It is strictly through mutual friends that I know Evan, a surgeon, but I was nevertheless stung yesterday when he failed to recognize me, having dined with him in a party of six on no less than three previous occasions, the most recent being just a few weeks ago at Weber’s Inn. Indeed, his obliviousness confirmed that I’m as inconsequential as I sometimes think. We were against a rack of sports jackets in Van Boven, and by the time he was finally able to recall me the sale prices had been slashed another ten percent. My incipient embarrassment suggested that I might need to excuse myself and slink back to my car in the Maynard Street garage. But it turned out there was good reason the awareness my existence had been utterly extirpated from his mind. Since our last meeting, Evan had experienced a momentous adventure.
Evan is a handsome guy with a nice head of graying hair, and I’d say he’s six feet tall and 180 pounds. I joked that one of the paisley jackets on the rack was perfect for him, and he admitted that in the 1960s it would have been. At first we chit-chatted like a couple of poor swimmers treading water and hoping not to see a large wave. I mentioned my upcoming trip to Costa Rica and asked about his next vacation. Evan and Jill are world travelers. I’ve bumped into Jill, either as she attended parties solo when Evan was otherwise occupied, or in the supermarket, as happened last fall. She once asked me whether Susan and I might have any interest in being their travel companions. From our very first meeting with them, I knew their preferred Caribbean destination is Turks and Caicos. It was from our mutual friends that I learned they had climbed Kilimanjaro. Jill asked whether Susan and I like Africa? How about Asia? Their experiences in Bali have been fascinating. The truth is that I sandbagged her by disclaiming any interest in Africa or Asia. My guess is that traveling with them wouldn’t be my cup of tea. I like to lead expeditions and wouldn’t enjoy being treated as a subordinate. That first time we had joined our mutual friends for dinner, which was at a restaurant called the Earle, Evan kept the five of us waiting nearly an hour. He was working out. We drank a lot of wine and listened to our stomachs gurgle. When Evan did arrive, he sat across from me and talked about his specialty in reconstructive surgery and about his climbing trip to Ecuador. He and Jill complained about the high cost of chandeliers for the million-dollar house they were building. He never asked a damn thing about Susan or me. The next morning, our mutual friends phoned to apologize for Evan’s behavior.
Now that he appeared to recognize me and deigned me worth speaking to, he said, “I just got back from Argentina.” Sure, I remembered from our recent dinner. Wasn’t there a family health issue that might have prevented his traveling? “My mother had broken her hip.”
Then I remembered the big January news from Argentina, where on the tallest peak in all of the Americas, some Italian climbers had met with disaster. Evan informed me that his party of seven was on the very same mountain, Aconcagua, which reaches 22,841 feet. On January 7, four Italians and their Argentine guide summitted the peak and started down when a storm caught them—”As will happen on the mountain,” Evan said—and they became lost, then were caught in an avalanche that killed one woman outright. The others spent the night exposed at thirteen below zero in eighty-mile-per-hour winds.
“Maybe it’s the physician in me, but I just can’t stand it knowing that people are dying so close by. I never was able to go to sleep that night in my tent.” A huge rescue party—sixty people according to Evan, eighty according to the AP—was organized to bring the climbers down. Bivouacked in Condor’s Nest camp at 17,800 feet, with just one other camp between themselves and the summit, Evan saw the victims being carried out the next day.
The guide survived overnight but perished the next day. Another climber was barely alive when carried down on a stretcher, while two more were severely frostbitten and badly bruised. Evan came to the realization that he hadn’t gone on his vacation in order to die. As one member of his own party was experiencing heart symptoms, Evan volunteered to lead him off the mountain. He told their guide not to expect him back.
And now he stood in a men’s shop, looking for bargains. We chit-chatted some more, and he asked where we would be going in Costa Rica. I said it would be the Pacific beaches in the northwest of the country. He warned me about ocean swimming there. Andean adventures and misadventures notwithstanding, the closest he’s ever come to dying was in a rip-tide on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica.
I have to say that in every respect I like my chances.