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Climbing Through the Roof of the Sky
Climbing to the roof of the world, I gasped through my regulator for breath. I had never been so exhausted in my life. The crazy goal of the mountain summit was the only thing keeping me going. Somewhere in the oxygen-starved, hypoxic state of my brain, I realized how late in the day and dangerous it was getting. At the top of the famed Hillary step, named after Sir Edmund Hillary, I passed two of our native Sherpas hurrying down the mountain. Snow was falling as I passed some old, wind-tattered flags. God knows who planted the flags and how long they had been there. I mounted a rise and joined my three partners at the very summit of Mt. Everest.
Frank O'Reilly, my reckless climbing friend who talked me into this crazy expedition, saw me and raised his arms in triumph. I was too tired to say anything to my partners. Ron, the head guide, took a quick picture, handed me a fresh oxygen canister and motioned that we should head on down. Our Sherpa guide, whose name I could never pronounce, needed no encouragement. He turned and headed down. Frank was in a wild mood. He wanted to stay on the summit and enjoy the view. We had always been odd climbing partners. He was always the reckless, irresponsible one. My traditional role in all our climbing adventures was to temper his enthusiasm with conservative logical decisions.
"We made it John!" he shouted above the wind.
In some dull, detached way I nodded in reply and motioned that we should head down. I realized we had reached a great goal in our lives. But I knew we would be running out of oxygen soon. Everest is dangerous.
This was my first trip to Mt. Everest or Sagarmatha as it's called in Nepal. I found the mountaineering above 25,000 meters is like entering another world. The constant sub zero temperatures make it totally hostile to any kind life on this planet. The thin air makes clear thinking difficult and any physical activity exhausting. Climbers can enter this extreme high world with the benefit of high-tech clothing, crampons, and supplemental oxygen. But I knew that any trip to Everest is a dangerous and unpredictable venture. In the so-called death zone, the unforgiving mountain rewards bad decisions with loss of fingers, toes and lives. Approximately 25 percent of climbers who summit do not make it back down. They end up staying on the mountain forever.
The mountain is known for its high - altitude hallucinations. In 1933, an English climber actually reported two UFOs. He described the objects as "two curious looking objects floating in the sky directly above him at 27,000 feet. One possessed what appeared to be squat underdeveloped wings. They hovered motionless but swerved slowly to pulsate." Who can really say what this climber saw? I know I can't explain everything that happened to Frank and I on the way down from the summit to high camp.
As we headed down, the Sherpa guide took the lead followed by me, then Frank. Ron took the rear. Descending the southeast ridge, I noticed the snow falling harder. The wind had picked up and visibility was poor. As we dragged ourselves down the south summit, we were facing a whiteout. I couldn't make out any landmarks. I was lost and I had no idea of the way down.
The lead Sherpa descended faster than we could keep up. It was now just the three of us. Ron took the lead and we blindly followed him. The ice was hitting my face like a sandblast. Hurricane-force gusts of wind were constantly threatening to knock me over.
I realized that the dangerous situation had now become deadly. I regretted not turning back earlier. I regretted pushing my climbing and survival skills to the extreme. I regretted ever coming to the Himalayas. I prayed for Jesus to save us. I really didn't mind losing a few fingers. If I could just keep my life and get off this crazy mountain, I'd be thankful.
We came to a place called the balcony - an overhanging rock area about one third of the way down the route to high camp. There is usually a spectacular view from this peak. Now there was just blinding, damned snow. On a ridge just past the balcony, Frank stumbled and fell dangerously close to the edge of the abysses. He was out of oxygen. Ron reached into his pack for the last bottle of oxygen. Instead of handing it to the fallen climber, Ron reached down to plug in the canister himself.
A sudden gust of wind caused Ron to lose his footing. He stumbled and then fell over the ledge. As if in a trance, I dumbly watched our head guide fall off the mountain. It was a high ridge and a certain death. I wondered what the doomed climber thought of on the way down.
Now we were alone. I tried to get Frank to move but he was unable to get up. He tried to speak but was incoherent. He was out of oxygen and helpless. My hypoxic brain wasn't able to think clearly. Still I knew we were hours away from the safety of high camp. If I stayed with Frank, we would both die on this cold mountain. I shouted through the gale wind that I was going for help. I didn't know if he heard me or even understood. I turned and left my best friend lying helplessly in the snow. I hoped I was not leaving him for dead.
I moved slowly down. When the sand-blasting wind knocked me down, I got up. I forced myself not to stop. If I stopped moving I was afraid I would freeze and die. At one point I thought I saw something moving in the blizzard. But it probably was a hallucination. As the day's light faded to night, I became terrified. I didn't want it all to end pointlessly this way - not all alone on this cold, frozen rock.
It was around 10:00 PM, when I finally saw a light. I stumbled into high camp. The light was the Sherpa guide. I told him where I stranded Frank and I begged him to go back up and save my friend's life. Then I fell into my tent and collapsed. The Sherpas discussed the situation among themselves in their native language. The Sherpas are tough as nails, but they spend their lives load-ferrying supplies up Everest. They knew the mountain and the risks of venturing into a gale on the top of Everest. They waited three hours for the storm to pass and then climbed back up into the death zone. Then they carried Frank down. He was still alive.
Two things should have tipped me off that something had changed in Frank that terrible, crazy day. I had suffered frostbite badly enough to require parts of my feet to be cut away. Frank, who was stranded high up on Everest, had no frostbite at all. Also when they carried him down, he was mumbling and rambling "Go back up. There are people still up there." At the time, we all assumed these ramblings were high-altitude hallucinations from a half-dead man.
After my brush with death, I was thankful to return to my other life in Boston. For both Frank and me, climbing mountains was our occupation. However the real world forced us to work paying jobs to finance our rather extravagant climbing occupation. I was a computer programmer. I liked my job. Frank was a high school physics teacher. He hated his job. There wasn't enough high adventure in high school for him.
I called Frank five months later to plan out the next adventure. We always wanted to climb Mt. Rainier together. I wanted to make plans for Rainier or a December hike up New Hampshire's Mt. Washington. Mt. Washington can be dangerous in the winter. But compared to Everest, I figured it would be a picnic. He said he couldn't make any climb as he was working on some big scientific project. At the time, I was surprised as it wasn't like Frank to turn down a climb.
A month later, I heard from Frank. He called me in the middle of the night as I was watching an old Star Trek episode. An alien with a odd looking head was making adjustments to the engines of the Enterprise. As I realized that I had already seen this rerun approximately seven times, I decided to answer the phone. Frank wanted me to come to his apartment and help him with his computer. He had always been more than a little computer illiterate. I hadn't seen him for a while so I didn't mind going over to his house for a look.
The snow was really flying in near whiteout conditions. Frank's place wasn't far. But I wondered if I would make it in my old Plymouth. Suddenly wishing I had invested my money in a good 4 wheel drive Jeep instead of foolish trips up Mt. Everest, I found my way to Frank's street. I somehow picked out his apartment in the blizzard and plowed my Plymouth through the two foot high fluffy drift in his driveway.
He greeted me at the door and said his computer had locked up. The little undersized PC was on a desk in his small living room. The small room was devoid of artwork on the walls save for a huge blown up photograph of Mt. Everest. It was as if that horrible mountain experience still dominated his life. I looked at his PC for about 10 seconds and then simply turned the computer off and on again. Like a loyal friend, the small PC rebooted and promptly came on.
Frank was embarrassed at the ease of my solution so he handed me some hot chocolate in payment. Maybe because of his embarrassment or maybe because of his excitement, he confided in me some of the "big" things he was working on. He was corresponding with some physics professors at MIT. He was proposing that the light speed barrier could be broken.
I shook my head. Frank, "are you saying Einstein was wrong? Even I remember from high school physics that any object traveling at the speed of light would have zero length, zero time, and infinite mass."
"And require infinite energy." he added thoughtfully. "Einstein's theory of relativity is accurate but it doesn't describe the whole picture. I think it's possible to freeze a normal, relative-physics frame of reference on an object moving at high velocity."
He hesitated, as he could see that he was going over my head. Trying to explain, he added "If we can freeze or maintain a normal frame of reference, the light speed barrier is achievable and beyond. A space ship that could break through the light speed barrier this ceiling would be like going through the roof of the sky to the stars."
He stopped as he could tell he had lost me and was having trouble conversing on his level. We slipped back into old climbing stories and things seemed like old times between us. I left around midnight. The snow had stopped leaving a beautiful, blanket of white snow. The lawn in front of the apartment building looked like the surface of the moon. On the way home, I started to think about the physics and space exploration ideas he talked about It didn't seem like the same Frank I knew. I sensed that in some strange way the Everest experience had changed him and he was now climbing in an intellectual way.
I ended up climbing New Hampshire's Mt. Washington without Frank. It was a piece of cake. I called Frank three months later to tell him how about Mt. Washington and to try to talk him into Mt. Rainier. I didn't want to attempt Rainier without my old partner. A woman answered the phone then Frank came on the line. Frank said he was now living with Julie and her young child. They were planning a wedding and he wanted me to be the best man. This was sudden. I had to think back. Last year, Frank once had a girlfriend named Julie. He had complained that Julie had been to serious for him and pressed him for a commitment. Julie had gotten pregnant and Frank broke it off. He mentioned that she was demanding child support. He never mentioned how much child support he ended up paying. I found it hard to believe that reckless, irresponsible Frank was now willing to settle down with Julie and his child.
I wanted to ask Frank about his 180-degree change in accepting his responsibilities. But I couldn't get a word in. He was too excited and captivated with his new ideas and couldn't stop talking. He had been working with several big name, big shot MIT professors on his faster than light speed ideas. When I got off the phone and I sat down and thought for several minutes. I could scarcely believe that a mere high school physics teacher who was marginally computer literate could teach anything to the top minds of the country. My friend Frank had changed in a way I didn't begin to understand.
I was even more shocked five months later to see a picture of Frank O'Reilly above an article in NewsTime Magazine. He was now working with several big name professors on revising Einstein's theory of relativity concerning the light speed barrier. It seemed Frank was now the head of this brain trust. The article mentioned two equations.
Energy E = ( mc 2) F
Gamma (time contraction) = ( 1/ ~1-v2/c2) F
I thought in wonderment ‘what was this mystery variable F? Was it the relative frame of reference that Frank talked about to me or perhaps Frank himself? The rest of the article was very upbeat and went on to speculate on the future interstellar propulsion. It truly looked like anything was possible.
Five years later, I found myself at Cape Canaveral to watch the launch of the Lexington--NASA's robot light-speed spacecraft. I was proud as hell to be standing next to Frank and Julie. The Lexington would be carried into orbit by the space shuttle. The little, unmanned Lexington would come out of the shuttle bay and complete one earth orbit. After the quick orbit, the Lexington would point towards Jupiter and engage the Faster Than Light (FTL) engines. A top speed of 1.1 light speed would be attempted. The mission was to zip to Jupiter in 35 minutes. The craft would then use Jupiter's large gravitational field to circle and return to earth. The test was a quick and brief jaunt around the solar system to test the new technology.
Frank's FTL technology was the stuff of genius. I only understood the basics. The ship's super electromagnetic fields froze a normal relative frame of reference for the ship. Once the frame was established, the electromagnetic fields would then create propulsion by asymmetrically altering the space-time of the area surrounding the spacecraft. The space-time behind the ship was expanded and the space-time in front of the vehicle contracted. As the ship accelerated to light speed and beyond, a normal physics frame of reference held constant for the ship. The result was a faster-than-light travel without the length, time, mass and energy distortions.
I wanted to ask him point blank about how the Everest trip had changed his life and somehow inspired him to create these lofty light speed theories. But Frank had changed so much I wasn't sure if I knew him anymore. As the countdown got within an hour, I like the rest of the crowd, got caught up in the excitement of the moment.
The shuttle launch was spectacular. As the shuttle lifted into the sky on a pillar of fire, the crowd cheered like teenage football fans. Frank smiled, shook my hand and left to join his team and monitor the deployment of the robot ship. I quickly drove to my hotel room and watched the rest of the coverage on the hotel lounge TV. Watching in a state of wonderment and disbelief, I barely felt the 5 gin and tonics I gulped down.
The shuttle cameras showed the Lexington emerge from the space shuttle bay. The robot-controlled craft completed one orbit of the earth and picked up speed. When the FTL engines kicked in, the media coverage reported the craft's speed-- .2 light speed, .5 light speed, .7 light speed and finally .8 light speed. The craft was closing in on light speed of 299,792.458km/sec. I realized we all were on the verge of witnessing a historical event bigger than the Wright brothers plane flying and bigger than the breaking of the sound barrier and bigger than Neil Armstrong's small steps for mankind on the moon. With the light speed barrier broken, the realm of transportation and exploration would be forever changed.
Suddenly at .9 light speed, the link between the craft and NASA suddenly failed. NASA and the TV media initially did not have a statement as to what was happening. Finally after 20 minutes of confusion, a NASA media guy came on and issued a press statement saying that the spacecraft had managed .9 light speed but had experienced a failure in structural integrity that resulted in the loss of the spacecraft. The news media were more direct and said that the little spaceship blew up. Still the mission was a partial success as Frank's theories of freezing a physics frame of reference seemed to work. The timers on the Lexington had showed no slowing of the dimension of time at .9 light speed. There was no indication that the dimension of length was shortened. There was no indication of infinite energy requirements. Things seemed to work. However no one had an explanation for why the spacecraft costing millions exploded. Everyone had speculations and ideas. But the big minds looked to Frank to figure it out.
Several days after the disaster, I called Frank to cheer him up. I thanked him for showing me the launch and the glimpse of the future. But Frank seemed depressed. Even though the normal, relative frame of reference worked, he was down about the whole mission. For the first time since Everest, he seemed out of ideas and energy. I asked Frank what he told the NASA brain trust as to what went wrong. Frank confided in me that he was very candid with his colleges and superiors. He told them "I don't know."
I agreed to quit my job and go back to Mt. Everest with Frank. He seemed obsessed with getting back to that mountain. He said he needed to clear his head and get new ideas. Frank was rich now and was able to pay my way. I wanted to help my friend out in any way. Frank quickly hired an experienced guide. I made arrangements for food, supplies and oxygen.
When we arrived in Everest base camp, it had seemed like old times. We set up the tents next to two other expeditions and made our plans for the climb. Before we got close to the summit, we had to spend the next two weeks acclimatizing our bodies to the high altitude. The human body used to the atmosphere at sea level needs time to adapt high altitudes and the thin air. We planned a series of trips up and down the mountain. On the following morning, we planned the first of many acclimatizing hikes on the lower part of the mountain.
As the sun was going down, we drank some tea as we looked up at the huge mountain. It was bitterly cold but I didn't mind. I was happy to be in the mountains with my friend again. Something made me finally asked him the question that had bothered me for the last seven years.
"Frank what happened that terrible day when you were stranded on the top?"
He sighed and said in a low voice "I never told anyone as I'm not sure if it's real or I dreamed it. I was out of oxygen and fading in and out of consciousness. I didn't want to die but I was cold and too weak to move. Suddenly these snow people came out of the blizzard and helped me. They were small and had strange large heads and large alien eyes. One of them pointed a device at me that looked like a sphere. Suddenly the air surrounding me turned the color yellow and was warm as a summer's day. I felt warm as toast, but still couldn't breathe due to the lack of oxygen. One of the people put his hand on my head, and I thought he was trying to communicate with me telepathically. Then I passed out. The next thing I knew was I felt myself being carried. I thought it was those strange snow people. But I opened my eyes, and I was surprised to see that Sherpa rescue team carrying me down the mountain."
"What did the snow people say to you," I asked.
He paused then he said "Beyond the roof of the world is the sky."
I woke up at 6:00 A.M. ready to begin the first acclimatizing hike, and saw that Frank's side of the tent was empty. His climbing gear and ice ax was gone too. I thought he was having breakfast in the main tent. But when I got to the main tent, he wasn't there. I wandered around base camp looking for my friend. Finally I found a climber that said that he saw Frank go up the mountain in the middle of the night. Why would Frank go up the mountain alone? If he took his climbing ax, he must have been planning a serious assent. The hired guide and I trekked through Everest's Khumbu icefall to catch up with him. All day we searched the lower levels of the mountain. But there was no sign of Frank. When night fell, we dragged our butts back to base camp. We were worried.
The next morning, I convinced a commercial expedition at base camp to join in our search. Ten of us climbed up the mountain. We found no trace of Frank or his body. After three days, the commercial team gave up hope. Frank, the man obsessed with Mt. Everest and the light speed barrier had simply disappeared. It looked as if his ambitious reach had finally exceeded his grasp. Everyone chalked it up to another Everest tragedy. The climbers that were preparing for summit attempts didn't want to dwell on the negativity of a climber's death. I heard a guide comment that Frank had a reputation as a reckless climber and probably fell into one of the icefall's deadly crevasses. I was going to explain that my friend Frank had changed and wasn't the man he used be, but I didn't think anyone would understand. I tried to tell them that Frank was still OK. But they didn't listen to me.
After a week of searching the lower part of the mountain, I decided to give up. I made arrangements to pay the guide and Sherpas. I gave the supplies and the unused oxygen canisters to climbers that helped in the search. Then I left the cursed and mysterious Himalayas.
The flight was late getting into Boston. A very upset Julie met me at Boston's Logan airport. She was hopelessly trying to make sense of her husband's death and wanted to talk. I tried to explain exactly what had happened to Frank to comfort her. But I really didn't know what to say. I couldn't sort out the right words from my own inner confusion. When I explained Frank's strange comments to me the night before he disappeared and that he might still be all right, she started to cry.
When I got home from the airport, I found my answering machine completely filled up with messages from the media. As I was the last person with Frank, they wanted to know why Frank went up the mountain alone. A week later, a professor from Purdue started calling me to ask me if I had any clue to Frank's strange equations and theories. Apparently before he left for Everest, Frank had accidentally deleted his FTL documentation files from NASA's computer. Now his NASA team was trying to piece back together the F variable ideas from Frank's notes. Frank's notes consisted of pages and pages of Frank's hand written mathematical scribbles. No one understood his incoherent writing. The NASA boys were also having trouble getting the Faster Than Light computer simulations to work. No one knew why the simulations weren't working. I had no idea what the magic F variable was in Frank's equations. I couldn't help him or any of the scientists. All of NASA's great thinkers without Frank were like blind men trying to feel and find their way through a maze.
Frank's family and Julie wanted me to speak at his funeral. But I didn't even attend. Why should I? Frank isn't dead. But no one will believe me when I tell them he is still alive. I am now sure he is alive.
I don't know who the aliens are on the top of Everest or why they saved Frank or why they gave Frank the gift of faster than light knowledge. Perhaps they are a benevolent race that sensed that Frank had a good fertile, physics mind that would be receptive to their ideas. Maybe they are a species from a cold planet that is comfortable living in the impossible climate at the top of Everest. Perhaps they are a lost race that needs us to build a space ship to take them home. I know that Frank will answer these questions and more when he comes down again. Because I am his friend and partner, I'll help him in any way--if he needs me.
Why am I so sure Frank is alive? Two weeks ago, I received an odd e-mail from an old e-mail address that Frank used to use. Julie received the same e-mail, but when I asked her about it, she said she thought it was a prank and erased it without opening it. When I opened the e-mail, I saw it was no prank. There was no written message, but attached were two pictures that appeared to be taken by an ordinary digital camera.
The first picture was picture was a shot of the Himalayas as seen from the southeast ridge of Mt Everest. The second shot was a close-up of the planet Jupiter. It appeared to be taken from a close orbit. Why a picture of Jupiter, I asked myself? I then remembered that NASA's light-speed spacecraft did not make it to Jupiter. I realized that the picture was Frank's way of saying he was alright and that he had finally made it all the way to Jupiter.
He's been away for several months now. He must be gathering a store of new ideas and knowledge. Like the ancient Greek hero Prometheus, who brought the gift of fire down from the top of a mountain, when Frank comes down, he will bring us the secret of light speed and a lot more from Mt. Everest. I don't think we will have to wait much longer. The world will never be the same.
Another well written tale that leaves you hungering for more and stimulates the imagination to think. wonderful
"2001 a Space Odyssey" was once a short story too. This has a similar theme. It’s mysterious and its mystery tugs the reader along. The end hints at more; always a good quality for an end. S4
this is a very long story and also very boring
When are you going to finish the story?
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