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.
"There is no wind here and things look hopeful."
George Leigh Mallory
Mount Everest Camp V, 6 June, 1924
"But now that I was finally here, actually standing on the summit of Mount Everest, I just couldnt summon the energy to care."
Summit of Everest, 10 May, 1996
"Its not making it to the top thats most important. Its living long enough to get down to tell about it."
Everest Base Camp, 10 April, 2000
She stopped there for a moment, perched as she was on the roof of the world, suspended above the clouds on the final ridge leading to the summit. There, on that last narrow track of snow-covered rock and ice, the earth seemed to fall away from the sky. Far below to her right was Tibet; to her left Nepal slumbered peacefully in a blanket of mist.
Got to keep moving.
She could see the summit from here. It was so damn close, it hurt. And these last few steps were the easiest of the climb, after all. No rappelling. No working with her ice ax. But God, it was so cold. And the wind! Squinting bloodshot eyes towards the summit, she thought she caught sight of a flash of color. The Buddhist prayer flags? Yes and though she had to have been too far away, she fancied she could hear them, snapping in the jet stream winds that raged over the icy fingertip of the mountain.
Step breathe. Step breathe. She chanted it silently like a mantra as she pushed herself forward, shoving back against a weight that pressed down upon her like the burden of Atlas, threatening to crush her here in this cold, desolate world.
Step. Breathe. And breathe again. It was getting harder now, harder than shed ever thought it could be, and she stood hunched over, gasping for air through her oxygen mask like a poor fish tossed onto the bottom of a rowboat.
It was a beautiful day, really, if one thought about it. The sharp, high altitude sunlight bounced its glare cheerily off the snowy ridge, here in this rarefied air higher than many jetliners flew. And the sky so striking that she wanted to remember it in her soul forever. It was shockingly, breathtakingly blue, like a robins egg on a spring day. So lovely it wouldve brought tears to her eyes, had she fluid left in her body to form them.
Step. Breathe. Cant stop now.
She put her head down against the wind, her ears deafened by the hum of the jet stream, blowing, threatening to carry her off the edge of the earth into oblivion.
She drew in another labored breath, pulling weakly on the useless oxygen, the dry air burning against the rawness of her throat. So tired. How many hours days had it been, since shed last had any sleep? She couldnt feel her hands, and her feet they were like someone elses that she was directing through the snow. A dangerous thought at this altitude, she knew, fully aware that this sort of lethargic complacency had cost many climbers their lives.
No one in front of her. No one behind her. She was all on her own. And that was how shed wanted it to be after all, right?
Many things could cause death on a high peak. A great gust of wind at an inopportune moment. An ice screw that loosened its hold on the mountain. Lack of skill or preparation. An error in judgment. Inattentiveness taking the mountain for granted.
But most of all, it was the cold.
It wore you out, the mind-numbing, bone chilling blasts. The kind of cold that made you just want to lie down and rest if only for a moment. That sort of trick-of-the-mind happened to you up in the high altitudes, where the thin air could quickly turn even the best of climbers hypoxic. Where the lack of oxygen basically starved your body, causing delusions, lassitude, even death. But that wouldnt happen to her, Veronique Bouchard. For she was one of the best.
So tired. Unbidden, she felt the knees that were no longer hers, buckle. And then she was down in the snow, curling up in a bulky, frostbitten ball. For just a minute, she would rest here, she told herself, as she struggled to force air into her tortured lungs. Hearing nothing now but the sound of her own rasping inhales and exhales, she gazed calmly up at the brilliant blue sky. Perhaps she would breathe more easily if she removed the cumbersome oxygen mask that kept the pure, pristine natural air from her lungs?
A weary tug, and the mask was free. She smiled and closed her eyes, feeling better already, tucked in here as she was in her snowy feather bed; so toasty warm, so peaceful.
She had plenty of time to make the summit, she considered, as she drifted off into a forever sleep.
All the time in the world.
Veronique Bouchard jolted awake, gasping, hands pawing at her face, one booted foot kicking the seat-back in front of her.
Merde! Eyes now opened wide and alert, she breathed in deeply of the stale airplane air, quickly gathering herself and sparing a quick glance around to interior of the plane to make sure no one had notice her embarrassing little display. Fortunately, her fellow passengers had better things to do than take notice of the tall, quiet woman sitting in the rear of the plane. Their eyes were glued to the windows, drinking in the majestic scenery passing below as the engines of the Thai Airlines ART 72 hummed towards Kathmandu.
She stretched, feeling the pull of the strong muscles in her arms and back, and fought to slow the still-rapid pounding of her heart. Snap out of it Ricky! she chided herself. It was only a dream! But one whose basic facts rang all too true in her spooked belly. She knew well enough how quickly a mountain could turn on you, how in the foggy world of a hypoxic cloud your brain forgot everything it ever knew about safe mountaineering, betraying your better judgment, until finally you betrayed yourself.
Sighing, she ran a hand through the long, dark hair that tumbled from her head, and in the empty seat next to her, reached for a folder labeled: Peak Performance Adventure Company.
For perhaps the thousandth time in the past three months, she wondered whether shed gone too far, and broken her own personal climbing code. What would Jean-Pierre, her former climbing partner, think of her now? Had she sold out? No not really. But $30,000 was a lot of money, more than shed ever had at one time before. And that was the fee she would receive from her boss and team leader, Jim Harris, for acting as a professional guide on Peak Performances latest expedition to Mount Everest.
Ricky flipped open the manila folder, revealing notes and color photocopies of passport photos of the Peak Performance team and guest clients who would comprise the climbing group. She and Jim Harris, along with another guide, Paul Andersen, would be responsible for getting a total of six clients, all with varying degrees of mountaineering experience, to the top of Everest. Past performance no guarantee of future results, of course. But she was confident. Hell, for herself this would be her third Everest ascent, providing these clients didnt hold her back.
Looking over the profiles of the team members told her what she already knew: Jim Harris and Paul Andersen were experienced high altitude climbers. If they hadnt been, she wouldnt have signed on with Peak Performance Adventure Company in the first place, no matter how much money they offered her. Jim Harris, a big bear of a man with movie-star cheekbones, had summitted Everest once before, two years earlier, his first success after a prior years attempt. And though fellow guide Paul Andersen hadnt yet reached the top of the worlds biggest mountain, the tall, fair-haired man from Minnesota knew his way around quite a few 8000 meter peaks.
As for the clients, that was another story. Skeptically, she began to review the notes.
Kevin MacBride and Phil Christy, were a couple of thirty-something rock-hound climbing buddies from Boulder, Colorado. Much of their experience had been accumulated in just the past three or four years or so, mostly in the US and Europe. While they were clearly new to the sport, theyd built up their resumes rapidly, and both had climbed the 7000 meter Aconcagua in Argentina, the year before. As long as their gung-ho testosterone levels remained in check, they would probably make out okay.
On the next page, two smiling faces grinned up at her. Mike and Patsy Donaldson, a husband and wife duo from Dallas, Texas. Both were 42, and though theyd been climbing for over 20 years, respectively, Mike had clearly undertaken the more challenging climbs, although nothing on the order of Everest. They both would bear watching.
Lou Silvers, an attorney from Los Angeles, looked to be in excellent shape for a 45 year old, and he had the climbing credentials match his compact, well-toned physical specs, including an ascent of the 8000 meter-plus Broad Peak, in Pakistan. But that had been over ten years ago. She would have to keep an eye on him to make sure he didnt overdo it, pushing himself beyond his limits. Whether you were young or old, Everest treated you all the same. But how you responded to it, depending on your age and expertise, was another matter entirely.
And then there was Allison Peabody. Some hoity-toity New York stockbroker by way of Boston, Massachusetts. By far, she had the least climbing experience of any in the group. Rickys eyes fixed on the wide-eyed young blonde staring out of the page at her. Great. She looks like some perky little thing out of The Mickey Mouse Club. At age 27, Allison Peabody looked to be in excellent physical shape, at least. That would help. As long as you were in top condition, with some high altitude experience and Peabody had at least climbed the 6000 meter Mount McKinley then Peak Performance would take you on.
As long as you paid your expedition fees, of course.
Because, after all, this sort of climbing was a business. When, down to her last $200, Ricky Bouchard had first met with the burly Jim Harris in Peak Performances Denver offices, hed made that point eminently clear to her. At a cost of over $100,000 for Peak Performances Nepal climbing permit alone, there was no room for fooling around; for free-climbing off on her own. If she took the job, shed have to live by the rule: the client is king.
Slipping the folder back into her travel bag, she marveled at the idea that the clients along on this expedition had paid $70,000 each not including airfare and personal equipment for the privilege of risking their lives on the worlds highest peak.
Mount Everest. Or Chomolungma, as the Tibetans called it: Mother Goddess of the Earth.
The aircraft rattled closer towards its destination, and Ricky noticed that the level of excitement towards the front of the cabin had increased. The people were craning their necks, searching for that first glimpse of Everest. No doubt, some of her clients were among the passengers in the half-filled 60-seater. In fact, she was certain shed spotted the Donaldson couple, and perhaps the two men sitting across from them were Kevin MacBride and Phil Christy. But she hadnt bothered to make herself known to them. She wasnt on the clock yet. And there would be time for that soon enough over the next two months, when shed have to formally tolerate their company. Then, she would be a professional and do her job. No more, no less.
"Hey! I think I can see Everest!"
That had to be Patsy Donaldsons squeal of delight. Immediately, the attention of the entire plane shifted to the port side of the cabin.
Ricky glanced out her window, spying the peak that was eliciting the oohs and ahs from the passengers. Great. These idiots couldnt even tell Everest from what was obviously Annapurna, sitting regally in the snowy distance. Everest was out there, sure enough, but on this particular afternoon it was obscured by swirling clouds and mist.
Ah, hell! The mountaineer swallowed hard, doing her best to ignore the sudden tightness in her chest. What am I doing here? After all she had been through, after all she had witnessed, hadnt she learned her lesson? No, she admitted, knowing after all that the lure of a mountain, the indescribable rush she experienced each time she challenged the forces of nature and herself and won, was an elixir she was addicted to. She could never give that up, never. It defined her. Made her what she was, and who she hoped to be.
So she would take the money Jim Harris offered her, and run. That was all there was to it. Do the job, get it over with, and then her fee would give her the freedom to do her own brand of climbing for at least the next six months maybe a year, if she parceled it out right.
And maybe she would eventually get around to writing that article for Intrepid Magazine that its chief editor, her friend Ty Halsey, had been begging her to do. It would pay a few more bills.
"Christ Ricky, youre one of the best high-altitude climbers Canada has ever produced. Hell one of the best in the world, as a matter of fact! No other woman has climbed more 8000 meter peaks than you. But dammit, youre also one of the worlds best kept secrets! How the hell do you expect to get the big corporate sponsorship and endorsement deals, without getting yourself a little publicity?"
Not for her. No way. She simply wanted to be left alone, was that too much to ask for?
Veronique Bouchard, world-class mountaineer-turned-babysitter, groaned and leaned back in her cramped seat. She closed her eyes, blotting out the Himalayan range from her sight, but the image stubbornly burned its way into her minds eye, insistently holding her captive in its gleaming white spotlight.
Kathmandu stood as the exotic gateway from the western world to Everest for over the past 70 years. A generation earlier, would-be climbers had had to slog every bit of the way to Everest from Kathmandu on foot, horse, or horrid-smelling yak train. Now, transportation to the base of Everest was slightly more civilized, though not by much. In two days time, an old Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter would transport the expedition to Lukla, a village at the foot of the Himalayas in the Khumbu region. From there, they would be begin a leisurely trek up the Namche trail, at their own daily pace, eventually arriving at the foot of the Khumbu Ice Fall.
But for the next two days, home would be Kathmandu. Jim Harris had booked the Peak Performance Adventure Company into the old Hotel Garuda, located in the heart of Kathmandus bustling Thamel tourist district. The Garuda had long been a traditional jumping off point for both the casual treker exploring the Himalayan region, and the serious mountaineer tackling Everest. Faded, tattered photos and newer, overexposed polaroids of climbers past and present adorned the aged walls, and many of the snapshots bore autographs.
A part of Veronique Bouchard was dismayed at the changes shed seen in Kathmandu in just the past ten years or so, all in the name of progress. Here, the tourist dollar, American dollars in particular, pumped the economy full of cheap knock-offs of anything Everest related. Miniatures of the mountain were everywhere, as well wood carvings, prayer flags, even the occasional medicinal cigarette to soothe ones jangled nerves. Still, Nepal was such a poor country, Ricky could hardly begrudge the one chance in the name of tourism that any of the locals had to make a better living for themselves.
Back at the airport, shed grudgingly introduced herself to the Donaldsons and to Kevin MacBride and Phil Christy, when it had become apparent that they were all trying to get to the same place. After a hair-raising cab ride through a chaotic warren of streets to the Garuda, she had withheld a grin when shed heard Patsy Donaldson expressing her dismay over the deplorable condition of the old hotel. A five star accommodation, it was not. But it would be the last hot shower Patsy would be likely to get for weeks, and the mountaineer bit her tongue to keep from telling her so.
Quickly, shed separated herself from the group, and retreated to the small but clean room shed been assigned. Dimly lit, it smelled of freshly laundered cotton sheets and old wood. The mountaineer tossed her travel bag onto the bed and strode over to the window, pushing open the pine shutters. She was immediately hit once again by the blast of heat rising up from the dirty streets; by the smells of a city she felt she barely knew anymore. She gazed out over the crazy quilt of souvenir shops, tea houses and bars, to the snow-capped range beyond.
She could feel the excitement hit her blood, and her pulse quickened as that old familiar sense of the chase kicked in. It would be different this time, guiding an expedition for profit with strangers, instead of climbing a mountain alone or with Jean-Pierre, for the sheer, unadulterated joy of it. Closing the window against the sights and sounds of the boisterous city, she resolved to make the best of it. To find someplace between those two extremes, where she could make a peace of sorts between herself and the mountain.
Glancing at her watch, she sighed. She was due to meet Jim Harris and Paul Andersen in half an hour. A quick shower and a change into a pair of khaki colored shorts and a T-shirt later, the tall woman took the stairs down three flights to the hotel bar. Stepping into the darkened room, it was easy to locate Jim Harris. Not only because of his large size the man was a good 63 and 220 pounds - but also because of his rumbling belly-laugh. The man clearly lived life to the fullest, enjoying every minute of it. Ricky had been impressed with him: an expert alpinist, who clearly possessed more business acumen than she had ever the desire to learn. His mission was simple: to open the high peaks of the world to climbers who might never have an opportunity to conquer them otherwise whether due to logistics or technical climbing skills and to make money doing it. So far, in this, his sixth mounted expedition to an 8000 meter peak and his third to Everest, hed been successful.
Hesitantly, Ricky made her way towards the table where Harris sat along with the sandy-haired Paul Andersen. Not quite as tall as Harris, or as big, Andersen had the classic lean, broad-shouldered physique of a traditional climber. The two men sat side-by side, nursing beers, while being loudly entertained by the Donaldsons.
"Well, you should have seen Patsy, trying to load all her climbing gear into that ricksha!" Donaldson laughed, slapping a meaty hand down on the coarse table. "Why, I thought the poor driver was going to keel over on the spot!"
"Oh, you know me, Mike!" Patsy blushed, giggling, and rested a heavily jeweled hand on her husbands arm. "I wanted to go native!"
"Wait until we get up the trail a little bit," Harris took a healthy slurp of his beer. "Therell be plenty of time for that!"
"So I hear," Patsy replied, and then she winked, whispering, "I brought the toilet paper."
The table erupted into laughter.
"Hey, Ricky, over here!" Harris called, catching the lanky mountaineers eye. He rose to his feet. "Have a seat. You know Paul. And I believe youve already met the Donaldsons?"
"Yes," she said, nodding. "Mr. Donaldson. Mrs. Donaldson." There was just the faintest trace of a French accent to her alto tones.
"Oh, pooh-pooh on that! Were Mike and Patsy, please! Thats what all our friends call us!" Patsy Donaldson smiled sweetly, her rounded, pale face framed by a mop of red curls.
"Sure Mike Patsy," Ricky smiled painfully, knowing that in the lower-tax-bracket circles in which she traveled, the Donaldsons would be the last type of people that she might ever encounter, much less call friends.
"Well, if you folks dont mind," Jim Harris cleared his throat, "Ricky, Paul and I have a little business to take care of. Well catch up to you later, all right?"
"Terrific," Mike Donaldson grinned, wrapping an arm around the wife who stood at least two heads shorter than he. "Lets go look at more of those pictures, shall we, dear?"
"And maybe some shopping, too?"
Mike ushered Patsy towards the exit. "Whatever your little heart desires, cupcake!"
"Nice people," Jim commented, looking after them as Ricky took her seat. Prudently, she decided to withhold her opinion on that matter for the time being.
"So, Mademoiselle," Jim motioned for a fresh beer for Ricky, "how was your trip?"
"Fine," she smiled faintly. "All my gears been stowed and is ready to go."
"Super. Were all just about here besides the Donaldsons"
"Those two guys arrived from Colorado," Paul interrupted, a flat midwestern twang in his voice, "You know the ones who have some pretty good climbing experience."
"Yeah," Ricky took a sip of the bitter-tasting beer, welcoming its coolness against her throat. "They were on my plane."
"Those guys are hard-core," Jim said, flipping open a Peak Performance folder similar to the one Ricky had been issued.
"But not a lot of total years climbing," Ricky said evenly.
"Well, as good as they appear to be," Harris shuffled his papers, "they wont be your concern anyway. Ill be climbing with them."
Ricky remained silent. Although she had more high altitude experience than both Jim Harris and Paul Andersen combined, she knew she was along on this expedition as a junior guide only. Jim was team leader, and Paul, due to his prior experience guiding clients and working with Peak Performance, would be senior guide. Paul seemed nice enough, but it grated on Ricky a bit, knowing she could eat his mountaineering boots for breakfast. As it was, the junior guide nearly always ended up climbing with the least experienced members of the team. Which in this case meant the Donaldsons or, worse, that Allison Peepers Peabody whatever.
"Regardless of anybodys experience leveI, yourself included, Ricky," Harris turned his deep brown eyes to her, "I want to take it nice and slow going up the Namche trail. Between Lukla and base camp, Ive scheduled in a week for the trek. That should give everyone plenty of time to start the acclimatization process. Its important that we do everything we can to make sure our clients adapt to the altitude as comfortably as possible."
Ricky silently nodded, and took another sip of beer. Harris was right. Altitude sickness was potentially the biggest problem for newcomers to the mountain. A pounding headache, lightheadedness, nausea, these were the warning signs. Some people acclimatized quickly, some only after a few minor bouts of sickness, and some never adapted at all, and had to leave the mountain before a more serious edema condition took hold. Ricky had seen it happen before, from novice climbers to expert.
She had never had a problem with altitude herself. Her body adapted amazingly well in altitudes where there was a paucity of air; she was renowned in climbing circles for her ability to function without bottled oxygen in elevations of 25,000 feet or more, otherwise known as the death zone. In that environment, atmospheric oxygen is only 1/3 of that found at sea level. The body begins to starve itself, to shut down, and hypoxia sets in. But Rickys last two summits of Everest had been without the assistance of bottled gas, and she wouldve had every intention of doing the same thing this time, were it not for the fact that Harris insisted his guides use supplemental oxygen on the final ascent. This, he believed, would help keep his guides in better overall physical condition so they could more readily help the clients if they ran into trouble.
"Sandy Ortiz is already at base camp with half the Sherpa team," Harris continued, "and things are setting up nicely."
Sandra Ortiz, a physician friend of Harris from Tacoma, Washington, was a weekend climber who had been recruited to serve as the Peak Performance teams base camp manager and physician.
"And boy, did we get a good location!" Harris eyes twinkled.
"Yeah, Ive heard how competitive it can be for the prime camping spots," Paul said, shaking his head. "Theres what six or seven other teams heading up?"
"At least," Harris answered him. "But dont worry. Ive already got our Sherpas staking out the best campsites at the higher elevations too. Weve got it made!" He pushed back in his chair, looking quite satisfied with himself.
"I hate crowds," Ricky mumbled, her mind flashing to Everest bottlenecks of years past. Suddenly uncomfortable, her blue eyes flickered around the bar as though the walls were closing in.
"Anyway " Harris consulted his papers again, "Lou Silvers is arriving later tonight."
"Ill swing by the airport and pick him up," Paul volunteered, rubbing a hand on the wispy, fair beard that was already sprouting on his chin.
"And Ricky," Jim Harris kept his eyes on his paperwork, "Allison Peabody lands tomorrow at 10am. I faxed her that youd be meeting her at the airport."
A moments pause. "Fine," Ricky replied, swallowing the initial flair of anger she felt. This was her boss talking. From here on in, she was on the job.
Let the baby-sitting begin.
Where was a nice hot towel when you needed one? Or maybe a cherry-topped ice cream sundae? Fat luck getting her hands on either of those first class luxuries on this flight. Allison Peabody rubbed at her dry, burning eyes. She was hungry, tired, and cranky, in that order. The plane would be on the ground in Kathmandu within the next 20 minutes, thank God. Or at least, thats what shed thought the captain had announced. His English had left much to be desired.
It had been one hell of a series of flights to Kathmandu, from New York through LA , and then on to Hong Kong and Bankok. Now, all she wanted to do was get to the hotel and relax a bit. She hadnt relished the thought of sorting her way through customs and the streets of a third world to find the damned place, and so for $70,000 shed insisted that Jim Harris have one of his staff meet her at the airport.
Some guy a Ricky Bouchard, was supposed to do just that. He was one of the guides, or so shed been told. Well, she hoped he had a good strong pair of arms and shoulders, because she sure had a lot of baggage. It had been difficult, trying to figure out what to pack, even though Peak Performance had sent her suggested equipment checklists. After all, this was the biggest climb of her entire life, and it was best to be prepared, right?
It was hard to believe that she was actually here, after all those months of planning. The faxes, the phone calls, the working out, the packing. And then, finally, those last few frazzled days at the office before she was able to get away. Fine time for the financial services sector to go bullish, just as she had to take off. It had taken every ounce of inner strength shed had, to leave her laptop behind. Besides, she understood that there would be a satellite phone, fax and internet connection at base camp, anyway. The usage fee would certainly not be a problem. She could check in with Marcie back at the firm and see how the indices were doing, or log on to the JKJ portfolio database .
God, Allie! Knock it off! Youre on vacation, for heavens sake!
Some vacation. Climbing Mount Everest. Staring out at the snow-capped Himalayan range, Allison could not prevent a smile from slowly creeping across her face at the memory of how her boss had reacted.
"What the hell, Allie! Youre telling me Ive got to do without the second highest revenue producing personal securities broker in JKJ for two whole months? And I thought it was bad enough that you needed a month last year!"
"Everest is different than McKinley, John," she replied, grinning. "And I promise you, when I get back, Ill make it to number one, on at least twice the volume of your number two. I guarantee it."
John Redshaw, Executive Vice President of Sales at Johnson-Kitteridge-Johnson, one of Wall Streets hottest brokerage firms, would not go down without a fight. Allison Peabody was one of his best. It was hard to let her go. But he knew he would have to, if he wanted to keep her. Another firm would snap her up in a New York minute, if she became disgruntled. "Well if this is the last of your crazy adventures ."
"Cmon, John," Allison handed him a pen to sign her leave request. "National Geographic 101. Everest is the highest. Thatll be it for me. So think about it. Number one in sales. At twice the volume. When have you ever known me to tank on a deal?"
The answer was - never. John Redshaw had signed, and here she was, at 30,000 feet over Nepal. Knowing that in just a few weeks time, she would be taking a stab at getting to the top of something only a few hundred feet short of that mark.
But would even that accomplishment be enough?
All her life, Allison Peabody had played by the rules. The only daughter of the right family. Had the right friends. Went to the right schools, right up through getting her Harvard MBA. From there she proceeded to the right job in the right city, and spent her weekend dodging advances from the right boyfriend that her Boston Brahmin parents were convinced would make the perfect husband. By whom she would bear the perfect children, of course. God it was all so damn perfect and right, that she wanted to choke on it.
Her only release her escape, more like it, was in taking on new and difficult challenges. Ones that in turn thrilled her and scared her half to death, and were sure to mortify her parents. Part of that was accomplished through her work. In just a few short years, shed risen to the top of her profession, defying her parents assumption that she would simply put in her time at JKJ, and not get her pretty little hands too dirty.
Another part, a much larger part, was accomplished by how she played. From bungee jumping to parachuting. From white water rafting, to swimming with the sharks in the Caribbean. Extreme sports. Adventure tourism. Whatever was the flavor of the month, as long as it stirred that part of her soul that was slowly dying, and dismayed her parents in the bargain, then that activity was for her.
She was never one to stay involved in any one sport for too long, for that would be too painful. She would learn it, do it, and then move on. In that way, she avoided becoming deeply connected with another thing or a person, and so was able to deny to herself the knowledge that there were possibilities of another life out there to be lived, one more intensely satisfying than the life shed allowed to be fashioned for herself. Otherwise, the truth of it simply hurt too much.
In fact, this mountaineering kick was the longest shed ever stayed focused on any one of Allies little hobbies, as her mother referred to them. It had started a couple of years ago when she recalled with some fondness her post-grad photo safari tour through Africa. The best part of the whole darn thing for her hadnt been the magnificent culture and the joy of seeing wild animals in their own native habitant, instead of from behind a steel cage.
No, for her, it had been the climb up Mount Kilimanjaro,
The roof of Africa, rising up over 19,000 feet above the plains of Tanzania.
Shed given her parents a snapshot of herself standing at the top on Uhuru Peak. She remembered how shed felt when the guide had taken her picture; like shed finally found a place where she belonged. And the expression on her face in that photo so connected, so alive was one that she rarely recalled seeing on herself whenever she looked in a mirror. Her parents had smiled, told her how adorable she looked, and promptly filed it away in a drawer. But Allison had never forgotten how good shed felt, making that summit, when other, more experience trekkers had been forced to turn back in the pre-dawn cold.
In her orderly, perfect little life, she desperately wanted that feeling back. And so shed hit the gym. Biking and running. The stair master and the rock climbing wall. Then shed taken it outside, joined a club, and began to take on increasingly difficult climbs, including some higher altitude and snow experience. She pushed herself, summitting Mount Rainier after just a years time training. Then, last year, Mount McKinley.
If she were brutally honest with herself, she supposed that shed always known all along where she was going with this. Why do it at all, if you didnt want to go all the way? A buddy in her climbing club had told her about the Peak Performance Adventure Company. And in a twinkling, the far-away vision shed had suddenly appeared in close-up. The Peak Performance brochure had listed the recommended mountaineering credentials for climbing Everest, and she was surprised to see that she more than met them. In a phone conversation with Jim Harris, hed told her that being in top shape and having overnight, ice-climbing experience like shed had with McKinley, was all she needed. Having a positive, take the mountain attitude was just as important as any technical climbing resume. If she promised to go for it, then he and his world-class climbing guides would do their best to get her to the top.
Allison Peabody couldnt sign on the dotted line fast enough. She blurred through the waiver of responsibility and recommended independent emergency evacuation procedures forms, and express mailed the contracts and her check back to Peak Performance.
Her parents had been flummoxed. Her boyfriend, Lionel Kitteridge God, did he have to be the grandson of one of JKJs founders? had been outraged. Forbidden it. And then, he had laughed at her. Told her she was crazy, that shed never be able to do it.
For one brief, terrifying moment, shed feared he was right.
Then, she recovered. Told him what he could do with himself, and then walked out. So maybe she wasnt the best technical climber in the world so what? She was strong, and she wanted this for herself. Now, more than ever. She would do it. She would show them. And then she would see what was what.
Now if only that useless flight attendant could get her a champagne and orange juice!
Veronique Bouchard stood inside the building that Kathmandu generously called its International Terminal, and watched as a line of tired but exuberant passengers walked from the airplane across the tarmac, and through customs. Shifting her weight from one foot to the other, she lifted her sunglasses and took one last look at the passport photo in her folder. What if she missed her in the crowd of trekkers and travelers streaming past? Blowing her first Peak Performance assignment?
She closed the folder, and turned her eye once again towards the arriving passengers. Students in jeans and t-shirts. Climbers and hikers in boots and trail gear. Leather and denim. Khaki and silk?
Ricky inwardly groaned. This had to be the one and only Miss Peabody. Short feathered blonde hair and green eyes, just like the recent passport photo indicated. Plus, a knee-length, flowered cotton skirt, a crème colored sleeveless silk blouse, and matching chunk-heeled sandals. And she was hauling two carry-on bags whose weight threatened to bend her in two.
"Miss Peabody?" Ricky stepped forward.
"Why uh, yes."
"Im from Peak Performance. Welcome to Nepal." She thrust out her hand, feeling awkward already at this meeting and greeting thing.
Allisons two bags thunked to the ground. "Pleased to meet you"
"Ricky ?" Allison said, looking at her strangely.
"Yes many people call me that."
"I thought well " Allison raked a hand through her hair. "Never mind. Ive got these two bags, plus a bunch more coming through over here." She snapped her fingers towards where passengers were already crowding around huge carts full of luggage and climbing gear. "Im beat, Im starving, and I could use a shower. Lets go."
The stockbroker turned on her heel and headed towards the carts.
Simmering, Ricky effortlessly picked up the two carry-ons, and flagged down a porter. It took some time for Allison to point out all her bags, and the porters cart was groaning under the weight of them all before they finally edged their way out of the milling crowd and headed towards the exit.
Just like I thought over-packed and under-experienced, Ricky thought, coming to the porters aid as a boot bag tumbled from the top of the luggage mound.
"The Garuda hotel, right?" Allison inquired, watching the next taxi move up in line.
"Yeah," Ricky grunted, feeling the perspiration break out on her back as she began to help the porter unload.
"Well, listen. Ive got to lie down before I fall down. Take care of getting all my gear stowed for me, would you?" Allison grabbed one of her carry-on bags and stepped into the cab. "And be a sweetheart and give him a tip for me, would you?" She motioned towards the porter. "Whatever you think is best, okay? Catch you later!"
And with that, the taxi took off in a cloud of dust.
The next taxi moved up, and the confused porter looked up questioningly at the mountaineer. "You go now, mem?"
"Yes, fine, I go now," she forced out between clenched teeth. "Be a sweetheart," she mimicked under her breath. Lady, she straightened to her full height and looked after the departing taxi, you have no idea what I think is best. Not yet. She grinned evilly. But you will.
To be continued - Part 2
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