Thursday, September 24, 2015

Everest - Chapter 1


“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Tom said under his breath as they stepped off the rickety little plane in Nepal, where another crashed plane was in disconcerting evidence at the side of the short, steep runway.

“Welcome to Cowboys on Ice.”

Jake grinned but didn’t comment, hoisting his heavy rucksack up onto his back. Tom followed his example and walked with him across the tarmac towards the small and suspiciously new little white airport building which stood out like a sore thumb against the turquoise roofed shanty houses of Lukla, set in rows along the steep walls of the green mountains that surrounded them. Standing on the airstrip was rather like being in the bottom of a green, house-lined bowl.

This dusty little town, set at 2860 metres above sea level was the last stop for the tiny Twin Otter airplanes that flew in daytime only when weather permitted; as the locals famously said ‘we don’t fly through clouds in Nepal; the clouds here have rocks in them’. The only other form of air travel available beyond this point was by helicopter, which with a good pilot and a lot of care could cope with the altitude without blades failing to bite at the thin, low oxygened air and dropping the chopper like a stone onto the valley floor. The air was noticeably thinner than just half an hour away in Kathmandu. After five months spent in and around the high altitudes of Nepal, and months of the last several years spent in the high altitudes of Peru, Tom’s body was relatively used to adjusting but he was aware of being slightly breathless and of the additional weight of his pack as his blood stream registered alarm at the lower percentage of oxygen that each breath pulled into his body. It would take some days to acclimatise, not to the point of not feeling breathless or noticing the low oxygen – that would continue and worsen the higher they got – but for his body to accept and accommodate the low oxygen without the dangerous side effects of pulmonary oedema where your lungs filled up with fluid, or cerebral oedema where your brain swelled up. Better known as mountain sickness, both were potentially lethal and were a certainty for any idiot who didn’t put the proper work into acclimatisation when they went into a high altitude zone. The best approach to acclimatise, and the one he and Jake always planned by, was to always start below 3040 metres and walk up slowly.

They had done what Tom referred to as the Dance of the Seven Visas in Kathmandu; their climbing permit and visas had long since been sorted out, and it didn’t take long to pass through the airport, dodging the locals who were waiting, eager to be hired as porters by tourists. Once clear of the airport, in warmth approaching the high sixties despite being early spring and a dusting of night frost still on the rhododendron leaves on the trail, Tom and Jake walked together up through the narrow streets of Lukla, which were strung on either side with brightly coloured goods from the stalls and shops. Lukla, like most of the villages on the route through the Khumbu region, made its living from tourists and there were no shortage of shops and lodges selling basic western style meals and climbing gear. In one of the streets Jake paused and dug in his pocket for change, and paid several US dollars for postcards and stamps, two steaming cups of Starbucks coffee and a chocolate bar, and they walked on up the steep streets until they reached the low walls by the trail up into the green and brown hills that led to the mountains. Jake dropped his pack on the rocky path there and sat down astride the wall, digging for a pen in his breast pocket. He opened his mouth absently to take the chunk of chocolate Tom passed him, and scrawled rapidly on one of the post cards; Tom, drinking strong coffee which filtered the sugar of the chocolate, could read his familiar writing upside down.

Paul and everyone
We’re fit and well and just out of Kathmandu, had a peaceful couple of weeks rest,

“Mostly shagging, let’s be honest about this.” Tom pointed out with his mouth full.

Tom says mostly shagging, but there was some resting in there too. Heading up into Namche today, we’ll be in touch when we can.
Love to all, T & J

The steep view beyond the wall was lit with early morning sun and sent light through Jake’s fair hair. His scuffed and comfortable, well worn climbing boots were casually braced on the path, and they both wore the loose, casual slacks, t shirts and windproof down jackets they’d long since broken in since October on trails like these. Long, gangly, he looked tanned, fit and relaxed with his elbows on his knees and his sunglasses pushed back on top of his head. Tom pushed another chunk of chocolate into Jake’s mouth and ate the last chunk himself. A couple of Sherpa porters trudged past them with ridiculously large and bulky packs on their backs that dwarfed them and stood out high above their heads, wrapped like enormous parcels in blue plastic sheeting. Neither the size nor the weight appeared to be causing either man much problem. Travel technology from here on consisted solely of yaks and your own two feet.

Jake put the postcard into the pocket of his jacket with the pen and looked up at Tom, taking another mouthful of coffee. They’d walked this route before and they’d been in Nepal for some months, but this was the gateway to something entirely different; something they’d been waiting and preparing for through a full year, and this was not just another early morning start. This was the first leg of the two month expedition, the end of a year of planning, researching and talking, pushing their fitness, training and gathering equipment. They were about to take their first steps on the path to climbing Everest itself, which led out of dusty little Lukla. Like walking through the sodden jungles of Peru, there was almost a kind of lunatic element; you had to be slightly mad to not only want to do this but to actually be excited at the prospect of putting your body through what would inevitably be two months of physical hell and significant danger, and yet Tom knew perfectly well that the excitement was as deeply riven through Jake as it was through him. This was rooted in both their dreams from boyhood, something they’d talked about for hours in the dark together, both the challenge and the magic of the legend. Two hyperactive romanticists.

“Well come on then.” he said acidly to Jake. “Boy’s Own fantasists and masochists this way.”

“Don’t pull that tone on me, there’s no one else listening.” Jake pushed himself up from the wall with his coffee dangling in one hand, and hooked his fingers in Tom’s belt, tugging him over and wrapping an arm around his waist to kiss him. He’d long since lost the well-groomed look he’d kept through the long summer on the ranch in Wyoming. Considerably taller than anyone they'd seen since they reached Nepal, he needed a shave, his fair hair was windblown and shaggy above the collar of his yellow jacket, his face was streaked with the white sunscreen that was a necessity out here if you didn’t want to be sunburned and windblown to the bone, and to Tom he looked edible. Which was a problem in this locality where the Sherpa culture didn’t approve of open demonstrations of affection in public, even between husband and wife. Jake tasted of lip balm and the sun block they were both covered in, of bitter coffee and sweet chocolate and of being freshly shaved with his hair newly dried from the hotel shower in Kathmandu less than two hours ago. It was one of his long, lazily thorough kisses that left your mouth feeling like it had just been strip searched and your breath better stolen than even the thin oxygen could manage, and he did it well. Then he swung his pack up on to his shoulders, clipped the straps at his chest and waist, and slid his fingers through Tom’s, entwining them as he led the way up the narrow, rocky path.

It was a long day’s walk from Lukla to Namche Bazaar. Small, blue, star-like primulas grew in places by the rocky paths that led up into the mountain gorges above Lukla, and the path wound frequently over what had once been glaciers and were now deep river gorges, strung with high and narrow rope bridges which creaked and swayed alarmingly when stepped on. The carved path circled at one point around a giant mani boulder, the size of a building as they approached one rope bridge, the boulder painted white and carved with Om mani padme hom. The mani stones were supposed to be passed on your right, part of the culture that wound its way through these hills, asking for good will and safe passage for travellers walking by. They passed many such ornate walls of carved stones, and strings of brightly coloured flags tied to stones and walls, or strung in lines on the hills, like washing hung out to dry or like English bunting, but with prayers written on the bright flag cloth. Fluttering in the wind, the Sherpas believed that the flags blew the prayers direct to God.

They passed locals on the path carrying enormous loads on their backs to and from Namche, including boys of just twelve or thirteen, all with the familiar white bandage strap that ran around their foreheads and tied down under the base of their packs, bracing the weight. They nodded in return to a smile with the local greeting: Namaste. Houses nestled in the steep drops on either side of the path including the lodges and tea houses that gave tourists a bed and food for the night, and they passed turquoise rushing rivers, the runoff of the glaciers higher up. The occasional yak or zopkyo caravan passed them as they made the last steep climb up the hardest part of the route to Namche, the beasts walking with crates and plastic barrels strapped to their backs, escorted by herders. The final stretch of the path was carved high into the side of a cliff with the valley drop beside them, high enough now that mist hung in the air at their height in the wide valley, and beyond it as they came into the town they passed one of the slightly spooky, white stupa shrines, hung with prayer flags from its peaked tip and with faces painted on the four faces of the white stone, each with blue staring eyes and a nose. Namche Bazaar.

This was the commercial capital of the Khumbu, the big city to the Sherpas who lived in the region. The main streets were paved, with goats tethered in the doorways of the houses. Deeper in the more westernised part of the town were restaurants, hotels and shops, the streets hung with goods dominated by climbing gear. Every item in the town would have been carried in on the back of either a man or a yak, but many of those items would have looked at home on the shelf of any American or British city shop. The contrast of western life against this primitive little mountain town was stark; even at the Khumbu Lodge, the largest and most famous of the Namche hotels, there was only a blanket hung up, acting as the door. Jake glanced at his watch and caught Tom’s eye.

“We are staying here. It’s only two nights and we’re going to get to base camp in good shape. There’s no need for a marathon.”

“This is the Sherpa equivalent of McDonalds.” Tom said shortly. Jake pulled Tom’s pack down from his shoulders and dropped his own, carrying it in front of him as he pushed the blanket aside.

“More like the Ritz. You’ll live.”

Their pre booked room was clean and comfortable, despite containing only two narrow twin beds that were more like wooden shelves with a mattress and sheets on, in a room so small that the two of them and their packs made it too full to walk through. The mushroom coloured bathroom contained a bath as well as the extreme luxury of a flush toilet, probably the last one they would see for some weeks. Downstairs Jake handed the post card in to join the next yak mail bag leaving Namche, and they found a free wooden table in the long, square restaurant and settled aching bodies into the upright chairs. The room smelled of the lemon tea that people were drinking at the other tables, and a Sherpani waitress was explaining the menu in perfect English to a group by the brightly fronted bar. The polished wood floor and the teal coloured leather couches were a strong counter point to the bright colours of the down jackets most of the diners were wearing. It looked not unlike a ski lodge. Someone a table or two away had obviously requested a glass of water and looked surprised when it was served to him boiling hot. Tom politely looked away, swallowing a smile. They’d seen the same thing in Peru; westerners, aware of the hygiene issues in places such as this had always historically asked for their water to be boiled, and even the best hotels now assumed that in the western world, people for some odd reason liked to drink hot water.

The menu was extensive and predominantly familiar. Jake skimmed through it without looking at Tom, smiled at the waitress who came over to them and ordered cheese burgers, fries and glacier melts with coffee for them both. Tom, experienced in what this meant, kept his mouth shut by sheer force of will, and when the woman left, Jake’s ankle brushed his under the table and his leg wrapped around Tom’s in what was not quite an apology but was deeply affectionate.

“You need the calories, shut up.”

“I put on more than a stone over the winter.” Tom pointed out. Largely as a result of Jake insisting; and it hadn’t just been calories either. Used to running, climbing, things that built core strength and lower body strength, Jake had pushed them both to work hard and deliberately on their upper body strength as well over the past few months, particularly during their holiday in Kathmandu, until Tom’s shirts had begun to strain over his shoulders with the muscle he’d built up.

Jake shrugged, unmoved. “We’re going to lose at least twenty pounds, easily while we’re here. All of which will be muscle, not fat. I don’t want you to lose any of it before you absolutely have to. The more you can keep on, the more you’ll have left when you need it.”

“You do realise they’ll be yak burgers, not cheese burgers?”

“We’re going to be living on yak for some time.” Jake said comfortably, lounging back in his chair. “Might as well get used to it.”

The cheese burgers were actually good, even if they were yak, and like all the food in all the tea lodges around here, was heavy on the cheese and carbohydrate needed to maintain energy at this altitude. The glacier melts were deep fried mars bars and were good in a wicked kind of way. They drank coffee while they ate them, both hungry from the hike, and afterwards while Jake lounged and in a relatively hot bath, Tom stripped down to his shorts and lay on the bed, pulling pad and pen out of his rucksack.

Hey presto; the first letter from the trail proper. We left Kathmandu this morning, and walked to Namche. It’s amazingly quiet. When we were down here before on our way to Lhotse there were school trips and tourists walking all over the place, but as planned, we’re here ahead of the crowds this season and not even the Khumbu Lodge is that crowded. Jake got his way about staying here on the grounds that he’s bigger than I am, and he’s the one that’s going to suffer for it. I’ve seen bigger hamster cages. We’d planned to spend an acclimatisation day here tomorrow. I’m not sure how much we really need it, we haven’t been down to sea level since October, but Jake insists we do it properly anyway.

“Who are you writing to?”

Tom flipped over the paper, not answering. The bathroom wasn’t big; it was hard to miss the wet hand extended in his direction but he pretended not to see it until Jake’s voice inquired from the bath,

“Are you going to make me come and get you?”


He felt the water flicked at him from the bath, swallowed a reluctant smile and got up, going to the doorway of the bathroom. Jake leaned over to reach his shorts as Tom folded his arms out of reach, towing him closer by the elastic.

“I’m going to go around naked.” Tom informed him. “It’d stop giving you convenient handles.”

“Actually, no it wouldn’t.” Jake said apologetically, tugging the shorts down.

Tom dodged, seeing the arm snake around him too late. Jake was fast enough and strong enough that he was very difficult to evade and he still ended up in the bath without much splashing. Jake wrapped both arms around him, and despite it being a small room, it was quiet, the water was warm and Jake was warmer, and there was no one here but them. Tom relaxed back against him by inches, and felt Jake nuzzle down his throat.

“So who are you having the affair with? Would he think about a threesome?”

Tom stifled a snort of laughter and let the last of the tension go.

“For pete’s sake, who else but you do you think would put up with me?”

Jake smiled and stopped teasing, asking instead with gentle tact, “Writing to Dale?”

“Mmn.” Tom swallowed on the answer, not sure why he was embarrassed to admit it, and knowing Jake probably understood better than he did.

“He put that note in for me with your letter from Paul that we picked up at Kathmandu. I thought I should answer. It was-”

Kind. No, not really: Dale wasn’t being kind, he was being Dale. Honestly and openly trying to communicate because what he did was trying, and he was a nice guy. He didn’t get bogged down in self consciousness or double thinking because he identified his goal and he went for it no matter how terrified he was, even if he wasn’t really sure how, even if you mostly were short with him and prickly, and not very graceful towards his overtures.

“There’s a real courage to him.” Tom said very shortly to Jake, knowing Jake wouldn’t mistake the tone. “He knows what matters and no matter how hard it is for him, he finds a way.”

And Dale had found a way to connect with the people at the place Jake called home, the people Jake stayed in touch with, no matter where they were or what they were doing. The people that loved Jake and made him welcome, who would always be there for Jake if there was ever a time or reason Tom couldn’t be. Tom’s sense of gratitude towards them for that was painful. It was pitiful not to be able to find the courage to properly connect to the people that gave such security to them both. Jake’s wet hand stroked his hair back from his forehead, passing slowly and very gently over his eyes.

“He’s a bit more of a domestic animal than we are. Dale’s a real family man at heart, he’s as much of a home maker as Flynn is. You and I get itchy feet too fast.”

Yes. Even Jake who loved the ranch land, who loved the house and the people in it, still couldn’t stay there more than a couple of months without needing the next challenge. The difference was that Jake had a charming smile and at least looked
 tame on the surface. Tom twisted around, found his mouth and kissed him, roughly.

“I bloody love you.”

“I bloody love you too.” Jake said, grinning and relaxing back into the water. They neither of them said anything for a while, then Jake, combing his fingers idly through the dark and disordered hair at the back of Tom’s head, said mildly,

“I liked him. Sane, unpretentious.”

“I don’t do bunnies.”

“Are you seriously calling Dale a bunny?” Jake demanded. “What’s remotely bunnyish about him?”

Tom sighed.

“No. Ok? He’s not a bunny. I’m not sure Darcy is either. Or Riley....”

Except Riley was awfully close to Paul by heart and by character, and that was sticky ground for Tom. Jake, who understood what Tom wasn’t saying, which was to even consider bonding with any of them was to accept bringing the bunny label perilously close to himself, let it go unsaid. Instead he did something that made Tom make a most peculiar noise and arch his back, saying in quite a different tone,

“Jacob! That’s probably illegal in Nepal – definitely in a bath, stop it!”

“Keep look out then?” Jake suggested, going on doing it and putting a helpfully supportive arm around Tom’s waist. “Look, it’s no good you wriggling if you don’t think we ought to be doing it, that doesn’t help at all.”

“Look at what?!” Tom squirmed over the side of the bath, caught himself on the side of the sink and yanked on Jake’s hand until Jake climbed out, streaming water from his torso and long legs.

“You’re a bloody hooligan, I can’t take you anywhere. Stop laughing, get in here and do it properly. And mind the beds. I’m not explaining to the management what we were doing if we break one.”
We’re due to meet the others in the morning,
Tom wrote some hours later, mostly by the dim light from the hotel sign in the street below. The windows were wide open despite the cold. Jake, uncomplaining, had put a sweater on and was asleep on the other twin bed under the blankets. Tom turned over, on top of the covers and chilled, but calm from the open windows, the darkness and the sense of space beyond them. Namche sat in the side of a mountain like a satellite dish, surrounded by the Himalayas.
and we’ll hike on together. These are the people we spent autumn climbing with, old friends of ours. We all agreed when we planned the expedition that it was better if we trained together through the autumn, and it does make a difference to know now the big expedition’s coming that we’ve climbed and lived together before. You know what everyone can do, how everyone reacts, it’s all known quantities. They’re all competent. Jake and I climbed Salkantay with Spitz and Bill in Peru last spring, and that’s a technically difficult peak, even if it’s only a six thousand metre one and we’re about to go for the mother of all eight thousanders. Everest wouldn’t be that technical a climb if it wasn’t for the altitude, but it isn’t the technicality that makes Everest the biggest challenge. Doing any climbing at all that high with that little air, is part of it, it’s an endurance marathon. All three of the others are serious climbers, and while we’ll generally go up as a group for the safety and support of being part of a group, essentially we won’t bother them and they won’t bother us. Everyone’s competent to make their own decisions.
That personal space was good. They’d climbed all over Lhotse in October and November, not just a straight forward ascent but real training in the roughening weather, and there was the professional distance of serious, high level climbers who were working on their own personal goals, a loose friendship group who kept an eye on each other but alongside each other, intent on developing their skills in this terrain. Late autumn climbing in the Khumbu region was a serious challenge that only the serious climbers attempted with a great deal of respect and caution for the conditions. It had been a six week severe endurance test and they’d learned a great deal.
The good weather window for Everest is about the first three weeks in May,
Tom wrote, half an eye on the darkness beyond the window.
That’s the one time in the year between the winter and the monsoons that the bad weather lifts, some days the winds are off the peak, and its fastest and easiest to get to the summit, and that’s when almost all the year’s expeditions go up. Definitely all the annual commercial expeditions with guided clients, that’s the only time of year you can take a less serious or trained climber up there and they stand a chance of safely summitting. We plan to be done and heading out just as those expeditions start, and we’ll go up just on the cusp of the weather change. Bill’s done it before, he summitted twice with army teams. Harry has also been on Everest before but had to turn around before he reached the summit. Apparently only 1 in 3 climbers ever reaches the summit anyway, and that’s including the Sherpa guides and Sherpa staff who make up a massive proportion of the summitters. It’s going to be particularly mad here this year too, as permits from Tibet have been so unpredictable. Not many teams will go up the north face this year, almost all the expeditions will have to do what we did and settle for a south face permit from Nepal, which means a heck of a lot of climbers in the same three week window, all trying to go up the same route. Thankfully we should be done and gone before the crowds and the mayhem get started.


Bill Drinkwater was a British ex army Major in his late forties, and had been a friend of Jake’s for twenty years, and he was easily spotted at the table outside the tea house where he was sitting behind a steaming cup. A barrel chested, alert and friendly looking man, he’d led army teams up several 8000 metre peaks in his career, including Everest. Bill’s companion, a man Tom had known for several years by no other name but Spitz, was a Spanish archaeologist that they first met some years ago out in Peru, and had guided several expeditions for as he became a friend. Used to altitude as most archaeologists specialising in the lost cities of Peru had to be, Spitz had grown up ice climbing in the Pyrenees mountains near his home, and had intense dark eyes under dark curly hair that snapped up from his cup as they approached with his characteristic look of deep and fierce suspicion before his face cracked into an unexpectedly sweet smile.

“Ah, there you are.”

The third person they expected to be sitting drinking lemon tea outside the tea house in Namche was conspicuous by his absence. Harry, Bill’s younger brother, was nowhere to be seen, and only two packs were by the side of the table. Spitz got up to hug Jake, as emphatically as pretty much everything he did was emphatic.

“We thought we would have to be here at dawn to be ahead of you two. How was Kathmandu?”

“Busy.” Jake let Spitz go, and Spitz, who knew them well, offered Tom a more restrained hand and a warm grin. Jake shook hands with Bill and sat down at the table, accepting the cup of lemon tea pushed towards him and making room for Tom.

“Where’s Harry?”

“Long story. Hallo Tom.” Bill gripped Tom’s hand, gave him a brief smile and sat back in his chair, looking for Bill, mildly irritated. “You know the mess we had trying to get a climbing permit in Tibet for the north face? Things are so unstable there right now, and the permits so unpredictable that almost all the commercial expeditions this year have said bugger it and applied to Nepal to climb the south face. There’s going to be a rugby scrum going on in base camp by the end of April, we’re talking probably three to four hundred people, and all the teams are going to be aiming for the same weather window. It’ll be a miracle if this isn’t a disaster year just for the sheer number of people crowded on the ropes up there.”

But where’s Harry?
Bill took another mouthful of tea.

“Anyway. We got to Kathmandu last week, met up with Harry, and Harry breaks it to us that he’s planning to summit with us, and then he and a friend of his together plan on running a commercial expedition up the south face this season. Paying clients. The friend’s been working on this for several months and apparently it’s all getting set up at base camp. The friend will supervise the clients in getting acclimatised while Harry makes his climb with us, and then Harry intends on climbing again with the clients.”

“Has he done any guiding before?” Jake asked mildly. Spitz gave him a glinting smile, having seen Tom and Jake guide on several complicated trips.

“No. I kept thinking of the organisation you two put in to that trek out from Cuzco and thinking damn.”

His Spanish accent, not much softened despite years of speaking English almost all of his time, thickened even further when he swore.

“Apparently the other guy is an experienced guide, knows Everest, and Harry is just the back up and the financial partner, and joining the expedition as one of the junior guides.” Bill said acidly. “I haven’t met the partner and I’m assuming if it’s a client expedition they’ll have guides coming out of their ears. Harry is at base camp, setting up for our expedition as well as the client one and insists this isn’t going to affect his climb with us in any way. He’ll be ready to go up with us as soon as we get there and the other guy will babysit the clients through their acclimatisation period until we get back.”

What he thought about the taking of inexperienced but affluent clients up Everest went unsaid; it was a conversation they’d had before. There were essentially three ways to climb Everest. One was what they were doing; a private expedition, organised by themselves where they bought their own permit and equipment, had their own organised team, and climbed their own route in their own way, to their own private goals. Private expeditions were arranged by serious, experienced mountaineers. So were the next category of expedition; serviced expeditions. Serviced expeditions meant that you paid the organiser to provide the highly complex services an expedition needed; permits, transport, food, tents, oxygen, so you turned up at base camp with you climbing partners with what you needed already at base camp, but after that you climbed alone to your own personal plan. The last category of expedition was the commercial expeditions. Their communications systems were of the best, they had a very high ratio of guides to clients and many commercial expeditions provided 1:1 support for their clients as they climbed, they usually had an expedition doctor, the highest standards of facilities, and their staff would do all the work where possible for the client, carrying their equipment for them, establishing their camps, stashing food and oxygen, tents and supplies at each camp on the way up, so that all the client needed to do was climb. Usually under strict supervision and direction. The commercial expeditions provided a means for relatively amateur climbers with enough money to take a stab at climbing Everest. The good ones had stringent admission criteria for their clients, expected a set amount of previous mountaineering experience, and had strict rules, with a written contract stating that the expedition leader decided how far they climbed and when, and had the right to prevent a client climbing any further if it was unsafe. The less good ones.... there was a steady controversy in the climbing community about taking affluent tourist climbers on to an extremely dangerous mountain without the skills, experience or knowledge to be there without full support.

“He has had the rest of our kit sent down the valley,” Bill went on. “We won’t need to be walking with the yak caravan and it’ll all be there when we get there. Thankfully it’s been an early spring this year, the route’s melted clear right up to base camp.”

Their walk to base camp took six more slow days, walking around four or five hours a day in the early morning with the necessary rest days in between to let their bodies acclimatise to the growing altitude. It was necessary not to climb more than two thousand feet in three days, and the rest days were planned to be at the new two thousand foot gain to consolidate acclimatisation. As the local joke went, ‘first one there gets altitude sickness’. They stayed in the simple wooden lodges at the villages on the route, which increasingly were one or two huts and a lodge or tea house in isolation. There were few walkers around this early in the season and they were made welcome by the lonely Sherpa proprietors, who often included a free evening meal along with the wooden ledges inside the lodge where a sleeping bag could be rested for a night’s sleep. The door was almost always open, the Sherpas were friendly and lived as much inside as outside, and there was a space and quiet to the lodges in this rocky, spacious terrain that made them peaceful places to be. On rest days, Bill wandered around the village and talked to the locals, pipe between his teeth. Spitz read, lazing in the hot afternoon sun under the admiring eyes of the Sherpani girls, darkening his tan still further, and Jake and Tom walked and climbed in the hills around the villages, finding places where they could settle in privacy, sometimes sharing a book, sometimes sleeping, hidden and alone high among the rocks. At night the temperature plummeted and several times Tom stood at in the dark at the doorway, watching the sudden blizzards white out the valley and dust over the rocks.

From Namche they trekked through the village of Tengboche, where the Monastery sat on a green plateau amongst the smoky hills and the hills rang with chanting, horns, cymbals and yak bells, and Dingboche where they entered the alpine zone with the stunning view of Ama Dablam, Lhotse and Everest itself in the distance, with Everest’s plume constantly streaming from its top in the blue sky. It was the first view, and Tom stood for some time watching the white spindrift blow from the top of the peak. In a few weeks, all being well, they’d be standing where that mist blew. The village of Lobuche which could be smelled before it was seen, was where most travellers spent the night as it was the last convenient break on the trail, but where from experience and by consensus they passed on as quickly as possible. The village was what Bill referred to bluntly as the armpit of Nepal. The three stone latrines within the village stood in outhouses on stilts above the stream, which as a result was less a stream than an open sewer, although this did not stop the Lobuche residents using it for drinking water. Inside the outhouses the latrines were overflowing and unusable, and as a result human waste lay everywhere. The stench was appalling and disease a strong possibility; picking up a virus or a bug down here in the valleys that would steal your energy was a serious risk for every climber en route to Everest.

And then above Pheriche they entered the real territory of Everest itself, surrounded by snow, ice, ice glaciers in the rock, unimaginable space, and endless grey shale. The last outpost of civilisation was the tiny village of Gorak Shep at 5180 metres, where they spent the night. No Sherpas or animals lived higher or further up the glacier, this was the last place that would sustain life. This was where the Khumbu trail became what it truly was; no longer a path but the Khumbu glacier that fell from Everest’s slopes. The ice river moved slowly and steadily at perhaps a metre a day. As rocks and boulders and shale fell from the mountains and debris gathered, it could not sink through the river of ice and instead littered the top, so deeply that it was a moving river of rock, travelling on top of the glacier until way, way down the valley the glacier melted and washed the rock out to sea. Boulders larger than houses sat amongst the piles, sometimes resting perilously on ice pinnacles that hadn’t melted due to the shade cast beneath the boulder itself. Icebergs reared up out of the river, and in amongst the river of rock, pools of frozen blue water were visible. The glacier creaked and groaned as it moved, often making sharp cracks or rumbles as deep beneath the surface the ice compacted. There was no learning a path in this terrain; the landscape moved and it constantly changed. Instead they followed the fresh yak dung that indicated where the animals had carried loads up to base camp, and after a long, hard seven hour climb from Gorak Shep over the shale, they caught their first sight of the yellow, orange and red city of tents scattered across the glacier. Base camp.

There were already over a hundred people gathered there in the tents, and it was like an encamped United Nations of people from all over the world, speaking any number of different languages. Many of the expeditions had compounds around their group of tents, built of signs and strangely bright and westernised commercial banners with familiar brand names indicating the sponsors. A messy collection of colour, people, advertising and tents in this lonely, barren landscape it looked incongruous, as if a puddle of commercialised aliens had been suddenly dumped out of an aircraft and abandoned. Larger tents indicated the cook houses, surrounded by the smaller sleeping tents, and many of the people occupying them were Sherpa, the cooks and porters and the ice doctors, the expert climbing Sherpa teams who yearly set the ladders and ropes that laid out this year’s route ahead of the expeditions. Deck chairs stood outside many of the tents, and solar panels were tilted to catch the sun, powering electrical and communications equipment. In other bare areas, men were hard at work with shovels and ice picks, levelling the rocky ground and setting up and making fast tents. As the glacier moved, so the expeditions who set up here would be constantly re constructing and repairing the camps.

Bill led the way down the valley past compound after compound of tents until he reached a large, blue tent surrounded by several smaller ones, inside the barrier of an ice wall constructed of ice blocks that had frozen together into a high, solid barrier that protected the tents from high winds as well as offering minimal privacy. Some way off, a shorter, much smaller ice wall forming three sides of a small square with its back to the camp, indicated the toilet. A wobbly banner belonging to a well known coffee chain stood beside the blue tent, and the tent flaps were tied open. Bill shrugged off his pack, dumped it on the ground and disappeared inside the tent. Spitz followed, and Jake eased his pack to the ground and turned to find Tom, putting a hand out to brush his face.


“Gerroff.” Tom ducked away and dropped his pack. This was only a brief social call. In a few minutes they would search out their own spots and pitch their tents, not part of the big expeditions where home comfort is seriously important for clients who expected to arrive to their tent set up and ready for them. Jake ambled ahead of him towards the tent entrance, and Tom followed, aware of the tinny sounds of a radio playing pop music somewhere in the camp. Bill’s voice inside was loud and explosive and made Jake glance at Tom and raise an eyebrow.

“You are bloody kidding me?”

Harry, a slightly shorter, slimmer version of Bill, was huddled in a deckchair in front of an open laptop and a host of radio equipment with his parka collar turned up to half hide his face from the cold. He hadn’t got up to greet his brother. From Tom’s point of view, it was probably wise; Bill didn’t look happy. He glared at Jake with his fists bunched on his hips, looking first to him, although he addressed himself to all of them.

“Guess who’s broken his bloody hip!”

“Your partner, Harry?” Jake said calmly. It had been a long day, a long hike, his legs had to be killing him if Tom’s legs were anything to go by, and they were both starving hungry, but Jake sounded perfectly easy going. Tom poked him in the back.

“Who else but his partner? Don’t sound so bloody chilled about it, it’s obviously a crisis.”
Harry gave him a grateful look.

“It’s a real crisis. He slipped putting ladders up and he got flown back to Kathmandu yesterday.”
“So what’s going to happen about your bloody clients?” Bill demanded. “Tell me that?”

“They’re already here.” Harry said heavily. “I walked them up from Lobuche yesterday.”

“So what are you going to do?” Bill said sharply. “You’ve never bloody summitted this mountain, you’ve never even climbed on it! How are you going to guide anyone else up here? You don’t have the brain you were born with, you could have seen this coming!”

“The Sherpas know the mountain,” Harry said helplessly. “There is nothing else I can do! And keep your voice down, I don’t need this broadcasting to the clients.”

“How many are there?” Jake said calmly, taking a seat on a spare deckchair and stretching out his legs. “How well did your partner plan out the expedition?”

“I only got here yesterday myself just as he was being carted down to Pheriche.” Harry ran both hands through his hair, looking harassed. “I don’t know that much! It’s not like Jon kept much paperwork. There’s five clients, I escorted them up and their tents were set up and ready when we arrived, there’s the cook tent set up and the communications stuff here-”

Which looked a bit basic. Tom ran a wary eye over what they had, digging his hands into the pockets of his parka. Jake stretched until his shoulders cracked, and got up.

“Harry, how about you get yourself a drink? We need to put our tents up and find something to eat and then we can talk about what your options are, if you want to talk to us about it.”

“I don’t see he’s got much bloody choice?” Bill swiped his brother briskly across the back of the head, making him yelp.

Their gear had been stored in a tent alongside Harry’s. The big, blue plastic barrels had been carried up by yak and contained everything, from oxygen to the several tents they’d be setting up as they established their bases at camps one, two, three and four on the mountain. Only by laying siege to the mountain, establishing prepared, stocked tents at each level would they have the gear and supplies in place to enable them to make the final climb to try for the summit.

“I suppose you two will want your usual personal space?” Spitz said cheerfully as they sorted out tents; one two-man and one three-man that had originally been intended for him to share with Harry and Bill. “We have binoculars and radios, we’ll be able to see you if you want help.”

Jake tossed the two man tent to Tom, collecting other basic articles from the barrel including the means for fixing down the tent to the rocky ground.

“If we get really stuck we’ll use smoke signals. It’ll be fine.”

He followed Tom, who paused as soon as they were out of earshot from the main blue tent and glared at him.

“You know we can’t go much further away than this?”

“We can go wherever we want.” Jake said amiably. “I’ll follow you.”

Tom Looked at him. Jake slung what he carried down to the ground and took the tent, adding it to the heap. And then he slipped his hand through Tom’s arm and steered him, walking him down past the town of tents and wide of it, on down the valley over the rocky and upward sloping glacier floor.
They were some distance away from the camp when he sat down on a rock and Tom sat astride another, facing him and glaring at him, hands dug deep in his pockets. Surprisingly strong sun radiated down from above. Cold radiated up from the glacier beneath them.

“If Harry’s as buggered as he looks, you know we’re going to end up getting involved.”

“No.” Jake said candidly. “We don’t have to do anything.”

“Oh be sensible.” Tom said sharply. Jake’s voice was just as mild, but he leaned forward and propped his elbows on his knees and his eyes went straight through Tom.

“Do you want to stop glaring at me and tell me what you’re thinking?”

“No.” Tom said grimly.

“Oh go on.” Jake encouraged, and smiled at Tom’s glare. Tom scuffed gravel at him.

“Take this seriously! I like Harry. He’s wetter than a bloody lettuce, but I do. And so do you, not to mention Bill and Spitz, and none of you three are going to walk away from him if he’s got a bunch of clients out here that he’s responsible for. We’ve done this. You know what it’s going to entail.”

“You’re thinking we’re going to end up getting involved with the clients.” Jake interpreted.

And you’re panicking, because it’s going to involve a whole lot of people, none of whom we know, you weren’t prepared for it, and it’s going to totally screw up the plans we’ve been making for months.

He didn’t need to say it; it was easily readable in his eyes if you knew Jake. Jake put out a hand to cover Tom’s when he winced, hanging on to it despite Tom’s pull, and running a heavy, comfortingly calloused thumb over his knuckles.

“We are not doing anything we don’t want to.”

“You think Harry could organise a piss up in a brewery?” Tom demanded. “You saw the quality of the equipment down there. You think you could responsibly sit by and watch if this is as buggered as it looks? You know what commercial expeditions usually involve. We’re going to be around, we’re going to be watching, there’s no way we can stay out of it!”

“The expedition will have other guides, probably a lot of other guides that Harry can lean on for help. The client guide ratio will be high for a commercial expedition, it always is. And anyone signing up for an expedition up here is going to be fit and an experienced climber,” Jake said quietly. Tom snorted.

“Write that down and sign it.”

Jake smiled. “No.”

“Jacob, this isn’t going to be an academic decision.” Tom said sharply. “And if you were any kind of Top you’d be reading riot acts and writing risk assessments, not calmly sitting on your bum saying it’s nothing to do with us. I can’t responsibly not step in and help if Harry’s got a bunch of paying guests up here, it’s not safe to.”

“And you’re angry and worried about it.” Jake agreed.

That was it in a nutshell. Tom gave him another darker glare and Jake squeezed his hand.

“That seems sensible enough to me. But the choice is pretty simple. If our help is wanted or it’s needed, do we want to or do we not.”

“That’s my whole point, ‘want’ doesn’t come into it.” Tom informed him. Jake shook his head.

“It’s the only thing that does. I’ve got one priority here and only one.”

“Yeah, climbing the mountain.”

Jake shook his head without commenting.

Knowing exactly what he meant still made his face burn, after several years of every day spent in each other’s company. Tom gave him a short, angry look and then directed his scowl at the ground. Jake went on rubbing his knuckles.

It was a sharp, violent change of gear. That was the essence of it.

And I do not do rolling with the punches well.

Tom looked down at their hands, Jake’s larger, longer fingers wrapped around his. To Jake, very little was a big deal. He was one of the most genuinely laid back people Tom had ever met, and once you could force your mindset through the keyhole to reach his, there was an immense amount of calm and freedom there.

“We are not trapped.” Jake said casually. “We can leave this totally to Harry and his other guides. We can offer to help. We can help in some ways and not in others. We can help until we change our minds. We can help a bit or help a lot. We can say bugger the lot of you and climb by ourselves. We’ve got the kit here, we’ve put in the training. Right now we don’t know much about anything except the next few hours. Let’s take it those few hours at a time and make the choices as we go.”

“That’s way too simplistic.”

“I’m a simplistic kind of guy.”

Tom shivered, not with cold. Jake’s approach to comfort tended to be a very physical one, and Tom was surprised at how much he relied on it and wanted it right now. He still reared back as Jake ran a hand down his face.

No. We can’t here and you know we can’t here. This is sacred ground, it’s like sticking two fingers up at the Sherpas. Sex free zone.”

Jake simply grabbed his wrist and yanked. Tom crashed into his chest and irritably leaned against him, aware of Jake’s hand sliding down his back and patting the seat of his jeans in a way that tended to get his attention and his head together very quickly. It meant calm down.

“Ok, you don’t have to get all macho.” he said shortly into Jake’s parka. “I’m entitled to the ‘do not work yourself up into a state’ speech with all the trimmings, not a straightforward threat.”

“Come and put a tent up.” Jake gave him a crushing hug and got up, pulling Tom with him.
Lungta. Remember?”

Lungta means wind horse, Tom wrote later. He was lying on his stomach in the doorway of the tent he and Jake had put up after a hot and difficult hour of levelling the rocky ground with shovels and anchoring the ropes to heavy stones. The hard work had helped. It wasn’t actually a difficult job, and at sea level it would have taken five minutes, but at this altitude, even just walking to and from the toilet left you out of breath and with your muscles burning; to use shovels and do actual heavy work involved being really breathless and stopping for frequent breaks, and simple jobs took a long time. Two mats and a sleeping bag padded the ground to the point he could almost forget he was laying on a glacier. Despite the chill of the ground, in front of him, outside, the sun was hot and bright.

The wind horses are everywhere here. They’re long ropes of prayer flags, bright colour squares with prayers written on them, they’re tied all over base camp and the Sherpa believe that the wind carries the prayers up the mountains. They’re highly spiritual people in a quiet way. The other meaning of Lungta is one they say is even more important to mountaineers here; it means your positive energy. Your own inner resources. No matter how fit you are, no matter how much oxygen you take with you, if your Lungta is low then your chances of getting up the mountain are low and your risk of getting into trouble is high. It’s something you hear a lot in base camp. People work on staying upbeat, and moaning, bitching and negativity gets frowned on as spreading bad vibes through the whole group. Did you know stress is actually a factor in whether or not you make it through the climb without altitude sickness and frost bite? The body chemistry of stress affects blood circulation. If you get stressed you’re much more likely to get your brain swell up or to lose fingers and toes on the mountain.
Jake’s response to that, which was far too personal to put in a letter, was not to worry, he was carrying a martinet. Cheerfully said, he meant it too. There were other things he had insisted on, like the small and completely unnecessary box of books in the corner of the tent, hauled up through the Khumbu region by some poor yak. Complaints that explorers did not travel with a personal library had fallen on deaf ears.

“Tea, sah’b?” a youngish, pleasant looking Sherpa man said, stooping in front of his tent with a steaming mug in hand.

He was perhaps nineteen, and wearing one of the parkas that most of the Sherpas in the camp wore along with a close fitting wool hat that looked home knitted. Like most of the Sherpa men, he was built on the small and wiry lines that like a lifetime of acclimatisation, made them unbelievably fit and fast at these altitudes. Tom had watched the Sherpa climbers on Lhotse with his mouth open the first time he’d seen them. He knelt up, putting the note book to one side.

“Tom. Not ‘sah’b’. Are you with Harry’s expedition?”

“Dorje.” The boy handed him the mug of tea. “You not client.”

His English was clear if economical with the grammar structures: Tom knew his own Nepalese stretched to a few pitifully broken phrases that would have precluded conversation altogether.

“No. I’m one of Bill’s climbers. Are you a guide?”

Dorje shrugged cheerfully. “Kitchen boy. Porter. Climbing Sherpa.”

“You’re going to cook and climb?” Tom said acidly. “Demoralise me why don’t you?”

The boy grinned, flashing very white teeth. “You come to mess tent? Soup ready.”

“I’m not a client, we’ll cook for ourselves thanks.”

Dorje gave him a good natured shrug. “Harry say you come to mess tent now.”

Tom felt outside the tent for his boots and pulled them on, and headed across the grey shale to the blue mess tent.

Jake was standing in the doorway with a plate, on which from what Tom could see, was fried spam and fried potatoes. Jake, who was not a fussy eater, had a fork in hand and was eating while he talked with Harry. Dorje went into the tent and filled a plate which he offered to Tom. Jake caught his eye and gave him a friendly smile that brought back all kinds of quiet discussions they’d had in Kathmandu about calorie intake.

Fried spam. The last time he’d eaten spam, had been under dire threats from the matron at his prep school. Tom took the plate without enthusiasm, and blinked as several people headed across the shale towards them, led by a fair haired man in sunglasses, a shocking pink down climbing suit and brand new, shiny climbing boots.

“Oh Good God, it’s High Altitude Barbie.”

Jake grinned. Harry looked embarrassed. “Er. Yeah. Tom, let me introduce you to our clients.”

Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015

No comments: