They headed down to base camp early the following morning after another bad night trying to get some sleep in the painfully thin air. When they suited up and exited their tent in the early morning to meet up with Spitz and Bill, neither of them looked much better. Bill, short, stocky and nearly square in his climbing gear, grinned when he saw them. Spitz, much taller, leaner and wiry even in his thick snow suit with dark curls emerging under the edge of his wool hat, looked merely bad tempered and gave Tom a short nod in lieu of good morning. No one felt much like chatting. It was much faster and in some ways easier heading down into the thickening oxygen; it took far less time to go down than it did taking every step upwards, but that in itself added more and different dangers. Tired, heading ‘home’ and desperate to get there and rest, it was easy to hurry, to be more careless than you usually were when climbing up, and tiredness did things to the brain. Clipping on to the rope seemed like so much hassle when you could just hold onto the rope and walk, running it through your glove. You found yourself scaling ladders without much care where a few days ago on your way up you’d been using high concentration, care and acute awareness of several hundred feet of crevasse below. Just above the ice fall Tom grabbed Jake’s harness, yanked him to a halt and checked it, ensuring every link was secure, and gave him a short shake by it.
“You damn well pay attention. No you can’t bloody kiss me here, get off.”
Jake’s gloved hands caught his hips for a moment, pulled him over into a rough, tight hug that pulled him up off his feet and Tom returned it in spite of himself, with a powerful need to be as close to him as possible that was neither mature nor appropriate. They’d spent the night saying not much but staying very close and that sense of intense closeness had followed Tom all the way down the mountain. Often he felt closest of all to Jake when they were climbing or running together, something that demanded silent, shared physical symbiosis. Those conversations in the hours at camp three had been… Tom was aware of something raw, still fragile and undefinable nagging constantly at the back of his mind, desperately uncomfortable and hard to tolerate. He clipped onto the rope, following Spitz down with a sharp eye on Jake behind him.
They sat down at crampon point to get their crampons off their boots with cold fingers and walked down into the camp, aching and tired. A few steps on, Tom felt Jake’s arm slide around his waist and lift a lot of his weight as he walked, and Jake’s voice near his ear.
You’re not supposed to know that either.
Every step was extremely painful, it had been for hours, since early this morning when they left camp three, but it was worsening rapidly now. It was not something Tom wanted for Jake to know at all, but Jake was damned hard to shake off and there no way to argue without the others listening in. With that in mind, Tom gritted his teeth and tolerated it. They trudged past the other expeditions’ compounds – and became aware that theirs appeared to be swarming with a lot of people in bright jackets and a lot of noise. A chopper was on the plateau at their end of the camp, its massive blades stationary. Bill glanced back to Jake and raised his eyebrows, heading slightly faster into the camp. Shem was sitting in a deckchair outside her tent, buried in a book and looking highly fed up which was reassurance there was no medical crisis going on. She lifted her head from the neck of her battered parka like a turtle with a plait as they reached her and gave them an expressive look.
“Thank God you’re back. Welcome to the press conference.”
There were about twelve of them, but in their small compound the effect was of people everywhere, men and women, in bright, immaculate puffed jackets and shiny boots and hats and sunglasses, all bustling around and freely taking pictures of tents and kit as lot of them were carrying cameras.
“Two so far with suspected altitude issues.” Shem said acidly, getting up to walk with them towards the mess tent where the heart of the chaos appeared to be going on. “Journalists. One camera man that I’ve doped up so he stops throwing up every two minutes and one with a headache. I’ve pointed out the stupidity of just getting in a chopper at Kathmandu and beetling straight up here like they’re going to the mall but no one’s listening. Half of this lot were in New York yesterday morning.”
This is Pecker. This is bloody Pecker-head.
Loudon himself was in the middle of the mess tent, stood on a crate so he was risen up above the level of the small crowd addressing him. He was wearing a bright sunshine yellow jacket and down pants to match, with a bright pink cap on his head, all of which to Tom’s eyes looked brand new as if taken out of the packaging this morning. Any clothes worn for real around here got scuffed, dusty and wet in minutes; these were immaculate. Clothes for show, not for wearing. So this event had been planned for. Loudon was clean shaven – probably the only male resident of base camp not sporting a beard since hot water was difficult to organise and the chore of shaving a difficult one. Most people settled for getting basically clean occasionally. Loudon hadn’t let go of his reality in the slightest to grasp that of being on the mountain, despite the number of days he’d been with them. His fair hair was tufting sweetly out of the cap, the effect was vapidly pretty like some boy-band drone and Tom felt his bubbling irritation swell abruptly into hot, serious, focused dislike.
“I don’t remember agreeing to this?” Jake inquired beside him. He was still taking a good part of Tom’s weight and he sounded as if he was being introduced to a verger’s wife at a garden party.
“No one knew it was coming.” Shem nodded at Phoenix. “Apparently this is his interview from his mother’s newspaper before his summit attempt. We got no warning, nothing, they just arrived half an hour ago. I found out when a chopper landed and three people stuck a microphone under my nose and turned a camera on me. Did you know Mr Loudon was making a summit attempt with you? Because I didn’t and I thought I had a say in it.”
“He is not making a summit attempt with us.” Spitz said shortly and with venom. His dark eyes were glinting dangerously and he looked tired, furious and ready to bite. “And I am most happy to say so to any journalist I may see here.”
Max, looking extremely fed up, nodded to them from across the crowd with what looked like open relief. Bart, behind him, looked equally grim and was hiding behind his sunglasses, his cap pulled low over his brow and his collar turned up. There was no sign of any of the Sherpa members of their team other than the cook, who was periodically looking rather darkly out of the side flap of the mess tent as he worked on dinner. Shouts from the journalists carrying out the mob were now becoming distinguishable sentences as Tom limped closer.
“What’s been the hardest point so far, Phoenix?”
“What home comforts have you brought with you to get you through?”
“What are you taking up to the summit with you?”
The High Altitude Barbie Oxygen Kit with Pink Accessories and the Yay World Peace sparkly deely boppers.
“One would think he had commissioned the entire expedition,” Spitz said very loudly, adding something in Spanish too indistinctly for Tom to comprehend more than the swear words. “I will give an interview gladly - Gentlemen, let me explain to you what goes on here!”
He shouted it loud enough for the journalists to turn, and Tom saw Phoenix catch sight of Spitz with open horror. Mr Dodo Loudon hadn’t been expecting them to walk in on his little show here; he’d obviously been banking on them being occupied up the mountain and out of the way until it was safely over. Something like this would have taken weeks to organise; he must have had this plan in place for some time. The rudeness of it. The arrogance of it, the total disregard for the rights, feelings and privacy of anyone else on the expedition, rose in Tom’s throat like a red mist. Ahead of him, Bill tried and failed to grab Spitz’s arm, Spitz’s temper was explosive once it was released; they’d seen him blow a few times and the fall out afterwards could take some containing.
Jake, catching Tom’s eye in one quick sideways flash, let go of Tom, took a discreet but rapid few strides away to the side to separate them and stomped on a crate with his heavy climbing boot, hard enough to shatter it and send the pieces flying, loudly, across the shale. The crash made everyone in the compound jump including Spitz, and there was a sudden silence. Jake entered it without hesitation.
“It’s about fricking time you showed up, what the hell were you playing at?”
He directed it straight at Tom, a full blooded thunder at the top of his lungs, and Jake had been trained to shout orders across a parade ground and spent years of his life yelling to men on horseback across pastures and herds of bellowing sheep and cattle. He could be deafening when he wanted to be. Tom matched his stance as Jake squared up to him, digging his hands into his pockets and glowering as hard as he bellowed back, aware they now commanded the fixed attention of everyone in their compound and no few people in the neighbouring ones.
“Well someone had to re set the tent in the freezing bloody cold, do you think it gets done by itself?”
“I was carrying the fecking stuff down that you forgot to take last time and I knew you couldn’t be assed to this time! And if you could set a damn tent anyway I might pay more attention!”
It was working. Bart and Max looked horrified. The journalists had spun around and mouths were open, several were coming rapidly with cameras. Bill, used to them and never one to need instructions, nipped quietly through the journalists to the back of the tent and grabbed Phoenix’s arm to yank him down off the crate, talking to him rapidly, sharply and in an undertone. Tom was heartened to see that it was not a gentle grasp. He took that in from the corner of his eye as he shouted back at Jake, gladly letting his temper slip its leash and a whole lot of pent up steam bursting out from under his cork for the first time in days. Shouting? It was possibly even screaming, he was aware it was echoing slightly off the peaks around them.
“Like you ever do anything bloody useful up there? You try hammering something into the ice for once, try figuring out which end of an ice screw is the sharp bit without breaking your bloody fingernails, then you can complain how badly I set tents!”
“I’d do more hammering if you didn’t spend the night snoring your head off and keeping everyone in a five mile radius awake!” Jake snarled back.
Tom very nearly burst out laughing at that one. He was aware of Spitz’s abrupt snort behind him and it took iron discipline over his face and body to keep going.
You bastard, play fair!
“If you want someone else to climb with, be my guest!”
He stalked away, fast, escaping around the back of the mess tent fast before he lost control. He could hear the alarmed hum of voices behind him as he left. Jake met him around there a minute later, hooked an arm around his neck to hug him, and Tom stifled his laughter into Jake’s shoulder, feeling Jake shaking as much with his own. It felt so good. Good to shout and yell and good too to be silly, to be laughing with him like this. Jake kissed his cheek soundly and stooped, lifting Tom off his feet and carrying him the few hundred yards behind the tents to theirs. Tom froze, grabbing his shoulder for support, then twisted hard enough to have made most men unable to hang on to him at all since he was neither sweetly small, boy band-ish or delicately built. More like 160lbs of six foot length, angles and bloody awkwardness.
“Hey, get off. Right now. Jacob get the hell off me!”
Jake stopped all right. Unhurriedly, although his grip did not slacken in the slightest. And Looked at him. He never did it this overtly. It had been shocking enough to see it up in the privacy of camp three – here...? In the reality of base camp, with other people nearby, Tom felt his gut clench and twist with something visceral, and that was infuriating too. He did – and he was furious with himself for it – stop fighting. Once he stopped, Jake carried him the rest of the way to their tent, unzipped it one handed and put him down on the padded floor of the entry way. And then he put a hand under Tom’s chin, turning his face up to look directly at his eyes in a way that made Tom’s stomach lurch sideways and not in an unpleasant way, because his blue eyes were soft, understanding and very much Jake.
“Stay there. I’ll help Bill get rid of this lot.”
The chopper blades started a few minutes later; one army Major and one Mountie together would have no trouble running off a bunch of journalists. Tom felt the shudder through the tent as the thing took off, the heavy beat of the blades roaring overhead, and then the usual and ordinary half-hush, half-mall type noises of base camp took over once more. To his greater alarm Jake brought Shem with him when he came back and without so much as a hello he knelt down and stripped Tom gently but directly of his boots and then out of his down pants. Unable to stop him, Tom mentally grimaced at the state of his shins, shifting to get away from Jake’s hands. The couple of rubbed spots had bled, there were stains running down his legs but it was superficial. Much worse was when Shem prodded gently around the lower inside point of his shin bone, and that hurt like all hell.
“You’re right Jake, it looks like shin splints.” Shem confirmed. “Sorry Tom, it’s very common around here. I can’t see any swelling, if it only really started today then rest them and stay off your feet, ice it – that’s going to be easy around here – and I’ll give you some high dose ibuprofen if you swear you’ll eat and cushion your stomach. And stretch your calf muscles out thoroughly, that may help turn it around quicker.”
Jake was crouching beside her, watching with far too much concern and it was always hard to take. Today it was intolerable.
“Where did you leave the body?” Tom demanded roughly of him to get his eyes off Shem digging some kind of antiseptic out of her bag. He took the soaked swab from her before she could use it, scrubbing the grazes efficiently to get the blood stains off.
“I had a chat with Mr Loudon.” Jake said cheerfully.
“Where are all the Sherpa? What’s Loudon done to bother them?”
“Well he got the journalists to take a lot of pictures of him beside the stupa, looking noble.” Shem said shortly. Her plait had fallen over her shoulder and she tossed it back. “I doubt he’s got much idea of what it means. No, the Sherpa guys have seemed fine, Dorje, Pemba and a group of them disappeared off into the ice fall together very early this morning with kit, I’m guessing they’re sorting out camps or something, they didn’t say. When are you four planning your summit attempt?”
“The next good weather window.” Jake took a seat on the ground beside Tom, watching him work. “We’ll take a few days rest and check the forecasts, and set our date.”
“You know Phoenix is planning on going up with you?” Shem put the antiseptic away in her bag and dug for a card of tablets. “Tom, take those, try and get the inflammation down.”
“He wouldn’t have made it as far as camp two without a lot of help,” Tom said shortly, accepting the pills before Jake could. “There’s no way he’s going to get himself up the Lhotse face to camp three.”
He didn’t explain the how of the Pink Peril getting to camp two; it was bitchy and there was no need to repeat it. Jake shook his head.
“He hasn’t met the criteria. The camp three acclimatising trip has happened. If he’d been fine up to camp two I’d gladly plan for him to do a camp three trip now and plan on summitting with us next week, but he hasn’t qualified himself to go any higher.”
“You’re going to have to explain to him in really small words then.” Shem said dryly. “Because he says he’s coming with you. That’s what he’s been telling the journalists. The blog and his mother’s newspaper apparently are all waiting to blaze the headlines of him on the summit.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“He thinks he’s going to get towed up like Bill towed him up to camp two,” Tom said under his breath once Shem left. “Why wouldn’t he? He got someone else to do the hard work last time and it worked out fine, I’m willing to bet he’s going to expect one of us to drag him up to the summit itself.”
Jake gave him a shrug, not looking very bothered by the prospect. “I won’t be doing it. Believe me, you won’t either. Spitz is more likely to kick him off the Lhotse face and see whether the bird really does fly,”
“And Bill’s definitely not. I think he’s well aware he’s been had.”
In fact Bill was deeply embarrassed about it. So far Jake knew he’d managed to keep that from Spitz who would be livid on his behalf and unable not to act on it. Jake passed Tom a bottle of water to take the pills with and sat down on the mat beside him, pulling Tom’s legs into his lap to start rubbing and massaging his shins around the sore muscles, the gentle bullying that forced the stored acids in the muscles to start moving and dispersing. Tom winced, swore and bolted the pills, enduring Jake’s work with his teeth gritted and the rest of him as far away as possible.
“Which will make you the bad guy in this newspaper headline you realise? It’s going to hit national press, Jacob Winthrop Forbes: the bastard that wouldn’t let our hero grab his moment of glory and an analysis of how you were probably jealous or bent and keeping the expedition money to summit yourself, we’ve seen this kind of thing done over and over again! There are several horror stories of what happens up here when people make decisions based on what’ll be spread in the press afterwards rather than what’s safe and right! People have died on those decisions.”
“It’s not happening here.” Jake said genially. “I don’t give a damn what the papers want to publish,”
“When did you last read a paper?”
“Harry is going to have to stand up and take this one because I won’t let you.” Not distracted Tom grabbed for Jake to make him look up. “I won’t, I’m telling you now. He was the one that got Parrot Bloody Loudon up here and told him he could try climbing, he’ll have to stand behind his paperwork and make it clear that Parrot didn’t qualify. At least we’ve put the paperwork and finances in order and he can stand honestly and show everything’s been done above board.”
“We’re not at this stage going to convince anyone that Harry is the leader of the expedition, are we?” Jake asked him. “Even if I was willing to do that. The clients know him as the host of the walking train to and from Lukla; he goes down the mountain, not up it. You, me, Bill and Spitz make all the climbing decisions,”
“With you and Bill as the expedition leaders. Mostly you because you’re the one who’s had to lay down the law to him. He’s going to pin this on you.”
“He’s welcome to have a try.” Jake fended off Tom’s hands and reached again for his legs. Tom twisted away to avoid him.
Jake collared him gently by the wing of his half opened jacket, not letting him get up. “No. I’m fine with calling up the lawyer and telling him to sue for breach of contract and anything else he can think of if it comes to it. He’d probably enjoy the exercise, he usually sounds constipated. What can Phoenix really do? Whinge in newspapers or on tv? We don’t see either, we don’t care.”
“I care what he does to your name and reputation.”
“It won’t matter because we’ll be in Peru or Venezuela or Cambodia, doing something far more interesting where no one cares who we are, what we’re doing or why we’re there.” Jake paused and pulled him over to kiss the glare Tom was fixing on him, thoroughly enough to dilute it at least slightly, his voice getting even quieter which compelled Tom to quieten down too to hear him, whether willing or not. “Listen to me. Phoenix chucking his toys out of the pram is not something we’re going to get invested in. Why care what a lot of tedious people think who have so much time on their hands they can spend it fixating on petty details and perfecting the art of being judgemental? It’s boring.”
Most people would have thought that meant he wasn’t bothered. Tom, who knew him, knew ‘boring’ was about the most damning criticism Jake was capable of.
“So calm the hell down.” he summarized shortly.
“Yeah. Calm the hell down and sit still.” Jake was smiling, his intense, soft eyed smile that always burned its way through any mood of Tom’s, lifting Tom’s legs back into his lap to continue, unhurriedly but with a very definite grip that was not about to let go. “There’s more interesting things to do.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Jake and Bill went together to talk to Phoenix later. Tom’s attempt to come too was met by a cheerful and absolutely unambiguous No. Tom knew why. Jake had ambled off to see what was for dinner and to deal with Phoenix on the way, he was about equally interested in both errands. To Tom, just knowing it was going on was stressful enough; being there would be a lot worse. It was protective, and bloody typical, and it reminded Tom unpleasantly of a regular and nagging thought that crossed his mind all too often lately;
There is going to come a time when all the endless moods and the clinging and the snarling and the baggage gets too much and I finally get to the end of his patience. How much of a millstone can I make the poor guy carry? And why the hell should he have to anyway? He came here to enjoy the mountain. Haven’t let him do much of that so far.
With an eye to the state of his legs if he planned on being able to make a summit attempt, he worked hard on not giving into the agitation, getting up and pacing, going for a run or thinking too much about what was going on in the mess tent. Or, that if he was at all honest with himself, he was a hell of a lot less bothered what Jake said to Loudon than that right now Jake was out of his sight, not here, and that was – just too damn pathetic to tolerate, he needed to get a grip. Now. It was still going on twenty minutes later when Bart passed the tent – quite intentionally, their tent faced away from the others so the only way to catch Tom’s eye was to walk all the way around it. Tom laid down the book he’d been trying to focus on and Bart squatted where he was on the shale, giving him something of a grimace.
“Hey. Shem said you’d got a case of shin splints on the hike down today. How are you doing?”
“Sore, but it happens.” Tom propped his elbows on his knees, trying genuinely to get his mood under control and find a social tone because it wasn’t hard to like Bart or Max. “Too much high impact work on hard surfaces up there. John ok?”
“He’s gone.” Bart sounded a little regretful. “Harry arrived the evening of the day you headed up the mountain, he stayed overnight and ate with us and he and John shipped out in the morning, Harry’s hiking with him back to Lukla airport. It’s just us two buskers and Loudon you’ve got left hanging around now.”
“We’re glad you and Max are staying.” Tom said shortly. “We appreciate what you’re doing with the radios, you’re part of the expedition.”
“Thanks.” Bart looked genuinely pleased by that. There was a moment of extremely awkward silence, then Bart said less comfortably, “I know Loudon’s in with Jake and Bill.” He paused for a moment, looking awkward. “Look, I said to Jake, I don’t want any of you to think we knew what Loudon was planning. We were as shocked with the newspaper mafia appearing by chopper as you were, none of us gave permission to be photographed or interviewed, we weren’t even asked and we were pissed off about it. Jake said he’s made some calls about nothing with us in it to be used without us seeing it first and giving permission, he’s done what he can, but we know it was kind of a done deal you know? Those guys use what they want to use and the paper just pays the court fine later. Loudon isn’t any kind of celebrity, no one knows or cares who he is. One of the reporters told us, his mother’s a minor known name and this is about both of them and their hired publicist trying to get themselves into the public eye. She’s been writing a weekly series in her newspaper column about the agonies of a mom with her hero adventurer son in the death zone-”
Tom snorted and Bart grinned. “Yeah, like he’s got anywhere near there. If you read her articles you’d think this expedition was being led by Loudon in a Captain America outfit. And his blog isn’t much better. Most of what he says he’s done is what you two, or Bill or Spitz have done and he’s seen or heard about. Especially the entry where he single handedly helped another team member with HACE down through the ice fall in the middle of the night.”
Tom stared at him and Bart flushed, but nodded, looking embarrassed.
“Yeah. Sorry, there was a lot of talk in the mess tent about that and he was listening with his ears flapping – I mean jeez, I’ve been in the ice fall, I couldn’t even get through it once so I have some idea of what that must have been like and we were like, wow, this is rough stuff. We didn’t realise then how little conscience Loudon had. He does a whole lot of bigging up how fantastic the Sherpa are too and all the conversations he has with them in the blog; that goes down a bomb with the readership. The rest of us know he treats them like the hired help, he doesn’t know their names and most of them pretend they don’t speak English if he’s around. Max and I, we just thought you should know.” I will not go and punch Loudon’s teeth in.
I will not go and punch Loudon’s teeth in.
It took a number of slow, careful breaths to get his temper back from hurling itself against its chain. The thought of that night still made Tom feel sick.
“Have you heard anything of how the conversation with Bill and Jake is going so far?” he said levelly when he could manage it. Bart grunted.
“Yeah. Loudon tried shouting like he does at us or the Sherpas but only for about a minute so I guess it wasn’t working well. He was sobbing when I passed the tent a minute ago. Probably hoping that’ll go down better.”
He sounded pissed off about it. He didn’t have anything to worry about in fact; Jake would do anything for someone in need or distress, but falsity of any kind slid off him like water off a waxed duck, he didn’t have time for it, and his bullshit detector was in good working order.
Let’s face it, I keep it fit most of the damn time.
But Bill… Bill was too nice for his own good.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It was almost another hour before Jake came back, with the kind of expression Tom associated with him either needing a good, hard run, highly athletic sex, or preferably both, not necessarily in that order.
“We came to a compromise.”
“To do what?” Tom said suspiciously, moving over to make room for him. Jake dropped flat on his back on the mat, closing his eyes against the bright sun overhead. The day felt as if it had been going on for years; it was only about 4pm, and they were both knackered and twitchy.
“He comes with us. As far as he can get, under his own steam, and we made it damned clear no one is helping him or roping him.” Jake added definitely before Tom could explode. “He tried hard to argue for two Sherpa to help him up with us, he doesn’t get at all that he can’t just go from acclimatising at camp two straight up to the summit with us – he’s not that sharp a pencil when you get right down to it. He wants what he wants and he wants it now; logic doesn’t enter into it.”
Spoilt. There was little more revolting than a spoilt adult male.
He’s a Barbie boy in his Barbie world, life in plastic, it’s fantastic…
The song had been everywhere in airports for months one summer, Tom blocked it out of his head with an effort.
“So we said he climbs as far as he can on his own.” Jake went on. “If he can get to camp three himself within the same seven hour window we’d expect of any of us, and he gets through a night ok there, then he goes down while we go on and make our summit attempt, and we’ll plan for him taking some rest days and then making a summit attempt of his own. If.
” He was never going to get up the Lhotse face under his own steam. He didn’t have the strength, stamina or endurance, he didn’t have the willingness to be uncomfortable, he certainly didn’t have the discipline, his body wouldn’t cash the cheque. Which meant they were relatively safe.
“He got a few home truths while we were at it, including that if he pulls any more stunts like bringing the journalists in, he’s on a chopper out to Lukla and he’ll be hearing from a lawyer in the morning for breach of contract with us.” Jake added.
“Would have been simpler to have kicked him out now for breach of contract and used that as the excuse not to let him climb.” Tom said sourly. “And don’t you dare give me the ‘he’s just a kid with a dream’ crap. He isn’t. He’s a manipulative little sod who doesn’t give a damn about the mountain or anyone else. Was it you that softened or Bill?”
“Neither of us, although Bill feels bad that he helped this happen by roping Phoenix up to camp two.” Jake spoke gently, the tone Tom hated when he was really bitching at him and knew full well he was doing it. “If he’d never made camp two and had to quit that probably would have been the end of it. Phoenix’s argument is he’s made every camp we’ve taken him to so far and he doesn’t see the difference between getting there himself and being helped. We both felt the only responsible way to deal with this so he doesn’t just try going up by himself or paying any Sherpa he can find to take him up, is that Phoenix has to realise for himself what his limits are. We’ll take him up with us, at our pace, and I made him sign a written agreement with us; either he keeps up or he makes his own decision to drop out.” There was a tone in the way he said it that Tom recognised: Jake had no difficulty dealing with difficult people, it didn’t bother him in the slightest.
There were just times when Tom wished to God that Jake was a less honourable man. “We’ll make it his choice, and we’ll take Pemba and a strong Sherpa team with us,” Jake said even more gently, watching his face. “So when he’s ready to stop there’s a group to stay with him and take him down.”
“Yeah, down through the lines of decent climbers, trying to get up the mountain around a tourist in a pink bunny suit ‘making his choices’.” Tom stopped himself as soon as it slipped out and shut his mouth. “I’m sorry. That was foul.”
If not downright adolescent.
“I know you’re upset.”
“I am not bloody upset!”
Jake got hold of his hand, not letting Tom pull away. “Upset. And you’re frustrated. I am too. It seems like a sensible response to me.”
“I know the kind of tricks he’s going to try when he realises he can’t do it by himself.” Tom said with difficulty, trying to keep his voice civil. “I’m sorry, it’s not you I’m angry with. It’s him. You should push back.”
“Against him or you?”
“Him. Both of us. Me. For pete’s sake push back, I’m a miserably, nasty bastard, don’t let me act like this-”
“I’ll decide how you need to act. This time I plan on you and I climbing with him, just you and I, and we will handle him if he tries batting his eyelashes. We’re not going to fall for it.” Jake hooked an arm around Tom’s waist, tugging him so they lay shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip. Larger. Warmer. Solider. It’s ok. It’s going to be ok.
Jake would never say it aloud, he knew as well as Tom did that Tom would shrug that straight off, but that was what he was saying all the same.
They heard the scuff of boots approaching and Tom sat up, aware of Jake’s arm staying firmly around his waist, keeping him where he was. It was Dorje who came around their tent, and Tom relaxed a little, managing a smile at him.
“Dorje, we missed you when we got back. Shem said you were fixing something in one of the camps, is everything ok?”
“We replace supplies at camp two.” Dorje said with a little more reserve than Tom was used to seeing in him. He looked from Jake to Tom for a moment as if he was expecting them to be upset with him, then said rather forcefully, “Then I take oxygen to camp three with Lobsang and Phurba, they volunteer come with me. We make another oxygen cache above camp four. You not be angry, you not be proud. You be safe. This our expedition, our companions be safe on our time, we do this. Mountain Eagles be ok.”
Jake and Tom looked at him for a few seconds in surprise, then Jake started to laugh.
“That’s one you didn’t think of, sahib.”
Tom dug him in the ribs with an elbow, speaking quickly to reassure Dorje who looked alarmed.
“Dorje, he just means we were arguing about this all yesterday evening, Jake had asked Pemba to sort it out when we were back and there was time; you beat him to it. I thought it wasn’t fair of us to ask you. I should have known you’d see it too and stopped to think how you’d feel. You’re right, this is absolutely your expedition and you have every right to tell me off, you’re a friend. You’re our friend, and I’m a fool.”
“Nah, not a fool. Just not very trusting.” Jake said cheerfully. Tom ignored him, reaching out a hand to grip Dorje’s arm and squeeze, aware the other man’s always gentle face was lightening with both understanding and sympathy.
“Ignore him. Thank you. I don’t mind, Dorje. I don’t mind when a friend helps.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
From: Flynn O’Sullivan
Subject: Re: Another Update Jake
You know I am a lousy commentator on family therapy and family dynamics. Show me a negative parental figure and I’m coming from a point of view of extreme prejudice and I know it, so if I wasn’t aware you’ve got no other recourse up there I’d be wary of saying much at all. But Dale has gone through a lot of this ground and is still going through it so I have some idea of how you’re feeling. Keep in mind Tom will probably have cut straight to the bottom line. It’s not unusual for the main facts to come out first; what won’t have caught up or been let out yet are the real feelings involved. Those are the bits that take the processing. There are a few things I would think right now: the first being that Tom’s perceptions seem weighted towards how difficult he was for them, how he made them feel shame, how he disappointed them. So there were four people in that family and he is carrying the blame for whatever was going on in that household at the time. So my response would be to wonder what the marriage was like, and what else was happening that made it easier for everyone if he took on that responsibility. Communicating to a child that they’re difficult is the flipside of an adult acknowledging they feel they’re failing in their role as a parent. If the adult finds that thought too threatening they’re the ones in the household with the power, they can displace it onto the child and the child doesn’t have the language or experience to challenge the reality they’ve been given by the most powerful and trusted people in the world, they just accept it.
There is the concept of the ‘scapegoat’ child in a family in difficulties. It’s usually the most vulnerable child in the family, the most sensitive or the one who threatens the status quo of the dysfunction the most, and that child becomes the receptacle for whatever the adults in the family would prefer not to deal with. It’s not unusual for the other children to be encouraged and rewarded for joining in the belief that the scapegoat child is the source of everything wrong, and it turns into the family ‘secret’ that all of them, including the scapegoat, are invested in because it’s a powerful part of what binds them together. Even if the child separates themselves from the family later in life, the rest of the family still have their receptacle out there somewhere to send blame towards, continuing to serve its function. Parents in a highly public job, public figures, may find it easier to play out the sympathy eliciting situation of a difficult child than to risk feeling outed as less than perfect parents, or to name the child as the source of stress in the home to give a socially acceptable narrative for a struggling marriage. A scapegoat child as an adult usually still believes what they’ve internalised: everything is their fault and the shame is theirs. A positive view of them isn’t ok and shouldn’t be allowed to happen; they always have a responsibility to care about other people’s needs, feelings and problems and are often very sensitive to them, but it isn’t reciprocal and they’re usually a bit alarmed if you suggest it should be. Once they start to re-evaluate their experiences in the family they have to then question their ‘adults are right/good, therefore I must have been in the wrong’ belief and see it in another light, and that’s when they may be able to decide to give back what they’ve been carrying for those adults, often having thought it was their problem instead of understanding they’ve been hauling someone else’s baggage as an unwitting mule. A stooge in someone else’s drama.
What you can do is exactly what you’re doing. I know very well it doesn’t feel enough. Be a safe place for him while he thinks this through. Make it something he can talk to you about and encourage him to think about it in the context of the whole family rather than what he believes he did wrong. With the strength of Tom’s fear reflex when I’ve seen it here…. I think you’re absolutely right to take this very gently indeed and follow his lead. He isn’t coming apart, although he may feel like it, it’s an active step towards something healthier and stronger. Painful and difficult and hard for you to see him go through, but on the other side of this process is the real relief, and it’s coming out now for a reason. We work here on letting our clients sit with a feeling long enough to be ready to feel something different instead of having recourse to the strategies they’ve been used to throwing at it, day in and day out for years. I wonder if some of the pressures you’ve got to deal with there are having that effect for Tom. It might not be the most convenient time, but it’s his time. Call or mail me any time.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
To: BigBear; Niall; Wade; Gerry;
Who the hell is this woman slagging off Jake in the Manhattan Times???!
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
There was a meeting between all the expedition leaders the following evening; there was every year. All through April the top of the mountain was hammered by the jet stream that sent the spin, the plume of white vapour flying from the summit like a flag. Even when it was still and bright sunshine at base camp, up there it would be like walking in a hurricane. At the beginning of May with the approach of the annual monsoon from the bay of Bengal, the jet stream was diverted for a few weeks- sometimes only a few days – into Tibet, and for those very few days there would be clear, calm weather at the top. This was the window almost all of the expeditions were aiming for.
After weeks of passing each other, climbing up and down the same ropes, through the same camps, the couple of hundred other climbers were becoming known faces and some of them known names. Tom sat through the crowded meeting in the Canadian expedition compound with Jake, Bill and Spitz where as far as possible the expedition leaders compared dates and agreed a schedule with the plan that not all the expeditions would shoot for the same date and there would be a log jam of people on the ropes at the top. With many stretches where only one person could climb at a time, it was necessary to move in a line, and slow climbers, too many climbers, climbers waiting to come down a rope that someone slow was climbing up – people could run out of oxygen, lose fingers, toes and noses to frost bite, and run out of the energy left to climb down to safety while they stood in the cold that even in the good weather meant exposed skin froze more or less instantly. This year the break in the weather was expected to reach its best on May 8th.
Two independent climbers, both of them serious professionals who were climbing alone and without oxygen, were willing to take the very first spot on May 2nd. The big expeditions with multiple clients to get up who were less experienced climbers were keenest for the safest dates and the safest weather, and Bill and Jake bid for May 4th. Early in the season which was where most of the small expeditions of serious climbers were willing to make their try and leave the slopes free for the climbers who would need more time, support and create the crowds. That left the big expeditions to organise the dates from the 5th to the 10th among themselves, and while in previous years there had been times where an expedition had refused to co-operate and insisted they would go whenever they decided to and without regard to who else was climbing that day, this year every expedition agreed to a specific slot.
It was no guarantee. The break in the weather was not guaranteed. Some of the expeditions would more than likely find the date they planned for turned out to be unlucky in terms of weather and conditions and would be unable to summit. That did mean that in some years expeditions went anyway when the weather cleared and ignored their planned slot, but this way was better than the free for all that would have occurred otherwise.
It was the 28th of April.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Subject: What’s going on?
We’re back from camp 3. No answer to my last mail, I’m not interpreting this as disaster but things sounded a bit hairy the last time you mailed. Are you ok? Our expedition mucked about between camp 2 and 3 as planned, doing the whole acclimatisation dance. Day one, we climbed to camp 2 and slept there for the night. Day two we hiked up to camp 3 and came down again to sleep at camp 2. Climb high, sleep low as the saying goes. Day three, we went up to and slept at camp 3. Day four we took kit up to camp 4 with us and pitched the tents up there before we came down and slept the night again at 3. Day five, we walked back down to spend the night at camp 2, and day six, we climbed back down to base camp. Safe, fine, no issues, there was a remarkable lack of drama compared to all our other trips so far. Camp 3 marks the point where we’re on sheer ice, right on the face. The camp up there is nothing more than a few small tent platforms chipped into the ice, it took a while to chip out ones large enough to set tents. Up there, just stepping outside the tent means wearing crampons and clipping into lines, we’ve heard the rumours of people sleepy or hypoxic forgetting their crampons, stepping out and just sliding away 2000 feet down the mountain. We’re set now with provisions and tents ready at all four sites for a summit attempt, although planning if we can to go straight from base camp to camp 2 on the way up and down. Camp 1 is a bit dodgy, there’s been some falls in the area as there often are and we’re not keen on sleeping there, especially with a client to look after. Whether the client should be doing this at all? Don’t get me started. Camp 2 is used as the advanced base camp, it’s well supplied and works as a depot, and once they’re acclimatised, most people just skip right over camp 1 wherever possible.
Sleeping at camp 3 was a weird experience. We’re getting used to breathing being a chore, base camp feels relatively comfortable now when in the first few days we were here we got out of breath just getting dressed. At camp 3 it really is an effort. In your sleep, because you’re getting so little oxygen and you’re not consciously controlling it, you start on the sleep apnoea thing. Every time I fell asleep I’d hear Jake stop breathing and it would feel like forever before he took the next breath, and I’d be braced and waiting and trying not to grab and shake him to start him off again. I also kept waking up to catch my own breath, which you do with a loud snort and gasp because at that point your body is going for pete’s sake breathe. Between us, we kept each other awake most of the time, and the night went on for more or less forever. This was the only time we’ll sleep at camp 3 without oxygen. We used tanks for the first time on the walk up to camp 4, but from our experience this time and how little sleep we got, and how much poor sleep knocks out your energy, next time we’ll be using oxygen from camp 3 onwards. I’m not an oxygen snob, I plan on us both coming home with as few brain cells killed as possible.
One of the most bizarre things up here is the temperature extremes. You get going in the early morning hours when it’s so bitterly cold you’re checking your fingers trying to make sure you’re not frost bitten, and then by mid morning it’s so damn hot you’re stripping off layers trying to cope with it. The air is still, and especially in the icefall or on the Cwm in the mornings where it’s exposed, it’s like climbing in an oven. So far though, we’ve had good luck with the weather, it’s been clear every time we’ve been on the mountain other than some minor snow.
For God’s sake mail back and tell me something normal that doesn’t involve ice.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Subject: Argh Tom
This started out as a fairly sensible mail when I was writing it a few days back.
I’m glad to hear the camp 3 expedition went well and was drama free. Glad too that everything is in place and you’re taking a few days rest before the summit attempt, and hoping you can actually get rest instead of do client management.
You wanted a conversation that was ice free? While you were at camp 3, I went out on a hike with Paul, Jasper, Luath and Mason, our client. You’ll know about this, it was news to me that they did this hiking business with clients but it made perfect sense once we were actually doing it.
I’m writing round in circles, sweating because of what I want to actually say. Much of me is hoping you are too occupied with climbing and will not read this anyway, but I suspect you’ll understand it if you do.
I mentioned in a previous mail I was working through various things regarding my mother. I always knew I had difficulty relating to people, I realised after I had lived here a while I had no difficulty loving people, but I came to realise I had a lot of difficulty in accepting love, which does not work out too well in relationships like ours where we’re committed to honesty and to communication. I still find myself rather wryly typing that: I have committed wholeheartedly to a relationship based on communication with all my deficiencies in that department. I’ve struggled with knowing how to admit when I can’t cope, to let them see the things I’m ashamed of or that I don’t have control over, we’ve talked it through so many times and inch by inch I understood more of it, and finally I realised with them that this is where the root of the problem is.
It is not an easy thing to face, to intentionally and deliberately unpack yourself and your past and look, fully, at what you do and where it comes from. In doing it, I found a lot of memories that were not easy ones. I could term it in the ways that Flynn’s textbooks would – post traumatic stress, abreaction, re living of and releasing of trapped minutes of time, but that doesn’t quantify it in real terms. It distances it. Essentially I found within myself that child, still in that time, in that place, hating me and hating everything, thinking and acting at the very stage it happened and driving everything it saw as connected with it, the one who actually experienced that loss.
So while we hiked, this child came too and this stuff poured out. Everywhere.
I suppose I was mostly focused on getting to the point of pulling the cork on it. Jasper talks about clarity of intent, it was a mission, a project, it took a great deal of work and problem solving step by step to get to the deepest part of it and as it were, blow the final safe. I hadn’t planned at all for what would come after that, and I suppose that is typical of me. I don’t think beyond the solving of the problem, I focus entirely on that moment of success that yes, it’s unknotted, and then I realise what I’ve unleashed and that I have no idea how to deal with it. What has hit is a kind of collapse I’ve never had any idea of before in my life. I’ve never in my life spent days in bed like this. Paul is amazing. He just knows what to do and what to say and how to be, he’s very calm and relaxed, and they all just keep on repeating every time I start to panic, this is ok. This is ok. They create a space all the time where there’s peace and time and it’s safe, and they won’t let me be alone with it or shut it down. They keep saying what I know and what we’ve talked about before, that I need to not push it away, I need to let myself feel it. It washes around like a tide.
Paul read me the Hunting of the Snark. Are you familiar with it? It stunned me. It encapsulated searching for something without being really sure what it is, having never seen it, with the risk that it may not be what you seek at all, but something that may destroy you, and there is no way to know. Yesterday we moved on from that to Alice in Wonderland, which is like being handed a guidebook to the ludicracy this is. Things may be big or small without warning. At times I feel terrifyingly small, and other times emotions so big that they’re terrifying, or I feel that I’m being terrifying or threatening without meaning to, and there is no logic to it. The whole book is about a child walking through a distorted and inexplicable landscape, and while this thing inside me won’t talk, it will listen to a story. Quite beside the point, the mathematics in it walks all over my brain, the multiplication tables that have warped out of a base of ten, Alice bound by conventional mathematics in her world within a world where abstract algebra rules, she has no means to make sense of any of it. The quaternion tea party where three terms can’t function and are stuck going around in circles because they’re not on speaking terms with time. I’ve been bound by polite conventional mathematics all my life in an abstract world, and made sense of none of it, this is the most sane insanity I’ve ever heard and it’s entirely new to me. But it’s language I can think in. Someone has to teach you the words, give you the words, so much thought can only exist when you have the words. I understood it at gut level with Flynn months and months ago, he taught me how to do it and how to feel it and understand it. So much of what Paul has done for me is to work out with me how to put it into words and language I can think about. I grew up as part of a polite surface illusion. I’ve kept her secret and been her person all my life no matter what it cost me, things were never put into words. I had no words for it. Randomly I have moments when I grieve over that. What things might have been like without it. It’s somewhat like breaking out of that chain, and then finding pieces of it I’m not even aware of, still clinging. The child is trailing me, muttering and scowling, but at least I know what it is now. I have some idea of what I need to do with it, even if I mostly don’t want to.
I’ve been wanting to fight. Hard. It’s wanting to shove against Flynn and Jasper and Paul and check, a lot, and I know what I’m checking on. I have always been bright enough to control people around me, for them to see and think what I want them to think, to do what I feel safe with them doing, and largely it’s not to see me and to leave me alone. I know I can’t do that with Flynn and Jas and Paul, and I want to keep making sure they see through anything I can do, that I can’t win and I can’t fool them to keep reminding myself that they’re stronger than me. That’s what makes me feel safe. And I’m not being honest there, because I don’t want to admit that some of this is also about pushing and looking for weakness, Paul flat out told me he knew what I was doing when I last tried it on him. It’s about trying to dismiss them as just another idiot I can manipulate when it feels safer to separate myself, I know I did it as a child. And then within seconds of that victory comes utter despair, because if you win you’re safe but you’re alone again. Some of what Gerry taught me to do lately is deliberately teach Paul the tricks, take them all off the table so there isn’t anything I can pull that he can’t see through, and actually that bit of tuition from me was less about teaching him anything than letting him get the full measure of me. See all of it. Once he did, I haven’t managed to get anything past him since. He knows what to look for and he’s all over it, and it’s one huge relief.
This is safe, sane, secure love, I knew that long before they asked me to stay. It’s a different world and I know it is. It isn’t going to go silent or walk away, it isn’t going to refuse to talk or shut doors, old habits have no relevance here. I never knew about wanting to slay dragons and climb mountains for someone before, I didn’t realise how much of your life it could dominate, I will do this for them because this is what they deserve from me, the very best I can give them, untainted and unreserved. I’m just aware I feel – slightly unfocused in some way. I’m not sure how. I’m not sure why.
I’m not asking for a reply or for wisdom, although in my experience you have plenty of it. Talking to you, to Gerry, to Riley is part of what’s keeping me sane because you know what some of this feels like, particularly from our particular perspective, and Flynn has said to me a few times, admitting the loss, acknowledging it, is what lets it go.
Be safe, we’re thinking of you.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
For hours through the night Tom thought about the parts of that mail that had branded themselves in his mind. It hurt to read. It hurt still more to know he wouldn’t respond. He could so easily have reciprocated. He could easily have confided as much himself to that man in Wyoming as Dale was saying to him, and he knew – oh he knew what Dale meant. And yet chilly, he knew he wouldn’t. In the morning he went through the rituals of life here at the camp, he spoke to Jake in the civilities and sentences that meant nothing, and like a cuckold’s walk of shame he slipped into the communications tent while the others were unpacking barrels of fresh supplies from the daily yak train that arrived at base camp, and typed in a few lines, the bleak equivalent of the coward does it with a kiss.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I wish I had half your guts and I know never will have. You see this stuff in yourself and you get off your duff and do something about it. I see this stuff in myself and I have done all my life, and I piss off up mountains and snarl at Jake. I didn’t show your mail to him, and that’s another hard admission. Not that he wouldn’t want to see it, he loves news of any of you. But there’s way too much in your mail that could be me and I can’t face talking about with him because he would get it. Properly, about you but still worse about me. At least if I don’t show him something in writing I can go on pretending that he probably doesn’t know.
I bought him a medal thing once. A Saint George medal, little silver medallion in a market in Peru. He never takes it off. I told him it was the patron saint of boy scouts, the usual kind of flip and sarcastic comment I make, and he laughed. I’ve never told him it’s actually the patron saint of heroes. Look. Snarks. I didn’t know much about them apart from the basic reference. Jake did. There’s a fair bit of Snark hunting going on up here too, but Snarks are just a simplified version of the root myth and I think the original would make a hell of a lot of sense to you now. Ask Paul about the Fisher King.
Nos morituri te salutamus
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The Fisher King. But not handless maidens. That one was too difficult to confess to.
Nos morituri te salutamus. Largely because writing such bullshit as that in this place meant he damn well deserved that Caesar’s thumb be down.
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015