I stepped around a sharp bend in the trail, straight into a pair of yak horns.
I leaped to the side. The wrong side. Pebbles shot out from beneath my hiking boots, falling a thousand feet into the gorge where the Imja River ran swollen and milky turquoise. Yak after yak passed by as I held my breath and struggled to balance on the lip of the precarious slope.
As soon as there was a break in the yak train, I dashed across the trail to the uphill side where I had solid footing and a nice, strong pine tree to hold on to as I waited for the rest of the yaks to pass.
The near miss was my fault. I shouldn’t have been listening to music with both earbuds in. Especially right now, at the start of the Everest climbing season when the trail was busy with dozens of expeditions hauling two months’ worth of supplies up the sixty miles between the Lukla airstrip and Everest Base Camp.
I popped my earbuds out, now hearing the melody of the yaks’ neck bells and the clop of their hooves on the rocky trail.
“Namaste,” I said to herders spaced out among the animals.
The near miss hadn’t been only because of the earbuds. My mind had been somewhere else entirely: across the Indian and Pacific oceans to Seattle, where my friend Luke lived. That’s because just ahead on the trail was the outcropping where I always recorded a video to post on the Circumference app for him.
The problem was, Luke hadn’t posted on Circumference for seven days. I’d posted two Circ videos during that time. To post a third was questionable. Desperate.
In truth, I was desperate. This Everest season would mark two years since we’d last seen each other. The only thing connecting us now were the Circ videos flagged with our secret code, #YCCM—You Can’t Catch Me.
The game had been simple at first: when one of us would summit a mountain, we’d turn the geotag off, take a three- hundred-and-sixty degree video panorama, and flag it with #YCCM. The other person had to use the surrounding peaks to guess the location. But then we started posting more often and had to get creative with our high points, like the one Luke posted from the bunk bed in his dorm room freshman year. Or the one I took while standing atop a sand castle I’d built in Thailand.
We posted so often now that it was practically daily unless one of us was on a trip where we didn’t have wifi, so seven days of silence was significant. My consolation was that it wasn’t just our #YCCM Circs that had stopped; he hadn’t posted anything at all in that time. He could have lost his phone. Or he could be on a climbing trip in the North Cascades or something. After all, it was spring break at his college, University of Washington. I’d looked that up on day three.
Once the yaks were clear, I got back on the trail, and it took me no time at all to reach the outcropping. I ditched my heavy backpack and climbed the short vertical stretch of granite.
Below were the stone houses of Tengboche, the Sherpa village where Luke had grown up. This outcropping was significant to Luke and me because we had spent a lot of time hiding out here as kids, poring over Dad’s Complete Guide to the World’s 19,000-Foot Peaks. Desperate or not, I decided to go ahead with the Circ.
Standing in the center of the outcropping, I faced my phone outward and pivoted in a slow circle, videoing a glimpse of the river to the east and the rhododendron forest to the south. Continuing west, I filmed the giant Himalaya Mountains standing guard over Tengboche, and then finished the Circ by panning north to the distant wall of snowy white snaggleteeth where Mount Everest was hidden. As soon as I reached a full three-hundred-and-sixty degrees, the Circumference app chirped and snapped closed.
What do you want to say? the screen prompted. I bit my thumbnail.
Where are you?
Why have you not posted? I miss your Circs.
I miss you.
I closed my eyes and hugged the phone to my chest.
I’d known all along we wouldn’t keep our Circ game going forever, but I wasn’t ready for it to be over. Now that I was officially not going back to the U.S. for college, it was unlikely he and I would ever cross paths again in real life. To lose Circ would be to lose him altogether.
I stared down at my phone. What do you want to say?
If we’re going to stop playing, please can you give me a sign so I can close my account and stop living for your Circs?
Instead, I typed in #YCCM and nothing else, as always. The Circ would release as soon as my phone connected with the wifi at the store in Tengboche, where Dad was probably waiting for me by now.
I down-climbed the outcropping and continued up the trail. Tonight we were staying with Luke’s mom, Mingma, so at least I’d be able to make sure his silence wasn’t because he’d been in an accident or something.
Soon I was on the final rise before the village. With each step higher, the mountains ahead grew taller, and the panorama widened. Unlike the view from the treed outcropping, this was a fully unobstructed view, and it never failed to fill me with an overwhelming sense of possibility. The extreme altitude, remoteness, and inaccessibility of the Himalayas meant there was still so much unexplored terrain here. And now, I could be among those doing the exploring.
This was the start of a new chapter in my life. A chapter in which I wouldn’t have to say good-bye to Dad and where I could work toward my dream of climbing the tallest five mountains in each of the world’s mountain ranges with peaks higher than 19,000 feet. The Top Five project. It had been done only eight times before, and never by a woman, and never without the use of supplemental oxygen, as I wanted to.
At the store, I spotted Dad through the window, rubbing his two-week, graying trail beard as he paid for some snacks for tomorrow. While I waited for him to finish, I retied the orange bandana I used as a headband and wiped my dusty, sweaty face with the bottom of my fleece vest.
Once outside, Dad handed me a recent but already dog- eared issue of Vertical View magazine. “Apparently our Nanga Parbat climb made the Ascents Report section.”
“Wow.” I flipped to the back of the magazine as we walked through the village and there it was: “Winslowe and Winslowe: Father-Daughter Team Tackles Fabled Gray Spider Route on Nanga Parbat, Pakistan.”
It was a very short write-up, but it included a thumbnail picture of me at the bottom. A several-years-old picture in which my short hair and wind-burned cheeks made me look like a teenage boy with acne. My face heated but, regardless of the terrible picture, the article was a good thing because it mentioned Winslowe Expeditions, and that kind of publicity always helped business. Mentions like this were also extremely valuable in my first—and most improbable—hurdle of climbing the Top Five project: becoming a sponsored athlete with an outdoor equipment company. Because without a sponsorship, there would be no way to fund the climbs.
At the monastery, we turned uphill, weaving through terraced pastures and teahouses with brightly colored metal roofs toward Mingma’s house. Smoke curled up from her chimney and a stray black dog I didn’t recognize basked in the sun on her doorstep. As we neared, it sat up and barked.
Mingma’s head popped outside and, seeing us, she ran out the door and snapped me into a hug. At five-eight, I towered over her, but she was strong, and her grip was tight. When she finally released me, she said hello to Dad and then led me inside to the mouthwatering smells of dal bhat and freshly baked chapati bread.
I could speak some Sherpa, and I understood a lot more than I could speak, but when someone was talking a million miles an hour like Mingma, I was a lost cause. Nevertheless, I grinned back at her, nodding along like I could understand perfectly. I was just so happy to be there with her—especially after her thyroid scare this winter, which was the reason she would not be Winslowe Expeditions’s head cook at Everest Base Camp this season.
Mingma motioned for Dad and me to take off our packs and sit down on the floor for lunch at the knee-height table in the middle of her one-room house. She yelled out the door, presumably for Luke’s little brother, Pasang. I glanced around as I sipped water from my bottle. Everything was the same, with the exception of some more trinkets added to the small Buddhist shrine in the loft and a few pictures tacked to the wall, many of which lined up with Luke’s #YCCM Circs. One was of Luke and a large group of friends in front of the Space Needle. Next to him was a girl who looked a lot like ^Olivia200x^, the cute, curly-haired blonde who followed him on Circ and who I’d often wondered if he was dating.
I squinted. It was definitely her, and worse, her arm was around him.
My heart sank. Was that why he stopped Circing?
Pasang slipped into the house. Even though he was a preteen now, he hovered shyly next to the stove like a little kid. I gave him a wave, and only then did a smile break through.
Our lunch conversation was partly in English, partly in Sherpa. Sherpenglish. As Dad and I ate Mingma’s divine dal bhat, she told us all about Luke: how he would be guiding a second summer on Mount Rainier and how he still had his job at the University of Washington outdoor recreation center. “He’s been sending money home to help with repairs,” she said, pointing up at the ceiling beams, which still had cracks from the earthquake.
Pasang, who was sitting next to me, waited patiently for a break in the conversation. “Luke’s—”
Mingma talked right over the top of him, and he shrunk back. She was once again going too fast for me to fully understand, but the message was clear: she was overflowing with pride for Luke’s accomplishments at college. He had changed his major from atmospheric science to biology. Which was better for getting into medical school.
Medical school? Wow. Pasang tugged at my sleeve. “What?” I whispered.
He spoke too quietly to hear beneath Mingma’s continued raving. I shot Pasang a confused look while still trying to pay attention to Mingma so I could figure out Luke’s relationship status and if he had indeed gone on a spring break trip in the Cascades.
Pasang was so excited now that he could barely keep seated.
“Luke’s here!” he repeated in a voice that, for him, was as loud as a shout. He pointed over his shoulder.
My blood went still. Luke, as in my Luke? Mingma had just been telling us all about his spring at UW. How could he be here?
“Chomolungma,” Pasang said, using the Sherpa name for Mount Everest.
My phone whistled with a notification for a new #YCCM Circ.
In slow motion, I pulled my phone closer and hit play. The Circ was nearly the same panorama of the mountains and Tengboche that I’d just posted, only a lot closer in. Like from inside the village. My pulse sped up. His Circ swept down to the ground and past a black dog watching the camera intently, and then slowly across an open doorway where a girl with long, coppery brown hair sat at the floor table with…Pasang, Dad, and Mingma.
“What in the—”
Urgently, Pasang grabbed my shoulder and turned me toward the door.
The floor dropped out from under me.
Because right there, leaning against the doorframe, was Luke. Yes, my Luke, right there in flesh and blood and a purple University of Washington ball cap.