From the Buddhist temple high on a hill above Kathmandu, Eric Poppleton surveys the Himalayan foothills. In the valley below is the city where his Nepal adventure began. Now, parts of it are in ruin. As are the lives of people who mattered most to him.
Eric at this time was preparing himself for the cremation of his best friend. His only conviction was knowing that he was doing the right thing.
Eric’s love of the mountains started when he met Tom in the late 1990s. Eric had walked into Adventure 16, an outdoor and travel outfitter in California, hoping to land a job conducting photographic workshops. “Oh, you should meet my husband,” said the woman who greeted him. “He does a lot of photography.” Tom Taplin was a larger-than-life guy with a warm personality and ebullient smile. When he stuck out his hand, a friendship was born. “We’ve been friends ever since we shook hands – 17 years ago,” Eric recalled.
Just a few days earlier, he and Tom stood at the base camp of Mount Everest together, their eyes on nature’s majesty. The longtime friends and filmmakers laughed and talked about the documentary they were producing on the history and culture of the small tent city from where brave souls scale the treacherous mountain.
Eric has never seen a cremation before. He cannot even imagine what it is going to feel like to watch the physical remains of his friend burn. But he knew a cremation was the only way he could reunite Tom with his wife, Cory Freyer, in Santa Monica, California. He plans to carry the ashes back himself. After the prayers, Eric helps carry Tom’s body to the pyre, stacked high with thick logs. He touches his friend one last time.
“This way,” he says, “I can be close forever.” Eric, Tom, and John arrived in Nepal in April in hopes filming a documentary that would help people understand Mount Everest’s culture and terrain. Once in the Everest base camp the mountaineers took pictures that seem to capture every star in the galaxy. Once the devastating earthquake and avalanche on the top of Mount Everest struck Tom was swept away and his friends were dumbfounded. Eric knew he had to get his friend…and that’s what he did.
“I don’t know if I believe in an afterlife, but it sure seems like Tom is spreading himself out,” he says, watching the smoke from the pyre waft out over the valley, mingling with the mist, becoming one.