There is evil in the beauty that surrounds us.
Pretty heavy-handed for an opening line, I know. But perhaps if you read on, you’ll indulge me these dramatics, for I don’t use them lightly. You see, as an avid hiker, I’ve sought beauty my entire life, and I’ve scaled some of the world’s highest peaks in this pursuit. Denali. Cho Oyu. Kilimanjaro. And with each step on each trail, I’ve grown more amazed at all this planet has to offer.
They used to quench a thirst, these treks. They used to make me somebody. Atop the world’s great summits, I was more than myself. Up there, I was the aggregate of human achievement, of mankind’s drive to explore and exalt and conquer. And what’s more, I was better than those who didn’t dare. Better than those who didn’t have time. Better than those who were inexplicably content to live the whole of their lives without having stood above all.
But now, I’m wary of beauty. Now I’m afraid of the heights. Because even though I’m worthless without them, I still have to find a way to get to sleep at night, and it’s hard when I know that up there is so different from down here. More beautiful, yes, but also more terrible. More trying. More unforgiving. I know I can’t change what happened to me, what happened to all of us, but I can tell my story. And maybe that will save someone else.
So please, though it’s beautiful, and though the views are breathtaking and the horizons captivating, heed this warning: do not hike the Iceman Trek.
“That’s everything!” shouted Kellen, flinging the last pack to the ground and slamming the van’s back door closed. His breath glimmered in the first rays of sunlight. We were the only people for dozens of miles.
It hadn’t been easy to get to Bhutan, but we’d done it. And it had been even more difficult making the drive up to the trailhead in the dark on the icy, unkept roads. And yet the hardest part lay still before us: the Iceman Trek, a 200+ mile, three-week journey through some of the highest Himalayas, widely regarded as one of the most harrowing trails in the world. The trailhead was clearly visible a few hundred meters away.
The day was growing brighter, but the air was chilled as ever—15 degrees Fahrenheit, if we were lucky. And we weren’t even that high yet. Mount Keijban, our first destination, towered menacingly in the distance. If all went well, we would reach it in two days.
“Get used to the cold, boys,” I said with an air of authority. I’d never hiked any of these peaks, but I was by far the most experienced mountaineer of the group. I’d been to the Himalayas before and I’d be back again, I felt sure.
“Get-a used to my tits!” was the reply I heard from behind me. I wheeled around and there stood Manny, tugging his four shirt layers up past his navel frantically in an unsuccessful attempt to display his nipples. Manny, whose full name was Amanuel, had been adopted from Ethiopia when he was fourteen, and he found tremendous fascination in American vulgarity. His new siblings had shown him Borat his first week in the States, and perhaps as a consequence, every word he spoke carried the diction of the film’s title character.
Laughing despite myself, I looked around at the group with which I would spend the next three weeks—Manny, Dalton, Mitch, and Kellen. The five of us had collected a few state championships running cross-country together in high school, and kept a close bond even though our five-year reunion had just passed (with none of us in attendance, of course). We all lived active lifestyles, but only Kellen and I had significant hiking experience. He’d done Kilimanjaro with me the previous year.
“So when do we start?” Dalton asked, slinging a pack around his shoulders. I took a deep breath and threw one last look at the van, our last sign of western civilization for weeks.
We’d been walking for an hour when we met him. There hadn’t been much incline yet, and the snow was hit and miss. The trail had so far been kind and spirits were high, so we weren’t very observant about our surroundings. We finally noticed the footprints about a mile before we reached him.
Mitch saw them first. “Dude, was someone here?” he asked incredulously, pointing at a set of faint tracks on the ground.
“Looks like it,” I replied. I tried to act disinterested, but in truth I was fascinated. It was the second week of November—I thought we were the only ones crazy enough to be out there in such a bitter season, but these footprints proved me wrong. What’s more, we saw only one set. Whoever was in front of us was out there alone.
We pressed on, and before too long came across the unknown hiker. He was bundled from head to toe; barely an inch of his skin—the part around his eyes—was visible. His gear was mostly black, but a red logo stood out on his coat. He was walking slowly, with seemingly no effort—though his pack must have weighed over 50 pounds, he carried the gait of a nearly weightless man. In retrospect, I wonder if he was walking slowly on purpose.
So that we could catch up.
“Hey man, where’s your group?” Kellen asked as we moved to overtake the hiker.
He stopped, turned toward Kellen, and shook his head.
“No group? Are you crazy?”
While Manny tried to make small talk with the man (something about the shape of Tibetan women, I think), Kellen and I held a whispered conversation.
“What do we do about this guy?” he asked.
“I’d prefer him where we can keep an eye on him.”
“What do you mean?”
“We don’t know anything about this guy, but he’s crazy to be out here by himself. I don’t want him sneaking up on us at night and cutting our throats.”
“Well, I was thinking more along the lines of, he might die without us.” Kellen—always the optimist.
“That too,” I conceded, struggling to imagine how one man could survive out here alone for three weeks. “But maybe he doesn’t want company. Maybe this is some monk shit, like, he wants to be at peace with nature or something.”
“Only one way to find out,” Kellen muttered, then shouted to the hiker.
“Hey! It’s too dangerous to be by yourself out here. You want to hang with us?”
The man pondered this for a moment, then nodded. Slowly. Deliberately. A little eerily. Mitch stuck out his hand.
“What’s your name, man?”
The hiker returned Mitch’s handshake, but did not respond. He didn’t say a word.
Our first campfire was a little subdued. None of us were quite sure how to act with the new guy around. We didn’t know anything about him—we didn’t even know his name. All our attempts at conversation with him were met with nods or shakes of the head.
“Maybe he’s mute or something,” Dalton said when we were in our tent. The stranger had set up his tent about fifty yards from ours, so we spoke in hushed voices. He had feelings too—probably.
“Or maybe he’s just shy,” Kellen whispered. “I mean, five guys you’ve never met? Don’t people get social anxiety and shit?”
We were quiet for a long time. None of us knew how to deal with this situation. Even as experienced a hiker as I was, I’d never seen anything like it. I wouldn’t have dared to hike even one of these peaks by myself, but the stranger nodded when we’d asked if he planned to complete the entire Iceman Trek. I think even then, everyone knew he was a threat, but nobody quite knew how to say it. Finally, I broke the silence.
“Someone should always be keeping watch,” I said. “You know, until we get a better feel for—” I motioned my head toward the stranger’s tent.
“90 minute shifts?” asked Kellen. I nodded. “I can go first,” he said.
I kept my first watch that night from 2:00 to 3:30 in the morning. I sat, huddled in my sleeping bag, thinking about the mountains and listening to the wind. But once, I thought I heard a scream, a man’s scream, carried from a distance over the sounds of nature. It rang out for a few seconds and then came to an abrupt halt. I hoped it was just a trick of the wind.
All our attempts at conversation with the stranger proved unsuccessful the next morning, but it didn’t matter much—we hurried through breakfast and got on the trail. Today would be our most productive day.
The hiking was strenuous, a bit tougher than I had expected, but the towering peak of Mount Keijban never left our line of sight, and that made it easier. It always helped to be able to keep your eyes on the prize. We walked having forgotten the subdued nature of our first campfire, joking and talking and laughing like the stranger wasn’t even there. We did not engage him in conversation—we figured that he’d join in when he was ready.
His only contribution that day was a big one. As the sun was just starting to set, we came across a stream. It was mostly frozen, but some water was still running. It stretched as long as we could see, and though it was only about twenty feet wide, it seemed impassable. As we sat deliberating our next move, the stranger pointed to a tall, thin tree on our side of the river. Instantly, I knew what he was thinking. I took off my pack and began to search for the axe.
Though difficult in the cold, we had the tree chopped down within an hour. As it fell, all six of us—the stranger included—gathered to push its trajectory across the stream. We were able to scramble across it, hike another mile, and set up our camp for the night.
“Nice thinking on the tree,” I said to the stranger as we sat around the campfire.
He just nodded.
That night, all went well, but both Kellen and Dalton were jerked awake with dreams of falling. That was a common occurrence on hiking trips—spending so much time on slick ground, just inches away from steep cliffs, your subconscious sometimes feels the need to protest.
We made it to the top of Mount Keijban by noon, and sometime during that first hike of the day I realized something: the stranger never seemed to get tired. The rest of us, even me, were pretty wiped out by the time we reached the top. But this guy never needed a break, he never clutched his sides, complained of a cramp, or stopped to rest. One might have thought he was out for a Sunday stroll through the neighborhood instead of a grueling, death-defying hike through the tallest peaks on earth. I felt admiration—and more than a little envy.
As we sat atop Keijban and soaked in the breathtaking vista before us, Kellen regaled us with an account of his dream, the one in which he fell. Dalton said that he’d had a similar dream. Then, the stranger raised his hand.
“You had it too?” Mitch asked him.
The stranger nodded, then looked at the ground. He seemed sad.
It was that night, over a dozen miles past the peak of Keijban, that the trail turned against us. A bitter snowstorm raged for the better part of the evening, and the snow drove with such force that we couldn’t even get a fire going. We ate our dinner cold that night, and took shelter in our tent—all of us, it was, except the stranger.
The stranger remained outside, in his camping chair, until midnight came and went. The temperatures must have dropped well below zero, without even accounting for the wind chill. Even in our tent, equipped with all the best heating gear a hiker could afford, conditions were nothing short of miserable. Our watch shifts seemed useless that night—nobody slept longer than a half an hour at a time.
While we fleeted in and out of sleep, some muffled whispers were shared concerning the stranger. Should we tell him to go inside? Should we bring him some extra gear? We opted to do nothing, given his antisocial nature, but Manny did poke his head out into the bitter air and peek in the stranger’s direction briefly.
“He’s-a just sitting there,” Manny reported in disbelief. “He’s-a not shivering or hugging himself or nothing. It’s like a guy watching football.”
Things were even worse four days later. By this point we had scaled another peak and were nearly atop a third—Mount Preta. The altitude sickness had nearly overcome us all; we felt like the walking dead.
Barely able to press forward, muscles cramped from the cold, we were dismayed to find the trail to Preta’s peak overrun by an avalanche. But again, the stranger took matters into his own hands, this time pointing up a steep, rocky slope that looked unfit for human travail.
“Yeah, I’m gonna take a hard pass,” said Kellen, gazing up the treacherous terrain.
The stranger walked directly over to Kellen and stared him in the eye. They were roughly the same height, and the stranger had a thicker build. Kellen was clearly intimidated by this display of aggression, and took a step backwards. The stranger jabbed his finger again skyward, pointing once more up the slope. Then he walked to its base, grabbed hold of a patch of earth, and hoisted himself up with little effort.
We did not have much choice. We could either turn back the way we came—defeated—or we could follow this man, who refused to even speak to us, into uncharted territory. Encouraged by the prospect of Preta’s legendary view, we followed his every move single file. Where his hands went, ours went. His footholds were ours. One by one, we defied death with each step, not daring to look backwards at a fall that would kill us instantly. It did not take long—we climbed on this slope for perhaps fifteen minutes—but the seconds dragged like drowning. The clouds of breath expelled from behind our masks seemed more precious than ever, for each could truly have been our last.
There was little comfort waiting for us at the top. We had truly passed the point of no return. We could not have made it back the way we had come. We would either finish the Iceman Trek or die trying. And as we looked at the path before us, the latter seemed more likely—the top of Mount Preta was clearly visible beyond a mile’s length of trail more frightening than any I have ever encountered. The traversable section was perhaps twenty-four inches wide, flanked on both sides by five-hundred foot drops at near 90 degree angles. Add to this the harsh wind beating upon us, a wind which seemed to shift direction at a whim, and I daresay the man who walked the tightrope between the Twin Towers would not have envied us.
“Oh, great fucking idea,” Dalton shot at the stranger who had led us to this precipice. The stranger, of course, did not respond.
“It’s now or never, guys,” I said. “Let’s do this.” Trying to appear confident (I wasn’t), I took my first trembling step out onto the ledge. The others followed me—Manny, Dalton, Mitch, Kellen, and the stranger bringing up the rear. Before long we were all crouched low to avoid the wind as much as possible, gripping the ledge with our hands as we slid our feet cautiously along. We had taken our masks off for better visibility, and snow battered our faces. A fall would not only have meant death, but a sentence to rot in the Himalayan snow for eternity. Retrieving a fallen body would not have been an option.
As these thoughts plagued my mind, almost as if on cue, a scream rang out from behind me. I wheeled my head around, almost losing my own balance, to see Kellen hanging from the ledge by one arm. Noises of terror choked from his throat, and I could just see tears begin to stream from his bulging eyes. As Kellen struggled to hang on, the rest of us looked to the stranger, the only one walking behind Kellen, for help. But he offered none.
The stranger just stood, not crouched to avoid the wind, not bracing from the cold, staring at Kellen. He offered no hand, leg, or anything else on which to grab. He seemed more like an interested spectator than a fellow brother of the trail.
“Help him!” I screamed in disbelief. “Fucking help him!”
Manny, Dalton, and Mitch all shouted at the stranger to help, to save our friend, desperation in our voices, and our cries were nearly drowned out by the wind. And still the stranger stood.
Finally, Kellen was able to get his other arm over the ledge. Mitch backtracked, at great risk to his own life, and pulled him to safety. Both threw looks of deep reproach at the stranger before we pressed onward, but in his own defense he spoke not a word.
That night, the five of us huddled in our tent, mostly quiet. We felt no moral qualms about what we had done when we finally reached relative safety at the top of Mount Preta. Exiling a man atop an icy mountain was a harsh punishment to deliver, but we felt it matched the crime. To lead us into such danger and then to offer no help to Kellen as he struggled for life—well, the stranger was no longer welcome with us, and we delivered the news in no uncertain terms.
Manny, the watchman, awoke the rest of us in the recesses of the night.
“He’s here!” Manny whispered. “He’s here!”
We all sat alert, silent, listening to the unmistakable sounds of somebody shuffling around outside. Finally, armed with a hatchet, Manny unzipped the tent to investigate. He looked around for what seemed like an eternity.
Finally, the reply came: “Nothing. I don’t see no one.”
Fresh snow had fallen, but when we awoke, the ground surrounding our tent was covered in footprints. The stranger had been here, and from the looks of it, he had paced all night.
We packed in a hurry and made our way down the slopes of Mount Preta, keeping a constant watch for the stranger. Four hours down, he finally showed himself.
“Guys,” Mitch alerted us as we scrambled down the mountain. We all wheeled around, and he was there, in his black coat with the red logo, walking casually toward us. Dalton’s face contorted in rage. He made toward the stranger, and the rest of us followed. I had no idea what Dalton was going to do and I didn’t care.
When we reached the stranger, his face remained masked and his throat silent. He offered no defense, no apology—he just let it happen. Like he knew it was going to.
Dalton grabbed the stranger roughly by the coat and held him, tilted, over the edge of the trail. The path was narrow and the drop was several hundred feet, at least.
“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t drop you over this fucking ledge,” Dalton snarled. Their eyes bared into each other’s. For a moment, I actually thought he was going to do it. But then, as quickly as it came, Dalton’s eyes lost their anger. They glazed over. He pulled the stranger away from the edge, and stood, as though pondering, for a brief moment. Then, before any of us could do anything, Dalton flung himself from the cliff.
We all screamed, but only Kellen reached for him. Only Kellen, who just the day before had been saved by an arm extended to him, tried to save his friend. And only Kellen lost his balance and slipped, himself, feet-first from the ledge.
Kellen’s screams only lasted a second or two. Dalton didn’t make a sound. Manny, Mitch and I could do nothing but watch in horror as our two old friends became two dark specks in a wasteland of purest white, tumbling end over end to their deaths. We saw two small clouds of snow puff around their bodies at impact. But the time to grieve was not yet—a threat still loomed near. It was only when we turned around that we discovered the stranger was gone.
There was no chance that Dalton and Kellen had survived that fall, and no hope of retrieving their bodies. Even if we could get to them, it would have been more than impractical to carry them through the rest of the Trek. We were forced to press on while the corpses of our dead friends were condemned to lie, forever, at the base of Mount Preta. The only thing to do was get back to civilization.
It took us another week—hands down the most miserable of my life. Manny, Mitch and I barely spoke, mostly camping and hiking and keeping watch for the stranger in solemn silence. The trail was a little more forgiving in this last week. It would have been peaceful, perhaps even spiritual, if only under different circumstances.
With two days left on our journey, as we walked through a truly stunning frozen vista, Manny broke the silence to point out something lying in the distant snow—a black lump, partially covered in snow. The path to it wasn’t overly treacherous, so we wandered a couple hundred meters off the path to investigate. I wish we hadn’t.
The lump lay, motionless, at the base of a daunting cliff. I reached it first. It was the body of a hiker, one who had fallen, one who had undertaken the challenge of the Iceman Trek and failed. Only his head and arm were visible. I removed his mask and shuddered at the gruesome face beneath—this man had been dead for weeks. Maybe months. We were about to turn away from the morbid scene when Manny paused.
“Wait. Brush off his chest, man.”
I was confused at first, but all at once I realized what Manny was looking for, and the second the thought crossed my mind, I knew I would find it. In despair, I brushed the snow from the dead man’s chest to reveal the whole of his coat, a black coat—emblazoned with a red logo.
I only have eight toes now. My boots could only hold up for so long, and the frostbite set in by the end. I consider myself lucky. Most people who hike the Iceman Trek make it out in far worse shape—if they make it out at all. Still, I broke down crying when I saw my two frozen toes, lying in a little plastic bin in that Tibetan hospital, because they reminded me of my friends.
I haven’t been back to the mountains. I haven’t sought the beauty since. You see, I’ve risked my life in pursuit of stunning sights, and I’ve experienced perhaps no scene more peaceful, more serene, than the field in which the stranger’s body lay. But as I said in the opening lines to this story, even the most beautiful surroundings can be marred by evil.
That evil is alive and well even in the places humans barely dare to tread. The thought of it keeps me up at nights. When I lie awake, I think of the final resting place of my friends, thousands of miles away from home, and hope that it too is beautiful—but I fear that no beauty can stop the evil in those hills from running its course. It took the stranger, it took Dalton, it took Kellen, and it might take you. That’s why I’m writing to you. To warn you:
My friends were great guys. But if you ever hike the Iceman Trek, you may find you disagree.