Thursday, September 24, 2015

Everest - Chapter 15


Subject: Re: Re: Well just to cheer you up  

>>What’s happening with Flynn and the others? How are they handling this?
Flynn tends to make the world very small and straightforward when things are rough. It’s like being able to find the stillness to think about ‘right now’ instead of ‘everything’. There’s so much conviction in his ‘I’m the only thing you need to be paying attention to’ attitude that I find myself believing him. Paul is Paul only more so, he’s been amazing. Riley calls this standard brat stuff and is completely unstressed about it – to quote him, my work scares him; this is normal. Jasper is also very unfreaked by it. This kind of thing figures pretty strongly in his philosophy, it’s something you have a responsibility to do and  it’s good, it’s not something to worry about. I’m stunned at how patient they’re being with this mess. It doesn’t matter. They tell me that over and over again, it doesn’t matter, not to stress about it, it’s all a part of getting where we want to go. In their perspective the occasional disasters are just hiccups, nothing more significant. Gerry says the same thing, that in mid disaster he’s always convinced this time the world is ending and he finds himself avoiding Ash’s conviction that no it isn’t, this is fine, this is just a problem we can plan for and deal with. It’s that ability to keep your eyes on the big picture, not get lost in the moment. I do that all too easily.
Gerry has joined Riley in agreeing mine is the total reversal of their experience of being stressed out or in trouble, they both swear their chores quadruple if they’re grounded. I use any kind of activity or distraction to zone out and get further away, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to break the habit of. Flynn and the others work in a similar way with clients, starting them out in a very small structured routine and enlarging it gradually. There’s a sort of pyramid of functionality, starting with eating well, sleeping well and being able to be calm, and working upwards, in line with criteria for being allowed to leave the house, leave the yard, work with someone, work alone, etc. A few times I’ve reached the absolute bottom of the pyramid and been sent to bed for a few hours to calm down, which also helps me keep in mind that calming myself down is something I have to actively focus on and accept help with if I want more rope. Watching the client and joining in monitoring his level of functionality has given me a clearer understanding of my own experience of it. I never would have tried reducing stimulation or deliberately managing my stress in this way when I was at work or put any effort into figuring out why I felt and why, I just used more and more distraction to block it out, sublimated it, and I can see now why bad became worse. I don’t ever remember anyone teaching me ‘this is how to calm yourself down’. ‘This is how to figure out what your problem is and deal with it when you’re in a state’. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention on the day in school they taught everyone else.

 I suspect Gerry is also on what Riley refers to as ‘a tight leash’, but is looking calmer and more relaxed than he was when he first arrived, certainly he’s smiling far more. I can see things being kept very deliberately calm in the house right now, there’s a team effort going on. Ash is working Gerry hard, they’ve been out with Flynn and Riley every day, and Ri is getting worked just as hard from what he says, and from the chores he and Flynn are dealing with before he comes in for dinner. Luath is going out with them too, and I suspect he’s pushing himself as much as Ash is pushing

Gerry, and the same way Jasper pushes the client. Exercise, organisation, things to do, and tired enough to be relaxed and to sleep well: it’s a plan I know. There was something in one of Flynn’s papers on neurological regulation, sensory organisation and activation of the frontal lobe via exercise and physical tasks, I need to get his papers out and re read them more thoroughly. I distinctly remember thinking when I first came to the ranch that they had hit on an extremely useful excuse for a free source of labour.

  >>Are you able to let them handle it?

 Yes. They’re making it as easy as possible, we’re talking more about it than is at all comfortable, and now of course they’re taking no crap about it either, which was the aim but sometimes is easier to cope with than others. Breakfast time didn’t go too well a couple of days ago and Paul and Flynn both walked with me out as far as the pasture and out of earshot of the house, where I tried to explain some of it, which didn’t go well, and Paul as soon as he got the gist, went straight to what I actually meant. Try standing in a wet pasture in the rain at seven am in the morning, politely stammering out that it’s somewhat discomfiting having a crisis in front of witnesses with Paul interpreting by yelling at the top of his voice with dramatic emphasis. It’s difficult to stay stressed once someone’s made you laugh like that, and hard to feel like an idiot when Paul’s cheerfully acting a far bigger one. The morning did get better.
How are you handling anything with Jake when you’re under canvas and around other people all the time? That’s pure curiosity and an extremely personal question, I don’t expect an answer, and Riley has said before that you and Jake are often with or around teams of people you’re guiding, so this is probably something you’re very used to. I’m not sure on reflection how I would cope being anywhere with the others where they weren’t free to react as they usually do. I rely on it too much, especially at times when I’m not very together. But then this is still fairly new to me, and I live in a household where there’s no time or activity off limits. No one’s worried about what the client hears or sees unless things get fully physical, as he’s participating in the same standards and values, just in a different role and to a different degree to me and to Riley.

Where are you on the mountain? I know a climb up to camp three was next on the schedule.

Thinking of you 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Subject: Oh for God’s sake change the subject line occasionally 

 >> with Paul yelling at the top of his voice with dramatic emphasis ...........

are you serious?! How do you stand still in front of that? Jake wouldn’t dare, I’d change my name and emigrate. The whole thought of it makes me want to go for a long, long walk. Argh. In Inja’s sunny clime where I used to spend my time, etcetera etcetera, and you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ‘im that’s got it.

 We’re still in base camp. I made Jake take a few days rest to be sure he’d got over the altitude sickness, and the weather turned and it’s been rough high up for the last 24 hours. There are two teams at camp three right now, and according to the radio they’ve dug in and not been able to move. It’s proving to be a changeable year, with unpredictable weather slots. The trouble with that is that as soon as there is a clear slot identified, a lot of teams will grab it and try to go up together, and some of the teams are large and very slow moving. The next plan we need to make is an expedition to camp 3, which will be the longest expedition so far, and after that we’ll take a few rest days in base camp and get ready for for the final expedition to camp 4 and the summit attempt.

 How we handle stuff up here and in public. I’m not a lines or essays or corners sort of person, I never have been. There aren’t that many corners in your average jungle. There was a certain amount of thought on my part early on that I probably should pull myself together and/or be made to do it, but Jake’s useless at stressing about anything and just said it wasn’t for us. We live pretty un-material lives too, so there isn’t much that can be withdrawn.  I don’t deal well with limited space, and it isn’t usually about issues that can wait, so it is almost always physical. We’d most usually use a paddle, but we tried out a few things for the times when discretion’s the better part of valour and settled on some martinet thing Jake had as part of his Mounties kit for dusting dress uniform, which is allegedly French traditional although I’ve told him it looks downright kinky to me. It is practically silent and it hasn’t drawn attention, and here most people are more interested in trying to sleep or get warm than care what anyone else is doing in their tents, and while it’s probably something that Gerry et al would frown on we’ve worked on the principle of what people don’t know won’t upset them.

 What’s the significance of activating the frontal lobe? Regulation? If exercise does it, we ought to be regulated to the nth degree up here but no one’s looking that regulated to me. Possibly cold and low oxygen undoes the effect somewhat. The household sounds under a tight regime right now, which I admit sounds quite interesting. How is the train robbery investigation going? 

Look after yourself 

~ * ~

From: Gerry
To: Bigbear, Niall, Darcy, Wade

Ok, wtf is going on?  I’m in hospital
you know? Being operated on? I’m sitting here in a gown with no back to it and no dignity and you lot have started world war three and I have no idea what’s going on! Will someone explain the three thousand emails in my box?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

From: Darcy
To: Gerry  

THERE you are! Thank God, are you ok? When is the surgery? How have you got hold of your phone???

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

From: Gerry
8.30 am
To: Darcy

We just got here. Don’t want to talk about it. Ash had to go fill in forms, he just gave me my phone for the first time in days, what is going on???? 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

From: Darcy
8.33 am
To: Gerry, Bigbear, Niall, Wade

Some witch queen has been badmouthing Jake’s expedition in the press. Her son, who sounds a complete ass, is on the expedition and blogging from there. We’ve been commenting on her column and his blog, Niall’s been doing it with all his initials and rank in full and so has Wade, and now other bigwigs have seen it because of Niall’s commenting and some of my clients saw it too on my Twitter feed and started commenting and it kind of exploded, the downside is she’s loving the publicity. Btw, you’ll have a letter from Jake’s solicitor on your doormat when you get home, you’re going to want to get rid. Quick.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

From: Gerry
8.35 am
To: Darcy, Bigbear, Niall, Wade

Why have I got a letter from Jake’s solicitor?? I’ve been on the ranch for weeks being utterly innocent, I haven’t been this good in years!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

From: Darcy
8.39 am
To: Gerry, Bigbear, Niall, Wade

Yeah what was the Top/brat ratio in the house again? 5:3? 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

From: Gerry
To: Darcy, Bigbear, Niall, Wade

Shuddup. It was 1:1, Dale counts as at least three. Letter????

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

From: Darcy
To: Gerry, Bigbear, Niall, Wade

There were some comments posted on the column under your name. Bear felt you would have made them if you were able, so he made them on your behalf before I got hold of him. That bit hasn’t come to light yet but you’re on the circulation list for the cease and desist letter, so saving his butt is down to you.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

From: Gerry
To: Darcy, Bigbear, Niall, Wade

Again. Seriously. I leave you lot for fi 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

From: Ash
To: Darcy, Bigbear, Niall, Wade

Guys, Gerry’s being got ready to be taken down now, thanks for distracting him while he waited. I’ll let you know this evening how he’s doing. He’s fine, don’t worry.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The Flight of the Phoenix: the exclusive blog of Phoenix Loudon’s epic ascent of the World’s Highest Mountain.
2nd May 
At Camp Three!

I arrived in good time yesterday and am blogging from the spectacular heights of the Lhotse Face. In the early hours of the morning we’ll go up to Camp Four, sleep the rest of the day, and in the early hours we’ll make our summit bid. Thank you for your many kind comments and congratulations about the fellow climber I saved in the Ice Fall, and for your good wishes to him. He’s recovering well, although his nerve is badly shaken. I don’t chatter with the others much, I’m known as a bit of a silent watcher, but I’m there where I’m needed and I think they know they can rely on me.

Being somewhere alone and this wild lets you think so clearly. I’ve been sitting here tonight reflecting on the story of the Fisher King… and it makes me think too of Plato. “There is a place that you are to fill and no one else can fill”. If you just have the guts to look for it. The night before a man was knighted he spent a night alone in a holy place, prayed and meditated and readied himself to be worthy. Our Sherpa see this as a supremely spiritual place that is earned, not an entitlement. We’re in a high place tonight and preparing ourselves to be worthy.

Ex amino. Rock on!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

They slept on oxygen that night. It was a slightly less comfortable experience than staying awake and jabbing forks in your legs. The oxygen was set only at a trickle to supplement breathing through the night instead of provide the equivalent of sea level air; just enough to help avoid flat out hypoxia, and it needed to last for hours. Whacked up to full stream your tank might last you a mere two hours if you were lucky, and you’d need to have more oxygen bottles up here to go through than anyone but the big client expeditions with the very large teams of Sherpa support could provide. It took effort to breathe and to doze, which was the best either of them managed at all, but they were in better condition in the morning than they’d been on their previous night at this altitude.

They started out to camp four together at a little after four am in the morning of May 3rd, this time dressed in the full gear they’d been carrying since base camp. Several layers of fleece, down suit on top, and the wind suit over the top that would block the sub-zero winds from penetrating. Dorje grinned at Tom as he and Jake checked that their crampons were properly fitted before they settled the big black shiny masks into place under the goggles that completely covered and obliterated their faces, checked that harnesses were on right, and zipped up the tent behind them before they stepped out onto the steep slope of the Lhotse face in the dark.

There were only a few other climbers stirring as they left; a few lights on in the other tents scattered across the Face. It was too early in the season for the crowds that would be up here in a few days’ time, when there could be queues of fifty or more in a single file queue ahead on the ropes, some of them floundering and taking forever to move, holding up everyone behind them in these sub-zero, dangerous temperatures with oxygen running out while they waited. More than a few climbers had lost their attempt – or lost fingers or toes to frostbite - purely because they got too cold and ran out of oxygen while waiting, and had been forced to turn back. It did not make the client expeditions popular who brought climbers up here with frankly inadequate mountaineering skills to flounder on the ladders or steep stretches of rock, or needing long minutes of rest at a time between every step they took; the thought of Max or Bart up here under these conditions made Tom shudder. It was taking everything he had this morning as he clipped back onto the rope and continued his way up the Lhotse face behind Jake, to find the breath to put one foot in front of the other and make himself get going when his body was stiff, sore and tired from overuse. Although this was the wall that led to the real runner’s high, he knew it and he committed himself grimly to pushing through it, making himself warm up and stretch and use his body properly, get his breathing controlled, get his mind sharp and on the job, get his technique right. They’d left in advance of most of the other teams up here too who would set out around five am. Jake kept them well ahead for the same reason; to have clear ropes. The price they paid was the extra hour of darkness and the extreme cold of the night, but they were fast enough and experienced enough as a team to handle that in return for the payoff of no time spent standing around.

It was hard to make themselves heard above the oxygen masks in the wind and they moved in more or less complete silence like spacemen, every inch of skin covered and the bulky windsuits battered by what passed for the early morning breeze up here which raised a low mist of snow around them. Lit only by their headlamps, moving in a sequence of Bill, Spitz, Jake, Tom and Dorje, they began the traverse – the trail that led from one side of the Lhotse face right across to its other side, and they reached the yellow band still in full darkness.

The band was the most obvious part of the sea bed that Everest had once been and it rose up out of the snow like a vast stone beach emerging out of the sea. The limestone band cut right across the mountain here, a wide layer of sedimented rock that held fossils and the ancient remains of crustaceans if you had the time, breath and energy to spare to look for them. Depending on the weather, this stretch could be covered in ice and snow in any amount of combination. This morning it was dusted with snow but it was largely one big stretch of undulating frozen rock to climb, in crampons, which grated horribly and slid against the limestone. It was not unlike trying to climb a cliff in roller skates, and without the ropes it would have been somewhere between bloody difficult and nearly impossible. At sea level it would not have been a particularly hard challenge to climb for an experienced climber. Here with minimum oxygen, the slipperiness of trying to make crampons grip on rock, it was a leg sapping, breath stealing ordeal that took some time to cross as the sun came up, casting red light in streams across the rockface. Aware that Jake paused regularly to glance back to him and that while he was taking it slowly he was moving well, Tom followed in his wake, some tiny corner of his mind beyond the intense concentration singing the ancient words from a carol he’d known since childhood.

Mark my footsteps good my page,
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly…

In his master’s steps he trod – it was a romantic fancy that made him half smile beneath the cold and sweaty discomfort of the oxygen mask, but it helped. This place was wild, with its primordial coils and swirls of rock beneath the dusting powder of snow, the elephants graveyard of the mountain, the resting place of bones of monsters unseen by human eyes.

At the top of the yellow band Jake sat down for a moment to wait for him, reached down to take his hand and pull him the last few feet to sit with him, panting for breath. The sun was almost fully up. Looking back down the band – it was like sitting with him on the edge of some crazy cliff, looking out over the sheer drop below, the insanely steep ski run of white snow slopes all around them.

“All right?”

Jake had to raise his voice over the mask and the wind to be heard. Tom nodded, still gripping his hand. Breath taking. Beautiful in the new morning light. The exhaustion and the strain in his legs was worth it for this, for this view here. It was unreal. The flash of blue caught his eye on the rock, some way down and to the right of them, well off the rope marked trail up. A more careful look identified the sprawled body. Legs. Boots. A hand flung out that was now skeletonised. It was not the first body he had seen up here; there were a couple visible on the Cwm, and the general law above camp three was not to look around too much because you’d almost certainly find things you really didn’t want to see. From camp three upwards, most bodies lay where the person had died; no one had the oxygen or energy to spare to do anything more than move themselves. It was still impossible to see that sight without a deep internal shock that the body could be a year old or a decade old, that he or she too had been through the same camps, done the same acclimatising and work they had done, and somehow it had ended here. Jake pulled on his hand, indicating to him to get up and steering Tom ahead of him on the rope.

The Lhotse face continued above the band, another eternity spent on the steep ice, slogging one step at a time up the rope. It was a bright morning, blue sky, sun overhead, but the winds were hitting them at sixty miles an hour, battering and rattling with so much noise that hearing each other was impossible. It was like the flapping of massive wings, endlessly buffeting overhead. The trail finally reached the end of the traverse and the last obstacle between them and camp four; the Geneva Spur. It had been named by the Swiss expedition in the 1950s, a black, snow speckled buttress of rock that looked far larger and more intimidating when you reached it than it did from a distance. They had placed their oxygen cache at the foot of it and they paused there to change their oxygen bottles which were now running on empty to new ones, leaving the empty canisters in the cache and shoving a couple of spare new bottles each into their back packs, the weight of them was hard going at this altitude. It took time with clumsy hands, and Tom turned Jake around to check his equipment and ensure it was set right to a steady, low flow, and that the valve was free of ice before he checked the others. Not with any lack of trust in their skills; it was mostly for his own reassurance but no one argued with him. Bill, stockier than ever in his suit. Spitz. Dorje, the shortest and most efficient of them all at this height and he was the fastest with the oxygen kit and had sorted out Spitz’s recalcitrant bottle. And Jake. Wide shouldered, towering over the rest of them in the additional bulk of his suit, like the giant and timeless Knight Templar in the Allingham tale. A man who should have been carrying a fourteenth century cruciform longsword here, not an ice axe.

It was a steep, mixed climb of snow and rock scrambling over the spur in the wind, and in this place few climbers managed step after step in sequence – it was nearer to step, get your balance, breathe. Step, get your balance, breathe. You fought for every step here as your body fought for breath, and you had to know what you were fighting for and want to win more than you wanted oxygen or to just be allowed to stop. It was a straight forward uncomplicated battle between you and the rock, the basic drive to conquer. There was no room for anything in your head but that, and it was as oddly, purely peaceful as it was painful. At the top of the spur as they came over the lip was the sudden, spectacular view of Everest herself. Huge, an intimidating giant, and now she was directly in front of them. This was the rood screen to her chancel. The open door that showed heaven to the celebrants. And below her the ground now opened out like into grey shale covered plateau and not too far along it there was the South Col and finally the tents of camp four, the highest camp in the world and seated well within Everest’s Death Zone. So called, because up here the human body literally began to die. With not enough oxygen, with the withering cold that could freeze exposed skin in seconds, where it was impossible to stay hydrated even if you drank constantly, where exhaustion was the price of any movement of your oxygen depleted organs and muscles, it was a battle of time; to get where you wanted fast enough to achieve it and get out again before your body deteriorated to the point you could no longer move.

Camp four was on that plateau, a large open area like a theatre stage the size of several football fields that allowed for tents to be well spread out in different areas for different expeditions. It looked like the surface of the moon. Several hundred old oxygen bottles and fragments of torn remains of tents were visible, the remnants of old expeditions, and the few new, securely pitched tents placed among the rags for this year’s expeditions. A black bird walked slowly among some of the rags, picking at them. It was something of a shock to see a living creature. The east end of the plateau dropped about 7,000 feet down the Kangshung Face into Tibet. The west end a mere 4,000 down onto the Western Cwm. A sharp drop and a short stop in either direction. Standing on it, Tom looked out over miles – how many hundreds of miles – with a sense of awe that gripped him to the heart and stole what was left of his breath. An immense world of white cloud below them, where sunlit peaks penetrated the cloud field occasionally with their sharp pinnacles of grey and snow-capped white. This was it. The top of the world. The place above the clouds. The ascent into heaven’s realm.

It was a bare, vast place and it was a private place seen only by the eyes of those who had earned it with their own sweat and strength, who had proved themselves worthy enough to climb here themselves. The tent they had pitched there together on their last visit was a large one, it would be shared by all five of them today which meant more of a chance of staying warm. Dorje dropped his pack and went to check the moorings of the tent, tightening and stabilising them with expertise Tom could only envy. It was good to get the packs and the mask off. Dorje glanced up and smiled at him as he came to help There was an exhausted muddle of chipping ice, getting stoves lit and ice in pans to melt in the tent– staying even reasonably safely hydrated was going to mean a nonstop cycle of melting snow to drink until they left for the summit. Seventeen hours of extreme climbing lay ahead of them tonight, during which time eating and drinking would be mostly impossible.

The five of them crammed in together to the tent, where despite the closeness of them squashed together, the thermometer read 30 below. At this point, sweaty, exhausted, there was no nicer way to put it, they just plain stank at close quarters once the tent was sealed. Spitz shrugged off his pack, flopped back against it, and Tom saw him crash almost instantaneously into sleep. Jake shifted into a corner of the tent, grabbed Tom by the harness and shifted him over to sit between his knees and lean against him, making more space for Bill and Dorje. Neither of them would think twice about it. As far as Bill was concerned, there was not one single member of the Abeausante team who was straight; Beau surrounded herself with people she felt comfortable with. And Dorje glanced at them once with gentle, slightly wistful eyes but didn’t look again. It was difficult to envisage what life was like for a gay Sherpa Khumbu man. Nepal had legalised homosexuality only in the last eighteen months. It meant people were no longer imprisoned for an average of two years for being caught; Nepal were certainly working on welcoming LGBT international tourists, but among their own population, particularly in the distant rural villages the Sherpa came from where the traditional culture remained strongest, it was taboo. It was unlikely Dorje had ever verbalised to anyone what Tom saw gently present in him. 

They melted ice. Drank. Melted more ice. It took about 2 hours to get even mostly hot water. No one talked much, and attempts to eat were dogged and soon abandoned. Up here the digestive system just ceased to work at all, it took in no nutrition. By early afternoon they undressed the amount that was bearable and climbed into sleeping bags, resumed their oxygen masks and huddled deep inside the thick down. It was one of those times where the fact that he and Jake could share a bag was very, very much to Tom’s way of thinking a blissful bonus. They were far warmer together than either of them would have been alone, and exhausted and sore, all he really wanted to do was curl up to Jake and shut his eyes. On the oxygen it was difficult to really do more than try to sleep and wait for zero hour.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

We were so crowded together we lay body against body right across the tent; if Tom and I hadn’t been able to occupy one sleeping bag together we wouldn’t have all fitted in. Tom was dozing at intervals, I could feel him let go against me and the moments where he went limp and his breathing got so spaced out it was mildly alarming, but his face was turned against me, and when he relaxes like this it means he’s turned his head off. It’s one of the hardest things he can do, and it was a great relief to know he could do it tonight. That he could let himself take comfort, let me do the worrying for both of us.

Tonight I was getting a bit too good at that. You have to be able to ignore a rather huge amount of discomfort and personal stress to get up here. You can’t be hung up on being clean or having enough to eat or being warm enough or that your throat is now bleeding and you’re coughing up bloody phlem and bits of your throat lining from the constant icy air. Unfortunately the people who can do that also tune out the signals that they’ve committed too much and are in danger. They’re people obsessed on a goal, who push themselves, and that makes them likely to get summit fever and die trying. Summit fever as it is known here has taken a lot of lives – people who fought for their goal, sacrificed everything for it, and had nothing in reserve to survive beyond the achievement of it. Tom and I were both such people and we were not going to be counted in their number, neither was any other man in this tent if I could help it. This mountain is the closest physical challenge in the world to walking into the valley of death and coming back; if you achieve the summit you actively do that. Take your body to the brink, it’s extreme climbing for that reason alone. Less than one third of those who climbed here ever reach the summit – not all of those make it down again – and half of those climbers are Sherpa.

The racket that started outside began with lights and the crunch of feet on the shale and then high voices over the sound of the wind that rattled the tent; voices distressed enough that I listened and then sat up to unzip myself and yank off the oxygen mask, sliding quickly out of the bag and grabbing my down suit and outer boots. Bill was sitting up on the far side of the tent but let me go, wincing as I opened the outer flap and drenched the inside of the tent with the icy wind. There were two climbers some way from us, outside a tent brightly lit from the inside with a lamp, but the two men were roughly dressed in their down suits and milling outside their tent entrance with that total lack of co-ordination that comes from severe shock. I’d seen it in victims at plenty of crime scenes. The wind was brutal across the plateau, it was shockingly cold – the kind of cold where bare skin freezes in seconds and I grabbed the nearest guy and shook him a little, pushing him towards his tent.

“Get your gear on. What happened?”

I got a flood of language I didn’t understand other than it was high and cracked and horribly distressed. It wasn’t Spanish, but something in the vicinity of; possibly Portuguese, but I crawled into their tent and thrust all the kit I could see at them, pushing it into their hands. The third man in their tent was curled on his side in the sleeping bag at the far side. His colour said most of what I needed to know. Outside I heard Tom’s voice, hoarse over the wind but managing broken phrases in Portuguese and a moment later he ducked inside the tent behind me. 

“They’re saying he’s dead.”

“They’re right.” I took my hand away from the guy’s jaw where I’d been searching for a pulse, or anything, even the faintest trace of breathing, making absolutely sure. His eyes were fixed and dilated and there was no response. He was just starting to cool; probably no more than an hour or so gone. With no sign. No obvious cause. It happens sometimes here; he’d probably stroked out or his heart had given way or he’d quit breathing through the lack of oxygen, he’d just died in his sleep, five or six hours away from his summit attempt. We were never going to know why; there would be no getting him down from here. Outside I could hear one of his team mates sobbing. I pulled the sleeping bag hood gently right up and zipped it, enclosing him. These guys had only the one tent, they were going to have to use it tonight willing or not, and this was not something they were going to find easy to do for themselves. Tom stooped to help me and somehow we manhandled the guy outside.

Usually we’d have done it in seconds, a smooth lift and carry together. Here…. the lack of oxygen, it was like trying to move underwater. We were clumsy, tired, impeded by our motor skills being off, by the heavy suits we were encased in, and it took us some minutes to get the limp figure which felt unbearably heavy even outside of the tent, and then to be able together to drag him some way from the tents. Dorje was there on the plateau. The Sherpa avoid death on the mountain. Many of them will not touch or go near to a body, their beliefs struggle with it, and he watched us but I could hear his voice through the wind, saying something in his own language I didn’t understand. Tom dropped on one knee to help me place the body and ensure it was completely covered by the bag. Wherever we put him now was where he was likely to stay for all eternity, and I saw Tom’s hand move to cross himself as he straightened up; I had a fair idea of what he was murmuring too. I put a hand on his arm and went with him to the other two climbers, standing shattered and distraught outside their tent. Tom said something to them in their own language, a few phrases, and one of them grabbed for me, clutching my shoulders and sobbing against me for a moment. I hugged him, not able to do anything else for him, and then he let me go and he and his companion returned to their tent, which was I was sure, the very last place on earth they wanted to be tonight.

It was pitch dark out here, completely silent and so isolated – so barren – that it was like being on the moon. There was something alarming in this darkness, a sense of this place so powerful that it was like being watched; I hadn’t been this nervous about a dark place since I was a little kid. I hustled Tom ahead of me towards our tent and we stripped off a few bits and got back into the sleeping bag as Dorje settled back into his bag next to us.

“What happened?” Bill said quietly. 

“Died in his sleep. One of the Portuguese team.”

“Bloody hell…. The poor bastard.”

I pulled Tom closer against me, wrapping both arms tightly around him. I’d read once that at the high camps you would feel like you were climbing with the worst case of flu you can imagine. They were not far wrong.

“Dorje? Are the Sherpa as disturbed by deaths here as it’s rumoured?” Spitz said bluntly in the long, sombre silence that followed, broken only by one of us coughing at intervals. We were all at it more or less constantly now. Breath steamed in front of all of us and every face I looked at was sunburned brown, flushed red with the nip of cold and weathered, showing dehydration and exhaustion in equal amounts.

Dorje, huddled in his sleeping bag beside us with a book in his hand, looked over and gave him a faint smile. Spitz had commented to me that Dorje spent as much time reading as he did sleeping since we left base camp; always the same book with a battered, green cover, a book of prayers.

“We not like go near bodies. Touch bodies. Say superstitious in the books, I know that word.”

It seemed a vaguely derogatory term to me; the western inbuilt superiority. Tom had muttered to me about many westerners here didn’t understand humility and care for others as a purposeful value in a strong faith in the Sherpa and just saw it as the deference of the naturally subservient and were happy to benefit from it.

“There is belief that spirit there near the body for time after death… climbers laying on the mountain have restless spirit nearby. And funeral important for re birth –no funeral is not good thing to us. Death is…. Polluting.”

“That’s a bit rough on the poor guy, it’s not his fault.” Bill muttered. Tom coughed again, laying on his back against me with his eyes on the tent roof above, and shook his head, waiting until he had the breath to talk.

“No, it’s just not a word that translates well. Polluted to us means ‘dirty’. Some of what they mean is there’s a separation occurring between spirit and body that is felt by people around it- it’s like the idea of women menstruating being ‘unclean’ in the old testament, it’s a buggering up of translation, the Romans didn’t get semantic content. It’s not about ‘unclean’, it’s that there was a potential for the most holy moment of life, for a spirit to enter and animate flesh, and now there’s a kind of death of that potential life, and that creates a kind of… spiritual vacuum where there isn’t exactly life or death. This is that same intensely powerful energy in reverse, the separation of flesh and spirit.”

“Other spirits are attracted, overwhelm – balance – of those too near.” Dorje said, searching for the words. “Lungta. In our faith we maintain our balance, our duty to maintain, and not look on things or touch things that distort us, what we take inside ourselves. We encourage spirit to move on, to form new life, not linger in old, finished. It take great strength to witness present spirits without them touching us, strongest only of lamas, not us.”

I’d heard Jasper speak of similar beliefs.

“What of your angels, Tom?” Dorje said after a moment of slightly noisy heavy breathing as we worked for air and the occasional spluttering as one of us breathed too deep. “Do they guard balance in death for you? Which one?”

“Several of them have been called the Angel of Death,” Tom’s eyes had gone distant but in the peaceful way I was starting to recognise and know what he was thinking of. That cathedral on another continent, a place he had loved, what I thought was in some ways the deepest and the most peaceful part of him, held safe there in his sanctuary. He saw this as a very similar place. He was distressed about the guy outside, I could feel the stillness in him but he was calm against me, his body turned against mine. “Azrael. Samael. Gabriel. They’ve all taken the role at different times in stories. They bear away the worthy – mostly they act as guides. Good counsellors.”

It wasn’t the first time I’d noticed a major omission and dug my fingers into what I could reach of his ribs, making him squirm. “Are you going to tell me what your problem is with Michael? He’s the most renowned Angel of Death of the lot of them, he never gets a mention in any of your stories.”

“I always forget about him.” Tom gave me a sideways sheepish smile. “Yeah, I suppose Michael too.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Excerpt from The New York Times, May 4th

... the Twitter feed has been exceptionally active, with several well-known celebrities contributing their comments which has resulted in the post going viral last night. The blog has received thousands of hits worldwide in the last few hours; those who have followed Phoenix over the past few weeks know that this story of a young man’s assault on the world’s highest mountain has been gripping and often poetic, particularly including his now famous post from camp three:

The night before a man was knighted he spent a night alone in a holy place, prayed and meditated and readied himself to be worthy. Our Sherpa see this as a supremely spiritual place that is earned, not an entitlement. We’re in a high place tonight and preparing ourselves to be worthy.

Ex animo.

His signature – the ancient Latin for ‘from the heart’ – makes this a particularly touching sign off the night before the most dangerous part of this climb, and is a reminder that this quest is indeed one of heart and soul as well as body.

His mother, Madeleine Loudon, a journalist of the Manhattan Times, describes herself as ‘proud and terrified’. She is appearing this morning on the Today Show to share how it feels to be waiting for news that her son has summited in the climbing jargon, and returned safely to camp within the death zone – the most lethal part of Everest. Phoenix set out on his climb to the summit in the late hours of last night with his goal to reach the summit itself this morning. We hope as you are reading this that he is indeed found worthy and is safely stood upon the pinnacle of his quest.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

To: Theo; James; Luath; Flynn
Subject: Um, I have a question? 9.42pm.

Hi guys

Just to let everyone know; it’s done, over, Gerry’s doing well and we should be going home in the morning. He was awake and very much with it by lunchtime, has very little pain and has been enjoying himself this evening holding court to what seems like about half the population of Seattle who popped in to see him. It was an effort to keep visiting down to an hour, but it’s wiped him out and right now he’s too deep asleep to be bothered by the gown, the décor, the nurses, being messed with or anything else. Thank you for the flowers, his room is swimming in them. Thank you too whoever very kindly thought of the crate of food that appeared in the porch, I hadn’t had time to think of shopping since we only flew in this morning and was extremely grateful.

I nipped home while Gerry was in theatre, changed and grabbed some things he needed and checked the mail since we’ve been away from home a few weeks. I’m fascinated that Gerry appears to have a letter from Jake’s solicitors asking him to stop posting comments on some newspaper website, particularly since I know Gerry has had no internet access for several weeks. From the cc list it looks like family business, so can anyone help me out here? What exactly is going on?


PS – phones on and waiting for news on J&T, they have sworn to let the ranch know when they are safely down.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

3rd May

This is it! I just radioed down to Base Camp to check in.

It was a sad day for us up here in camp four. One of the Portuguese expedition died in his sleep. It happens occasionally here, the poor guy must have stroked out or stopped breathing, his team mates are devastated. I had to help them move him out of their tent, the whole of our team were shattered for them.

The communications tent is full of people around the radio, all full of good wishes for our expedition. Hopefully in a few hours we will be radioing down to them with the good news that it’s happened - the Phoenix is on the Summit!

Rock on!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

There was a kind of dim twilight outside when they began at around eight pm to prepare. It was a relief to finally get up and get started; the sense of tension became manageable with something to do, although no one spoke. With breathing an effort, it took time in the light of their head lamps to put on the gear and double check kit, harness, boots and crampons, to drink, to try to get down some packet soup that carried some calories, to manage some glucose tablets, to fit on a brand new bottle of oxygen and start it at the low flow they would use to climb. To don their very lightly packed backpacks. For the first time carrying nothing but the emergency supplies for the next few hours, no sleeping bags, no gear; it was a great difference to shrug it on and clip the harness and know – the months of preparation were over tonight. There was nothing more they could do to make ready, this was it. None of them had really slept, none of them had done any more than lie and try to rest their body; even thinking straight at this altitude wasn’t easy, but that wasn’t the reason for no talking. It was too great a task ahead of them for chatter. Inside his down suit as he zipped it up, Tom found another crinkled scrap of paper and unfolded it, hunched over it as that was the only privacy possible in the tiny, crowded tent. Jake’s handwriting was scrawled across it.

You are worthy. You are loved. You are free to do this if you choose to be.

Free of heart and free of the people in Sussex, their ghosts and the feelings they invoked. If he chose to be. Jake understood that. Free of the kind of spiritual pollution Dorje had spoken of this afternoon; the mountain was angered by pollution of any kind brought into her sacred cloisters. Free to be with Jake doing whatever he chose to do. Like cutting away the chain that bound Scrooge, the burden that encumbered Pilgrim. The weight of what he carried in himself, the impurity he had hugged to himself for years, afraid to release it until he came here. And bit by bit it had flowed out of him until he looked at this note now, at this moment, and smiled because it made sense. Because he was excited and deeply scared and had a grip on both, and Jake did too.

You are free.

Outside the tent he paused beside Jake to look up at him and Jake turned him to stand face to face, the two of them very close in the windblown, dark plateau unnoticed by the others and their preparations. Jake pulled off both sets of his gloves for a moment to take Tom’s face in his hands, look straight at him, his voice quiet but the tone that went right through Tom.

“Are you ready?”

He didn’t mean had he checked his crampons. Tom met his eyes, the Mediterranean aqua here in the snow and desolation, the warmest thing up here at 8,000 metres, and knew that question meant if he wasn’t sure, they’d be staying behind for a short discussion before following the others and Jake wouldn’t think twice about it.

“Yes sir.”

Jake looked at him for a moment more, searching his face, and Tom let him look, let him see. And then Jake smiled, his eyes lit and he bent his head to kiss Tom’s forehead, like the old ancient benediction, then he lightly kissed Tom’s mouth and put his gloves on.

“Come on then.”

A few feet away Dorje, shrugging his pack into place and straightening his red and yellow woolly hat, caught Tom’s eye and gave him a warm, equally alive-eyed smile as he began to fit his face protector and oxygen mask.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Bill radioed down to Shem when they were ready to leave. Shem, Max and Bart seemed to be camping out in the communications tent, they answered immediately and their brief conversation was mostly good wishes. They were settling in with coffee to keep a vigil around the radio: no one in base camp in their compound would get much sleep tonight.

Just before 9pm they hiked together in a tight group the rest of the way across the dark, silent plateau in a steady wind. It felt to Tom like some ancient rite more than the simple, honourable tradition of explorers and the intense excitement – the awe of it – threaded itself through his belly. Druids had processed like this in the dark towards Stonehenge. The Knights Templar had drawn swords to enter two by two to the divine ceremonies of Roslyn Chapel. It was the approach of armed men together towards a gateway that a few human souls slipped past in darkness in this month every year, and not all of them ever returned. Somehow everyone whispered here. In the far distance a small flicker of light ahead indicated a couple of other climbers on the triangular face ahead of them, but most of the big expeditions were still preparing below, there would be no crowds here tonight. The real break in the weather had not yet come. They would climb against strong winds; not the hurricane blasting ones Everest was capable of year round, but not yet either the clear conditions that would mean most of base camp trying for the top. This was their best, quietest chance.

The night was still coming. It was cold, as Tom had expected and prepared for in the blasting wind, but the sky above them was absolutely clear. This was the final, longest and toughest part of the climb. The true summit was still concealed above them, they were above 8000 metres now and it was just over a mile to the top. A mile that took an average of 6 to 9 hours for the average summiteer. There had been horror stories of years where snow was so heavy up here that climbers struggled to wade thigh deep, and other years where the snow was so thin that climbers scrambled and slid with their crampons on the rock, losing energy fast as they scrabbled for purchase. This was, the Sherpa Ice Doctors had confirmed who had been up here to fix the ropes for this year’s expeditions, a good year. There was snow, enough snow that the route was already marked by the tracks laid down in it, but not deep enough to be wading in.

The hours of hard work up the Triangular Face to the Balcony seemed to take forever. It was here, above every foot he’d covered on this mountain, that Tom felt his will tested the most. It was steep, pitch dark, nothing to see but the flickering light of his head lamp casting a small pool of light on the snow in front of him illuminating Dorje’s boots tramping slowly forward, and the pool of light cast ahead of him. Nothing to do but resign himself to thinking about the rope and each step and Jake behind him, the discipline of moving, step after step upward, stubbornly ignoring the fatigue, the struggle to breathe, the cold, the pain in his legs and chest. Gradually they spread out in their line; this was a climb each climber made alone, their focus on their own body. Their breathing was loud over the masks and the carabiners jingled on the rope in the buffet of the gale blasting over the face, filling their goggles with blown snow, buffeting them at each step. It was a slog, a mind numbing struggle that went on and on through the night, nothing easier than that; he wasn’t prepared to see the headlamps above him suddenly stop and realise he was standing on the balcony with Spitz, Bill and Dorje, the first flat area since they left camp. They paused there to rest, to change oxygen bottles to the new ones Dorje had stashed there for them some days ago, to drop their masks and to drink hot tea from their thermoses. It meant stripping off outer gloves for a few minutes to fix the screw of the new bottle into the regulator, and they’d practiced this a lot to be ready for this moment in the dark, not thinking clearly, but they hadn’t known to practice it with hands shaking with cold, the penetrating cold that struck as soon as the layer of gloves were removed. Tom did it as fast as possible, shivering hard. It was minus 42 degrees when he checked the thermometer function on the altimeter that hung on his harness. Jake dug in his pack and pushed several glucose tablets into Tom’s mouth, taking several more himself. He was standing angled to Tom, acting as a wind break to shield him; Tom saw it as he hugged his hands to his chest, trying to keep himself warm, and stepped closer to run a hand over his back. Spitz was sitting on the ice, head bowed to catch his breath. Bill crouched beside him. Dorje stood a few feet away, his head raised, looking up at the mountain above them. The moon was rising below the balcony, huge and luminous and just short of full, and above them stars were sharp, bright pinpricks of light in a midnight blue sky. It reminded Tom of the sky he’d read of above the dying Titanic, another still, freezing, beautifully lethal night among ice.

From the balcony they climbed on up the South East Ridge, and if the Triangular Face had been a bastard…. It began quite gently, but as they reached the ridge itself, it was a long section of steep, jumbled rock to climb where there were extremely steep spots where all you could do was brace yourself on the front points of your crampons on the bit of jutting out rock you were standing on, push your jumar on your harness ahead of you and pull yourself up. Hillary had likened this stretch to climbing roof tiles and Tom had always loved roof tops – that helped. And at least moving and forcing yourself to maintain a pace kept you warm. Above those rocky slabs of the ridge it got even steeper hellishly so, and then suddenly it opened out into a wide snow slope. This was the South Summit. And above it, for the first time visible above them, was the true summit. Her most cloistered secret. Her white, frozen heart. And as if in response to their reaching that point, the wind began to drop.

The up and down undulation of her highest slopes meant a climb downward for a while to reach the foot of the Cornice Traverse, the most exposed section of all the climb. Tom had seen pictures of it: it was a steep knife edge to haul up, like climbing the angular corner of a pyramid. In places, the small snow path that gave purchase for climbing was no more than five foot wide between the two triangular planes of exposed rock, and on one side lay an 8,000 foot drop down the southwest face. On the other side was an 11,000 foot drop down the Kangshung Face. This was the spot where some climbers were hit with vertigo or panic. However in the dark it was less terrifying. You could not see anything but the snow path and the rope ahead of you and Tom was grateful for it. In the dark, in utter, thumping exhaustion to a degree he’d never before felt in his life, a blinding, numbing exhaustion, it was simply a cast of follow the path and deal with the next immediate challenge. His mind was working too slowly to really think about anything further. It was here, at some point on that slope, that he became aware of something beside him. Beside him, on a path that did not exist, the being was walking beyond the narrow knife edge ridge; a silent companion from the side of his eye that had no real shape but had most definite form.

He had read of this phenomenon. No few climbers reported it, he had wondered with fascination in his study whether he or Jake would experience it and how it would feel; in the reports it always occurred at this point, above the balcony, travelling upward on the last stretch to the summit. Hillary had imagined there was a companion beside him with whom he had conversed as he climbed. Many others had described the same. In the moment….Tom found there was no sense of surprise, no sense of academic interest, no sense of anything but a calm normality that someone should be walking there, just as it was normal for Jake to be climbing steadily behind him. A deep, flowing, uplifting calm such as he hadn’t felt in years, as though the mountain was somehow pouring it through him, up through his crampons and every step he took upon the ice. Some part of his brain was aware that this was the result of hypoxia; the oddest part was that it was a familiar feeling, one he had known before. Decades ago, when he had been very small, when he had been free to wander the cathedral for hours in that world of coloured light and candles and carven stone, he had known it and he had forgotten it until this moment. In the alcove opposite the stained glass windows of the Archangels with their spread wings. In the smallest and his most favourite of the little dedicated side chapels where he curled up on the stone ledge for hours in the silence, gazing at the pictures, this sense of a formless, benign and comfortable companion had been there, filling him with that peaceful ease. It waited for him as he automatically checked the anchor point of the rope he was switching onto, there was no sense of needing to talk.

Beyond the Traverse lay the Hillary Step, the 40 foot wall of rock that Hillary had climbed, the first human to breach this point of the mountain’s sanctuary, by jamming his shoulders and feet into a thin crack and levering himself up, hauling his Sherpa friend up behind him. There were ropes there today, good ropes, although only one of them could climb at a time and Tom waited with Jake, stamping his feet to thaw them out of their increasing numbness and rubbing his hands in their thick, heavy gloves while Bill went up the ropes ahead of them. Beyond him was the first deep blue cast of dawn, a thin sliver of light on the horizon that grew slowly, lifting the darkness away. Sunrise.

Above the step the ground was unroped and vague, as if it went nowhere. In the thin early morning light Tom followed Bill’s footsteps forward towards a strange, white set of massive cornices made of snow swept upwards into twisted and curved points by the sweeping winds, strange towers and pinnacles like some Russian fairy palace…. and abruptly – there. There it was. There was no further mountain to climb, just an end with a sharp drop in all directions. A few flapping prayer flags, a few tightly tied down photographs, notes, the altar itself. He heard Bill’s holler of delight ahead of him, saw him and Spitz grab each other in a bear hug, saw Dorje move towards the prayer flags slowly like a man in a dream. Tom walked past them and dropped on his knees in front of the world below.

He knelt there for some time, watching the sun come up over the cloud fields spread below him. Watching the day return to the heavens. The holiest hour out of every twenty four.

Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning
Born of the one light Eden saw play…

When he finally stumbled to his feet it was to find Jake standing behind him in the brightening sunlight, watching, and he held out his arms as Tom turned to him.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It was actually possible from here to see the arc of the horizon. High enough to see the world was round. One of the secrets of mankind only visible on earth from here.

What you have seen, you forever carry with you. He had thought that in abandoned cities in jungles un-trod by humans in centuries. In caves and on waterfalls, in deserts, in the buried depths of the sea in wrecks and hidden ruins he and Jake had dived together. Some of the most wonderful moments of his life. There were secrets of beauty, of hidden wonders that they kept for the world of things few human eyes saw, and this was one of the rarest and most sacred. Whatever he did in the rest of his life he knew he would carry this moment, this view, this secret of what truly lay up here at the highest point of the planet. They radioed down to Shem, Bart and Max, knowing that many other teams on the mountain would be listening in and smiling, glad for them. The brief conversation included a lot of cheering, muffled shouts through the radio as the three in the tents below celebrated with them. All five of them. Here, unscathed. It would set the reputation of the expedition, and it would be one of the success stories of all this year’s expeditions; Mountain Eagles would be known as one of the winners.

They stayed there only twenty minutes. The pinnacle of the world, the most wonderful of places. But the greatest half of the climb now lay in front of them and their oxygen was running out, their tanks draining every minute they stood up there with the balcony to reach where the full canisters were waiting, and they gathered themselves and began together the slow and careful climb downwards from her highest point, leaving her prayer flags streaming their blessings in the wind above them.

They were coming down off the Hillary step towards the top of the cornice, the ten foot ascent upwards – the very last ascent with every other step from this point downhill. It was infamous. Rob Hall, one of the most renowned of Everest’s climbers, had foundered here, too exhausted to make that ten feet upwards and survive. Tom was half way up it when he saw a flash of red to one side of the trail, tucked below a ledge of rock, and paused, then crouched down to look. It was a snow suit; he recognised it with a jolt of alarm. The guy was so curled in under the ledge that it would have been easy to miss him, but there was no dusting of snow on him. He was unclipped from the line, there was no sign on the path, they had walked right by him in the dark a couple of hours ago without noticing. Tom unclipped himself, feeling Jake’s hand immediately close on his harness as he knelt down over the figure and turned it onto its back, pulling the scarf away from the face. There was no oxygen tank.

It was a man – Tom recognised him vaguely as one of the independent climbers, a young man climbing without support and without oxygen… an admirable ambition but it looked as if it had gone horribly wrong. He was breathing. It was between his teeth – and his teeth were bared and clenched tightly when Tom put his hand to the man’s jaw, there was a very slow, faint pulse and when Jake leaned past him to raise an eyelid the man’s eyes were fixed. But he was alive.

“Get him in the sun.” Bill said through his mask behind them, coming with Dorje to grab his feet. It took the five of them, breathless and clumsy, to drag him out from the shadow of the rock. In the sun he stood some chance of warming a little, or at least slowed the process of his freezing to death. Jake pulled his thermos from his backpack. The hot tea they had carried up hours ago was tepid now, but Jake poured some against the man’s teeth, a little at a time. It ran straight back again, the teeth never unclenched. Dorje had pulled off his back pack and pulled out a full canister of oxygen. He had clearly been carrying it as an emergency spare and he took off his own mask, gently overcoming Bill’s protest.

“I can climb from here, not much to carry.”

He fixed the oxygen tank to the mask and turned the regulator up to full flow, fitting it over the man’s face. Jake pulled up his radio, crouching where he was.

“This is Mountain Eagles. We’ve got a downed climber just below the Hillary Step, he’s one of the independents, does anyone know his name?”

There was no answer but static for a few minutes. Spitz had opened his medical kit and took one of the several pre-loaded syringes of Dex they all carried, fumbled to uncover a patch of skin on the boy and stuck him, shooting the Dex in. Then a heavy Russian accent from somewhere on the mountain came back on the radio.

“Mountain Eagles. Aegerter was to summit yesterday. Swiss.”

Tom had heard the name in camp. Loic Aegerter, an ambitious young mountaineering champion making a name for himself worldwide. Twenty three years old.

The boy’s face could have been an old man’s visage under the oxygen mask.

“We haven’t much time,” Bill said quietly, standing back with his hands on his hips. His eyes above his mask showed deep pity. “Our oxygen’s not going to last out Jake, we need to get down.”

They still waited. It was shocking how cold it became just hanging around here, even in full sunlight. Jake tried the tea again without any more luck, and lifted an eyelid again. The boy’s brown eyes were still fixed in their sockets. He was breathing still but rigid, showing no more sign of reviving than they had when they found him.

No one could be brought down from above 8,000. It was a fact that no one ever had been. The Cornice Ridge was the next obstacle that lay ahead and no one not able to climb by themselves could possibly be taken, roped down, lowered or anything else- it took all you had up here to breathe, to move yourself, to survive yourself. Even below 8,000 it took a team of around eight experienced Sherpa to lower down an immobile climber at immense risk to everyone involved, and it very often resulted in injuries, accidents and deaths among the rescuers. Tom shut his eyes for a moment, knowing what was coming next and bracing himself for it as Bill said quietly but definitely, “Ok. We’re out of time people, we have to go. There’s nothing more we can do for him.”

It was an unthinkable thing to do. Unthinkable to just… leave him. Jake reached for Tom’s hand, drawing him to his feet with too strong a grip to argue with, guiding him to the rope and watching to ensure he clipped on. He was turning up his radio again as he clipped himself on, standing squarely between Tom and the figure laying in the sun on the ice. Dorje came quietly to join him, and Spitz, the last to rise from the climber’s side, came the most slowly to the rope ahead of him.

“Mountain Eagles. We have the climber on oxygen, we’ve given him Dex. He’s still alive but he’s not reviving. Is anyone in a position to help?”

In a few days from now as the full season came into swing and many people were climbing on this route the big expeditions, who had enough Sherpa support spread across the mountain, would consider requests like this and whether or not a rescue attempt was possible. Often it wasn’t. Not through lack of compassion or interest, but through sheer practical impossibility. There was another long moment then the radio crackled and a German voice answered.

“Mountain Eagles, this is Abenteurer expedition at base camp. Is he talking? Can he stand?”

“His eyes are fixed.” Bill said behind Jake. “He’s unresponsive. Breathing, but his jaw’s clenched, he isn’t swallowing. He was without oxygen probably all night.”

“Then he’s going to die.” The German voice said soberly but bluntly. “If he has gone down there, below the step… there is nothing you can do for him, I am sorry. It is hard, I know, but you are going to have to leave him.”

Jake keyed the radio again, his face was expressionless below his goggles. “Is anyone near enough to bring him more oxygen? Anyone near to Camp Four?”

“Jake.” Shem’s South African accent cut across the line, quiet above the static. “If he’s not responding then I agree, you’ve done all you can. There will be no way you can get him down from where you are.”

“Our team are on their way down from Camp Two,” the German voice apologised. “The Portuguese team are descending, they have abandoned their summit attempt. There are no other teams in your area Mountain Eagles. If he is not reviving on the oxygen you have given him then you have already given him every chance, he is not going to recover. I am sorry.”

“It’s a risk he took when he came up here.” Bill said quietly to Jake. “He knew what he was doing. We need to move, Jake.”

It was horrible. Beyond horrible. They had talked about this, been prepared for this, and yet in abstract it meant nothing compared to being stood beside a man in this state. Tom glanced at Spitz who was standing quietly but from the shaking of his shoulders, not without emotion. How did you walk away from someone up here, knowing what you were leaving him to? “I will stay.” Dorje said behind him. “I will wait hour, see if he revives.”

“I won’t let you do that,” Jake said levelly, “Not without oxygen.”

Dorje smiled at him. “I independent climber. I stay.”

“Dorje-” Bill began explosively. Jake paused for a moment. Then took off his own oxygen kit and handed it to Dorje, blocking Tom’s reflexive grab to stop him.

“Dorje, take this. Yes, take it. Between my kit and what’s left of your other oxygen bottle you’ve got enough to wait and still get down.”

Jacob,” Tom said furiously. Jake shook his head.

“No. We’re heading down, the oxygen’s getting thicker all the time, it’s a clear day and we can move it. Let’s go.”

“If anyone’s going to do this without oxygen it’ll be me, not you.” Tom spat at him, “I’m the lightest here-”

“And he’s a stubborn, stupid oversized bastard,” Bill said behind them. “Tom don’t argue with him, don’t waste the bloody air, just move. Move it, now.”

They left Dorje with what they had left of hot fluids as much for him as for Loic. Bill got in front of Jake and Tom climbed close behind him, seething and praying in close combination. Only the most serious elite of the climbers – the athlete elite of the mountaineering world – ever climbed here in the death zone without oxygen, and none of them to his knowledge was Jake’s height. Spitz stayed right against Tom’s back as they went down – at speed, the descent here if the ropes weren’t cluttered with people was about three hours, far less than the hours of painful fighting their way upward this morning, and they were going fast enough to stay warm.

At the balcony, Tom pulled his own mask away and handed it to Jake, turning up his regulator to full power for a few minutes while they drained the tank. Jake took it and sat down, breathing the full air for a few minutes and to Tom’s relief his eyes were clear, he was moving well and with his usual, smooth, graceful co ordination, he was showing no serious signs of being any more hypoxic than the rest of them. There was as much fierce pride in him as utter fury with him.

“I’m taking him on down to camp three.” He informed Bill over Jake’s shoulder. “It’s still early enough in the day and I want him down at least that low.”

It might be going well so far, but he was still utterly terrified of seeing Jake start to reel and hear his voice start to slur, the hypoxia that had happened at camp two on their first night there. Bill nodded agreement.

“Right. Spitz and I’ll stay at four tonight and wait for Dorje, that’s a good plan. Come on, let’s get moving.”

Jake handed the oxygen mask back to Tom and put it on him, steering Tom ahead of him towards the rope.

They reached camp four around eleven am, a tight climb of just over two and a half hours, and Tom stopped only to change oxygen bottles, shoving a spare one in his rucksack. Bill gave him a rough, hard hug on the plateau. He looked exhausted, grey and ready to drop and Spitz looked no better.

“Go on. Get him down. And don’t thump him, he’s always got to do the noble thing. You of all people know he does.”

Too angry with Jake to speak to him, Tom started ahead of him down the steep route to camp three with fierce concentration and equally fierce prayers that he could do this, watching his every move. Thankfully this was one of the shorter camp descents and the Lhotse Face allowed for several stretches of being able to rappel down the rope; just over an hour later they reached camp three and Tom unzipped the tent, threw his rucksack down and ripped his crampons off, and crawled across to make room for Jake, who sat down more heavily to take off his own gear, and breathed out. A long, heavy breath of relief and exhilaration.

He was tired. Tom had never seen him look more tired – or actually more alive or more elated. His eyes were on fire, he looked horribly scruffy, weather-beaten, thin and wild and utterly, spectacularly beautiful, and a whole lot of other emotions in Tom fought with the desire to bat him hard across the back of his head and shake him. Instead he grabbed for his own radio.

“Mountain Eagles. Bill, Shem, we’re at three. We’re fine.”

He heard Max’s voice in a short, “Thank God,” and Shem’s South African accent breathe out in a gusty sigh from base camp.

“Halleluia. I’ll send those emails out, let everyone know you did it and you’re ok. Well done guys, bloody well done.”

“Good.” Bill’s voice sounded exhausted. “We’ve been waiting for you to check in. Right, Dorje’s called down to say he’s fine, Spitz and I are going to get some sleep. Do the same. We’ll catch you up in base camp.”

“Come here.” Jake said, dropping onto his back on the mat as Tom let go the radio. Tom batted his hand away.

“I’m not bloody talking to you.”

Jake evaded the swipe, grabbed his arm and yanked. Tom collapsed on the mat beside him, exhausted and fuming and… bloody euphoric himself. The high was … outstanding. Out of this world. Beyond any high he’d ever found on any mountain, ravine, harbour or anywhere else with Jake in the last few years. To have done this with him – that moment on top of the world with him this morning – was one of the greatest moments of his life. There was the craziest urge to laugh, to whoop and shout, far more than he’d felt in that sunlit moment of actually standing on the summit.

“You know what?” Jake said to the roof of the tent, finding his hand and winding his fingers through Tom’s and his voice was both wondering and with the same sound of laughter that Tom was suppressing. “We did it. You and I, we actually did it!”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Euphoric or not, they were knackered. It was a long time before Tom could summon up the energy or interest to force himself to move, to roll over and light a stove, to fill pans with clean snow and ice, to work on re hydrating and undressing some to get into a sleeping bag. His body was aching fiercely, limp, almost too exhausted to respond. He was laying beside the stove in a half doze, waiting for the snow to melt with a plan of getting tea down them both, forcing Jake to use the oxygen mask to sleep to replace some of the oxygen debt his body would be carrying around for some hours yet, and then both of them sleeping the clock around – when the radio buzzed and crackled and a voice with a French accent said anxiously,

“’Allo all expeditions. Is any expedition missing someone? We have spotted a climber on the ropes about three quarters of the way up the Face to camp three, he has been hanging there a while and he is not moving.”

There was a moment of silence, then several buzzes on the radio from teams checking in who were mostly around camps one and two. Jake reached a hand over and grabbed the radio from his discarded harness without sitting up.

“Hey. This is Mountain Eagles. It’s not us. Tom and I are at three, the rest of us at four. We’ve got no other climbers on the mountain.”

“Well he has to be somebody’s.” the French voice on the radio rose a little. “Guys please, this climber isn’t moving, we’ve been watching him over forty minutes now since we spotted him, he’s in trouble and the weather’s turning.”

“What?” Tom leaned over to the radio and changed the channel. “Max? It’s Tom. What’s the weather doing?”

“It’s another of these flash gales, it’s coming in fast.” Max said darkly, “It’s come out of nowhere in the last half hour, looks like it’s going to be a rough night. You guys well battened down up there?”

“We’ll get the tents checked and tied down.” Tom told him. “Thanks.”

He sat up to zip his down suit and reached for his crampons. Jake changed the channel back to the main one. The French voice was still arguing.

“… going to have to go down and get him, the guy is clearly in trouble! Will you people check in? Where are the Taiwanese couple?”

“Back at base camp as of this morning and probably in their tents asleep,” someone else’s voice said over the static, “I spoke to them both when they came down together, I’ve seen them.”

“There’s no one at camp three not already knackered,” another voice protested. “We’re headed up to camp four in the morning, if we go down now that’s our summit bid buggered, can’t anyone at camp two come up?”

“It’s quicker to go down and take him down with you than for people to try climbing up, especially with the weather,” someone else argued. “Has any expedition got guides or back up team they could send?”

“This is Mountain Eagles,” Shem’s South African accent cut across the radio, sounding sharp. “Has any expedition seen Phoenix Loudon today? Is he in camp with you?”

Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015

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