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.
After two chaotic days in Kathmandu finalizing last-minute preparations, the Peak Performance expedition team climbed aboard an aged, severely overloaded plane for the short, 100 mile hop to Lukla. At an elevation of 9,200 feet, the little village and airstrip standing at the foot of the Himalayas served as the informal entrance to Nepals Sagarmatha National Park. International trekkers used Lukla as a starting point for their sojourns through the lower regions of the Himalayas, and serious climbers choosing Everests southern route started the upward push from the village towards the higher elevations, and Base Camp.
The expedition members had been kept too busy in Kathmandu to spend much time bonding, but Jim Harris wanted to make sure that on this, their last night before setting out on the trek to Base Camp, that the team had a full understanding of what lay in store. And a boisterous evening in the tiny hotel bar in Lukla, drinking Nepalese beer and telling tales, would do wonders for the group in terms of getting to know one another, he decided.
Ricky Bouchard stood tall and dark in the entrance to the bar, her blue eyes piercing the room like a beacon. Many of the climbers had already begun assembling, including the Donaldsons and Allison Peabody. Shed studiously avoided any encounter with the stockbroker since the airport episode, worrying that she might say something that would get herself fired before the expedition had even begun. The spoiled brat. Now, gazing at the long wooden table where the team was gathering, she knew there was no avoiding her. She braced herself, steeling her mind and her attitude against the mindless small talk that she knew would follow, content in the knowledge that soon the time for all this forced socialization would be past. Soon, she would be on the mountain. Where the ice-covered rocks and snowy peaks didnt talk back.
Barely noticed, she quietly slid into a seat next to Lou Silvers.
"Nice to meet you at last, Ricky," the attorney said, taking up the mountaineers hand in a firm greeting. "I want you to know," his pale eyes sparkled, "that when I found out you were going to be one of the guides on this trip, it was then I decided I had to be here."
"Really?" Rickys eyes widened in surprise, taken aback as she was by the attorneys words.
"Yeah," he softly replied. "I really respect the work youve done. And obviously Jim must too, or he wouldnt have asked you to come on board." He hesitated for a moment, before leaning his compact, gymnasts body forward. "I used to consider myself quite the climber, until work got in the way these past few years." He grinned wryly. "Making partner takes time. You know how it is."
"Sure," Ricky said agreeably, although she really had no idea at all what he meant, and didnt much care to. Now, if the topic were the degree of difficulty climbing the Eiger in the sharp freeze that follows a dry, windy foehnsturm, well, they could talk.
"But listen to me, talking about work. Like any of that crap matters here, right? Anyway," he blushed slightly before he continued, "any tips you can offer me, I sure would appreciate it. I really want to get to the top, you know. Its been a dream of mine for so long. And boy, I cant wait to see the looks on my partners faces when I tell em. The couch potatoes!"
He chuckled, and Ricky could not help but join in. She liked this older man with his silver-threaded dark hair, and easy, down-to-earth manner. "Youve got some solid, high-altitude experience on difficult terrain," she told him, recalling the notes on his 8000 meter Broad Peak climb. "Just stay within yourself, listen to your body, and youll do fine."
"Thanks, Ricky," his voice was low, earnest. "I appreciate your confidence in me."
It was something that Ricky hadnt thought about to that point, the idea that people might actually be looking to her for advice or inspiration. Oh, sure, she would be there to help them from a climbing perspective, that was her job. But otherwise what the hell. All she knew how to be, was herself. Let people take from that what they wanted to.
They always had.
Quickly, the small bar filled with the rest of the team, and as the beer flowed and laughter grew more raucous, Ricky found herself quietly withdrawing into the background, content to nurse a single beer while listening and observing. The time would come soon enough when shed be able to look at all the clients in action, gauging their hands-on skill levels; how well they handled themselves at altitude, under pressure. In the meantime, she silently bore witness to the excessive self-disclosure that shed seen occur time and time again in the past, when groups of people were thrown suddenly together and felt the need to too quickly share the most intimate details of their lives with complete strangers. All in the name of attention and entertainment.
Allison Peabody had already volunteered to handle Mike and Patsy Donaldsons personal investment portfolio, once she returned to New York. And Ricky decided shed heard quite enough about Phil Christys day-trading exploits, not to mention Kevin MacBrides boy-hero days playing football at the University of Colorado. Additionally, it was apparent to her that the two buddies had taken quite the interest in the young blonde stockbroker, and Allison reveled in their attention, at times being flirtatious, and then alternately playing the naif.
It turned out that MacBride and Christy were both project engineers for a national construction firm based in Boulder. The two men had taken up an interest in climbing just four years ago, but were quick to point out to the other team members how quickly theyd advanced in terms of their difficulty rating. It turned out that theyd done their best in recent years to get themselves posted on jobs that sent them to prime climbing locales in the US and Canada. The Rockies. The Cascades. And then there was their big summit of Aconcagua the year before.
The two men were brash, bold, and willing to take chances, that was obvious, with MacBride being the more outspoken leader of the two. They were out to impress themselves with their own prowess, as much as the friends they kept back home, confirming Rickys initial assessment that the two men would have to be watched to prevent them from pushing too far, too fast, and getting into trouble.
The liquor flowed and spirits were high as the night wore on, and Ricky Bouchard felt more out of place than ever. Just when she thought she couldnt bear it any more, Jim Harris pushed his beer away and held up a silencing hand.
"Before we head out tomorrow, Id like to go over the game plan one last time with you good people."
"Make it to the top!" Kevin MacBride proclaimed, raising his glass.
"And get back down," his buddy Phil added, drawing laughter from the group.
"Well, thats not far from the truth." In the darkened lamplight of the bar, Jim Harris smile flashed white against his tan skin. "It is the Peak Performance Adventure Companys policy that getting up the mountain is voluntary." He swept his eyes over the climbers. "But getting down is mandatory. And we all need to support each other to make sure that happens."
"What are our chances, Jim," Lou Silvers asked quietly. "Really."
Harris rubbed a beefy hand against the back of his neck. "If the weather holds, and if everyone handles the altitude well, I dont see why, on summit day, we cant all make it."
Rickys brow creased as she listened to Jims claim, concerned that he had overstated his case. So many things can and did go wrong up there. There was no way to predict from one minute to the next what would happen. An avalanche in the Ice Fall. An unexpected injury. A sudden storm blowing in from Tibet. But Jims words appeared to be just the thing that the clients wanted needed to hear. Their faces lit up.
"Were counting on it," Mike Donaldson grinned. "Especially with you guys and gal," he acknowledged Ricky with a nod, "showing us the way." Like many of the men in the group, hed already started the beginnings of a beard, wanting to look the part of a mountain man. And it did make sense, after all. Everest was no place to take time for a shave in the morning. "I know Jims summitted before," he continued, his eyes resting on Paul Anderson, "but have you?"
Paul shook his sandy haired head no. "Not yet. However Im planning on it," he said, his blue eyes shining, "real soon. But Ive left my lucky silver dollar on the top of K2," he told them, naming the second-highest peak in the world.
"How about you, Ricky dear?" Patsy Donaldson, with just a hint of condescension in her voice, turned her attention to the silent mountaineer. "Will this be your first time, too?"
Ricky looked startled, like a deer caught in the headlights. "Uh actually, itll be my third time," she replied, aware of the sudden quiet that had fallen over the table. "My second time on this route. My first time to the summit was by way of the North Col." The treacherous North Face route to Everests summit was deathly steep and rocky, and hadnt been climbed at all until a group of wild Australians did the deed in 1984. For Ricky Bouchards first Everest ascent to have been by way of the Northern route, was nothing short of amazing.
"Yeah," Jim jumped into the awkward silence, "Ricky knows the neighborhood, thats for sure. Anyway," he continued, "heres the plan well be following for the next few weeks." He placed his Peak Performance folder on the table, but left it unopened. This part, the climber knew by heart.
"Well all leave here tomorrow morning for the trek to Base Camp. Each of you will set your own pace, and well meet there in a week's time. A strong, fully acclimatized climber could make it in two-to-three days, but I want you all to take it easy. Enjoy the views. Get comfortable with your bodies at altitude."
"What about the rest of our gear?" Allison Peabody spoke up, looking worriedly to the rest of the group for support. "How will we carry it all? Surely, you dont expect us to."
Dont look at me. Ricky slouched in her seat.
"The rest of our Sherpa porters will take the heavy stuff, our climbing gear, directly to Base Camp," Jim calmly explained. "Separate out of your gear what you anticipate youll need for the weeks trek, and the porters will make sure it gets to each nights stop. During the day, just carry in your backpacks what youll need: water, a jacket, your camera, snacks and the like. Dont overload.
"Youre on your own during the trek," Jim continued, "but feel free to see me, Paul, or Ricky if you have questions or run into a problem. But youre pretty much free to do as you please. However," his voice grew serious, "once we get to Base Camp, things change. My word on the mountain is law. Its essential for our success that you listen to what I say, and do what I say to do, when I say to do it. Particularly when we move to the higher camps."
Kevin MacBride, still looking the part of the rough and tumble starting half-back hed been, frowned. "How much freedom will the stronger climbers have to climb?"
"What do you mean?" Harris asked slowly, knowing full well where this was going.
"What if the stronger climbers want break away from the pack, if things start to slow down during the push?" MacBride gazed around at the group. "I mean we wouldnt want to blow everybodys chances, would we?"
Ricky couldnt help herself. "So, you wouldnt mind if we had to leave you behind, right?" She lifted a questioning eyebrow.
"Wha thats not"
"We stick to the plan," Jim Harris eyes grew hard. "What youve brought up Kevin, is a situation Ill assess at the time, if need be. Were a team, and we stay together. Thats our best chance for success."
"Everest is an endurance sport," Ricky softly added. "Its not about power."
"Well, that makes me feel better," Allison Peabody regarded the mountaineer with some relief. "Ive been doing a lot of long-distance running."
"Nobodys run up Everest yet, Allie," Kevin morosely took a swig of his beer, clearly not liking the response Harris had given him. "But youre welcome to try."
"Running is a good way to stay in shape," Ricky bored her eyes into the stockbroker, "but it cant replace the experience you get from actually climbing. Developing your technical skills."
"Back to the route," Jim said, trying to regain control of the conversation. "As you know, were taking the South Col route to the summit, which some say is the easiest climb on Everest." He looked at them evenly. "Let me tell you, there is no such thing. The route is treacherous, and even though the stormy season wont kick in for another couple of months, a localized weather disturbance could crop up at any time, causing white-out conditions."
"What happens then?" Mike Donaldson wanted to know. "We wait it out?"
"Exactly. Whether youre at Base Camp, or Camp IV, you stay put. In the past, climbers blinded by storms on the mountain have walked right off the edge of a cornice. Its 7,000 straight down the Kangshung Face into Tibet." He paused. "But well be relying on a top weather broadcasting service from London to let us know when weve got a good window. Thatll be a big advantage."
"Good," Patsy Donaldson shivered involuntarily. "Id hate to be caught up there in a storm. Ive had nightmares about that."
"The other issue well have to deal with, is how each of you handles the altitude. Ive seen novices do wonderfully, and experienced climbers with no prior history of altitude sickness go down. Theres no rhyme or reason to it. But I can tell you that if you keep eating, drinking, and drink, drink, drink some more"
"Got you covered, dude!" Phil Christy hoisted his beer, and the table broke out in nervous laughter.
"Then thats your best defense. Were going to use a strategy to acclimatize that has worked for plenty of expeditions before. You really aggressively take on the mountain." He smacked a fist into his hand for emphasis. "Well progressively be moving to the higher camps, and then returning back to the thick air to recover. Until finally, we push up from Base Camp for the summit.
"What does that look like, in terms of days?" Kevin MacBride caught his friend Phils eyes as he posed the question.
"Base Camp is at 17,600 feet. Taking the week to get there will be a great start, altitude-wise. Weve already established a camp location there, and the remainder of the Sherpas with our supplies will be arriving too. Well take another week then at Base Camp, setting up our own individual tent sites, checking our equipment, and getting acclimated on short hikes. Then, weather permitting, well run our first sortie to Camp I. At 19,500 feet, itll be just above the Khumbu Ice Fall."
"Im not scared or anything," Allison Peabody said, her green eyes wide and dark, "but Ive heard thats the worse part of the climb." She swallowed hard. "You know. Avalanches and all."
The Khumbu Glacier hugged the lower half of Everest like a white muffler, a frozen river of ice groaning and creaking its way down the mountain until it ended in the tumbled, frozen rapids of the Ice Fall. There, great chunks of frozen rock and snow called seracs, could detach without a moments notice, starting an avalanche and crushing any helpless climbers who stood in its path. Worse, the tentative footing of the Ice Fall was further compromised by a minefield of icy crevasses; many were invisible to the naked eye until a climbers boot stepped through a thin covering of snow, plunging him or her into a black, bottomless tomb.
"Youre not scared of the Ice Fall?" Ricky spoke up again. These idiots would end up killing themselves if they didnt have a little more respect for the mountain. "Well, I am. It scares the shit out of me." She forced a smile to soften her words, knowing her boss was looking on. "You just need to know what to look out for, and stay alert."
"The Ice Fall is tough," Jim patted Allisons arm reassuringly. "But dont worry. Well only be on it early in the morning, before the direct light of the sun hits it. Its the heat of day and the melting that causes most of the problem. Anyway," he cleared his throat, "well climb to Camp I twice, and on our second trip, well actually camp there overnight. Well stay two nights, in fact. And then, weather permitting--"
"And health permitting," Paul Andersen pointed out. "If youre going to have a problem with the altitude, youll really start to feel it here."
"-- Well move up to Camp II, which we also call ABC Advance Base Camp. Sort of our home away from home, higher up in the Western Cwm, at 21,300 feet."
"What does Cwm mean?" Patsy giggled, pronouncing it koom as Jim had. "Sounds so funny!"
"Its a Welsh word, meaning valley." Lou Silvers filled her in. "The glacier flows right through it."
"And some valley it is," Jim exclaimed. "Beautiful. Just beautiful. With the walls of Everest on your left and Nuptse standing to the right, its a gorgeous sight."
"And it can be tricky to climb, too." Ricky added, wanting to make sure these people knew what they were in for. "Its a glacier, dont forget, so well still have to keep alert for the crevasses. And the ice one false step, and you can slide all the way down the Cwm. Also, Ive seen climbers get dizzy from the radiant heat in there, once the sun hits it. So make sure you dress accordingly. Removable layers. Polypropylene. No cotton, unless you have a death wish. Cottons fine at sea level, but at altitude it keeps moisture in, heating you up when youre hot, and cooling you down when youre cold."
"No T-shirts, huh?" Kevin MacBride smirked at the mountaineer.
"No T-shirts." Rickys eyes glittered.
Jim continued to outline the plan. "So well stay three nights at ABC, before heading back all the way down to Base Camp. Well recover there for three-to-four days, and then in a single day make the climb from Base to Camp II. Well acclimatize there for two nights, and then the next morning, early," he emphasized, "we climb to Camp III, halfway up the Lhotse Face."
"How early?" Allison scrunched her nose distastefully. She definitely was not an early-bird. Getting up before dawn was the part shed disliked the most about her Rainier and McKinley ascents.
"4am," Jim replied, not batting an eye. "Well spend the night there, at 24,000 feet. Now, therell be a bit of technical climbing on this leg," he allowed. "Well have to get over the Bergschrund the ice wall where the Lhotse Face meets the Khumbu Glacier."
"Piece of cake," Kevin MacBride said. "Plant a few ice screws, fix some rope, and youre there."
Ricky sighed. These gung-ho guys were more clueless than shed thought. "Try doing it at ten degrees below zero, in the dark, when youre hypoxic," she told him, not fighting too hard to keep the sarcasm out of her voice.
"As Ricky points out," Jim shot the mountaineer a warning glare, "its important not to underestimate the mountain at this stage. The climb from Camp II to Camp III has the highest drop-out rate during every expedition. If you dont have a problem with altitude already at that point, you may, if you dont stay warm and hydrated. I dont want to mislead you Camp III is rough. And we wont have our climbing Sherpas there overnight, because the ice ledge where well be staked out is so small. Well be on our own."
"The Sherpas will be coming to the top with us, wont they?" A look of concern flashed across Allisons pale face. "I mean, theyll be the ones fixing the ropes and stocking the high camps, right?"
"You bet," Jim said, smiling. "You good people wont have to lift a finger in that regard. Thats what the Sherpas are paid for. Your job is to get used to the altitude, and save your energies for the summit push."
"The Sherpas will be working harder than any of us," Ricky told them. "Its important to respect that. They get paid very little and take all the risks."
"Hey its their job," Kevin MacBride snorted.
The mountaineer bit her tongue. She had a deep, abiding respect for the Sherpas, and their way of life. Even the best climbing sirdars or head Sherpas, barely made more than $1,000 for their season on Everest. There was a fierce sense of pride among the Sherpa community who lived and worked in the Mother Goddess shadow, and just as many Sherpas as westerners had lost their lives on the slopes of Everest. Life for the Sherpas was hard, and Ricky Bouchard did not like to see them belittled.
"Anyway," Jim continued, "After staying overnight at Camp III, well move back to Camp II and stay there overnight. Finally, well descend all the way back to Base Camp. Camp IV, at 26,000 feet on the South Col, you wont actually see until youre heading to the top. Its the last stop before the summit. Well rest down at Base Camp, breathing that lovely thick air for another five or six days, and then," he a broad smile spread across his face, "weather permitting, the summit push!"
"YES!" Kevin MacBride high-fived Phil Christy, spilling some of his dark beer onto the rough-hewn wooden table-top.
"Ditto, that!" Harris gave MacBride a healthy slap on the back. "See you on the trail, bright and early, people." With that, the big man stood. The rest of the climbers did the same, conversing excitedly amongst themselves as the group broke up.
Ricky Bouchard, however, bolted from the bar as though it were in flames.
"God, what is her problem?" Allison Peabody muttered in no one in particular after Ricky had pushed by her.
"Shes on the quiet side, but dont let that bother you," Lou Silvers drew up to Allison, watching the tall, dark figure of the mountaineer disappear into the murky hotel. "Shes good."
"You mean, shes got an attitude," Allison corrected him. She was cross at Ricky Bouchard. Ever since the airport, the guide had dodged her whenever she saw her coming, thinking she hadnt noticed it. And tonight, she certainly didnt appreciate the way she spoke to her and everyone else in the group.
"No offense, Allison," Lou smiled at the small blonde not unkindly, "but when the chips are down, theres no-one else on this team Id rather be sharing my rope with, than her. Shes one of the best. In spite of all the shit shes been through I know she lost her climbing partner a couple of years back in an avalanche on Dhaulagiri. That had to have been rough."
"Oh," Allison lowered her eyes and shrugged. "Yeah, thats too bad. But oh, well. I guess Ill just try and stay out of her way."
"No, dont do that," Lou told her, walking her to the corridor leading to the guest rooms. "Thats not the point. Just let her have her space, thats all. A woman like that she needs it."
"Ill see what I can do," Allison placed her hands on her hips, the beginnings of a plan gelling in her minds eye. "But if shes as good as you say she is, and I want to get to the top, then Im going to stick to her like glue." She paused, biting her lip. "Whether Miss Ricky Bouchard likes it or not. After all, I am the client!"
The trek from Lukla to Mount Everest began early the next morning. All the expedition members were anxious to get started, and a hike earlier in the day was infinitely preferable to the sweaty prospect of trekking in the afternoon, once the tropical intensity of the sun kicked in. Regardless of whatever force of God or nature thrust the Everest massif and its Himalayan brethren to their dizzying heights, Everest itself lay at only 28 degrees north in latitude from the equator. As a result, the lower regions of Nepal and its sister, Chinese Tibet, were covered in jungle-like vegetation, thickly carpeting the ground in a rich, green growth of leaves, vines, and impossibly huge rhododendron.
They set out from Lukla, winding their way through the gorge of the Dudh Kosi, an icy-cold glacial river strewn haphazardly with great rocks and boulders, as though some ancient giant hand had tossed them about at play. The first night the full group stopped in Phakding, a settlement of just a few homes and lodges, mostly catering to the tourist trade. Buddhist prayer flags hung on ropes strung together from building to building, creating a riot of colors seeming to link the structures together against the blue sky background. Dinner was tea, beer, a yak meat stew and, unbelievably, tacos. Nepal was not necessarily known for its cuisine, existing as it did on sparse natural resources. As a result, many lodge-owners did what they could to emulate western-style dishes, the better to attract the trekker crowd.
By the morning of the second day, the usual informal partnerships and strategic alliances had begun to form within the party. Kevin MacBride and Phil Christy had made a show of walking with Allison Peabody when the group had started out on the first morning. But soon, theyd taken off at a brisk pace, in a hurry to get to Everest. Looking forward to getting to Base Camp himself and continuing the expedition preparations, Jim Harris stayed close to the two men, trading jokes along the trail as they went.
Lou Silvers had walked with Allison for a time, before taking a detour off the trail to check out an unusual wall of carved mani stones hed heard about in a nearby village. Mani stones were small, flat rocks carved with sanskrit symbols, and were sacred to the Sherpas, and Lou explained he had a particular interest in learning more about the Sherpas and their traditions.
Mike and Patsy Donaldson had struck up an easy conversation at a moderate hiking with Paul Andersen, and Mike had taken it upon himself to council the young guide on just what tools hed need to enter the business world after his climbing days were finished.
"But I dont intend to ever stop climbing!" Paul had laughed, shaking his head in protest.
"Thats what you say now, Paul," Mike had warned him. "But someday, youll want to have a wife. Buy a home. Support a family. What then?"
"Look at you two." Paul had protested. "Youre together, you have a family, a business. And are here on this expedition!"
"Thats my point exactly!" Mike had hooked his thumbs into the straps of his backpack.
"You should listen to him, dear," Patsy had given Paul a motherly smile, and then the three had wandered off up the trail.
Leaving Allison Peabody, and Ricky Bouchard, behind.
Jim Harris had already requested that Ricky run sweep at the back of the trek, just in case anyone ran into problems. "After all, youve got the most experience in these parts with the locals," hed said, studiously ignoring the frown that skipped across her face as he hurried to catch up with MacBride and Christy.
If he wants me to be last, Ill be last, all right. And so she lagged behind on the trail, way behind, in fact, concentrating on her breathing, and on the sights, sounds, and smells of the lush forest around her. Alone with her thoughts. Or at times, when the memories got too painful - simply alone.
Allison Peabody didnt understand it. Both yesterday and today, when shed slowed down on the trail so that Ricky Bouchard would catch up to her, it hadnt happened. Rather, the tall, silent guide had fallen even farther behind, at times barely visible amongst the trees, like some woodland sylph. In any case, it wasnt as though Allison thought she could go much slower as it was, without coming to a complete halt.
Although she had over-stuffed her backpack both yesterday and today, and the load was really starting to wear her down, though normally it shouldnt have been a problem for her. She had listened to Jim Harris travel light instructions, but still! How could she be expected to leave her walk-man and CDs behind. Or the extra pair of boots in case hers got wet. A change of clothes. The additional lenses and spare batteries in her camera bag. The latest book by her favorite author. Too bad it hadnt come out in paperback yet. And then there was the pouch full of remedies for every possible travelers ailment. Just in case.
Speaking of which she hadnt been feeling too well since leaving the village in the morning. She felt hot, too hot, even, to attribute to her tropical surroundings. And then there were the ominous grumbles from her stomach. Not hunger pangs, certainly. The oatmeal mush shed had for breakfast should have taken care of that. Perhaps the wobbliness was from that last bridge shed crossed over.
She glanced casually over one shoulder, wiping the sweat off her brow, and glimpsed the angular form of the mountaineer just coming into view around a bend in the trail. Well, she certainly had the look of a climber about her, Allison thought. Her knee-length khaki trekking shorts did nothing to hide a pair of strong, well-muscled calves and thighs. Her shoulders, and God those arms! Had the woman free-climbed the North Face, or what? And then there was her face. All shadowed and tan, framed by hair as dark as midnight, and eyes that Christ, Allie! Are you getting feverish, or what?
Allison continued to push her way up the trail, trying to shove any thought of Ricky Bouchard from her head. She had greater worries now, right? Like what seemed to be going on in her stomach, and in regions even further south. This was no time to be focusing on a loner with one hell of an ego, apparently. Really! All shed wanted to do was talk to her a bit. See if she could pick up some climbing tips. Obviously, the woman knew her way around Everest. And from what Lou Silvers had indicated, she was one hell of a climber, to boot.
Allison had no illusions of her own climbing abilities. She hadnt been at this as long as everybody else on the expedition, that was true. Her other two high-altitude climbs had been with friends shed met through her climbing group, and shed been the most inexperienced there, as well. But they had welcomed her with open arms, and taken their time with her, and she had lucked into good weather on both of those summits. Things could just as easily have turned out differently. Shed heard the stories.
But with this expedition, well, for 70 grand, she wanted her moneys worth! And she was scared to death of the mountain, she could admit that to herself, at least. But she was frightened even more of walking away, without having given it her best shot. As though that would mean she were giving up on everything else in her life too, waking up one morning to find herself living the life her parents had led. A life that, smothered with the best of their intentions, they so desired for her, too.
This was the time. This was her moment. She was drowning. And the icy white summit of Mount Everest was her life preserver.
Now. If she could only get one taciturn guide to open up a bit. She couldnt quite put her finger on what it was about Veronique Bouchard, but she felt certain that if the mountaineer were somehow convinced of the opinion that she, Allison Peabody, could summit Everest, well, then it would be so.
It was just that now, here in the jungle midlands of Nepal, the mountain seemed so very far away. And the damned pack on her back was so heavy! And the heat. Maybe she should rest? But no. How embarrassing would it be to have Ricky finally catch up to her because shed stopped from exhaustion? That would never do. Shed heard Miss Climbing Things comments in the bar at Lukla. Her words had been few, but loaded with meaning. And Allison had gotten the message loud and clear. Hell, if she couldnt negotiate the Namche Trail on her own, how could she possibly handle Everest? The last thing she wanted, was the climber coming to her rescue now.
Allison bent slightly forward, hoping to curb the pain of her cramping gut. Maybe I should stop and put my pack down. But if I do, I dont know if Ill ever be able to pick it up again!
Slowing, she turned to look down the jumbled trail behind her. Ricky Bouchard was gaining on her.
Veronique Bouchard passed over another 15 foot long suspension bridge, one of at least 10 theyd see on todays trek. Her feet slapped against wooden foot-beams that were roped together with thick, moisture-slickened rope. Best to take it easy on a footbridge like this. Some, like this one, spanned particularly rocky areas of the path, while others afforded hikers passage over frigid, glacial run-offs. Even on a hot day such as today, those cold waters would even make her think twice before plunging in.
Well. Other than the mind-numbingly slow pace shed been forced to take to evade Allison Peabody while still doing her sweep job, it had been a good trek so far. The scenery was breath-taking, there was no doubt of that. She never tired of it. Around each curve on the trail was another post-card view of plunging river valleys and roiling rapids. Or tiny villages cut into hills above the river, their postage-stamped-sized terraced farms, growing potatoes and barley, clinging precariously to the sloped earth.
A simple life.
One she so craved for herself. If only she could find that sort of peace.
There were a good number of other people on the trail today too, many whod passed her by with a smile and a wave. Climbers heading for the other Everest Expeditions that were on the mountains. Day-hikers, seeing the sights. And then there were the Sherpa porters lining the rocky trail, bearing baskets and packs crammed with foodstuffs and climbing gear, occasionally leading a string of yaks along to the next village, or beyond, to Everest.
How far shed come from her days as a youth, growing up in the raw, uncluttered Laurentians region of Québec. Born in the village of Val-David, a sort of heaven on earth for wandering artists, rock-climbing hounds, and nature lovers. Her mother, Marie Bouchard, was an artist of some local note, and displayed her works in little gallery on the main street of the town. Her father, Andre, had known that if he were to keep the woman he married, he would have to return with her to her hometown from Montreal, where the young couple had met and fell in love at McGill University. After all, even petite Val-David could use a good dentist, non?
As an only child, young Veronique had reveled in her parents attentions, and loved the free, fresh-air environment of Val-David. Never knowing or caring with her childs mind, whether there was anything else in life. Until that day when, barely old enough to walk, or so her mama still swore, shed climbed the great oak tree that stood in front of their home. Shed simply wanted to see what it was like at the top, or so shed hiccuped to her father through the tears of the spanking shed earned. The pain of that indignity soon faded, but the memory of the brilliant view from the top of the heavy oaken limbs, the rich, moist scent of the leaves, and the wonder of it all did not.
Soon, she had a partner in crime. The little boy next door, Jean-Pierre Valmont. With his dark hair and blue eyes, he was the brother she never had. She led the way and he gladly, earnestly followed, content to stay in her shadow as the two friends grew, and the climbs became more challenging. By their teen years they had mastered the Passe-Montagne, a jagged edifice in their own back yard of Val-David. From there they sought out whatever other rock and ice-bound climbs they could find in the remainder of the Laurentians, and then they moved on to Charlevoix. Taking whatever jobs here and there they could to finance their next adventure.
By the spring of her 18th year, when her father lay awake at night praying she would go to University, and her mother ground her teeth to the nubs struggling to keep an open artists mind to it all, she and Jean-Pierre had headed west, to the Canadian Rockies.
And never looked back.
That was then. This was now. Now she looked back plenty, especially to that deceptively beautiful day on Dhaulagiri. The sky had been clear and there were no storms on the horizon when Jean-Pierre set off with the rest of the group. She should have been climbing with him, instead of sitting on her butt in camp with a sprained knee.
"I can stay here with you, Ricky, if you like," hed offered her, the corners of his bearded mouth turning up in a smile, his eyes hidden from view by his sunglasses.
"No go on," shed waved him away. "Ill join you tomorrow. Be safe, eh?" And then shed returned his smile, knowing that like her, there was only one place for him to be: the mountain.
Later, she and the others in camp had heard the crack that sounded like cannon fire. And then the deep, groaning rumble that made the earth move beneath her feet.
If only shed been there. She could have done something; seen the signs in time to warn Jean-Pierre and the other two climbers of the wave of white death sweeping their way. Instead, shed ended up losing the best friend shed ever had.
The only friend.
Shed searched for days, long after the others had given up. Never feeling the throbbing of her swollen knee, or the beginnings of frostbite in her hands and feet. But there was nothing. Not a trace. Whatever remained of Jean-Pierre and the others was buried under tons of snow and ice, somewhere between Camp I and Camp II on Mount Dhaulagiri.
Cest la vie, right? That was life and death on the mountain. Acceptable risk. They all had known about the possibilities. The dangers. The rewards. So then why did it hurt so much, even after all this time? Glimpses of the why came to her at night, in the dark, in her dreams. It was because shed been meant to die that day too, and hadnt. So if not then when?
Rickys response to that question had been to lose herself in her climbing. To push herself to her vertical limit, and beyond. So that when the day came, at least she would know it. Feel it. Live it. She would not be taken by surprise as Jean-Pierre had. She would be ready.
But for now, for today, the challenge was Miss Allison Peabody. Whose energy reserves were clearly flagging.
Ricky had had every intention of giving the young woman a hard time at least when she wasnt avoiding her entirely. After all, one had to have respect for the mountain and for ones self, and they were both areas where, in her mind, Allison Peabody was clearly lacking. Still it wouldnt be as enjoyable making the girl jump through hoops if she werent feeling up to par. That went against Rickys instincts of fair play.
The blonde was laboring, moving slow, slower than her snails pace of yesterday when it had been obvious to Ricky that Allison had wanted her to catch up with her. But she would have none of it.
Today, however, the girl had been sluggish from the get-go. So much so, that despite Rickys best laggardly efforts, she was actually gaining on her. Part of the problem was the heavy load Allison was carrying. Hadnt she listened to a word Jim said about traveling light as they moved towards higher elevations? She was going to burn herself out.
And now, as she caught sight of the girls face when she turned around, Ricky noticed that she looked flushed. And she had stumbled once or twice.
Ricky angrily kicked a stone in front of her as she moved up the trail. Her job was to run sweep. That was it. Stick to the bare essentials, right? What would it matter if she let the spoiled brat flounder for a bit on her own? No real harm done and it would serve her right.
Gritting her teeth, Ricky found herself quickening her pace up the trail. Shes the client shes the client .
"You know," she easily caught up to the girl, "youd conserve your strength better if you lightened your load."
"Well, its a little late for me to do something about it now, isnt it?"
Under the high flush of Allisons cheeks, Ricky could now see the pallor to her skin.
"I could carry something for you," she heard the words tumble unbidden from her mouth. God, what was she thinking? No wonder Allison Peabody thought she was her own personal porter!
"No thanks. Ill be fine," Allison replied through a clenched jaw.
"Are you sure?"
Ricky heard a low groan come from Allisons mouth as the smaller woman pulled off her backpack and dropped it to the ground.
"Yes I just have to re-arrange a few things in my pack and and"
Allisons face twisted into a mask of pain and dread, colored with the most interesting shade of green that Ricky had ever seen. Clutching at her stomach, she staggered into a stand of nearby bushes off the trail.
"Uh ah, are you okay?" Trying to be polite, Ricky posed the question over the most ungodly of noises coming from the position where she guessed Allison must be. A quick glance up and down the trail showed the two of them to be alone for now, so Ricky supposed the girl should be grateful for small favors. Although ones modesty was usually the first baggage to be jettisoned during an extended climb.
After several long moments, Allisons head popped up over the bushes, and she walked slowly, deliberately, back to the path. "I Im fine," she panted, though Ricky noticed her eyes were now glassy and a thin sheen of perspiration dotted her brow. She ran a hand through her limp hair. "Just a little stomach complaint."
From where she was standing, even Ricky could hear the ominous, loose rumblings from the girls rebelling digestive system.
"Well," panic skipped across Allisons face at the thought of another round, "maybe not so little." She charged back into the bushes.
Uh-oh. Shes in for it now. Ricky had seen this before. More times than she cared to count.
It happened to the most seasoned of travelers in these parts. It was luck really, whether you picked it up or not. One time, on their way to Annapurna, Jean-Pierre had come down with a dose of it. And if that werent bad enough, it had come on him just when he was in the middle of an impromptu romantic evening with that blonde trekker from Sweden. Hed been able to laugh about it later, when the trekker indiscreetly spread the word. He never let things get him down for long. That was his way.
Ricky smiled at the memory.
One of the good ones.
Allison was gone for a protracted period of time, and just when Ricky was debating going in after her, she reappeared from the thick jungle vegetation. Looking even the worse for the wear.
"Look." Ricky stepped close to her, ignoring the vaguely unpleasant odor rising from the girl. "Youre sick. Youve got a fever and a stomach bug. When you when we," she amended, knowing she was taking a step towards where shed sworn she wouldnt go, "get to the next village, you should stop there. Take it easy. I know something you can take for this." It was only right. She couldnt abandon a client now.
"N- no," Allison held up a trembling hand. "You go on. Ill be fine. Ive got some stuff in my pack I can take."
Was this girl suicidal? If she didnt take care of herself and instead got dehydrated at these elevations she was asking for trouble. "At least let me carry your pack." Ricky reached for it, growing more exasperated by the minute.
"I said no!" Allisons voice was cracked and hoarse as she grabbed for her backpack. "I may not have as much experience as you," she cried, tears of embarrassment and frustration pooling in her eyes, "but I can pull my own weight."
Okaaay. Ricky thought about that for a moment, before deciding there was no better time than the present to broach the next item in a long line of distasteful conversations she seemed to be having with Miss Allison Peabody. "Then in that case," she said slowly, carefully, "you wont have any problem pulling those leeches off your legs.
"What??" Allisons shriek echoed up and down the trail, bouncing off the rocks and trees of the river gorge. Desperately, she began to paw at several of the dark, sticky, creatures that had attached themselves to her legs.
Leeches were everywhere on the jungly hillsides, clinging to the moist vegetation as they waited for the next warm meal to pass them by. Ricky was surprised they hadnt seen more of them before now. She had known leeches to drop onto a victim, attach themselves with their prong-like fangs, have a good long drink, and then drop off without even raising a tickle of a pinprick.
They werent dangerous, they didnt hurt or itch, and oftentimes the only way you knew theyd paid you a visit, was by a thin trace of blood on your leg, arm, or wherever, thanks to an anti-coagulent they injected in you while dining. The problem, really, as Allison was finding out before her very eyes, was that they were just so damn disgusting!
Like slimy little vampires, once they attached to you, they were reluctant to let go until theyd had their fill. In pulling them off, their skin would stretch like rubber, until with a sucking pop! you found they were now stuck to your hands, instead.
"Oh God fuck-fuck-fuck!" Allison did a strange jerky dance, unlike anything Ricky was sure this forest had ever seen. The mountaineer stood back, unsure whether to offer her assistance or to give the agitated stockbroker a wide berth. Best to wait until the client told her what she wanted. And anyway, it looked like she was doing a pretty good job of de-leeching on her own.
"Oh oh " Allisons sharp cries turned into weak mewlings as she finally flicked the last of the worm-like creatures from her hand. Her feverish green eyes stayed locked on her palm. She swallowed hard, focusing on the splotches of bright red blood she found there. Her blood.
She blanched, blinked several times in rapid succession, and let her gaze track up to Ricky. "Oh, shit." With those words, Allison pitched face-forward towards the ground.
Already on the move, Ricky barely caught her in time. You could say that again.
To be continued - Part 3
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