The Sherpa were working on a square heap of stones at the far end of their compound on the highest point of ground. The Sherpa belonging to every expedition were doing it within their own group of tents, these little altars were springing up everywhere.
“Ihapso altar.” John said knowledgeably when Max and Bart stopped to look at the growing heap. “They’ll hold a puja before they climb. They bless the ice axes, that kind of thing.”
Which of your books did you get that out of?
Tom, finishing the last few lines of his email to Dale, gave John a rather irritated glance through the flaps of the communications tent. Harry, slumped in the deck chair at the other end of the table in front of another lap top, had his hands dug deep in his pockets and was looking increasingly awful.
Subject: Re: Re: Large Financial Mess
Good morning Aden. (D). Thanks for the paperwork. Jake’s comment was to the effect of if you think it’s water tight then it’s probably going to be declared a drought disaster area. He continues to think he’s funny, it’s the altitude.
I didn’t expect to have access to email up here, only the big expeditions do but as you’ve gathered we are now part of a big expedition. There is a letter on its way to you which was written before I discovered technology has taken over base camp. Some of our clients are going to need surgical detachment from their iPods before climbing. Apparently they think a shout from another climber or an avalanche will signal itself over Abba’s Greatest Hits. Thank you for your letter. It was kind. I appreciated it.
We’re at base camp, acclimatising and setting up. Equipment is arriving in hordes, things happen surprisingly fast through the local network. We’re planning the initial expedition to set up camp one in the next few days, and give the clients a few more days to acclimatise. They don’t mind. Walk out of our compound and it’s like being in a mall, Starbucks coffee and big tv screens and logos everywhere.
Aden (D). The guy was so diffident it was almost funny, but he’d done a damn good job on the papers. And there was another email in the box with an ominous name attached to it. Tom opened it, had a look, then shut the programme and got up to file the print out of Dale’s work, passing by Harry to get to the crate in which they were keeping the important stuff. This was second nature to him and to Jake, although usually they’d spend a couple of days organising the papers and then finding somewhere safe to put them before they left on expedition. Hotels, banks, there were always places willing to be a temporary safe place for the urgent stuff. Harry was sitting in front of a running screen saver, his chin sunk behind his scarf, eyes unseeing. Tom gave him a rather grim look as he searched through the crate. The satellite phone rang behind him and when Harry ignored it Tom leaned past him over the table to grab the handset, listened to the name asked for and nodded.
“Give me a minute to find her.”
It was a man’s voice on the other end of the phone, South African, pleasant. Tom jogged across the grey shale to the red battered medic tent and found Shem reading in a deckchair behind it.
“Phone for you.”
“Thanks.” Shem brought her book with her and matched his pace back to the communications tent. She was fit, he hadn’t seen her breathless yet although she kept her own tent ropes managed and he’d seen her dig out a spot to stack her numerous medical supplies crates with a lot of efficiency. She pulled out a deckchair and sat down at the camping table that supported their technology gear, picking up the phone.
“Hello? Hey, Em!” her voice lightened, her face changed, mostly lightening like her voice had. “How are you?”
Tom found the right folder, shoved the paper inside and locked the crate. Harry, a few feet from Shem, still hadn’t looked up or moved.
Jake was checking through the last of the crates of oxygen cylinders with Dorje and several others of their Sherpa support team who had set up their own tents together around the equipment crates and store tents. They were meticulous about this, Tom had watched them check equipment before, patiently piece by piece, with expertise. The climbing jobs up here were the best paid in the Khumbu valley, they were sought after and the reputation of a climbing Sherpa rested on safe clients and no accidents, but there was a professional and a personal pride among them too. They were unsensational guys, efficient and cheerful. Jake glanced up, caught Tom’s eye and finished checking the cylinder he was examining before he put it back into the crate and got up.
“We’ve got a good set. Spitz’s contact was efficient.”
“And how much did that cost?” Tom said darkly. Jake grinned, raising his eyebrows as they walked away towards their tent.
“A really obscene amount.”
He stopped at a good distance from any eavesdroppers, doing nothing more than wait, and Tom squatted down, running a hand over the snow. About an inch had fallen overnight, but loose and powdery it barely covered the icy gravel.
“Harry’s cracking. We’re going to have to get him out of here, he’s going down by the hour.”
And this was not a good place for someone to have a breakdown. Jake put his hands on his hips, surveying the valley behind them. Having placed their compound at the very far end of base camp, their tent was the last one before the open ground began. They were probably the furthest out from the start of the ice fall, but to the side of the other expeditions rather than below them where there was the risk of pollution from the run off of their latrines, and there was nothing more than a roughly assembled ice and stone wall behind them that acted as a windbreak with an open view beyond it.
“Bill’s struggling to get his head around it. I sounded him out last night and he’s still too angry to be thinking much else but wanting Harry to get a grip and get on with it.”
“He can’t. If someone doesn’t get Harry moving soon, he’s not going to be up to the walk back to Lukla anyway.” Tom looked up at Jake. “Unless we fly him out. He can’t do this. He’s no good here, he’s not going to be any good, he’s just another thing to worry about and work around.”
They were used to making the hard decisions quickly and cleanly; unfit and unstable people risked expeditions, but Jake nodded more slowly than he would usually.
“We’re not in the position to be the only ones making that decision.”
“We have to be or none of this is safe.”
“We’ve got this in hand.” Jake said it far too gently.
“Oh don’t talk to me like I’m freaking out.” Tom shoved irritably to his feet and Jake snagged his hand, turning him back without effort and reeling him in until they were face to face and Jake linked his hands in the small of Tom’s back, holding him where he was.
“We’ve got this, and I’ve got you. The equipment is here. We’re on schedule. We’ll manage Harry.”
“Then get rid of him, or I will.”
“How?” Jake not only refused to let go, but pulled Tom closer, holding him without effort. Tom twisted, not managing to free himself or get an elbow near Jake’s stomach since Jake held him far too tightly, used to that tactic and hadn’t fallen for it in years. “Where is he going to go?”
I don’t care.
It was a vicious, mean little thought, and unable to get out of Jake’s arms Tom set his teeth and jaw hard against Jake’s shoulder through the fleece of his jacket. They were both getting shaggy around the face, shaving was not easy here and they’d stopped bothering, they were going to be sporting beards before they left this place. Jake’s teeth closed briefly and gently on his earlobe in return.
“Do I need to take you down into the valley and sort you out?”
If they’d been here as originally planned, they would have done. They had done when they’d been here in this camp climbing Lhotse last autumn. Spitz, Bill and Harry were perfectly ok with them disappearing for a day or two, they were independent climbers and together as friends and back up with no more obligation than that. Right now………..
The sensation of being trapped was getting strong.
“I can handle being bloody celibate in a sacred bloody place like a normal bloody person,” Tom said shortly. “I’m not that pathetic and I’m raising sensible concerns. Get off.”
Jake let him go and Tom stalked away from him, grabbing up a couple of coiled ropes and an ice axe and his crampons as he passed their tent.
The hike helped. It then took a little over an hour with Spitz to rig ladders on the slopes they had chosen and set up as a nursery training ground for the clients. No crevasses were here, the ladders were just laid on the snow but Tom built several snow banks to give the experience of walking across a moving, bowing ladder off the ground, and several of the ladders were tied together to echo the length of those across the ice fall. Spitz wasn’t a loquacious man, he saw a job and got on with it and for that reason he and Tom had always gotten along rather well on their various shared expeditions over the years.
They were completing the last ladder when Jake, Bill, Dorje and Pemba arrived with the clients on this the hardest stage of their hike. Shem was with them too, she was walking with John who was lagging at the rear of rather a slow procession. It was led, naturally, by Mr Phoenix Aleutian Loudon, who at least wasn’t wearing his Barbie snow suit but was sporting a pair of mirror shades and an offensively green hat, and whose inane chatter could be heard bouncing off the mountains for several hundred feet.
There were enough of them to give the clients individual tuition and support, and with no need to get directly involved Tom crouched where he was at the top of the course to observe their progress, monitoring each one sharply. Under instruction, one by one they clipped onto the rope at the bottom of the course just as they would in the ice fall, although their course was safe and covered perhaps three quarters of a mile in distance at the most, but involved getting up some quite steep stretches. On top of the hour’s hike from the camp out to this spot, most of them were already tired. And after that, it was a case of watching them make their way up the slopes and navigate the ladders.
There was a knack to walking steel ladders in the steel points of crampons. The trouble was, no one’s feet being the same size, your knack wasn’t a knack of the slightest use to anyone else, and you couldn’t teach it. They spent some time figuring out how to place their feet and traverse the rungs even just laid flat on the ground. John and Bart seemed to figure this out ok, they were talking together while they did it and there was an occasional grin or laugh that said while this was hard work they were still in a good frame of mind and upbeat about doing it. Max was finding it harder. Jake was working with him, moving at about a tenth of the pace he would have used to cover this ground if he was alone, patiently talking Max step by step along. Phoenix, by far the lightest and youngest of the group, figured out the ladders fairly easily and skipped up the first few like a squirrel. After which, Tom saw with some satisfaction, he sat down in the snow coughing hard, and Bill, who was supervising him, waited alongside him and talked to him tolerantly about pacing. That left Lawrence. With Dorje, who had his usual calm, cheerful expression Tom was beginning to know as his game face, his movements economic and untiring and his eyes rather sharply on the man who took a few paces, paused, adjusted his pack, looked up at the sky, readjusted his harness..
There was something about it that was familiar and Tom watched him stumble across the first two ladders and shake his head at Dorje’s suggestion that he went around and crossed them again for the practice. Instead he began to address the first slope. It was perhaps a hundred yards, one of the steeper slopes, and most of their clients slowed considerably on it. Putting a hand down to control the speed, Tom sat on the snow and glissaded down far enough to watch him and hear what was being said, pausing above them where Dorje glanced up to catch his eye before he turned back to Lawrence.
“It is always hard the first times. If you push yourself you will get through it.”
“I don’t know it’s the right thing to push, I don’t know I’ll have the energy to get back.” Lawrence paused, one hand on his knee, taking a few breaths. He was panting, carrying his pack heavily, and Dorje put out a hand to unclip his harness and take it from him, slinging it onto his own back. His own pack was much heavier; he like Tom and all the other serious climbers here, was carrying the supplies the clients wouldn’t have the strength or stamina to handle but might need.
“One foot in front of the other, up to the top of this slope. It is not far.”
Lawrence pulled himself together and took another heavy step up the slope, then another even slower, and paused again, panting.
“I don’t know if I can. I’m trying but nothing’s happening, I keep coughing.”
“Everyone cough.” Dorje began and Tom shook his head, signalling to Dorje who raised his eyebrows but fell silent. Tom glissaded further down to join them and Lawrence gave him a rather bleak look.
“Hey. It’s not going well.”
“Sorry to hear that.” It was a phrase of Jake’s, who had something nice and graceful to say to most people in most situations and Tom borrowed from his scripts regularly, but it wasn’t hard to say it to Lawrence who was sweating and looking tired and more than that, dispirited. It was the expression that Tom recognised and which drew his sympathy, because it was a sign of common sense he hadn’t anticipated. Lawrence took another few, slow steps and Tom and Dorje moved with him, digging their crampons into the snow and ice. And stood while Lawrence readjusted his harness again, took his glasses off and took his woollen hat off, tipping his head back to the sky while he panted. Above them, Bart was laughing as he tried traversing the first of the ladders that stood off the ground and bowed under his weight. Pemba, experienced, was standing too far back to let him grab for support; there would be nothing to grab in the ice fall where the ladders crossed crevasses that you couldn’t see the bottom of.
Some way up ahead, John sat heavily down on the slope and Shem crouched beside him, helping him search through his pack. Leaving Dorje with Lawrence, Tom climbed up to them and Shem glanced up, unwrapping a bar of chocolate and breaking it into small pieces to put into John’s mouth.
“He’s having a bit of a hypo. Hard to tell how much, his fingers are a bit cold and we can’t get one to bleed.”
“Not usually a problem I have.” John gave Tom a rather shaky smile, chewing chocolate. “I’m burning through carbs quicker than I expected.”
“I still don’t think you’re eating enough.” Shem told him. “I think you’re going to need to keep snacking a lot more often, but that’s what these practice runs are for.”
Lawrence had sat down below them. Dorje looked up at Tom and shook his head.
“He looks tired.” Shem said with sympathy, following Tom’s gaze. “We’re fine here if you want to go sort him out.”
Lawrence shook his head as soon as Tom got into hearing range, looking up at him with the kind of trust Tom hated seeing on the faces of any expedition clients because it usually meant they felt like they knew nothing and were relieved you were there to do the thinking for them. It wasn’t a safe state of mind anywhere less safe than a country park or a leisure centre.
“I’m done.” He said rather pathetically as Tom sat down beside him. “I’m knackered, I can’t do this. My chest just isn’t letting me, I can’t stop coughing and it’s wearing me out. If I could get my breath I’d be fine, but the cough’s just dragging me down all the time.”
Tom nodded, not debating any of it.
“Right. You’re listening to your body, that’s good sense. Go on down to the flat and rest, Dorje can you go with him?”
Dorje nodded, but as Lawrence thankfully turned and began to walk heavily down the slope, he murmured mostly under his breath,
“All cough, all have to push to acclimatise, have to be positive attitude-”
“He’s psyching himself out.” Tom saw Dorje’s frown at the unfamiliar word and re thought it. “Knows he’s not safe. Can’t do it. He’s right, he can’t.”
Dorje nodded, a little reluctantly, and Tom touched his shoulder.
“Live clients are what we want. All good climbers know when to quit.”
It was a topic in the mess tent that evening while most of their expedition ate spaghetti together. John, with his sources from numerous books, talked for some time about the importance of knowing when to turn back, that conquering the mountain involved going both up and coming down again, they sought Bill and Jake’s opinion and Bill calmly pointed out that he had chosen to turn back at camp three on his last climb knowing it was the safest thing to do.
“There’s what gets called Summit Fever,” John added, “The fixation on getting to the top at all costs, long past knowing your limits and what you’re capable of, and that’s when you get yourself higher than you can get down from. No energy to turn around and come back.”
“If you have no real commitment you shouldn’t be climbing anyway.” Phoenix pointed out. He was leaning on the end of the table, fiddling with one hand with the iPod he’d insisted on wearing all through this morning’s climb and his personal laptop was open on the table in front of him. To Tom’s eye it looked suspiciously like some kind of blog post he was writing. “This takes actual strength of will, it is about endurance, mental and physical endurance, more than it is about technical skills and knowing how to use an ice axe on piddly nursery exercises.”
That was a dig at Spitz, who had spent some time this morning teaching him better use of his, and Spitz slanted a rather dark eyed gaze at him that made Jake put a hand on his arm quite quickly.
“There’s some truth in that.” Bill agreed placidly but fast enough to divert Spitz. “But you won’t find a serious climber who doesn’t admire a guy who can say definitely when he knows he needs to quit or turn back. You won’t lose respect around here from anyone with sense if you need to.”
From Phoenix’s violet eyed look in Bill’s direction he wasn’t sold on the idea, but Tom knew a flashed glance from under the eyelashes when he saw it and Bill automatically gave Phoenix a faint smile back in response. The conversation wasn’t making Lawrence feel a lot better to judge by his face and shortly he got up and left, heading to the privacy of his own tent. All their clients had their own tents; in this close little community the thin shell of your own tent was the only space you had to be alone in.
Tom, who had been eating at the doorway of the tent, more out than in, moved to make space for him and walked slowly with his bowl of spaghetti towards the communications tent. Harry was still sitting there. Still with his hands in his pockets, still blank faced, still with his chin tucked down inside his collar. Someone – probably the kitchen boy, a youngster who seemed to know where food or fluid was needed and regarded it as a personal challenge to get it there – had put a bowl of spaghetti in front of him but it was untouched, and had cooled to the point that even in the sharp cold of the evening it wasn’t steaming any more.
Spitz followed him, glanced at Harry and sat down in front of the other laptop which was open and running. Tom watched him call up his email address and growl at the sight of one of his unopened mail.
“There is one from Beau.”
“Yes, we’ve got one.”
“What does she want?”
“The usual.” Tom forced down another mouthful of cooling spaghetti, watching Spitz sort rapidly through the mails which were probably from the range of men in several countries with whom he had various romantic entanglements. Jake thought it was probably the dark, heavy lashed eyes. Tom thought it was more the charm of a man with a lot of energy and a love of romanticism, but Spitz seemed to enjoy it. He opened Beau’s mail last and read it, producing an emphatic ‘pah’ of disgust which Tom couldn’t have replicated with English sounds.
“What’s that?” Jake inquired, ambling past Tom. He was carrying a mug of hot chocolate with a negligent grasp around the top, and he leaned a hand on the table to look over Spitz’s shoulder. “Ah.”
“We’ve got one from her too.” Tom said shortly. Jake nodded, skimming the lines, which were typical of Beau.
Getting digging permit for Cambodia. Drop everything. Meet London 2 days.
Spitz muttered something in Spanish. Jake leaned past him to reach the keyboard, tapping a brief message in reply.
Jake, Tom, Bill and Spitz.
He hit send as cheerfully as he’d typed it.
“Our inboxes will now explode.” Spitz predicted darkly. Jake grinned, sipping hot chocolate.
“Let them. She’s got a heck of a hike if she wants an argument.”
“Do you think that will stop her?” Spitz closed the original mail and sat back in his deck chair. “I came in here to hide from that Phoenix individual before I smack his big mouth into a new shape.”
“Think Lawrence would agree with you.” Bill came into the tent rubbing his hands briskly to warm them. “I just talked to him. He’s done, he says the cough’s more than he can handle and he’s planning to go home.”
There was a moment’s silence. Jake helped himself to a strand of Tom’s spaghetti, tipping his head back to drop it into his mouth. Tom shook his head, elbowing him in the ribs, and Spitz grinned.
“It’s a sensible decision.” Bill added. “I think he’s realising he’s out of his depth and he just wants to get the hell out of here. This evening he’s admitted he’s cold, he’s uncomfortable, he feels lousy and I’ve got every sympathy.”
“We’ll refund him a good chunk of what he’s paid.” Jake took another strand of spaghetti. “We can’t let the poor guy just walk away either. One of us is going to need to see him safe back to civilisation.”
Without feeling he was slinking away in disgrace either. Although it would be an eight to ten day turn around for someone to walk down with him to Lukla where he could take the plane to Kathmandu, and it would be something one of them had to do. Through the first few climbs as well which would mean missing a lot of the acclimatisation work, and it would put a serious hole in one of their ambitions. There was a moment of deeply uncomfortable silence, then Jake said mildly,
“That’s something we can think about overnight and make a decision in the morning.”
It was bloody cold once night really got started. Tom walked around the camp for a while, moving softly on the gravel not to disturb anyone. The Sherpa were getting used to him, no one looked to see who it was, and the clients appeared to be settled and asleep, or at least trying to sleep. There were no lights left on in their compound, although the Spanish expedition on the far side of the camp appeared to be having some kind of party and music was playing from their big mess tent and lights were still on. It was a while before he could go back to his own tent where Jake was in his sleeping bag.
He wasn’t asleep. Tom knew it from his breathing. He wouldn’t say anything but he wouldn’t sleep with an ear out and his mind on whether Tom would sit or lie down outside and fall asleep outside as he often did when things were crowded, except here there was a good risk of freezing to death. For that reason Tom kept the night owling to the bare minimum he could stand.
He crawled as quietly as possible into the doorway and zipped it behind him before he saw down to take his boots off and undress. Not by much, and as they went higher up the mountain they’d take less and less clothes off to sleep. He had managed to crawl into his sleeping bag when he felt Jake’s hand find his hair and then feel down in the dark to his hand.
“Yeah.” Tom lay back, watching his breath steam slightly above his face. The tent was pitch dark and his hands and feet were cold, it took a few minutes to start to warm up inside the high tog bag.
“Tommy. If you want to walk Lawrence up to Lukla, that’s ok. If that’s what you need to do, then it’s fine, do it.”
Tom looked across at him sharply, despite the fact he couldn’t actually see him in the dark.
It was so gently said. So easily, as if it was no struggle for him to say it at all, and for a moment Tom had no breath to reply with. Then he grabbed Jake’s hand with all his strength and hung onto it while he shouldered his way out of the bag and crawled over, dropping more or less on top of him to find his head, his face, and kiss him very hard.
“No. No it is not ok. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I’m a bitch and you shouldn’t let me talk to you like that, you shouldn’t allow it. I wouldn’t leave you here. No matter what the hell happens I’m not leaving you, we came up here together. I might bitch until you wish I’d sod off but I’m never leaving you.”
“It’s not leaving, it’s taking space if you need it and I’m fine with that.” Jake’s arms wrapped around him crushingly and comfortingly tight in return. “I want you to have that space if you need it.”
“I don’t need it.”
“Get in here, you’re going to freeze.”
It was a relatively tight fit to get both of them in one sleeping bag but it was something they put in a fair amount of practice at, and thankfully they were both of them long rather than broad in build.
“I know you can’t just chuck Harry out, I don’t want you to.” Tom said as they settled. “I suppose the right thing to do is walk him up to Lukla with Lawrence and stick him on the plane, he knows Kathmandu. If he’s ok to be wandering around there alone, I hate he’s got himself into this state. Ship him out to the bloody ranch, mail him to Flynn or something, they’ll scare him straight back into sanity.”
He felt Jake’s snort of laughter.
Copyright Rolf and Ranger