The wind pounced on them above twenty-five thousand feet.
As the youngest expedition in Everest history scrambled up the Geneva Spur, the onslaught began - overpowering gusts that threatened to pluck the climbers off the mountain and hurl them into space.
Amazingly, this was nothing new to them. The winds are fierce and unpredictable high on Everest in the infamous Death Zone, and this was the second time the team had stood atop the Spur, a mammoth club of decaying black rock. Their last summit bid had been scuttled when they'd been called away to perform a daring high-altitude rescue. For two long weeks, SummitQuest had waited at Base Camp, begging fate for the weather to offer them a second chance at the peak.
Now they had it. And, as team leader Cap Cicero put it, "We're not going to let a little breeze get in our way."
Clad in full-body windsuits, oxygen masks, and goggles, they looked like something out of a science fiction movie. This was fitting, since the pinnacle of the world was as inhospitable a place as any alien planet.
Bent double into the teeth of the gale, they slogged on, gasping bottled oxygen, moving slowly, but always moving. At extreme altitude, the mere effort of putting one foot in front of the other is the equivalent of pushing a boulder up a steep hill. It takes massive reserves of strength and will. But mostly it takes the ability to fight through pain.
A sudden howling blast drove thirteen-year-old Dominic Alexis back a step. Cicero reached out a hand to steady his youngest and smallest climber. Then he guided the boy into line behind him in an effort to shelter him from the worst of the wind.
Cicero's confident carriage belied an inner concern: If the blow's this bad here, it's bound to be murderous higher up.
Normally, conditions like this would have sent a team back to Base Camp to wait for better weather. But it was the twenty-first of May, very late in the climbing season. Any day, Everest's summer monsoon could begin, effectively shutting down the mountain. They climbed now because they could not be sure they would get another chance.
The team leader had no way of knowing that summer would come late that year. Nor could he have foreseen that, before Everest slipped into the monsoon, it would claim the life of one of his young climbers.