavigable. As mentee, subservience is always a motivating factor in the relationship. When this dynamic dissolves, the mentee ceases usefulness. If Reger found these qualities in his blameless charges, could he then be blamed for being less than sympathetic in the ensuing drama?
“What about the notion that the expedition leader is the one responsible for the team?” I realize this is bold. “No matter the circumstances. No matter how difficult they are?”
“You accuse me of malice, but there’s a lot that went down that night that made my job impossible. That is how I see it. Not what you came here for, I suppose.”
It occurs to me that Reger may not truly recall the events; I think to offer some clarity.
“In fact, you’re right, I probably could have helped them, Reger. I was with them during the storm.”
The hotel phone rings, loud and abrupt, and the man sheepishly looks to us, wipes his hands and face with a napkin, and makes a face of apology as he picks up the phone. He pretends to ignore us.
“You did what you could,” Reger says.
“And yet, that doesn’t relieve my guilt,” I say. “I can’t absolve you.”
“No, of course not.”
Dealing with Reger gives me the maddening sense of trying to get through to someone who only knows the single-minded determination to achieve a goal. His capacity for empathy is not nonexistent, it’s simply not a choice he makes.
“What about Yothers,” I say. “He was your friend?”
“We knew each other. His failing was poor judgment. But who am I to say?”
“I get that,” I say.
“Do you know how close more clients came to dying that day?” Reger says. “Be grateful for surviving.”
“How do you see what happened up there?”
“There is nothing to see, you understand? We were all in this together, and now I have everyone coming to me to ask, ‘Do you know what happened—should you have done this, or that?’ I know you are trying to write about this, but you can see what a difficult—an untenable—situation this is. This is all off the record, by the way. You were there, just like me. You are as qualified as I am to tell the story and I think that’s all I want to say on the subject.”
“Who else has talked to you?” I ask, thinking of Natalie Blaine, whose brother perished. She wanted to blame me for his death.
“I’m sure you know,” Reger says. “People who are looking to profit from this. For all I know, you might be one of them, too.”
“No. Absolutely not.”
I had, from the start, idealized Reger. Perhaps I had even romanticized him, during the entirety of our summit bid. It was a tendency that wasn’t lost on me. Experts might say I was looking for the authority figure to replace the father I never had.
“From your position,” I say, “I suppose, with your experience on these climbs, I’m looking for something more from you … somehow to help me put my experience into perspective.”
“You think I can provide this? Expertise. You had the same experience I did. You ask too much. You are going down a thankless road. No one really wants to know.”
I suspect a note of putting me on. Is he really so hard-pressed?
Talking to Reger brings back a distinct recollection of the unease I’d had when I talked to him on Everest. It was centered in my gut, as if his voice could conjure all over for me the unimaginable events of that night. The feeling begins in my fingers, in the absent appendages that I calculate with, in thoughts such as, “Reger has lost nothing.” And then I try to imagine him with a family, that ballast that can give life purpose and meaning, in particular when, like me, you’ve spent much of your life trying to fill the void created by its absence. It’s a void you don’t know exists, if you have filled your life with wanderlust.
I look at my notes—I’d written down some of the things Reger had said before— these seem important to consider again. “Last time we talked—you said that, during the storm I believe it was, that you considered me to be in full awareness of my situation?”
“I would not have said that.”
“Okay, so you said I was not in full awareness?”
“Can you elaborate for me?”
“What do you want me to say?” Reger says. “You acted gracefully?”
I imagine giants like him huddled in a crevasse on some 8000er somewhere, using the least amount of oxygen possible and making precise decisions and conveying them through telepathy, as if on their own they have no use for language. Reger is an expert Alpinist and is friends—or as he would have it, acquaintances—with the best in the world, an elite club.
How freely he spoke his mind on the mountain. Is it a language barrier—or even a lack of one? His accent had caught my attention, and the frankness with which he spoke. His assistant Lodge conveyed all the formal legalese, hunting us down for our signatures on various documents as we prepared our ascent at the base camp, and sending redundant e-mails full of legal boilerplate. This assistant stayed behind at EBC, though was in regular contact with Reger via radio. Reger was Equatorial Logistics. I’d never thought to contact Lodge, as I’d had only a few words with him, and thought he was primarily in charge of administration, and seemed to be less familiar with the logistics of our climb. In fact, I believed this assistant was going to be with us the whole time, and I was surprised when he wasn’t.
The Regers of the world, through the glory or power they find, achieve a fulfillment in the realm of physical limits that I—and most of us—will never know. This physical overcoming, I think, might be what drives Reger. It’s not enough to touch the infinite once, but there is a need to return again and again, maybe ultimately to never return.
“Just give me your account,” I say. “I feel like you are being, I don’t know, evasive. Did you think we would even survive the night?”
“What do you remember about being there, during the storm?”
I’ve gotten under his skin.
“I remember thinking it was over,” I say. “That I wasn’t prepared for that.”
“There you see. You were facing what we all did. No one is ‘prepared’ for such an outcome. In our heart of hearts, we all expected to die. I am no different. Did you think I was? That I was enjoying scraping ice off everyone’s oxygen masks? It’s simple, really. You hang on until you no longer can. Yes, it’s hell. But you don’t want to die. Neither do you actually want to live, though, am I right? A pain so great, so great a suffering, is intolerable. Well, we all had a crack at that, and some of us opened our eyes and saw the light. We knew we would get another day. It’s all so simple. We all went through it, man, and we lived to come home. Write that, if you must. Write that.”
Reger takes a long, tired drag on his cigarette, and leaves one to ash in the metal tray.
Reger explains. “I wasn’t thinking—the night. I wasn’t thinking about the storm. I had no idea it would go all night, into daylight. But you see, I am the one who absolutely cannot give up out there. I’m the one who must project safety, security.”
“So, it was unexpected.”
“The unexpected is unexpected for a reason.” Reger says. “All the charts and calculations in the world don’t give you the reality. One off-the-charts incident makes all prediction irrelevant.”
This sends me back to the storm, the pain, the winds that we could not rise against. The loss of oxygen. I thought I was dead.
“I realized, people were dying around me,” I say. “I wasn’t ready to give in. I wasn’t willing to be the first to fall. But believe me, at some point, I expected I would.”
“You prove my point,” Reger says.
“I did my best to keep my head.”
“If that’s what you want to call it,” Reger says. “Okay.”
“It was, frankly, the worst experience of my life.”
“You’re alive!” he says, mockingly.
“There’s more,” I say.
Reger seems to be enjoying it. “Please.”
“Well, for one thing,” I say, “I remember that you—I don’t know how to put this in a thoughtful way. . .”
“Speak your mind,” Reger says. “Your heart.”
“At the height of the drama, the storm, I’m quite sure you had your hands full. But I think you cold-cocked me.”
“Cold-cocked? Your American lingo. What’s that?”
“You hit me? Hard. Across my face. Slapped me, punched me, I don’t know what. It hurt my feelings. I haven’t forgotten.”
“I hurt your feelings?” Reger says, exasperated.
The klaxon phone rings and the man at the counter answers, then speaks across the room.
“Mr. Reger,” he says. “It is for you.”
Reger stands quickly from the table, walks to the desk and reaches for the phone. As he listens, he makes a roll of his free hand with the cigarette, waving smoke around. He is tense and tired, and with his free hand coils the phone cord like a belay rope. He speaks in German, in subdued tones, and hands the phone back to the man.
Reger sits down.
“My wife,” he says.
I nod at this and try not to appear surprised at this information. I’ve only got a limited amount of Reger’s attention and time, so I don’t ask.
“I shouldn’t be bothered again,” Reger says, scowling. “She manages my training schedule. This is my life. I prefer to go where no one can find me.” He smiles through his teeth when he says it. “Mind if I smoke?”
He’s forgotten that he holds the already half-smoked cigarette between his middle finger and thumb. To look closely, it’s as if he isn’t missing the index finger, so natural is the gesture. The cloud of smoke has become a palpable veil in the small room. He shoots a stream of smoke out of the corner of his mouth, and it blooms above in a cloud. Clove cigarettes.
“Why, after all, have you come this far?” Reger asks. “It must be very important to you.” Reger holds up his hands to show me the various damaged fingers. “Is it this?” His eyebrows rise mischievously. It’s a side of Reger I’d only glimpsed before. “There see. It doesn’t kill you.”
Reger takes another long drag on his cigarette, pulls a pristine one from the pack on the table, lights it from the nub of the current one, and squeezes the butt into the ashtray with an assured snuff of his thumb.
“You said I hit you,” Reger says.
“Yes, Reger. I’m sorry. I don’t—I didn’t want to bring it up to you, knowing the problems you’re dealing with. But it concerned me. I suppose I just wanted to be sure I was remembering everything accurately.”
“Listen, Brand. Do you know the principle in physics—for every action—there is an equal and opposite reaction, otherwise known as Newton’s third law?”
“More or less,” I say.
“Well, in this case, I think I shall enlighten you. After several hours in our ordeal, you had wandered away from our little group gathering. Not just wandered. You were, shall we say, the rooster that got out of the pen. I nearly tackled you, to restrain you from venturing toward the slope. You were, I would say, maybe two steps from taking the shortcut to Tibet. I did what was necessary. The group was there, immobilized, and you were having a hell of a time. Agitated, rambling, the gravest nonsense. Trouble. You took off at a clip—I grabbed you by the hood.”
“It wasn’t because I hit Blaine, or god forbid, Ms. Peele?”
“Brand. I don’t blame you for your guilt, your clever memory, or even your unusual actions that day. Your reactions—they were not normal, by any means. But if it is any consolation to you, no one had a normal reaction under those circumstances. No one.”
“You grabbed me by the hood?”
“I restrained you. I tried to warn you to stay with the group. To be honest, I wasn’t sure exactly who I was dealing with, initially. You—whoever it was—may have been gone, mentally, possibly irretrievable. I wasn’t eager to single anyone out. But I saw it was you, and I thought to myself, of course, Brand, troublemaker. I knew that I had to get your attention—to stun you to reality. To return you to the immediacy of the moment.”
This version of the story causes a pit to open in my stomach. I had checked out, according to him. I have to take his word.
“You are saying you saved my life.”
“Me and Blaine,” Reger says.
“He helped to restrain you.”
“Blaine—the man I hit?”
“That may be between you two. You asked me what I recall. That’s what I recall.”
I work up the gumption to ask him if there’s anything more I should know, any critical details—such is my shock at having no recollection of this event.
“Besides your run? I’ve never seen anything like it, by the way, under the circumstances. You seemed possessed of a superhuman strength. And it was absolutely foolish to take off your gloves, then, also.”
“Oh my god,” I say.
“You kept muttering about having to write things down. ‘My notes!’ I was unprepared for that. Now mind you, I was attending to a damaged team, and you were beginning to strip down to zero, muttering about your goddamn notes.”
“So, then you hit me,” I say.
“You might rather be thanking me right now,” Reger says. “I doubted you wanted to die. Besides, was I going to let that happen if I could prevent it? If your action wasn’t so surprising, so out of nowhere, it was almost funny. Of course, I was not laughing.”
“And this is how I ended up this way.”
“Yes. I put you in a bear hug after that—once we got your gloves back—and tried to talk you into staying in the huddle. It couldn’t have been another hour and the dawn came. With it came the eerie cease of the storm. We were moving everyone to the tents by then.”
“So, you saved my life.”
“I’d like to think I was doing my job,” Reger says. “But, yes, I suppose I saved your life.”
“I was a troublemaker?”
“You were sometimes trouble, yes,” Reger says. “After all, look how far you’ve come to torment me.”
Of course, I could readily use this rationale for Blaine, for my handling of the moment. Except that I’ve come to understand that, perhaps contrary to my ‘story,’ the one I’ve embellished and burnished to high gloss and for a warm reception from anyone who will hear me out, I in fact have a limited, if not to say outright erroneous, recollection of our moment. And whom should I believe? Who would anyone justifiably believe? The man who lost the normal configuration of his hands that night, or Kuhlbert Reger, the man who hadn’t lost so much as a fingernail?
There is a pressing question nagging at me, from Ms. Blaine’s accusations.
“Reger, I’d like to go back to something I asked you earlier.”
“If you insist.”
“Was I the last person to step away from them—from Blaine and Peele—once the storm was over?”
Reger is patient to tolerate my belaboring questions. On the other hand, it may be a relief to him to not be the focus of questions about his actions alone.
“You were the most able-bodied. You could stand on your own—so you got to leave right away,” Reger says.
“Even after my freak-out, or whatever?”
“You were ready to go.”
“But doesn’t this mean I should have helped to bring them back?”
“You were a sight. I didn’t think it wise putting you in that position.”
I feel overwhelmed, even in disbelief, about this information. Reger has a way of somehow undermining me, but then again, this is perhaps why he returns me to that mountain.
For Reger, to be on the mountain is where he is in control.
It was unavoidable to consider Everest in light of what had happened to Reger’s brother, years ago on Annapurna. I hadn’t known as much about it prior to Everest, but in the past few weeks I had delved into the story.
“I’ve been doing a bit of reading,” I say. “And I’ve come across some interesting background about one of your climbs.”
“Your nemesis. Annapurna?”
It had been brought up enough times in conversation with various people I met during the expedition, and I may have wondered aloud if this was the reason for Reger’s gag rules, which was dealt with by everyone, somewhat dismissively, and with no seriousness at all.
“What can I tell you about Annapurna?” Reger says. “I tread lightly beneath her seracs. It’s been my life’s greatest challenge. A nemesis, as you say, for sure.”
“And yet you continue to return, to Annapurna.”
“Of course, I must return to Annapurna,” Reger says. “It remains unfinished business for me. It’s a challenge, yes. The thing I will return to until it kills me. We mountaineers wouldn’t amount to much if these mountains couldn’t destroy us in creative ways. So, yes, I return, again and again.”
“That sounds almost spiritual.”
“The mountain has taken my brother. Let’s just say I return there in his honor.”
In all of my research on Everest, I had learned that Reger felt a particular sense of ennui and doubt about confronting Annapurna.
“Every mountain,” Reger says, “is a kind of memorial.”
“We had the direct experience of that on Everest.”
“It’s a matter or respect. You have to respect the mountain.”
“I understand,” I say.
I am doing a delicate dance here, wanting him to talk but not wanting to seem too interested in what I can glean. Can I really understand what it is like for him to return to the place where his brother died, all with the goal of accomplishing what his brother could not?
“When a tragedy happens, it is still very unusual,” he says. “Then I return and have to tell the family there is nobody to be recovered. They don’t understand. How much does it cost? We will pay.”
How devastating to my family, it would have been, to have to have confronted my disappearance. This is not melodramatic. This is not merely my brain addled by the fugue of drugs from the surgery anymore. This may be the quiet desperation of looking at my life when I am far away from them. But I was one of the lucky ones. We all were, and some are unable to appreciate the recklessness of these journeys to the other side of the world. We cannot be humble. We imagine glorious outcomes . . .
Reger continues. “Just as we deliberate the sound of a tree falling in a forest, if a body falls from the precipice, and there is no one there to hear it . . . ? The family waits and imagines the dead as not dead because they do not have the body.”
I focus on his face and gestures, to read the pain, and I recognize that it has always been there, in the grimaces and groans that turned to laughter, in the sighs of recognition that he bears the burden of witness.
I have a vague nameless guilt about Blaine, Peele, Ganfil, and Yothers. Some of this had transformed into rage toward Reger, who I thought didn’t show enough remorse about those who had perished. I wondered if he was callous, or just unaware. Which puts the suffering over my own losses, trivial as they may seem in the context, into perspective. I do have my life. “It could have been worse,” is the message I hear him intone. It is not that he cannot come up with anything more edifying. It is simply a fact.
“I know this from experience, long before I had set foot on a summit,” Reger says.
Our conversation has caught up with him, the self-awareness, his self- involvement, an unusual brokering.
“At a certain point, it comes down to practical matters. Custodial work. My own father had this issue, you see. ‘How can we collect insurance if there is no body?’ At the time, I was too young to appreciate the dark work. I was not the source nor the receiver of such grief that finally broke my parents up. I was ignorant of it all, but it made an indelible impression on me.
“You could say that not having a body held out some hope for my father. If he could not see my brother dead, maybe he was still alive. Uwe’s climbing partner, Foerling, he had patiently detailed the events at the inquest. My father was present. The years of Uwe’s Olympic promise hadn’t set my father up for that, but he was forced to confront the reality. It wasn’t easy.
“My lost brother became the project of my father. I remember it as the season his hair changed, from dark to white over the winter. My brother had always been a project of my father’s. No less so in his disappearance. I did not know then what they were going through—I was too young to acknowledge that Uwe was never going to be found, which is bad, but far worse, really, than his merely dying.
“This indignity to imagination had my father up late making phone calls at his station as we called it. Every day his hair became a little lighter, changing with the season. The evenings grew dark sooner, and day and night he attended to the project. This was after his trip to Annapurna, my father, for whatever it was worth. I think he may have needed to see the mountain to grasp the reality. Returning home with an empty pack and my mother quietly filling back rooms with the bags of her grief. She had become even more withdrawn and I, as representative of my family, of my brother, at school—I was thirteen—I walked around with pride. ‘My brother has disappeared!’
“At home, another story. At night, and on weekends, I remember, were the worst.
“The snows would pile up and bury the house, and my father kept a teakettle going all night. For weeks, it seemed, when finally asleep, I’d be awakened regularly to the whistle of the tea kettle. Naturally I complained to my mother. And yet I was forbidden to say a word to my father. The mere suggestion to my mother that I was complaining about my father working to recover Uwe was shameful. So, I lay awake as soft snows covered the windows, anticipating the whistle of the tea kettle. And what was worse was when the whistle never came. Then I just lay sleepless in bed, thinking—about what? I can’t remember. I must have slept, eventually. But whatever curiosity or grief I might have retained over my brother’s disappearance, I was lost to. Cut off from, by virtue of my parents’ greater suffering; or perhaps, my own pride.
“My father was quietly reckoning with it, but I could feel the force of the failure, the sense that he had let Uwe in for this by failing to have let him achieve the Olympic dream, of all things. Uwe could have just as likely died on that ski run—the one that ended his skiing career—but I never suggested it. I could anticipate my father’s response: ‘At least we’d have his body.’
“I’m now twenty-five years older than my brother at the time he was lost; I think about him every day. How I am growing old and my brother is embalmed in youth. Do you know the chances are good that he’s preserved like those wooly mammoths, or that Ice Man? Frozen in a place no man will ever set foot. He might as well be on Mars.”
Reger looks off to the window and drags deep on his cigarette.
“In a matter of months after Uwe’s disappearance, my father’s hope was crushed. He presented himself admirably, though his physical decline had been rapid.
“He spoke on behalf of my mother, on behalf of the family. He took the tone and demeanor that was expected of him. Perhaps this is what did my parents in, the sense of expectations. That it was never certain what the expectations were. As I said, what can a family do when there is nothing physical to touch, no references to the person once there. They are vanished. My parents were never demonstrative to begin with, but with Uwe’s disappearance, amid their grief and despair, their disappointment, knew no bounds.”
I was fascinated that Reger felt obliged to unload this on me, a stranger. I was mildly uncomfortable, though it felt like a gold mine of personal reflection.
I seize the moment to place myself in the conversation. “It seems as if your father blamed himself.”
“We all did, looking back. We did blame him. He didn’t deserve it, though. Uwe was bound for glory, the family had really no say in the matter,” Reger said. “German families do not divorce, you see.”
“But could I imagine such grief over myself?” Reger says. “You can’t know how hard I tried. I wasn’t going to find out, you see. I wasn’t that bold. I wasn’t Uwe. And Uwe had not thought in this way about himself. Uwe wasn’t looking back. You may think I do not look back, but when your brother is your star, you could say, if you are not looking at him, you are always looking for him. Uwe needed to push himself all the more. Maybe he was escaping something, I don’t know. He didn’t think of my mother. He didn’t have to witness my father meeting with everyone and wearing the Teutonic face. This left a mark on me. I could not truly pursue my brother’s life until my parents had passed. So, yes, now Annapurna, my nemesis. My brother speaks to me from that summit.”
Reger continued. “How might I have come to know him? Would we have been close? I was in awe of him, understandably. I was the accidental sibling. He was out the door doing his training in Austria while my mother stayed with me in Mittenwald. What was I to amount to? Of course, I never tried, at least not with their blessing or encouragement. I was a shadow climber, and I don’t think in later years that they ever caught on to my zeal for it. Or if they had, they wanted nothing of it. I just thought of it as a natural inclination. In some way, I often wondered if I had contrived it as a way of trying to get into his head—into Uwe’s.
“I should apologize for rambling on about all of this to you. I’m sure you’ll make something of it.”
Reger is reflective. I sit, somewhat holding my breath, as if afraid of breaking a spell. The gaps fill me with unease.
“Is that why you don’t want anyone to talk about your work while on an expedition?” I ask.
“I don’t want to talk about myself, generally. As for that, that’s just legalese my lawyers put into the contracts. It’s not like I am going to sue anyone who discusses Uwe. Because they all do. I am glad to have it in there so I have everyone walking on eggshells around me. I can be the boss that way. It’s a business, you know?”
“You seem okay to talk about it now,” I say. As Reger has let his guard down, it only feels normal to realize I never should have walked on eggshells in the past with him. Maybe I can still come away with a viable conclusion to the article I was supposed to write.
“That’s because I won’t have to talk again about this—at least not with you,” Reger says.
I can admit to feeling a bit stung by this. This and many other things he has said over the course of our interactions. There may have been something inside me that made me want to be considered by Reger—as a friend? Not quite. But as an equal colleague. As much as I recognized this was never going to be the case, that is probably all the more reason why I hoped to see it happen.
“I believe in my heart that life is always an endless reckoning with those that precede us. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“I believe so,” I say. “Yes.”
“And to answer the question I get most often? I don’t know why I do it. I can’t tell you why. I suppose I could say Uwe is why. But why for Uwe? That I’d be guessing. I’m probably crazy.”
What can I offer Kuhlbert Reger?
“No, of course not,” I say. “It’s a difficult reckoning to make.”
“Yeah, so. I had to wait. I could not dare put my mother and father through that again, with me their only son, the second son. The unbeloved. But I knew what I was going to do. And when the time came I wasn’t thinking about their grief, I was thinking of Uwe. I was thinking that it will be my destiny to die like him, alone, or I will somehow conquer that mountain in his stead. You see the drive, now? Do you get it?”
I think of that phrase, in his stead. It has a heroic or elevated quality to it that I’m not sure is Reger’s intention.
“In his stead,” I say. “Interesting way of putting it.”
“Absolutely. It’s not irrational.”
“It’s how you honor your brother,” I say.
This is not quite what I want to say, it may be foreign sounding to Reger.
There is a disgruntled silence.
“Honor,” Reger says. “A load of crap.”
I’m nervous hearing his response, but he smiles as he notices. It’s the Reger I came to know on the mountain. He’s unpredictable.
I imagine Reger in ice-crusted balaclava framing his sunburned face—it’s shorthand for me, seeing him in his element. The burdens of Reger’s father strike me, and interest me, to my surprise. So much so that I sense I’m beginning to disregard whatever ill feelings I was nursing toward Reger. And it is as if Reger senses this, as he re-engages with me, and it disrupts whatever expectation I may have had.
His talk of Uwe makes me feel I can broach more delicate—or indelicate—questions.
“Reger, do you think you are trying to win the approval—or accolades—that your brother had achieved?”
“The community?” I say. “Your parents, possibly?”
“This is a ridiculous idea, of course. I kept my obsession with climbing from them. It wasn’t hard. And of course, I never expressed the desire to go to that place while they were around. It became apparent to me as a goal once they had passed. There is no one left in my family to talk me out of it, you see? The alpine community itself, is always growing and changing. Maybe they will see me as this figure like my brother. I doubt it. I don’t know. I don’t care. And as for Uwe’s accolades? I am nothing compared to him. I will never surpass him, if that’s what you mean. Not that I would try. My obsessions are my own. I would say no one thinks of me and Uwe in the same breath, to be honest.”
Reger pauses, his face looks thoughtful as if he might be reconsidering his statement. It’s true all along that I’m not the expert. Reger enjoys the position. I have struck a nerve about family. What right have I to be Reger’s interlocutor on this subject? I clench my hands with their absent fingers and then feel again the pain, the memory of Everest that comes with it.
Reger offers more. “I am nowhere near Uwe’s rank. He was world famous, you see. I’m not even infamous. And no one remembers his name now except in the confines of the climbing community. They know me now because I’ve made a business out of it. I profit from the suffering and pipe dreams of others.”
Reger stretches out and stands, lifting his gangly frame from the chair.
“You got here right on time, Brand,” Reger says. “But now I am afraid I must go. Heading to Lahore tonight.”
He reaches out to shake my hand. I hesitantly stand, not quite ready to end the meeting. Our mutual clasp is awkward. His hand reveals the missing index—which I cannot recall if I’d noticed on Everest. His hand is rough and scaly. I have rarely so much as wanted to touch another person’s hand since I’ve had the surgery. Yet we shake, misshapen hand to misshapen hand, two Caucasians in a Muslim city, each perhaps for the first time truly assessing each other. And Reger is exuberant, as if he’s been buoyed by the conversation—as if he’s gotten something off his chest.