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.
For climbers threading their way up the arms and shoulders of Everest on the final push for the summit, the climb is over familiar territory.
Once more, they hurry along the jagged twists and dips of the Icefall like faint-hearted children taking a shortcut through a graveyard on a moonless night.
And they climb for the final time through the vast, silken smoothness that is the glacial Western Cwm; feeling the withering heat and the effort required now more than ever, to reach Camp II.
The Peak Performance team had been forced to stay three nights in Camp II, rather than the scheduled two, when high winds and bitter cold had kept them huddled in their tents. But this morning had dawned calm and clear, and so they, like the other teams that had been delayed on the mountain, continued over the bergschrund and on to Camp III at 24,000 feet.
Moving again up the hard blue ice of the Lhotse Face.
Each climber as a smear of color against a brilliant white backdrop; planting crampons into the ice with a strong toe-pick, sliding their ascenders up the fixed rope, stabbing the spike of an ice ax a little higher, hauling their bodies closer to the summit one rest-step at a time.
Ricky Bouchard had been more than a little concerned over the delay at Camp II, on several fronts. First, she knew that the longer you spent at altitude, the more it leached the strength from your body. Fingers and lips cracked and bled. Cuts and blisters refused to heal. It simply wore you down. After five weeks on Everest, it was not unheard of for climbers to lose up to 20% of their overall body mass.
And then there was the frightful cold.
Up high, your body refuses to do your bidding, engaged as it is in its own desperate attempt to survive. With your heart, lungs, and other primary organs clamoring for oxygen, your body reaches out to your bloodstream, but there is precious little oxygen to be found there. And so, beyond your control, the body shuts down the capillaries in your hands and feet, diverting what oxygen there is to where it is needed most. And if you havent stayed hydrated, your thickened blood only exacerbates the circulation problem.
As a mountaineer, Ricky knew that it was infinitely better to put up with the cold to feel it. That moment when you stopped feeling, when your blood pumped so sluggishly and uselessly through your system as though it were more solid than liquid that was when frostbite set in. Shed seen more than a few climbers in her day whod lost fingers, toes and more, to the dreaded black plague.
For herself, with her superior ability to adapt to the vertical life, she didnt worry as much, although that didnt stop her from constantly remaining on her guard. But for others, the Peak Performance clients, for instance, it was a concern. Even on a beautiful climbing day such as today had been, all it took was some extra moisture inside your boot liner, and quickly a cold foot could turn into a very dangerous, crippling case of frostbite.
This day, the Mother Goddess had smiled upon them and given them good weather. But the high winds a snapback of the Jet Stream over the summit had compressed the schedules of a number of teams making their summit bids. The British team was there now, right alongside them in the icy ledges of Camp III. The Spanish Millennium team was there too, squeezed next to the International expedition. There was a very strong possibility that there could be a traffic jam up high come summit day thus Rickys second cause for concern. Because the mountaineer knew well enough that the death zone was no place to stand about cooling your heels.
Make no mistake about it, at Camp III and above it would get cold, with wind chills of more than 50 degrees below zero not unheard of.
The winds were picking up again, rattling the walls of their tent, releasing the pixie-dust hoarfrost that had formed there, a result of the condensation of their breath. Theyd arrived at Camp III in the early afternoon, and it had been all the climbers could do to shove their packs inside their tents and dive for the sleeping bags.
Ricky reached out and brushed off some of the frost that had fallen in Allisons hair, and let her hand linger there. The small blonde was asleep. Shed been out as soon as the mountaineer had produced the orange steel and Kevlar oxygen canisters that Jim Harris now required of all climbers henceforward. Shed patiently helped Allison adjust the rubber hose, regulator, and mask attached to the heavier Zvesda four-liter bottle. Once the flow had started and Allison had been able to breathe more freely, shed been out like a light.
As for Ricky herself, she hadnt yet put on the hated rig. Her breathing was still fine, as she knew it would be at this altitude; no headache, no nausea. She would abide by Jims requirement that she not climb above Camp III without supplemental oxygen. But hell, they were still in Camp III and, well, maybe it was a technicality but there was no way shed be able to sleep with the damn thing on no way. As far as she was concerned, it took away from her strength, rather than added to it. The less time she spent on the bottle, the better.
Instead, shed busied herself melting snow for tea, and preparing a packet of freeze-dried shrimp on the small stove. It was important at this critical juncture to keep drinking, to keep eating as much as you could - no matter how much your body rebelled against it.
Theyd all made it safely into Camp III, with the Donaldsons, Jim, and Pemba bringing up the rear once again. Lou Silvers cough was raging full force, and his bloodshot eyes gave testament to the physical stress his body was enduring. Even Kevin MacBride and Phil Christy had moved more slowly, been more subdued, and Ricky suspected that the mountains humbling ways were finally being brought to bear upon the young engineers.
Tomorrow was the day.
When they moved out of Camp III, past all that was comfortable and familiar, into the realm of Terre Incognito the unknown land.
Oh sure, she had three summits of Everest already in the bag. But you never knew what you were going to face in the death zone. It was a journey that was different every time.
From her first ascent by the Northern route, when she hadnt known any better that it simply wasnt done, not by rugged, world-famous alpinists, much less a young rookie from Quebec. To her last ascent a few seasons back with Jean-Pierre, when theyd tagged along on a scientific expedition as expert porters, more or less, just to get another shot at the summit for the sheer joy of it.
And now now she had a job to do. To make sure that the people on her team got safely up and down the mountain. But there was more than that. Something she hadnt planned on.
Having everything to do with Allison Peabody.
In a cold, inhospitable landscape where nothing was for certain, where your life hung on the end of a tether stretching along a knife-sharp ridge, she was committed that the young woman sleeping next to her would see the world, however briefly, as she had seen it: from the summit of Mount Everest. To feel what it was like to have that accomplishment under your belt, knowing that youd done it for the best of reasons, had relied on the best within yourself to make it happen.
Ricky stirred at the heating shrimp soup, her gaze still on Allison. With her bulky oxygen mask on, the woman looked like a sleeping fighter pilot.
Ricky sighed. The summit remained a vertical mile above them, wreathed in a smoky plume of condensation. There was no guarantee that any of them would make it to the top, but, if conditions were right and the climbers were in good health, then anything was possible.
But health and weather werent the only factors determining ones success on the hill.
As theyd gone higher and higher up the mountain, Ricky had kept her eyes on all the climbers, Sherpas included, gauging their samochuvstvie. It was a Russian term, one shed learned years ago from a climbing friend, Yuri.
A strong Russian bear of a man, who disdained the use of supplemental oxygen as she had.
Yuri was quick with a gap-toothed smile, and sported a taste for rotgut Vodka nearly as strong as his desire to bag all the worlds 8000-meter peaks.
The big Russian found kindred spirits in her and Jean-Pierre; people who climbed for the love of it. Who were compelled to push their physical limits higher and farther because for them, there was nothing else, other than that.
Yuri was long gone, swept away by an avalanche on Cho Oyu, but the idea of samochuvstvie had stuck with Ricky. There was no direct English translation for it, or French either, for that matter. The concept was an impression of a climbers state of being, considered along with the observable aspects of their mental, physical, and emotional state.
Blustery words of confidence and a good pulse-ox level were one thing. But a climber setting out on the challenge of a lifetime without good samochuvstvie, well, as Yuri had claimed, that climber was asking for trouble. Over and over again, Ricky had seen this borne out. Maybe it came down to the fact that if your head wasnt in the game, then it was impossible for your body to run the plays that got you the win.
Doing a quick personal inventory, Ricky found her own power, her samochuvstvie, to be in good order. The same held true for Allison, Paul Andersen and, even Kevin MacBride and Phil Christy. But she could not say the same for Lou Silvers, the Donaldsons, and even Jim Harris, whom Ricky noted had been moving as slowly as shed ever seen him.
Perhaps that had to do with the extra physical burden hed had working with Mike and Patsy Donaldson. Ricky had seen the way Patsy in particular had been hanging on the rope, relying almost entirely on her jumar her mechanical ascender to bear her weight.
A jumar, a handheld, metallic device with a self-braking mechanism, is attached to your harness. The fixed rope feeds through the jumar, as you hold it in your hand and push it ahead of you. If you pull it back towards your body or accidentally fall, a cam grips the rope and holds you in position. In a push-pull motion called jugging, you make your way up the ropes, one step at a time.
In Rickys opinion, Patsys version of jugging today, climbing her way up the steep Lhotse Face, had only been slightly better than her attempt of a week and a half earlier. With a pace like that, higher up the mountain, she would never make it. The mountaineer hoped like hell that Jim would put a stop to it before it came to that.
"Whatcha doing?" A tired, muffled voice.
"How does a little shrimp soup sound?" Ricky watched as Allison yawned and removed her oxygen mask.
"Good." She scooted closer to Ricky, her tired green eyes taking in the cramped tent interior. "Wheres your O2 rig?"
"Ah, Ill use it later," Ricky replied. Much. No sense in getting Allison worried over her own bias against the balky things.
"I feel so so uncomfortable, wearing it," Allison said a bit sheepishly. "But I have to say that the gas helps. I was feeling headachy when I got into camp, and now its gone." She yawned again, ruffling her short hair.
"Then the oxygen has done its job." Ricky knew that to be true. When climbers were flagging up high, feeling the affects of altitude, a hit of oxygen nearly always revived them. The problem was, in her opinion, that if and when that oxygen stopped flowing, they crashed physically even lower than before.
"So ." Allison rubbed her hands together. "About that soup."
"Coming right up," Ricky told her, carefully pouring the steaming soup into a rounded cup and handing it to Allison. "And I think I can even guarantee a Snickers bar for dessert. But first - the hot stuff."
Allison grinned. "Thanks." She took a tentative swallow of soup, shivering. "Mnnn thats better." Another sip. "This is good, Ricky. Really good!"
The mountaineer chuckled. "Its not like I had much to do with it. Just add water and voila. Plus " she poured herself some, "we used to say that boiled boot leather would taste good up high, if it was hot enough and you were cold enough."
"Ugh." Allisons face scrunched up distastefully. "I hope we never get to that point."
"Not this trip." Ricky smiled.
"Well, if it comes to that, you can do the cooking. God knows, Id probably even mess that up. There was a reason why I decided to live in Manhattan, you know."
Ricky took a gulp of soup. "I thought your job"
"Nope. It was the restaurants." Allison paused, remembering. "And the take-out. Thank God for bagels and deli."
The mountaineer studied her, confused.
"I cant cook to save my life, Ricky," Allison explained, grimacing. "I hope that doesnt disappoint you."
"Nothing about you," Ricky took her hand and lightly kissed it, "could ever disappoint me." The mountaineer had no idea where the words and gesture came from. Theyd simply bubbled up from a warm reservoir deep within her chest, moving easily, tenderly, to her tongue and lips.
Allisons jaw clenched, and she turned away as though the words had stung.
"Hey, what is it?" Ricky placed a hand on a slumped shoulder, and was surprised to feel it trembling. "Allison?" She was worried now. God, what had she done? "Allison Im sorry, I"
"Its okay." The younger woman bit her lip. "Its just that all my life, Ive tried not to disappoint." She spoke slowly, choosing her words carefully, struggling to maintain her composure. "But whatever I did whatever I said it was never good enough."
"Oh Allison." Ricky quickly put her soup aside and gathered the smaller woman into her arms. Awkwardly at first, and then with more self-assurance, as she felt Allison collapse into her, sniffling. "Sssh its okay." She felt the silken hair against her cheek, stroked the back of her head with her hand. "You dont have to do or say anything with me just be you. Thats what I love about you."
A soft, relieved sigh. "Really?"
"Really." Ricky let Allison stay there for a moment, content to hold her, to share their warmth. Then, reluctantly, she gently extracted herself. "Now cmon." She lifted Allisons chin. "Eat up, before this gets cold." She handed the cup to her.
"Okay," came the obedient response.
"You know," Ricky drained her own cup, and reached for more of the soup, "II would like to cook for you, sometime." There. It was out. Blue eyes lowered, and a flush rose to the mountaineers face. It wasnt like she was presuming too much, right? After all, the climb would be over soon. So talking about the future was fair game, wasnt it?
"You cook?" Allisons jaw dropped.
"Well, yeah." Ricky slowly replied. This was not the response shed expected.
"Really!" Allison shook her head in amazement. "I never would have guessed it."
"Why not? A persons gotta eat, you know!" Did her partner think she was a complete domestic washout? Well, maybe she wasnt a Martha Stewart acolyte with a fat budget to indulge her cooking and decorating whims. But during her summer vacations in Montreal as a child, visiting Grand-mère Bouchard, shed known enough to keep her mouth shut as shed stood at the knee of the stern but kindly older woman.
And there shed watched. And learned.
Even to this day, the mere taste of anything with apples in it, reminded her of warm summer afternoons spent elbow-deep in baking flour, her small childs hands rolling out the dough for her grand-mères apple cinnamon tarts.
"Its just that youve always been on the move so much," Allison hurriedly explained, sensing the mountaineers rising distress. "Its not like youve had a fully equipped kitchen at your disposal all the time"
"Its not what youve got," Ricky told her, a hint of mock-indignance in her voice. "Its what you do with it."
"In that case," Allison told her smoothly, "I cant wait."
"You sure you want to take the chance?" Ricky lifted an eyebrow, challenging her.
"When it comes to you and taking chances," green eyes fell on her, sparkling, "I know I cant lose."
One didnt conquer Everest, Allison Peabody thought, so much as survive it. Wearily, she pushed her ascender up the fixed roped and heaved her body forward another step. Theyd been at it for hours now, hours since theyd left Camp III in a frigid pre-dawn. Hours, too, since Jim Harris and Jangbu had turned back to that very same camp, escorting a nearly incapacitated Patsy Donaldson.
The woman had broken down shortly after theyd set out for Camp IV. The climb had started out easily enough, with a short traverse for a few hundred yards over a shallow slope. But then theyd slammed right into the 50-degree ice face of the mountain, and Patsy had quickly expended what little energy reserves shed had left.
It was probably for the best, Allison considered, despite Mike Donaldsons vociferous protests to the contrary. God knew what kind of trouble the poor woman mightve run into higher up. From the occasional squawking on her radio, she understood that Jim and Pemba had deposited Patsy safely back at Camp III, and turned around to continue up to the South Col.
Where the hell did they get that kind of energy?
And the Sherpas all the Peak Performance team members had been climbing at measured distances from one another, as Jims plan dictated. But it was the Sherpas who still moved easily over the ice and snow, their small, powerful bodies born to the thin air and tempered for the high-altitude world.
Allison knew she was in the best shape shed ever been in her life, and yet this climb to Camp IV was much harder than shed expected. Shed been on autopilot for some time now, with her eyes simply tracking from one foot placement to the next.
Occasionally, when she rested against the ropes, she chanced a glance in front of her where the red and black form of Ricky Bouchard toiled effortlessly along the icy slope. The fixed rope played out in front of the mountaineer, leading off into the whiteness above, a jacks beanstalk disappearing into the clouds.
Higher they moved, and Allison struggled to fight down the aching discomfort of the bulky cylinder of oxygen jammed into her backpack just a hint of what the weight would feel like closer to the summit after a 12 hour climb. She was cold and hot at the same time, thanks to the radiant heat from the brilliant sunlight shining down from above. As shed hit the more technical portions of the climb, through the Yellow Band and the near vertical portion of the Geneva Spur, her problems with the oxygen mask had started. It had begun to fog up her glasses, and at times Allison had felt as though she was viewing the world through a foggy mist. Shed spent time and energy frequently pulling up, trying to clean them. Worse, the condensation was constantly building up within the mask to such an extent that it dripped down, gathering in a cold pool that sloshed around her chin.
Step. Breathe. Step, breathe, slide.
The rocky, shale like surface of the Yellow Band had been the worst; scrabbling for miniscule toe-holds with inflexible, un-cooperative crampons over steep broken rock. It had been an arduous, exhausting process, trying to keep from backsliding on the loose surface, her ice axe rendered useless on the wind-swept limestone.
They were supposed to arrive at the South Col around 2PM, and Allison knew it had to be close to that time now. But shed stopped peering ahead, tired of the teasing destination that with every glance had seemed no closer. To the contrary, as her breath came in rapid, labored bursts and her arms began to tremble with the exertion, her goal seemed to pull farther and farther away.
She almost ran into Ricky before she saw her.
A strong, familiar arm pulled her up and over the last few steps. Immediately, a fresh gust of wind hit her in the face, stronger and more powerful than any shed felt on the climb.
Allison almost sank to her knees in relief. Shed made it. One more step along the tortuous road to the summit.
The South Col is a cold, brutal place, about 400 yards long and 200 yards across. Its eastern edge drops 7000 feet straight down the Kangshung face into Tibet; the other side is a 4000 feet plummet into the Western Cwm. Not a place where you wanted to be wandering around if there were a whiteout, or if it were growing dark.
Directly ahead, Allison could see some activity around a tiny cluster of tents; the winds pressed in on them, distorting their shape, the windward sides of them already half-buried by the blowing spindrift. To her oxygen-deprived mind, they appeared as broken, battered kites, shredded by the elements.
She could feel the cold now, even through the full-body down suit shed been wearing since shed arrived at Camp III. God, it was hard to imagine that in just a few hours, she was supposed to strike out for the summit. Was she insane?
"Are you okay?"
The high winds and the bulky oxygen rig could not mask the concern in the mountaineers voice, and Allison realized that she hadnt yet said a word. She wondered whether she were even capable of it at this point. But she knew Ricky was waiting, could sense her worry. And so she forced her chapped lips together, and pushed a hoarse response through her parched throat.
"Okay." A breath. "Get into the tent as quickly as you can, eh?" Ricky was unclipping her from the line, and gently propelling her in the proper direction. "Ill be there soon."
Allison mutely nodded, wondering whether Ricky could hear her teeth chattering. She stumbled towards the tents over the rock and ice, past the discarded oxygen bottles and litter of previous expeditions, feeling like a lunar explorer in all her unwieldy gear. Through her mist-shrouded glasses, she could see Dorje waving at her, and that had to be either Kevin or Phil crawling into an orange tent.
Sleep. That was what she needed now.
And Ricky Bouchard by her side, telling her she could do this thing, that everything was going to be okay. She had to believe in that.
She had to.
Ricky Bouchard looked at the glowing dials of her watch, and turned off the alarm before it even sounded. 9PM. It was Jim Harris plan to be away by 10PM, at the latest, on this final push for the summit.
The mountaineer had once again forgone sleeping on oxygen; shed passed a few restless hours dozing since shed crawled into the tiny two-man tent on the South Col, after helping to make sure everyone on the Peak Performance team had made it in. Allison had barely stirred when shed arrived; the smaller woman was that exhausted. Ricky had gotten her to drink some hot tea and down an energy bar, before she had drifted back to sleep.
And so Ricky had bundled down next to her, an arm slung across her middle, pulling her close. The hiss of her oxygen flowing at about a 2 liter per minute rate was barely audible above the winds that rattled the sides of the tent, and the mountaineer worried not for the first time whether people were ever meant to climb to these farthest reaches of the earth, not completely under their own power.
But it was not her decision to make.
In just an hour or two, there would be nearly thirty people clambering up the mountain towards the summit. There was at least one climber on the British team, Ricky had heard, who intended to make his attempt without the use of supplemental oxygen. But everyone else herself included would be on the bottle.
Ah well. If that was what it took, in theory, to keep everyone strong and functioning, she supposed she could go along with it, just this once. And if the extra gas was what it took to get Allison Peabody up and down safely, then shed decided she would go along with it with a god-damned smile on her face, besides.
Even at 26,000 feet, with the outside temperature about 20 below, Rickys senses reeled at having her near, the feel of her, the smell of her. To think that this brilliant, beautiful young woman had given herself up to her, freely, openly, without fear. It had rocked Ricky back on her boot-heels and thrown her completely off her game, for the first time ever in her life.
And for the last time, too.
Quickly, Ricky unzipped the tent and scooped some snow into a pot to melt for water, and fired up the stove.
Then, "Allison!" She gently shook her shoulder.
"Unnngh ." A muffled protest.
"Cmon. Time to get moving."
"Oh ." Allison slowly pushed herself to a sitting position, lifting the bulky oxygen mask from her face. "Ive had better wake up calls," she grumbled.
"Does this help?" Ricky leaned forward on her knees, and placed a light kiss on a pair of startled lips that had just begun to open in a yawn.
"Well ." Allison considered, pulling off her knit cap and running a hand through her tousled blonde hair. "Im not sure." She cocked her head at Ricky. Waiting.
"How about this, then?" Another kiss, deeper this time, more intense. Ricky could feel her pulse quicken and the breath catch, and it had nothing to do with the altitude. She reached out a hand to caress the cool skin of Allisons cheek, warming it, and felt her partner lean into her, sighing.
The mountaineer allowed herself to feel the heat of their connection, the depth, the power of this thing theyd both decided to put a name to, and let that love sweep over her, knowing that in this singular, aching moment, that Allison could feel it, too.
At last the taller woman pulled away, leaving them both gasping for air.
"Ricky?" Cloudy green pinned her, taking her in, and the mountaineer found herself willingly held prisoner by the force of the gaze.
"Yes?" Her voice cracked. Damn. The altitude, no doubt.
"Dont ever leave me." There was a gentle pleading in Allisons words, a wish, a prayer.
The mountaineers heart skipped a beat. Leave? She was a part of Allison, and Allison was a part of her. Shed found a new life in that conjoining of souls, an inner peace in that unity of being. Blurring the lines forever between where one began and the other ended.
A separation between the two was impossible.
And so she intended to stay right where she was, happy to no longer have a choice in the matter. She gave the expectant blonde a crooked smile, and dipped her head down for a last kiss.
Ricky Bouchard hating waiting. When it was time to go, you went. It was as simple as that. She had that tight feeling of nervous anticipation in her gut, the one she got before every summit push, right on time. Only taking action, clipping onto a rope and digging her crampons into the ice, would put it to rest. And it didnt seem as though moving out would be happening any time soon. Damn. Like a racehorse at the starting gate, she hated being fenced in, restrained. At high altitude, you had to get moving and stay moving. Your very survival might depend on it.
Instead, shed watched through the misty darkness as the other teams had set out from Camp IV, first the British, and then, surprisingly, members of the International Expedition. Only climbers from the Spanish Millennium group remained in addition to the Peak Performance team, and now even they looked ready to depart.
Once more, Ricky checked her watch. Just past 11PM. Over an hour behind their scheduled departure. The winds had died down to a soft blow, but even with that the mountaineer had insisted that Allison stay in the tent until they were ready to move out. Boot-steps crunched on the ice, and there was a soft chattering among the climbers who remained, anxious faces drawn tight with the solemn knowledge of what they were about to undertake. They nervously fumbled with their headlamps; checking and rechecking oxygen gauges, and carabiners.
Jangbu Nuru, the Peak Performance climbing sirdar, along with Dorje Sherpa and Pemba, had set out earlier with the extra oxygen canisters that would be cached at the South Summit. The rocky outcrop was so named for the fact that from below, it appeared deceptively to climbers to be the true summit, which was in fact still at least another 3 hours beyond. Once that stowing task was completed, they would drop back and pick up with other climbers heading towards the summit, if the Sherpas still had the samochuvstvie to make a summit attempt.
Being a climbing Sherpa was one thing. A climbing Sherpa who had summitted, however, could command top wages among his peers, in addition to enjoying a more prestigious standing for himself and his family in the local Sherpa villages. A sirdar like Jangbu, who had a number of summits to his credit, was one of the best of his kind, Ricky knew. They were lucky to have him.
Pemba had already summitted once a few years before, but would be anxious to add another success to his tally. Dorje was a rookie. He came from a family of fine high-altitude climbers, and would be looking to carry on that reputation with a summit of his own. In a way, Ricky envied the Sherpas their early start. Climbing behind the slower International Expedition was not what any of them had planned, but they had no choice now but to live with it.
Ricky made her way towards the cluster of tents where Lou Silvers and Paul Andersen had bivouacked, along with Kevin MacBride and Phil Christy. Jim had chosen to leave the three-man tent hed shared with Kevin and Phil, and instead bunk with the now solo Mike Donaldson.
"We got Mikes oxygen rig squared away yet?" As Ricky spoke, her breath plumed in the cold air. She still hadnt donned her own mask, preferring to put that torture off until the last possible moment before heading out.
"Just about," Paul Andersen told her, his mask dangling beneath his chin. He nodded towards the tent Jim shared with the executive. "Jim poked his head out a minute ago and said they were about ready."
"We gotta get going," Ricky ground out under her breath, stomping her feet. Everyone had been moving slowly to begin with, which hadnt helped. Mike Donaldson had not had a comfortable rest, nor had Lou Silvers. Then, while they were gearing up, theyd run into a problem with some of the headlamps, finding that several of the batteries had lost their charge in the cold. Next it was the oxygen, taking care that everyone had the two bottles in their backpacks that they would need to get to the summit. Not to mention the radios, the tooth-brush cases containing shots of dexamethasone, and the bota bags of water, carried inside their jackets so they wouldnt freeze.
Ricky adjusted the guides rucksack she had on her back. It contained the required oxygen, as well as an extra length of rope, a first aid kit, extra clothing, energy bars, and spare climbing equipment. God, at this rate theyd never make it to the summit by the 2PM turnaround time Jim had set. Lou Silvers was nowhere in sight, and even MacBride and Christy appeared weary of cooling their heels, and were greedily eyeing the relative warmth of their domed tent.
"Call me when were ready," Phil Christy muttered, his eyes dull and lifeless in the partial moonlight. With that, he crawled back into the tent.
"Yeah me too." MacBride shrugged off his pack and pushed it into the vestibule ahead of him. And then he was gone.
For a moment, Paul and Ricky stood there, silently, listening to Jim and Mikes muffled voices. The wind slapped lightly at the tents; equipment jangled as climbers clipped carabiners onto harnesses and moved out, kicking steps into the frozen crusts of snow.
The half moon skipped in and out of the clouds; when it was shrouded, the mountaineer could see a thin line of climbers snaking up the slope, discernible only by their headlamps, their individual lights bobbing in the dark like distant ships on an endless ocean. And then the moon would emerge, casting ghostly beams of light on the summit of Everest, a siren luring the high-altitude mariners to their fate. How Ricky yearned to be among them.
"Look, Ricky about the other night" Paul Andersen shifted uncomfortably on his feet, turning his gaze down the mountain towards the distant valley below.
"I said to forget about it, remember?" Ricky answered stiffly. She had no desire to open up that can of worms now, not at 26,000 feet.
"I know its just" he lifted pale blue eyes towards her. "I owe you an apology. And Allison too, for that matter."
"You dont owe us me," Ricky faltered, "anything."
"But I do," the senior guide countered. "Ive been something of an asshole on this trip," he smiled thinly, "and dont think I dont know it."
"Ah hell," Ricky sighed, "lets just chalk it up to too much chang and hanging out with the wrong people, eh?"
"Yeah, but ." the young man swallowed and then shook his head, his eyes finding his booted feet. "Its more than that. When I heard you were going to be on the team, do you know how excited I was? The great Ricky Bouchard?"
Ricky snorted. "Thats debatable."
"Cmon, Ricky youre one of the best. And we all know I havent even made it to the top of this baby," he gestured towards the summit, "not yet. And then when I found out I was going to be senior guide instead of you"
"Jim knows you better," Ricky said evenly, keeping an eye on Jim and Mikes tent flap, willing it to open. "Hes more comfortable with you. Believe me, I can live with that."
"Well, I couldnt," Paul said hoarsely. "And so I acted like I didnt give a damn, like I knew what the hell I was doing," he paused, "like I was better than you. And everybody bought my act, too."
"Not everybody." Ricky flashed the discomfited climber a small smile. Not people whose opinion mattered to her, like Allisons, Lou Silvers, or Jangbus. "Look no hard feelings, eh?" She removed her over-mitt and offered the guide her gloved hand.
Like a drowning man, Paul grabbed at it, shaking it hard. "Thanks Ricky thanks. Its been great watching you work, really! Ive learned a lot. But even so, Im gonna need your help today, fer sure, you know?"
"Were going to need each other," Ricky softly reminded him.
"Hey!" The tent in front of them zipped open, and Jim Harris head-lamped, hat covered head popped out like a gopher emerging from its burrow. He took a quick look around the huddle of tents. "Where the hell is everybody?" He growled. "Lets get moving!"
Two polypro under layers. A Thinsulate sweater, and pile pants. A powder blue down climbing suit, with matching thick pile hat. A pair of thin capilene gloves, mittens, plus Gore Tex over-mitts. Two pair of socks: one, a light synthetic, and another pair of heavy wool. Plastic climbing boots, heavy neoprene overboots, and gaiters. Harness, ice axe, crampons, backpack, plus all the other equipment the Peak Performance climbers were required to carry with them upon leaving Camp IV: an oxygen rig and 16 pounds worth of canisters. Radio. Headlamp. Water. Energy snacks.
Not too much of a burden at sea level. But at 27,000 feet plus, Allison felt as though she were carrying the weight of the world along for the ride. Slowly but steadily, she made her way towards the first landmark on the final push: the base of the Southeast Ridge.
The oxygen certainly helped her in her burdensome effort, but it by no means made the experience feel anything close to a hike on the beach. The supplemental oxygen rigs relied on a lean mix of ambient air and compressed O2, so that 27,000 feet with the apparatus, in actuality was more like a thick, luxurious 24,000 feet without it. Still, better than nothing. So she huffed and puffed along, following the easily marked trail broken by the climbers ahead of her, trying to ignore the rub of her heavy pack as it settled against her back.
For as long as shed thought about this moment, as often as shed considered what it would be like, and as frequently as Ricky had told her what to expect, she had to admit now that shed simply had no idea. She was cold and tired, and each breath through the damned oxygen rig scorched the back of her dry, raw throat. Whenever the moon cleared the clouds she hadnt even bothered to look up. Instead, her world was confined to the immediate space around her: digging her crampons in on the broken wind slab; the thick, coiled consistency of the rope, the shadows lurking just outside the stark beam of her headlamp.
If she did look up she knew what she would see. The summit of Everest, teasing them, moving in and out of the clouds. Bouncing splashes of light; other climbers, moving up. And, closest to her, the broad back of Ricky Bouchard, climbing with a sureness and grace that Allison envied.
This was all new territory for her, in more ways than one. Shed never climbed with oxygen before, and now between the weight of the bottles in her pack and the moisture pooling at her chin, she could feel a thin carapace of ice forming on the exterior of the mask.
God, as long as the gas kept pumping, she figured shed probably be okay. After all, others had gone before her this way, right? And then there was the length of the climb. This was the longest final push shed ever been on; the summit trek was a grueling night and day-long marathon.
Mountaineers had learned through experience to head for the summit at night, knowing that the winds tended to be calmer then. The objective was to reach the top by late morning or early afternoon of the following day, and then descend while there was still daylight left.
And just where the heck was that sun, anyway?
The sky had begun to pale against the rim of mountains to the northeast, not that Allison had much care to notice. It was one step after the other, punctuated by gasping breaths seeming as though there was not enough air in all the world to satisfy her need.
She kept moving, because she had to. Because she needed to. Because she intended to prove to herself that she could climb this mountain.
Because Ricky Bouchard believed that she could.
And so in spite of all the physical hardship, in her dark, private other-world Allison had managed to arrive at a climbing pace that she could live with. She wasnt traveling as quickly as she might have liked, but in her loosely-gaited rhythm shed reached a level of status quo with her body: she wasnt feeling any better, but she wasnt feeling any worse, either. Sure, she felt like hell, but shed found that hell in this place was at least tolerable.
When theyd left the South Col, theyd moved up along the Triangular Face, a 40-degree snow slope that led to the Southeast Ridge. The Face was a series of gullies; lines of thin, snow-filled grooves that led up to the long ridge that stretched across the mountain to the summit.
Allison had been tentative at first, and shed stumbled more than once in the dark, her heart jolting into her throat each time. Falling was one thing; avalanches were another. Even at this altitude, they were a threat. She would freeze in place waiting for her harsh breathing to steady, every time chips of snow and ice, dislodged by climbers above, scuttled down the slope towards her.
It helped simply knowing that Ricky was in front of her, leading the way, and Allison found herself willingly plodding along. Focusing on nothing but her steps, her breathing and that was it. It required too much energy to think or do much of anything else. She was dimly aware of the other climbers on the path: Paul, Kevin, and Phil up ahead; then Ricky, herself, and Lou Silvers next, trailed by Mike Donaldson and Jim Harris. They were only separated by ten or twenty yards each as dictated by Jims plan, but it may as well have been an ocean apart, for all the contact she felt with any of them, save for one.
The only one.
God, when all this was over .
"Wheres the fire?" A voice, a half-shout, sounding through an oxygen mask. But she recognized the blue eyes sparking at her in the smear of light beginning to color the sky.
"Wha--?" A strangled gurgle.
When had she traversed that last gully? Was it a half an hour, or a lifetime ago? And now here she was, at the Balcony, she guessed. The base of the Southeast Ridge. Somehow, shed lost all track of time. No matter. With a sense of calm, peaceful disengagement, she understood that her climbing partner would keep track of it for her.
"Take a break," Ricky said to her, peering at her intently. "Weve got to wait for the others."
It was only then that Allison noticed they were not alone on the Balcony. Paul, Kevin, and Phil were there, sitting on their packs. Other climbers were shuffling about as well, people she didnt recognize. Some were taking pictures, or stowing their headlamps. Others were gobbling down chocolate bars, or awkwardly fishing for their water bottles.
"Here." Ricky propelled her towards the side of the rocky cleft, to an area more sheltered from the wind. "Sit down. Get something to drink," the mountaineer commanded. "You better get your glasses out now too okay?"
"Okay," Allison croaked. A bit of a rest was just what she needed right now. "This is the Balcony right?" Her eyes blearily tracked around the hotel-room sized space.
"Yeah." Ricky turned around to watch the climbers inching up the slope behind her. "Were making good time."
Allisons eyes tracked past the mountaineers shoulder. The tip of the sun was visible now, spilling rich, vibrant colors of red and gold over the dusty plains of Tibet, highlighting the ebony hues of Rickys hair.
She just wanted to freeze, well, maybe that wasnt the right word to hold the memory of this moment in her minds eye forever. Ricky Bouchard, at 27,600 feet, bathed in the glow of the rising sun, a mountain goddess impervious to the earthly elements that plagued other mere mortals such as herself.
"You okay here?"
With a start, Allison realized that Ricky was talking to her.
"Yeah," she shouted, fumbling for her bota bag.
"Youre doing fine Allison just fine."
Allison simply nodded. She watched as Ricky turned her attention to the other climbers straggling up onto the Balcony, feeling those few words from the mountaineer warm her more than any thermos of hot tea ever could. They were just 1400 feet away now. A little under five football fields in length. Probably another six hours or so of climbing. Little by little, one step at a time, she was getting there!
A fresh burst of energy sang through the young blonde. Maybe it was the rest break, the water, or the Snickers bar shed scrounged, but Allison was ready to give it another go. And the sky lightening around her certainly helped, too, chasing away the shadows, and the doubt. She pushed herself gingerly to her feet, pleased to find that her legs felt good and strong.
At the lip of the Balcony, Ricky and Paul Andersen were helping a climber in who wore a bulky black down suit: Lou Silvers. The attorney stumbled onto the ledge, with Paul and Ricky at each elbow, bearing his weight. But Lou shook his head and pushed them away. He fell to his knees, tearing off his oxygen mask.
"Lou!" Allison moved towards him, alarmed. Just as she arrived he vomited onto the snow, choking and coughing.
"Easy easy now ." From out of nowhere, Ricky Bouchard produced a thermos of hot tea.
"Jesus Christ!" the attorney gasped, taking a swallow of the tea before he began hacking again. Allison could not help but notice that there were splotches of blood mixed in with the mucous now spattering the snow.
"Lou are you okay?"
The compact attorney sat back against a rock, placed his hands on his thighs, and lifted his watery, bloodshot eyes to Allison. "Never better," he grimaced.
"Right," Ricky said, placing a steadying hand on his shoulder as her eyes tracked to the bloody snow.
"Its just from my throat," he huffed, "or my nasal passages, Ricky. This damned bottled air is so dry."
"Hows your chest?" Ricky asked as quietly as she could and still be heard. Allison knew what the mountaineer was thinking. Nausea, cough, a tightness in the chest all were symptoms of HAPE High Altitude Pulmonary Edema. If that were the case, Lou Silvers would have to get down the mountain as quickly as possible.
"Its okay Ricky." The attorney took another swallow of tea, and in fact Allison had to admit that his color had improved from the pale, washed out gray hed had when he first stumbled onto the Balcony a moment ago. "I Id like to still give it a shot. I I think I can do it."
"Its not my call," the mountaineer replied, glancing to where Paul was now assisting Mike Donaldson and Jim Harris. She sighed, her eyes flashing to Allison before returning her attention to Lou. "Remember, you gotta get down." And with that, she headed over to where Jim Harris was weaving his way onto the flattened portion of ice and snow.
Allison awkwardly knelt down next to the beleaguered attorney. "Lou are you sure--"
"Listen, Allie," he stopped her. "I want this. But Im not crazy. Its not worth my life." He slowly replaced his oxygen mask on his face. "Ill be careful."
Other climbers were moving out from the Balcony now, and Allison could see a string of them winding up the Southeast Ridge, towards the summit. Muffled shouts drew her attention back to where she could now see Ricky in an animated conversation with Jim Harris, Kevin MacBride, and Phil Christy. Mike Donaldson simply sat on the periphery, gazing blankly off into space as he sucked at a bottle of water. A few more loud words, and Ricky suddenly turned on her heel and came stalking back.
"Lets get your gas changed now," the mountaineer said. She ripped her own mask from her face, revealing a mouth set in a tense line.
The dark woman remained silent, instead reaching for Allisons backpack. "Let me." She began to disconnect the bottle from the gauge, and dug down deeper to produce the fresh canister.
"Uh what was that all about?" Lou asked, choking back a cough as he moved to switch to his own fresh supply of oxygen.
"Kevin and Phil want to to pick up the pace," Ricky said tightly, refusing to lift her head. "Take off. Jims gonna let them."
"What?" Allison cried out, astounded, her eyes flashing angrily to where the team leader stood next to Mike Donaldson. The big man had a hand on the executives shoulder, and was talking intently to him. Donaldson, for his part, looked completely spent. Separating splitting up it was completely counter to the summit plan Jim had been preaching since the day shed landed in Kathmandu. She turned to Ricky. "Are we going that slow?"
"No, were not." The mountaineer finished with Allisons rig, taking deliberate care to make sure the flow on her regulator indicated the appropriate rate. "But some of the other climbers out there higher up are. And " she hesitated, "Jim and Mike have been having some trouble." She cast a glance over her shoulder at the two men. "So the plans changed."
Allison felt an icy hand reach into her chest, squeezing her heart. She wanted to get moving again, the winds were really blowing now, cutting into her like a knife. "But we three are sticking together, arent we?" She swallowed hard, fearing the answer.
Ricky snapped Allisons backpack closed, tugging on it once for good measure. Then, slowly, she lifted her eyes to Allisons, a look of fierce determination set in her face. "Yeah. No matter what."
Kevin MacBride and Phil Christy had already been moving well up the Southeast Ridge by the time Ricky, Allison, and Lou left the Balcony. A somewhat rattled Paul Andersen had been hard-pressed to keep up after the two men. "Just try to keep em out of trouble, eh?" Ricky had warned the young guide before hed clipped into the fixed rope and set off up the ridge for the South Summit.
"Are you guys okay here?" Ricky had asked Jim Harris and Mike Donaldson before heading out, doubting very much that they were by the woeful state of theirsamochuvstvie.
"Yeah, get get going, Ricky," Jim had waved her off. "See you... topside."
The mountaineer hadnt been so sure about that. Mike Donaldson had been fishing in his backpack for something over the last ten minutes, and had showed no inclination to get moving again any time soon. And Jim Harris, for his part, had been doing very little to urge him on. Strange, Ricky knew, considering the timetable they were all on.
"Dont tell me Patsy kept the god-damned camera," the business executive had grumbled at last, shoving his pack aside.
"Im sure someone can take your picture up there," Ricky had offered, putting forth her best guide effort.
"Thats not the point," Mike had cried out in an almost child-like voice. "We were supposed to be the first the first married couple to make it to the summit and now now its all ruined!" Hed wiped at his eyes in frustration, and in a surprising lurch of emotions within her, Ricky had found herself feeling simply sorry for the man.
Mike Donaldsons objective had been clear: to haul himself and his wife to the top of Mount Everest, no matter what the cost. Looking no further than what good P.R. it would be for his business. What dramatic, spellbinding conversation it would make on the cocktail party circuit. He and Patsy would have become the toast of the town and then some, no doubt about it. But when the chances of that dream were dashed, when Patsys poor body had finally reached its limit, so too, was the identity Mike had shaped for himself, shattered. He was set adrift now, on the jagged white sea of Everest, without a clue as to what was expected of him next. He simply hadnt planned for this.
"You wouldnt have been the first," Ricky had told him evenly. "Two other couples made it. The last just a couple of years ago." Shed shouldered her backpack and motioned Allison and Lou to the fixed ropes. "Both times the wife never made it down."
Shed turned away and left him there, not sure whether her words had even registered. That had been a couple of hours ago. Since then, as her strong legs had powered her steadily up the slope, shed stopped and turned back to check on their progress, but a snowy cornice now hid the Balcony from view. But she could see Allison Peabody behind her, and Lou Silvers, too, as well as several climbers from the Spanish Millennium team. Above her, there were a string of bundled forms moving along the ropes, passing one another, jockeying for position before they got to the difficult pitches like the Hillary Step, where they might be forced to cool their heels while slower climbers made their ascent.
Shed moved along the ridge, following its gentle arc north. The sun had continued to rise and now, glancing southwest into Nepal, she could see the pyramid shadow of Everest outlined on the earth below. Shed seen it before, of course, but never so clearly, and it simply took her breath away the raw, natural beauty of it all. It was for sights like this that she climbed. They stirred her heart; gladdened her soul. She hoped Allison had seen it; shed make sure at their next rest stop to point it out to her.
The mountaineer squinted above, towards the summit. The Jet Stream winds were blowing, and the plume had lengthened from what shed observed at dawn, but the weather appeared to be holding. There were a few high cirrus clouds wisping about, a certain sign of bad weather to come in the next few days, but theyd be long gone from the summit by then.
Step. Breathe. Step, breathe, breathe, slide.
They were about 400 feet below the South Summit now, and still making good time. But fast approaching in front of them, were a series of massive rock steps about 100 feet high. The choice here was to either climb up the rocks on the fixed rope, a challenging bit of technical maneuvering, or to track around the rock band, and risk floundering in waist-deep snow. Ricky saw three climbers slogging through the snow even now, and she suspected they were from the more inexperienced International team.
It was apparent that the majority of climbers were taking the ropes, and the mountaineer silently agreed that was the right play. In the end, sticking to your course with less ice and snow was a lot more attractive than taking your chances in deep snow, which at first blush might look deceptively easier. But the avalanche danger was greater, and with one false step you might find yourself on the express train to Tibet.
Ricky held up, waiting for Allison. "Can you handle this?" She stuck a thumb out to where a Sherpa for the British team was jugging his way up the rope.
"No no problem," Allison replied, tilting open her oxygen mask to blow out a stream of condensed water. Her eyes shone through her glacier glasses, she gave Ricky a brilliant, frozen smile. "That was some sunrise, huh?"
"Yeah," Ricky grinned back, glad that Allison had seen it. It was all part of the experience, and she wanted her partner to see it all, to feel it all, as she did.
A groan alerted them to the approaching Lou Silvers. The attorney was about ten feet below them, and leaning heavily on his ice ax. "I suppose " he coughed, "that son-of-a-bitch is next, huh?"
"If you want to get to the summit, it is." The mountaineer held out a gloved hand to him. "Tell you what." She nodded towards the vertical steps. "You guys first, eh?" This way, she figured that if they ran into any trouble, shed be better able to talk them down, rather than up.
"Age before beauty I guess." The attorney slogged his way past her, and Allison followed. "Thanks." He coughed again, an extended spell, this time, before digging in and beginning his climb.
Ricky stepped in close behind Allison as they approached the pitch. She lowered her masked face down to the smaller womans ear, so she didnt have to shout above the winds. "Im right behind you."
Allison briefly squeezed her arm. "Im counting on it."
Ricky waited at the bottom of the rock steps while Lou laboriously inched his way up, and then it was Allisons turn. The mountaineer was surprised at the feelings that suddenly assailed her as she watched her partner climb. Allisons movements were cautious but true, and Ricky had to admit that it was a sense of pride she felt welling up in her chest, as the young blonde ascended in the morning light.
And there was something else, too. Not fear, exactly, but rather a sense of guardianship, perhaps. She found herself mentally directing Allisons every step, willing that she take the proper placements, fully prepared to stand between her and any danger that might arise. Hell, she already had, hadnt she? Ricky thought, remembering the ice fracture MacBride had caused.
Shed never felt this way before, not really, even with Jean-Pierre. Oh, she would have done anything for him, and he for her, but at the end of the day they were still two individual, distinct people, each content to go their own way. But with Allison, it was different. She felt responsible for her, in every good sense of the word.
Its about time, Bouchard. The mountaineer shook her head in wonder. Maybe, youre finally growing up.
"Good job!" Ricky called out, seeing Allison reach the top of the steps. Another climber was coming up the slope behind her, and Ricky could see two more in the distance. Neither appeared to be Jim Harris or Mike Donaldson. Oh well. Shed radio them once she got to the South Summit. "I wont be a minute," she joked to the startled climber approaching. With a quick snap of her carabiner, she was on the move, easily handling everything the rock face had to offer.
Halfway up, about 25 yards to her left, she saw it.
The corpse was snagged in a cleft in the rocks, a frayed length of climbing rope still attached to its harness. It was face down against the rock, but the head of hair was full and dark, blowing in the wind. It was what had attracted Rickys attention to it in the first place. Because of atmospheric conditions at 28,000 feet, bodies didnt compose. By Rickys reckoning, the climber, still wearing a blue and black down suit, couldve been hanging there for a week or ten years; it was that hard to tell.
It wasnt the first body theyd passed on this final push; Ricky knew theyd gone by several in the dark, knew from prior experience and from stories the Sherpas told, of where some ill-fated climbers of Everest lay. She continued on, silently grieving for the man, wondering whether Lou or Allison had seen him, too. It came down to the fact that the dead climber had made a choice. They all had. Knowing they each must live or die by the consequences of that choice.
It was important to keep that in mind, up here. No more chang and poker games like at Base Camp. In the death zone above the South Col, it was a serious business. A deadly business. The deceased climber hadnt intended to remain dangling at 28,000 feet forever. But something had clearly gone wrong. Something he hadnt counted on. Or maybe he had, but in the end had been powerless to stop it.
Climbing climbing was about life. About playing full out, and never looking back. About knowing that you were only as good after all as the strength of the rope you hung from, and the faith you had in your partner to back you up.
If one or the other failed well.
Ricky Bouchard had no intention of becoming a photo op on the Everest Body Count tour.
With a strong boost she was over the final ledge, and on the last of the snowy ridge leading to the South Summit. The view was clear now of the remaining obstacles ahead of them: the snowy trek to the South Summit, the Cornice Traverse to the Hillary Step, and the last bit of knife-edged real estate leading to the true summit.
Allison was leaning on her ice ax, catching her wind, but Lou Silvers was sitting down in the snow. Hed once more removed his oxygen mask, and was coughing and gagging. His face had taken on a bluish hue, and again the mountaineer noticed splotches of blood in the snow. The summit was still another three-to-four hours away, with the most difficult pitch the dreaded Hillary Step still to come.
Unclipping from the rope, Ricky stepped to his side.
"I know, dammit Ricky I know."
"Maybe if you rested for a while?" Allison suggested, looking to Ricky for confirmation.
"We could," the mountaineer said slowly, frowning. The sun was brightly shining where they stood, but far below in the valley, she could see a bit of a cloud layer moving up. Not particularly threatening, but the longer they delayed, the more uncertainty was thrown into the equation. And Ricky Bouchard preferred to deal in hard facts.
"No," Lou protested. "Its no good." He fumbled for his water bottle. "I feel like I could keep going I I really do." He took a swallow and grimaced. "Hell, I might even make it. But its like you say, Ricky." He shook his head, and a hoarse bark of a laugh escaped his throat. "It dont mean a damn if you dont make it down." He paused, straining for breath in the thin air. "So Im heading down."
"Oh, Lou!" Allison knelt next to the exhausted attorney, wrapping an arm around his shoulders.
Lou removed his glacier glasses to wipe tears of frustration from his bloodshot eyes. "Its its okay," he assured her. "Really. Ive got two beautiful little girls who want to see their daddy again."
"And youll see them," Allison assured him. "Soon."
Ricky could see Allisons distress at the thought of leaving Lou behind. After all, theyd come so far together. But again, it came down to choice. And Lou Silvers was making his. As far as Ricky Bouchard was concerned, it was the right one.
In the distance, fast approaching them on the downward slope, Ricky could see the colorful forms of Jangbu Nuru and Pemba Sherpa, returning from caching the spare oxygen at the South Summit. Shed have Pemba see Lou back to camp. Jangbu, no doubt, would be catching up with Jim and Mike. It was young Dorje, then, whod been selected to continue on with the lead team of Paul, Kevin, and Phil.
Ricky turned a critical eye towards the sun, noting its height in the sky. The morning was fast getting away from them. She stomped her boots against the side of her ice ax, clearing clots of snow from her crampons, and waved at the Sherpas as they drew close.
"Okay," she announced to Allison, gently pulling her up by the elbow. "Weve got to get going.
Well, the top of the world certainly wasnt a lonely place, not this day anyway, Allison Peabody thought, gazing ahead through foggy glasses at the Hillary Step. The icy vertical cliff yawing nearly 50 feet high presented the last bit of difficult technical climbing before the summit. There were at least half a dozen climbers at the base, one on the ropes moving up, and a cluster more perched at the top, waiting.
In addition, several climbers had passed her and Ricky as theyd taken an earlier break, back at the South Summit. Ricky had gotten on the radio then, letting the support people in Base Camp know that Lou and Pemba were heading down. The mountaineer had also gotten a weather update from Sandra Ortiz. It was squalling down below, but the doctor had maintained that the latest forecasts still showed the weather window as being open.
Other chatter on the radio had told her that Paul, Kevin, and Phil, along with Dorje Sherpa, had tagged the summit. Well, good for them, Allison had wryly thought, knowing especially how pleased the young Dorje would be, earning his first summit credit. As for herself, with the Hillary Step still between her and the top, Allison still held her emotions back. Still would not allow herself to believe that Everest, too, might be hers.
After checking to confirm that their cache of reserve O2 was where it was supposed to be, Ricky had led the way down the rocky, false peak of the South Summit, into the saddle-like ridge that wound its way up to the Step. Now, as Allison approached the climbers gathered at its base, she could see that Ricky was once again on the radio.
"Where are you, exactly, Jim?" Ricky shouted into the handset.
"Movin up were movin up I think South Summit yeah. Approaching South Summit."
"Hows your power?"
"See you up top Ricky. Harris out."
"Jim?" Ricky pressed down on the handset again. "Jim?"
Sighing, she clipped the radio back onto her pack strap.
"Everything okay?" Allison gasped. She nearly stumbled into the mountaineer thanks to a loose rock that had caught under her crampon.
"Yeah," Ricky replied, quickly moving to steady her. "Paul and the guys just got to the summit. Jim says he and Mike are right behind us but " Rickys eyes flashed to the Southeast Ridge. "I dont see them."
"Well theyre down there somewhere," Allison said breathlessly, following Rickys gaze. She could see one more climber picking his way up the ridge. Farther below, moving towards the valley, her vision was cut off by clouds that were filling the lower reaches of the mountain.
"Is that some weather coming in?" Allison wanted to know. The winds were picking up but the sky was still clear and startlingly blue where they stood. In fact, here it was a gorgeous, sun-splashed day.
"Sure looks like it doesnt it?" Ricky told her, her eyes narrowing. "But Sandra says its just a squall down in B.C." The mountaineer turned to regard the climbers gathered at the base of the Step. Another climber had just clipped on the rope that threaded down through the rocks, and several more waited their turn. Other climbers were snacking, taking pictures, and some merely sat in the snow, not moving at all, showing no inclination to tackle the Step any time soon.
"Lets take a number here," Ricky said, guiding Allison to the base. "Youre ready for this, right?"
Allison could feel the intensity of the mountaineers gaze upon her, even through her goggles. "Oh, yeah," she told her, and it was true. Since their stop at the Balcony, Allison had found herself inexplicably getting stronger and stronger the higher she climbed. Chalk it up to adrenaline. Or maybe it was just that shed stopped noticing the cold and the wind; the damned oxygen rig and the numbing ache in her back and legs.
"Ill head up first," Ricky said, stepping up as another climber began to slowly, cautiously work his way up the rope. "You take your time and Ill be waiting for you up there."
"Okay." Allisons eyes drifted to the other climbers around her. Those whod seemed to have stalled. "What what are all these people doing?"
"Maybe resting. Maybe stopping." Ricky said, clenching her jaw. And then, as though shed read Allisons mind, "Theyre responsible for themselves, Allison. They all took that on the moment they left high camp. They make their own choices just as we make ours."
Allison swallowed hard, and said nothing. She simply stood quietly next to Ricky, waiting her turn, feeling the winds beginning to swirl around her. The mountaineer was right. Again. Nothing worth anything ever came without some sacrifice a price that had to be paid. And only she could be the ultimate arbiter as to whether that price was worth it for herself. No one else could make that call for her. No one.
The mountaineer moved up, and clipped on. "Okay?"
Allison nodded. "Okay."
When the black and red form of Ricky Bouchard disappeared over the crest of the Step, Allison knew it was time. She stepped to the base, trying to ignore the churning in her gut. Looking up, she could see the winds blowing loose snow off the lip of the Step, sending a sideways shower of sparkling spindrift off into space. She was so high, higher than shed ever been, and now, looking at the vertical wall in front of her, it occurred to her that there was very little ground left around her anywhere, and a helluva lot of open sky.
No roof. No walls. This was why shed taken up climbing, right? To feel that freedom?
Ricky was waiting for her. There was nothing to fear. Ricky had shown her the way, right?
"You going, mem?"
Jolted from her reverie, Allison turned to see the ice-encrusted, sun-burnished face of a Sherpa behind her, obviously anxious to get moving up the ropes.
Fighting down her panic, Allison bobbed her head in the affirmative. She carefully clipped on, and then swung her ice ax into the wall and began to hoist herself up. Just another wall just another wall Allison chanted to herself as she planted one foot, one hand after the other.
Remember when you first learned to do this back in the Tetons. Piece of cake.
Okay so maybe that experience hadnt been at nearly 29,000 feet, but the technical principles were the same.
It was exhaustion more than anything that got to people at the Hillary Step. The pitch would be easy enough at sea level, easily accomplished even without a fixed rope. But at altitude, facing such a rigorous physical challenge after a nearly 12-hour climb, well, for many would-be summitters, the Hillary Step was one they simply could not surmount.
Concentrating, Allison continued to propel herself up the chimney-like prow of rock and ice. Just another wall just another-- A last dig with her ice ax, and then strong arms were pulling her over the lip.
"Good job!" Rickys muffled voice sounded.
Allison was stunned. Climbing the infamous Hillary Step had taken her all of five minutes. She found herself floundering on her belly in the snow, like a fish out of water, before Ricky got her away from the edge and helped her to her feet.
"Wow," Allison gasped, swiveling her head to take in the view. All around her was sky, blue sky. Dead ahead, was a thin, razor-edged ridge, a narrowing ribbon of white, trailing up to the summit about 200 yards away. The summit ridge sloped upwards from the left at about a 35-degree angle, peaking to the right in a series of formidable cornices finger-like ridges of overhanging ice and snow. The trick was to stay to the left of the stress fractures in the snow, indicating where the cornices from time to time decided to detach, and take an 8000-foot joy ride into Tibet. But trailing too far to the left was no safe bet either; Nepal lay on that side, far, far below.
"This way." The mountaineer moved out up the ridge, and Allison promptly fell into step behind her. The wind was blowing hard now, shrieking, its moan so loud that the young blonde could barely hear herself think. Which was probably a good thing, she considered, because she probably wouldnt like what her mind was trying to telling her. Youre so exposed up here the wind is gonna blow you back to Kathmandu! What if you fall now? Your mother always said you were such a klutz! Just dont take Ricky with you, okay?
Allison startled as a parade of climbers suddenly came streaking towards them from the summit: Kevin, Phil, Paul, and Dorje.
"Next!" She heard Kevin MacBride call out as he barreled past her. Phil scrambled close behind, crowing, "free brew for me next year!" indicating hed won their bet. Paul Andersen stopped to speak to Ricky, and Allison watched the mountaineer offer the young guide her congratulations. "Youre gonna have a wait at the Step," she warned him as he continued down, and he waved his acknowledgement of that fact.
"Good luck Allie!" he shouted to her as he passed by, and it was all Allison could do to nod her thanks as the wind ripped his words away.
Finally, save for a group of figures huddled at the summit, they were alone.
Taking her by the arm, Ricky planted the pick of her ice ax and stepped around her. "Why dont you take the lead from here?"
Keep moving, just keep moving, Allison told herself. Do what you know.
Step. Breathe. Step, breathe, slide.
She could see the climbers standing on the summit now, one of the British men she recognized from Base Camp, and there were others, whose hooded shapes were unknown to her. A climber started down when she was still about 25 feet away, and she waited for him to pass.
The path was clear.
Plant the ice ax. Get a good toe pick. Dont make a mistake now. God, the sky was so blue, and how the snow sparkled like a bed of crystal, unfolding out in front of her! So warm, so inviting.
But she wasnt there... not quite. And so she refused to let herself feel it. She didnt deserve to. Not yet. After all, she had no business being here in the first place, right? Thats what her parents had said. And that asshole, Lionel Kitteridge, too.
Allison could spy a small metallic tripod draped in colorful prayer flags, the cloth snapping and standing at attention in the blowing winds. The climbers were gathered around it, taking pictures, chattering on radios, and then one of them turned to clap her on the back, greeting her with a smile. "Welcome."
Keep going. Keep going.
Allison was confused. She stopped, and looked cautiously around.
There was nowhere else to go.
Shed made it.
She, Allison Peabody, of the Boston Peabodys was standing on the top of Mount freakin Everest.
And with that realization, the burden shed been carrying on her back since Kathmandu, since her childhood, since forever, simply shriveled up and blew away, taking that person shed once been with it.
"Oh, God oh God!" She gasped, falling to her knees as though shed been stricken. She searched for Ricky but could not find her everything was blurred. She pulled down her oxygen mask and took off her goggles, but still she couldnt see.
And then, "You did it! You did it, Allison!" She felt the arms around her, heard the voice calling to her above the wind. "Im so proud of you!" She blinked, and only then understood that it was tears that were blinding her, stinging her eyes.
"Oh, Ricky thank you. Thank you!" she sobbed, not caring what anyone thought. Dammit this was her moment, and she wanted to spend it with the woman she loved.
"Thank mefor what?" The arms squeezed her tighter. "You did this all on your own."
Allison thought about that for a moment. She had, hadnt she? It had been her own two legs that had gotten her to the highest point in the world here, at 29,035 feet. That, and a belief shed had in herself that Ricky Bouchard had instilled within her that an impossible dream could become reality.
"Here." Ricky was reaching in her backpack. "Lets get some pictures."
"Oh right," Allison replied, sniffling, wiping at her face. She put her glasses back on, to shield her eyes from the bright light, and pulled herself to her feet. What an amazing sight, she thought, gazing out onto the distant plains of Tibet.
She was looking down on it all, down on the world below, feeling its powerful energy pulsing up through the earth and rock, thrusting through the clouds to where it terminated beneath her very feet. She was a part of it all, and it of her.
"Hey!" she shouted, realizing that Ricky had been snapping away at her. "Let me get some of you."
"How about I try one of you both?" The British climber volunteered, and Ricky quickly passed him the camera.
The mountaineer moved next to Allison. It was close quarters. The summit of Everest was only about the size of a pool table or two that was it. But with a 360-degree panorama to choose from: the Tibetan Plateau to the north, the magnificent Himalayan peaks of Kanchenjunga to the east, Makalu to the southeast, and Cho Oyu to the west - no shot was a bad one. The Brit took up a position facing northwest, so that the brightly colored prayer flags would be fluttering behind them in the picture. Allison felt an arm snake around her waist, and then heard in her ear: "I love you."
A broad smile split her face, just as the British climber snapped the picture.
"Ah thatll be lovely!" He yodeled, his formal accent sounding somehow appropriate in this hallowed, ethereal sky-world.
"Thanks," Ricky said, taking the camera back. The British climber started back down the slope, leaving them for the moment alone. She turned to Allison. "We should go."
"Just just a minute," the younger woman replied. She began searching in her backpack. It was traditional to leave something at the summit of Everest. The prayer flags of course were in plain view. Others planted national flags, or left personal mementos or photos of loved ones. It was a very personal thing, and a tradition that Allison hadnt wanted to miss out on. God, even now it was hard to believe she would actually make good on that wish.
"Whatcha got there?" Ricky wanted to know, watching as Allison produced a shiny coin.
"Its my I dont know my good luck charm, I guess." She held the coin out to Ricky. It was a U.S. silver dollar, from the year of her birth. "I always took it with me on all my " she shook her head, "adventures. From my first parachute jump to my first climb." She lifted moist green eyes to the mountaineer. "I never realized I was searching for something until I found it." She turned, and burrowed the coin deeply into the snow. "I dont need it anymore."
And it was true, she knew. In loving Ricky Bouchard, shed been found.
"Okay," Allison squared her shoulders. "What about you?"
"IIve left things here before," the dark woman began.
Of course she has, you idiot! Allison chastised herself. This has got to be old hat for her, by now.
And then she realized that Ricky was shyly smiling at her. "But, this time," the mountaineer lifted the back of a gloved hand to lightly grace Allisons cheek. "Im bringing something back."
Every wise mountaineer knows that reaching the summit is merely the halfway point of any climb. This is particularly true on Everest, where until you descend below Camp IV, out of the death zone, you cant afford to let your guard down for even a second. And that is a difficult thing to do, especially when the summit rush has left your body, and the cold, and the pain, and the lethargy begin to seep their way back in.
Some climbers reach deep down into the bottom of their gas tanks, and call up enough fuel to get them all the way back to Camp II by dusk. Others might be held up by bottlenecks on the trail or else decide to take their time, arriving back at the cluster of tents at Camp IV within two-to-four hours. Once there, they collapse in their sleeping bags until the next dawn, sleeping on oxygen, recovering, before heading down the mountain.If we can just get to Camp IV before this squall hits, Ill take this as a day well spent, Ricky Bouchard considered, leading the way back down the Summit Ridge. They were nearly to the top of the Hillary Step, and had caught up to several other climbers who either had already summitted, or else had decided to turn back.
The turning back was a tough call, Ricky knew, especially when your goal was in plain sight. But the extra half hour to an hour it might take to get up and down might be exactly the amount of time you needed at the back end of your climb to, say, get to the South Col before a hard blow hit.
And with each passing moment, the sinking feeling in the mountaineers gut grew. They werent going to make it in time. Ricky had been alarmed when theyd turn back from the summit to head down the way they had come. The squall clouds, as Dr. Ortiz had called them, clouds that had been filling up the lower valley like water tumbling over rocks, had not dissipated. Instead, they had risen closer, much closer. Boiling skywards from the Khumbu in angry, roiling thunderheads.
This was not a Jet Stream snap-back, Ricky knew. Rather, this was a localized weather disturbance, born and bred in the moisture-laden, summertime heat of Nepal. It might not last for several days like some of the snap-back storms theyd experienced while in Base Camp, but brother, could these local monsters pack a punch! Already, Pumori to the west was completely invisible, and the sky was taking on a flat, grayish hue.
"Andersen to Bouchard Andersen to Bouchard come in, Ricky!" Her radio crackled to life.
The mountaineer had arrived at the top of the Step. The first significant hurdle on the descent. Quickly, she turned around to make sure Allison was in good shape behind her.
Peering over the lip of the Step to view the progress of a climber rappelling down the ropes, Ricky keyed in her handset. "Bouchard here."
"Ricky! Weve got a problem here!" The young guides voice sounded strained over the airwaves. "Im at the South Summit. Jim and Mike are here and and theyre not in good shape."
Jim and Mike had never gotten past the South Summit after all.
"Is Jangbu with you?" Ricky demanded, her senses ratcheting up to full alert. This was not good.
Ricky turned her back into the wind, raising her voice in order to be heard. "Okay, then," she shouted, trying to convey a sense of calm to the younger man. "Have him stay there with them. You, too," she added. "Were on our way should be there in about " she looked at her watch, "15 minutes or so."
"Ricky! Theres more!"
The mountaineer could feel Allison come up behind her. "What?" she keyed her response into the handset, even as she felt her stomach plummet down into her boots.
"Its the oxygen bottles," his voice was a near-sob now. "I cant fuckin find them I cant. I think theyre gone."
In a reality where the balance between life and death is precarious at best, where the thin white line marking the division between success and disaster is in constant motion, even the most innocent of actions, the most mundane of events, can result in the most dire of consequences.
A late start out of Camp IV.
Trailing through bottlenecks behind slower moving teams.
A bad weather forecast.
Forgetting that in this, the most harsh environment in all the world, the brutal elements brought out the best in people, and the worst.
Ricky Bouchard squatted in the snow at the South Summit, next to the sheltered rock where, not three hours before, shed checked on their cache of O2.
The bottles were gone now, save for a couple of half-filled discarded canisters. The mountaineer rocked back on her heels. It was hard to tell what had happened. The canvas bag that had held them was gone, and scattered all around were empty bottles. The South Summit was the usual spot to swap oxygen on the descent. Evidence of that - the candy bar wrappers, the abandoned canisters surrounded her. Perhaps an altitude-impaired climber had mistaken the Peak Performance cache for his own, and other climbers, following him or her, had simply compounded that error.
No one breathing supplemental oxygen would ever dare to make the attempt without knowing they had enough gas to get up and down, right? Unless you misjudged what you needed or unless you were an International expedition, low on resources and even lower on mountain savvy.
Whatever had happened, none of that mattered a damn, now.
Jim Harris and Mike Donaldson sat in the snow, next to one another. Jims head hung down low, and Mike had nearly pitched over onto his side. Paul Andersen was with Mike, trying to rouse him. Jangbu Nuru was on his knees next to Jim Harris. The sirdar was talking fervently in his bosss ear, but the team leader showed no signs of being responsive. Allison had removed her bota bag and was trying to get the men to drink, but both were ignoring her vigorous efforts.
There were no other climbers at the South Summit now, save for the Peak Performance people and Harry Owens, the British climber theyd encountered on the summit. Everyone else had descended from the spot, intent on beating the approaching weather. That grouping included a distinctly rattled Kevin MacBride and Phil Christy.
"I dont know what the hell they swapped their tanks with," Paul had told her. "They had to be discards half full, if that. But they wouldnt wait. So I told Dorje to stick with them."
Ricky had simply nodded. Thered been no way the young guide could have forcibly kept them here, not with Jim Harris out of commission. And maybe it was for the best, anyway. If they escaped the brunt of the storm, well, good for them.
"Youve got problems, then?" Ricky looked up into the shadowed figure of Harry Owens. His face was barely visible from the parka hood that enveloped his head, and small icicles dangled down from the bottom of what mustve been a beard under his oxygen mask.
"Yeah." She groaned, pushing herself to her feet. "Too many climbers and not enough gas."
"I gathered," the Brit said quietly. "Look. Ive just switched tanks but Ive got about a half left in this one." He held up the used bottle. "Its yours, if you want it."
"Ithanks," the mountaineer said, gratefully accepting his offer. Think. Think! She did a quick inventory of their oxygen supply. There were the two half-filled bottles that had been left at the site of their cache, plus the half from Harry. Ricky knew she had a full bottle still in her pack. Shed never bothered to make the switch earlier at the Balcony; hadnt needed to. From the moment theyd set out the night before, shed purposely regulated her flow to a ridiculously low level.
Shed been required by contract to use the supplemental oxygen while climbing above Camp IV, and so she had. But Jim had never specified how much. Fearing the crash she might experience if the gas were somehow cut off a frozen valve, a faulty rig - and hating like hell to have to use it in the first place, shed simply taken liberty with the rules of the game. And now, knowing her own first bottle was at last nearly drained, she wasnt overly concerned. But as for everyone else? That was a helluva problem.
Ricky unclipped her radio handset. "Bouchard to base. Bouchard to base. Over."
"Go -head, Ricky."
The voice of Dr. Sandra Ortiz crackled and popped through the radio, sounding relatively calm in the face of a mounting storm.
"Weve got some weather brewing up, right?"
A pause. "I dont know --- to say, Ricky. All the fore--- said--"
"Look, youre breaking up," the mountaineer cut her off. "And Ive got a problem here. Were at the South Summit repeat the South Summit. The oxygen cache is gone. Weve got very little gas left, and Jim and Mike are down. Repeat Jim and Mike are not able to move under their own power. Over."
Another pause, and then Ricky could hear the panic in Sandras voice.
"No no ygen? Youve got--- get them down. Give-- shots of dex. --ver"
Ricky squeezed her eyes shut in frustration. "Ill give them both shots," the mountaineer confirmed. "And Ill get them down. MacBride, Christy, and Dorje are already on their way. Everyone else is here over."
There was more static, more interference from the clouds and then, "---heart condition! There should be meds -pack. Dose -now."
"Repeat?" Ricky was astounded. Surely, the altitude was playing tricks on her hearing.
"Jim has a heart ---dition. Medication in-- backpack."
No. It couldnt be. "Sandra!" Ricky barked into the handset. "Bouchard to base. Bouchard to base. Over."
But the crackle and hissing of static was her only response.
Ricky Bouchard stared at the offensive handset, stunned. Taking on Everest was hard enough with a strong heart, let alone with one that could not perform up to capacity. A flash of anger coursed through the mountaineer but quickly she wrestled it under control, determined to channel that negative energy in a more positive, useful direction like getting the hell down.
And, first things first: they had to get Jim and Mike up.
"Okay" Ricky joined the huddled group, wondering if theyd heard the radio chatter over the high winds. Not likely. And as she drew closer, it was obvious to her that somewhere along the trail, Mike Donaldson had lost or discarded his handset. "Were gonna give both these guys a shot of dex," she explained, pulling her first aid kit out of her rucksack. Paul--" she checked Jims oxygen gauge. As shed suspected, it was empty. The flow had been turned up to nearly 5 liters per minute. At that rate, he had to have blown through his second bottle of air before hed even reached the South Summit. "Theres a spare bottle in my pack," she nodded towards it, not bothering to explain. "Get it on him."
"Gotcha," the young man replied, clearly relieved to be doing something. With trembling hands, he reached for Rickys bag.
Just a jab and a press, and she was finished with Jim Harris. The shot elicited a moan from the man, and she was at least grateful for that response. Quickly, she turned her attention to the now nearly-prone Mike Donaldson. She checked his oxygen gauge. Inexplicably, it registered as nearly full.
"What the" Ricky swiftly dispensed with the injection, and returned her attention to the gauge.
She tapped on it. Nothing. The needle refused to move.
Another tap, and then she looked at the valve. "Jesus Christ!" she swore, roughly twisting the knob. It had been notched in the off position. "Hell never get any air if its not turned on!"
"I checked it Ricky I swear to God, I I checked it!" Paul exclaimed.
Ricky frowned. Maybe he had, maybe he hadnt. The altitude affected everyone differently. Hell, in a moment of waning lucidity, maybe even Donaldson himself had reached back and switched the damn thing off.
"Forget it," she told the senior guide, instead turning her attention to Harris pack. A brief search turned up no medication. If hed ever even brought it along with him, he didnt have it now.
"We topside, yet?" Jim Harris mumbled, shaking his head.
"Not this trip, boss," Jangbu told him, helping him to a more upright position.
Ah, the wonders of a fresh bottle of O2 and a shot of dex. Like a pair of toy soldiers with new batteries, Jim and Mike were reviving before her eyes. All right.
"Weve got 3 canisters of oxygen left," Ricky explained to them, glad in a way that the mistake with Mikes flow had just improved their position. "One is courtesy of Mr. Harry Owens." She nodded towards the young man who still lingered with them on the wind-swept shelf. "Theyre only about half full. I I want you three to take them now," she told them, sweeping her eyes over Jangbu, Allison, and Paul Andersen. "Try to keep the flow as low as you can stand itll have to last."
"What about you?" Allison demanded.
"Ive kept my flow way down all along. Ive got enough left," Ricky lied. Studiously avoiding Allisons gaze, she moved to collect the remaining bottles of O2.
Harry Owens handed them to her as she approached. "Thanks." She spared a glance down the mountain, at the swirling clouds that were nearly upon them. "You should get going."
"Well, thats just it," the young man laughed nervously, stabbing his ice ax into the ground. "I seem to have lost my escort, you see. If its all the same to you"
"Youre welcome to stick with us," she told him, smiling tiredly at the relief that visibly washed over him. She didnt blame the man. It would be impossible to beat the storm by this point. The inevitability of it all was upon them. So, better to face a whiteout in a group, rather than alone.
"Appreciate that, thanks!" Harry called after her, as she returned to the huddle with the bottles. Mike Donaldson was sitting up now too, groggily returning to life.
"Lets get these switched." She handed a bottle each to Jangbu and Paul, and then reached for Allisons backpack.
"I can do it."
"No, let me"
"I said I can do it," came the stiff reply.
Ricky flinched as though shed been struck.
"Okay," she said quietly. She handed Allison the canister, and turned away.
"Rickywait." A hand on her arm.
"I - Im sorry," the young blonde said, stepping in front of her. "But Im not a complete idiot, you know."
"What?" Ricky kept her eyes on the darkening valley below. She knew what Allison was talking about; just as Allison knew that she did. The mountaineer sighed heavily. The lower peaks were all but obliterated now, and closer, the South Summit was nearly consumed by the threatening clouds.
"I know youve got no oxygen left."
"Thats not true ." Ricky protested. "Ive still got some." But she knew tank was nearly tapped. With every dry breath she took in, she had to pull harder.
"Ricky." The tone of Allisons voice, firm, and yet pained, forced the mountaineer to look at her. "What are you doing?"
"What I have to do." She paused. "Its my job, Allison. Ive got to make sure these people you get down."
"But how can you do that without gas?" Even in the biting cold, the younger womans face was growing flushed.
"Because Ive done it before. Im used to going without. These people " she gestured to the frightened, disoriented group, "arent."
"Trust me," Ricky hushed her. "I know what Im doing." She pursed her lips, debating whether to continue. But then she gazed into the face of the woman who had become her everything, and decided she deserved to know. "Its its gonna get ugly, Allison. When the oxygen runs out and it will " she slowly shook her head, "these people will go into a physical nosedive."
"Me, too?" A small voice.
"Maybe." Ricky bit her lip. "Probably."
Allison remained silent, digesting that information for a moment. And then, "Well, until that happens if that happens, whatever I can do to help, Ricky. Just let me know. Were in this together, okay?"
The feeling flowed over Ricky like warm water, the love; calming her, a well of added strength from a source where shed least expected to draw it from. "Okay," she nodded, her voice a hoarse rasp.
And then she looked to a fly-away wisp of Allisons golden hair, noting with some despair the thick, fat snowflake that had drifted down from the sky above to nestle there.
To be continued - Part 13 (Conclusion)
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