Dusk stalked a tent on the North Ridge of Mount Everest. Sited well above the North Col, the small nylon dome shivered like a beaten dog beneath repeated blows from the wind. Two climbers crouched within their sleeping bags within the tent.
The larger one, a blonde man with the hood of his parka thrown back, cursed and smacked the radio in his hand. "Blast!"
The other climber shifted. "Won't it work, Mort?"
Mort ignored the query. "We'll have to go down tomorrow."
The other climber sat up. Short, dark hair poked from beneath the red hood of her parka. "Will we?"
Mort continued to glare at the dead radio. "That's a damn-fool question, Sylvia. Of course, we will."
Sylvia slumped back down. "Who put you in charge?"
Mort ignored her again. He held the radio up and then dropped it. "Why do these things always fail when you need them?"
Rising wind flailed the tent, rattled the nylon. Beneath the tent noise, shifting rocks rattled and clicked.
Sylvia said, "Listen!"
Mort ignored her still. "We paid good money for these radios."
Sylvia hissed, "Listen! Somebody's out there."
Mort looked up. "Don't be silly. Everyone else is down at advanced base camp."
Something scratched the tent's vestibule - once, twice, three times. Sylvia's eyes locked with Mort's. Then she turned to the tent's entrance. She said, "Come in."
The tent's zipper slid down. A broad-shouldered figure in a fur parka pushed into the tent. The figure pulled its legs through the tent opening and at last raised its head.
Sylvia gasped. Mort choked. Both recoiled in shock. The eyes, which met theirs, were luminous, intelligent and not human. They peered out from a face with a high forehead and flattened nose. The jaw was heavy and low. Yellow fangs protruded from between black lips. The fur parka was actually a thick mat of reddish fur.
The figure spoke, "Be assured, I mean you no harm. I know my appearance here must be quite a shock to you, but deteriorating conditions," his eyebrows indicated the tent's quivering walls as the wind moaned hungrily, "forced me to intrude. Please excuse me."
Mort stammered, "You're . . . you're . . . it."
The figure leaned forward, "Excuse me? It?"
Sylvia almost whispered, "The abominable snowman, the yeti . . . it."
The yeti chuckled, "I suppose I am. It, that is."
Mort spoke more firmly. "You speak English?"
"Why not? My people are students of all languages and we have had more than eighty years to learn English. It's a rich and useful tongue, by the by."
Mort glanced at the yeti's conspicuous fangs and long black claws. "Ah, you said that you mean us no harm. There have been problems in the past, attacks."
The yeti looked from Sylvia to Mort. "Our exiles - the rare rogue in our midst, either criminal or untreatably insane - have committed transgressions after suffering banishment from our society. They wander the world and eventually find lonely ends. Regrettably, they have on occasion vented their pain and anger upon humans."
Sylvia thought for a moment and then asked, "You say you live in secret. What about Shipton's find? Those footprints were pretty obvious."
The Yeti chuckled again. "Ah, Eric was a trickster. He was a longtime friend of my people. What wonderful conversations we had! That photo was a jibe, but at us, not you. It caused initial consternation among our elders, as he knew and intended it would, but he understood that nothing conceals truth better than the fog of controversy. That photo and the arguments it spawned have afforded us great protection over the years."
Sylvia asked, "You keep mentioning your society. Are there many of you?"
"Never many, possibly enough."
Mort asked, "Where do you live?'
The yeti looked at him. "We have hidden outposts and we have a city."
Sylvia leaned forward. "Where?"
"Within an unnamed mountain a short distance from here."
Mort snorted. "Bosh! A city of mythical hairy beasts in a cave?"
The yeti replied calmly. "Our city is not so great as Lhasa, but it is more than a village."
Mort scoffed. "What about heat and light? What about food?"
The yeti nodded. "Mine is an ancient race. Your race is very young. There are secrets of which you are unaware, though hints are all about you."
Mort looked at the yeti suspiciously. "What are you talking about?"
The yeti looked directly at him. "Our world had ancient visitors. We knew them and served them. They left us certain gifts when they departed. Among those was a source of power which is virtually eternal. Our fuel is snow."
Mort turned away. "Snow! Bah!"
The yeti continued, "While the secret of this power is not completely beyond our understanding, replication of its generating device is. This has imposed limitations on both the size and scope of our community. We are, of needs, reflective and conservative. Music is greatly loved in our city, as is literature."
Sylvia asked, "What about your children?"
"My race is long-lived, but we have too few children. Each birth is cause for a holiday. I fear, too, that we are over protective of them. We indulge our young overmuch."
Sylvia took a new direction. "Isn't life in these mountains harsh?"
The yeti shook his head. "Not for us. We have had long years to perfect our city. There are minor problems now and then, but our lives are mostly comfortable and we have much leisure time."
Sylvia laughed. "Your city sounds like Shan-gri-la."
The yeti smiled. "Shan-gri-la, if you will. That particular flight of fantasy was greatly enjoyed by my people."
Mort asked, "What do you eat? Snow?"
The yeti glanced at him. "Hardly. With unlimited power, intensive agriculture beneath artificial light is not too great a stretch for us. It requires minimal labor to feed both my people and our guests."
Mort looked up. "Guests?"
The yeti shrugged. "We have a small community of humans in our city."
Mort sneered, "Are they guests, or prisoners?"
Sylvia spoke before the yeti could explain further. "You said that your people have used English for more than eighty years. The great Everest expedition was in 1924." She looked up, right into the yeti's glowing eyes. "Mallory and Irvine!"
The yeti nodded. "Unfortunately, we were too late to help poor Mallory. His body lies where it came to rest after his final fall. Sandy, however, lives with us still."
Mort interrupted, "Lives with you? That would make him more than a hundred years old!"
"One hundred and four, I believe, and in fine health. His injuries were most grave. It took him some years to fully recover. He lost hands and feet to frostbite. Regenerating limbs is one of our medical skills. Yet, even for us, it is a years long and grueling process."
Mort was incredulous. "You say you re-grew his hands and feet?"
"Yes, he's quite whole now and much beloved by us. His courage and endurance inspired our admiration and, I admit, puzzled us greatly. You climbers, all of you, are a mystery to us. Why must you expose yourselves to pain, cold and misery? Why do you seek the highest heights? We understand and join in your reverence for mountain beauty. Mountains are more important than you can possibly imagine. Indeed they are among the engines of life on this world. Your yearning for them indicates the approaching maturity of your race. However, any pass or alp will afford one a tremendous entrance to mountain beauty. One must hold still; one must meditate upon such scenes for months or years before comprehension builds. Each of my people spends years engaged in such communion."
Mort asked, "You spend years looking at the mountains?"
"Yes. I mentioned our outposts. Each is designed as a site where solitary meditation and enlightenment may be pursued without interruption or undue discomfort. There are hundreds of such outposts. You passed several on your march to Chomolungma."
Sylvia spoke slowly. "There are fools who believe they've proved something about themselves, conquered something when they reach a summit. Many climbers, perhaps most, climb for the joy of it. I do. The act of climbing, for me, helps me enter a greater reality, at least for a few hours or days."
The yeti nodded. "You put that very succinctly. I begin to see that there may be something to climbing after all. Still, the unmitigated danger, the appalling risks . . ."
Sylvia looked at him. "Your people travel the heights. Shipton's photos, remember? Do you not encounter dangers?"
"We do travel through high places, often unaccompanied. Such travel is sometimes hazardous." The yeti smiled, extended his claws, and indicated his fur-covered torso. "However, we are better equipped than you humans to face such dangers. Also, we do not seek out the farthest peaks, the greatest difficulties."
Mort looked up. "So why are you here?"
The yeti looked at him. "A fair question"
A blast of wind suddenly flattened the tent. Its resilient poles did not fail and it rebounded to its former shape as the wind moderated.
The yeti continued, "Your race is achieving a masterful knowledge of the world's weather which far exceeds our small expertise. Our climatic knowledge is localized and specialized; however, it is precise. Conditions are deteriorating here. Winds stronger than the gust we just experienced will become continuous. There will be a days long storm beginning about twelve hours from now. You two will be pinned here and killed, unless you move down at dawn. Perhaps even then will be too late. I have come to offer you a safer means of escape."
Sylvia's eyebrows rose. "There is another way down from here?"
"There is. An ancient passage penetrates much of this mountain. It connects several of our outposts. An adit, the highest one of all, allows access to this passage. It is several hundred meters below here.
Sylvia interrupted, "Are there many such passages?"
The yeti smiled. "Yes, many. How do you suppose the Abominable Snowman has remained so elusive over the years?"
Mort asked, "You want us to go down some secret passage with you?"
The yeti nodded. "That and more. I wish to invite you to be guests at our city. We have room and need for more human visitors. It is almost time for my people to join the world openly. You might help with this momentous transition. Do you care to visit Shag-gri-la?"
Sylvia asked, "Visit? Or remain forever?"
The yeti looked directly into her eyes. "Visit, just visit. You will remain with us for as long as you choose."
Mort laughed. "That's rich! You want us to toddle off to your mythical city down an undiscovered secret passage! On Everest! Not on your bloody life!"
The yeti looked down. At last he said, "There's no need to decide now. We must remain in your tent until dawn. I cannot find the adit in the dark."
Mort said, "You'll find it by yourself when you do. We'll take our chances with the fixed ropes down to base camp."
The yeti looked up. "I ask only that you consider my offer. Also, adapted as I am, I cannot survive this night in the open. The wind and cold are too much for me. I must impose upon your hospitality."
Sylvia smiled, "You're welcome here."
"I thank you. I suggest that we huddle together now, share our warmth and sleep if we can. The temperature is dropping very quickly."
The two climbers burrowed into their sleeping bags. The yeti curled as best he could onto a spare foam pad. Mort was on the far side of the tent. Sylvia was in the middle and the yeti was closest to the tent's door and vestibule. The wind's howl rose. The tent snapped and groaned. The chorus of violent sounds precluded further conversation. Cold, restless, ominous hours passed. The wind moderated shortly before dawn and they all slept.
Mort awakened to eerie silence. Groggy, he pawed open the cocoon of his sleeping bag. He said, "Sylvia, it's time to get going. No telling how long this lull will last."
Clear of his bag, Mort peered through dawn gloom. "Sylvia, are you awake?"
He rubbed his eyes and glanced about in puzzlement. The sleeping bag next to him was empty. He was alone in the tent. In growing alarm, he shouted, "Sylvia? Sylvia!"
The only answer was the silence of the wind.