Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle and any other characters featured in the actual TV series are copyrighted to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures while the rest of the story and other characters are my own.
Summer in the northern hemisphere. It meant a moderation in temperature from cold to warm for the more northerly landmasses, while other areas traded winter snows for a searing, dry heat or perhaps the torture of a hot, humid subtropical cauldron. For Mount Everest, whose heights in winter were subjected to a staggering, inhuman cold that bottomed out the most resilient thermometers that science had to offer, the irony was that the summer season was when the bulk of the regions annual snowfall accumulated.
It could fool you at first, starting out as deceptive dusting of white talc. And then, before you had a chance to make it back to your tent or on to the next camp, a summer blow would set upon the mountain in all its fury, robbing you of your vision, turning you around, its wind-driven ice-pellets lashing at you like a cat o nine tails.
Climbers had learned early on, the hard way, that if they were to have any chance at all of summiting Everest, they would have to squeeze their expeditions in between the frigid cold of the winter, and those summer snowstorms. Not that a late spring snow during an expedition was an entirely unwelcomed thing. It was preferred in small doses; it could cover the rocky scree up high, and provide firmer footing. Too much snow, however, could founder individual climbers, and derail entire expeditions. At 26,000 feet in waist-deep snow, breaking trail, fixing rope, and moving up supplies soon exhausted even the fittest of mountaineers, and forced them to turn back.
If they still could.
The weather patterns of the Himalaya region have long fascinated meteorologists, who find them to be as intense and unforgiving as they are unpredictable. In the summer, the Himalaya range is the mountainous battleground between the dry Tibetan climate to the north and the moisture-laden Indian monsoons to the south. Spring is that fragile time of transition when the line of combat is constantly shifting in the snowy sands, giving mountaineers the narrow window they need to make it safely up and down the mountain.
Each day in springtime, the hot, humid air to the south pushes farther north, rising up the Khumbu Valley in dark, blooming thunderheads. When the clouds finally punch through the layer of more stable, drier air above them, they do so with a violent force, and so the monsoons begin. In Nepal and India, it rains. But on Everest it snows. A blinding white, unmerciful assault. And woe to the climber then, who has not retreated from the higher elevations.
All things on Everest are ruled by the Jet Stream winds, and it is these winds that help to paint the line of climatic demarcation. The roaring Jet Stream, which many climbers have likened to the sound of a freight train barreling its way high across the mountain, in the spring blows to the south. With the approach of the monsoon season, the winds weaken and shift to the north, actually passing directly over the summit in the process. Once the Jet Stream is beyond the mountain, the winds die down almost entirely. This is the window the climbers wait for, and it usually occurs each year within the first week or two of May.
The problems that can occur during this window, however, lie mostly in the capricious nature of the Jet Stream. Unstable, fickle, it can suddenly storm back across the summit, slamming the window shut, wiping clean the face of the mountain with its bitter cold winds. Or, worse, it can combine with the moisture boiling up from the south to trigger the deep snowfalls that are catastrophic any altitude.
Weather services do their best to provide expeditions with state-of-the-art weather satellite forecasts. But even armed with this weapon, so much of a climbers success on Everest comes down to the luck of the draw, and pushing that luck to the limit. Sometimes, it gets pushed too far, as in the season of 1996, when twelve climbers lost their lives on the mountain; nine as the result of one horrific late afternoon storm. But even todays high-tech forecasts could not have helped George Mallorys expedition in 1922, two years before his final, ill-fated climb. Then, the experienced mountaineers mistake had been tarrying too long in the shadows of Everest, and with June and the monsoon season came the storms and the heated air that caused an avalanche, wiping out seven of his Sherpa porters in a single cruel blow.
It was the one thing Veronique Bouchard knew that could make or break an expedition. On Everest in particular, there were some years when the weather never cleared long enough for a successful siege of the mountain. Not that it ever stopped people from trying.
It had been snowing up high; Ricky could tell by the swirling mists of white that obscured the upper reaches of the mountain late each afternoon. Reports from the climbing Sherpas of snows heavier than usual at Camp III and on the Lhotse Face had confirmed her assessment. As a result, Jim Harris had decided to keep the Peak Performance team in Base Camp an additional day before shoving off on their last acclimatization climb. But the reports hadnt kept the International Expedition tethered to B.C., or the British team, either. They had already started up.
Ricky had been surprised at Jims willingness to postpone their departure until tomorrow, and she wondered now, as she made her way to the communications tent for a meeting with Jim and Paul, whether that decision hadnt been based on a desire to give Patsy Donaldson an additional days rest. Not that the mountaineer disagreed with Jims call, on either account. Heavy snow high on the mountain was not a good thing, particularly when there were still lines to be fixed, and God knew that Patsy could use the extra day.
And most of the clients hadnt seemed bothered by the delay, either. The prospect of one more idle day in the thick air, sleeping well, and eating even better, was met with a mixture of quiet acceptance and relief.
One client, in particular hadnt minded, and Ricky smiled to herself at that.
And, truth be known, she herself had felt the same way.
It was a glorious late morning in Base Camp; the winds were fairly restrained, and the moderate temperature, coupled with the radiant heat from the brilliant sunlight above, were enough to send most climbers scurrying for their T-shirts and sun block. Streamers of prayer flags dangling from tent frames and puja altars fluttered on the rippling breezes, each snap of a flag sending a prayer off to the Mother Goddess. Ricky let her eyes travel over the various camps parked at the base of the glacier; she could see that a number of climbers and Sherpas alike were taking advantage of the good weather. Dampened equipment was laid out to dry, batches of laundry were getting done, and many simply opted to enjoy the out-of-doors, soaking in the healing, restorative rays of the sun.
As for the climbers whod departed early this morning for the upper camps, there was no sign of them in the Icefall. By this time, they would already have cleared the frozen river and been well on their way up the Cwm, moving towards Camp II.
Amazingly, Ricky felt no restlessness in her gut at the thought of other teams getting the jump on her. Once, in fairly recent times last week, say it might have mattered. Get on the mountain, do what you came to do, and get out. That had been her credo. But now, the thought of eking out an extra day of the relative comfort of Base Camp, immersed in all things Allison Peabody, did not seem too terrible a way to pass the time.
Ricky felt her pulse quicken as her searching gaze found the younger woman. There she was, lazily reclining on a couple of sun-heated rocks near the cook-tent, chattering away with Lou Silvers. She wore a simple white T-shirt, dark blue fleece stretch pants, and had a blue and white sweater tied off around her waist. She leaned back on one elbow against the rock, her booted feet kicked out in front of her, with a black and red Peak Performance cap perched jauntily on her blonde head. The tall mountaineer couldnt see her eyes through her glacier glasses, but whatever Lou was telling her had made her laugh; Ricky could just hear it as she idly noted how her own legs had begun to inexplicably detour towards the sound.
Hell, she was early for her meeting, anyway.
Lou Silvers saw her coming and mustve said something to Allison, because suddenly the younger woman turned and waved, a beaming smile lighting her face. Easily, effortlessly, Ricky found herself grinning in return, and quickening her pace.
God, Ricky, you are in it deep. If only Jean-Pierre could see you now!
It had been some few days, that was for certain, since the night she and Allison had gone for the walk that had never happened.
It had hit her like a fifteen ton serac.
An explosion of senses, of thoughts, of feelings shed told herself she was dead to, or else not capable of. Whatever shed imagined it would be like, being with Allison, the true power of it had left her reeling, and helplessly yearning for more. The simple truth was, that getting so close to someone she actually cared about, in the most intimate of ways, had humbled her.
For Ricky Bouchard, she who had climbed the worlds highest mountains, who had dared the icy reaches of the Eigers Norwand, who for fun had executed an amazing one-day free ascent of El Capitans Nose - and was able to bivouac in time for dinner - the connection she felt when she was with Allison was the most singularly sensual thing, in the physical sense, that shed ever experienced.
And as for the person that Allison was inside, well, Ricky had to laugh. God knew, shed made many acquaintances over the years throughout her travels, but shed seldom permitted herself to make any friends. After all, it distracted you, and that was how you got hurt. Jean-Pierre Valmont had been the rare exception to that rule, and she was still paying the price for loving him with the silent curtain of grief that enveloped her heart.
It was different with Allison. It was a fever that burned within her, driving her onward, and she simply couldnt get close enough. She wanted to know it all: her hopes, her dreams. What her past had been like, and what brought her joy and sadness. Had she written in a journal all her life, and would she ever let Ricky read it? Would she ever consider climbing another peak together - Gasherbrum 2, perhaps? And, the most important question of all: did she like butter-pecan ice cream?
At the same time, Ricky had been startled to find herself talking to Allison about her own past, about what had happened back home with her family after Jean-Pierres death, and was startled at how easily the words came. Shed kept so much of it bottled up for so long, deeply stored in those compartments within herself that shed let gather dust, but that she still toted around with her like a 120 lb pack. For once no, for the second time in her life, she felt safe, in sharing her own thoughts and fears with another person.
The rational, logical part of her mind told her shed gone over the top, that shed only known Allison for little more than a month. But when she listened to her soul, in the quiet of her heart, she heard and recognized the truth: that the sum of her whole life had led her to this barren spot at the roof of the world, and to this woman. They were meant to be, had to be. The thought of it not being real, of it being a fleeting, mountainside dalliance, was simply too shattering to contemplate.
Shed seen it happen often enough on other expeditions; the international community of elite alpinists was a small one. They were people whod come together because of a love of life and a love of the mountains. People who were in peak physical condition, camped in a challenging environment far away from home and, well, nature took its course. Hell, just because shed rarely taken part in the festivities herself, didnt mean she was blind to it all. God knew shed had to endure enough lurid stories from Jean-Pierre. And when the climbs were over, more often than not so were the romances.
But that wouldnt happen with Allison, Ricky just knew it. Already, theyd been talking about what their options were after the expedition was over. It wouldnt be easy for either of them, but Ricky had never shirked from hard work. The best things in life, shed found, were always worth her best effort.
All this, at 17,600 feet. Ricky pulled up to where Allison and Lou reclined. Hell, at sea level, itll probably kill me!!
"Hiya, Ricky!" Allison sat up and folded her hands around her knees.
"Ricky!" Lou Silvers stood, dusting off the seat of his pants. "Whats up?"
"Im on my way to meet with Jim and Paul," she told him. "Gotta review the plan for tomorrow. After all," she snuck a sideways look at Allison, catching her eye, "we cant hang around B.C. forever."
"Ah, I dont know about that." The compact attorney threw his arms open wide. Like Ricky and Allison, he also wore a T-shirt. "This days been great. And I feel great, too." He took in a deep pull of a breath, so that his well-muscled chest puffed out like a bantam roosters. He released the air with a loud whoosh. There was no sign of the raspiness that had marked his breathing earlier in the week. "See?" He placed a hand on the left side of his chest. "Todays the first day in a week and a half that Im not worried about coughing up a lung."
Ricky flashed him a smile. "Well, you sound better." And he looked better too, Ricky privately noted, observing with some relief that hed lost some of the ghostly, bluish-gray pallor that was so common among those having trouble getting the Os they needed in the thin air.
"And doesnt he look well?" Allison chimed in, echoing Rickys thoughts.
"Thats because I got to talk to my girls." He struck a thumb towards the communications tent. "I was just telling Allie about it. That satellite phone is something," he said, shaking his head in amazement. "I could hear them clear as a bell. You ever try it?"
"Uh, no." Ricky averted her eyes from the kindly attorneys gaze, finding a darkened weather stain on a nearby tarp suddenly of interest. Me on the satellite phone. Right. And who exactly would she call, anyway? Her parents? Not likely. Ricky was not a phone person, or even a letter writer, for that matter. She believed that you saw people when you saw them, and hopefully youd be able to pick up where you left off. And if you didnt, or couldnt well, maybe you werent missing out on that much after all. No, better to leave such high-tech gadgetry to the clients.
"Anyway, I got a hold of them just in time. They were getting ready to leave for school." Lou dug into an unzipped pants pocket, and pulled out a thin wallet. "Have I shown you their picture?"
"No." Ricky nearly flinched as the attorney stepped closer and pulled a laminated photograph out of the billfold. Kids. Pictures. Family. It wasnt that she didnt care it was just aw, what the hell.
"I know Ive already bored Allison with it a time or two," he blushed. "Sorry."
"Nonsense," the young stockbroker replied. "Theyre beautiful. Youve got every reason to be proud of them, right, Ricky?"
Ricky gazed at the snapshot suddenly thrust into her hand. The setting appeared to be at a birthday party, as closely as Ricky could surmise. A petite brunette woman was kneeling on a thick carpet of green grass, her arms hugging twin girls that were miniature versions of their mother: long dark hair, button noses, and large round eyes that gazed out of porcelain doll faces. In the background was a picnic table laden with cake, sodas, and paper cups and plates. Other small children sat at the table, their attention more occupied by the cake, pretzels and chips on their plates, than with the picture-taking going on.
"Thats Lesley, my wife," Lou explained, "and our girls, Laura and Lisa."
The girls sunny smiles fairly flew off the surface of the picture, and straight into Rickys heart. Yeah, they were beautiful. Shielded from the harshness of reality by the constancy of their own innocence; guarded and protected by the love of two parents who obviously cared for them so very much.
"I took this at their last birthday party." Lou edged closer to Ricky, pointing. "Thats my Lisa, on the left. Shes missing her front tooth, she told me," he chuckled, "and now Laura said hers feels loose."
Ricky noticed how Lou never took his eyes off the picture as he spoke, as if by keeping his family in his field of vision, he could very nearly smell the sweet, earthy scent of freshly mown grass, hear the pealing of the childrens laughter, feel the soft warmness of his twin daughters in his arms.
"Something tells me Lauras tooth is going fall out soon, too," he continued, lost in his remembrances. "Especially since she doesnt want to miss out on a visit from the Tooth Fairy."
"They theyre gorgeous," Ricky said, and she meant it. She handed the picture back to Lou. "How old are they?"
"Seven." He slowly replaced the photo in his wallet, reluctant to let his family go. "We we had a hard time, Lesley and I, having children. And what we had to go through, well, we waited a long time for these two," he said, his voice growing thick with emotion, "but it was worth it. Theyre my pride and joy."
Allison reached out and gave the attorneys hand a warm squeeze. "I can see why," she whispered.
"I I just miss them, you know? The last time I was away on such an extended climb was before they were born."
"Youll be back to them soon," Allison reassured him. "And think of the stories youll have to tell! Daddy on Mount Everest."
"Yeah." Lou rubbed nervously at the back of his neck. "And Lesley swears shes never going to let me do anything like this again." He grinned sheepishly. "You know, I think thats one Im not going to fight her on." He paused. "Anyway," he squared his shoulders and lifted his nose towards the enticing scents drifting from the cook-tent, "let me see if I cant scrounge up a bit of what Lopsang has on the lunch menu. And then," he checked his watch, "nap time."
"No kidding," Allison agreed, stifling a yawn. "Better rest up while we can.
"Not a bad idea," Ricky said, turning her eyes towards a scattering of clouds beginning to converge in the valley to the south. "Looks like the afternoon squall is going to arrive right on schedule."
The climbers at Base Camp enjoyed the sunlight that warmed the valley in the late morning hours, providing a welcomed relief from the relentless cold of the upper camps. But that same heat created its own smaller version of monsoon-like weather, by warming up the rocks and causing convection winds, pulling the moisture up from lower elevations. Usually, only enough of the moisture would get by to cause small afternoon snow squalls. By sunset, both the snows and the winds would be gone, and the horizon would flame with a blaze of fiery reds, blues, and golds sparkling against a white canvas. At times, the squalls could be so localized that it might be snowing in one part of Base Camp, and clear in another. Once in a great while the mini-storms would intensify, and sock in climbers at Base Camp for days.
"More snow coming?" Lou wanted to know.
Ricky sniffed at the freshening breeze. "Yes. It will be snowing within the hour. But not enough to push back our departure again," she said matter-of-factly. "Im sure of it."
"Well be leaving same time as before?" Allison asked, facing the mountaineer.
"Youll hear more about it at the meeting tonight, but yes," Ricky told her. "Well head up before dawn."
"Dont remind me," Lou groaned, and he offered them a wave. "Im outta here. Catch ya later," and he moved off towards the dining tent, with a lightness in his step that Ricky had not seen since hed arrived at the base of Everest. And just in time, Ricky thought. The greatest physical challenges lay just ahead.
"Well," Ricky leaned on the rocks next to Allison. A small smile flickered on her lips. "Looking forward to tomorrow?"
"Yeah. Itll be good to get back up the mountain. And at least then," Allison lowered her voice, "Ill have an excuse to share a tent with you."
Ricky pursed her lips. Theyd both decided to keep their newborn relationship low profile in the camp. It was nobody elses business anyway, and theyd agreed that the possible in-camp repercussions might create the sort of static that they would rather do without, especially when there was so much else at stake. "You dont need an excuse, Miss Peabody," Ricky told her, remembering warmly their last several secretive nights together, "but I can assure you that at 24,000 feet, you wont feel like doing much more than falling into your sleeping bag and passing out. Oh, while you try not to freeze to death," she added.
"With you around," Allison flashed an impudent grin that quickened Rickys pulse, "not a chance."
"Allison, I " Ricky suddenly felt at a loss for words, her eyes drinking in the young blonde who had changed her life so dramatically, in such a short time. There were a thousand things she wanted to tell her, if only her heart could speak.
How good it felt to stand here like this, just talking.
How complete she felt now, after years of not even realizing how shed studiously, deliberately, shut herself off from feeling. From being.
How, for the first time in her life, she felt a part of something far more significant than the next big adventure, the next great mountain to climb. The sensation was similar to gazing over a rocky precipice, and knowing that there was nothing between her and a valley floor but 15,000 feet of open air. It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time, and she never wanted it to end.
"Hmnn?" Allisons face was tilted up to her in the late morning light. So beautiful. Waiting.
"I uh" So much to say. But not here. Not yet.
Ricky swallowed hard, pushing her emotions down before they swamped her. Get a grip! "Ive got to go. See you later, then?"
Allison discreetly brushed against Rickys forearm with the back of her hand. "You can count on it."
"So based on the latest load of supplies Dorje and his team took off with yesterday, well have nearly ¾ of the gas well need for our summit attempt stocked at Camp III, ready to go." Jim Harris stood tall in the communications tent, which had become the Peak Performance Adventure Companys site for impromptu, small meetings. Larger, more boisterous gatherings, like tonights team orientation for the following days climb, were held in the bigger, more comfortable environment of the dining tent.
"Including the rigs?" Paul Andersen scratched at the new beard on his face, as though he were still getting used to the alien growth. "I know Mike Donaldson will want to know."
"Bottles, regulators, masks the whole nine yards," Jim told him. He leaned forward with one foot placed on the seat of a low stool, and balanced a hand holding a steaming up of coffee on his bent knee. "They wont have to worry about carrying it up there."
"Exactly my point. Or rather, theirs." Pauls thin lips formed a pained smile.
"Yeah," Jim conceded, "I know hes fairly demanding. Youve been doing a good job working with them, Paul."
"He does have his moments." The head guide alpinist flashed a sidelong glance at Ricky Bouchard. The dark haired woman sat close to the tents flaps, tugging at her cap, shifting her position, looking as though she might bolt for the exit at any minute. "But hey," he chuckled, "clients are people, too!"
"Are we about finished, here?" Ricky at last spoke up. Shed sat quietly while Jim had given out the assignments; once again shed be shadowing Lou and Allison all the way to Camp III and back. And she hadnt said a word when Paul and Jim had gotten into a political debate over which teams would do the final roping and trail breaking from Camp IV to the summit; hell, shed do it herself if she had to. And shed listened for about the fifth time to Dr. Ortiz what symptoms to look out for high on the mountain lecture, and although the advice was well given, Ricky had to wonder why someone like a Patsy Donaldson was still climbing when many of the very symptoms Sandra Ortiz had enumerated were so plainly visible on the petite woman.
Planning was a good thing, Ricky didnt quibble with that, but over-planning, well, it was a fact that on any mountain it was best to expect the unexpected. Things could and did go wrong, and no amount of planning could completely guard against it. Instead, over the years shed found it better to learn how to adapt, to roll with the surprises, and not do the stupid things that got you into trouble in the first place. Like using those damn oxygen rigs. They were bad news, she just knew it, and she hated like hell the fact that her deal with Peak Performance required that she use one. But there was no backing out now.
"Got somewhere to go, Ricky?" Paul Andersen snickered. "You wouldnt be thinking about getting a head start on us, would you?"
"I dont need a head start," she drawled, unsmiling. She turned to Jim Harris. "What kind of oxygen are we using?"
"Well" he began, but Sandra Ortiz cut him off with a silencing look.
"Our supplier has given us a blend of Poisk and Zvesda," she said, eyeing Ricky carefully. "Why do you ask?"
"The Poisk are 3 liter canisters, right? And the Zvesda are 4 liters?"
"Heavier, and bulkier," Ricky noted, frowning. She didnt like the idea of using Zvesda at all, not that Poisk were much better. Both were Russian-made, and at high altitude in sub-zero temperatures, it was not unheard of for the regulators to freeze over and jam. "Youre talking about adding on another 2-3 pounds of weight, and at 28,000 feet, thats one hell of a difference."
"Were going to use the Zvesda strictly for sleeping," Jim quickly assured her, knowing it had been a battle to get the mountaineer to agree to use gas for this climb in the first place. "Itll be available at Camp III and Camp IV during the summit push." He drained the remainder of his coffee. "But from Camp IV onward, well only carry the lighter Poisk."
"And remember, Ricky, that even though the Poisk have less capacity," Dr. Ortiz added, "the Sherpas will be sure to have laid in a cache of extra bottles at the South Summit, so youll have no problem getting up and down with a continuous flow."
"Uh-uh." Ricky still didnt like the sound of it, but who was she to make a big stink about it. After all, she was just an employee, right? And plenty of climbers used Os, without any problem. Sure, it wasnt the pure, natural way for them to take on a mountain, but it got them where they wanted to go.
"You never know, Ricky." Jim Harris flexed his bent leg to the floor with a loud stomp, and grinned at her. "You might find out you like it."
"I doubt it," she grumbled.
"Thats it, folks," Jim said, ignoring the low crackling exchange on the radio behind him. It was a routine report coming in from one of the other teams moving up; the British expedition, from the sound of it. When climbers were on the mountain, there was radio chatter all day long on various frequencies, with team members checking in at designated intervals.
"Hold on, Ricky," Jim called after her as she bolted for the exit. "Id like a word."
Damn. The mountaineer pulled up, allowing Paul and Sandra to slip past her.
"Yes?" She turned to face the big team leader, and could not help but notice the tightness around his eyes, the pinched set of his mouth; telltale signs of tension. Jim Harris was a good climber and a fair man, or at least that was what shed understood over the years by virtue of his reputation. If she had thought otherwise, she never would have signed on with him. But there was a quantum difference between being a climber and being in the business of climbing.
So much had changed over the past few years; it was a very different sport from when she and Jean-Pierre had first started out. Back then, shed been content with a used, three-season tent that shed made do as four, and with a military surplus sleeping bag, opting instead to spend what little money shed had on the best pair of boots she could afford.
Now, everything was so commercialized, so impersonal.
She didnt know what it was like to run a business, to have those sorts of pressures weighing on you day and night - she had no desire to know. It had to change you, she guessed. It affected you in some deceptively subtle yet permanent way, in the way you related to the mountain, and how you perceived its relationship with you.
Instead of unparalleled freedom and a certainty about who and what you were, it was about balance sheets, designer gear, and corporate sponsors. It placed the mountain and the challenge of it all in the world of the abstract. It wasnt real, anymore. And that was how you lost your way. On the mountain, and in your life.
"Hows it going?" He asked, his dark brown eyes probing her.
"I mean hows it going with the clients?" He cleared his throat. "You know, this being your first time as a guide and all."
"Okay," Ricky said slowly, her posturing stiffening. Small talk was not Jims forte. At least, not with her. And she had some idea where this was going.
"Because I know that sometimes, it can be tough. Different levels of skill, different backgrounds, different personalities ."
"What are you trying to say, Jim?" Ricky demanded, feeling the blood rush to her face. It was clear the team leader was uncomfortable trying to express himself in this situation. Maybe she could put both of them out of their misery.
Harris released a frustrated burst of air. "Look, Ricky. I would never question your climbing skills. Youre one of the best in the world at what you do thats why I wanted you on this expedition. I know," he continued, stating his case, "that if something goes wrong, if I need you to, you can rocket up that damn hill like a bullet."
"But." Ricky said tersely, getting angrier by the second.
"But cant you try to chill out? With some of the clients, I mean."
Ricky ground her teeth. "Chill out."
"Cmon, Ricky." Jim gazed helplessly at her. "You know what Im talking about. You can come on pretty strong sometimes. Its like," he groped for the right words, "like you dont give a shit whether people like you or not."
"I dont," Ricky told him, her voice rising. "Jesus Christ, Jim! You hired me to be a guide, not a God-damned party hostess!"
"And Im trying to run a business," he countered, matching her in tone. "I dont want my clients coming to me with complaints about an employee."
Of course. How silly of her to forget the fact that shed signed away a big chunk of her free will when shed swallowed her pride and inked the PPAC employment contract. Shed told herself then shed do her best to do what she was told to do, to try and make it work.
But this . God! It had to be that idiot Kevin MacBride and his pal, or maybe Mike Donaldson. She hadnt been oblivious to the shadowed glares Mike had been casting her way lately, and yet she was hard-pressed to figure out a single thing shed done or said to him. Maybe that in and of itself, she reflected, is the problem. Guys with egos as big as his dont like to be ignored.
"Just try to loosen up, Ricky," she heard Jim say, his voice softer now, pleading, trying a different tack.
"Im as loose as Im going to get." Ricky sighed tiredly, feeling as though shed lost a battle shed never really been given a chance to fight. "But," she forced a smile, "Ill see what I can do."
It was late. Late enough that the rest of Base Camp had gone to sleep. The climbers who had stayed below that day due to the poor weather up high, had long since made their way to their dome-shaped tents, looking forward to an early start the next morning. That number included not only the Peak Performance team, but also the Spanish Millennium Expedition, a Japanese team, and several other mixed groups.
It is never really quiet at the base of the Khumbu, no matter how late the hour. The glacier continues its onward march, groaning and creaking in the dark. Closer, there might be the crunching footsteps of a lone Sherpa making his way across the scree, or a climber, rousted in the night by the call of nature. There is always the flutter and snapping of the Buddhist prayer flags in the breeze, and the sounds of the stronger winds sweeping down from the upper mountain, their deep, throaty moans ebbing and flowing, so that at times, mixed in with a low hum, there is a nearly mystical, lyrical chorus of distant chimes. All of this, under the ever-watchful eye of the Mother Goddess; deceptively benevolent in calm, cold and unforgiving in a sudden storm.
Allison Peabody was as warm as anyone could hope to be, lying in a tent at the foot of Mount Everest. Due in no uncertain terms, to the fact that her primary heat source in this particular tent, situated at the periphery of the Peak Performance compound, was an extraordinary mountaineer from Quebec. There was a dim light in the interior, thanks to the mini-stove burning, that Ricky had fired up earlier to heat water for tea. Shadows flickered off the canvas, bobbing and weaving as the winds blew outside. Inside, Allison burrowed deeper into the oversized black sleeping bag that covered her and Ricky, seeking out a more natural source of warmth fueled by a need they both shared.
As constant as the mountain itself was, Allison considered, the landscape around it was always changing. The features of the Khumbu were never the same from day-to-day, season-to-season, year-to-year. And each time a bitter wind lighted upon Everest, it was sure to make its mark: sweeping clean the icy slopes, the loose snow, the rocky scree. Always carving a new face, shifting, evolving.
Look no further than yourself, Allison. How different she was, since that day when shed caught her first distant glimpse of Everest as shed flown into Kathmandu, and next been greeted at the airport by the most striking woman she had ever seen. Back then, shed had a fast-track career, a fiancé, and one hell of an attitude. And all that shed cared about was the prospect of scratching another notch into her extreme vacationing bedpost, and moving on.
But now none of those things mattered. Nothing did, save for the intoxicating woman by her side whose long limbs were tangled up with her own; skin against skin, the heat of two spent bodies radiating against the coolness of the air. Allisons heart had finally begun to resume its normal beat, difficult enough after such exertion at high altitude, and shed been amazed at how swiftly the drumming in Rickys chest had slowed, how rapidly her short, choppy breaths had lengthened and extended, into a deep, even drawing in and out. Another sign of how well the mountaineer adapted to high altitude. God, had she fallen asleep?
Movement, and then Allison felt a pair of lips press softly against her temple. "Im going to miss this."
The buzz of Rickys voice against her skin sent a fresh bolt of desire ripping through her. "What-- are you planning on going somewhere?" She let her hand travel teasingly over the muscled flatness of the mountaineers belly, and lifted her head so that she could see her face in the flickering light. Ricky had offered to meet Allison in her tent, but the younger woman had declined, preferring instead over these past nights to rendezvous in the privacy of Rickys more secluded location. Still, it was hard each morning in the pre-dawn, tearing herself away from the warmth of the mountaineers strong embrace to wobble half-awake back to her own tent. Well, after tomorrow morning, it wouldnt matter. Moving up the mountain as climbing partners, theyd be back to being tent mates. And that was just fine with Allison Peabody.
"Non, mademoiselle, I wouldnt think of it." Ricky edged herself up into more of a sitting position, her blue eyes twinkling. "But weve got a mountain to climb tomorrow, or have you forgotten?"
"Nooooo." Allison scooted closer to Ricky, and found herself gathered up into her arms. She rested her head on the mountaineers shoulder, once again overtaken by the emotion of her good fortune. God, to feel this wonderful, to have found such a special person in such a crazy, mixed-up world; if this were all a dream, she hoped never to awaken from it. "But well still be together, right?" She reached out and let her fingers play with the thin, braided protection cord the Rimpoche at the monastery in Tibet had given Ricky. It was knotted securely at the taller womans neck. She never took it off, Allison had noticed, and why should she? It had obviously served her well.
"Well be together, all right." A low, rumbling laugh sounded in Rickys chest. "Stuck together like two frozen Popsicles, I think."
"Not the way your motor runs." Allison gazed up at the mountaineer, smiling cheekily.
Ricky lifted an eyebrow. "I think you overestimate my high altitude skills."
"Ill be the judge of that."
In the dim light from the cook stove, Allison could see a flash of the mountaineers teeth. "So you will," Ricky said softly, dipping her head to capture Allisons lips with her own.
Oh, God! It took Allisons breath away. She found herself shifting her position slightly so she could deepen the kiss, probing with her tongue, reaching out, tasting, touching. The goose-down bedding fell away from her back, and a shiver skipped through her as the coolness of the air hit her skin.
Ricky gasped and pulled away, breaking the kiss at last. Allison felt one arm snake around her middle and pull her closer, if that were possible, while another adjusted the sleeping bag.
"That depends," Allison groaned, blowing fine strands of blonde hair from her forehead.
"We have got to get some sleep," Ricky chuckled, reaching out to turn off the stove. "Youll regret it, otherwise."
"No regrets, ever," Allison replied, her voice a fierce whisper. She rested her palm on the mountaineers chest. And then, hesitantly, "What about you?" Beneath her fingertips, she could feel the tempo of Rickys heartbeat increase.
Silence for a moment, and then, "No."
Inordinately relieved, Allison let herself sink into mountaineers warmth. They continued to lie there, quietly, listening to the wind, the murmuring of the glacier, the beating of each others hearts. Allison tried to fall asleep, willed herself to feel tired, but sleep would not come. There were simply too many thoughts careening around her mind, poking her, prodding her, keeping her awake.
The mountaineer cleared the sleep from her throat. "Yes?"
"I mean, were getting down to it now, arent we." Allison paused for a moment, before deciding to plunge ahead. "Ive never felt as good as I do now, or as strong, and I wonder."
"What what if Im not good enough?" She quietly released the words into the darkness, as though they were more of a plea than a question. "What if I dont have what it takes?" she rushed onwards. "Do - do you ever feel that way, Ricky?"
Allison could feel her partner take in several deep breaths; the seconds ticked by and for a time, she wondered whether the mountaineer would respond or not. Maybe shed stepped over the line; pushed her too far.
Another deep breath. "About the mountain?" Ricky finally said, "No. The Mother Goddess doesnt care how good I am, or not," she continued, weighing her words carefully. "She doesnt need to know how many 8,000 meter peaks Ive climbed, or whether I can somehow find the strength within myself to keep going in an 80 knot wind thats ripping off the summit, trying to blow me halfway back to Kathmandu. She welcomes me, regardless of who I am or not. The rest is up to me."
The mountaineer fell silent for a moment, and Allison waited for her to go on. It was as though Ricky were talking to herself, rather than aloud, and allowing the young blonde a rare glimpse of her inner soul in the process.
"Thats at the heart of it, I guess," Ricky told her. "Its not about you against the mountain. Its you against yourself." She swallowed in the darkness. "Jean-Pierre realized that, even before I did."
Allison reached out a hand to Rickys cheek, and felt the muscles of her face form a small smile.
"Ill be forever grateful to him for that. He helped me get the hell out of my own bad-ass way." She sighed. "So thats what its about, Allison. What is simply is. No triumphs. No regrets. Just the doing of it; of being totally, completely alive in the moment." She turned towards Allison. "Am I making any sense?"
Allison blinked away the pools of moisture forming at the corners of her eyes. "Yeah. Its how I feel when Im with you, Ricky," she said hoarsely. "Ive never felt so free, so alive. So safe."
She could hear Rickys breathing catch, and suddenly the mountaineer was hovering above her, her face barely discernible in the darkened interior of the tent. But she could see the wonder, the amazement flit across her features, and then Ricky was on her, speaking in the language of the physical world, the language she spoke best. Where deeds served as words, punctuated by a boundless passion and an unparalleled giving of self.
Allison allowed herself to be swept away by the rush, by the cascading emotions washing over her. Just when she thought it was impossible to climb any higher, Ricky took her to new heights that left her dizzy and gasping for breath. Shed never been here before in this rarified air. It was all so new to her, and so she simply held on as though her life depended on it.
Maybe it did.
She let herself be carried away by their union, felt all earthly bonds slip away, and she gave herself up to its power; for a fleeting moment she was disoriented in the clouds, and then she was home, enveloped by a warm, protective connection that knew no physical limit. And still she was giving, taking, reaching higher, ever higher; the flesh, striving to transcend to the spiritual. Lost, and found, her soul set aflame by the rapture of it all.
Step, breathe. Step, breathe, slide.
Step, Breathe. Step, breathe, slide.
Ricky Bouchard pushed forward, her crampons biting surely into the ice with each step she took. A journey of 29,035 feet begins with a single step, she wryly considered; truly how it was with Everest. Where progress is measured inches and feet at a time. Pressing on in an inhospitable environment where the cold blowing winds reach into your mouth to the back of your throat; raw, clawing, and dust your jacket, wind pants, and gaiters with a fine covering of snow.
Ricky smiled through chapped lips. Ah, this is mountaineering!
Sure, it was cold, but deep in her gut she was warm. A furnace burned there, heating her limbs, processing the oxygen-rich blood that helped to make her the kind of climber who excelled at altitude. And what a beautiful day it was, perfect for making their move. Dazzling sunlight splashed down, sparkling on the blue ice and snow like fistfuls of stars thrown down to earth.
Ricky slid her jumar up the fixed rope, and took another strong step. She looked ahead, following the snaking line up the steep slope of the Lhotse Face, and detected the tiny cluster of tents in the distance that was Camp III, at 24,000 feet. Still about another hour away, at her current pace. She could easily have made it in half the time, but was purposely going slowly in deference to her fellow climbers on the rope: Paul Andersen, Kevin MacBride and Phil Christy in front of her, along with Jangbu Nuru. Directly behind her was Allison, followed by Lou Silvers. Farther back, bright slashes of color against the smooth ice, were the Donaldsons, Jim Harris, and Pemba.
Two days ago they had moved up from Base Camp to Camp II, to complete their final acclimatization climb. Everyone had made it, including a panting and sluggish Patsy Donaldson and her husband, who was not faring much better. Even Lou Silvers cough had returned, and it was clear that the attorney was disappointed by that negative turn of events. A cough at Base Camp was one thing. A cough at 24,000 feet could break a rib or cause agonizing chest and throat pain.
But there had been no rest for the weary at Camp II. After just one days stay, theyd left for Camp III this morning, at 5AM sharp. They would sleep at the high camp for just one night, but it was a critical step in the overall acclimatization process. A climber who was unable to overnight at Camp III would not be allowed on the summit push. That was an ironclad rule on Everest.
The Camp III trek was a test of sorts on the climbers, and it took its toll. Ricky had seen how slowly everyone hand been moving this morning when theyd broken camp, gasping for breath in the meager air. Shed noticed the redness of Lous eyes before hed put on his goggles; telltale signs of broken blood vessels. They all were feeling it, the effects of the thin air: the coughing and headaches, the cracked skin and bleeding fingers.
You forced yourself to eat and drink, although you had no appetite, and then the food sat trapped in your stomach like a leaden rock, your body unable to supply enough blood and oxygen to properly digest it at altitude. And then there was the cold. It had been zero degrees Fahrenheit when theyd departed Camp II, and it would be even colder when they arrived at Camp III.
Yes, it was a hard climb, and yet it was nothing when compared to what still lay in store. The idea was to give your body and your mind a taste of what was to come. Because as difficult as this climb was, the summit push would be the challenge of their lives.
Ricky ran through a mini-inventory of how she felt: breathing well, hands and feet warm, eyesight fine, arms and legs pumping away with an economy of effort. God, it felt good to be working up high again! Shed missed that. More than shed realized.
Step, breathe. Step, breathe, slide.
She spared a glance backwards down the steep slope, her eyes seeking out Allison Peabodys powder-blue form. A warm glow of pride filled Ricky at how well her partner was doing. Allison hadnt complained a bit at Camp II, although it had been apparent to the mountaineer how tired shed been, thanks to the agitated, unsatisfying sleep that was so common to climbers at altitude. It had been all Ricky could do to hold her in the cold darkness of the tent, whispering quiet words to her, words shed never said aloud to anyone before, soothing Allisons restlessness. Now, she could see that the younger woman was moving up well, and had established a slow, steady pace that would get her to Camp III in a reasonable time.
The guides had taken the lead when theyd started out this morning, the idea being that they would direct the way through the ice and new fallen snow. The clients would then, literally, be following in their footsteps. Deceptively, the first part of the climb was over a gentle snowy incline, reminding Ricky of the slopes where shed first learned to ski, back home at Mont Tremblant.
But then theyd hit the Bergschrund, the wall-like divide that marked the Khumbus upper end. Shed climbed over it a week earlier, when shed helped Jangbu and the other Sherpas tote supplies up to Camp III. From the Bergschrund onwards, the slope rocketed upwards at a forty-degree angle, presenting a more difficult challenge than before, thanks to the recent snow.
A rope had dangled down the face of the icy wall, inviting her to the next Camp, then still over 2 hours away. After a quick glance behind her to Allison and Lou, shed returned her attention to the thin line. Shed simply reached out, grabbed it with a gloved hand, clipped her jumar to the line, and begun to climb.
Taking steep slope at altitude was hard work for the clients, and as Jim Harris had directed her and Paul, the idea was for the guides to stay in loose contact with them, without babying them. Advice Jim would do well to follow, Ricky thought, remembering how hed barely gotten the Donaldsons to Camp II. Now, even with her reduced pace, another backwards glance showed that Jim, Mike, and Patsy had drifted out of sight. Perhaps it was the angle of the slope that obscured them from view, but even so they had to be well back.
Allison was still all right, just below her, but Lou Silvers was clearly flagging, taking more and more time between deliberate steps. Ahead of her, were the bulky forms of Kevin MacBride and Phil Christy. Since theyd hit the Bergschrund, Ricky had been watching the two men playing leapfrog on the rope, jockeying for position. Apparently, they were sparring over who would get to Camp III first.
Ricky was disgusted. It was a ridiculous thing to do, especially at altitude. Breathing had to have been difficult for them, so that each attempt of one to pass the other was like watching an underwater fist fight, with motions exaggerated, slowed. The foolishness of their efforts was compounded by the fact that each time, the passer had to unclip from the rope and step out of the trail to pass, before safely clipping back onto the line. The new snow had consolidated and glued itself to the hard blue ice at some points, while in other areas it was still loose and unstable. Either way, a slip and fall would mean a long way down, untethered. Or worse, open a fracture line and
They were at it again. MacBride this time, she could tell, by his purple and white pile hat, trying to pass Phil Christy. Over-striding just outside the cut of the trail, intent on passing his friend. And he made it, too, oblivious to the chunks of ice his awkward footsteps had dislodged.
One chunk in particular, the largest, about the size of a moderate backpack, tumbling down the slope. Heading right for Ricky Bouchard.
Alone, Ricky would have had no problem in dodging it. But instantly, she grasped the fact that it was following the fall line, gaining speed, and would be heading directly towards an unsuspecting Allison Peabody below.
There was no question, really, in her mind, of what she had to do. No time to call out a warning, even if there had been a way for Allison to get clear. And then it was simply a case of her own mental determination overriding the visceral mountaineering survival instincts shed honed so well.
Plant your feet!
Ricky crouched down like a linebacker, turning her shoulder into the oncoming missile, hoping to deflect the blow as best she could, while still diverting it from its natural path.
Plummeting down the Lhotse Face with all the grace of a square wheel, the ice chunk slammed into her, exploding, blasting the breath from her lungs and sending her spinning. Ricky felt her feet give way but she was ready, still maintaining her spatial orientation despite her tumbling. She twisted her body so that she was face down, head uphill. She gouged the pick of her ice ax into the ice and snow, rolling towards its head, then pressed her chest and shoulder down on it, hard. In the same motion, she firmly pulled the end of the shaft up against her opposite hip. Then it was a matter of digging in her feet for all she was worth, and praying that she would able to self-arrest.
It was over before it had barely begun.
She was lying there, panting on the cold blue ice, while shattered, smaller pieces of the ice chunk skittered and chattered their way harmlessly down the slope.
Well, that was different.
Ricky allowed herself the luxury of staying were she was for a few precious seconds, sucking air and trying to figure out just where the hell shed landed. Amazingly, it was only a few meters off the trail. Shed somehow managed to self-arrest almost instantly. Hell, the ice anchors on the line shed been attached to hadnt even been tested.
With a heaving breath, she used her ax to push herself to her feet. Ahead of her, MacBride and Christy hadnt noticed a thing, the idiots. They were continuing on, with Kevin in the lead, this time. Despite the cold, Rickys blood began to boil. Until
Twisting around, Ricky saw that, the young blonde was standing stock still, her hand on her jumar, halfway through another move up. She was fine, although even from this distance Ricky could tell by Allisons posture, by the look on her face, that shed seen it all.
I am in big trouble, now.
Ricky gave what she hoped passed for a cheerful, Im fine wave, and made her way back to the trail and the fixed rope. She started up the slope once more, making sure that Allison had done the same. It took her a few moments but she did, carrying on in the same, steady pace that she had demonstrated before.
The last leg of the climb to Camp III passed in a blur for Ricky. She didnt give a damn about the snow that had gotten in her gaiters and down her neck, about the crack in her glacier glasses, or the dull, throbbing pain she felt in her left shoulder, a sensation that intensified each time she took a deep breath. No, all that she had on her mind, as the small collection of red Peak Performance tents grew closer, was getting her hands on Kevin MacBride and Phil Christy. Clients or not.
It was bad enough that they mightve killed themselves, but to risk the lives of others was totally unacceptable. If they wanted to act like rookies instead of the hard-core climbers they purported to be, then they could do it on somebody elses watch, not hers.
She pulled into camp hard on their heels, and unclipped from the line. She let her fury build with every step she took as she crunched past the tents whose fragile platforms had been carved into the ice thanks to hours of backbreaking Sherpa labor.
There was MacBride, sipping from a thermos of tea, laughing with Paul Andersen, while Christy was nearby, removing his harness.
"You owe me buddy"
Ricky barreled up behind the ex-footballer, grabbing him by the shoulder and spinning him around.
"Next time you try to kill yourself, leave innocent people out of it!"
The thermos fell, spilling its hot contents onto the ice and snow with a soft hiss.
"What the fuck are you talking about?"
"Ricky!" Paul yelped, alarmed. "Whats going on?"
"Ill tell you whats going on," she said, keeping her eyes locked on Kevin. "Its about these two jerks playing king of the hill all the way up the mountain." She shot a sideways glare at Paul. "Or did you pretend not to notice?"
"Well" he lowered his gaze to the ground.
"Everest isnt going anywhere," Ricky continued, getting in MacBrides face. "You stay clipped to the line unless youve got a damn good reason not to."
"Whats the big deal?" Phil Christy said, his voice raised, nearly falling as he continued to fumble with his harness in the cold. "No harm done."
"No harm? No harm--" Ricky took a step towards Christy. "He couldve unzipped an entire fracture line and caused an avalanche with all this new snow. As it was, he just let loose with a few ice boulders. They couldve taken out any one of the climbers below."
"Well they didnt," Kevin petulantly stated, doing his best to edge away from the enraged mountaineer while keeping his ego intact.
"Only because I got in the way," the mountaineer said, her voice dropping to a dangerously low register.
"Gee, Ricky, I wouldve thought you were faster than that," Kevin told her, a sneer in his voice. "Better luck next time." He turned away, and motioned to one of the Sherpas that had set up the Camp. "Hey, bro, howz about some more tea?" His boots crunched in the granular ice as he made his way past Paul, with Phil Christy sullenly following him. "Goddamn hot head," Kevin muttered to the young guide, purposely loud enough for Ricky to hear. "You gotta do something about her, man!"
Thats it! Ricky followed after him, her gloved hand balled in a fist.
"Cmon, Ricky!" Paul got between the tall woman and the retreating climbers, looking nervously over his shoulder. "Let it go. Its not worth losing your job over, is it?"
Rickys radio suddenly crackled to life.
"Harris to Bouchard, Harris to Bouchard, come in please."
Losing her job. How had she forgotten that little, annoying fact? That was what all this was about, wasnt it? About making money, for her. About spending it, on the part of the clients, and getting what theyd paid for, right? This wasnt her mountain, not anymore. This was real estate for sale, going, going, gone to the highest bidder.
Paul had gotten it right. After all, he certainly knew his place. And how kind of him to remind her. She was just an employee. And what was it Jim Harris had said?
"I dont want my clients coming to me with complaints about an employee."
"Ricky?" Pauls voice intruded on her thoughts. "Thats Jim."
"Harris to Bouchard. Ricky?"
Jim Harris. Her boss. Ricky keyed in her mic. "Bouchard, here."
"Ricky, can you make your way back down here and give me and Pemba a hand bringing in Mike and Patsy?"
Ricky could hear the strain in his voice. God only knew the difficulty he and the Sherpa had been having in getting the Donaldsons up the steep slope of the Lhotse. She turned to look back down the mountain; there was Allison, still about 25 yards out, making her way in. Lou Silvers looked to be a good 10 minutes behind her, and there, much farther down the hill, were the struggling Donaldsons, along with Jim and Pemba.
Ricky took a step away from Paul, towards the edge of the camp. Here on the Lhotse Face they were so exposed, both the Peak Performance tents and the clusters of tents belonging to the other expeditions. The wind swept down from the summit, still a vertical mile above, whipping against the tents in a constant attack. Here, there was more sky above than earth below. The canyon from which theyd just emerged seemed so distant, as though it had somehow fallen away, been blown back by the winds when she hadnt been looking.
So Kevin MacBride and Phil Christy were arrogant fools of the highest order. So what? Perhaps this was not her fight, after all. Just keep your mouth shut, Bouchard. She had a job to do, and it was radioing her.
Ricky took in a deep, burning breath of air, shrugging off the nagging ache in her shoulder. She stole one last look at MacBride, filing away her anger. Another time, perhaps.
She tapped her mic. "Im on my way."
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