HIGH INTENSITY

By Bel-wah

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.

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PART FIVE

On the initial approach to what was, ultimately, the highest point on planet earth, there was a traffic jam.

Unbelievable. Allison breathed in deeply, slapping her gloved hands against her arms, stomping her boots, trying to stay warm. This is worse than mid-town Manhattan at rush hour.

Except that here, rush hour was at 5 AM and 17,700 feet.

Allison’s heart had been pounding in her chest from the moment she’d jolted awake in the pre-dawn darkness, alert and ready to go. This in spite of the fact that she’d barely slept over the few hours that had elapsed since she’d crawled into her sleeping bag. She’d slipped in and out of a doze, visions of the Icefall playing through her mind. Quickly, she’d donned her layered climbing clothes, gathered her equipment and hustled to the dining tent. Inside, where the spitting gas-fired heaters labored to ward off the mountain chill, she’d inhaled a breakfast of scrambled eggs and fried potatoes, and ‘brewed up’ on all the hot tea she could swallow.

It had been strange in the cold tent, as members of the Peak Performance expedition came and went. Glances were averted, voices hushed, with everyone absorbing the weighty implication that this was the day, at last. The beginning of the siege.

Everyone wanted to make to it the top. And they all knew that, inevitably, very few of the total number of climbers on the hill would. It was a long road to the top and much could go wrong. Along the way there would be individuals jockeying for position, partnerships formed, resources used – and exhausted. Or else a climber could get sick, and no one wanted to be the one left behind, or forced to turn back.

Survival of the fittest. Sure, the Peak Performance people were a team, but it was becoming apparent to Allison that that was in name only.

When she’d arrived at the dining tent, Jim Harris had already left for the Icefall with MacBride and Christy. "Jim wanted to get a head start; make sure that Camp I was in good shape," Paul Andersen had informed her. "You’ll be climbing with Ricky and Lou today, okay? I think I saw Ricky already heading up there. Now… let me go and find out what’s up with Mike and Patsy," the young guide had said, and then he was off.

With Ricky and Lou Silvers nowhere in sight, Allison had made her way across the rocky moraine towards the base of the Khumbu. She fell in with climbers and Sherpas from other expeditions, until she had arrived at her destination.

"Wow." Her breath formed a billowing cloud in the cold air.

There were crowds, all right. A number of teams had already started up the Icefall; brightly colored blobs against the blue-white ice. The sun was just beginning to creep above the peaks, but it lent no warmth to those cooling their heels in the six degrees Fahrenheit air. The atmosphere was charged with voices murmuring, the jingle of equipment, and the crunching of boots on the ice and stone. One after another, the climbers hooked onto the line to begin the traverse, anxious to be well under way before the heat of the day set in.

Allison got down on one knee and began to strap on her crampons, keeping one eye on the Icefall. Even at this early hour, the glacier spoke in a voice all its own; creaking, popping, sounding an ominous warning. The could hear it day and night, even back at Base Camp, knowing that the deep grumbling was merely an indication that they were perched on the edge of a vast, frozen river, one that was moving forward at a rate of about three feet per day. The signs were small enough in camp that you could ignore them: the awkward pitch to the bathing tent that had not existed the day before; a miniature lake that formed overnight in the middle of the cook-tent.

But here, at the foot of the Icefall, it was easy to see the violent force and primal strength of the mighty Khumbu. It was an ice-bound, roiling mass of frothy river, driving along before it gigantic blocks of ice the size of houses, landing them in delicate, nonsensical, gravity-defying patterns. It was these seracs that tended to give way under the weight of a midday sun bearing down. Sections broke away from their brethren, catalyzing the dangerous, unpredictable avalanches that stalked every climber who made the traverse.

It had been easy for Allison to keep her mind busy as she’d made her way over the rocky scree, pushing aside the apprehension she felt at this, the most dangerous part of the Everest climb, or so she’d been told. But now, cooling her heels and nervously clicking her climbing poles together, a sliver of apprehension wormed its way into her gut, twisting and jabbing at her, telling her to get the hell out while she still could.

Great, Allison. You’re gonna wash out before you even get started? You fraud.

"You won’t have any problem with this part of the climb."

Allison almost shot out of her boots at the sound of the deep burr behind her. That Ricky Bouchard certainly had a habit of appearing out of nowhere.

"Oh, hi," she said, trying to keep the chattering nervousness out of her voice, and hoping if a bit of it did creep into her tones, that the tall mountaineer would simply chalk it up to the cold.

"You did fine on the practice ladders," Ricky continued, planting one of her climbing poles into the ground as she spoke. "The rest of it is just clipping and unclipping, and moving your way up the ropes. You’re in good shape." Her eyes acknowledged the blonde’s compact, muscular form. "You can handle it. Just keep moving. Don’t let yourself get stuck. The idea is to spend as little time in the Icefall as possible."

"I agree with you there," Allison replied, hating herself for the shudder that crept into her voice.

"Let’s get going," Ricky said with a hint of a smile. "We’re up." She led the way to the base of the Icefall, where the first of the fixed lines were in place. Lou Silvers was already there, geared up and ready to go, along with one of the Peak Performance climbing Sherpas, Pemba.

"How are you feeling today, Lou?" Allison could not help but notice how sallow the attorney’s skin was, and how he’d lost weight in the week since they’d arrived at Base Camp. Still, his pale eyes sparkled.

"Ready to rock and roll, Allie!" He grinned, and lifted a climbing pole towards the Khumbu. "I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life."

"Then let’s not make you wait any longer," Ricky replied. She did a quick visual check of her companions’ equipment and harnesses, satisfied with what she saw. "I’ll take the lead. Follow me, step where I step. If you run into problems, stay calm and call for help. We’ll be keeping about 20 to 30 yards space between us on the lines. Pemba will be anchoring us." The mountaineer expertly clipped herself into the line, and gave it an experimental pull. "Any questions?"

Without waiting for any response, Ricky was off, making her way up the Icefall.

Acutely aware of the crowd of climbers building behind them, Allison realized that this was her moment of truth. She swallowed, hard, gazing up at the glittering blue massif of ice.

A soft laugh behind her. "Ladies first."

Allison felt a prodding nudge in her back, and shot Lou Silvers a withering glare. She was ready to do this. Right? Or what if…, aw, hell! Just what was her problem, anyway? How many people were as lucky as she was, to be here at this moment, with this kind of a chance? Let alone, to have one of the best mountaineers in the world showing her the way! And so she dug down deep within herself, tapping into the dogged tenacity that had made her one of the best brokers on the Street. Dammit, if she had survived the annual meeting of Johnson-Kitteridge-Johnson’s shareholders, she could more than handle this. With a firm hand and a steady heart, she clipped into the line and looked up towards the sleek, black and red figure moving easily, effortlessly, along the Icefall: Ricky Bouchard.

"Eat my ice cubes, Silvers," she said, and then she was climbing.

**********

Tibet or Nepal.

The North Face or the South Col.

For decades, mountaineers had debated the pros and cons of each route to the summit of Everest, arguing the logistics, assessing the technical merits of each. Certainly, the North route was the more difficult climb of the two. It required solid mountaineering skills to get past the First and Second Summit Steps, before you finally tackled the North Summit Ridge.

In the early 1920’s, British mountaineer George Mallory led a series of expeditions to the Mother Goddess, anxious to claim the pinnacle of the world for himself and the British Empire. One look at the steep, broken river of the Khumbu convinced him that if the summit were to be attained, it would be by the Northern route.

Even with the appallingly primitive climbing equipment of the day: woolen jackets and gloves, military provisions, and a nascent version of today’s oxygen apparatus, Mallory and his team made a serious run at it. And despite the tragedy and hardships they faced along the way: Sherpas killed in an avalanche, bitter cold conditions, frostbite and snow blindness, they were able to climb to elevations of over 28,000 feet. Little more than 1000 feet below their goal.

It as though appeared the summit was in reach after all, right up until that early June day in 1924, when George Mallory and his climbing partner, the young, inexperienced Sandy Irvine, disappeared into the mists below the Northern Ridge’s Second Step.

Everest was not ready to be conquered, not yet, and it would be many years before the Kanshung Face gave up its secrets as to what misfortune had befallen Mallory and Irvine, the Ghosts of Everest.

The North-South debate was idled in the middle of the century when the Chinese closed the borders of Tibet. Mountaineers, by logistical necessity, were forced to revisit the southern approach. With the aid of more modern climbing equipment, it seemed the mighty Khumbu was not insurmountable after all, if you took care and had a bit of luck in your pocket as well when making the traverse. It was relatively easy technical climbing once a climber was through the Icefall, although at altitude nothing was taken for granted. The Southern route was prone to deep, paralyzing snowfalls - monsoon storms blowing in from the Bay of Bengal - which could founder an expedition below the Camp III or 24,000 foot level. Ironically, those same deep snows could help secure footing up high over the rocky, loose limestone scree of the ‘Yellow Band.’

It was Edmund Hillary and his hardy Sherpa companion, Tenzing Norgay, who at last stood on the top of the world in 1953, courtesy of the Southern route. Since then, ascents from both the North and South had been completed, and there had even been the rare, tortuous attempt or two from the wild, deadly, Western side.

North, South, West – Ricky Bouchard didn’t give a damn, actually. A mountain was a mountain. Some were bigger than others, Everest, most of all. But that didn’t mean you ignored the good sense you’d been born with when making a push. You planned the best you could, and hoped like hell the weather and other more earthly foibles didn’t shred that plan to pieces. You signed on with a good team; partners you could count on… trust. And when you climbed, you climbed safe. Smart. You didn’t take any unnecessary risks.

Ricky’s blood was pumping, and her breathing, while slightly labored, was well within her comfort zone. She was finally climbing, and her soul sang with the sheer joy of it. Feeling her muscles work over the ice fall, calling on them to perform and taking satisfaction in their prompt, solid response, helped her to get rid of some of the tension, the stress that had been building up within her since the last time she’d been on a mountain.

Switzerland.

The Eiger.

Over 6,000 feet of pure, icy hell.

Mountaineering friends of hers – they had been Jean-Pierre’s friends, too - had invited her along on the trip. They planned to climb the dangerous, thrilling North Face of the foreboding massif – the Norwand. She hadn’t seen the friends in quite a while… hadn’t seen anyone, really.

"Join us, Veronique," they’d said. "What have you got to lose?"

Nothing.

And so she’d gone. It was like the old days; crampons, ice screws, boots and bodies all jammed into a little chalet - shack, more like it – in Scheidegg. The climb would take two days, maybe three, if the weather held.

But it hadn’t.

The foehn winds had blown down from the summit, brutally strong blows that threatened to rip your eyeballs from their sockets and tear the clothes from your back. The impassive face of the Eiger would melt and refreeze, avalanching, and its shitty black ice and brittle limestone rock offered footing that was tenuous at best; nonexistent at worse. Climbing on it had reminded Ricky of how, as a child back in Val-David, she’d always been willing during the spring thaw to take Jean-Pierre up on a dare, and to cross over the frozen pond that was behind their homes.

Knowing that the ice could give way at any moment under her feet. Feeling it undulate, and hearing it crackle; seeing the tell-tale spider-veins racing out from the pressure of her footsteps towards the oh-so far-away shore.

But she’d never miss-stepped, and she’d never turned back.

Some years before, she and Jean-Pierre had attempted the Eiger. They’d had their fun in Scheidegg, socializing with the other climbers, not really caring whether the weather would comply with their plans, as long as the beer flowed. They lasted until their time and money had run out, which was long before the foehnsturm stopped blowing.

This time, the bad weather was along for the ride once more, and one by one the climbers dropped out or turned back after half-hearted attempts. Not Ricky Bouchard. She was determined that this time, the Eiger would be hers.

And so in the pre-dawn darkness after another howling night, she and a remaining group of three climbers had set out. The weather forecasts from Geneva predicted conditions only slightly less horrendous than those they’d been experiencing, but Ricky figured that the colder temperatures forecasted would at least help to firm up the rotting icy face of the Norwand.

Things had gone well, at first. They’d each taken turns leading the pitches up the near-vertical slope. But as a gray dawn appeared, they’d begun to be peppered with falling rock and black ice from above, and Giselle had turned back.

Before they’d reached the first night’s bivouac site, Marcus had had enough, as well. "You’ve got to be insane to keep trying in these conditions," he’d said over the swirling foehn, his lips blue from the cold.

On a ledge barely wider than the width of their bodies, Ricky and Gerard had spent a sleepless night, being buffeted and clawed at by the brutal winds. Ricky had remained awake, watching, waiting, anxious to be under way again. This mountain would not beat her, not this time. She would make her way across the pond… there was no turning back.

The next morning, a bleary-eyed, clearly rattled Gerard, begged her to go down. "It’s impossible, Ricky," he’d pleaded as the winds screamed around them. "You’re going to get blown off this bastard, straight back down into Scheidegg!"

Ricky Bouchard had considered the risk. Considered what she was capable of, and what her objectives were. She wanted to bag the Eiger, for both herself and Jean-Pierre. For most people, making the attempt under these conditions would be out of the question. Gerard was right. But then again, she was not most people. Growing up a solitary child in Val-David, with only the little boy next door to call a friend, she’d known it even then.

So she’d flashed a half-smile at Gerard. "Just make sure you have a beer waiting for me when I get there," she’d said. And, after adjusting her glacier glass and checking her harness one last time, she’d struck out for the summit.

Solo.

It was fitting somehow, she’d thought, that she should find herself alone in this place, with only the spirit of Jean-Pierre to keep her company.

"This is crazy," he would have said, but he would have cheerfully continued the climb along with her, knowing it would make for one more entertaining story later around the fireplace.

She remembered little about the remainder of the ascent, other than the fact that she’d been able to count on one hand the total number of secure anchors she’d been able to drive into the unforgiving Norwand. It was simply a matter of keeping moving, of not getting stuck. Of weighing each foot placement as best as you could, your toe kicking out a bit of a ledge in the ice, hoping it would be enough to get you up and over into the next pitch. Towards the end, when the gray skies parted and allowed a trickle of sunlight to shimmer through, for all intents and purposes, she’d been free-climbing. The anchors had turned out to be as worthless as thumbtacks in a peg-board.

But… she’d made it across the pond.

Later, when she’d strolled into the chalet as though she’d just returned from a walk in the park, the other climbers had looked at her as though she were a ghost. Well, with the phantom of Jean-Pierre beside her, maybe so.

That was then, when she’d been responsible for no-one but herself.

Now, as a guide with Peak Performance, she had others to worry about. Today, as they made their way up to Camp I, that meant Lou Silvers, Allison Peabody, and even the climbing Sherpa, Pemba.

Ricky stopped, and gazed back down the Icefall at the black form that was Lou Silvers. She had been a little concerned at how he would do, knowing the he’d been quite ill during the week. But the climb seemed to energize him, and he was moving along nicely.

Below the attorney, Pemba was clearly a pro, and was having no trouble negotiating the lines and ladders.

And as for Allison Peabody… Ricky was pleased as she regarded the powder-blue figure below her, working steadily over a crevasse. The mountaineer had been a bit concerned for the smaller woman, sensing her fear in the early dawn over the dangers of the Icefall. But once they’d gotten under way, Allison had kept up, and had not had to pull over for any prolonged rest along the way. It was just a 2000-foot difference between Base Camp and Camp I, but one easily felt by climbers still in the throes of acclimatization.

Ricky had only seen the girl waver once, when a Sherpa from another team had unclipped and pushed past her on a particularly dicey pitch. It was bound to happen, as Sherpas loaded with supplies for the higher camps rushed to be the first to claim the best locations. But still… it was dangerous, if not done prudently, and Ricky had given the Sherpa an earful when he’d passed her, head down, boring full speed ahead. Whether he’d understood her or not, she didn’t care. Speaking her mind had made her feel better. And there was no way she was going to let anything happen to anyone on her team. All part of the job, of course.

Ricky took in a deep breath of the cold, bracing air, and clamped her jumar into the next line.

Time to move up.

**********

"Hey, Allison! Welcome to Camp I!" The booming voice of Kevin MacBride echoed over the cluster of tents belonging to the Peak Performance Adventure Company, situated a safe distance from the gap-toothed edge of the Khumbu Icefall. The muscular climber approached her, bearing a mug of hot tea, his eyes obscured by a pair of dark blue glacier glasses.

Allison had looked for Ricky as soon as she’d surmounted the last vertical ladder section into the Western Cwm, but the mountaineer was already busy sorting and stowing equipment, as well as checking on the progress of the remaining climbers in their group. Ricky had barely given her a nod when she’d hauled herself over the final lip of the Khumbu.

"C’mon," Kevin tugged at her sleeve, and Allison allowed herself to be drawn towards the others. "Get something hot to drink. Jim, Phil and I already hiked up the Cwm a bit, checking it out. It’s freaking amazing," he crowed, the excitement plain in his voice.

Camp I would be the most temporary of all their camps. It would serve as an acclimatization device only, in the early days of the climb before they headed for the higher elevations on the mountain. Later, theoretically in better condition to handle the altitude, they would make the trek from Base Camp to Camp II at the end of the Western Cwm, non-stop. In rare instances, a climber on the descent might arrive at the head of the Icefall too late in the day to safely make it down, whether due to heat or darkness, and they would hole up in Camp I until the cold, more stable dawn.

In the tiny camp, which was no more than five or six colorful tents, Jim Harris was engaged in animated conversation with the sirdar, Jangbu, and several other climbing Sherpas. He broke off his conversation as Allison approached. "Welcome!" he greeted her, flashing an engaging smile. "We’ve got water, tea brewing, tomato soup, energy bars, chocolate bars—"

"Say no more," Allison held up a hand. "Chocolates for me, and keep ‘em coming," she grinned, "along with some tea."

Jim laughed, and ushered her to a seat on top of a pack. "How was the hike, darlin’?"

"Not too bad, after all," Allison told him, and she meant it. Once she’d gotten under way and found her rhythm, she’d focused only on the climb, on keeping moving, as Ricky had told her to. She’d been able to shut out the perilous warnings sounding from the Khumbu, the crackles, thumps and groans that protested her presence like a balky hotel ice machine. Some of the crevasse ladders had been wobblier than others, and her heart had been in her mouth when that Sherpa had clambered past her with nothing more than a grunt of a warning. But she hadn’t let him throw her off her stride, and she’d had to smile to herself when over the sounds of the Icefall and her own heavy breathing, she’d heard Ricky Bouchard bawling him out. All in all, the three and a half hour climb had flown by quickly, uneventfully – just how Allison preferred it to be.

"Did Kevin tell you how he puked his guts up halfway up the Icefall?" Phil Christy appeared, adjusting a baseball cap on his dark, sweaty hair. "It was… like… look out, below." He gave his friend a playful nudge in the stomach.

"Are you okay?" Allison asked, worried, remembering how Dr. Ortiz had said that nausea could be a sign of altitude sickness.

"Never better," MacBride gruffly assured her. "I think I just had too many bottles of chang last night. That last one was a bitch." He swatted Christy on the back of his head. "Remind me to thank you later for making me look good in front of the ladies."

"Any time, buddy," Phil chuckled, and headed off for more tea. "Any time."

One by one, additional climbers appeared over the edge of the Icefall. Lou Silvers and Pemba trekked into camp, and climbers from other expeditions, too, were making their way to their respective encampments.

"We can relax for about an hour people," Jim told them, looking every inch the mountain man in his climbing gear, "and then we’ll be heading back down. Don’t worry," he said over their collective moans, "it’s a quicker trip on the return, as usual. Give it an hour, and you’ll be warming your toes at BC."

"Where are Paul and the Donaldsons?" Allison swung her gaze around the camp. She hadn’t seen them arrive, and the hour was growing late.

"Paul radioed in that they were turning around," Jim explained. "They did pretty good, made it about two thirds of the way up, but they were moving slow. And with the time of day—"

"Best that they turned around," Lou Silvers finished for him. "Poor Patsy – I’m surprised she was even able to get her boots on, today, after what she’s been through."

"Yeah," Jim agreed. "She’s a tough lady. She sure gutted it out."

"No pun intended," Kevin MacBride snorted.

"Speaking of which," Jim Harris eyed Kevin carefully, "make sure you keep pushing the fluids, bro. Last thing you want is to get all dehydrated up here at altitude."

"Got it covered," the ex-footballer replied, hoisting his water bottle.

The climbers settled down. Some, like Lou Silvers, contented themselves with a mug of hot tea and a light doze in the warming, high-altitude rays. Others ate, drank, and relaxed, discussing the morning’s adventure and what the return trip might hold. Allison watched as Jim Harris passed a few words with Ricky, who was just finishing her work on the equipment. She saw the mountaineer nod, giving a final tug on the rope she was working with, and then Jim left her, heading inside a nearby red and yellow dome tent.

Ricky sat down at last, kicking her long legs out in front of her. She leaned back and stared up at the mountain, her face unreadable behind her dark-framed glasses.

The mountaineer was alone and… making up her mind, Allison got more tea for herself, a second mug for Ricky, and picked a path across the ice and rock.

"How ‘bout something hot?" She held out the tea.

For a moment, Allison thought she detected the beginnings of a frown making its way across Ricky’s features, and she hesitated while the expression slowly gave way to bemusement, and then an easy grin.

"You always seem to be serving me tea."

Allison smiled, remembering their cold night along the Namche trail, and another time, after they’d been training in Base Camp on the ladders. "Well, it’s a sure ice-breaker."

"Thanks." Lifting an eyebrow, Ricky reached out an ungloved hand to take the tea. "I think."

Unbidden, Allison sat down next to the mountaineer. By God, she’d just climbed the damned Khumbu Icefall, and she wanted to talk about it with someone! Well, not just with any someone.

"You’re welcome." She hesitated. "But I have noticed that if you’re not busy working, then you’re usually just… just staring up at that mountain." Allision threw a hand towards the summit of Everest. Its very tip-top was visible now, here in the low end of the valley of the Western Cwm. From Base Camp, while the plume was in plain sight, the actual summit itself was obscured. "Somebody’s gotta snap you out of it."

"I – I—" At first, Ricky gave half a thought towards denying the blonde’s playful accusation, but then thought the better of it. "I just like to stay focused on what I’m moving towards, that’s all," she said simply, and it was true. She was always thinking, analyzing, planning. Considering choices. Consequences.

Take Allison Peabody, for instance. It was plain to her that the girl had taken something of a shine to her. For example, she’d caught the stockbroker frequently eyeing her when she thought she wasn’t looking. And Allison had gone out of her way this past week to work with her in the training groups at Base Camp. Or else… she was paying her little visits like this.

At first, Ricky had been perplexed. They’d certainly gotten off on the wrong foot, and why would someone like Miss Allison Peabody, of the Boston Peabodys, want to spend time with her, anyway? Everyone on the expedition already liked her… particularly Lou, Kevin, and Phil. Hell, back home she must have all the friends she could possibly need and then some, living the kind of life she led.

Or… maybe not, based on some of the comments the girl had let slip. Still, Ricky herself wasn’t looking to make any friends, or form any attachments.

She was exclusively a solo climber now.

It would have been easy enough to scare Allison off, in a way that would not have angered Jim Harris.

Cold. Distant. Professional.

A schtick she had down pat. Heck, she’d done quite a good job of it during the first few days of the expedition, hadn’t she? But, strangely, she found she didn’t want to turn Allison away. Not yet, at least. There were consequences to that action, or lack of it. It was bound to come back and bite her in the ass like a poorly slammed piton, if she didn’t deal with it soon.

Well, she would.

Later.

"Talk about focus, well, I’m focused on moving up the Cwm," Allison said, her eyes regarding the vast quiet valley, floored with snow and ice, sweeping up before them. The ‘Valley of Silence,’ as climbers over the years had come to call it. The sun was already reflecting off the whiteness of the Cwm, famous for its intense heat, and it was growing warmer; Allison wasn’t cold at all now. Blips of varying sizes were moving up the valley; Sherpas, fixing lines and ferrying supplies to Camp II and beyond. In the distance, at the base of the Lhotse Face, were tiny splashes of color that marked the beginnings of Camp II.

A low, rumbling laugh sounded from Ricky Bouchard’s chest. "First things first. You’ve got to get back down the Icefall, you know."

"How could I forget," Allison said, pausing to munch on a mouthful of chocolate. "But you know… it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I mean… it was," she corrected herself, "but I did what you said. I just kept moving, watched your placements… it was kind of… beautiful down there, in a way. I know that sounds silly," she blushed, "but—"

"No." Ricky’s head dipped down, and her voice grew soft. "I know what you mean. Sometimes, when the sunlight hits it in a certain way, it just comes alive with color; the blues the greens, so vivid you think you’ve never seen colors so true. And the way it all plays out in front of you… like some giant threw down fistfuls of sparkling, sunlit crystals and jewels, laying down a blanket so warm and inviting, you could lose yourself in it." She paused, reflecting. "And all along the way are those crevasses so deep and dark that you wonder whether if you fell into one, would you just keep going and going… forever? And you think that that’s not a bad thing, really, because isn’t ‘forever’ what it’s all about?" The mountaineer fell silent, and now it was her turn to feel the flush in her cheeks. Allison’s comment had struck an unexpected chord in her, one that resonated deep within. She cleared her throat. "Or something like that, anyway."

"Uh… yeah." Allison found herself taken aback at the way Ricky had spoken, letting the door to her soul ease open just an inch or two. She cleared her throat. "What you said."

A smile relaxed Ricky’s face. "You did good this morning, you know. I was watching… everybody."

"Thanks." Allison basked in the mountaineer’s praise. "It was some climb, for sure."

"It’ll get easier each time you go through it," Ricky told her. "You’ll get familiar with it, like a favorite pair of boots. You’ll memorize its twists and turns, which ladders are shakier than others, which seracs look ready to go—"

"Please!" Allison held up a hand. "I don’t want to get too familiar with those seracs."

"But you will," Ricky quietly assured her. "You will." She took another swallow of her tea, and poked at a loose chip of ice with the toe of her boot. "How are you doing with the altitude?"

"Okay. As long as you know it’s gonna take a while to catch your breath, I’m all right with it. You just pace yourself accordingly," Allison said, proud of the way she and the altitude seemed to be getting along over the past few days. "I know Lou said he was feeling a little pooped. And as for Mike and Patsy…."

"Yeah," Ricky said, the muscles in her jaw tightening. "Jim just said that Paul radioed up that they made it back to Camp okay. But they were really feeling it."

"I hope they’ll be able to move up in a couple of days." Allison thought of their next sortie, one which would have them climbing through the Icefall, spending a couple of nights at Camp I, and then advancing up the Cwm to Camp II for an additional three night stay. "For that matter, I hope I am, too."

Ricky did not answer her right away. Instead, she turned her sun-burnished face back to the mountain, boring her eyes into it, as though she were searching for answers to the mysteries of the universe. And, at that moment, Allison considered that if anyone could find those answers up there and release them from Everest’s icy grip, it would be Ricky Bouchard.

"You’re in top condition, Allison. You’ve got good basic mountaineering skills, and you’ve got the desire." She paused. "Are you wearing your prayer scarf?"

Allison’s hands fluttered to her neck, feeling the slight bulge of the white scarf under her Polartec top. "Wouldn’t leave camp without it."

"Good." Ricky turned to her, the corner of her mouth quirking in a small smile. "Then you’ve done all you can. As for the rest," she gestured towards the Everest massif, "you’ll have to see her."

**********

Once again, Allison Peabody wryly thought, Ricky Bouchard was right.

The temptation was to rush yourself down through the Icefall, to get the hell out of it as quickly as you could. And while that strategy was sound to a certain extent, it was important not to let that haste lure you into making a mistake. You had to be careful, taking your time on the ladders and ropes, and Allison was discovering that already, on this, her first descent, many of the landmarks were familiar to her.

Just as Ricky told her they would be. Although, their appearances were different; their images more sharply defined by the brilliance of the mid-morning light.

There was the aluminum ladder over the crevasse just after the spot where that hurrying Sherpa had pushed past her. And there was that groaning, crackling tower of dark and light ice, over ten times her own insignificant height, shaking a fist at her as she clambered by. The great serac didn’t frighten her, not really. It was as though by virtue of her successful traverse of the glacier earlier in the day, she had a right to be there. Just passing through, she told herself. I won’t bother you, if you don’t bother me.

She was moving well, her air was good, and there was still a lot of gas in her legs. All-in-all, a pretty good morning. There were a number of climbers on the Icefall now, all making their way back to Base Camp and a much deserved rest. Allison was conscious of Lou Silvers and Pemba behind her, and she was grateful for that; felt more secure. But her real strength and confidence came from diligently following the black and red clad figure in front of her; up and down, over and under the threatening blocks of ice, like two fighter planes flying in formation among the clouds.

Wherever Ricky led, she would follow.

Something she never could have predicted a couple of weeks ago when she’d first arrived in Kathmandu. Then, she’d had a different agenda, and Ricky Bouchard was supposed to merely serve as a cog in the wheel of her plan. It was simply to be another death-defying adventure, bought and paid for. Another colorful ‘vacation’ story, one that she could scandalize her family and friends with, not to mention her colleagues at work… and Lionel.

Mr. and Mrs. Lionel Kitteridge, III.

God… just the idea of it now made her skin crawl. It was amazing to her how little she’d missed her would-be fiancÚ over the past few weeks, or even thought about him at all. Perhaps that wasn’t too surprising, considering the shambles she’d left their relationship in. Everything in her life was changing, she knew that now. Things that had been important: rebelling against her parents, taking no prisoners at the office, and doing the right thing… eventually, with Lionel, seemed be receding gently into the background of Everest, like snow melt disappearing into the stony ground.

It was as though she just didn’t give a damn any more, about those ‘proper’ things, anyway. What the hell was wrong with her? Was this what a nervous breakdown was like? Allison thought about that for a moment, as she worked her way horizontally across a crevasse. She took one step at a time on the ladder, just as Ricky had taught her, gingerly seeking out the sweet spots on the rungs, confidently balancing herself with the aid of her climbing poles.

She was breathing heavily by the time she made it across, but it was a good feeling. She felt energized. Alive. No, this was no breakdown. It was more like daring to take a step off the edge of a precipice into a new life. It was both electrifying and terrifying at the same time, but she was already on her way. There would be no going back.

And if she were honest with herself, she’d admit that a certain Veronique Bouchard was a big part of the fear and the thrills she’d been experiencing. Getting to know the woman better had been a tiring exercise in stubbornness and endless silences, but Allison was determined to see the ‘project’ through. She’d initially told herself that finding a way to break through the mountaineer’s icy demeanor was simply a way to stick close to her, of bettering her chances of getting to the top.

But now… God, her face heated with embarrassment as she thought of some of the ridiculous ruses she’d undertaken to draw the woman out, to engage her in conversation. Not caring that she risked rejection and humiliation at every turn, particularly if Ricky caught on to her. So, why was she doing it?

The old Allison Peabody, of the Boston Peabodys, would have found a thousand rational, logical reasons why her behavior made perfect sense. But the new Allison, she who was being reborn here on the unforgiving slopes of Everest, now understood things differently. And so she was able to push past all the bullshit in her heart that she’d so adroitly cultivated over the years, and admit to herself the naked, unexpected truth: she liked Ricky Bouchard.

A lot.

Was drawn to her in a way that she’d never been to any woman, or any man for that matter. It was all so… so confusing. There were still so many things she had to work through, to figure out. But here on Everest, where all you did was eat, climb, and sleep, she had plenty of time. And in the meantime, no matter what, she was determined that Ricky Bouchard be none the wiser.

God, she’d be mortified if she let herself slip! In more ways than one, Allison thought, as she saw the marker flag ahead signaling another crevasse.

Before she arrived at the ladder, she heard the crunching and jangling of another climber coming up close behind her. Turning uphill, she saw that it was a Sherpa, one she didn’t recognize. He could’ve belonged to any one of the thirty or so odd expeditions on the hill. He wasn’t carrying much of a load, and Allison guessed that he’d already been to the higher camps this day or the day before, stocking them.

Jim Harris had told them over the break at Camp I that their climbing sirdar, Jangbu, and a small group of Peak Performance Sherpas, would be off to finish stocking Camp II that afternoon. There were at least a dozen Sherpas working for PPAC, Allison knew, and around eight of them were climbing Sherpas. The best among them, like Jangbu and Pemba, would assist the clients on the final summit push. Others were mainly responsible for ferrying supplies up and down the mountain; burying their food, fuel, and equipment under tarps and rock, and marking the sites with small locator flags. Later, when the time came for the higher camps to go ‘live,’ the tents and supplies were already there, ready to be assembled, and the better camping locations were secured.

The life of a Sherpa was not an easy one, and Allison had been impressed with the solicitous, respectful way Ricky treated them. Some Sherpas, like Jangbu Nuru, were friends to her from previous expeditions. Others, whether she knew them or not, she worked with as equals, as the expert high-altitude alpinists most of them were. And so Allison had found herself attempting to do the same.

The Sherpa was coming on her fast. With his orange jacket, dark climbing pants, and floppy Sherpa hat, he was like bullet on the descent, rocketing by with a smile creasing his darkly tanned face.

"Hi." Allison stayed where she was to let him pass, and gave him a wave.

"Hello, lady!" he greeted her, and he unclipped his tether to get around her.

Well, he seemed nice enough. Maybe Ricky wouldn’t take this one’s head off.

She opened her mouth to respond, but it happened before Allison was even able to answer him.

She felt it at first, the vibration beneath her feet, and then she heard it, the explosive crack as tons of ice and snow loosed itself from the mountain. What the--? Allison turned disbelieving eyes towards a great white wave sweeping towards her, an impenetrable cloud of vapor and ice particles flying above it like the mists above an ocean breaker.

She might have screamed, she couldn’t tell, as a sickening shock of understanding jolted through her system; she was falling, and there was nothing she could do to stop it. The avalanche would bury her or, worse, take out the line she was on and carry her broken body all the way to the bottom of the Khumbu.

She felt the first wash of freezing spindrift hit her face, choking her. Instinctively, she held her breath, knowing that you could smother simply by inhaling the thick cloud as surely as though you’d been entombed beneath it. She skidded down the Icefall, deaf but for the thunderous roar of the avalanche, waiting for the brutal pummeling that was sure to follow.

Feebly, her arms and legs swam; she tried to arrest herself, to get her feet pointed downhill, wherever down was. An agonizing pain shot up her back, as the rope she was still attached to grew taut, fighting against the surging wave for possession of her body. She felt herself pivoting, and then she was slammed face-first into something hard and cold, expelling the breath from her lungs in one crushing impact, sending stars into her white-out field of vision.

And as suddenly as it had started, it was over.

She lay there, her chest gulping for air, oblivious to the glacial coldness beneath her body, listening to the sound of the avalanche bleeding away. Everything was so bright, so sparkly, and it was then that Allison realized she’d lost her sunglasses. And by the feel of it, her hat was gone, too. If that’s all you’ve lost, this is your lucky day, Allison-girl. Groaning, she pushed herself onto her elbows and reached for her ice ax, digging it into the mountain to secure her position.

"Allison! Allison!" A distant, frantic voice. "Are you okay?"

Fuzzily, her mind began to put together the jumbled pieces of the last 20 seconds. She wasn’t dead. The line had held, at least part of it anyway, and stopped her fall. And the voice belonged to Ricky Bouchard, who was calling her name.

"I’m okay!" she called out shakily. "At least I think so," she muttered softly, blinking her eyes clear of snow particles and raising her body up to have a look around. The landscape had changed, been washed clean by the cascading avalanche. She was at least 30 to 35 feet away from where she’d last stood, and indeed, the ice screws had held, or at least one of them had, stopping her from breaking totally free of the line and tumbling down the mountain along with the cresting wave. She could see Lou Silvers standing well back, and Pemba behind him; obviously they’d been well clear of the danger.

And Ricky?

She turned an aching head downhill, or rather across the hill, over the rocky, choppy blocks of the Icefall, for now she was almost parallel to the mountaineer’s position. Ricky was making her way towards her, a grim expression on her snow-blanched face. The ladder over the crevasse was gone, but Ricky chanced a snow bridge that had formed below it, and quickly made her way to Allison’s side.

"What happened?" Allison sputtered as the mountaineer drew near.

"Avalanche," Ricky replied, stating the obvious. "Right when it was about to hit you, it caught up on that rise there," she gestured towards a low, narrow wall of ice just above Allison’s original position. "It sort of hop-scotched over you… passed you by."

"Is everybody else okay?"

"I think so," Ricky told her. "It kinda ran out of steam down below, and petered out." Carefully, Ricky helped her to her feet. "Take it easy, now. You did get taken for a bit of a ride," she said, her voice hoarse from calling out, no doubt. "You sure you’re all right?"

"Yeah, just a little rattled, that’s all," Allison said, brushing the snow and ice off of her clothes. "But…" her green eyes flew open wide, "Ricky," she said, alarm bells going off as the memory came flooding back to her, "there was a Sherpa! He’d just passed me," she pointed, "heading towards the ladder. I don’t know whether he had time to clip back on yet or—"

Cursing, Ricky was already on her way to the lip of the crevasse. Allison followed her, moving cautiously over the newly churned terrain. Dropping to her knees, Ricky shucked off her pack and began shouting down into the crevasse.

No response.

By the time Allison caught up to the mountaineer, Ricky was already on the radio, calling Base Camp.

"Everyone in my group is okay, but we’ve got an unknown Sherpa part-way down a crevasse," she said tightly. "Looks like he’s fading in and out of consciousness. We’re going to need some help here getting him out."

"Roger, that." Dr. Sandra Ortiz’s voice crackled over the handset. "We’ve got Pemba heading your way now, Ricky. Jangbu’s started down, and I’ll alert the other expeditions as well. Hang in there until then, okay?"

"Right." Ricky violently toggled the radio, the frustration plain on her face.

Just as Allison dropped to her knees next to the mountaineer, an ominous, chattering sound came from within the crevasse, and Ricky’s head whipped around.

"What was that?" Allison wanted to know. Gazing down into the yawing opening, she couldn’t see the bottom. But she could see the injured Sherpa. He had luckily landed on an ice ledge jutting out about 20 feet below the top of the dark blue ice wall. Allison felt her stomach somersault as she detected a trailing spatter of blood marking the Sherpa’s descent down the side of the crevasse. He weakly moved an arm, as though trying to grab onto the wall, but that was the sum of his efforts to help himself. It was clear that he was in bad condition. Worse, the ledge that had given him a temporary reprieve from certain death, didn’t appear at all stable.

Quickly, Ricky sprang into action, driving a snow picket into the ice at the top of the crevasse. "It’s the ledge he’s on," she explained. "It’s giving way." She clipped a carabiner to the anchor and looped a length of rope through it. "It’s not going to hold until a rescue team gets here. And the way he’s fading in and out of it," she spared a quick glance over the side, "he’s liable to roll right the hell off."

Frowning, Ricky leaned over the edge of the crevasse. "Stay still!" she shouted to the injured man. "It’s gonna be okay. We’re gonna get you out of there!" She placed her pack on the edge of the hole and anchored it, so that the rope going over the side would not dig into the ice and snow under her weight.

"Hold it – where are you going?" Allison shoved herself to her feet, dismayed by the dawning realization of what the mountaineer was about to do.

Ricky did not look at her while she continued to work. "I’m going down and getting him out."

"That’s crazy. The ice here is crap." Allison pointed to the jagged, crumbling wall. "That anchor will never hold you. You’ve got to wait until help gets here!" Her eyes frantically raked the glacier. She could see Pemba moving slowly towards them, with Lou Silvers close on his boot heels. Other climbers were cautiously making their way to the crevasse from below, but they had to fix new ropes to replace the ones the avalanche had swept away.

"No time for that." Ricky’s mouth was set in a tense line. "If I don’t secure him, we’ll lose him." She took a step towards the edge of the crevasse. "When the others get here, have them rig a pulley and a sling. We can get him out that way."

Allison regarded the makeshift anchor gouged deeply into the dubious looking ice, and then lifted her green eyes to the mountaineer. There was no way that anchor would hold if it were forced to bear the full weight of the dark haired woman, let alone if she had a grip on the Sherpa. Ricky had to know that, didn’t she? What kind of a foolish chance was she taking?

"Ricky wait." Allison grabbed at a red sleeve. "You can’t do this thing. You can’t!" She tried to keep the panic from her voice. "That anchor won’t hold you for long, and you know it! At least, let me belay you, instead."

Allison couldn’t see Ricky’s eyes, hidden behind her dark glacier glasses, but she could readily imagine the fury in them at being physically restrained. It was plain enough in her voice.

"Let go of me." Ricky roughly pulled her arm free. "Step away from this edge, and let me do my job."

"No, God-dammit!" Allison threw all sense of self preservation to the wind. "Are you suicidal or something? How can you ask me to stand here and watch you peel off the side of this crevasse?"

Another crack sounded from the bowels of the fissure, and Ricky returned her attention to the mission at hand, resolutely ignoring Allison’s desperate pleas.

Think, woman! Think! The young blonde watched Ricky give the line one last, tentative tug. Use your head. Do what you know! You’re supposed to be the hottest thing Wall Street has to offer, right? She mused, considering her deal-making expertise. Surely, she could summon up some of those skills now!

"Fine," Allison said sharply. "If you won’t let me belay you, then I’m going down there with you." And with that, she drove her ice ax deep into the snow, and began to fish for a carabiner.

Ricky stopped dead in her tracks. "No," she said, anger darkening her face. "You can’t. The ground is still too unstable—"

"Screw, you, Ricky Bouchard." Now it was Allison’s turn to rage. "You either let me belay you," she fought to struggle out of her backpack, "or else I’m going down there with you. You can’t stop me, you know." She grabbed at a length of rope, passed it around her hips, and then through the carabiner on her seat harness. She threw the rope towards Ricky’s ice anchor, defiance snapping in her eyes. "So. What’ll it be?"

The mountaineer stood stock still, clearly unaccustomed to being challenged on the mountain. Especially by one so young and so small. "We don’t have time for this bullshit," she grumbled at last, and rapidly began to switch lines. "Make sure your brake hand never leaves the rope, and—"

"I know how to belay, Bouchard," Allison said, trying to hold back a hint of a smile at her small victory. They were far from home yet. Bracing herself, she nodded towards a crevasse. "Get going."

In blur of red and black, Ricky Bouchard swung herself over the side.

And then Allison was alone.

Okaaay… just what have you gotten yourself into here, Allison? It would be impossible to hear any of Ricky’s belay commands from the depth of the crevasse, so she’d just have to try and gauge by the mountaineer’s pace when she needed more slack or when to pull in. She could feel the taller woman’s weight on the rope, and began to wonder just who the crazy person was. Belaying Ricky certainly gave her a better chance, but if the guide’s weight fell upon the rope at the same time the shaky anchor gave way, then Allison’s sole remaining tether would be to the ice picket on the fixed rope that had saved her during the avalanche. And how could she possibly hope to hold onto Ricky, at the same time everything else gave way?

Even now, Allison could detect a wiggling movement in the anchor behind her. "C’mon… c’mon," she muttered beneath her breath, willing the rescuers to her side. Then Ricky’s need for slack stopped, and Allison guessed that she’d made it to the ice ledge. There, she would ditch the Sherpa’s pack, and find some way to secure him. That would mean either a temporary hitch to the rope, or reliance on a freshly driven ice screw. Both, would be equally unreliable at this point. Everything depended now on Pemba and the others getting there, and setting the rescue pulley and anchors.

But could she wait that long? She was pushing herself to her physical limit, in an operation that would have been hard enough 10,000 feet below. And suddenly, the exertions of the day, the tumble she’d taken during the avalanche, and the altitude, conspired together to wear her down.

Fuck!

A shuddering started in her legs, working its way up through her torso to her arms. Her laboring breaths had to be coming at least five times as fast as normal, but still she just couldn’t seem to get enough air into her beleaguered lungs. She had to hold on. She had to!

She heard voices behind her; Pemba, and the others, but she didn’t dare turn around. Her world tunneled down to her hands, the rope, and the lip of the crevasse. She knew the men were fixing additional anchors, looping ropes through a pair of pulleys, and then she could see Pemba, lying on his belly at the edge of the void, calling… something, to Ricky, and lowering the sling.

There was a sudden jolt on her belay line, and more shouts. In and instant, the weight on her line became unbearable. From behind her, she knew the blasted anchor had come free. Shit! From where she stood, she knew Pemba and the others would be oblivious to her plight. They were focused on the crevasse rescue.

So.

It was all up to her. She dug her crampons in hard, imagining all the while what it would feel like to skid to the edge of the crevasse, and then over it. To lose herself in its murky depths. And lose Ricky, too, just when she’d found her.

No! She set herself firmly against the fear nipping at the heels of her resolve. You can do this thing!" She flung her braking arm across the front of her body, keeping the rope from running through, and nearly cried out with relief when she felt the pressure ease. Quickly, she scrambled for a better foothold in the ice, and with a satisfied crunch felt her crampons dig in.

There was more movement on the rope. Ricky had to be on her way up now, and Allison began to guide her back to the rim, reeling her in like a prized fish on a line.

With the men steadily working the ropes of the pulley, the injured Sherpa’s head soon bobbed to the edge of the crevasse, blood flowing freely from an ugly cut above his left eye.

Thank God. Ricky would be next, once she’d made sure the Sherpa was safely clear.

Pemba grabbed at the injured man’s harness. He dragged him up and over the lip and then pulled him a safe distance away, speaking rapidly to the dazed man in his native tongue.

Allison returned her attention to the rim. Long seconds stretched out before her, taunting her. There was no movement of the suddenly slack rope, no sound from the crevasse, and still no sign of the mountaineer.

"Ricky!!" Allison cried out, not caring whether the fear in her voice betrayed her.

And then a black cap appeared at the rim of the chasm, quickly followed by a hand digging an ice ax into its jagged edge. "Right here," she grunted, as Pemba returned to give her a hand.

Ricky heaved herself up and over the side, landing on the side of the crevasse like a fish tumbling into a boat.

It was only then that Allison allowed the exhaustion to take over. Choking back a sob, she collapsed back onto the ice, panting and spent, her limbs trembling uncontrollably after her supreme effort.

Ricky was saying something to her now, but she couldn’t hear her, couldn’t move. She simply lay there on the cold, ancient glacier, her eyes tracking up to the cloud-like pennant flying high above, while the summit itself seemed lost in the clouds. Her head was aching now, a painful drumbeat pounding out a shattering rhythm in her skull.

What the hell had just happened here? Her head swam at the thought of what might have been. Knowing that she had no right to have survived it at all. Dammit, nothing seemed to make sense.

Nothing.

Death… it had been so close, she could still sense a whisper of the chill its brief caress had left upon her heart. Marking her and Ricky both. Staking its claim.

Yes, death had been near. And the summit of Everest had never seemed so very far away.

To be continued.

Comments welcomed at: Belwah82@aol.com

 


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