There was a small crowd of the clients who came to be introduced. Tom neither fully took in nor remembered the names as he shook hands; only that they were all men and there were five of them including the man in the shocking pink down climbing suit. Why he was wearing it in base camp was anyone’s guess, but when he stepped forward to shake hands, Tom looked into bright and peculiarly violet-blue eyes with long eyelashes under disordered fair hair, took in the curves and the face that was teeth-gratingly pretty, and was more than prepared for Harry’s rather doubtful,
“Tom, this is Phoenix.”
He very nearly said it without choking. Tom’s eyebrows raised even further.
...That’s a person called Phoenix.
“Phoenix Aleutian Loudon.” The man said charmingly in a New York accent. “You’ve probably heard of me.”
“No, not at all.” Tom said bluntly, releasing the far too soft, far too small hand as fast as possible. He saw the violet eyes meet his, weigh him up and promptly dismiss him. Instead they lit upon Jake and shone, radiating charm like a flashlight.
“And you must be Jake? I’ve heard all about you.”
Oh come on. He’s small, he’s pretty, he’s as appealing as a puppy in a basket and he knows exactly how to use those eyes... for pete’s sake you even get them at this altitude! Bunnies on ice.
Tom turned his back, dismissed the spam as inedible and went to join Bill in trying to get Harry’s elderly, battered radio working. Radios were notoriously dodgy here on the south face at the best of times; Bill wasn’t getting much more than static and he caught Tom’s eye and rolled his own skywards.
“I’ll get our own communications kit out. This old bucket went out of date with the ark.”
Tom went with him to the stack of blue plastic barrels full of their packet kit, digging out the essentials they’d planned for and tested thoroughly over six months ago. The radios. The laptop that would with solar power give them the information they needed at base camp on incoming weather. It took the best part of an hour to dismantle Harry’s sorry equipment and replace it, and then get it working, by which time the meal such as it was, had finished and the clients had meandered off in amongst the forest of tents on the grey shale of the glacier to drink Starbucks instant coffee and listen to their IPods. Harry didn’t seem particularly confident at the ‘mein host’ bit which was not good. Tom, not good at it either but married to someone who was, understood that a commercial expedition required a high level of people skills from the leader. Paying clients expected to be hosted, entertained, supervised and kept happy. Jake and Spitz had both stepped into the void; Jake did it naturally and people were responding to Jake in the warm, easy way they always did. The meal had involved a lot of chatting, laughter and good humour, even from Mr Phoenix Not A Weird Name At All Loudon. With the radio working and several other things on his mind, Tom got up and abruptly headed for the dingy, rocky ground outside the tent where a depressed looking Harry was talking to Jake and Spitz.
“Hey. We need to do an equipment check on this lot.”
“Have you organised one yet?” Jake asked Harry cheerfully. Harry gave him a demoralised shake of the head.
“No. They only arrived yesterday, so today’s technically a rest day.”
“Then why hasn’t anyone bloody told them to rest and not to swan about gossiping?” Tom said shortly. “Who are the rest of your guides? Where are they?”
There was a short, painful silence. Then Harry cleared his throat carefully.
“.......well there’s Dorje. And me.”
There was another, more shocked silence.
“Two?” Spitz demanded. “You have just two? Has Dorje climbed here before?”
“........a little.” Harry said still less willingly. “Look, I didn’t know. I didn’t know the terms Jon set this up on, and there would have been three of us if he hadn’t-”
He was interrupted by Spitz, who said something snarled, emphatic and several times in Spanish. Tom gave Jake a long, hard look that said,
I told you so.
“Ok, then I’m going to find somewhere safe and get this lot to test their kit.” He said aloud, shortly. “I want some idea of how bad this actually is. Harry, get your clients together and tell them to get all their kit out and put it on. And tell the Pink Peril not to wear his down suit around here before he overheats. Don’t help them with their kit and watch them handling it, we need to know what they can do.”
Moreover they needed to know what the clients could do quickly, confidently and competently so they had some hope of being able to do it up the mountain when they were out of their skulls from semi asphyxiation and hanging on ropes under lousy weather conditions, instead of down here on the flat in bright sunshine. He and Jake had run similar equipment and skills checks on their own expedition clients in Peru. Leaving Harry and the others to get on with it, Tom headed uphill.
It took him only a couple of minutes above the ice line known as Crampon Point where the ice and snow took over from the shale, to find a vertical wall of ice perhaps twenty five foot high, not too softened from a morning under the hot sun. Beyond Crampon Point the ground broke up into what was known as the Ice Fall – the massive, tumbling glacier slowly descending down Everest’s lower slopes in a river of ice at the speed of a few feet a day. No smooth river. The Ice Fall was massive amounts of solid ice forced together as it descended, which smashed and crushed it up into chunks and crevasses and went on smashing and crushing as it moved, forcing ice high up into the air as the sheet was compressed, until this close to it you couldn’t see it as a river or glacier at all. Instead, entering the ice fall, you had the sense of being inside a giant popcorn machine, struggling your way over gigantic ice popcorn balls, many of them the size of public buildings and tower blocks, all of them crowded together with crevasses between them and under them that were measured at hundreds of feet. To climb through the Ice Fall, climbers had to get between these giant ice obstacles, over them, around them, using roped together ladders and safety harnesses, and they had to do it quickly in the very early hours of the morning before the sun was up far enough and hot enough to make the Ice Fall unstable. Softened by the sun, by mid morning those blocks moved, fell and crumbled, and climbers died. The distance through the Ice Fall, which was the route from Base Camp to Camp 1 on Everest was the stretch where the majority of those who had died climbing the South Face of Everest had lost their lives. It was the most lethal bit, not least because it was the lowest and the first stretch of climbing for the less experienced who came to Everest, and took some of the greatest technical skill.
Back at the camp, kit bags were out in front of the tents, and Tom’s worst fears were confirmed. Jake, Bill and Spitz were talking to the clients most of whom who were cheerfully unwrapping brand new kit from its wrapping. Brand new boots. Pristine climbing harnesses. Jake was talking to a middle aged man who was working out with Jake’s help how to put a harness on. Tom went to join him, passing Mr Phoenix Aleutian Loudon and sparing him a glance as he sat outside his large, immaculate tent. He had at least removed the shocking pink suit, and was now wearing a bright aqua coloured fleece over matching down pants, and was working on fitting his twelve point crampons – the attachments of downward pointing blades that you fitted onto your climbing boots to bite into the ice and hold you at each step – onto his bright yellow and black climbing boots. From the look of it, this was the first time he’d ever tried it, and Tom gave him a brusque nod as he walked past.
“You’re putting those on upside down.”
Harry met his eye from the door of the communications tent, winced, and disappeared inside.
Jake helped the man with the harness to fasten it up and nodded Tom at the laid out pile of Tom’s own kit which Jake had got out along with his own. Jake, Bill and Spitz had their own climbing harnesses on.
“Ok. We’re going to head up hill and get you to use some fixed ropes, give us some idea of what you can do.”
We can guess, but go ahead anyway, I could do with a laugh.
Tom yanked his own harness on, picked up his crampons, ropes, ice screws and two ice axes and stalked back up the grey shale towards Crampon Point. It wasn’t long before he heard Jake’s voice in the distance patiently explaining to someone that Crampon Point was where the ice sheet emerged from the rock debris, and thus called because from here on you were climbing on ice and snow and needed to put your crampons on your boots.
Give me strength!
In peace for the moment by the ice wall, Tom fitted his own crampons on, slung the coils of rope over his head and shoulder and using the ice picks and his crampons, took out a good deal of temper on climbing the vertical wall, front pointing by kicking the front points of his crampons at his toes deep into the ice to let him step up and using the ice axes to dig in and pull. At the top he got his breath back, then fixed ice screws and two ropes at a good distance apart, tested them with several vicious yanks, then clipped his locking carabiner to the nearest rope and abseiled down the face. That rope withstood his weight and a lot of yanking and pulling on his way down. At the bottom, he attached his ascender to the other rope and climbed back up the face to test it, also yanking hard and hanging his full weight on it. The screws were still sound when he reached the top. The five clients were approaching, chattering among themselves and with Jake, Spitz and Bill who had accompanied them. Bill connected his ascender to a rope and climbed briskly up the face to join Tom.
“We had to show two of them how to put crampons on, and one has crampons that don’t fit his boots.” he muttered as he climbed up onto the ledge, out of breath from the exertion at altitude. “They’re clueless. This is a bloody farce.”
“Where’s Harry?” Tom muttered back. Harry was supposed to be in charge of this lot, the head guide. Bill’s expression said he knew and he wasn’t happy.
“In the communications tent, he wouldn’t come.”
Watching the clients get up the rope was an experience that varied from the mildly amusing to the terrifying. Three, including High Altitude Barbie, had clearly never used crampons before in their lives. Several others weren’t confident in how to use their ascenders, and most of them were not in the physical condition you’d expect someone to be who planned to climb the world’s highest mountain in the near future, and wallowed and floundered on the ropes. Jake’s voice below was patient and easy, despite the sheer unreality of what he was saying considering they were on the slopes of Everest as opposed to working with a bunch of cub scouts at a local park climbing wall.
“Use your legs, don’t rely on hauling yourself up on the ascender. The rope’s strong but it’s just a safety line while you climb, don’t drag yourself up. Use your crampons, put your feet flat against the wall as you come down, not just your toes. That’s it. No, don’t push the ascender too high, you’ll put too much strain on your arm - stay in close to the rope, don’t hang back. You can’t afford to wear your arms out and get the muscles sore when we start climbing for real, you’ll need to keep the movement going for hours at a time. Keep your weight over your feet.”
Phoenix took some time to understand how to fit his ascender onto the line; the climbing device that attached to the climbing harness and could then be locked on to the rope, and which moved freely up the rope, but which had a locking mechanism which prevented the rope then slipping back through again. By pushing the ascender ahead of you, you could then use it as leverage to pull on while you climbed higher, it prevented you slipping back down the rope if you lost your grip or footing, and in a crevasse it could technically be a way to winch yourself out. On the slopes further up this mountain, where if you lost your footing on the hard ice you were looking at a several hundred feet fall almost certainly going to kill you, being able to use an ascender was fairly crucial. Jake clipped his own on and demonstrated, climbing ten feet up and down to show him before talking him through it. After several attempts, Phoenix swiftly got the idea and skipped up and down easily, light and apparently a good deal fitter than several other members of the party.
“I hear speed is a crucial thing when climbing here?” he said sweetly to Jake when he abseiled down, watching the other client who was managing one unsteady step at a time under Bill’s tuition. The client obviously heard and sent a venomous glare in Phoenix’s direction.
“That’s quite right.” Jake said calmly, helping him unclip himself from the rope. “It’s all about speed. There are set time windows to climb from camp to camp safely on your way up. People need to be able to climb the distances well within those windows to be safe, and we’ll need to do some time trials for everyone before we start climbing proper.”
“Well I can see that’s going to be a big stumbling block for some.” Phoenix gave the man on the rope a friendly smile, ignored the glower he got back, and handed his rope over to another client.
Once every client had gone up and down the ropes, they left the ropes in place and walked back to base camp where the climbers flopped in deck chairs and in their tents, out of breath and tired, and Dorje served them tea from the mess tent. Tom stalked ahead of Jake to the communications tent, dumped his ropes and headed inside, waiting for Jake, Bill and Spitz to catch him up. Harry, huddled in front of the radio, gave them a hunted look. They were forced to keep their voices low for privacy from the clients, but Bill’s hiss was no less fierce for being muted.
“All right, what the hell is going on? These are total amateurs! There’s only one who looks like he’s ever done any ice climbing at all, they’ve got weak or nonexistent mountaineering skills, they don’t know how to use their kit, what the hell are you doing taking responsibility for them here? Good climbers die on this mountain every season! Professional bloody athlete mountaineers die on this mountain! You don’t teach novices how to climb on bloody Everest!”
“Most of them don’t even have the basic fitness to be here.” Spitz said shortly. “This is crazy.”
“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Harry began, and Jake sat down in the deckchair next to him, digging his hands in to his pockets, voice quiet.
“It’s not just their lack of climbing skills, is it? You’ve got no real guides and only one Sherpa for back up, and he’s busy frying potatoes, not looking after clients. The food you’re giving the clients is poor to the point of being unsafe. It is, Harry, I got Dorje to show me what supplies he’s got. It’s not of the quality to give the calories for people keep together the energy to be safe climbing at this altitude, and the radio equipment was worse. You know this because we planned our expedition thoroughly and we brought way better kit than you’ve got for your clients, and you do know what you’re talking about. Do you want to tell us what’s going on here?”
It was a tone and an approach Jake never used on Tom, but he could still do it and do it damn well.
“He means,” Tom said acidly when Harry didn’t answer, “There are expeditions where dishonest leaders will take paying clients, knowing damn well the clients don’t have the skills or the capacity to actually make the climb and have no idea what they’re getting into. Low costs, you never actually have to take them far up the mountain before they get out of their depth and quit so you don’t need to outlay much on resources. You let them sit around base camp for a while and then pocket the profit. How much have they each paid to be here, Harry?”
Harry huddled deeper into his deckchair, looking miserable.
“What?” Bill demanded. There was a moment’s silence, then Tom snorted.
“Because they were turned down by other expeditions. Right? Any commercial expedition worth the name will only take clients with a set amount of experience, including having climbed another 8000 metre mountain, and they’ll make the clients pass skill tests first before they’ll be responsible for letting them climb. You’ve accepted this lot because no decent expedition would take them, and they were willing to pay big bucks to any expedition that would.”
There was another long silence, broken by Bill’s tone of utter disgust.
“When did my brother become a crook?”
“How much oxygen have you got stored, Harry?” Jake said quietly.
When Harry didn’t answer, Tom got up and went outside to search the stores. Their own were mixed up with the client expedition’s, it took him a while to locate the right stores and then to search the crates of oxygen canisters they’d brought for the five of them from camp three and above. Carefully calculated amounts with a good margin of spares, they’d planned their own needs with a great deal of precision. The other four were still crowded in the communications tent when he went back inside and spoke shortly, directly to Jake.
“There’s one crate for the client expedition. Mostly I’d guess to make it look to the clients like there is oxygen around. Not enough for more than two people to summit. There aren’t enough tents to establish bases at the higher camps, there’s enough to get to camp 2 and that’s it. If you ask me, it looks like the plan was never for anyone to climb above camp 2 at the furthest.”
“So you’ve got five people here that you’ve conned.” Bill said flatly. “who think they’re on a real expedition going up the mountain. What did you plan on telling them?”
“There’ll be a clause in the contract that anyone not climbing well enough can be turned back, but he’ll be relying on the fact that when they actually try climbing they’re quickly going to fail and quit.” Tom said grimly. “Which is why you’ve got them here so early in the season, isn’t it? You’ll be heading home before too many real expeditions are around who’ll spot what’s going on and clue the clients in that they’ve been conned. I’ve seen this scam done before and done better.”
“Is this your or your precious ‘partner’?” Bill said sharply to Harry. “What’s this guy got you into?”
“Harry? Are you in financial trouble?” Jake asked more gently when Harry didn’t answer.
The man looked as though he seriously might break down into tears, but there weren’t many people Jake couldn’t get to talk to him no matter what state they were in, and Tom saw Harry draw a shaky breath.
“..... yeah, pretty majorly. Jon set this up with the deposits, he ran a website...”
“You must have been planning this for months.” Bill said with revulsion. Harry sniffed and drew another unsteady breath.
“It didn’t seem so bad! They don’t have a hope of climbing and they don’t really know about climbing, to this lot it’s just-”
“A romantic ideal.” Jake said quietly. “An adventure holiday. Have you talked to them at all about the risks here? With novices, isn’t this rather like playing roulette with lives?”
From Harry’s face, he knew it all too well. Spitz spoke at last from where he was sitting, arms folded, his accent thick with anger.
“And you drag us into this. We plan this expedition for months, we come here as serious climbers with a real chance and real understanding of what it is we do, and you play with us as much as them. I did not think this of you.”
“I didn’t think it needed to involve you.” Harry said unsteadily. “I thought Jon would be here to babysit the clients and we’d-”
“Climb while Jon let the novices wear themselves out and quit, and you pocketed several hundred thousand quid.” Bill said brutally, Harry didn’t contradict him. He was humiliated and he was panicked to the point of having frozen, Tom could see it in his face. Out of his depth, without the nerve to carry it through alone, and obviously a supporting partner rather than the instigator.
Jake looked up and caught Tom’s eye, holding it intently. Tom read his face without difficulty, saw the question in his raised brow, and nodded confirmation.
“Tom and I,” Jake said quietly, “Don’t feel we can walk away from the clients. We don’t know the mountain but we have led expeditions. Ours are non commercial, but it’s work we’ve had experience of on other risky terrains. This is far too dangerous a place to take novice climbers without taking very good care of them, planning for them, and supervising them properly.”
“If you help the clients, we can forget our own plans to climb.” Spitz said bitterly. “I do not know about you two, but this trip has cost me thousands and it will not be money I can put together again to come back another year.”
“Which is throwing away a dream you’ve had a long time.” Jake agreed. “I think we’re all in the same situation. This expedition has been years in the planning. The question is, can we take proper care of the clients without sacrificing our own climb.”
There was a silence, then Bill looked round.
“Tom and I need time to discuss it properly.” Jake said calmly. “But with his agreement I’m prepared to consider the two of us making a business proposition with you, Harry. With a broken hip, your partner is not coming back this season. It’s just you and the clients. The way things are going right now, it’s a matter of time before the clients start to get sick from poor food and poor care, or someone gets hurt, or they talk to other expeditions and realise they’ve been had, and you’re looking at lawsuits. If someone dies, it’s possible you’d even be looking at accusations of manslaughter.”
From Harry’s face, that thought had already occurred to him.
“If we step in,” Jake went on, “And we finance this expedition, we still have the time to bring proper kit up here. Enough kit, and of good quality, and proper support to make this a real, viable commercial expedition. We’ve got the skills between us to work with the clients, teach them some real climbing, and we can give them the best chance and the support to get safely as far as they’re capable of, and be proud of what they’ve achieved without feeling they’ve been let down. And we can make sure they’re well looked after and all have a good time here. Commercial expeditions run on reputation: how people get up the mountain, how many people summit, how good a time they had. Based on a good reputation built from these clients, and a second properly financed, advertised, properly run expedition next year for serious climbers, in a couple of years there should be an established commercial expedition company bringing in enough profit for you and Jon to pay off your debts to us and to buy yourselves out. Now, this year, we climb with the clients as far as they’re able to go, and then you and the additional support that we’ll hire will take care of them if we go higher than they can.”
“When.” Tom said shortly.
“If and when.” Jake agreed.
“Commercial expeditions have no place here.” Spitz said flatly. “Amateurs should not be able to buy their way up this mountain by being nursed up, helped to play at climbing. It’s disrespectful to the mountain, to the serious climbers on real expeditions here, and it’s unsafe.”
“We’ve had these conversations many times.” Bill said heavily to him. “Spitz, I think we all know what you’re saying and I don’t like it either. But these people are here, and the question is what we do about it. We can just walk away, carry on with our own plans and leave Harry to it, and let things fall apart. Jake and Tom are saying they can’t responsibly do that, and neither can I when there are trusting people here without the skills to look after themselves. The other option is we tell the clients straight out that they’ve been had, the commercial expedition is over and they need to go home, and Harry takes the consequences.”
Harry looked up at him, and Tom saw the colour of his face and his eyes as he looked at his brother. There was another long, painful silence. Then Bill got up.
“I’ll take you up on your offer, Jake, thank you. And Harry’ll do whatever you think we need to. He’ll do it or I’ll bloody knock his head off his stupid shoulders.”
“Then I’ll get something on paper.” Jake said easily. “From where?” Spitz demanded. Tom grunted.
“We know someone good at this kind of stuff.”
“Then we carry on with our training despite the clients?” Spitz said roughly. “And we still plan on going up?”
“I suggest we regard ourselves as all one large expedition.” Jake gave Tom a cheerful smile as if they were chatting pleasantly instead of in a tent on a glacier in an atmosphere that could be cut with a knife. “The experienced and the able who have the skills to do so will make their summit attempt. Spitz, I’ll make sure you won’t be asked to do anything with the clients you don’t want to do. You don’t have to be involved with them at all.”
“Tell me what to do.” Bill sat down at the radio and tuned it in. “What do we want brought up from Namche?”
“Food.” Tom commented. “Get Dorje to help. We need to plan for about fifteen people.”
“The only way we’ve got a snowball’s chance is to try to find Sherpa help with guiding and setting up camps.” Tom said flatly. “They’re the only ones out here with the skill and the local knowledge to help us get kit up to the camps and to support other climbers, we’re never going to manage that by ourselves. There’ll be damn few expeditions that don’t go up with at least one Sherpa guide to support them, and most of the commercial expeditions plan for each client to have full time one to one help.”
“I’m going to go talk to the other expeditions and explain that we’ve had a crisis with staff and we need to hire help urgently. We don’t need to go into details on why.” Jake shouldered into his jacket. “The usual promotion ladder for Sherpas is kitchen boy to porter to climbing Sherpa. Chances are we’ll get recommendations of good, experienced porters around the camp who’d like the promotion, or who have family members who’d take a couple of months of good wages to work for us in base camp if we make it worth their while. Tom, could you ask Dorje to go up the ice wall and see what you think his climbing skills are like? Bill, we need fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, good quality meat, a lot of eggs, potatoes, rice, pasta, bread, chocolate and candy bars- large quantities and we need it fast. I’d suggest we keep the dry supplies we brought for the summit climb and the high camps. We’ll need additional tents, good quality ones, sleeping rolls, stoves, we’ll have to establish fully stocked tents at each camp. The clients won’t be able to carry anything with them up the mountain, they’re going to have enough to do getting themselves up.”
“Oxygen will have to come from Kathmandu.” Spitz said shortly. “I can deal with that, I organised our supplies. We may have to pay through the nose at such short notice.”
Bill reached over and gripped his arm for a minute, saying nothing and not looking at him, but Spitz gave him a gruff nod.
“I’ll do it now. And more radios. We will have need of more radios.” Bill gave his brother a bleak look. “Whatever we need, it’ll get paid for I promise you.”
“How many people do we calculate for to try for the summit?” Spitz gave Jake and then Tom a steady look. “How many clients will realistically reach camp three? Or how many would we responsibly try taking that high considering what we saw this afternoon?”
“I think the first thing we do is some training with them,” Jake said cheerfully, “Which will stretch us too, we’d planned to be training at this altitude to prepare. And then we do the fitness and skills tests just as the other reputable expeditions will do here, we’ll explain what we’re asking of them and why, and we won’t take up anyone who isn’t safe or doesn’t have the capacity. It might be all five of them, it might be none of them, we can’t know. So I say we plan kit and oxygen for all five to potentially make summit attempts. Yes, it’s very unlikely given what we’ve seen today, but we get the kit here to do it, and we make the decisions nearer the time.”
“At least then we’re honestly kitted out to take the clients as far as they can go.” Tom said bluntly. “We’ll need to see the paperwork too. What the clients have signed, what we know about medical conditions, next of kin, and if it’s not good quality we need to sort it.”
“We can do that.” Jake zipped his jacket up. “I’ll be back in a while.”
Dorje’s face lit up like a candle when Tom asked him if he’d get his climbing gear together and do a demonstration. They’d left the ropes intact on the ice wall they’d found; it would prove a useful training site, and Dorje ignored the ropes, took out his ice axes and climbed swiftly and neatly with far less regard for the altitude than Tom knew he’d had to take himself. Born and bred in the Khumbu at high altitude, Dorje would have the larger heart, the body designed for rapid oxygen uptake that the Sherpas had, and he had the classic small and wiry frame ideal for a climber.
“Do it with the ropes?” Tom asked him when he came down the wall as easily as he had gone up, and Dorje nodded, stepping back to attach his harness.
“I know, I safe Sherpa. My uncle a Sirdar, he teach me less speed and more safe, never mind pay.”
The Sirdars were the most senior of the Sherpas, the men who led expeditions as the chief guide.
“I’ve heard about the pressure among Sherpa to be fast and not too hung up on using safety ropes.” Tom said wryly. Dorje nodded, using the ascender neatly and economically to climb.
“The faster and the easier he climb, the more-” he hesitated, looking for the word in English. “More he wanted for expeditions, the more other Sherpa say good Sherpa, good climber.”
“Status.” Tom supplied.
A climbing Sherpa employed by an expedition was likely to make more money in three months than the average local Sherpa man could earn in a year. The positions were sought after and high status, and showing off skill, speed and fearlessness was not unknown and had led to fatalities.
“Yes. I’ve read about it. We’d definitely want safety, and we’d pay for safety rather than speed. You’re good.”
“I climb for years since boy.” Dorje abseiled back down to Tom, barely out of breath. Tom watched him unclip himself with the simplicity of long practice and nodded.
“We’d like you to leave the cooking to someone else and be a full time guide with us, looking after the clients. Would you consider that?”
Dorje gave him a long, considering look. The Sherpa were a polite people, Tom could see his reservation over how to say it, then he leaned forward and spoke softly.
“.....Tom, these.... not good client.”
“We know.” Tom said dryly.
Dorje’s eyes abruptly lit up and he flashed Tom a smile that said he understood both the English and the irony, and despite their situation Tom found himself returning the smile a little.
“I’ll explain the plan to you if you’d think about helping us.”
If you were going to get into deep .......whatever....., it helped to get into it with a Mountie and an army man. By the time twilight hit the camp with the grey gloom and the plunge in temperature that heralded every night out here, kit and food was being flown out from Kathmandu to Namche and messages were flying out to the Sherpa villages in the Khumbu valley where relatives of relatives lived. Dorje cooked another spectacularly inedible meal and the clients went to their tents, leaving Bill, Spitz, Jake and Tom to look over the paperwork with Harry. The contracts with the clients were as stiff as Tom had suspected; the expedition leader had the right at any time to turn a climber around that he felt to be in danger or climbing above their ability. The paperwork had a logo of a mountain and a bird in flight and the trading name of Mountain Eagles.
“It ought to be Lame Ducks United.” Tom said acidly when they walked back to their own tent.
It was near to midnight and base camp was very quiet. Here, where the Sherpa climbing crews often left camp at 3am to climb through the Ice Fall and set ropes, people needed their sleep in the early part of the night. They took off their kit at the doorway of the tent, boots and jackets, and Tom crawled over the thick sleeping mats to get inside, stuffing his boots and jacket to the side and just inside the tent doorway where they were out of the way and easy to reach on the way out again. The tent was on the large side, a luxury possible in base camp, and taking into account that they were both over six foot, and in Jake’s case, well over, a needed one. Jake sat down in the doorway to get his boots off, stuffed his own kit alongside Tom’s and zipped up their tent entrance. From experience they had the tent laid out in a way that made finding what they wanted in the dark as easy as possible, and Tom sat on his sleeping bag to find toothbrush and toothpaste by touch. Jake’s hand closed over both and gently removed them before he could make use of them.
“What?” Tom demanded. Jake sat beside him on his own sleeping bag, not giving the items back.
“Anything you’re not happy with in bailing Harry out?”
“It’s your money.” Tom pointed out. “And not the first investment you’ve made like this.”
“Ours.” Jake corrected without heat. “And ‘we’.”
Tom lay back on top of the sleeping bag, not going on with undressing.
“Your bankers will go nuts, but whether or not it turns out to be an actual ‘investment’ as opposed to a bail out, it was the only a way to save our expedition from going under along with Harry’s, and a tactful way of doing it. And let’s be honest, it’s not like the money’s a big issue.”
There was a silence, then Tom said less acidly, “There wasn’t another way to handle it. We did the right thing.”
“In which case, it won’t hurt to give the bankers a work out.” Jake said genially. Tom snorted, hearing Jake start to get rid of some of the layers of clothing he wore.
“You’re rotten excuse for a Top, you really are. Fiscal irresponsibility, inconsideration to bankers, if it wasn’t for me keeping up appearances you’d get done under the trades description act.”
“Yeah but I can always rely on you.” Jake folded something and put it to one side, took Tom’s wrist in an unhurried grasp that Tom recognised and understood even before Jake drew him over and turned him across his knee. It was too cold to undress much out here, even to sleep, and it took Jake a minute to get down pants and thermals out of his way, which he didn’t do by much, baring nothing more than the area he directly wanted. Tom silently swore at himself and co operated, shifting his weight to let Jake move his clothes, aware of his voice stupidly going higher and tighter. Jake didn’t miss one damned thing.
“Look, inform the authorities: nobody can eat spam. Who the hell can eat spam? It was only one meal, there was a lot going on, you said yourself the food was inedible, and yes, I know being here is going to involve having to make ourselves eat, and most of the time we’re not going to want to because of the altitude. Losing calories is dangerous. I’d go nuts if I saw you skipping meals out here, you ought to point out the double standards and the hypocrisy involved in that, but then you also ought to know by now I have no brain and my promises don’t mean a whole lot, and you’re insane to expect anything better from me.”
Baring any skin out here involved feeling perishing cold, especially if it had been previously under layers of thermals. Tom involuntarily jumped and bared his teeth against his arm at the sharp stinging across his backside that took his mind right off the chill. Jake didn’t need light to do this, he had an unerringly accurate hand and eye and Tom felt the palm of Jake’s left hand resting over the small of his back, protecting it and helping him find his distance. They’d perfected doing this years ago in the weirdest of places, including jungles. They’d long ago figured out how to do it silently too, to be able to go a short way from clients without infringing their own privacy or being too far to hear if clients needed them, and here where they had only the privacy of the tent skin, silence was a serious issue.
Jake never rushed at this, and he never spanked particularly hard either which made it impossible to either panic or to distract yourself with getting angry. It was the calm repetition, the repeated coverage of already well-warmed up places and the fact that he really gave you the time to be thoroughly aware that you were getting spanked and to think, that made his point, and Jake was damn good at reading him. Disgracefully unable to stay still or to stop his eyes tearing up in response to the acuity of the sting, Tom was aware of trying hard not to kick, his breathing being the only loud thing in the tent, and that the whole of his backside and the very tops of his thighs was glowing and sore by the time Jake stopped and Tom heard the quiet sound of the implement being dropped into his open pack beside the sleeping bag.
Jake helped him dress, his hands slower than Tom’s and preventing Tom simply dragging clothes back into place without tucking in the layers and sealing the gaps that let cold reach the skin. When he was done, he lay back and simply yanked, so that Tom crashed down onto his chest. Jake was breathing a lot slower than he was, which wasn’t that slow either in this thin oxygen. Tom lay feeling his own ragged breathing against Jake’s hard and far calmer body, under the tightness of Jake’s arms and with Jake’s breath in his hair, and shut wet eyes.
“I would go mad if I thought you weren’t eating. It’s stupid and it’s dangerous up here and I made you promise me you wouldn’t take any risks.”
“I promised you we wouldn’t.” Jake said calmly.
“I’ve done nothing but bitch and snap at you all day. How evil is it to say I told you so?”
“You didn’t say it.”
“You knew damn well what I meant. I’m foul to you, you shouldn’t allow it.”
“Oh go on, I could do with the work out.” Jake settled to get comfortable, digging his shoulders deeper into the pillows. “How do you want to start? Bitching or snapping? We could sell a Top Workout DVD and retire.”
He captured Tom’s fist before it intercepted his ribs, tucked Tom’s arms under his and held him without effort, his face nuzzling against Tom’s equally rough jawed one.
“You’re mad.” Tom said bitterly against him. “I’m a nagging bitch and you know I am.”
It didn’t garner a response. His snarl was swallowed up by Jake’s body continuing to engulf his. After a while, one hand reached over and Tom heard it fumbling, then a packet tore, and a moment later Jake’s hand wandered over his face until it found his mouth and pushed something inside. Despite himself, Tom snorted, aware his voice was shaking slightly just like the rest of him.
“Oh Jacob, for pete’s sake, you can’t eat chocolate in bed.”
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015