I nearly fell off the ledge. Josh had come up behind me without a sound.
“Sorry,” Josh said, laughing. “I should have cleared my throat or coughed or spit or something. It would be a shame to lose you after the climb is over.”
He sat down next to me. I closed my journal.
“Your mom tells me you’re a pretty good writer.”
Josh smiled. “Don’t go all Zopa on me.”
I laughed. “I’m not that good of a writer. Maybe someday. I couldn’t sleep. Thought I’d catch up on my journal.”
Josh reached into his pocket and pulled out a small digital recorder. “This is how I keep my journal.”
He handed it to me. The battery indicator was full. “This is the only gizmo we have that has juice.”
“I haven’t had much chance to use it here, but there’s plenty of ramblings on it from my seven summits try.”
It wasn’t a try. He had smashed the world record for topping the highest peaks on all seven continents before showing up to climb Hkakabo Razi with me. I think one of the reasons he had climbed with me after that exhausting task was to confess his biggest secret. My dad, Joshua Wood, arguably the greatest climber in the world, could not read or write. Which explained why he had never responded to my letters. Something that had bothered me for years.
“So, what do you do with your ramblings?”
“Sometimes I listen to them, but mostly I file them away. I have thousands of hours of me babbling on. I guess, like a lot of climbers, I want to leave something behind in case I fall off a mountain, not that anyone would be interested.”
False modesty. He knew as well as I did that a lot of people would be interested. “I’m interested,” I said, playing along.
“I figured you would be. The recordings are stored on my laptop in Chiang Mai. When I get back home, I’ll send them to you.”
“I’d like that. And when you learn to read, I’ll send you my journals.”
Josh grinned. “Deal.”
I tried to give the digital recorder back, but he shook his head. “Nah, you keep it. We’ll call it a down payment on our sacred pact. And speaking of sacred things, where’s Zopa?”
“He took off.” I pointed at the green tangle at the bottom of the talus.
“Did you ask him where he was going?”
“Yeah. What do you think his answer was?”
“More or less. He said he’d find us.”
“I’m sure he will,” Josh said. “I wonder why he brought us here.”
I reminded him that we weren’t able to return the way we had ascended because of the avalanche and the weather.
“Doesn’t matter,” Josh said. “Every step Zopa takes has a purpose. Something is up. I guarantee it.”
“What might be up is yours and Zopa’s arrest by the Chinese government. We’re in Tibet.”
Tibet was Tibet in name only. The Chinese had taken over the country in 1951 in what they called a “peaceful liberation.” The Tibetans have a different take on what happened, calling it “the Chinese invasion of Tibet.” The bottom line is that Tibet is now, for all intents and purposes, China, a country where both Josh and Zopa are wanted criminals for violating permit requirements on the northern side of Everest. They helped Zopa’s grandson, Sun-jo, summit Everest, making him the youngest person, and a “free” Tibetan, to top the mountain. The record has since been broken, but not before Sun-jo received several lucrative endorsement deals from climbing gear companies, making it possible for him and his two sisters to continue their education.
The permit violations were minor offenses. Josh and Zopa’s major offense, technically not illegal, was embarrassing the Chinese government. They were forbidden to set foot inside Chinese territory.
“No worries,” Josh said. “We’ll be gone before they know we’re here. As far as anyone knows I’m in seclusion at my house in Chiang Mai recuperating after my seven summits climb.”
Josh lived in northern Thailand in a big house with a private climbing gym in the backyard. I’d never been to his house, but I’d been hoping to go there on this trip. Looking down at the jungle, and the long trek before us, that didn’t look too likely now.
Jack came out of the cave, squinting at the bright sunlight.
“Morning,” he croaked.
He didn’t look very good. “Are you sick?”
“I don’t think so. Just tired. Didn’t sleep well. What’s the plan?”
I pointed downhill. “We head into the jungle, find a road, and if we’re lucky, some kind of transportation to a city with an airport.”
“Sounds good to me. Hopefully some food, too. Yash and Yogi are scraping together the last grains of rice for breakfast. Looks like we’ll get two spoonfuls each.”
It turned out to be three spoonfuls each, and we were picking our way down the loose talus within minutes of the pathetic meal. A cloud of insects engulfed us as we approached the jungle. We stripped out of our cold-weather clothes and stuffed them into our packs, where I found my machete. I couldn’t believe I’d hauled it to the top of Hkakabo Razi and down.
Josh laughed when he saw it. “The guy with the machete leads the way.”
“Fine with me. But which way?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. Where did Zopa break through?”
I shrugged. “I guess I should have paid closer attention to where he was when he disappeared into the tangle.”
“No worries. Here’s just as good as anywhere else. But if we don’t find a trail or road in the ...