Atop

I take a deep breath, steeling myself against the sharp, icy pain that follows it deep into my chest.

The exhale follows, but its warmth doesn't last.

The world around me is a brilliant white, blinding in the undiluted sun burning overhead. The icy landscape is barren and empty of color except for the exposed rock faces that dot the steady slope behind me. It has a sort of surreal, otherworldly beauty. After four days, this eerie, lifeless terrain is a tired sight.

But ahead of me is a precipice—and then only crystal blue sky.

It's silent except for the powerful gusts that charge across this punishing landscape. There is no refuge from its biting assaults that easily strip the meager warmth marshaled beneath my layers of clothing. I shiver and focus my eyes on the narrow ridge looming ahead of me.

I can hear the squelching sound of footsteps in the distance. The others are trailing behind me, but I press forward alone. I want this sight and this memory for myself.

I lift my heavy feet, squinting into the bright sun and continuing ahead. I'm perched miles above the Earth, tens of thousands of steps from where I began. The limitations that bind others to the ground have no hold on me.

As I crest the ridge, I see the world unfurled beneath me.

It's a dizzying sight, to see the massive mountains reduced to foothills far below, crowned by light clouds that move between them, forming their own soft crests and valleys. The horizon curves with shape of the Earth, a deep blue line marking the boundary between earth and sky.

I am here at the end of man's domain, the divide between man and God. This is a wild frontier, shaped only by the massive forces of nature and time, governed by nothing except survival. I have overcome the limits of my body, the fury of nature, and the perceptions of what I could and could not do. I have done what must be done—I have survived.

Another gust rips across the landscape, and I brace myself against its force. But I welcome the chill, the stinging pain that fills me with the exhilaration of life. I laugh suddenly, but the wind carries it away.

The others have reached the summit, and they join me silently, staring at the same magnificent expanse. No one speaks; no one reaches for cameras or video recorders.

Our technology, our words seem inconsequential here, inadequate to capture the majesty of this place.

So we stand and wait, watching as time continues to pass and nature continues to minutely shape this ever-evolving scenery, as it did before men and as it will once we are gone. Our lives are so short.

And standing at the top of the world, I feel so small.