J. Thomas Hughes was a well-respected judge from the state of New York. A former partner at one of Manhattan's premier securities law firms, Hughes had made a name for himself as a dealmaker in some of the biggest securities transactions of his day. His family pedigree was equally impressive. Hughes was born into one of Connecticut's oldest blue-blood families, and attended Phillips Exeter and Yale before choosing the law as his career.
Although he affected an outward air of feigned nonchalance, Hughes was ravenously proud of his accomplishments and eager to prove his mettle at every turn. Ambitious to a fault, Hughes had traded in his high-power law career for the bench not out of any great love for the law, but because of his burning desire for a seat on the United States Supreme Court. Recently elevated to the appellate bench in the Second Circuit, Hughes was well on his way to realizing his dream, and had already begun the delicate jockeying for position so essential to a Presidential nomination.
Hughes had two passions in life, and his family wasn't one of them. Oh, he cared for his wife and children well enough, but his true joys were trans-oceanic sailing and mountaineering. Something about putting his life on the line, pitting his skill and stamina against the forces of nature, made Hughes feel truly alive. That, and it also gave him a sense of accomplishment well beyond anything previously fed to him from a silver spoon. Every June Hughes raced in the Newport Bermuda race, and every August he would put together an expedition to tackle another mountain summit. Denali, Eiger, Everest. Hughes had climbed them all.
The next mountain on his list -- the one he really wanted -- was a peak called K2 in the far-off Himalayas. Not quite as tall as Everest, K2 nonetheless had the reputation as the deadliest mountain in the world. And it had earned it. Over the past century more mountaineers had died on its slopes than on any other mountain in the world. So of course Hughes wanted to climb it.
Brimming with confidence, he outfitted an expedition and headed for Nepal. There he hired two sherpas who would accompany him to the summit. As he headed off towards the summit, the weather was perfect, and they made great time for the first few days. As they neared the summit, though, an early storm blew in.
Hughes and his two sherpas were huddled in a tent 2,000 feet below the summit, pondering their next move. The sherpas wanted to wait out the storm. Hughes would have none of it. He was determined to press on to the summit, wind and weather be damned. Still undecided, the three men bedded down for the night, hoping the weather would improve by morning.
It didn't. As Hughes checked his gear, he noticed the two sherpas kneeling together, chanting in their native tongue. Hughes approached them, asking what they were doing.
"Praying to God for guidance," came the answer in heavily accented English. "We will not climb today. The storm is too great."
Hughes was furious, but there was nothing he could do. The sherpas had made up their mind, and would not go. Undaunted, Hughes re-packed his gear and set off alone for the summit. He made surprisingly good time, and reached the summit just after mid-day, despite the weather.
Things got worse on the way down. The wind and snow picked up so much that Hughes could barely see his hand in front of his face. Forced to grope his way down the side of the mountain, Hughes soon found the light fading as his pace slackened.
Suddenly, he lost his footing, falling into the swirling blackness below. As the wind and snow blew past his face and hair, Hughes cried out to a God he had never known.
"Dear God. Please. If you get me out of this I swear I'll do whatever you want."
Just then the safety line pulled taut, and Hughes stopped falling with a sudden jerk. Looking around, Hughes could see nothing in the storm. Not above or below him, nor to the side. He tried vainly to swing his way to the slope, but there was nothing.
He was dangling in midair, miles above the ground.
After a few minutes in this literal limbo. Hughes heard a voice calling out to him from up the mountain.
"Cut the rope," the voice cried out in clear, precise English.
"What? Are you crazy?" Hughes replied. "I can't cut the rope. I'll fall and die."
"Cut the rope."
"You're nuts. Try pulling me up instead."
"Cut the rope."
Hughes sat silent, furious. After a while he cried out "Hello. Are you still there?"
There was no answer, despite Hughes' continued calls for help. As darkness fell, Hughes struggled to no avail to climb his rope back to solid ground, but the weight of his gear and the thin mountain air made that impossible.
Exhausted, he waited at the bottom of that rope for a miracle that never came.
The sherpas found him the next morning, swinging from the end of the rope, dead. Icicles hung from his brows and nose, which had turned blue from the cold.
He was four feet above the ledge below.