Thursday, September 24, 2015

Everest - Chapter 13


Letter from Emerson and Bennett LLP
Counsellors at Law,
est. 1901, Boston, Mass:

May 1st

Copies circulated to:

Mr. G. Meier, Seattle, Washington;
The Honourable Judge N. P. Carey, Lansing, Michigan;
Mr. B. Winthrop, Portland, Oregon;
Mr. D. J. Rosario, New York, New York;
Sgt. W. T. Cole (ret.d) Corpus Christi, Texas;
Professor M. G. Damiano, Universita de Roma, Rome;
Mr. M. Perez, Hobart, Australia
Dear Sir

I am instructed by Mr. Jacob Winthrop Forbes in conjunction with your comments posted to the Manhattan Times, publication date April 30th  article ‘Only Hours To Go! #Idiedathousanddeaths’ by Madeleine Loudon, and in particular your social media referencing #notbloodylikely, #dramallama and #overit, to present his compliments, to thank you most kindly and to inquire on his behalf: does your husband know that you are out?

Yours most sincerely

Reginald Emerson
Attorney at Law.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

They started up the mountain for the final time with the summit as their goal in the early hours of May day. May the 1st, the festival of Robin Hood and St George. In English history this had traditionally been a day of gathering may blossom from the hawthorn trees, a holiday with May poles and Morris dancing and other such scary elements of life in the British Isles. He’d always loved the smell of hawthorn blossom at this time of year at home where the scent hung in the air in the fields and lanes. May didn’t seem to have reached the icy chill of base camp in the dark.

They had met in the mess tent shortly after four thirty am with coffee and breakfast, filling up their thermoses with hot tea to carry with them, and they entered the ice fall in ordered silence. Spitz, Bill, Lobsang, Phoenix, Pemba, Tom, Jake and Dorje.

“I want to ask Dorje to try for the summit with us.” Tom had said abruptly to Jake in the middle of the night on the day of that God-awful meltdown. Neither of them had been sleeping, not that it was ever easy in base camp, but Jake appeared to have no plans for sleeping tonight and was quite simply lounging with an arm behind his head, the other around Tom, watching condensation form on the tent roof above them by the light of the battery lamp. He hadn’t turned it out tonight. He hadn’t commented either, just left it where it was, casting its soft, diffuse light through the tent and preventing the darkness or shadows from surrounding them.

He made an interested hmm sound, which made his breath steam above him. Tom twisted his head to see his face, feeling as passionate about this as he felt as uncertain and chaotic about every other damn thing on the planet right now.

“He’s climbed as a porter, he’s climbed with us as a guide, but if he can put a summit on his record then he’s going to be in demand as a guide for expeditions next year, he’s not going to have to worry about employment again. He’s been good to us. The oxygen cache was his idea and he’s a bloody good climber, he’s fully acclimatised.”

And there were other reasons why the summit was a precious opportunity to Dorje. Vital reasons that no one else would care about.

“We can arrange for all our guides to make their shot with Shem if they’d like to.” Jake added, thinking about it. “She’d appreciate the company. Pemba, Lobsang and Phurba. That’s a good idea. Yes, if Dorje feels like climbing with us I’m all for it.”

Bill and Spitz had immediately agreed. Dorje had been such a vital part of so much of their work with the clients that he and Pemba in particular were established parts of the team, it was hard to imagine being here without them. Dorje had gladly accepted the invitation, as had the other Sherpa guides: ‘thank you’ wasn’t a word used much by the Sherpa men, they tended to deal in actions more than words, but their pleasure was shy and clear. Lobsang and Pemba were prepared and planning this time to support Phoenix as far as he climbed, to stay with him and to go down with him as the need arose. Dorje, Tom made very clear, would be an entirely free agent on this climb. A part of their team but climbing for himself as they all were, and just as Pemba and the other two would be free to on the next summit bid. If Phoenix made it through to camp three this time, then he’d be acclimatised enough to be a part of that summit bid with Shem and the others.

Shem had checked their medical kits comprehensively and personally the day before they left, oblivious to Bill’s exasperated protest to leave his kit alone and he was perfectly capable of doing it himself. The painkillers, the pre set syringes of dex, the dex tablets: she checked the lot and replaced and added supplies where she saw need, and Tom kept his distance but let her get on with it, aware she made no invasion of any other part of their kit but the medical supplies. She had made a quick but thorough examination of every one of them too in the last hours of the day, spending a while sounding out Jake’s chest before finally shaking her head and pulling her stethoscope from her ears to let him put his shirt back on.

“Completely clear. You’re fitter than a bloody horse, you’ve acclimatised well and I have no idea how with your height, I thought you’d be the one I had to worry about. Tom, how are the shins?”

She poked and prodded thoroughly. They were still slightly tender: they were going to be, and higher up Tom had no illusions that they’d be painful. But the hours of taking anti inflammatories, massage and ice that Jake had kept up irrespective of whether he was willing or not, had done the job. She cleared them all as fit to go, and she would be here, manning the radio with Max and Bart, keeping the deserted camp going and ready for any need for support that might arise.

She joined them in the mess tent for that last breakfast, dressed and quiet in this frozen hour. Tom had held a suspicion for a while that she kept an eye all the time on what they ate and that they all did eat regularly; it was unobtrusive but she was always around at any mealtime and more than once he’d seen her hand a mug of hot chocolate to someone, apparently just sharing a spare cup while she drank from her own, but it was often someone who’d been too tired or busy to eat, or was looking cold or drained. He avoided her enough to evade the risk of her trying her strategies out on him, but he saw a strongly nurturing instinct in the way she did it that did not gel with her stilted conversations with Emily, an oddness that she did this so carefully and with commitment to a random group of semi strangers up a mountain but not with her child. She stood with her hands dug in her pockets, her collar turned up high to protect her face and watched them walk out of camp. In silence; for some reason they all left in silence, the hush of the camp seemed somehow appropriate. Tom glanced at her face as they left. Unreadable. Weathered and still and as unmoving as her body in the thick jacket, scarf and hat. Watching them go somewhere she had yet to go, to fulfill a dream she’d held for years of climbing here. Pemba was waiting by the stupa as they left the compound and one by one they walked through the smoke from the fire he had lit there, burning the incense and juniper branches on the altar where rice and wine and sweets – a muddle of mars bars, M&M packets, chewing gum – was piled. Dorje caught Tom’s shoulder as he passed through the column of smoke, moving him deeper into it so it covered him. It was a blessing. Protection. Jake, directly behind Tom, walked deep into the smoke column with him, the white stream clearly visible in the darkness. And on the other side lay the mountain.

This was a place for purity. For focus and clean thought and for that reason Tom tried to blank Phoenix and anything else from his mind as they hiked up through the maze that was the entry into the ice fall, moving one after the other like Men at Arms moving quietly through the predawn landscape to take up positions for a battle. All of them scruffy, nondescript in the dark. Just woolly hatted, head lamped figures in varying heights with harnesses strapped over their climbing gear. And as the path wound higher, entering the twists and turns that blocked out the last glimpses of the tents and the lights behind them, it was like leaving Tartarus physically behind. Climbing up out of the slough of despond to somewhere untainted, somewhere sharper, less complicated, intensely more demanding. Spitz was leading point this morning, moving with the deceptive ease of long arms and legs and experience of ice climbing gained in his childhood in Spain. Bill was following him, brisk and efficient, a neat climber who for all his solidity and short, stocky power went lightly over the ladders as they reached the popcorn machine itself, the beginning of the icefall. Tom took the next place in the chain, ahead of Jake who had an eye on Phoenix climbing in the small crowd of Sherpa guides behind him. Pemba, Dorje and Lobsang had him more or less surrounded this morning; they clearly planned on there being no accidents.

There were places here where the route was narrow enough for only one climber to pass at a time and with care. Around a sharp blind corner Tom reached the edge of one of the crevasses too wide for the route to either pass around or for ladders to cross directly. You had to climb down into these gullies, down far enough to climb through the interior where the gaps were narrow enough for ladders, and then up the other side again. Spitz was already crossing one ladder deep below him over a gap; behind him Bill was just switching off the rope that led down the side to clip his harness onto the next rope that followed Spitz. Tom clipped onto the rope down and using his ice axe and crampons made his way down the vertical ice wall into the depths of the crevasse. It was about ten feet down. Darker in there. Blue in the darkness and yellow white where his headlamp shone on the ice, like some frosted ice palace from the childhood tales. He switched his harness between the fixed ropes again onto the long one that led across the bottom of the crevasse and began the clamber over the awkward pinnacles and bumps and angles of the tumbled mess of ice inside, working his way towards the single ladder that crossed the eight foot wide gap of the heart of the crevasse. Jake was coming down the vertical wall behind him, Bill was crossing the ladder ahead of him, and some metres ahead of Bill, Spitz was walking through the ice path towards the opposite steep wall. Then ahead, abruptly without a sound, Spitz disappeared feet first, straight down as the ground gave way below him.

The fixed rope they were all three of them linked to snapped taut, Tom felt it yank as well as saw it move, then one end gave way behind him, tearing out of its mooring in the ice wall with the titanium screws and whipping through the link on his harness as Spitz plummeted on the end of it, until a split second later Bill grabbed it in his gloved hands, dropping to his backside in the ice to stabilise and root himself with his crampons dug as deep as he could. Tom edged fast past Bill where he was sat braced. Bill had got the rope locked off, his teeth were gritted but his position was good and in this moment he was stable. Unhooking the coiled emergency rope from his harness where he carried it, Tom sounded out the ground just in front of the hole the fixed rope descended down into. It was a phenomenon known as a snow bridge. A thin patch of ice over the top of a crevasse, disguised by the snowfall on top of it. An illusion of solid ground. It acted just like solid ground until a mis-step broke through it. Spitz had gone right through creating a hole roughly three foot in diameter, his pack had broken it wider at the back. He was hanging from his harness on the fixed rope about ten feet below. He had his ice axe hacked into the wall and was working on finding a foothold on the sheer ice wall, but the fixed rope wasn’t designed to take this kind of strain, Spitz knew it, and he wasn’t moving too much. He was dangling, held only on the rope between Bill’s grip and the other ice screw attaching the other end to the ice wall, which was all too likely to give way too any minute. If it did, there would be very little to keep him from plunging however deep this crevasse might run, and even if he survived the fall, he would be irretrievable. Heart thudding, chest tight, Tom felt Jake’s hand close on the back of his harness, pulling him back onto safe ground and taking the back half of his rope, working efficiently to get it through his harness and wrapped around his waist in a way he could anchor as Tom clipped the other end to his own harness. The second coiled rope from Jake’s harness went over his shoulder and Jake secured the other end of that one to himself as well, bracing him as Tom moved forward again, crouched down and swiftly but with great care eased himself over the edge not to break any more ice down on top of Spitz, taking up the strain slowly to give Jake time to accommodate before Jake began to belay him slowly as he walked down the wall.

There was no need for talk. They’d done this so often in so many settings, jungles and ravines, forests, caves, waterfalls; Tom was the lighter climber of them by a couple of stone and Jake was an expert in handling a rope for him in a way that Tom trusted entirely; it was putting a very well-trained manoeuvre into action and they did it so fast that it was bare seconds before Tom was climbing down beside Spitz. Spitz had been scattered with snow and ice as he’d fallen, it was all over his face, his beard and hat and suit, he was white faced, his teeth bared. Tom crab walked across the wall to reach him, leaning down to clip the second rope onto Spitz’s harness and tugging it hard to check once it was secure.

“Got you. It’s fixed. Jake, he’s safe.”

Jake had help up there, Tom felt it within seconds; Jake was perfectly capable of handling the rope by himself efficiently while Tom climbed back up the wall but he was simply towed up fast without much need to climb. Tom pulled himself up over the lip to find Dorje with Jake on his rope and Bill and Pemba hauling up Spitz on the other rope. A minute later Spitz got into Bill’s grabbing distance, Bill caught his harness and dragged him up onto solid ice, and Spitz rolled over, wheezing for breath. He was shaking all over. Tom felt Jake’s arm close around his waist, lift him to his feet and hold him hard against the solidity of Jake’s body, drawing him back from the edge.

“Let’s get the hell out of here. Tom, go.”

Jake gathered up the ropes, disentangling the fixed line and wrapping it around his waist, bracing it for Tom to pass Spitz. Tom put a hand on Spitz’s shoulder as he edged around him, clipped on to the line Spitz was still attached to and climbed rapidly on to the next fixed line on the vertical wall up out of the crevasse. Pemba and Dorje were already working on the other end of the fixed line behind them, setting another titanium ice screw to repair it. In a few minutes there would be no sign this had ever happened other than that hole in the ground, narrow enough to jump. Bill was crouching beside Spitz, an arm on his shoulders. Jake reached them, running the rope around his waist, and took Spitz’s arm to help him up.

“Now, let’s move. Spitz, follow Tom.”

Spitz’s hands were shaking. Tom felt the vibration on the line behind him as Spitz began to climb, heard Spitz’s gasping breaths and looked down, keeping his voice quiet as he climbed.

“Nearly there. Not far. Breathe, you’re nearly there.”

He reached the top, rolled over and leaned down to grab Spitz’s harness, stabilising him and dragging him the last few feet as he clambered over the top. He rolled over there, sat up and put his forehead on his arms. Tom crouched beside him, put an arm over his shoulders and felt the shaking abruptly worsen, the few gasping breaths that said for a moment Spitz sobbed silently. Bill climbed over the edge, his face softened with compassion at the sight of Spitz and he dropped a hand on his head, pressing over the snow scattered black woollen hat. Jake was the last over the edge, he paused to check the stability of the rope behind him, then reached for his thermos, unscrewed the top and poured a drink. He crouched in front of Spitz to put it in his hands.

“Get that down. It’s over. We practiced for this, it happens and it’s over now.”

They had rehearsed it. This and many other scenarios, hoping they’d never have to use any of them, but no rehearsal was the same as finding yourself dangling on a rope that was tearing out of its fixing, dangling helpless above a drop of God only knew how many feet. No matter how much you trained, you couldn’t prepare yourself for the animal fear of a near miss like that. Tom tightened his arm around Spitz, who fumbled for his hand with one of his and gripped it hard. And then he took another deep breath and reached for the offered cup of steaming tea. The few lines of Latin he muttered were under his breath but Tom recognised them.

“Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui…”

“Sancta Maria, Mater Dei,” Tom said softly with him, supporting Spitz’s shaking voice with his own. “Ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae.”

Spitz glanced up at him, wet eyed, but managed a shaky, faint smile.

“Que Dios te bendiga.”

Pemba, a good Sirdar with an eye to his client first and foremost, had kept the pink snow suited Ice Warbler behind them on a safe spot until the rope was once more secure. Lobsang emerged first over the ice wall to join them, Mr Loudon behind him and Pemba following him with the quick, efficient, light movements all the Sherpa seemed to make, no matter how hard the ground. Dorje came last, leaving the fixed rope restored behind them.

“Tired already?” Phoenix said brightly to Spitz.

He couldn’t have seen much. Tom reminded himself of that before he reflexively got up and gifted Ostrich Loudon with a whole new orifice. At the back of the crowd, mostly working on climbing down the wall on the far side, he probably hadn’t seen Spitz fall. They’d had him out so fast it was possible he had never realised at all. It hadn’t affected him either, so even if he had seen he probably wouldn’t see why it mattered, but an idiot could have perceived right now that Spitz was shattered, not tired. Tom gripped Spitz’s shoulder and got up, waving Phoenix ahead of him fast before Spitz – or Bill, who looked livid – had a chance to answer.

“We’ll keep moving.”

Jake stepped back, putting Loudon between himself and Tom as they clipped onto the next rope, mostly focused on getting Mr. Tit Loudon and his humungous mouth as far away from Spitz as possible.

The Sherpa believed in mantras. A non-emotional phrase or thought that allowed for centring the mind and tuning out extraneous matters. Loudon’s was probably something like blah blah blah... Or a whole lot of butterflies. No wonder the kid had no worries about being towed up the mountain; he had no comprehension of the dangers here, not the ability to see the wider picture, or anything much that didn’t touch his agenda. Tom watched him, starting up the next serrac. There were focused climbers in base camp. He’d watched a number of them in the meeting of expedition leaders the other day, the people who blocked out everything but their focus, their goal for the day, it was in the nature of the athlete. They varied between the elite and the obsessed and Tom was well aware that he and Jake fell into that category themselves; it was merely that some were saner than others. This was different. It was a simplicity of thinking, not malicious but the egocentricity and wilfulness that came in a kid before theory of mind developed. What his father would have called a young soul.

I wonder what the hell kind of soul he thinks I have?

His father would be kind to Loudon. He had always in Tom’s hearing been a compassionate man, a man who spoke with care and interest of all other people, who sought to understand his fellow man, to put them into comprehensible terms, to find something in them of the person he could relate to. Give him a man with AIDS, a drug addict kid, a battered wife – no few of them had appeared in the church from time to time – he could sit down with them and talk as easily as he talked to Lord and Lady Whoever at an evening dinner and they would respond to him. Tom had grown up in the middle of that hugely mixed society in and around the cathedral, watching him do it.

But not to me. If I hadn’t been his son… If I hadn’t been his son he’d have talked to me as kindly as he did the others, whoever I was, whatever I’d done. I suppose he didn’t live with the others. They didn’t mess with his private life.

He’d been so saddened. The sadness had been terrible to bear. His mother had just never spoken of The School Incident. Never. She’d pretended very effectively that it had never happened, and really… probably she’d been very little different to the way she’d always been.

That incident... changed things. But not really that much. I think… I think maybe it was always like that.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

At least the Snark stuff was gentle nonsense without too much deeper meaning, exactly the kind of thing I wanted taking up space in his head right now.

It took the whole day after the meltdown in camp, doing nothing much but laying together and getting him warm before he completely stopped shaking. Hours to get to the point where I was convinced he was recovering from the state of shock he’d been in when I carried him out onto the plateau. Hours to get him feeling safe enough to unfreeze and be able to talk, and when he had, he’d said things I’d never heard him get close to before. I’d seen him in the lower levels of this state plenty of times but never this bad. Never this distressed. He still thought he’d hit me. I’d seen his face when he came at me and there was no aggression anywhere in it. Complete overwhelm, yes. Knowing I was going to make him let go the disaster he was just about containing, and panicking; yes. But whatever he’d wanted to do when he hurled himself at me, hurting me was not a part of it. Tom is a pretty useful man to be alongside in a fight, and we’ve had to handle a few together in our time. A couple of drug runners we’d accidentally stumbled over in Nicaragua came to mind. If he’d intended to hit me, he wouldn’t have missed. I’d just stood there representing everything he felt safe enough to hurl himself against, everything that was too much to keep inside any longer and he’d known I’d contain him. We hadn’t got down to exactly what had triggered him although he’d told me everything he could and I had a fair idea. Later when he was starting to get restless and was together enough to cope with being anywhere near other people although I kept him with me the whole of that time because right now I wanted him in arm’s reach never mind in my line of sight, I had a quick ransack through our inbox and the deleted box and anywhere else I could think of to retrieve mail but there was nothing there to find. That didn’t mean it had never existed.

Impulse wanted to lob a quick email at Wyoming basically along the lines of will you kindly stop your brat stressing the living hell out of mine? It wouldn’t have been fair or just, and I was not annoyed with Dale. If we were on the ranch tonight I certainly wouldn’t have asked Dale to stop or interfered, although I’d have insisted on being there and hearing what was said. It was not Dale I wanted to punch out; I reserved that particular desire for a clergyman in England.

It may not be a good time, but it’s his time. And I know it feels like he’s coming apart. He isn’t.

Flynn knows what he’s talking about. Apparently his brat did too, but I’ve seen the evidence and the changes Flynn has guided in people, me included. That part of his advice was what he knew I needed to hear, and it wasn’t so hard to get. I’d never heard Tom say any of this stuff before. Not even be able to hint at it without going numb and shutting down, or sliding off the subject in another direction. This was new, this was different and I could feel the difference. Difference is good. Difference goes somewhere new. He just looked like it had beaten the hell out of him on its way, he looked shaken and bereft and shattered, and it was horrible to see. 

I persuaded and nagged gently until he ate, settled us in for a very early night, and dug out a large bar of chocolate and the silver hip flask I carried in my kit which I’d had filled in a little bar in Kathmandu with French brandy. We shared the chocolate, washed it down with the brandy, and alcohol in high altitude is pretty potent. We rarely drink, we rarely get the opportunity, but on the extreme quiet as he doesn’t like to admit to them, Tom has a few very expensive tastes and really good brandy is one of them. He relaxed bit by bit, his eyes gradually began to look less hyper alert for danger and flashing to every sound, and eventually, near to dawn he slept, his face hidden in my chest in a way he rarely lets himself do. I lay for a long time feeling his soft, even breathing against me before I could doze off. In a couple of days we’d be heading out of here on our summit bid; that was what he needed. For things to get moving, for the waiting to be over. Once that started he’d have plenty to focus on, to keep him physically and mentally tired out, to enjoy; plus emails weren’t going to easily follow us up there. That was probably a good thing.

Our kit was packed, stacked and ready to go. Bill was supervising that part, plus keeping an eye on Mr. Phoenix Loudon Esquire, who was being cut dead by Bart and Max who were disgusted with him and defensive on our behalf. Shem was managing a fairly icy politeness, I don’t think she had the heart to cut him entirely. Spitz was pretending largely that Mr Loudon didn’t exist, and from Bill’s account, Phoenix hadn’t noticed much of any of this at all.

When I’d asked Phoenix, our little P.A.L, to join Bill and I for a little chat about his decision to run a press conference without notice on our expedition, he’d looked up from his laptop with a bright smile that was just the sunny side of panicky and I’d thought he was at least aware that we weren’t going to be happy with him. As we worked through our discussion and once he’d accepted that being charming was not going to prevent us having this conversation, his main defence was that a) it was our fault for coming back early; if we’d come back when he’d expected us to we’d never have had to know about it, and b) if we would just accept doing what he wanted when he wanted it, he wouldn’t be forced to go behind our backs and we’d get along fine. When I finished laughing and explained that the word ‘no’ might not have figured much in his vocabulary up to this point but it did now he’d met me, cutting in ahead of Bill who was looking increasingly like he was about to start shouting, Phoenix tried out some tears on us. Evidently that too was usually pretty effective at getting people to back off and stop saying things he didn’t want to hear and he was good at it. Real head down, dripping eyes, sad but brave, manly I don’t cry but you’ve driven me to it sniffling, the works. I was thinking mostly of Flynn and his manipulative behaviours bingo sheet, which he swears they don’t have written down anywhere for their clients but I know he and the others play all the same, while we waited politely for him to finish. It was clear he felt we should have been apologising and trying to pacify him. He then tried arguing that we were about to lose his valuable custom if we didn’t stop annoying him; Bill explained that we did not give an airborne digestive process about that and it would take a mere half an hour to get a chopper out here to remove Phoenix and his money to Kathmandu, and he’d be happy to help him pack and wave bye bye. At this point I expected Mr Loudon to get annoyed, get real and get down to business. 

Instead it was apparent he’d run out of strategies and was plain bewildered we didn’t seem to know the script. And were still being cross with him. Or rather looking grim and talking to him quietly, seriously and in Bill’s case, damn sternly.

He’d taken off the backwards boy-band cap and had resumed a knitted hat. I didn’t know where he’d got it; it didn’t look at all his kind of thing or belong with the rest of his kit, but he was wearing it roughly shoved on the back of his head and the collar of his jacket turned up like Tom did. He didn’t, as Tom and I had expected, start threatening us with bad press. I wondered whether he was naive enough to believe we weren’t aware of his blog or to see this as two separate situations – that he said what he wanted there in private and it wasn’t a deliberate attempt to impact on us, so we shouldn’t take it personally. That made a difference. This lad wasn’t the brightest of buttons.

Bill and I had discussed our possibilities in the few minutes we’d spent planning before I went to get Phoenix. There was the whole tempting option of flying Mr Loudon the heck out of our hair. The probable consequences of that one didn’t bother me at all, and the consequences of him staying had the potential to bother me a whole lot. Tom really didn’t need this crap, none of us needed this crap, we’d given Phoenix multiple chances here and our duty was long since done. But. With the cash he had available, as naïve and bloody willful as he was, with clearly his mother and press agent egging him on with no greater grip on reality or intelligence than he had, I could see exactly how this might go. There were men in base camp living hand to mouth outside of the climbing season; he’d find someone who’d take him up whether he was fit to go or not, and who might not worry about the ethics or safety of doing so. Worse, he might just grab the kit and go anyway. I could see a risk of us ending up abandoning our climb to have to get Phoenix down off the mountain, because even if he flew himself right back here and climbed independently, we were still going to feel responsible for him. Too much risk of us ending up averting – or worse, participating – in a tragedy that we wouldn’t get over. That Tom, particularly, would never get over.

The right decision for the team was that, however irritating, it was going to be less hassle to have Phoenix in our tent pissing out, than outside pissing in.

I explained to him what slander was, in some detail. His eyes got a bit wide. I further explained breach of contract, data protection, invasion of privacy and would have included press regulation except I wasn’t convinced he was understanding a lot of what I was saying.

When I was working for security firms and the CM Police it was often the case that the armed robbers you were escorting from the scene where they’d been terrorising a small crowd of people were chatty, pleasant guys in the van who told you about their pet dog and swapped anecdotes about their favourite hockey team like the last few hours never happened. Or the surly looking guy you just pulled over in his car for erratic driving goes big eyed and swears it isn’t his car, he’s never seen the car before in his life despite the fact he’s sitting in it, and he certainly wasn’t driving it. Besides he doesn’t even drive. What Flynn calls immature cortical development and poor executive function: they don’t get why the fact you damn well saw them do it should have any bearing on the situation, reality gets distorted their way and cause and effect link up the way they think it should without a need for fairness, truth or objectivity. Essentially the body’s fullygrown but you’re dealing with someone whose brain has wired itself up around social skills stuck somewhere in early grade school. A lot of the time there’s good reason. Most of the worst criminals I ever met had childhoods that made you desperately sorry for the child they were, and should have involved the prosecution of at least one key adult in their life. There are others who have been raised and trained by equally poorly equipped adults, and others who have just not been required by life or circumstance to grow up.  I ran into no few of those at boarding school. Tedious.

Lunch was dhal. It nearly the blew the top of my head off.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Phoenix signed the contract I wrote out in front of him and nodded a lot with his eyes still wide while I read him the riot act in words of one syllable. The mess tent needed fixing; a tear around one of the plastic windows was starting to rip loose and I got that sorted before I left, half an eye on Walter Mitty settling down with his laptop again. A bit forlornly I thought. Less evil genius than pest. Tom had him pegged about right. He usually does.

However Mr. Loudon was not getting any opportunity for further creative pestering on this expedition.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

They made it through the ice fall in under four hours, struck right through camp one and were out on the blindingly white snow of the wide Western Cwm in the blue ice canyon around nine am. It was too early to be seriously hot there yet, but even in the bright early morning sun they had stripped from the waist up down to t shirts and sunglasses and were hauling it slow and steady, surrounded by the sharp, colossal grey and white mountains on every side. Nothing but snow, rock and open sky, and the few climbers in the distance on the Cwm ahead of them. A silent world, open to the sky. Tom, Spitz, Bill, Jake and Dorje were all carrying oxygen canisters and the additional kit they would need at the higher camps and their backpacks were heavy. Pemba and Lobsang between them were carrying all of Phoenix’s kit. He was climbing with nothing at all but the clothes he wore, and Tom had to give credit where it was due, he kept up with them through the ice fall. He was light and he was reasonably fit now from the training, and he’d picked up the techniques they’d taught him; this was his third time through the ice fall and he didn’t do that badly. It was above camp one on the start of the Cwm, the relentless slog interrupted by the ladders crossing the crevasses that he slowed. A lot of climbers in base camp maintained that ‘anyone relatively fit can climb Everest’. Loudon was giving an excellent example of why that just didn’t work out. The Cwm was a relatively gentle stretch; if you weren’t doing it with so little oxygen, with the severe fatigue and effort of movement that it caused, it would be an easy walk. At this altitude and beneath the heat of the sun, even this was a struggle. Jake had stayed close with him, pacing himself to Phoenix as Tom paced himself to Jake, watching Phoenix, with that stupid pink suit finally stripped down to hang around his waist as he was sweating like a pig, gradually get slower, and slower, and the pauses to rest become more frequent as he had to recapture his breath and talk himself into making the next few steps upwards. He’d burned out all the energy he had in the ice fall, matching their speed; he had nothing left now. The stamina, mental or physical for this climb just wasn’t in that pretty little body. 

He was less than a quarter of the way up the Cwm when he finally sat down on the ice, white and panting and coughing. Jake crouched near him, waiting, nodding hello to a couple of climbers from the German team as they passed them. 

“It’s the ankle playing me up again,” Phoenix said plaintively to Jake when he had some breath to spare. “If the Sherpas can help me up as far as camp two I’ll be fine when I put it up for a few hours.” 

Here we go. 

Jake nodded calmly, unmoved. “What help do you need?”  

“The rope thing, like Bill did?” Phoenix indicated with his hands. Hot, legs aching fiercely and fed up, Tom resisted the urge to spit, mostly in an attempt to get some of the foul taste out of his mouth that Phoenix left him with. Jake shook his head serenely.   

“I told you we weren’t going to do that.”

“But it’s the way to help an injured climber, isn’t it?” Phoenix persisted. “I’m not tired, it’s just the last of a healing injury. Nurse it a bit and I’ll climb on tomorrow.”

Jake smiled, but Tom saw his eyes level and fix very directly on Phoenix’s in a way that made his own stomach tighten and apparently got Phoenix’s attention very quickly too. “Phoenix, Tom is walking on half healed shin splints. Bill’s coughing his lungs up, Spitz is bruised and probably in shock, we’re all a bit on the battered side. That’s how it is here. We’re going higher, it’s a long way to camp two, it’s going to get a whole lot tougher than this. If you’re not up to making it to camp two you’re going to find the Lhotse face impossible.”

“But I’ll be fresh in the morning, I just need a little help now!” Phoenix protested. “This is what I paid the big bucks for, that’s what they’re paid to do, they’re climbing to help me! It’s no chore to them!”  

‘They’…. I knew this was going to happen.   

Tom opened his mouth, perfectly ready to explain to Batbrain Loudon exactly what was on his mind, and Jake cut in ahead of him, cheerful but blunt.   

“No. I told you how it was going to be. I decide how this expedition runs, not you, and no one on this expedition is going higher than they are fit and able to do alone, I don’t want to see anyone die. I have a partner and family, the Sherpas have wives and families, I’m not risking their lives trying to rescue a climber who ignored the warning signs he was struggling, went higher than he should and didn’t know when to turn back. No one is taking on the drain and risks of short roping anyone not in serious, immediate crisis. If you’ve hit the wall and you’re taking the decision not to climb higher then that’s no shame, it’s the hallmark of good sense. A lot of good, sensible climbers will decide the same and some of them won’t make it as far as you have. I’ll take you back down to camp one, Pemba and Lobsang will stay with you, you can rest and go down to base camp in the morning.”  

And with all his messing about, he was keeping them out on the Cwm just as the hottest hour of the day hit it. It was about 90 degrees out here, the glare off the ice was getting bad and Tom put a hand up to shade his sunglasses.   

“Whichever one it is, the longer we stand in the heat, the harder climbing it’s going to get and you’re going to end up with snow blindness.”

“Up or down?” Jake asked Phoenix. Who glowered at him.   

“Do you know what publicity you’ll get if you put me on the summit?”  

Jake shook his head. “I’m not ‘putting’ anyone on the summit. I’m organising an expedition for climbers to attempt the summit themselves if they choose to and they’re able to. Big difference. Get up, we need to make a decision. Up or down.”   

Phoenix swore at him. It wasn’t particularly creatively, and he stopped with his mouth open when Tom interrupted him and swore a whole lot more comprehensively, dispassionately and loudly at no one and nothing in particular. Two Australians climbing around them gave them a rather alarmed look. Jake gave them a friendly nod and smile.   

“Yeah, I can do that too.” Tom snapped when he finally ran out of phrases in English to reel off. “Know all the words, any idiot can say them. Act like a grown up for God’s sake, and make a rational decision. And keep your filthy mouth off Jake, he’s most of the reason you’ve been able to climb at all.”  

He got a flat stare of equal dislike straight back at him. Phoenix had dismissed him the first time he ever laid eyes on him. Not manipulable, saw straight through his crap, way too much like him. Brat competing with brat. Then Phoenix got up and slowly carried on up the rope. He managed another fifteen minutes up the steep bank in which he covered twelve feet at most, largely on his hands and knees before he sat down again on the ice and this time Tom could see the frustration openly in his face.   

“I can’t. I’m done.”

“I understand, and I respect your decision.” Jake said mildly. “We’ll see you down, camp one isn’t far.”  

It was fifteen minutes climb down to camp one; a much shorter, easier climb that the Pink Canary managed with no sign of a limp, just of being very tired and struggling with both the physical challenge and the reduced oxygen. Jake saw him to his tent and left Pemba starting a stove in the tent he and Lobsang would use, promising he’d see to it that Phoenix had a meal and plenty to drink and that they’d take him safely down to base camp in the morning. Jake radioed down to their base camp using Phoenix’s radio and left him with it talking to Shem, Bart and Max. Shem at least would give him some consolation.  

It was one hell of a slog back up the Cwm in intense heat, at the worst possible time of day to be doing it having stood around half the day with Duckface Loudon. As a result it was their slowest time up the Cwm so far, near to three hours hard trekking, and by the time they reached camp two where the twenty or so tents were clustered in the snow in small, scattered groups, Tom’s legs were painful to the point that every step made him swear under his breath in a steady litany, sweat was streaming off him and he was tired to the point of being light headed. Their tent was waiting. Spitz, Bill and Dorje were sitting in the sun with their own tent flaps open, Bill and Spitz stripped down to underwear to cool down in the heat and to let their sweat soaked clothes dry off. One of them had thoughtfully left a sack of clean ice shards by Tom and Jake’s tent, ready to melt for water. Tom stripped off as far as he could, filled a pan with them, stuck it on their stove which lit after some persuasion, and bolted ibuprofen with the last of the long since cold water in his flask while Jake parked him on the floor of their tent, got his crampons and boots off and checked his legs over. They were sore; expectedly sore but no worse than they had been, and Jake went out again to hack another pan of ice shards, wrapping these ones in a towel to put on Tom’s shins and dropping him on his back with his legs raised by both their rucksacks.   

“How burned are you?”  

“... Burned.” Tom admitted. Jake dug in the rucksack for the heavy duty sun lotion they were re applying every couple of hours up here due to the sun glare off the ice. And in ridiculous places. Tom winced, snorting slightly as Jake ran a palmful of the lotion over his face and under his chin and around his nostrils. The glare came straight upwards; if you’d never before had suntanned nostril interiors, here was the venue to explore it. Jake smeared another palmful of the stuff over his own face, covering a tan that was turning a deeper weather beaten golden brown every day beneath his fair hair. He tanned easily at any time. Tom, with his black hair and Celt white skin and always bloody awkward, burned far more easily.  

Jake radioed down to base camp before he settled down. Shem reported that Phoenix was resting and being appreciated by a couple of women from the Canadian team, and seemed in good spirits now despite having to turn back. Tom suspected that he had already managed to twist the facts around into something more comfortable in his mind, but the freedom of him falling away from the team was a great one. A release. Up here, beside Jake in the white, barren slope of camp two with a view through the open tent flaps of desolate, white spectacular magnificence against blue sky that reminded Tom of Hilary’s quote – ants in a land made for giants – with the challenge of the higher mountain there above and awaiting them in the morning, life was fiercely, harshly wonderful. Free.   

“Anything else sore?” Jake asked him, stowing the radio away.   

“No, I’m fine.”  

Jake sat heavily down on the mat beside him, digging in his soft inner boot to explore one foot.   

“I'll need to adjust my socks tomorrow, I think. Can't afford a blister.”

Tom sat up at once, grabbing for his ankle.   

“Let me see.”  

The foot was cold, mostly white even through the layers of clothes he’d been wearing, but the small patch of pressure was visible. Tom examined it carefully, then swatted his leg, leaning past him to grab their first aid kit and find an alcohol wipe.   

“You be careful. Pad that bloody sock. Properly.”   

“I will, it’ll be fine.” Jake said mildly, watching him clean the pressure spot thoroughly. The alcohol usually hardened the skin off; hopefully that would prevent it breaking down. Tom checked the seam of his sock before he turned it inside out to keep the seam away from Jake’s foot and shoved the alcohol wipe into the side pocket of the rucksack.   

“Those socks could climb by themselves.”

“They’re going to have to, to keep up with yours?” Jake pointed out, putting his sock and boot back on again. “I don’t know whether Paul’s going to tell us to wash what we bring home or take it down to the far end of the ranch and burn it.”

“Paul’s not going to have to do anything for us, I’m binning the lot when we get to Kathmandu.” Tom informed him, “We’ll grab the basics in the market there. Enough to get to the US in.”  

They’d picked up razors and a whole spectrum of peculiar, cheap clothes bought from market stalls all over the world, entire changes of kit were something they were familiar with. There were very few items they carried, either of them, that were permanent fixtures in their lives. Jake put the ice back over his shins before he lay back on the mat beside him, looking out at the white snow and blue sky visible beyond their feet.   

“Keep that there. Did your mom do the laundry at your house?”  

Tom looked sideways at him, thrown and a little unsettled. “Where did that come from?”   

Jake shrugged. “You were the one living in the actual family home, not me. I’m interested.”  

“… no, the house keeper saw to that kind of thing. Cleaners did the house a couple of times a week and they handled the ironing.”   

“You learned at school? You’ve never had any problem looking after yourself.”

“I did a lot of outward bound stuff at school. Survival stuff, and school were pretty strong on you doing your own laundry in the upper years. So yeah. Lived out of takeaways mostly at university.”   

“I know Philip always made sure everyone that came through the ranch doors could take care of their own needs.” Jake said reflectively. “I saw him invest years in that with some of the family. Laundry, running the house, cleaning, keeping their room straight. Cooking for themselves and others. Not just how to do it and doing it well but the whole responsibility ethic. I don’t think he planned on any guy of his being helpless or a pain in the ass with whoever they set up home with.”  

“... that must have gone down better with some than others.”   

Tom said it stiffly, aware he was sounding like a stilted, affected prat and that it in no way reflected how interested he was, or encouragement to tell him more. Jake smiled anyway.   

“Oh, definitely. Some always needed help in the kitchen, some always needed help in the laundry room. But everyone had to try.” 

“…..Wade’s very practical. Army.” Tom said shortly. In the summer they’d spent on the ranch he’d been drawn to the irascible elderly man and liked him a good deal. “I’ll bet there isn’t much he can’t do. But I can guess Gerry’s reaction faced with chores he doesn’t fancy.”  

Actually, he’d very much liked Gerry too from seeing him around the ranch once or twice. For very different reasons, most of which involved carefully avoiding him.   

“I think he and Ash, er, shall we say ‘work’ on that?” Jake grinned as Tom snorted. “But Gerry’s the really house proud one in that household. You didn’t get much of that opportunity at home, did you?”  

“What, to pick out curtains? I was fine.”  

“There's that word again. Fine.” Jake turned his head to meet his eye, kind eyes but penetrating nevertheless. “I don't want to hear that word again unless you're talking about grains of sand.”  

Tom felt the thud of response in his chest. Laying down the law wasn’t much Jake’s style, he’d never put boundaries around language before – or at least overtly. And it was ... Captivating. Alarming and captivating, and bizarrely safe.   

“I was asking about whether your mom or dad ever spent time with you teaching you how to take care of yourself on your own.” Jake said gently. Tom found his mouth opening, stomach revolting at the thought.   

“They didn't need to.”  

“I’d argue that.”  

“I was perfectly competent.”  

“Yeah, that isn't the question, is it?”  

I didn't need anything from them.”  

“No, but you deserved it.”  

“Not emotionally, not financially, nothing.” Tom said fiercely.   

“You deserved it.” Jake said again, still gently.   

Tom rolled over, about to get up and stalk out, which was not easy to do in a tent, and made still less easy that Jake put an arm out, effortlessly holding him where he was with his tone conversational.   

“You know I’d always heard it's not easy to leave when you're flat on your back?”  

It was so ridiculously unfair and so typical of him that Tom swiped what he could reach of his hip, near to laughing in spite of himself.   


“I think …” Jake sat up to look at the saucepan of water on the stove. “..We finally have hot water. Tea or chocolate?”  

“... tea. Let’s pretend I'm a bloody grown up.”  

Tom sat up when Jake let him go, curling up in a ball to hold the mug that Jake passed him. Jake, who had emptied one of the American dried meal sachets of chocolate into his own mug before re filling the pan with more ice to start the process over again, re wrapped the towel around the ice shards and put it once more over Tom’s legs and sat back with his mug cradled between his hands.   

“This stuff reminds me of the old cocoa blend Philip liked. He used to make this in the evenings when I was a kid if he was reading with me – not very kidlike stuff I admit, that was mostly what was best about it.”  

Tom glanced up at him and Jake shrugged, sipping chocolate. “The IliadThe Odyssey. I loved that one. Under Milk Wood ... the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea… although David swore he couldn’t do the accent right. Who read with you at night?” 

He said it so cheerfully. Normally. Tom put the tea down.   

“Do we have to do this?”  


“Well if you feel like being wetter than a bloody lettuce you enjoy yourself.”  

Jake was ahead of his move towards the door, which lay across the path of Jake’s legs. He hooked an arm around Tom, shifted under him and Tom found himself pulled into Jake’s lap, trapped there as Jake settled with his back against the rucksacks.   

“Did anyone read to you when you were a kid?” he said as conversationally as if this was normal. Appalled, Tom squirmed against him, trying and failing to break the grasp of Jake’s arms which were expertly wrapped around him and holding on all too easily, his heart starting to thump hard. Not through fear, not through distress but because this went deep. This was a deeply private thing, something Jake knew damn well, and he was opening up even wider pretty much everything they’d opened up down in base camp the other night. Right now, all in one go as if now it was stuff that got talked about, ready or not, right here in this tent in the ice fields of the mountain.   

“We are not talking about this crap!”  

Yeah, some hope… Jake sounded sympathetic but he shook his head.   

“That isn't an answer.”  

“Well you're not getting another one.”  

“... is that how it is?”   

Jake’s voice was very mild but there was something in the way he said it that froze Tom internally and his twisting to escape quite promptly stopped. Jake’s tone had gone a fraction deeper. Definitely focused.   

“I asked a question.” he said quietly before Tom had time to think, and it was a soft quiet, a calming and not a sinister one. “I expect an answer. So take a breath, calm down and tell me.”

His arm around Tom’s waist was still holding pretty firmly. But his other hand was rubbing slowly against Tom’s back as if he knew exactly how this felt.   

I expect this of you.   

So Jake was apparently convinced they could do it. And that it was time, and they needed to. And Jake had earned that trust a million separate times, over and over again, every damn time he’d been patient, waited, said nothing and just cheerfully followed on. He’d more than earned it.   

It took a lot of effort. It was one of the scarier things Tom had ever done. But he shut his eyes, leaned hard against him and stayed where he was, took a deep breath and tried to get a grip, to let this happen. Aware that Jake was quiet, holding him close in the grasp of his larger, stronger body as if he was something delicate instead of gangly, still rubbing, not pressuring.   

“Yes.” He managed to say eventually. “Yes, they both did. A lot. My mother taught me to read when I was… three or so. Early. Probably in desperation; reading was about the one thing that got me to sit still…. Most of the classic British kid fiction of the time. Enid Blyton. Rosemary Sutcliff. Kenneth Graham. AA Milne. All the stuff I got you to read, you know it all.”

“I remember. That’s reassuring to know.” Jake sounded calm about it, exactly as if this was a normal social conversation. Tom kept his eyes shut, unable not to think of the texts in the vault at the cathedral, the giant books on the lecterns. He’d thought about them a lot in the last few weeks. About many things in that beautiful place.   

“… my father read some of the cathedral library books with me when I was small. The vault stuff. Sacred texts, a lot of them were handwritten there in the cathedral when it was an abbey. They’re beautiful things. Illustrated. Blues and golds, commissioned by – oh ridiculous names. Kings. Dukes. Historical names you’d know.”   

He and Jake had handled and read texts like that in some of the most ancient libraries in the world together, Jake loved artefacts and ancient script like he did, he found the same magic in them, but Tom could vividly remember being barely tall enough to see the top of the lectern, watching his father’s white cotton gloved hand very gently turning the pages of an eight hundred year old leather bound tome nearly as big as he was, hearing his voice reading the secrets of the curling, ornate script. Right now his hands were shaking hard. Which was so stupid. So irrational.    

Jake nodded slowly. “What about children’s books?”  

How is this the place for-”  

“Shhh. It’s ok, you can do this.” Jake’s tone was gentle and Tom paused, horribly aware his tone could be called whiny. Trying to just trust him and let go.   

“… yes. I loved reading, my father liked to read, the house was full of books.” “Well that’s nice to know too.”

Jake’s hand slid gently up his back, pausing to massage soothingly at the nape of his neck. “So they weren’t horrible about everything.”

“They weren’t horrible at all. They were decent people, decent parents, they did their best. I was just hard work and I was too much. I don’t blame them for that.”   

“I was a handful too for the same reasons.” Jake observed gently. “But people seemed to figure out how to manage. You said it was a mutual decision that you were self sufficient when you went to university.”



He said it quizzically, his tone very mild but it wouldn’t have been possible to bluff.   

“…I made it. They didn’t have to do another damn thing for me, I got permanently out of their hair.”

“Financially, emotionally, practically.” Jake echoed quietly. “Did they have any input into this?”   

“They didn’t really argue.”

“Did you want them to?”  

Tom shrugged slightly. Awkwardly. “The fact was they didn’t.”  

“They hurt you badly enough that you left them.”

“It wasn’t petty. It wasn’t attention seeking, it wasn’t a ‘gesture’. There wasn’t a relationship left by that time.”

“And that was their doing, I know. They started it. You already felt alone, so you thought you might as well be alone, then they couldn’t hurt you anymore.”  

How does he know this stuff? He sounds like he was there.   

Idiot. He listens to you. He’s been listening to you for years. He knows you. You know he does.   

“They let you down when you needed them most.”  


“And you felt like you didn’t deserve to ask for anything more. Is that true?”  

“… Probably.”

“… Yeah.”  

“Did Dale deserve his mother and what she did to him?”  

“I’ll bet he never publically humiliated her or screwed up the way I did.”

“Tom.” Jake said softly. “I said this before. You were a child. You did something that came naturally, in innocence. Not something intentionally, maliciously wrong. How could you have been able to see all the implications of that with adult eyes? How could you have had that knowledge at your age? And why should you have been the one that protected your parents when no one did much protecting for you? Is that really a reasonable thing to expect of a twelve year old?”  

… No.   

“I run when things go wrong.” Tom said bitterly, not entirely sure why he said it. “You know that. Freak me out and I’ll bolt.”

“I know. When it’s all too much, that’s the only thing left that helps.” Jake’s voice was close against his ear. “That’s ok. It’s coping, and we get it. Do you see what I mean now about anger? You never want a fight if you have a choice. You don’t hate anyone, you don’t want to hurt anyone, you won’t fight them to get what you want, you’ll leave. You won’t stay anywhere you think you might cause hurt. Philip used to say that anger was fear with a different coat on.”  


It isn’t anger, it’s fear.   

Of all base passions, fear is the most accursed…  

Jake was right. He was absolutely right. In many ways, it was humiliating to realise because he’d always known this. Always been a coward.   

What man is afraid like this? All the time of everything?! Much of the growling and snarling… is don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me. I hate it because it’s threatening, it’s stressful.   

Jake reached one handed into his rucksack and Tom saw the notepad he pulled out, the cheap lined tear off sheets they carried, and a biro. He flipped to a blank page and wrote something for a moment, then laid the pen down.   

“I want you to copy that ten times underneath.”

No!” Tom pulled against him in alarm, shocked to the point of incoherency, “No I bloody won’t,”

“It’s all right. You can do it.” Jake gathered him close enough to stifle the panicked struggling, talking very gently. “I’ve got you and I think you can do this.”  

“It’s a stupid, childish-”  

“It’s ok. I’ve got you, it’s going to be ok.”   

There was a time he’d nagged Jake to do exactly this. To use lines. To just insist he did whatever other brats did. And at the time he would have done it with dignity, in silence, with detachment. Certainly without making a horrendous scene like this, he had no idea why he was doing it except that he couldn’t stop. He was still trembling and it wasn’t with cold. He’d never been this upset about any form of discipline between the two of them since the day they’d met.   

It’s such a simple thing! Just do it. For pete’s sake just shut up and do it.   

Once he would have added ‘what does it matter anyway?’ Right now he knew exactly why it mattered. He still couldn’t move. After a moment Jake lifted him over to lay on the sleeping bag, putting the pen and book in easy reach and lay down beside him, one arm around his waist, his body against Tom’s.    

“You can do it. Take your time.”  

Aware that stupidly, ridiculously, his eyes were starting to water, Tom stared at the sentence written on the paper in Jake’s rapid scrawl. 

I deserved to be cared for as a child, and I deserve to be cared for as an adult.

“I can’t.”

His voice was rising in a really horrible, cracked kind of way. 

“Try.” Jake’s hand was softly rubbing his back, his voice was very gentle. “It’s just you and me here, it’s going to be ok. How about letting that in just for a moment?”   

People did this all the time. Gerry. Riley. Dale. Probably Wade at some point in the distant past. It was such a known, familiar thing. A mundane, tedious thing; that was the whole point of it. And it was ten – a mere, pathetic ten. It should have been hundreds, he more than deserved it. 

He’d never realised it could feel this hard.   

“It’s ok.” Jake said again, running a hand over his face. It wasn’t until he did it, wiping away various patches of flooding wetness, that Tom realised he was actually in tears. Helpless, pathetic, quiet but heaving tears.   

Melted bunny flambé. On ice.   


He picked up the pen by sheer force of will, trying to focus on the paper. His hand was still shaking, his handwriting came out like some spidery kid’s scrawl. Any proper Top would have objected immediately, torn the page out, demanded proper effort and control. Jake went on murmuring encouragement and laying there rubbing his back like it was perfectly fine, his chin against Tom’s shoulder, which helped enormously, prevented him from freezing entirely to the spot. And somehow, snivelling without being quite sure why, he wrote.   

“It’s what a kid that age does when something awful happens, isn’t it?” Jake mused aloud, running his fingers through the getting too long hair at the nape of Tom’s neck, somewhere around line six. “I remember. You can’t show the kind of emotion a little kid would at twelve – you’ve got too much dignity for that, you’re at the age where you mind terribly what people think of you, you’re afraid to embarrass yourself and you don’t really know how to handle hard emotion anyway, what to say, what to do with people…. Old enough to feel it, sensitive as all hell but none of the experience. So you have to do the ‘boy’ thing. Gruff. Stoic. I don’t care. The silent treatment. The hard shell. You can’t let anyone see what’s underneath and you don’t know how to begin handling it yourself and so what gets seen is… strop.”

He was borrowing freely from Tom’s vocabulary, the compassion deep in his tone.   

“And no one knew how to deal with that either, did they?”    

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The Flight of the Phoenix: the exclusive blog of Phoenix Loudon’s epic ascent of the World’s Highest Mountain.  

1st May   

At Camp Two!     

I’m here! Arrived early afternoon after a bit of a tight call out in the Ice Fall. Our Spanish team member made a bit of a beginners mistake and put his foot through an ice crust and the next thing I know we’ve got a team member dangling about twenty feet down inside a crevasse and in deadly peril! Thank goodness Dorje, our quiet but efficient Sherpa guide, knows what I’m capable of, and in seconds he was handling the rope for me while I climbed down alone into the darkness. I managed to abseil down to my stricken comrade and get another rope on him, and our wonderful Sherpa team hauled him out. The poor guy sobbed like a child once he was back on solid ground. He’s Catholic, I respect his faith and I don’t mind admitting I sat and prayed with him until he got his nerve together again and we climbed on. I heard the Sherpas talking afterwards about a quick rescue and a worthy climber; it’s good to have their approval since they’re the expert climbers among us and you know how much I admire them.   

One of our expedition members then began to slow on the ascent up to camp two, and our intrepid expedition leader was cautious as usual and turned him back. I admire the guy for going down, a good climber knows his limits and lives to climb another day. The rest of us pressed on and made camp two in good time, and we’re tucking into our fabulous MREs and candy bars since we’re too high up here for proper cooking.   

A few of my followers commented here and on twitter about my sharing that I’m known in the camp as a bit of the strong and silent type. I’m not antisocial. But I’m here with a job to do and I’m not the type for chatter or partying as some of the expedition members are, or for flirting around with some of the (hot) chicks in the other expeditions. Sometimes I get a bit restless, it happens, and I’ve done the occasional night climb here alone, just me and the mountain. When the going gets tough, the tough get going!   

On to camp three tomorrow, only two days now from the summit. 

Rock on!

Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015

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