Excerpt from The Manhattan Times: 4th May: Lost On Everest?
Concern is growing for the Mountain Eagles expedition, last heard from on the summit of Everest at 7am in Nepal. Madeleine Loudon, reporter for this paper and mother of Phoenix Loudon, the high profile explorer and climber with the expedition whose blog has been closely followed worldwide by many including a number of high profile celebrities, is too distressed this evening to say much in her interviews, but reports that Phoenix’s planned phone call to her from the summit was not placed, and that the only news on the team is a rumour from a foreign team’s radio transmissions picked up some hours ago which may indicate that the team ran into serious trouble during their descent. A storm is now covering the mountain and preventing all communications, even the base camp has gone dark, and weather stations comment that conditions up high tonight are likely to be extreme.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
4th May 9.42pm
James, I don’t know what to do or who to call. It’s all over the Manhattan Times website and starting to come up on the national news, that stupid cow is having hysterics in tv studios and going on and on about her son being dead and giving no other information, I’m petrified someone’s going to see it and call Luath and the others. There’s no news on the blog other than several hundred comments from sobbing fans. I don’t know what to do.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Jake stood naked on the smooth, round grey boulder in front of the light turquoise blue water. The light was streaming down in front of him through the break in the cavern roof above the water, leaving half the blueness in shadow and the other half in bright streaming sunlight. The plants that hung down from that break in the rock above was a mix of feathery ferns and a few vines, all bright, fresh green, some of them hanging so low that they nearly brushed the water. They had stripped off their jungle steam soaked and sweat stained clothes to wash them out hours ago and had not bothered with clothing since – there was no need in the warm shade of the cave where fresh ozone lifted off the cool water that flowed slowly against the rock. It was the coolest they’d been in days. The sound of the waterfall on the other side of that rock was a steady, soft thunder. It had taken them some hours to climb it and penetrate that falling wall of water to discover this small, hidden paradise where it was apparent no human had stepped in decades, if not centuries. They were days away from the trail. Days from civilisation, days from another human soul with nowhere particular they had to be and nothing particular they had to do, and it was like discovering some enchanted Jules Verne myth come to life.
Replete on the fresh fish that swam in the deeper stretches of the sunlit river beyond the cave, Tom lay on the sand of the shallow cove near the dying embers of their small fire and watched him. Wet haired, as they had spent the past few hours lazing in the water as well as not lazing at all on the beach, golden skin against the ancient grey stone, he looked like some piece of Greek warrior art, all lines and curves like the model for a Hellenistic sculptor creating statues of Zeus or Poseidon. All smooth lines, long muscles, squared curves that made Tom’s stomach tighten and his hands and teeth itch to touch again and made him consider if he was really as tired as he thought he was. In one smooth, powerful lunge that came out of nowhere, Jake abruptly dived into the water. Tom watched his long body swim under the clear blueness in several slow, powerful strokes, crossing the pool for some way before he broke surface and took a breath, shaking water and wet hair off his face. He turned to face Tom, quite deliberately meeting Tom’s eyes to make it clear he knew that Tom was looking, and his expression was not at all innocent, making clear that Tom was not the only one doing the looking. He had the most beautiful smile. A wickedly indolent, inviting smile that made Tom helplessly start to return it.
Oh behold thou art fair my love,
behold thou art fair….
Our bed is green,
the beams of our house are cedar
and are rafters are fir….
Tom found himself murmuring it under his breath as he rolled slowly to his feet, walking towards the water’s edge, towards him.
He stirred to bitter cold and darkness, thousands of miles from the warmth of that cave and half dreams of what had been one of the best days of his life and one of the most beautiful places he’d seen on this earth with Jake, and for a moment nothing was very real.
He’d draped himself over Jake, legs, arms, more or less on top of him to spread all the warmth he could, and his face was turned into Jake’s neck but the hand – the hand on his hair was moving… Tom jerked away and pulled his head back, snapping fully awake in a second, and Jake’s eyes were open. Full of pain, exhaustion, but they were clear, they were lucid and him, and terrible relief shook Tom to the bone. He dropped back on Jake’s chest, clutching him, for a moment too thankful for sense or consideration for the broken arm, and felt Jake’s fingers knot in his hair, an exhausted but hard kiss in return against his face. Then sense rushed back and Tom rolled away from his injured side, grabbing for Jake’s hands. His fingers were white, pinched looking and as cold as Tom’s own were but no worse. Tom didn’t dare take either off their boots. Up here the risk was high of feet swelling fast, particularly frost nipped or frost bitten feet, swelling too much to put boots back on again and ever walk anywhere more in this frozen labyrinth. Jake clumsily turned Tom’s own hands over to check and Tom pulled gently away from him, reaching for the stove and his crampons.
It was desperately cold outside, pitch dark and with loose snow blasting like grit against him and blocking all visibility while he hacked at the ground for ice shards for water. The wind did its best to batter him off balance with a several thousand feet drop below and it took everything he had to grip on to her face and move, teeth gritted, snarling silently with his whole heart at her with more energy than he’d felt in days, like a blistering inferno from the depths of his being.
He is mine. Fuck off, back away, get the hell away from us, you won’t have him.
The sound of the tent flapping was like giant wings beating behind him, the threat display of some giant raptor.
He dragged a bag of shards back into the tent. Jake managed to sit up while he melted some and it took the painfully, painfully long time to heat to drinkable tea. But Jake drank it and Tom bolted some himself, put more on to melt and Jake stretched out an arm to him. Tom crawled across to him and Jake drew him down with that one good arm and hugged him, weakly but pulling Tom’s head into his body so Tom half lay against him. For a long time they just lay there together while the water melted again. Then Tom hauled himself up to make soup this time, something with calories, and dragged the radios off their harnesses. There was static on every channel. Jake took one from him with his good hand and tried too.
“Wind.” Tom said eventually, and was startled at the hoarseness of his voice. Yesterday’s struggle down to the tents had scorched the inside of his throat and probably lower with icy air and particles. “No one’s come up looking for us, it must be worse lower down. The wind’s still blasting.”
As if Jake couldn’t see the quaking, rocking walls of their canvas shelter. The howl of the wind still sounded like huge wings were beating endlessly above the tent. He’d know too there was no more oxygen left. If there was, they’d have been using it. They had two options, neither of them good. One, to go out into the storm, try to get down to camp two into a higher level of oxygen, which meant taking a badly injured man out to climb one-armed in weather conditions harsh enough to kill fit, able climbers. Two, to stay put under shelter and wait for better weather, while both of them, and Jake in particular, got weaker and more oxygen starved by the hour and less and less likely to be able to make the climb down. Neither option was good. No rescue was coming in this weather, and Tom was bleakly aware that any climber unable to walk under his own power was extremely difficult to offer any kind of rescue to even in the best conditions. Up here they might as well be on the moon. If Jake reached the point of not being able to walk or climb, that was it. Game over.
“We stay a few more hours.” Jake said after a while, quite calmly. “Get as warm as we can. Rehydrate all we can. We’ve got plenty of food. The weather might clear. Then we’ll go down.”
The weather might also worsen, and Jake was weakening all the time at this altitude. Jake found and gripped his hand.
“Pass me the food packs.”
They heated a few things. It was hard to get more than a few mouthfuls in without risking vomiting it straight back up, the body saying loudly are you kidding me?, but every calorie, every warm item taken in, every drop of liquid was going to help. After which Jake made him slide with him into the sleeping bag and they lay together listening to the storm rage around them.
Two hours. Three hours. The storm hammered on outside. Four hours. The sky was still a bleak grey and it was like a twilight that never ended. It was actually seven am.
Tom melted more shards. The gas canister was running out and they had only one left. He was coughing so hard now that at times he was tasting blood in his mouth as vessels in his throat ruptured and his chest felt on fire. A few times in the midst of a coughing fit he was aware of Jake’s hand on his back, weak but rubbing, trying to help. Jake was stifling his own coughing as much as he could; the slightest stir he made shook the fractured mess of his side. He was a horrible colour. A kind of grey white, even his lips. Trying to force his numbed brain into gear, Tom found the first aid kit stuffed into the side pocket of the tent and without touching the injured upper arm, eased a sling under Jake’s elbow, tying it around his neck to support the arm in the curled position Jake held it in. A second sling tied the elbow to his body, as tightly as Tom could manage with stiff fingers, then a length of heavy elasticated bandage tied the shoulder very tightly to his side, wrapping from shoulder around his ribs, well above the fracture, and he saw the relief in Jake’s eyes, the tension lighten slightly as the arm was stabilised and he no longer had to support the weight. He fed Jake painkillers, the strongest they had, mashing them into a little water so they formed a paste and Jake washed the paste around his mouth rather than trying to swallow them whole with water and risk throwing them up.
Five hours. Six hours. Up at camp four Bill and Spitz would be sitting tight, waiting for a break in the weather to get down out of the death zone. Thinking that by now he and Jake were probably relaxing at base camp, well below the weather. Down at camp two, if Lobsang and Pemba had managed to get Phoenix to his tent and had realised they hadn’t followed them down to camp, they probably thought they had fallen or were stuck on the ropes on the Lhotse face. Tom could only hope no one had risked their lives searching for them. God alone knew what had happened to Dorje. Some numb part of him wondered occasionally how the hell the day had gone so terribly, horribly wrong, but it was a distant thought and not a useful one when survival through the next few hours was the priority.
Seven hours. Slightly past ten am, the wind started to drop. Within twenty minutes the awful sound like wings beating overhead and the hammering at the sides of the tent had become only occasional gusts, and when Tom risked opening the tent flaps, the sky was still a heavy grey but it was clearing, the clouds were scudding fast but they were higher, thinner. A number of other unoccupied tents were gone. Just gone. Blasted away. They’d been beyond lucky that theirs had held, and even so it was half buried under snow. A lot more snow lay on the ground, soft snow layered on solid ice; that was lethal. No grip to the surface, a surface that slid and gave way under you. On days like this, the ice fall became impassable until the snow had frozen again, no one sane would go through it. But camp two was lower than here, there was more oxygen, it was nearer to base camp, nearer to help.
Tom dressed, got into his harness and helped Jake out of the sleeping bag and into his gear. He was heavy, struggling to move, and it was hard labour for both of them that took a long, slow and effortful time and burned up more of what was left of their very depleted energy. A thermos took what hot water they had left; more or less everything else Tom left behind. His energy needed to be focused on Jake. Dale’s email he stuffed inside his down suit before he zipped it up, the sheets in their plastic package against his chest.
Jake was slow on the ice and Tom’s biggest fear was of him falling on the injured arm. He hung on to Jake’s harness as well as the rope between them as they left the tent and made their slow way across to the fixed ropes, and Tom clipped him on, jumar, sling and carabiner. It was easiest for him to slide himself – for Jake to sit and let Tom lower him down the ice, control his slide that way, and then rappel down after him. For some time they did this in silence together, Jake controlling the slide with his right hand and his legs, his injured arm turned up away from the ice. In small sections, lower and lower. It seemed to take hours and it took frenzied concentration and grim, fierce determination and all the effort Tom had left in him. There was no one else on the ropes this morning, no one mad enough to stir from their camps or shelter wherever they were bunked down on the mountain. The sky was still grey, the wind was still blowing, but nothing like the battering conditions of a few hours ago.
They were approaching the bottom of the Lhotse Face making their slow, painful progress, when Tom saw the movement of people below them. Initially his first response was fury. Get out of the way. Don’t you dare to slow him up.
Then he saw the flash of black climbing suit and the red and yellow wool hat and relief was so strong his legs buckled, and he sat down on the ice for a moment, hanging onto the ropes. Dorje. It was Dorje below them.
There were a few climbers in the party. Dorje reached Jake first, Tom saw Dorje clip a rope onto Jake’s harness and then another pair of hands other than Tom’s were on him, stabilising him, and the relief of that additional security was so shattering, Tom nearly sobbed with it. Pemba’s lined face looked up at him and nodded with a wide smile and wet eyes as he passed, climbing around Tom. He took Jake’s good side and the short rope from Dorje, connecting it to his own harness. Lobsang was beside him with another rope coiled on his harness, and behind him were two men that Tom recognised from the Australian team although he didn’t know their names. They stopped to talk with Jake, Pemba had pulled out a thermos and put a cup of steaming tea into Jake’s hand. Dorje climbed past them, coming to join Tom and taking another thermos out from his pack. A stocky, weather beaten, dark skinned angel, who grinned at him with very white teeth and poured a cup of something that shot white steam above it, stooping down to hand it to him.
“I knew. I knew you would find shelter, I knew.”
Cup in one hand, rope in the other, Tom put an arm around his neck and hugged him, tears sharply stinging his eyes. Dorje hugged him back, a strong, close hug that added to the warmth from the tea.
“You drink, Tom. Get warm, we get Jake down Cwm. Shem at camp one waiting.”
“His arm’s smashed, he’s never going to get through the ice fall.” Tom blurted out his next biggest fear and Dorje nodded.
“We talk of that, we manage now. We manage good. Camp one first, we fast.”
They moved fast, hustling Jake gently but at a speed Tom knew they needed to beat the effects of shock, cold and the oxygen Jake was lacking. The two Australian guys were relaxed, effective climbers who worked with Pemba and Lobsang to lower Jake down every stretch where it was possible, and to steady him over the stretches where Jake needed to walk by himself. Tom paced them closely, watching his every move, and Dorje climbed at his shoulder; occasionally Tom became aware of Dorje’s hand gripping his harness as they negotiated a tricky bit and realised he was stumbling himself like a drunk and barely noticing where he put his hands or feet. The endless coughing fits were a bloody nuisance, most of the rest of the climb down was something of a blur. Ceaseless, endless blundering down ladders and ropes and the calls of the Australian and Sherpa guys to each other.
The tents of camp one finally came into view around 2pm, and Jake walked into the camp under his own steam, surrounded by the team that had brought him down. Shem was standing outside one of their tents, her hood up over her woollen hat, her hair blowing from under it and looking as though she’d been watching out for them for some time. She had several bags of kit open on the snow beside her. Someone helped Jake sit down on a crate, Tom lurched slowly to a halt behind him, and looked up at the nearest face. One of the Australians who climbed down with them and handled the ropes for Jake, a man with red hair and freckles who gave him a cheerful nod.
“Well done mate.”
“Thank you,” Tom said with probably more feeling than one man normally ever expressed to another, and saw the man’s eyes abruptly blur and his brief nod upward.
“Yeah well your mate over there is the guy who found my best mate when he fell below camp three. You looked out for him when you were bloody knackered, I heard your mate ended up with HACE because of it. When I heard it was you two in trouble it seemed the least I could do.”
Tom held out a hand to him and the man gripped it, yanked Tom over and gave him a painfully hard, brief hug, and then he and his team mate walked away towards their own tents. Tom never saw them again or knew their names.
“Tom,” Shem called from where she was opening Jake’s suit to look at the fracture. “Sit down. Get some tea down you.”
“What-” Tom turned to find Dorje, something stirring in his mind other than Jake for a moment and afraid to ask. “How long did you stay with Loic?”
“He climb down with me to camp four.” Dorje said calmly. “I left him with Bill and with Spitz to look for you this morning when storm drop and radio work and Pemba say you not at camp two.”
“He’s alive?” Tom demanded. Dorje smiled, nodding.
“He alive. Cold and frostbite but alive. He come down with Bill, they climb down today.”
He was alive. And Dorje had climbed alone from camp four down to camp two to meet Pemba and Lobsang and then climbed back up the Cwm to find them and bring them down. It was a feat of strength and endurance that Tom understood and had no words for, suspecting too that Dorje’s version of ‘storm dropped’ and his were probably very different things.
“Phoenix is fine too.” Shem said shortly, not looking up from Jake. “Pemba brought him right down to base camp when the weather started to change and got him the hell off the mountain. It was only exhaustion. Once we got him stuffed in a sleeping bag, warm and hydrated he was fine, he’s back in base camp.”
Tom came to stand behind Jake, watching her look briefly at the fracture, then as he had done, let the sleeve and suit cover it again.
“We need to get you out to Kathmandu and the hospital. Hands?” She checked Jake’s hands, looked over at Tom’s, nodded shortly. “Yeah. You’re frost nipped, you’re going to peel like hell, there and your faces, but it doesn’t look like major damage thank God.”
“Strap my arm down at the shoulder and elbow and I can use the hand.” Jake said matter of factly to her. “I want to move and go now while I’m still up on adrenaline. And no drugs, I need a clear head.”
It was about the worst thing he could do to that fracture, but in practical terms he was right and Tom was exhausted enough to be pragmatic with no hesitation. The most dangerous part of the entire labyrinth still lay ahead of them. If the damage to the fracture ended up costing him an arm they’d manage. It was better than costing him his life. Shem didn’t answer, but she began to work on the slings again, and Tom turned away, pulling the radio off his harness. After hours and hours of static he wasn’t expecting much, but this time when he keyed it, there was no blast of interference.
“Max? Base camp? Anybody?”
“Tom!” Max’s voice was immediate and sounded shocked. “Tom thank God!”
“We’re at camp one with Shem and the others, we’re ok. Have you heard from Bill and Spitz?”
“Yeah, they’re on their way down with Loic. They’re tired and cold but they’re ok.”
“What are conditions like in the ice fall?”
“Nasty, a lot of snow, but the Sherpas say it’s passable with care.”
Shem glanced up and held out a hand for the radio. Tom surrendered it to her and she took it, still working on Jake with the other hand.
“Max, use the sat phone and the number I left you. Tell them I’ve got a badly injured climber with a compound fracture, he needs airlifting out to Kathmandu immediately. We’re starting down to base camp now.”
There were a crowd of people all around them, but Jake looked up and it was Tom’s eyes he searched for. He was very white under his dark tan, in fact he looked terrible. Gaunt.
Black rings around his eyes, his lips cracked and blackened in places where they’d bled and dried. He looked like utter hell, but he still smiled. His mad smile, the one Tom loved.
“Come on then. Let’s do it.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
5th May 05.23am
I received Paul’s forwarded email from Jake’s expedition yesterday that they had summited and returned to the upper camps successfully. However I need to alert you to the fact that there have been rumours in the media overnight that the expedition may have run into difficulties late yesterday afternoon. These are entirely unconfirmed rumours, Niall has contacted the American Embassy in Nepal who confirm that base camp and the entire area around the mountain has been under challenging weather since this time and that no telephone or internet contact have been or are as yet possible. The news report appears to have been gleaned from someone on the internet overhearing a radio channel from another expedition shortly before all communication channels were closed by the weather, so it may very well be that they have misunderstood what they heard, or that this is incorrect or sensationalised information.
I wished to prepare you for distressed or anxious communications from the wider family should this piece of irresponsible journalism reach them. Currently only Darcy has been aware of this and has promised me not to share the information with anyone else. As soon as the embassy has been able to make contact with the expedition and ascertain whether we have cause for concern, I will inform you.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
There seemed to be quite a party of them going down through the Ice Fall but Tom noticed very little. He had roped himself directly to Jake with Pemba and Dorje roped on either side of them. If one of them went off a ladder or down a face, the other three stood some chance between them of breaking that fall, and a few times he saw Shem sticking close to them, moving steadily and with experience, her eyes always on them both and her weathered face expressionless.
From the deep, sudden and bottomless cracks in the ice you could step over in one stride to the ones crossed by ladders and the abrupt steep climb downs of sheer faces, Tom walked with him, within grabbing distance of his harness, his hand on the rope between them. Jake walked for the most part with the same steadiness and certainty with which he always placed his feet, and with the same calmness with which he’d crossed the Bergschrund crevasse alone. There were too many stretches here where a climber who couldn’t walk alone and unaided over those long, roped together ladders that wouldn’t take more than one man at a time, could not cross at all. He went down ladders with his one good arm grasping and using his other hand when needed, making his way slowly but steadily down rung by rung. When he crossed the bending, quaking metal ladders over the wide crevasses he ran the ropes on each side through his good hand and his strapped down stiff hand. The pain must have been indescribable but he never showed it, he was not even stooped with it. In some stupid, masochistic way that only athletes ever really got, there was still some mad part of them both that gloried in this extreme challenge purely for its extremity. Like craving the extreme pain and sensation of spicy food, the runners high when your lungs were nearly bursting and your legs giving out, the moment where you almost couldn’t but your heart rose in that magic moment higher than your physical capabilities and you still did… it was insane and stupid and it was an addiction. Tom was silent the entire climb down, lost in fierce concentration with him. The stretches where Jake would have needed to climb down a rope on a sheer face, Dorje and Tom stood at the top and lowered him while Jake walked down step by step on his crampons, his one hand controlling the pace down the rope. The loose snow everywhere made it look like an untouched world in here this morning – even more otherworldly than usual, a blue and white world where the silver ladders and coloured ropes seemed rudely intrusive. The snow was deep enough on the ice that it was not unlike trying to walk on a skating rink. She was not relinquishing them easily.
Afterwards Tom remembered very little about it. There were no other climbers but them due to the bad conditions; it made the Ice Fall ghostly with its endless creaks and groans and sharp cracks of the moving ice as they climbed through her guts. He was numb with focus, all he was really aware of was every step Jake made and the accuracy of it. They did it together, pacing each other in the same way they ran together; without words but signalling all the time to control pace, to pick it up, to lengthen stride, to change style…. The same way they’d bottle danced, eye to eye in perfect time together balanced on the ridge pole of the garage roof back on the ranch last year. It was a stupid memory, a completely irrelevant one but for some reason it kept on coming back. One foot after the other, down and down, dancing with the mountain and every challenge she lay in their path, because this was about endurance more than skill now.
It took nearly two hours to get him to crampon point, where Jake sat slowly and stiffly down on a rock and Tom knelt down in front of him to take Jake’s crampons off his boots for the last time, looking back at the ice fall with many, pressing reasons he wanted to be on his knees at this moment. They would never walk through that gateway again. They’d slipped in and slipped back out; seen her stir but not, thank God, to fully waken; lived to walk out of her grasp. Away from her. Any feelings he had about that appeared to have been frozen somewhere on her heights and been left there among the skeletons of other questers. It took effort to turn away from her, rise to his feet and help Jake up after him. To unfasten the ropes that connected them and linked them in turn to Dorje, to Pemba. Jake leaned his good arm on Tom’s shoulders for support as they walked down into base camp.
It seemed unnaturally huge, crowded and littered after days up on the mountain. They walked for what seemed like miles through the tents, past the stupas and their smoking fires that spoke of other climbers above on the mountain, through the smell of coffee and the noise of music and voices and people in deckchairs outside their tents, the distance through to their compound at the far end of the camp.
A sleek, black chopper was there. On the plateau beyond their tent, its blades still, two men in flight suits and heavy jackets waiting with Bart and a small figure with fair hair in a pink down suit. Tom stepped away from Jake, his stride quickened, he heard
Shem’s voice raise in alarm,
And then that blond, pretty face turned towards him, the violet eyes with the long lashes, the mouth opened – Tom moved with a speed he hadn’t known he had left in him, his shoulder lunged back and the blow smashed Loudon in the jaw with all the strength he had left, knocking him down on the ground. Hands grasped him immediately, many hands, there was shouting, Loudon on the ground looked at him in utter shock, blood on his lip.
“Tom.” A voice said in his ear and long arms were around him with more certainty and a lot more determination than the rest, dragging him back, turning him away from the crowd around Loudon. “Tom, let it go now, get Jake out of here. Just get him out of here, that’s all that matters.”
It was a familiar woman’s voice. The arms were very long with large hands and extremely narrow fingers. Tom looked down at them, and then back at her. Tall, bony, six foot of her with her ice blond short hair blown in the wind, her ice blue eyes serious in her hard boned face like an eagle, her English accent. Beau.
He stared at her, and she let him go, turned him around to grip his shoulder, shaking him a little.
“Get him out. I’ll see to this, I’ve got it, I’ll help Bill. We’ll handle the rest.”
She could. She really could. She was an expedition leader by trade, she and Jake and Bill always ran everything the Abeausante team ever did together, and nothing got in Beau’s way. Not officials, not permits, nothing. They could walk away without hesitation if she was here, even with Bill and Spitz still on the mountain and clients in the tents. Beau ignored his open mouth, swung up a rucksack and pushed it into his arms.
“I ransacked your tent. Passports, wallets, you’ve got cash in there. It’s ok Tom. Go.”
He saw her pass him and hug Jake, abnormally gently for her, kissing his cheek. The helicopter blades started overhead, blasting them with snow and dust, the thrumming sound of beating wings overhead. Shem and Pemba helped Jake into the hands of the chopper flight team, who steadied him to climb the last few feet into the cabin. Lost, disoriented, stomach twisting, Tom grabbed Shem, felt the tightness of her hug. Pemba. Small, powerful, who said nothing but hugged him back as strongly. Bart and Max, the two older American men who said things that he didn’t hear but hugged him back, their warmth saying more. Dorje. Tom kissed his cheek hard, feeling Dorje’s arms wrap comfort around him that there were no words for. It was hardest to step away from him, just to leave him and clamber into the belly of the chopper where Jake was sitting, and the door slammed and instantly the chopper lifted, sharply, straight up off the plateau and away.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Tom gripped Jake’s cold hand through the flight. Watched the medic put a cannula into Jake, pushing several syringes of unidentified medication through it before he attached a bag of fluids. The fluids were running fast, and they were warmed, Tom saw them being taken from some closed container. The medics in the Khumbu were used to extracting half frozen internationals from their mountain. The noise of the blades was too loud to allow for talking. Much of the time Jake sat with his eyes closed, his fingers wrapped around Tom’s.
On the roof pad of the hospital in Kathmandu they were met by a small crowd of medics and Jake was helped down into waiting hands and Tom trailed them, standing uncomprehendingly at the back of a room watching a group of people talking rapidly in a muddle of Nepali and English depending on whether they were speaking to each other or to Jake. Jake was cut out of his battered yellow climbing suit and the rest of his clothes down to his shorts, and it was only then that Tom saw the horrific bruising across his chest and down his side. Black and purple, the mark of the rock. It was unbelievable his arm had taken enough of the impact to spare his ribs. His arm was an unholy mess. When they took off his boots, his toes were white, pinched white, but no black. Thank God, there was no black. Tom watched them move Jake’s feet into basins of tepid water and work on defrosting them, Jake was abnormally quiet and still, his eyes were closed and Tom thought he was sinking back into the semi-conscious state he’d been in last night, helped along by the drugs they were pumping into him and the collapse of the adrenaline rush that had kept him going through this morning. There were x-rays, machines and tubes, and then finally the bed itself carrying Jake swept past him in a crowd of people towards an operating theatre somewhere in the bowels of the hospital.
Tom faded back into the hallway, unseen. Everything was so bright. Sharp. Loud and crowded and hard edged. He was shaking all over. When he found a door that led into an empty stairwell, his knees gave way on the top step and for a while he sat there numbly, arms folded tightly across his chest, hands clutching at the thick down of his climbing suit. He didn’t know how long he sat there, stifling the frequent coughing fits that racked him. Only that eventually something came upon him. Some feeling, some urge that drew him to look up, and then despite his efforts to ignore it, it nagged gently at the back of his mind that it was time to get up now. Time to move. It took effort to make his knees work, to walk and look. Eventually he found a payphone.
He had no idea of the time there. None at all. He hadn’t known he even knew the number, just somehow his hand dialled by itself with shaking fingers and he waited, hearing the ring thousands of miles away on another continent, and when a voice answered, he managed to force his raw throat to make a noise.
“Dale. Is… is Dale there.”
It was Paul. Belatedly he recognised the voice that had answered the phone, he heard a few seconds’ silence and then the rapid sound of doors, footsteps and Paul’s voice.
“Yes, yes he is hon, one moment - Dale, it’s Tom.”
Tom’s stomach clenched tightly; he nearly hung up. He so nearly hung up, the receiver felt huge and cold in his hand. And then Dale’s soft, British voice came out of the phone and surrounded him.
“Tom, it’s me.”
It came out so quietly. Not coherent but controlledly, like a careful secret being released.
“Yes. Where are you?”
It was such a calm tone, so sensible that Tom found himself answering fairly sanely in much the same way. “Kathmandu hospital. Jake’s hurt – arm smashed. He’s in surgery.”
“Will he need a medical evacuation to the States?” Dale sounded perfectly composed about this as well; he might as well have asked if Jake might like sugar in his coffee.
Tom ran a trembling hand through his hair. “… I don’t know. I don’t know. He was walking but – they were thawing his feet, I don’t know if he’s got frost bite. He’s stable, he’s ok,” he added belatedly, aware he was terrifying the nearest family Jake had; these people loved him, he’d seen it time and time again, it was appalling of him to do this to them. “He’s ok. Just the arm, and he was exhausted and shocked… he’s ok. He’s going to be ok.”
“Give me your number and stay there, I’ll call you back as soon as I have information.”
Tom leaned on the wall, reading the number out aloud, and Dale repeated it back to him before the line went dead. Tom stood there, watching the phone, vaguely aware of the noise of people and voices and other lives being led around him and none of it really piercing the bubble of him and the phone on a dull painted wall. He had no idea how long it was before it rang and he caught it up. Dale sounded crisply organised.
“Medevac are talking to the hospital now. As soon as the hospital clear Jake to fly, they’ll organise transfer to the airport. If they want facility to facility transfer is Jackson hospital your preferred choice or is there somewhere else better?”
Do you want to come to us, or would you rather not? Tom closed his eyes and pressed his forehead against the cold concrete of the wall, too overwhelmingly grateful to hesitate.
“Right, I’ll confirm that. You had all of this in place, Tom. You and Jake set the emergency plan up well and the wheels are in motion. It’s organised, it’s going to be there and ready.”
Tom heard the phone change hands and a New Zealand voice, quiet and blunt, took over.
“Tom, it’s Flynn. Where are you?”
Tom looked around him, aware he wasn’t really very sure, but something about the voice was steadying and he found himself answering.
“The hospital – a hallway, somewhere-”
“Good. Now listen to me. I want you to find yourself something to eat. Real food, not salt and grease. A drink, something hot. Have you got cash on you?”
“Good. How much longer will Jake be?”
“I don’t know.”
“Food, drink, find out where his room is and wait there for him. Understood?”
He didn’t often find himself saying it, but it came out automatically to a man who knew him, knew Jake and their relationship, and expected it. “Yes sir.”
“Good.” It was brief, short and extremely warm, the same tone Jake knew the secret of that went down to his bones. “We’ll sort this out, Tom. Go on now.”
“… thanks.” Tom put the phone down slowly. And then searched the signage on the walls around him and went in search of a canteen. No one seemed in the least surprised to see someone in climbing gear blundering around the halls; it probably happened here a lot during climbing season.
He drank coffee and ate some kind of curry on rice – he was hungry, he hadn’t realised until he started to eat, but within a few mouthfuls his stomach protested that it hadn’t been digesting anything in days and this was a shock. And he gave up and drank the coffee. It took a lot longer to find someone who knew where Jake would be taken and to locate a very clean, well-equipped ward, and there, very pale against the dark green bedding, Jake was laying asleep, propped up on the bed at the end by the window.
His arm was bandaged. A Sherpani nurse with immaculate English talked to Tom gently about the plate used to re assemble his upper arm but that there had not been the crushing they had feared and often saw with such injuries, that he had no frost bite, that he was strong and they were pleased with how well he had come through the surgery. That he had been lucky. She brought a chair, and Tom sat silently against the side of the bed and watched him breathe.
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015