Episode 0    ♦  SIGNS









April 28, 2011, Annapurna section, Himalayas

She’d lost the rosary, too, quite a while ago. It was lying six hundred feet above her, somewhere in the snow next to the trail. But since then she’d also lost the trail. In fact, she’d lost just about everything: her gloves, her team, her crampons, her water and even the walkie-talkie. Everything except her life and her faith. The question was what she would lose next.

Above her was the peak of Annapurna, glowing in the light of the afternoon sun. So close that it felt as if she could touch it. Yet they had not made it to the apex. Tracy, Laura, Betty and Susan were dead. They had fallen through a snow bridge over a crevasse and within a split second had disappeared from the face of the earth. Annapurna had simply swallowed them, leaving her desperately alone.

Three weeks earlier, Anna had joined a group of female mountain climbers from the United States and Canada, and together they had started their ascent of Annapurna Himal, the tenth highest mountain in the world. Anna was an experienced climber – she was certainly no neophyte of climbing – and the Annapurna section was one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of Nepal. Two days ago, she and four other women from Camp V had set out to climb to the summit. It was early in the morning and the weather was clear. Everything seemed to be going fine, despite the pain and the struggle for each and every step. They had been confident, almost euphorically convinced that they would reach the summit by midday – then they crossed the snow bridge.

When her companions fell into the crevasse, Anna’s backpack and the crampons fell with them. Only a second earlier, she had pulled the backpack off her shoulders because she needed a break. So she’d been lucky – if you didn’t count the fact that she had lost her gloves as she tried in vain to find her companions in the crevasse.

Without her gloves, she had a serious problem: the bitter cold. Even in the afternoon, the maximum temperature at an altitude of twenty-five thousand feet was minus twenty degrees Fahrenheit. The night would bring temperatures as low as minus forty degrees. Without gloves, Anna’s body temperature was dropping quickly. Her core temperature was already only ninety-one degrees Fahrenheit. She began to shiver uncontrollably, a natural response as her body tried to create additional heat. However, there was another problem: the thin air. Without knowing where she was and where she was going, Anna staggered downhill towards where she believed Camp V must be. Anna was dead on her feet, her movements were clumsy and she was staggering – the first symptoms of altitude sickness. All she wanted was sleep. But the last remnants of reason in her brain reminded her that this would be the end. She had to move on. She had to get downhill, to the camp. At this point, there were only two things left that were driving Anna: a survival instinct as old as time and her faith.

She hadn’t told her climbing companions that she was a Catholic nun. She hadn’t told them her real reason for coming to Annapurna, either. She hadn’t told them anything, neither about her assignment, nor about her religious order. As far as the other women were concerned, she had simply been a dependable country bumpkin with plenty of mountain experience, who didn’t have much to contribute when it came to the nightly exchange of stories about men and parties. Anna had put her time to better use by enjoying the magnificent landscape, the friendly people and the monks in saffron robes who explained Buddha’s teachings to her.

Anna stopped for a moment, tried to catch her breath and mumbled a prayer. The Lord would help her. The Virgin Mary would comfort her.

After another three hundred feet, her core temperature had dropped to a mere eighty-four degrees Fahrenheit. The Nazi doctors in Dachau who experimented with ice water tanks had come to the conclusion that a human being could not survive with a core temperature of less than eighty-four degrees. On the other hand, there had been cases where children were found in the snow who had survived with a body temperature of fifty-seven degrees. However, altitude had its own laws. Anna began to cough up bloody phlegm. This, too, was a symptom of altitude sickness. After another one hundred and fifty feet, it was not her faith that was leaving her, but her strength. Anna passed out and slumped into the snow, mumbling the same prayers over and over again. She was ready to face the Virgin Mary – then she saw the monks.

The twelve figures were moving uphill, in an orderly line and secured with ropes; they were moving directly towards her. The altitude sickness blurred Anna’s vision, so she didn’t immediately realize that these climbers did not belong to her expedition team. There was something particularly eerie about the fact that they were not wearing the usual garish high-tech protective suits, simply brown habits like those worn by Catholic monks.

When the eerie monks reached her, Anna opened her eyes, one last time. She was surprised that they passed by without noticing that she was there. She wanted to shout something, but given the thin air, her voice failed her. Only the last two monks stopped by her side. One of them bent down and looked at her. Anna could see his face. A friendly and gentle face, even though a smile was absent. The two men examined her briefly and realized that Anna was still alive. After exchanging a few words in Latin, they grabbed Anna under her armpits as she thanked the Virgin Mary for her rescue.

Until, that is, she noticed that the monks were not carrying her downhill – but uphill! At first, Anna thought she was hallucinating. This simply could not be happening – not uphill! But it seemed that it caused the two men in their monks’ garb no great strain to haul the nun, who was half unconscious and half frozen to death, further and further uphill until finally reaching the crevasse into which Anna’s companions had disappeared. Anna recognized the spot instantly. The red safety rope was still dangling over the edge; the two men dragged her to that precise point. The last thing Anna felt was a fierce blow and a piercingly cold wind in her face. Then everything around her transformed into a magnificent blend of blue and white.