Near the Top of the World, A Friend Who Has My Face
I remember hearing that everyone has an identical twin somewhere in the world. I met mine on Mt. Everest. We had been climbing in Tibet on the north face of the world's highest mountain for 57 days. Winds of 80 to 100 m.p.h. had blasted us and ripped our tents off the mountain for 15 days. We had lost precious equipment, food, and fuel, and it was dangerous to keep pushing against the mountain. Climbers were coming down the north ridge and collapsing in their tents, unable to untie their own boot laces. We had given our best efforts to climb the mountain, but the weather had been uncooperative and it was time to go home.
We had spent our last day in base camp packing boxes of supplies to transport to the United States. When we quit for dinner, I got my plate and sat down on a box next to a trekker who had stopped by for a meal. We had grown used to hikers visiting our camp hoping to get a free meal or a place to sleep, so I didn't pay much attention to the fellow sitting on the other end of the box. Besides, I was tired and thinking about going home to my family.
"Wow, you guys could be brothers," another climber said. I turned to my right and stared in disbelief. The resemblance was more than that. My own brothers don't look as much like me as did the man who introduced himself as Christfried Hartmann. It was as if we were both looking into a mirror at the same time, and we burst into laughter.
Christfried was from what was then East Germany. He was on vacation from his landscaping business and had come to the Everest base camp hoping to walk up the lower slopes of the mountain.
His English was good, and we talked late into the night. The tiredness I'd felt before dinner was gone, replaced by the excitement of such a unique experience. We exchanged stories about our lives, our homes, our jobs.
The next day my teammates and I finished loading our equipment onto the Chinese army trucks. After using that spot as our base camp for two months, it was more like moving than just packing up camp.
With the trucks loaded, it was time to go. Christfried and I exchanged addresses and promised to keep in touch. I shook his hand, wishing I could have another day or two to talk with him.
Near the end of my time at Everest, I felt the need, as travelers have throughout time, to take home a remembrance of my experience. Since, fortunately, there are no souvenir shops at Everest, I settled for a handful of rocks from the mountain stuffed into the pocket of my backpack.
When I returned home, I gave some of the rocks to friends, colleagues, and my daughters. I chose one I especially liked and placed it on the mantle over my fireplace where it served as the centerpiece.
Christfried and I wrote letters to each other during that time. He told of his days at Everest after our expedition left and of his return through China and Russia to East Germany. I told him of my return home and about the high school where I teach.
Then came the excitement that accompanied the destruction of the Berlin Wall. I followed the story closely for two reasons: First, a few years before I had visited Berlin and had seen the Wall. We had walked through Checkpoint Charlie and spent a day in the bleakness that was East Berlin. I have seen the barbed wire and tank traps on the eastern side and the graffiti and viewing platforms on the western side. It was a symbol that needed to disappear.
More important, I followed the story of the Berlin Wall because of Christfried. I wondered each day how his life was being affected and what the end result of all the political and economical turmoil would be. I wondered if things would be better when the dust settled.
A few weeks later, I received a package in the mail. Christfried had gone to Berlin with a hammer and chipped pieces off the Wall as it was being destroyed. He filled a sack with chunks of the Wall and mailed one to me.
It was five inches in diameter and nearly an inch thick. The flat outer side was covered with red and blue spray paint. When I held it, it felt heavy with history.
I put the piece of the Berlin Wall on the mantle next to my rock from Mt. Everest. The two stones came from areas thousands of miles apart and were moved thousands of miles before they came to sit side by side in my home. Although dissimilar in origin and composition, these two stones are bound together by a story, a chapter in my life, and I can't separate them.
It was strange to look at Christfried and see a face so similar to my own that I had the feeling, for a moment, of what it must be like for others to look at me. We shared the same haircut, the same beard, the same squint into the sun, and I wondered if there were ever times when we shared the same thoughts and emotions.
I won't forget meeting Christfried at Everest. In fact, every time I see the two rocks, I'll think of him and wonder how he's doing. He's a good person and a friend.