The Last Mountain

©Stephen McDonnell 2002

draft April 27. 2002

6. Stone Forest

MeiLi bar, Kunming

"Hi Siegfried, are you still playing spider man?" He did not seem too worse for the other night. As I got to know him better, his ability to perform under any conditions was to surprise me over and over.

"Nein, today we do the real thing. Garry, you finally came to find the action. Let me introduce you to my friends."

The scruffy group was of various ages and sexes. They could be taken, at first glance, for the usual bunch of Western back packers. They were all tanned and trim, none of them over muscle bound, no steroid freaks. I had assumed mountain climbers would resemble the pumping iron types, but if anything, they were more like dancers. Body weight to muscle mass was characteristic of good climbers. Goons could not climb well; they literally dropped like flies, their over weight muscle pulling them off the mountains. There were even a few women, almost girlish in stature. The give away was the definition of their muscles, each one of them a living Leonardo da Vinci drawing, each muscle seemed to ripple under their tan skin, like fine race horses.

I liked Jason, the Australian - about my age -with a face chiseled out of stone under gray hair. Chip was a happy go lucky American from Colorado. Jennifer, his red haired girl friend was from France and she never let anyone forget it, she was always complaining about the food. Manfreid, another German Knight, was actually Austrian. Then there was Maria, from Argentina, all black fire and ice; they called her the rock goddess. She appeared shy and demure but her handshake left my hand tingling. Siegfried Hass was the boss, or at least he was while the mysterious financier was away. Dr. David Blake was from Texas, a young guy who didn't meet my eye when I shook his hand.

They were all 5.14 climbers, this information Siegfried whispered to me like a confession - his pride apparent. Around them was an assortment of equipment, white and red rope, made from Goat's milk, genetically altered to produce spider's silk proteins, stronger and lighter than steel cable. Siegfried told me a hundred feet cost a million dollars. In my mind I saw it coming out of a goats orifices, not a glamorous image. When I picked it up and compared it to normal climbing rope I felt the difference; it was light and super smooth, like Chinese silk.

They were going "bouldering" in the famous tourist attraction, Stone Forest- a Karsh formation that once was on the bottom of an ancient sea be, a hundred kilometers from the city. Siegfried wanted to test the new super rope and the Chinese part of the team. Rose, to my surprise, was to be their interpreter.

A Chinese bus pulled up, spewing black diesel fumes, with their Chinese recruits and Rose. She barely acknowledged my presence, she was all business. Just as they were loading up equipment, Siegfried turned to me and asked if I wanted to come along. From the corner of my eye, I could see Rose was not happy about the prospect.

Sometimes you make decisions based on no logical reasons, or as Chip was to tell me later about his best climbs, "Chick power gets you pumped." In my mind, I was thinking, here is my interpreter -my lover - going off with these men and I can't look like I am chicken. So I made the decision that changed my life. "Yeah, why not, I might write about you guys, and maybe even try it myself." So many adventures start with such foolhardy words.

During the bumpy ride, I began to sense the comradely in the team, they seem to loosen up with me, or was it their anticipation of the day? The women were just as bold if not bolder in expressing their opinions. Most of what they said made no sense to me. Later I would understand. Now they used their hands and even feet to show each other moves they had made on climbs. A lively discussion was going on about screws, cams and nuts; what was better and whether if the new gear was better. Everyone was excited about the super web ropes. The Argentinean woman was actually caressing it during the ride, running it through her fingers over and over, and mumbling under her breath. Marie let me feel it, it had an outer shell made from best grade nylon, mueh biene, and an inside core that had a lively springiness to it, as if alive.

"Don't mind her, " Jason told me afterward, "Maria is one of the best free climbers around, she can crack walnuts between her toes, so she is not too keen on ropes. Doesn't trust them. And you mate, ever gone up and down? On a mountain of course- not a woman?"

I laughed, seeing Rose turn pink, and told him no. Jason began to regale me with stories in his Aussie tinted English and then he confided in me. "You know, your guide doesn't understand one tenth of what we say. She is nice, but we need a pro to help us with the Chinese crew." Then he surprised me with his next question, " Is she good in the sack? Did you see the clouds and the rain?"

My mouth dropped open. It was my first of many surprises; climbers were good at reading body language. They had to be.

"The Chinese Shielas used to be the world's experts in love making, mate." He continued, smiling. "Every man took a concubine when his wife fell pregnant, and if he was rich, he kept a dozen or so. Then communism came along and the missionaries and out with the manuals. If you ever see one of their sexual manuals from before, they are better than the Kama Sutra."

Jason was warming up to his subject. "Ever see the ladies who sit around the roads with the carton boxes? They Chinese guys go to have a special massage, behind the box, to relieve the tension in their Jade rod. The Japs Gents do the same thing, during coffee breaks, they put their Henry through a hole and a Mama san washes it clean."

"Now you take Maria, South American women are ice then fire. She is descendant from Italian immigrants. A great Tango dancer and to see her move on the rock is like watching a song being sung. Her body is perfect, tight, the muscle to weight is perfect. She can kill you with a stare, but if she wants you, watch out. She is like butter, first frozen hard, but heat her up and she melts in your arms." He gave me a wink. He was right- about the climbing. I watched her that afternoon, her hair undone, almost naked in her tight white sports bra and pants, as she attacked the boulders. She was pure grace and agility. Her body flowed up the stone.

"We are trying to form a team," Sigfriend told me as the westerners out of the bus after entering an astonishing place of giant stalagmites, "The Chinese authorities won't let us climb unless we have a token group of Chinese climbers. We need the best one where we are going. These are kindergarten climbers. I would love to go with some Nepalese Sherpas, but the Chinese would loose face if we did that." He added," we also have to get the right lucky number of people"

"What Sig means." Jason explained, "is the Chinese have this belief in lucky numbers. The first Emperor divided the whole population into groups of five people and you were elevated or punished base on how those five people performed. They will even pay extra for a lucky telephone number. "

Jason drew numbers in the sand of some lucky Chinese numbers and what they mean:

5: me, myself
6: easy and smooth
7: together
8: sudden fortune, prosperity
9: long in time

I watched the western climbers jump up and down with joy at the sight of the stone columns. Like kids in a candy shop. Chip even ran up to one and started climbing, showboating, hanging on to the stone walls with one hand like a modern Tarzan. The doctor followed him, imping Chip's adolescent antics. Chip was "flashing" the climbs, jumping onto each bolder and going for it without studying it. After awhile he got tired and came crashing back to earth. Still pumped. His girl wanted to do some top roping as did the Chinese who had been standing or squatting around, smoking and discussing the crazy 'gualong ' antics.

Chip belayed the rope for his girl friend. She was a starter, not that it mattered. She was beautiful with her red hair flying in the breeze. I could see the Chinese men jostling to get a look at her crotch as she spread it going up. My own upbringing, my Southern gentile man morality, was soon over come by my fascination at her ability. It was obvious the women were better than the men at climbing.

"Grace and endurance, that is what climbing is about, not muscle power, though you need that too at times." Chip added for my benefit. When Janice belayed him I felt too shy to talk to her. She was shouting pointers to him, spotting the good tracks up the rock. She gave me a hooded appraisal, and then dismissed me as a non-climber. Janice gave me a look as if I was an insect who didn't count.

Rose was giving me the cold shoulder too, or rather; she was doing her best to translate what Sigfried was telling the Chinese climbers. My impression was that the guys were out of a silent movie, Key Stone cops. Lilly told me later that they were cops military police drafted to be part of the climb, to keep an eye on the western devils in case they discovered some long hidden Chinese secret.


"We have to solve this Sig," I overheard Manfried say to him in German, "das geht nicht. They are just bumblies." Siegfried was like a solid core of granite, non-flinching, unless drunk, and even then he did not loose control. I could see that the Chinese were amateurs, and when they teased me into trying, I felt I could just as well. Lilly had shown up after Sigfried had made a phone call on his cell, she appeared at the end of the afternoon, consulting with him and then watching the ordeal of the Chinese.

Jason called out to me after one of his free climbs, "Why don't you try it, we are about the same age, so you see, it can't be that hard." He smiled beguilingly. He also told me women sleep with climbers because it turns them on as much as formula one drivers; the death aphrodisiac. I felt left out and it seemed easy enough.

My first climb was exhilarating. Chick power and male competitiveness drove me up the wall. Adrenaline had kicked in clambering up; each inch of rock was engrained on my brain, it was like grabbing rough grain sandpaper. They were shouting encouraging words that kept me pumped. I hardly heard them; my world had compressed down to finding a crevice to grab, to pushing up my trembling legs. Suddenly I felt a strange oneness with the rock, my movements started to flow as each hold magically appeared under my hands and feet. An unbearable happiness came over me, diffusing itself into my body; I felt what the Orientals call Chi, my internal breath filled my body. But as I reached the top of the rope and looked down I tasted the first gun metal taste of fear. My body began to shake and water gushed from every pore of my body.

"Just let go, Mate," Jason called up to me, "I have you." There are several ingrained fears I have always nurtured. The fear of heights, the fear of falling and the fear of women. At was at the crux of all of them that day in Stone Forest, and I had to master them, or not go on living as a man.

Rose looked at me differently when I got down -- if anything she was even colder to me ­ as I collapsed on the ground, legs trembling. I felt like I would pass out, at the same time I felt like I was high on some new drug. Maria gave me a shy smile and even Janice patted my back. The guys told me I had to buy them drinks, it was the tradition.

Back at Meili Bar

Lilly was waiting. Rose's boss the head translator. A heated argument ensued between them. I found out later that Sig had called the authorities on the cell phone. He also called Zacheria, who pulled some strings. The Chinese climbers disappeared, not to be seen until much later.

I was so high, that I didn't notice much of what was going on. On the bus, they climbers had bust out some stashed German beer and had started celebrating. Maria came over and taped up my bleeding hands. My credit card paid for the first round of hard liquor at the bar. Despite my alcoholic stupor, I had the feeling they accepted me. I wonder if this was how it had been with the Flying Tigers, after their first combat mission December 25, 1942 when they had shot down the Japanese attackers over Kunming? I felt like I was the greatest climber in the world, ready to tackle anything and anyone.

"Gary, I want to show you a chart of the climbing world," Siegfried took out a pen and drew a triangle. "On the pinnacle, the very top, are a handful of the best climbers, the real pros who have done thousands of climbs and who tackle the really hard mountains. The people in this room all belong to that group." To my question as to where I belonged he answered, "you are not even on the triangle. Or maybe at the bottom looking up." This deflated my ego; I had already felt like I was one of them, and in a way I was.

Sigfried saw my disappointment and added, "Most people never even try. No guts -- no glory."

As the night wore on I explained to the others my book project, how I was writing about the history of the Flying Tigers, about this guy from Waterproof Louisiana who had almost single handily changed the war. He was up there with General Dolittle and his raid against Tokyo, a leader and a flyer. Somehow the climbers could identify with that, I could see it on their faces. Even Lilly, who had chased away Rose, looked at me with appraising eyes; she was one of the most beautiful Chinese women I had seen so far, so I did my best to impress her. Chick power, as Chip would say.

"Why don't you write about us?" Sigfried asked.

"Sure, but what are you doing that is so important? I mean, there must be thousands of people who have climbed Stone Forest." All their eyes seem to go to Sig, who cocked his head to the side in thought and then told me the truth.

"We didn't come to China for kindergarten climbing, we are here to attempt the most difficult mountain, the unclimbed of Kagebo." A silence fell on the room, as if he had pronounced a secret Masonic word. Actually, he explained to me, there are many unclimbed mountains around, but they are easy, too easy for professionals. Or too little. All climbers want to have a Mecca to worship. Everest had been that for years, now it was a cakewalk, with blind and the old climbing it every year. Even the young doctor Blake had done it several times to do testing on physiology of climbing. Kagebo, the "perfect mountain" had a reputation amongst climbers, a bad one at that. A killer.

No human had ever stood on the top of Kagebo. It was the ultimate challenge.

"Actually, we need someone like you." He liked the look of surprise I gave him. "No, you will not come with us, but I want someone to write about it. The Texas millionaire, the guy bankrolling the operation evidently had the TV rights and Internet broadcast sewn up, but Sig wanted someone needed to record the inside story, had he been planning this all along, and I was the hapless sap who wandered into the trap. The right guy at the right time. Lilly nodded her approval, something more important, I was to find out later.

Everyone started talking about the Chinese climbers who had been inflicted on them. No way were they going to go with saps like them. They had heard about the famous Black Orchid, a Chinese climber who free climbed the Himalayas, the best climber in the world. But no one had ever seen this climber, like Yetee, a legend in the climbing world, but who had never climbed in the west. A few arm wrestling contests started amongst them, and the winner had to drink vodka straight if they won. I lost right away, but still felt like a winner.

The rest was a haze. I think I got back to my room later with some help. In the morning, I found myself sleeping along side butter colored body, her arm and breast lying on my chest. Under he thick black hair, she snored lightly, her face was flushed and when I brushed back her hair I saw it wasn't Rose. My hangover made me think I was dreaming. She looked like Lilly, the head translator. Or her sister.

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