‘Elephant’s Tusk’ by Siddhartha Gigoo (New Asian Writing Short Story Competition 2020 Prize Winning Entry)

People stop you. They say don’t do it. It is impossible. You will fail. You will die. It is a suicide mission. Nobody says go and find out for yourself. People miss the whole bloody point. Better die trying than live a life of regret and shame. 

The truth is I never dared going back to Mount Everest after it took much of my vision away. But for the affliction, I would still be climbing mountains. I wasn’t born on a mountain, but I wished to die on one. 

Instead of listening to my inner voice, I listened to people. And I believed they made sense and that they were my well-wishers and that I should not disappoint them or prove them wrong. I missed my only chance at doing tango with death.

Now, at this stage, I can do nothing to change the past. My dream—of having a summit named after me—shouldn’t perish with me.

That’s why I said yes to her when I first came across her vlog. She was looking for sponsorship. She wanted to do the unimaginable. She wanted to climb Mount Everest. It was going to cost her a lot of money. Well, you might argue what’s the big deal. Thousands of people have similar ambitions and dreams. Some want to scale mountains, some want to jump off cliffs, some want to learn origami, some want to become beach bums. We all have bucket lists, don’t we? The thing is, like me, she was partially blind, having lost much of her vision to a condition that baffled doctors. Hers was a degenerative condition. In a few years, both of us would not be able to see at all unless we got eye transplants done, which continues to be an expensive proposition. Her wish was to be on the summit of Mount Everest and look at the world below with whatever dim vision her eyes possessed. Time was slipping away fast in her case and mine.

“Do you think you will be able to master the altitude and the ice?” I asked her.

She said she didn’t have a choice. I said yes instantly. Her bio on her vlog page read: ‘Maya. 30. Big Sur. California. Mission Everest.’ That’s all. But her pitch was incredibly compelling. She seemed consumed by the burning desire to be an Everest Summiteer. “Mount Everest is Do or Die for me,” she said. 

She won me over with her sound knowledge and impeccable awareness of the terrain of the world’s tallest and holiest mountain. She spoke of the Sherpas as if she had lived amongst them. She was one of the very few people who, without ever having set foot on a mountain, knew as much about Mount Everest as is known to elite mountaineers. She was an armchair Everest expert, but she aspired to be a summiteer. She talked about Everest as if she had climbed it not once or twice, but several times. 

The average rest time per climber at the summit is less than 7 minutes. That’s all. But it didn’t matter to Maya or to me. 7 minutes on the summit were long enough to experience all stages of life. Maya’s passion was so strong that she couldn’t live a minute unless she touched the pinnacle of the world. The pull of Everest was more valuable to her than her life. All she needed was the money to bear the expedition cost to be able to undertake the trip from California to the summit of Mount Everest via London, New Delhi, Kathmandu, Lukla, Namche Bazaar, Base Camp, the four camps on the mountain and back. But the trail from the Base Camp to the summit was paved with invisible and dangerous obstacles.

I had only one condition for sponsoring her trip to Mount Everest. That upon her entry into the Death Zone, she should summit via Elephant’s Tusk. There was, however, one big problem. None of the Everest ascensionists believed in the existence of Elephant’s Tusk. Even the Sherpas had laughed at its very mention. A figment of a warped imagination is what they had said to me dismissively. Everyone wanted evidence. But I didn’t have it. 

You might wonder how I came to believe in the existence of Elephant’s Tusk when I myself have neither seen it with my own eyes nor even set foot on it during my ascents of Mount Everest. It might sound ridiculous to you, but the truth is that Elephant’s Tusk does exist. How I know and how I am so sure of its existence is a secret I wouldn’t like to divulge. Of course, you may choose to disbelieve me. But I was hell-bent on taking my chances at proving everyone wrong. Giving up was not an option. That’s why I decided to finance Maya on a condition that she would do for me what I couldn’t do for myself. It was my last chance at proving myself right. 

The other challenge pertained to rules. Even if, for the sake of argument, some of the Sherpa guides or trek leaders for a moment believed in the existence of Elephant’s Tusk, they would never allow any climber to deviate off the standard climbing route. Maya knew quite well that when it came to climbing Mount Everest there were strict rules to follow and non-negotiable orders to obey. Precision is important. Lives depend on it. There’s absolutely no room for personal adventurism or rebellion. After all, it’s not just about one person’s safety or preferences or ambitions. It’s about everyone’s life and death. It’s about reaching the summit and getting home in one piece. 

The trophy, however, is not the summit. The trophy is home. ‘Summit well but get back home’ is the mantra. But there’s a catch. The summit doesn’t allow you to abandon it, even in the event of an unforeseen ailment, an adversity or a calamity. At such a moment, the summit casts an evil spell and gives you a fever from which the only escape is the way forward—a one-way journey. 

“One more step and I’m yours forever,” the summit whispers into your ear. “You can do it. Don’t turn back. Not now, at least! Nothing will happen to you. I’m your destiny. You give yourself to me. I will be yours forever. You shall be immortal. The whole world will fall at your feet. Come and take me…”

And you follow the summit’s enticing call as if there were no reason, no fear, no judgement, and no death. You see people on the summit. People who don’t exist! The summit makes you see things that aren’t there. That’s what it does to you. Impairs your perception. That is what people say. But the summit doesn’t lie. It shows you what you can do and achieve. It grabs you by the neck and shakes you off your long sleep.

At the time of deciding to fund Maya’s expedition, I had no idea how she would meet my condition though I was clear what I wanted. A piece of Elephant’s Tusk in return for my money was what I wanted. But I didn’t want to leave everything to her. I decided to tell her the ‘how’ and ‘when’ just before her ascent. She did ask me questions for which I had no answers at the time. “Elephant’s Tusk? I couldn’t find it on the Internet. Have you ever been there? Do you have a map or something? Where exactly is it located? Is it a pass or a ridge? A crevasse or a serac? A col or a cwm? A cornice or a couloir? What is it? Has someone told you about it? Why this obsession for Elephant’s Tusk? What if it isn’t there? Why do you want me to do this your way?”

“Because you need the money and you need it now,” I said to her. “We will see how you will go about locating Elephant’s Tusk.” 

I wanted an assurance. That Maya would not betray my trust and that she would meet the condition at any cost, even if it meant putting her life in danger. “Elephant’s Tusk,” I said to Maya, “is the safest zone on Mount Everest, but getting there is fraught with life-threatening perils because you will have to stray off course, go solo and tackle unforgiving barriers. It is hidden somewhere below the summit of Everest in the deadly ice slopes in the Death Zone at an altitude of 8500 meters. Give and take a 100 meters.” 

The Everest Death Zone is the abode of death. High velocity icy winds up there can rip you off the mountain in no time. There’s very little oxygen. Saying No to a person who says, help me, don’t leave me alone doesn’t come naturally to humans. But it’s a topsy-turvy world up there in the Death Zone. It will make you abandon those who, owing to some illness or any other reason, cannot go further. You will walk away even from your loved ones. You will leave them to die. And, God forbid, if you fall sick and collapse, nobody will bail you out. The Death Zone will render you bereft of morality and judgement and honour. It will strip you off your defenses. Dreadful things are believed to have happened up there. Any kind of rescue is out of the question because the air up there is so sparse that nothing, not even a bird, can either fly or survive. 

Maya was partially blind. What would happen if she collapsed? What if her fellow climbers left her to die?

Everest is not a conquest. Everest is a mountain on which you go up as yourself, but you return as somebody else. 

I was aware of the risks. But Maya—she was blinded by her passion. And to be blinded by passion is worse than insanity.

Cruel and selfish of me, you might think, but it’s the price you must pay for a fully funded expedition to Mount Everest. I had to part with my entire savings to be able to finance Maya’s expedition. And I must tell you had it not been for age I would attempt the feat myself. But now I am too old to do crazy things. Seventy-nine and a half is not an easy age to deal with. At my age you are left with nothing but pure reason—desperate and insane. You are staring at the final ascent—the last ‘Hillary Step’ of life. A fall and you’re finished. But if you climb further, then your life’s work is done. There’s no going back once you are up there at the summit. Going back becomes ridiculously pointless and absurd. You surrender. You give yourself up until it’s over. You let the forces take you. 

I transferred the money to Maya’s bank account. She applied to Magic Mountain Expeditions, a commercially run mountaineering company that offered guided high-altitude expeditions. The company claimed to be the best in high altitude mountaineering in terms of safety, the quality and light weightiness of gear, the skills and experience of guides, expedition leaders and support staff, access to modern amenities and 100 percent summit success rate. The company’s promotional literature, tailored for swashbuckling Everest aspirants high on adrenaline and cash, gave an impression that Mount Everest is a walk in the park. The maxim—if things have to fail, they will—at times is just not convincing enough to critically evaluate circumstances. Nothing in this world is failsafe, let alone a guaranteed summit success. But Magic Mountain Expeditions boasted of an unrivalled track record in all departments of the game. The company’s motto—Be the Highest person on the planet, trek with us to Mount Everest—was enticing enough to push people to try their hand at glory. Naturally, the company’s asking price for an expedition to Mount Everest was already way beyond an average person’s means.

Maya’s application was scrutinized carefully, given her lack of exposure to high altitudes, no previous climbing history, and the vision impairment she suffered from. At first, the company rejected her application, despite her commitment to pay upfront. Though Maya’s argument in defense of her application was persuasive, she was thought of as a high-risk contender for humankind’s ultimate dare. “You don’t qualify for the expedition,” one of the company executives said to her, citing her poor eyesight. I was well aware of the acceptance and rejection criteria in such cases. Maya topped in zeal, but scored zero in physical fitness, prior high-altitude experience and climbing skills.

Private mountaineering companies, despite having profit considerations, have reputations to protect. Few companies would risk their reputation solely for money. After all, in a hugely competitive adventure tourism market companies vie for tags such as 100 percent summit success rate and zero fatalities. Future revenue depends on company performance. And company performance is 100 percent linked to the performance of client climbers on the mountain. Everest aspirants are required to be mentally and physically fit with absolutely no disorders and deficiencies. Maya was a high maintenance aspirant. And the risk of taking her along was far too high. The stakes are high in adventure travel business. There was a way out though to push Maya’s case. I had heard of rich people making unreasonable demands. For example, access to better food, Internet connectivity, satellite phones, etc. on the mountain, as if the mountain were a hotel. Upon my assurance, Maya offered more money without making even a single demand. Some days later, she heard back from the company. The turnaround in the company’s decision regarding her candidature, I knew, wasn’t purely borne out of profit considerations, as Maya surmised. After evaluating the odds of being able to take Maya to the top, the company took a calculated risk much like I had taken by footing Maya’s tour bill with no surety that my condition would be met. It wasn’t the money alone that compelled Magic Mountain Expeditions to reconsider Maya’s candidature and offer her a seat. It was something else. It was the prospect of making an earth-shattering headline that read: A partially blind girl makes the summit of Mount Everest, courtesy Magic Mountain Expeditions. Such a feat would be second only to Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon. 

Dreams, like the outer space, have no boundaries.

After paying the extra money, Maya secured a slot on the expedition on a condition that she would undergo 8-weeks’ training at her own expense at the company’s school of mountaineering in Colorado. Maya met the company’s condition and she promised to meet mine. It was a win-win for all the three parties—the company, Maya and I. 

With the ticket to Mount Everest in hand, Maya landed in Kathmandu on April 10. She sent me a copy of her itinerary with details of the acclimatization plan. After spending some days at the Base Camp to allow their bodies to adapt to the high altitude, and, later, trekking back and forth from Camps 1, 2 and 3 for advanced acclimatization and summit readiness, she and other climbers along with the Sherpa Guides and expedition leaders were expected to make the summit attempt on a day when the weather was conducive. Meteorological forecast indicated a good three-week weather window for the climb. True to her word, Maya sent me dispatches. Silhouetted against Everest’s shimmering peak, she sat hands folded with her head bowed down as a Sherpa lit the sacrificial fire to make an offering to the sacred mountain on the morning of the ascent. Her dispatches made me hopeful of seeing my condition met. 

“This morning I got to take my first steps over the Icefall,” she said, “and I owe these steps just to you. I had never imagined I would see such phantasmal beauty. The majestic bridges of ice arched over deep crevasses of darkness tell us that nature doesn’t want us to stop. Nature will never stand in the way.”

The irresistible urge to tell me everything, to spill out things that might not have happened at all or happened differently appeared normal to me. After all, Maya was not just like any other adventure seeker who wanted to attain a personal milestone just for the heck of it. She was a girl to whom the climb meant everything. She wanted to be one with the elements up there. The very elements that otherwise seek your destruction.

My last message to Maya reiterated the absolute necessity of honouring our deal. “Do not forget your commitment,” I said to her again. “You must bring me a piece of Elephant’s Tusk. But you must remember that up there you will have beauty, but you won’t have Time.”

When one departs for Mount Everest, there is no certainty that one will return. It was a full moon night in my part of the world on the eve of Maya’s departure for the summit.

The night Maya and her fellow climbers were to summit, a deadly avalanche struck Mount Everest. An earthquake measuring 8.1 on Richter with its epicenter in Nepal was believed to have caused the avalanche. All climbers were presumed dead.

The next day, news reports flashed all across the world. One report read: A partially blind girl and her Sherpa lover are the only survivors in the deadliest avalanche to have struck Mount Everest. The girl, who was reunited with her Sherpa lover after an unsuccessful attempt at scaling the mountain three years ago, attributes her survival and the restoration of her eyesight to a hitherto unknown zone on the mountain. The discovery of the zone by the girl has stunned Sherpa Guides, elite mountaineers and Everest summiteers across the world. The girl has decided to name the zone ‘Elephant’s Tusk’.

Over the new few days, Maya posted numerous vlogs and gave several interviews to news channels. Strangely, everyone believed her blindly; even those who were well versed with what the summit of Mount Everest is said to have done to summiteers. A partially blind girl from America survives a fatal avalanche at Mount Everest because she is flung into some safe zone where she regains her sight completely. This in itself is a story worth believing. Where there’s triumph, there’s hope. And hope, after all, sells on its own. 

In the days to follow, Maya became a poster girl not only for mountaineering companies, Alpinists and Everesteers, but for adventure freaks as well. She was hailed as some sort of destiny’s child for not only miraculously surviving the deadliest storm, despite her partial blindness, but also for discovering the safest zone on the perilous mountain. The tabloids called the discovery the greatest discovery of the century. Scientists said they would set up camp at Elephant’s Tusk to study the electromagnetic waves, the radiation and thermodynamics. Stunned at the restoration of Maya’s eyesight, doctors decided to go up there to collect samples of whatever existed there for study and research. Simply put, everyone went insane at the discovery of Elephant’s Tusk as if a new moon with magical powers had been sighted in the sky. 

A few days later, Maya sent me a video message. “What I felt inside the dark vortex I wouldn’t be able to describe fully and accurately,” she said. “Shadowed by a deathly void, I was tossed around like a pebble. The mountain spun on its peak and ground everything under it. And then I heard moans. Land clashed against land over an endless sea. The waves rose up to the sky and I floated upon them and touched the summit that emerged out of the sea. And then, the shutting down of life began. First the breath, then the senses, then the elements, and finally the consciousness! Stripped off everything, I gave up the fight. The summit was indifferent to my plight. It didn’t call me as you had said it would. It didn’t give a damn. But then a passageway to an unknown zone opened. A gateway to a world where time and gravity ceased to exist! Primeval forces were at work there. A minute equaled eternity. A strange silence fell, and then, I was reborn. I remembered your advice to not let anything come between you and the summit. Not even the summit. What I got to know is that the summit is an illusion that lasts a fraction. On my descent I saw those who were not destined to return home. And here I am now, standing in front of you, completely cured of my disease.” 

Three weeks later, on the night of May 27, when the North Star was seen leaving a trail in the sky over the Himalayas, another devastating earthquake struck the region, triggering massive avalanches and plunging hundreds of climbers into icy graves. All expeditions to Everest were called off for the season. The following year, many climbers confirmed their inability to spot Elephant’s Tusk. “It is gone as if it never was,” said those climbers and Sherpas who went in search of it. 

With that, Elephant’s Tusk vanished permanently into the heart of the towering crest in the great blue sky.

Author’s Bio: Siddhartha Gigoo is a Commonwealth Prize-winning author. In 2015, he won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize (Asia) for his short story, The Umbrella Man. He has written two books of poetry, three novels—The Garden of SolitudeMehr: A Love Story, and The Lion of Kashmir (long listed for the Atta Galatta-Bangalore Literature Festival Book Prize)—, an experimental fiction—Love in the Time of Quarantine—, and a book of short stories—A Fistful of Earth and Other Stories (long listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award 2015). He has also co-edited two anthologies, namely A Long Dream of Home: The Persecution, Exodus and Exile of Kashmiri Pandits and Once We Had Everything: Literature in Exile. His short stories have been long listed for Lorian Hemingway Short Story Prize, Royal Society of Literature’s V.S. Pritchett Short Story Prize, and Seán O’Faoláin Short Story Prize. Siddhartha’s short films, The Last Day and Goodbye, Mayfly, have won several awards at international film festivals. His writings appear in various literary journals.

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