It's not easy getting your friend to open up about his Mount Everest experience -- an experience fraught with trauma and night sweats.
"I literally felt like I was going to die," Andy said. "But it's my own fault. I was too cocky going in. I thought I was in okay shape, but it's a mental game, you know.
"I didn't have any major problems until we hit camp three. But then -- " Andy paused, a faraway look in his eyes. It was then that I noticed a copy of "Into Thin Air," the Everest survivor's account, tucked under his arm.
"We're talking 24,000 feet!" I chimed in.
"Darn tootin' " he said, breaking out of his reverie. "And that's when everything began to fall apart."
I hung on Andy's every word as he re-traced his route for me. The leaden feet, the palpitating heart, the ice-lined lungs. "No matter how hard I breathed," he said, shaking his head, "I simply couldn't get any air. The crazy thing is -- I could see the top," he said. "And that's the moment disaster struck."
We were silent for a minute. Finally I spoke up: "The escalator broke, right?"
"Dupont Circle, right?"
When Henry David Thoreau said most men lead lives of quiet desperation, he was surely talking about Washington. And when James Thurber gave us Walter Mitty, he created a man who found the antidote to desperation -- flights of fantasy, preferably booked first-class. And so Andy and I have joined the ranks of the Walter Mittys in town -- desk jockeys by day, Errol Flynn and Amelia Earhart in our daydreams. But far from being ashamed of this syndrome, I for one, am proud of our achievements -- achievements that have taken us to Everest's South Col, to the lifeboats on the Titanic and to skydiving safaris high over Antarctica.
Let me first take you to Everest. For some reason, I couldn't get enough of that disaster -- the one in 1996 that ultimately killed 11 climbers. Reading Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air" wasn't enough. I devoured Russian alpinist Anatoli Boukreev's account of the same expedition, "The Climb," followed by Broughton Coburn's "Everest: Mountain Without Mercy." Night after night, I would rush home from work, warm my hands over a boiling tea kettle, snuggle into my sleeping bag that happened to look like a bed, and, with the police sirens serving as hurricane-level winds outside, be transported to the Himalayas and up what the Nepalese refer to as Sagarmatha, or "Mother Goddess of the Universe."
One day when I heard that Everest IMAX filmmaker David Breashears was in town, I bolted over to National Geographic and clucked over his slides of the frozen corpses of the expedition's leaders -- my expedition, my leaders. At this point, I knew I was borderline delusional, and so for a reality check, I sent "Into Thin Air" to a climber friend who works in Tanzania. Big mistake. He sent me back an e-mail cursing me because the book had arrived in the middle of the workday, forcing him to retreat to the supply closet where he remained, riveted, for the next six hours.
That's when I checked in with Andy. The day after I gave him the book, he went into hyper training mode. For the next week and a half, he would get up in the morning, kiss his wife and children good-bye, hike 20 minutes through Maryland's suburban jungle and board the Metro. There, for the next 45 minutes, he would rise to man's ultimate challenge: He would climb Mount Everest. The announcements over the Red Line's intercom became the crackling two-way radios from Andy's camp down to Everest's base camp. Having already climbed Everest three times, I, the seasoned pro, carefully monitored Andy's debut climb over the phone or at lunch. "So, where are you, bro?" I would ask. Did you survive the Khumbu Icefall? "Piece of cake," he would say, "but I tripped over what I thought was an oxygen tank and it turned out to be the frozen arm of a corpse." It remained unspoken, of course, that Andy tripped over his own briefcase.
Slowly but surely I would follow his progress up the mountain until the fateful day that he got off of the Metro at Dupont Circle, and, with adrenaline pumping from a week's worth of climbing, stared up at the steep Mother Goddess Escalator of the Universe. There, he shifted the weight of his gym bag-cum-backpack and said, "I can do this." And that's when, with the escalator in motion, he hopped onto the left-hand "experts only" passing lane and began his ascent. An ascent that was rudely aborted when the escalator suddenly lurched to a halt and Andy, halfway up and wheezing in pain, could no longer make his way to the top.
It wasn't long after surviving Everest that we needed another adventure to rock the placid wonk-infested waters of Washington. That's when the Titanic steamed into port.
We're not talking about the movie -- that's for amateurs. We're talking about the authentic memoir of a Titanic survivor. It was written by John B. Thayer, the great-uncle of a co-worker of mine. I called Andy. "Mayday! Mayday! I've got one for you."
And so we embarked on an adventure as seen through the eyes of young John Thayer when he set sail from Southampton with his parents. Although Thayer's mother survived in a lifeboat, his father went down with the ship, and John only managed to escape by executing a well-timed dive off the ship's sinking stern. Once again, by day Andy would ride in the Metro, packed like a sardine with the rush-hour commuters, feeling the claustrophobia of his panicked fellow passengers as they jockeyed for places on the lifeboats. And by night I would hide under my flannels, wondering whether the "women and children" rule for the lifeboats was sexist, but deciding it was purely practical given that our voluminous skirts and corsets would have sent us straight to the bottom of the brine.
Over lunch, Andy and I would agonize with John Thayer as he clung to the bottom of an overturned lifeboat and heard the wailing of the 1,500 surviving passengers bobbing in the waters. Why did not the half-filled lifeboats turn back to rescue their fellow passengers -- as Andy and I surely would have. "How could any human being fail to heed those cries?" Thayer asks, then answers, "They were afraid the boats would be swamped by people in the water." These are the deep philosophical and ethical dilemmas that occupy the Walter Mitty mind even as the Walter Mitty body fields phone calls, attends meetings and writes memos.
Surviving the Titanic took its toll so I thought I would give things a rest for a while. But barely a week later, how could I resist the siren song of a four-way parachute dive over the South Pole? I called Andy.
Since he hadn't read about this story I unraveled the tale: four daredevil sky divers playing ring-around-the-rosy in a free fall at 11,000 feet.
"What happened?" he shrieked.
"Splat," I said.
"What??!! But there were four of them. And one survived to tell the tale. So what happened to the other two?"
I looked him dead in the eye. "Splat. Splat."
Andy leaned his head back in quiet meditation. Then he snapped back, opened his eyes and was all business. "Give me that story," he demanded. "I've got an airplane to catch." He strode out the door, chin held high, and headed straight for the Metro.