They were neither of them precious about sweat or dirt. Knocking around the places they did blotted out the whole finicky stuff about having a shower and brushing your teeth first. Some would find that unromantic, but it was something they both shared in; the intoxication of real and now and here which today came with dust and sweat and layers of thermal clothing, and it was rather like the scars on Jake’s body that Tom knew with fingers and tongue as much as from sight. The deep one on his thigh and the two parallel ones on his shoulder, the several others he had a peculiar and fierce kind of pride in because they marked him out as Tom’s, the body he knew as well as his own, its capacities, its history. Jake was as eager as he was, and there was never the slightest need to hold back or be careful of Jake; the man was never less than viscerally keen at the best of times, whether it was after hours of hard hiking – which to be honest was enough of a turn on to both of them in an insane kind of a way that it didn’t do much to drain that kind of energy – or whether it was three o clock in the morning. Jake was the heavier and stronger of the two of them by a good margin and Tom could feel the reservoirs of energy in every inch of him. Any time he put his hands on Jake he could always feel it, like a radiating force traversing under the golden tan of his skin, always as restless and as ardent to break free as Tom’s, although in a far more cheerful kind of a way. Tom loved feeling that burst free in him. Loved knowing that Jake had no need to hold back, could let all that tidal wave of energy go in entirety without wondering whether Tom could take it, because they were as every bit as bad as each other. It took shamefully little time, they just aided and abetted each other to get on with it, now, and Jake collapsed heavily on top of him afterwards which felt wonderful, both of them panting for the few moments it took to regain their breath. After which, as they often did, they just did it all over again. And again. And then again.
It was a while before they slowed down enough to be ready to think about something else. They were laying on their abandoned clothes which cushioned bare skin somewhat from the scrubby ground but Tom didn’t care about the scratches or the sunburn. For the first time in days he felt like he could think again. There was a sense of good. Stability. Jake put out a hand to pick up the bottle of sun lotion he’d grabbed out of his pack a while ago for other purposes, and without delicacy sprayed a lot of it down Tom’s front. It was cold, Tom yelped and Jake leaned over to kiss him, not particularly apologetically, while his hand wandered and spread lotion.
“Licence my roving hands and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below….”
He murmured it against Tom’s mouth, his voice deep and as caressing as his hands, and Tom grabbed his head in both hands to kiss him again, a lot more thoroughly. When they came up for air, Jake slid lotion somewhere unmentionable which made Tom squeak without very much dignity, and paused above him to look him direct in the eye, his face a few inches from Tom’s. His aqua blue eyes were alive, glinting with amusement as much as affection, then he lay back and felt for Tom’s hand, holding it firmly and lacing his larger fingers through Tom’s. The white vastness of the mountains filled the skyline. The spin from the top of Everest was a white trail out against the blue of the sky, like a trailing flag. It summoned up something deep in Tom’s guts that hadn’t been there for some days, and threaded itself through the sated sense of peace that was making every inch of him too heavy to move. A wisp of excitement.
Spending the night in the open out here at this altitude, at this time of year was probably not sane. Even inside a tea lodge it was probably going to hit around minus 5 tonight. But one hot, naked guy in your sleeping bag tended to do a whole lot more in terms of heating you up than fleece did and that kind of challenge was what made both their systems start humming.
Tom had fully expected another wakeful night, his butt was tender enough that he was keen to lay on his front or side and they were by necessity mushed together within the narrow confines of the bag. In fact he only realised when he stirred that he’d fallen asleep – and that he’d been deeply asleep for at least a couple of hours. It was pitch dark when he stirred enough to lift his head from Jake’s shoulder and look through the narrow gap of sleeping bag hood they’d pulled up to avoid frost bitten faces. Stars were brilliant in the sky above them, it was bitingly cold and the valley was silent. Jake pulled him over and his arms tightened around Tom, he felt far too awake and Tom twisted to try and see his face.
“Are you getting any sleep?”
“When you're lying awake with a dismal headache And repose is taboo'd by anxiety,I conceive you may use any language you choose To indulge in, without impropriety;”
Jake said indistinctly, chewing on his ear. Tom grinned in spite of himself, muttering the next lines with him.
“For your brain is on fire, the bed-clothes conspire Of usual slumber to plunder you: First your counter-pane goes, and uncovers your toes, And your sheet slips demurely from under you.”
“I’m sleeping fine thanks.” Jake said in his ear, doing something not at all conducive to sleeping and far too athletic for a sleeping bag. Tom came to his assistance and they managed anyway. A little snow fell very lightly a short while later, no more than a dusting.
The sun was rising when Tom stirred again and fumbled for the zip, intending to get up, dress and get a fire going. He was shocked at Jake’s hand shifting from its resting place on his hip and landing firmly on an already tender place. Jake could barely have raised his hand more than a couple of inches within the sleeping bag but that did not stop it being a sound enough swat that Tom’s breath caught and he stopped moving. Jake’s eyes were still closed. Aware of what that meant with mixed feelings, and not keen to invite another swat, Tom lay back inch by inch with caution, watching the sun rise slowly higher in a blue sky over the mountain. The temperature rose fast with the coming of the sun; when Jake eventually leaned over him to unzip the bag and got up to stretch, stark naked against the mountain back drop, it was warm enough to not miss clothes at all. Cautiously Tom started to get up, eyes on Jake who was kneeling in front of the dead ashes of last night’s fire to rake them out and start again. Jake lifted his head and looked at him. It was a calm, friendly look. Tom felt his stomach tighten in response. Carefully he sat back down again.
It took Jake a few minutes to lay and light the fire with competent hands. He brushed them off when he was done, standing up and holding out a hand. Tom went to him and Jake pulled him over, wrapping his arms around Tom’s waist to nuzzle his neck.
“You are getting out of hand, my boy.”
Tom’s stomach tightened still further in response, an involuntary clench that willing or not shot from throat to groin and took as firm a grasp on him as Jake’s arms were currently doing. Jake nipped his ear gently.
Tom did the necessary, an eye on Jake who was cutting potatoes and vegetables into the skillet and throwing in some of the contents of a paper bag. The smell of frying made Tom’s stomach growl as much as the sight of Jake naked this morning was making it very hard to take his eyes off him. He dug in his rucksack long enough to find some of the wet wipes they were using as one of the only sources of moisture out here where water was firstly for drinking, and did the best he could in terms of a wash.
Jake had pulled the sleeping bag near enough to the fire to sit on and when he was done, Tom sat down beside him, watching him stir what looked and smelled wonderfully like aloo jeera or something in that vicinity – the scent of cumin was strong, onions, coriander and spinach were mixed in with the potatoes in flashed of bright green alongside more of the round chillies Jake had thrown in the pan yesterday. Jake lifted the skillet off the fire, stuck a fork in the mixture and sat down beside him, putting the pan on the ground between them. It was fantastic. Here, shoulder to shoulder with him, in the fresh warmth of the morning with the mountains spread on the horizon in front of them and the open, silent valley all around them, it tasted like heaven.
“We’ll cook for ourselves in the camp from here on like we planned to.” Jake said equably, lounging back on one elbow. “Or we can beg to share in whatever the cook makes for the Sherpas.”
“We don’t have to make things harder just because I’m a finicky sod-” Tom began, and Jake steered a forkful of aloo into his mouth, stifling the rest.
“You eating matters.”
“I was eating.”
“Yeah, but I’m funny about you force feeding yourself.” Jake fed him another forkful and took one for himself. “The clients can eat pizza or whatever the hell they want, I don’t care.”
“Yes you do.”
Jake leaned over to kiss him, firmly. “I’ll handle the clients.”
“Look, you can’t just give Bill your orders, he’s not me. He might not want to take responsibility for that lot on Lobuche by himself and I wouldn’t blame him-” Tom began in frustration, and stopped, fast, as Jake put the skillet out of the way, licked aloo off his fingers and took Tom straight over his lap in one easy pull. Tom squirmed there, shocked.
“Jacob, for God’s sake -”
Jake’s hand rested on his back, holding him exactly where he was although his voice was comfortably conversational.
“We're leaving Bill to run the Lobuche expedition.”
Tom, sweating, yelped and jumped at the one good sound swat that landed across his upturned behind. Jake knew exactly where to place them.
“Sure?” Jake invited.
Jake helped him up to resume his place and retrieved the skillet. Tom sat down quickly, aware that very unusually for him that swat had nearly brought tears to his eyes. Jake said nothing, merely lounged back on his elbow again, legs stretched out, but his hand found the small of Tom’s back and rubbed there gently as they went on eating. When they were done, Jake tossed the skillet out of the way in one easy, accurate chuck and lay back to reach in his rucksack for a book, propping himself on one elbow on his side. He reached for Tom once he was settled, pulling Tom down to lay in front of him in a way that meant his body shielded the sun from Tom’s face and the ground was padded by the sleeping bag.
How do you get into serious trouble out on a trail in the middle of nowhere?
Well exactly like this. Jake was never bothered if they were in a jungle, on a raft or hanging out at the top of the world. Jake was Jake was Jake wherever they happened to be at the time, and he didn’t care. Doing anything at all other than resting right now would get him spanked, Jake wouldn’t warn and he wouldn’t hesitate, and this morning that was not something Tom was keen to invite. That one swat had reawoken all the tenderness from yesterday evening’s paddling – Tom felt his face heat at the memory of it. Tenderness rather than soreness; Jake wasn’t nearly tough enough with him, but then Jake was not… pilotable. Jake was a problem solver. Tom knew exactly what Jake had been doing the past few days: taking their priority problems one at a time and fixing them. The expedition was safe. Properly and responsibly equipped. The clients were cared for. Harry was sorted.
And guess who’s next on the list?
Jake had taken every single one of his concerns and knocked each one down in turn so that now it was perfectly safe for them to lay up here together and be planning to send the clients off with someone else and think about their own climb. Their own plans. Everything else could be let go. Tom rolled onto his back and tipped his head against Jake, looking up at dark blue sky overhead. He had absolutely no idea what Jake was planning, whether they were staying down here tonight or going back up to base camp, and that was the whole point Jake was making: he might as well quit stressing. Annoyingly, being well fed, well rested and very well…… other things… it worked.
He dozed on and off while Jake read, and in between he lay and watched the mind-blowing view beyond them. The spindrift off the mountain top. Somewhere around noon, Jake laid down his book and stretched.
“Think we can make it to base camp by dark?”
Tom reckoned it up in his head, looking at the trail below them and his legs already itching at the thought of it. It would be a hard hike and would need to be a pacey one to make it by that deadline: it was a challenge they would both enjoy.
They dressed, packed up and Tom buried the last remnants of the fire, making it safe. Jake was fastening the straps of his rucksack, pulling them tight with practiced yanks, and Tom, watching his familiar hands make the familiar moves, saw him unzip the side pocket, take the small, rounded paddle out and his stomach attempted a sharp exit through his mouth. Jake straightened up with the paddle in his hand and caught his eye, beckoning with one finger.
He didn’t look in the least stern. Tom made himself stabilise unsteady knees and go to him, and Jake took a seat on his rucksack, took his arm gently in a competent grasp and turned Tom over his knee. Tom couldn’t help himself twisting as Jake slid his pants down out of the way, feeling abruptly extremely bare and very vulnerable, his breath catching in his throat, and that paddle snapped briskly down across his backside. Six, sound whacks, each one crossing both cheeks. Tom jerked at every single one, unable to help it, and yelped at the last three. Jake drew his pants back up, keeping Tom over his knee while he tucked Tom’s t shirt back in, then he simply stood up, bulldozing Tom to his feet, dropped the paddle back into the open pocket of his pack and kissed Tom’s cheek.
Tom, who had been trying to swallow away the stinging in his eyes and the tightness in his throat and to gather his breath enough to say something of what he should to apologise for falling apart and that stupid solo climb, for making Jake have to drag him down into this valley to straighten him out, found himself gaping instead like a stranded goldfish and what came out was a near shriek of outrage.
Jake shrugged his pack on, did up the harness and tossed Tom’s pack across to him.
“You are a bloody awful Top!” Tom, still trying to catch his breath from a mixture of sharp smart, shock and indignation, swung his pack over his shoulders and followed Jake who merely grinned at him.
“Well you’re never going to get a normal one to go up that mountain with you, are you?”
They reached base camp as twilight was creeping in. Jake paused to glance at his watch as they walked down to the far end of the camp where their compound was.
“That’s not bad.”
“That’s what you said when we did the fan dance in Powys and you still insisted on running it twice more until you came up with a time you liked.” Tom accused. Jake shrugged, shouldering his rucksack off as they reached their tent.
“We’re only just starting here, still acclimatising, we’re going to get better times than this over the next few weeks.”
Tom unzipped the tent flaps and dropped his pack beside Jake’s, catching Jake’s flicked finger towards the ground and knowing exactly what it meant. He pulled one of the ground sheets out into the sheltered open entry way of the tent and sat down on it, and Jake headed easily over the shale towards the cluster of large tents some way off where their mess tent and communications tent stood, sheltering the clients’ smaller tents.
For want of anything better to do, Tom opened the crate of books that stood at the back of their tent and rummaged through the contents. Running Pen y Van, the mountain in the Brecon Beacons of Wales, had been a boyhood ambition of Jake’s, ever since he’d first read about the British SAS training there, and qualifying for the training by completing the run, with a heavy pack, within a set time frame. They’d made the time frame on several occasions, in between sleeping out on the wilds of the Beacons and the Black Hills nearby, by waterfalls and sheep covered rolling mountains, old forgotten grey ruins of abbeys and quiet but excellent pubs, and an elderly Welsh village filled with second hand bookshops like literary warehouses or cemeteries where they had spent days sitting reading on dusty floors among piles of ancient battered books. They had made a few visits to Britain, mostly to London which was where Beau called her occasional team meetings, but that had been their only real exploration of it together, with a strong avoidance of setting foot anywhere in Sussex.
The crate of books here had been more or less the entire English section of a small second hand bookshop in Kathmandu and was refreshingly eclectic from battered Victorian volumes of travel guides, biographies and poetry to several extremely trashy looking novels of the espionage, planes and presidents kind, or of the women chopping heads off mackerel in deep misery in Newcastle kind. Jake loved those, the peculiar plots and the bastard misogynistic heroes kept him entertained for hours. There was also a very battered 1930s copy of Swallows and Amazons; Tom picked that up with a jolt of recognition and pleasure for a book he’d loved as a child. It was the stuff of British childhoods, a staple, and it made him think of Dale, and wonder if that was something he’d shared in. Jake’s childhood adventure stories had been very different to the ones available in England in the 1970s; they had re read them with each other as they found the particularly special books they remembered, and Tom didn’t think Jake had seen this one before. He lay down to flick through it, half an eye on the sky where the sun was sinking rapidly now, the temperature starting to drop like a stone as the light went. The camp was noisy compared to the valley; radios, music and voices were constant, the trudge of boots as people moved around, the smells of coffee, cooking and the faint background of open toilets that was starting to fade as it got colder and the toilet contents froze, and lights were starting to come on in some of the compounds in the distance.
Jake found Bill drinking coffee and reading in a deck chair outside his tent and he looked up and grinned at the sight of Jake.
“Aha, the wanderers return! How’s Tom? Less whites of the eyes showing? I wasn’t surprised, he can’t usually be that social with us, never mind with strangers like he’s been doing. He works too hard.”
Jake took the deckchair beside him, not commenting and not needing to; Bill knew Tom.
If there was anyone in his vicinity louder or pushier than Tom – which wasn’t difficult – who was making demands for attention or support, Tom silently deferred to them. The only thing that helped was to remove him from that person’s vicinity. Among themselves it didn’t arise; Spitz and Bill were independent, confident and competent men who neither wanted nor needed any kind of looking after.
“We had an idea. We’d like you to lead an expedition up Lobuche east peak, take the clients up there. They can do some ice camping, practice crampon work, rope work, that’s a summit all of them can achieve, and it’ll do some good work on experience and acclimatization if any of them pass our criteria for climbing with us here.”
“……That’s brilliance.” Bill reflected on it for a moment with growing approval. “Yes, great idea, I’d feel a hell of a lot better about trying camp one with them if they’ve got that experience. What do you think at their pace? Five day hike?”
Jake looked at him, one eyebrow slightly lifted and Bill nodded slowly. Wryly.
“Yeah. I know. We need to push them.”
“A lot of climbers here are going to be handling over 15 hours climbing a day on the mountain.” Jake said reflectively. “Summit day gets nearer 20 at client pace. They’re going to need the experience of climbing that long and hard, as much as I’d like this to be fun for them as well, because if they can’t do it, if they can’t show us strong crampon work and how to use an ice axe at the end of it we’re not taking them into the ice fall.”
“One day’s hike out to Lobuche base camp, one to advance base camp, one to summit and back down to base camp, and one to hike back here.” Bill cocked an eyebrow at Jake who nodded.
“That’s what Tom and I thought. Take everyone with you. Cook and cook tent, Shem, the Sherpa teams, the climbing Sherpas can get to know their clients and do some relationship building. Tom and I’ll get camps 1 and 2 established so we lose no time.”
“And Tom gets a sanity break.” Bill added. “Bloody good plan, I’ll talk to Spitz, see if he wants to come along, and we’ll start out in the morning, sooner the better if we don’t want to get behind schedule. Dorje took most of the Sherpas up to camp one today with a whole lot of kit, you should have a good start. How far down the valley did you go?”
“Down below Dingboche, the start of the forest.”
“And your time back up here?” Bill tipped his head back to see Jake’s face as Jake got up.
“Six hours twenty one minutes.”
Bill grinned. “Marked, I’ll work on beating that when we’re done with Lobuche. We need a chart somewhere. I’ll stick one up in the communications tent.”
Hard and fit and as keen on a physical challenge as Jake and Tom, Bill was quite likely to be able to match that pace if not improve on it; one of the things they enjoyed on team expeditions was the challenge among themselves, other athletes who pushed you further, worked you harder, improved your technique and game plans. Jake ambled towards the mess tent, a leisurely pace that kind of hid the length of his legs and his stride, and Bill thought for a moment, then got up, zipped his parka against the increasing evening chill and dug his hands in his pockets, walking briskly through the collection of tents towards the one at a discreet but definite distance from the others.
Tom was sitting in the doorway of the tent, elbow on one knee, a book open on the other knee cupped in his hand. He and Jake read avidly; Bill had seen one or both of them countless times whenever they had time to spare, and their backpacks invariably carried several books they swapped impartially between themselves. Dark hair scattered in the breeze and from the sweat of a hard, fast hike up from the valley – and the stretch from Gorak Shep was hard going, that time had been earned at every step, the average hiker might make it in ten hours and the average serious climber in seven or eight – Tom looked still scruffier and more dishevelled than usual, even by the standards of most of the people hanging around basecamp. Tom always looked as if his clothes didn’t quite fit or had been borrowed from someone else, he was always quiet, always elusive, brief with his eye contact when he spoke to you and he was rarely still unless he was doing something that held all his interest. Even standing, he was usually shifting on the spot or finding something to do with his hands. In particular he didn’t sleep. Bill had seen him ghosting around too many times in the dark of night to think of it as anything other than just Tom’s way, but sometimes he reached the point where his eyes were getting so darkly shadowed he began to look like Geefs’ Lucifer. Tom glanced up, hearing his approach, and he looked better than he had two days ago when Bill had seen him last. Before he had time to get up or find something social to say – which he never found easy – Bill squatted in front of him to bring their heads to the same height, speaking matter of factly.
“Brilliant idea, I’m not happy either with them trying for camp one without a hell of a lot more practice and a higher level of fitness and I think a lot of them are going to find Lobuche a reality check. No, I don’t have the slightest problem leading it, Jake knew I wouldn’t. I’m army; I like to do, and I owe you and Jake so bloody much right now for bailing Harry that I’m glad to do anything I can. And Jake knows that too. You and Jake did your valley acclimatising, Spitz and I’ll get ours doing the hike with the clients, we’ll make our camp two climb when we get back as you’ll have the camps established, so this is all working out in the right direction. It’s just more of a team approach than we planned, that’s all. So relax.”
Tom didn’t answer, didn’t have time to answer, but his face had changed, and Bill gave him a brief, cheerful nod, got up and walked away.
Subject: TrainsDale:I’ve spoken to several people from the Union Pacific Railroad and their heritage dept. They had stock going through Three Traders in 1928 and the Silver Bullet was one of their engines. Stats enclosed from the guy’s mail about her horsepower, speed and on average what he thought she’d have pulled. She was a compound locomotive as you thought, long distance over heavy ground, weight varying between 40-45 tons on an average run, loading and unloading as she travelled. They had a record of the robbery in 1928 at Three Traders when she failed to climb Dead Man’s Hill after they slowed down – no mention of why in the records, I’d guess that the driver didn’t want to tell the company he stopped because he saw a ghost on the track. The driver reversed the train back into Three Traders Station to make another run at the hill. The station master checked the train over again before he let her go and he found a freight compartment door open on the side facing away from the platform, which hadn’t been open when he signaled the train to leave the station ten minutes earlier. The compartment was empty, no one was in sight, and as you thought, it was a dark, wet night. There’s a mention in the records that even with the station master’s lanterns they couldn’t see much more than a few feet in front of them. The Cheyenne police were in town and checked all through the train and carriages, they searched the station and the town was searched again in the morning, all the barns, stores, cellars and the mining camp. There was no sign of the cargo that was taken. The freight that was stolen was only listed as ‘local store merchandise’ in crates, taken on board at Three Traders, to be unloaded at Idaho Falls, and no mention of what it actually was.That’s the extent of their records, although interestingly, there’s no record of the Silver Bullet being decommissioned. They don’t know where she is or what happened to her. Keep me posted if you find out any more.Now need to go do something useful. I’m going to have Jake arrested under the trades description act. What kind of Top keeps nagging you to go play on the internet and the satellite phone? First trek to camp 2 tomorrow, we’ll be gone three days. I’ll check in when we get back.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
According to Spitz – who was Tom’s only source of info since Jake made it clear he was restricted to their tent and the open plateau beyond it that evening - the announcement of the Lobuche trip caused a buzz of excitement amongst the clients that evening and into the following morning. The Sherpa rapidly gathered up the kit needed into large packs they appeared to have no difficulty at all in managing, there was no shortage of tents and supplies available and remarkably, several of the Sherpa spoke to relatives on one of the yak trains that came and went from the camp on a daily basis making deliveries and collections for at least one of the many expeditions, and loaned a couple of yaks who carried most of the stoves, cooking supplies and food supplies. There was never any fuss or conflict about anything the Sherpa did together and it wasn’t easy to spot the apparent leaders, they simply worked together in a way that few westerners did.
The exception was Mr Phoenix Loudon who complained vocally and heatedly that this was a waste of time and energy when Bill announced the plan in the mess tent at dinner. But when it was explained in detail that this was both acclimatisation work and their practice run at ice camping and a summit attempt, and Bart, who was suffering Mr Loudon with less and less patience, pointed out equally loudly that several of the other client expeditions here that he’d been visiting with had very similar treks as part of their early preparation itinerary – and more importantly as Jake and Bill emphasised, this was the key test by which they and the other expedition leaders would make the selection criteria as to who was fit and ready to attempt the ice fall and the climb to camp one – Mr Loudon apparently shut up and the clients spent the evening packing and preparing. They were still asleep in the early hours of the morning when Jake and Tom dressed, gathered their kit and head lamps and headed out together to the ice fall.
They were almost the first into the fall; the others were from a German expedition which was moving efficiently ahead of them. The trip down into the valley, the hours spent in the rich oxygen and the acclimatising work of the hard hike in the thin air had helped remarkably; a training tactic known as ‘active rest’. Tom was aware it was taking him less effort to move, and climbing with Jake, working actively with Jake like this on the challenge of a rough landscape, something they did in tandem from years of close practice, was one of the deepest pleasures Tom know. To be doing it here, this morning, in the darkness amidst the majesty of the serracks and the hush of the very early morning in the ice, while he and Jake navigated obstacle to obstacle together in comfortable, efficient silence like the figures of a dance with their attention on nothing but handling the ropes, the ice and each other, it was like moving through a place of enchantment. Some living wonder, in the sense of the seven wonders of the world and all the Boys’ Own stories come to life. In the sense of dragons and crystal caves, things so above most human experience that it was hard to believe it was true. It was breath stealing, muscle wrenching, mind and gut drilling fun.
They were faster today through the darkness of the ice fall where all the serious climbers moved in silence. Every step took them up higher into that whiter, colder, sharper and more isolated world that left the others behind, and there was joy too in knowing that it would be several days before he and Jake had to return back down to them and the coffee and pop music world of base camp. For the next couple of days it would be him and Jake alone on the mountain.
They climbed the last overhang and walked up into camp one before daylight. It was the first spot from which the Western Cwm was revealed and became visible: the next part of the route to the top. It was unseen from anywhere below this point on the planet; a sight granted only to those who earned it by surviving the ice fall. The favour the mountain granted you for overcoming her first trial. Their Sherpa had carried out a good deal of work here yesterday: two more of their tents now stood beside the one Tom and Jake had rigged, in a small group among the rapidly growing numbers of others from the other expeditions. All very well secured and stabilised into the ground to withstand what could easily be harsh weather at any time. One night’s storm could easily devastate an expedition’s carefully prepared tents and leave nothing but rags flapping in the wind. When Tom opened the flaps to look inside the nearest, the tents were supplied too: the ground lined, gas canisters, the small portable high altitude cooking stoves they used, a box of the self heating food packs all the expeditions lived from. Ready as a respite or supply centre for any one of their expedition. Tom had watched Dorje work often enough to know every item in the tent would have been meticulously checked that it was properly functional. He was slightly surprised at the tug on his harness, not a rough one but it lifted him directly to his feet and put him back behind Jake’s shoulder. So brief, so discreetly done that no one watching would have thought anything of it, but Tom knew all right, and his face heated and his gut squeezed under his snow suit, his attention helplessly yanked right back to Jake in a very visceral and complicated way.
You’re getting out of hand, my boy.
There was plenty of meaning in that mildly said little phrase that simultaneously chilled the blood, caused helpless squirming internally if you could control it externally and heated other very inconvenient parts of anatomy to thermonuclear reactive levels, until Tom couldn’t have figured out whether he loved it or hated it. There were times when Jake made it bloody difficult to stand up straight or think, never mind climb, and from the smile Jake shot him as he led the way to check the rest of the tents, he wasn’t repentant.
The light came up as they reached the foot of the Western Cwm beyond camp one. This was the last section of the route that was familiar from their trek up Lhotse last year and they were fitter now than they had been then. This was a shorter climb and a technically easier stretch than the ice fall, but for the crevasses many of which were nearly invisible under thin snow bridges and others of which were covered with the roped together ladders. The fixed line they clipped their harness on to as they climbed, like all the ropes that by now would be set all the way to the summit on the necessary stretches of the climb, had been set by the Sherpa expert advance team as they were every year. Gone were the days when each expedition had to negotiate with others and between them set their own ropes, and it saved a lot of work as a trustworthy fixed line was crucial on this stretch. The other big problem with the Western Cwm was a lot more simply the heat. It was open, exposed ground, the whole Cwm was a u shaped valley with Everest on the left, Lhotse dead ahead and Nuptse on the right. And all those walls of ice reflected sunlight straight down onto the Cwm. It could reach 100f without difficulty here at midday, one of the very good reasons that he and Jake had reached this point at not yet nine am, and when you were oxygen deprived in a way that weakened every muscle, climbing with your legs burning, your chest burning, when it took determination to keep putting one foot in front of the other uphill into the ice, being hotter than all hell really didn’t help. By the time they were half way up, Tom had stripped down to his t shirt, his fleece jacket tied around his waist, and was moving ahead of Jake with a sharp eye on Jake’s pace behind him. There was no two ways about it; this hurt. It was part of the battle that came with any serious physical challenge and part of the addiction Tom had had since he was a kid, the knowledge that to set out to achieve higher, harder, further, meant accepting the pain when it came, using it, going beyond it and focusing on the objective of keeping going, making a hard, sharp laser of his objective and having the will to gain it that was stronger than anything else. Jake got it the same way he did; they were both possessed by the same demon.
The last half hour was the hardest, this was the highest they had yet gone and the thinnest air they had experienced yet this season. They were both breathing hard and walking on shaking legs by the time they finally reached camp 2 at the base of Everest itself. This was the Advance Base Camp, usually known as ABC – camp one was mostly a transition stage, a need in the early stages of acclimatising for most who had to get their body to experience and become familiar with functioning with such low oxygen. But after climbers had reached camp two at least once and gone further, higher, forced their body to become more used to the altitude, they usually skipped camp one and moved straight between base camp and ABC.
There were more tents here than down in camp one and the camp was much more strongly established. The big communications tents and mess tents had been set up here by expeditions as well as the small sleep tents, more were in the process of being set up, and there was more debris too, old oxygen tanks half frozen into the ice floor, although the Sherpa often made good money carrying trash down the mountain with a price given to them for every barrel filled. Having climbed for six hours, Tom scanned the area with Jake and they located an area on the edge of the camp, dumped their rucksacks and then came the two hours more endurance training of chiselling out ice for a flat base, setting up the tent and screwing it into the ice and setting it deep enough that the winds and weather wouldn’t easily shred it. It was hard work. The even thinner air up here made Tom breathless just by moving around just as days ago any moving around at base camp had been hard work before he adjusted, and the heavy physical work was a challenge. By the time it was done and the mats were laid down, sleeping bags were laid out, and a pan filled with snow was melting on the stove to make a drink to replace some of the fluids they’d lost out on the Cwm in sweat, they both sat down, took off their crampons and boots to crawl inside and Jake collapsed full length on the sleeping bags. Tom dropped next to him and let himself pant, working on catching his breath, and Jake fumbled a hand out, got his glove off, took Tom’s glove off and wound his fingers through Tom’s. When Tom glanced across at him, he smiled. His warm, electric grin that lit up his eyes, and that Tom had seen and loved like this on the top of Pen y Van, in jungles and in ruined cities; his battle smile.
They were finishing the second round of high carb hot chocolate – it took so long to melt the snow over the thinness of the flame the gas created in the thin oxygen that making a drink from start to ready to drink was a marathon – when they heard voices shouting nearby and Jake rolled up onto his knees to see out of the tent flaps. Tom, propping up on one elbow to listen, heard the German voices getting increasingly urgent and leaned past Jake to grab his boots. There was a cluster of men gathered around one of the big tents not far from theirs looking anxious, someone at a rickety camping table just inside the doorway was talking into a radio and Tom, whose German was better than Jake’s, muttered a swift translation aside to him as they approached the group.
“Someone’s fallen, they’re trying to work out where.”
“On the Cwm?” Jake said in the same undertone. Tom shook his head.
“Higher, must be camp 3. It’s not one of their team, an open distress call went out on the radio.”
“Are they wanting a search party?”
There were a lot of answers to that, the first of which was that this was their first time this season at this altitude, the highest climb they’d done so far and a higher, further climb right now was a bad idea. But there were going to be limited people up here able to do this, particularly this early in the season with only a few expeditions in the camp; limited people who’d be experienced, competent climbers used to the mountain and fit enough, who weren’t either clients or supervising clients. And some poor sod was lying injured somewhere. Tom quietly addressed the nearest German who glanced at him and then Jake and nodded. Several other men from the party began to talk amongst themselves and Tom, walking swiftly with Jake to their tent to grab ropes and gloves, grimaced as he overheard.
“The poor bastard wasn’t clipped into the line. He’s going to have gone hundreds of feet.”
So it was going to be bad.
It turned out that pretty much everyone who was in ABC had gotten there today, most of them were very tired and most of them were clients of expeditions who’d done all they could in just climbing up here and were struggling to cope with their first experience of such thin air. It was only the serious climbers – one guide from one expedition, an independent climber from another - and three climbing Sherpa who happened to be in camp with their expedition who kitted up and came out with them to search. None of them were fresh; like Tom and Jake they’d already done a hard day’s climbing and they were setting out again already tired and trying to adapt to the drop in oxygen at this height. There was limited wisdom in that. The Lhotse face, on which three quarters of the way up camp 3 was chiselled into the ice, was a 5000 feet solid wall of ice and while he and Jake had never yet climbed it, up near camp three itself Tom knew from reputation that it was extremely steep. Someone falling without being clipped onto the line would come down it like a rolling boulder. An up rope and a down rope marked the two routes for climbers as they reached the foot of the face and there were a few people climbing on the up line. Moving here involved kicking your crampons deep into the ice for a grip, and Jake, touching Tom’s arm as they left the camp, drew him back to look at the terrain to either side of them.
“He could have come down anywhere, this is going to be a needle in a haystack job. Be careful.”
The Sherpa men climbed the most confidently as they struck out to the sides and nooks around the bottom of the face, moving at a speed Tom envied. The most tired he’d been since the day they got here, legs hurting, chest hurting and breathless in the thin atmosphere it was a challenge to climb at all, never mind a challenging terrain, and he and Jake roped themselves together as a precaution, taking it slowly but carefully and mostly in turn around one of the sections that needed searching. The man was probably dead; Tom was well aware of it. The Lhotse face might as well be concrete and if you fell you fell straight down it, bouncing as you went – it would smash bones, a brutal, terrible destruction of the fragile human form, but if there was any chance the man was alive they had to try to locate him. ABC could just about be reached by chopper if the pilot was willing and extremely brave – at this altitude in the thin air the chopper blades barely had enough air to bite to keep it flying and there had been accidents. Otherwise, any climber who could not stand and walk on his own feet was in a terrible position. Transferring an immobile body through the ice fall was almost impossible, it cost too much oxygen and energy to move yourself, never mind a heavy and awkward load safely down a maze of vertical ladders and roped together horizontal ones with no handholds; it was not only lethal for the patient but for the climbers trying to handle him. Tom knew of the party of elite mountaineers who had come one season solely to retrieve the body of one of their countrymen from the mountain, not much higher than this. After several days the entire group had barely succeeded in moving the body more than twenty feet between them and had to abandon the attempt and leave the body in situ. A simple broken ankle could kill you up here.
For almost two hours they searched and the sun was now direct overhead, they were both sweating and breathing hard, and moving considerably more slowly. Tom was bracing the rope while Jake maneuvered around an outcropping of rock, hanging on with one hand to dig his ice axe in deeper, and then abruptly Jake paused and looked back to him.
“I see him. Wait.”
He moved further around to a more stable surface and took the rope, and Tom made his way around after him. The body had come to rest in a small cupped ledge of rock emerging from the ice and grey shale, and it was less a recognisable human body than a heap in coloured down fabric. One blue boot was visible at an angle that no human leg should be at. Jake crouched beside him and with some effort located the head and then the throat, moving the body very carefully, and felt for a pulse. It was pointless; Tom, coming to crouch beside him, could see enough of the head to know and to hope this poor sod had been dead long before he reached this spot. This was very far from being the first body he and Jake had encountered, Tom had not been indifferent to any one of them, but this one…. This one was coldly, horribly shocking. Jake sat back on his heels for a moment and Tom looked in silence at the expression in his face. Then leaned past him to unclip the man’s rucksack and slide it over his arms, and used the harness to lash it over the man’s face. It was about the best gesture of respect that could be made; at least the most personal part of him was not visible to be gawked at by any climber who saw him, and protected from the elements. Jake pulled the radio from his harness and opened a channel, putting the message out in English as the main language spoken on the radios and accessed by the most teams.
“This is Tom and Jake from the Mountain Eagles expedition. We’ve found the downed Australian climber. He’s dead I’m afraid; from the shape he’s in he must have been killed more or less instantly. If anyone from his team is listening, is there anything you want us to do or retrieve? He’s going to be very difficult to move from the position he’s in.”
There was a burst of static on the radio, several voices, one of which was the German manning the communications tent at camp two who acknowledged the message, then a moment later an Australian voice sounding very grim and to Tom’s ears near to tears.
“Give me a minute mate, need to talk to the others.”
They sat there with the man in silence for another ten minutes before the radio finally crackled again and this time a different Australian voice spoke. “Mountain Eagles? Thanks. We’re talking about it, we’ll figure out what we’re going to do, but it’s going to take us a while. Leave him where he is right now, if you can give us the position?”
Jake described it succinctly, put the radio away and got up, holding out a hand to Tom. Tom got up silently, moving past him as Jake took up a secure position to brace the rope and hold it for Tom to make the climb back around the outcropping and over the ice. He stood squarely between Tom and that crumpled form behind on the ice while Tom did it; it didn’t make the man much easier to walk away from. It took them over an hour to get back down to camp two, less because of distance than being too damn tired now to move with any speed, and it was slow and heavy going. The wind was getting up and the sky was a heavy grey, it was late afternoon and already darkness wasn’t far away. It was a relief to finally reach their tent and for the first time that day Tom was cold. His fingers were numbing in his gloves and his feet and legs starting to cramp. It was hard to unfasten his crampons and without comment Jake knelt beside him and did it for him, then pulled Tom’s gloves off to examine his fingers. They were white, painful but no worse and Jake pulled the tent flap aside for him to crawl inside, starting work on his own boots. Once he joined Tom inside the tent and they had both shed their snowy outer clothing he sealed the flap after them, dropped down on his back on the sleeping bag and lit the stove and then pulled Tom down into his arms, finding Tom’s hands and tucking them deep under his own clothes to get them against his skin. He was warm, warmer than Tom was and as Jake wound his leg through Tom’s, holding him from head to foot enclosed against him, Tom felt himself start to shiver hard as his body began to gather some warmth and energy to sort itself out. The cold was, if he was honest, more than physical. Jake dug one handed in his rucksack, found a chocolate bar and took a bite before he put it down to Tom’s mouth. Tom accepted a bite and chewed for a moment, faintly nauseous and eating more out of duty than desire, but the sugar started to hit him and that helped too. They lay there for a while, catching their breath, then Jake found Tom’s mouth and kissed him.
“We better work on a drink and getting something to eat, and after that we’re turning in. I’m done for the night.”
Laying in a sleeping bag against Jake and doing nothing else today sounded unbelievably good. Jake unwound them with some effort and crawled over to the tent entrance to collect some of the pile of fresh snow they’d put next to the entrance earlier today when they set up. Clean snow to melt for drinking; it was easier to spend a little energy stockpiling than walking out of a warm tent to find it once it began to get dark and bitterly cold up here. The wind was starting to bash the sides of the tent; the sky beyond Jake’s head was turning a deep, nasty grey. The light was going fast, and the temperature was plummeting. The draught into the tent was bitter while Jake had the flap open. Not the sharp, fresh cold that Tom had been used to for the days they’d been in base camp and through the day’s climb, but something harsher. The weather forecast had been good enough when they checked it yesterday evening, as they did every day, but the forecasts around here were guidelines only. This was a mountain that made its own rules. Jake put the snow pan on the stove to melt and came to sit down again with Tom, and Tom looked penetratingly at his face, his stomach chilling as he saw the tightness around his eyes.
“You’ve got a headache.”
“Only been bad since I sat up a minute ago,” Jake said easily. “Probably need to eat something other than candy.”
Yeah, that’s the Tom don’t panic tone.
Tom rolled over to find one of the MREs, the self heating packs of food they’d brought up with them. Rubbish, but plain, ordinary rubbish; meatballs and pasta, high carb, and he dug the small sachet of water out, dumped the water into the chemical heating pack to activate it and put the pack to one side to heat. Jake was a big guy, he burned calories faster, he expended more energy moving around, his body had to make oxygen travel further and do more, and this had been a far longer, harder day than they’d planned for their first time at this altitude, or ever would have planned intentionally. The risks added up fast.
“Take some dex. Lie down.”
“I’m fine.” Jake reached over for his hand. “Let me eat and get warm and I’ll be ok.”
Tom pulled until Jake lay down beside him on the sleeping bag and Jake wrapped an arm around him. They lay still for a few minutes, Jake with his eyes closed, and his colour wasn’t good. Tom with an eye on the stove which was painfully slow in making any difference to the snow in the tin. The MRE was hot when he put a hand out to it and sat up, finding a spoon in his pack.
Jake opened his eyes and sat up, a little slowly, accepting the spoonful of pasta Tom passed him.
“What is it?”
Tom glanced up sharply, hearing something in his voice that was wrong.
“Pasta. Say that again.”
“Say what again?” Jake heard it too this time; it was more distinct. Slurring. As if he was drunk, except Tom had never seen Jake drunk. It was a hideous sound, Tom was watching Jake’s eyes and saw him realise it at the same moment Tom leaned over to grab their kit.
“We’re going down.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
He found the box of Diamox in his pack. The syringes were faster acting than the pills, and he took one of the pre loaded syringes out, pushing Jake down onto his side and Jake turned over to let Tom reach his hip and pull his clothes far enough apart to find a patch of skin. He shot the dex deep into Jake’s hip and checked the time as he disposed of the syringe. The dex was fast acting, it should buy them time even if Jake was showing signs of what Tom was horribly afraid he was showing. An immediate descent of 600-1200 feet was what would make the difference and from here that meant getting down to base camp. Right now.
It was pitch dark outside by the time that they were dressed and left the tent, the wind was blasting and hard to stand still against and bitterly cold, and having checked Jake’s crampons, boots and harness himself, Tom dug for a rope in his pack. Jake had been moving slowly, his eyes were tight with pain which was clearly worsening although he didn’t complain, and his usually easy co ordination was visibly off. He was groggy and having trouble balancing, it was terrifying to see, but Jake still came to life and took the rope Tom was preparing before Tom could attach it to his harness. It was called short roping; a weaker or injured climber walked ahead of you, roped to your harness so you could break any fall, slow it, control it.
“No.” Jake coiled the rope, putting it away, and he set out before Tom could grab it. Tom strode after him towards the other end of the camp and the beginning of the route down to camp one, switching his head lamp on as Jake did the same, and the ice began to be illuminated whitely a few steps in front of them, just enough to see where they were going.
“It’s the only bloody sensible way we have to do this, don’t you dare say to me-”
“No.” Jake said it quite serenely. He always did sound as if he was so utterly convinced that saying no was the end of things that he had no emotional investment in it; it was just a done deal. On any other day but this, when it was pitch dark in high winds on the side of a bloody mountain of ice at dangerously sub-zero temperatures where he couldn’t walk a straight line, Tom would have rolled his eyes and gone with it, but right now he grabbed for Jake’s harness to stop him, furious and determined that this time, this once, he was going to win. Jake took his hand, squeezed it, but put it down, carrying on walking. Slowly, but steadily into the biting wind.
“I’m too heavy for you. If I fall I’m not pulling you with me.”
“If you fall I’m bloody coming after you anyway so you might as well!” Tom spat at the back of his head. Jake glanced back at him. His scarf covered his face, a vital protection to face and lungs up here where breathing air this cold made your throat dry out and bleed, but Tom saw the smile in his eyes and the affection in it. And Jake clipped onto the line and started down the Cwm. Swearing out loud, Tom followed him as closely as possible. It was bloody difficult to have a row with Jake at any time – you might as well try to have a row with a tree or a barn – but with this little breath, in this cold it was near impossible. And heads ducked against the weather, they walked together out of the scatter of lights among the tents in the camp, towards the total blackness of the trail down.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Tom’s attention seemed to narrow in the darkness to nothing but every step Jake took ahead of him with the clank of his harness and the crunch of his crampon, the line Jake clipped onto to ensure that he did clip on to it properly and securely, to watching him move and seeing the faintest slip or misstep before it could happen, and his heart was thundering in his chest and his throat the entire time. There was one slide not far out of camp two, Tom saw Jake’s foot lose its grip and grabbed his harness, sliding down beside him, hacking his ice axe into the ground and rolling his full body weight on top of it to steady them both, but Jake rolled over, front pointed his crampons deep into the ice and flung his own ice axe out an instant later and arrested the slide with him. His instincts were good. Even groggy, Jake was sharp and well trained and they’d practiced on this ground exactly to be sure they could do this even semi asphyxiated and not thinking. It helped to be reminded of it.
It was still a long, slow slog down the Cwm against the sand-blasting wind that stung the eyes and hurt the throat even breathing through the face protector. They walked like ghosts in the dark, unnoticed through the few lit tents of camp one and then came the worst part, the descent through the ice fall. It wasn’t the best time of day to be in it; the ice fall became unstable during the heat of the day and froze again during the temperature plunge overnight. Night had not gone on long enough yet to render it safe enough for Tom’s liking. It was a struggle to see in the darkness where each foothold was, to see the ladders over every drop and crevasse, to see anything but pitch black below the rungs, and all the time were the soft creaks and groans of the glacier moving, interspersed with occasional loud cracks somewhere in the distance as a serac moved, or the whoosh of snow as a bank somewhere gave way. You could only hope the bank you were climbing on stayed stable for the minutes you were on it; it was necessary to get through the icefall as fast as possible if you planned on surviving it.
Tom’s fingers were numb with cold now inside his gloves and his feet weren’t much better. Somewhere on a ladder, backing himself slowly over the edge of an overhang to find the ladder rungs with his foot his crampon skidded and for an awful moment he fell sideways, brutally hard against the ladder and the ice, his jaw and shoulder taking the worst of the blow. The line he was clipped onto held him for the few seconds of desperate scrabbling for a grip and for a few seconds more he clung to the ladder, heart thundering. His jaw burned, his side was on fire and the breath was knocked out of him. Below him, Jake climbed slowly on down to the ground, moving stiffly like an automaton. He hadn’t seen or noticed, he was oblivious, and that was so utterly unlike him it was terrifying. Here, in the darkness of this labyrinth, for an instant Tom had never felt so alone in his life. Somehow he gathered himself, found the rung of the ladder beneath his crampon and forced himself to climb on down, aware he was shaking.
The release that swept him as they walked out of the fall and reached crampon point was so strong it made him gag, a wave of nausea and dizziness as his body let go some of the tension. They sat there to take off their crampons, Jake moving stiffly and slowly with robotic deliberation, and Tom gripped Jake’s harness, manhandling him fast through the maze of rocks down the hill towards base camp.
The lights there were very welcome. The boulder graveyard that contained the city of tents was like a formula one pit stop or a loading depot; even at night the bustle and the noise went on. They were a small outfit compared to the rest and everyone else from their expedition had gone with the clients to Lobuche including Shem, but there was the permanently staffed, stone built Himalayan Rescue clinic in the camp; they would help, although it meant walking the entire camp to find them in the dark. Except as Tom reached his and Jake’s tent he saw lights on in their communications tent and in Shem’s tent next to it, and hope abruptly flared. He steered Jake with him, horribly aware that Jake’s co ordination was bad now; he was reeling slightly, moving increasingly slowly, and it was taking more of Tom’s strength to keep him upright. He yanked open the communications tent seal with one hand and to his flooding relief, Shem glanced up. Wrapped in several sweaters under her jacket, her legs tucked under her, she was sitting alone on one of the camp chairs with the satellite phone and she got straight up at the sight of them, speaking calmly but rapidly to the phone.
“Em, I’ve got to go. Love you, goodnight.”
Tom took most of Jake’s weight as Shem came to take Jake’s other arm, not sure he’d ever been so glad to see any woman in all his life.
“Looks like altitude sickness, we were up at camp two when the headache hit and things got worse very fast. He started slurring his words, his balance is off.”
“He can still hear you.” Jake said indistinctly. Tom guided Jake’s much larger body by his harness through the flaps of Shem’s red dome tent and down onto the large camp bed she was using as a table. Jake rolled onto his back, letting Tom unzip and get him out of his snowy jacket although Tom could feel him helping as much as he was able. His face was tight with pain and his eyes were blank and rolled up to the ceiling of the tent; he wasn’t as conscious as he thought he was and it was coldly terrifying to see.
“I gave him a shot of dex up there, it was just over four hours ago.” he said shortly to Shem, who leaned past him to untangle the line of an oxygen mask and turned the cylinder on.
“Good. Jake, how are you feeling?”
“Better the further down we got. My head’s still thumping but it’s eased off a lot,”
“Yeah, you’re mostly lying through your teeth for my benefit and it’s not working, so shut up.” Tom told him sharply. Jake fumbled out for his hand, found it and gripped it.
“It is better than it was.”
His voice was clearer. Jake shut his eyes as Shem put the oxygen mask over his face, turning his head away from the light of the lamp she brought over to the bed and Tom recognised the blood oxygen monitor she put on Jake’s finger.
“You’re low, Jake, but not horribly. Mid seventies right now, you two were high eighties when I checked a few days back.”
High eighties was a pretty good oxygen reading for around here. Show an oxygen reading like that in a US hospital at sea level and you’d see a medical team panic on the spot.
“I’ll take him lower now if we need to go lower.” Tom began. He had made many – many - plans in the darkness of that hellish climb down tonight as to how he’d get Jake over the long, rocky and difficult hike down the glacier into the valley, sure it would come to that. Shem gave him a quick look, shaking her hair out of her eyes.
“Was he slurring worse than this at camp two?”
“Then he’s improving. Let’s let him rest, watch him and give him an hour on the oxygen and see how he’s doing. If he needs to go lower then I’ll come with you, but you’ve descended over a thousand feet and he was doing fine at base camp before. There’s hot water in the thermos there, get yourself and Jake a drink, you look frozen. And he’s dehydrated even if you’re not.”
It was hard to do anything so mundane. Shem gave Jake a shot of painkillers which seemed to help. Jake choked several cups of the warm rather than hot coffee Tom made and after that he appeared to doze off. Shem poured herself a coffee, sat down in a deckchair near enough to see the oxygen monitor reading and put a couple of blankets over Jake, giving Tom a rather wry look.
“Tom, stop pacing and sit down. He’s all right. If I think he isn’t I’ll tell you. Was he ok on the way up this morning?”
“He was fine.” Tom made himself stop with an effort and awkwardly perched on the edge of a crate, which was mostly what Shem had scattered around as shelves, seats and tables. “We got up to camp two and he was fine. One of the Australian climbers fell, they needed a search party and there weren’t many people to go out so we went with them, two hours climbing around looking.”
“When he was already knackered.” Shem sounded comprehending. “Was the Australian found?”
“He’s dead. Didn’t you hear on the radio if you’ve been here?”
Shem shook her head. “I came back with John this afternoon. He had a severe hypo on the hike out this morning, his sugars have been all over the place the last few days and I’m not happy about how he’s handling the altitude. He and I had a long talk with Bill and we agreed it wasn’t a great idea to keep going.”
“He’s dropping out?”
“He hasn’t said so, but I hope he’s realising he’s physically not ready for this because I’m going to advise strongly against him going any higher.” Shem rolled her eyes at him over the edge of her coffee mug. “And then there were three.”
“We didn’t plan this.”
“So I heard. Quietly from Bill, don’t worry, it’s not common gossip. You don’t need to be this prickly, I know you and Jake did a decent thing getting this expedition on to solid ground.”
More like a wicked thing, letting people without the faintest idea of what they’re doing mess around with this place.
After that awful climb down in the dark, still shaking a little from it, that was a thought with real fear behind it. Tom didn’t answer. Shem sipped coffee, taking another look at the oxygen monitor.
“Deleted any more emails from your Beau friend?”
“Whoever they are, they really want to talk to you.”
It was a cheerful comment rather than prying, and Tom appreciated it. The mug of awful coffee between his hands was starting to thaw his fingers and his numbed feet were starting to prickle as sensation came back, his stomach was in knots and roiling from the sight of Jake’s face on the bed under the oxygen mask and the intrusive, dominating images kept flashing to mind of Jake staggering, Jake actually staggering, and moving down the ropes in the dark like an automaton, all his loose and easy grace and his physical competence gone. He ached all over to the extent it was hard to identify any one place that hurt and he was so physically tired he felt almost drunk on it. He found the words abruptly happening by themselves, as if it was someone else’s voice he was hearing, as if he was someone wholly separate, watching his body talk.
“She leads archaeological expeditions. Have you heard of the Abeausante team? They found the Urubamba tomb-”
“Yes, I saw it in the papers, the huge gold sun statues?” Shem said with interest. “That’s who keeps mailing you?”
“We’ve done some guiding work with her. She’s recruiting for a new expedition.”
They’d been in the Urubamba tomb with her on the day those statutes were discovered, but that was a private experience. One of the many and mind blowing ones he’d had with Jake in wild and peculiar places. It was hard to get his eyes off Jake’s face, he was watching every breath, every faint rise of his chest. Shem nodded slowly, eyebrows raised high.
That was generally why Beau found things that no one else did. She applied that ruthless determination to pretty much everything. It would have driven Tom mad except that Jake was serenely firm with her and Bill was quite outrightly firm with her, and Spitz swore in Spanish at her and stalked off when she got too difficult.
“Mind you, I can talk.” Shem said mildly, tucking her feet back underneath her. “I get plenty of calls from home myself.”
Em. Her frequent, furtive conversations. Tom got up again. It was too hard to sit still and wait like this. Shem watched him pace with more sympathy than Tom could take right now.
“Tom, try and sit down and get some rest. You did all the right things. You brought him straight down and you two have been getting well acclimatised.”
“So what’s left to do? Pray?”
Shem refilled his coffee mug and leaned over to push it into his hand. “Are you good at that?”
Tom snorted bitterly, drinking while he walked. “I’m the kid of a cleric, I know it well.”
“What, a vicar? Rector? Whichever one is right for the UK, I don’t remember?”
“Both are right.” Tom said shortly. “And no. He’s a Bishop.”
With the cathedral, the ‘palace’, the robes, the garden parties, the whole nine yards. There was a long silence, in which Tom went on pacing, bracing himself for the inevitable question. Shem didn’t ask it, leaning instead to check the oximetry monitor on Jake’s finger and then rest her own fingers over his wrist to find his pulse.
“That’s improving fast. I don’t think you’ll be needing to go further down tonight.”
Oh thank God.
The minor prayer slipped out in his head before he consciously recognised it. The programming still held true. Shem stretched her legs out before her with her battered climbing boots and crossed her ankles.
“You can ask.” Tom said eventually. Shem glanced at him over her mug. She was knocking back coffee with the fast pace of a true caffeine addict.
“I thought we didn’t ask questions much in this community. For good reason. A lot of us have skeletons in the cupboard.”
She was right.
“They don’t know about Jake.”
“Do they know about you?”
“Oh they worked that one out years ago. It doesn’t go down well. Mostly we have this system where I stay out of the country and they don’t have to worry.”
She grimaced but thankfully didn’t comment.
“Sorry to pull you away from your call.” Tom said more lightly after a moment. Shem shook her head.
“No problem. Em calls pretty much daily.”
Shem took another swallow of coffee. “No, Em’s my daughter. Emily. We’re about four hours ahead of South Africa here, she likes to call around her bedtime. She’s five. A bit overexcited I’m on the end of a satellite phone every day; she’s used to me being out of touch for more or less the whole season. She lives in South Africa with her Daddy. Who isn’t really on speaking terms with me, there’s only so many rows you can have after every spring packing up and coming out to Nepal. I couldn’t afford to climb myself. As a doctor, I get my living expenses paid to be here if I sign on with an expedition.”
“You’ve summited here?” Tom asked, surprised.
“I got as far as camp 3 on a rescue mission last year.” Shem gave him a faintly guilty glance. “This is my sixth season in seven years. Jake said once the main climbs are done on this expedition, I’m welcome to take kit and Sherpa support from any of them who are willing to come with me and he’ll cover my costs to make a summit attempt myself. That’s the biggest carrot I’ve ever seen.”
“You must miss her.” Tom said lamely. It was the kind of thing Jake would say, who was good at kind things.
“… Not enough.” Shem shrugged a little, looking into her coffee. “Ned loves the whole bath time and story thing and his job and taking her to nursery and picking her up at the end of the day… that’s enough for him, he lives for it. He’s a lovely man, he’s a very good dad and she’s better off with him and his mom. I… have to be here. It’s a junkie buzz. The place, the climbing, the people, the medical stuff is hot - this is who I am. Not ‘Emily’s mommy’.”
Tom absorbed that in silence. In fact of the two of them, Jake had it a good deal harder as far as childhoods went. He’d had an employed household staff, boarding school staff and Philip, and that had been pretty much it, but Jake had the knack of liking people and being liked in return. He made friends easily and he’d found plenty of people to be attached to in that group of all ages, many of whom he was still in contact with. Their relationship with Beau went back to the fact that she’d been at school with Jake for a couple of years and apparently run the school climbing club with him for a year or two and done as much climbing as he had in the canyons and mountains around the state. Except Jake climbed for the sheer hell of climbing, the love of the challenge and the landscape and the sky and the day. Beau climbed with her mind wholly on who used this mountain when, at what time and why.
It was too hard to sit. Tom found himself on his feet once more, pacing the far end of the tent and watching Jake’s face beneath the oxygen mask, the steady rise and fall of his chest.
Copyright Rolf and Ranger