It was easy for them to say he’d climbed Mt Everest – they weren’t there.
He rolled over in bed, onto his side, provoking a coughing fit. His souvenir from the Everest expedition. Deep, retching coughs that brought the taste of blood to the back of his mouth and made his eyes water. He rolled onto his stomach and grabbed for the glass on his bedside table, knowing water wouldn’t really help but willing to give it a go anyway. He slopped the liquid into his mouth, then coughed it back into glass, now tinged pink. Some dribbled across his fingers and he wiped them on the front of his t-shirt. I survived Everest, read the worn
Rob sat up in bed, surveying the scene. His bedroom was a mess. His sheets were stiff with sweat, damp yet rigid from a week’s worth of bad dreams. All about the mountain. It was one year since he didn’t quite climb Everest. These days it was all he could do to climb out of bed in the morning and stay vertical for the 12 hours or so necessary to assure his parents he was getting his life back on track.
Rob sighed, then pushed himself to his feet, treading over the detritus of smelly clothes, old magazines and mouldy coffee cups that seemed to be multiplying on his bedroom floor. On the back of his door was a Garfield poster his parents had given him, along with the Everest t-shirt. The kooky cat was in a dungeon, hanging by manacles attached to his front paws. The caption read: ‘Today is the first day of the rest of your life’. Rob put the poster up partly to appease his parents but mostly because he hated Garfield, and seeing the smug-arsed feline finally getting his just desserts seemed to take the edge off things.
The dream was always the same. Like watching a movie about the day they summited. Two months of hard work – not to mention the preparation time – and it had come down to this. It was rush hour on Everest. A clear day after forty-eight hours of dangerous winds meant three teams were making the final push. There was a Swiss team, a group of Japanese, and Rob’s party, made up of Australians and a couple of Kiwis. In total, 18 people crowded on the summit pyramid. They took each other’s photo and thanked the mountain for being kind to them. Rob, like everyone else up there, was suffering from hypoxia – a lack of oxygen to the brain. It made thinking very difficult. He was looking up at the crowd on the upper part of the pyramid, the pinnacle, the zenith, and he kept grinning at Dave, one of the Kiwis, saying we did it, we did it, and Dave grinned back at him through his frosted beard.
They enjoyed their seat at the top of the world for 15 minutes, looking back into Nepal at the mess of blues and greens below them, and then it was time to go. Every second at that altitude brought you closer to death, so they headed back down, each step requiring the utmost concentration. His whole being focussed on putting one foot in front of the other, making sure he was attached securely to the fixed lines that marked out the route back to Camp Three. As many experienced Alpinists had told him, coming down was more dangerous than going up, because you were dangerously fatigued and, when you’d just conquered Everest, it was easy to think you were indestructible.
The cough set in before the doubts did. At Camp Three, Rob developed a nasty, hacking cough, caused by the extreme cold, and the lack of oxygen and moisture in the air. It was the cough that still plagued him, the cough that meant he would never get another shot at Everest, or any other peak higher than 16,000 feet. The doctor told him he was lucky to be alive.
Rob walked out into the kitchen, and tried to distract himself with the simple task of making coffee. Taking the plunger off the shelf, flicking the kettle on, pulling the coffee out of the fridge, and so forth. It was a brief respite. He took his coffee out into the sun on his back verandah, sitting down and telling himself he had no right to be miserable. Look at all you’ve got, he thought, inadvertently looking down at Cat, his tortoiseshell feline friend. Cat meowed and rubbed herself against his leg. He lifted her up onto his lap and she lay down, ejecting her claws to plump up his leg then remembering where she was, retracting them and purring.
“You have no right to be miserable,” he said.
But you didn’t summit Everest, his mind retorted. As they neared Base Camp, the doubts blossomed in his mind. He asked Jim, a friend from Melbourne he’d climbed with many times before, if they’d summited, and Jim just laughed.
“Of course we did,” he said.
“There were so many people up there. Dave and I, we were down a bit. There were a lot of people up there. Did you get right to the top?”
Jim gave him a queer sideways glance. “Well, yeah, but...”
“Shit. I didn’t summit. God damn. I didn’t summit. I didn’t make it.”
Jim looked as though he might laugh again but he held back, maybe divining this wasn’t a good time or place to have a hysterical climber on his hands.
“You made it, Rob. Don’t start all this bullshit. You made it. That’s the end of it.”
Rob nodded. The Sherpa believed that Mt Everest wasn’t just a pile of rock, it was the Earth Mother. Climbing Everest, to them, was like climbing into the lap of the Earth Mother. Arriving back at Base Camp, Rob started to think the Earth Mother had infected him with something. Physically, it manifested itself as the hacking cough he couldn’t shake. Mentally, he was plagued by doubt.
His Collins dictionary described ‘summit’ as a noun meaning ‘the highest point or part of a mountain or a hill’. Frustratingly inconclusive. You could argue, as Jim had, that he’d reached the highest ‘part’ of Everest, but he knew he hadn’t stepped on the highest ‘point’, because he remembered – a memory reinforced in his nightmare –seeing it covered in a sea of multi-coloured snow jackets.
He sipped his coffee. Cat looked up at him and squinted.
He had never actually lied to his family and friends. He’d called them using the team’s satellite phone, he’d said he was on top of the world. That was true. He just wasn’t at the highest point of the top of the world. When he came back, his parents threw a party for him and all his friends were there and everyone sang ‘for he’s a jolly good fellow’ and everyone was happy, everyone seemed to be taking something from his achievement. Then there were the interviews, with the Courier-Mail and local radio. He could still remember the young journo asking him what it felt like to climb to the top of the world, and him answering: I don’t know. The journo taking that as meaning Rob hadn’t digested it yet, and taking his nervous fidgeting as misplaced modesty. What would’ve been the point in coming clean? Even now he couldn’t see the point in that. And yet, each day he let it go, he felt as though the lie was getting bigger.
The only person he’d confided in was Jim, and Jim thought he was crazy. In the months after the climb, he’d phoned Jim a few too many times than he should’ve, at times that were perhaps inconvenient. Usually Friday and Saturday nights, after a few beers and a couple of shots of bourbon. Every time it was the same spiel: You summited. Rob, I can’t make it any clearer to you. Just leave it, move on. And Rob always had the same response: But I wasn’t right at the top. And now Jim had moved, and he hadn’t left a forwarding number. Rob tried emailing, and Jim actually replied, once, about three months back: Get some help, mate. And then nothing. Rob liked to think that Jim had abandoned him because they were climbing partners and, now that he wasn’t climbing, they had nothing in common. Rob liked to think that final email meant get some help in defining
He still had all the climbing equipment: the ropes, the karabiners, ice pick, cold weather gear. It was sitting in his broom cupboard, the broom leaning against the fridge. And he could climb, technically. The high altitude, cold weather stuff was out, on account of his lungs, but he could still do some local climbing, if he wanted. Many a Sunday afternoon he’d thought about taking the ropes down to the Kangaroo Point cliffs, just doing some basic climbing. Getting back on the horse, as his dad was fond of saying. He’d thought about it, but that was as far as it went. He wasn’t scared, exactly. Admittedly, the thought of climbing again gave him a few butterflies, but that was mainly because he knew that his technical skills would be a bit rusty, his arms and legs a little flabby. Mainly it was just apathy. When you’ve almost climbed Everest, what’s the point? Where’s the challenge?
Tonight his parents were taking him out for dinner. For the one-year anniversary. They’d invited his close friends. He hadn’t asked for it, he didn’t want it. He supposed he could’ve said no. Well, he had said no. He supposed he could’ve been more forceful but, there it was again, apathy. What was the point in standing up to his parents? It wasn’t their fault he didn’t have the presence of mind to climb those last few vertical feet that would’ve put him at the very top of the world. Why spoil their fun? Besides, there was no excuse he could think of good enough to cancel at this stage.
The cat dug her claws into his leg again and he pried them off, then reached for his coffee, pausing with his cup held halfway between the table and his mouth. On the other hand, maybe there was one excuse. A grin touched his lips. He rose from his seat, Cat mewling with indignation, paws hitting the deck with a solid thump. He didn’t want to think about what he was doing. He knew if he did that, he wouldn’t do it. So he walked like a zombie from the deck to the phone, dialling his parents’ number, nervous breath rushing in and out of his scarred lungs.
His dad answered.
“Dad? It’s me.”
“Dad, listen, I can’t come out for dinner tonight. I’m going climbing.”
“That’s great son.”
“I’m really sorry.”
“That’s okay, we’ll reschedule it. You have a good time, Robbie.”
A click, as his mum picked up the other extension.
“What’s this, Robert?”
His dad answering for him: “He’s going climbing, June.”
“No,” Rob said, relaxing into the lie now, “but I’m going to camp up there.”
“Where?” his mum said, sounding annoyed.
Rob’s heart fluttered again. He hadn’t even thought about it. He glanced wildly around the room, eyes settling on a picture of the Glasshouse Mountains, stuck to the fridge. A postcard, from his parents. Perfect.
“Mt Tibra,” he said.
“Does it have to be today?” his mum, pleading.
“Leave him alone, June.”
“I’ve got to go now. Sorry again.”
His dad: “That’s okay. You enjoy yourself.”
Then mum: “Be careful, Rob.”
“Thanks. See you when I get back.”
Rob placed the phone down, cutting off any last-minute objections, and leant against the wall, breathing heavily. The lie burned hot in his guts. Then why make it a lie? he thought. Tibra wasn’t a simple climb, but he thought he could manage it. He didn’t have a climbing partner, but it was a popular climb, he was sure to meet people up there. Climbers were generally an amiable bunch. And, if worst came to worst, he could always take the bushwalking track up, sit up top for a while, watch the sun go down.
He looked at the clock on the wall, and decided to go right away. He was scared that if he didn’t maintain his momentum up he’d falter. Daytime TV was awful, but you got used to it – that was one thing he’d learnt this year. And once you got used to it, it became comforting.
Rob gathered his equipment in quick, robotic actions, taking out all the cold weather gear, and loading the rest into the car, along with some basic camping equipment and some food. It was the first time he’d touched his ropes since packing up at Everest Base Camp, and the feel of them against his skin sent a not-totally-unpleasant chill running up his back and into the hairs at the base of his neck. He popped next door and asked Jill, his neighbour, to feed Cat for him.
“Where’re you off to then? Going to climb Mt Everest again?” she said.
Rob forced a smile. “Something like that.”
Back at his place, Rob locked up, picking Cat up and nuzzling against her face.
“Now you be good for Jill, okay?”
Traffic was light on the highway out of Brisbane and before mid-afternoon Rob was driving into the car park, peering up at Mt Tibrogargan’s bulky mass. He parked alongside a battered, dusty blue Datsun hatchback with a bumper sticker that read: Climbers do it with ropes.
Rob unloaded his gear and walked to the base of the cliff, ropes slung over his shoulder. His heart was pounding in his chest, and a feeling of unreality smothered him, as though this was all just a dream – a good dream, for a change. Two young guys sat at the bottom of the cliff, unpacking their gear.
“Mind if I join you?”
The sandy-haired youth was Bill, and his chunky, serious-looking friend was Craig. They looked to Rob to be about 17 or 18, but they climbed like spider monkeys, Rob feeling his age for the first time in a long time.
Rob had forgotten about climbing – technical climbing – about how absorbing it was. Looking for the next hand or foothold, checking how safe it was, testing your weight on it, then pulling up, placing another 15 to 30 centimetres of air between you and the ground. Or, alternatively, watching your partner, making sure they’re not in any difficulty, taking up the slack on the rope in case they fall. There was no room to think of anything else, and Rob welcomed the silence, the peace it offered. It wasn’t until the three climbers had completed the first stage and were perched on a ledge, looking out towards the coast, that they spoke about anything not directly related to the climb.
“I’ve seen you somewhere before,” Bill said, casting Rob a sideways glance.
Rob shrugged. “Can’t think where.” Rob was nervous about where the conversation was heading. The thought of being stuck on this ledge, reliving Everest, chilled him to the core.
“No, me neither,” Bill said. “You done much climbing?”
“Ah, a bit here and there. Nothing to boast about. You?”
Rob was pleasantly surprised when Bill left it at that, content to look out at the scenery, until they’d recovered enough for the final push. Rob took his time on the last stage, each step, each reach causing his muscles to complain. Bill and Craig were patient. By the time they reached the summit the sun was dropping through a clear sky, disappearing into the range off to the west. The three climbers stood looking east, watching the lights come on up and down the coast as the sky turned from orange to deep purple.
“Sorry, I’m a bit out of practice,” Rob said.
“That’s okay. Better to climb safe than climb fast,” Craig said.
They decided to camp on the summit. It was a nice night after all, and Bill and Craig didn’t have anywhere they needed to be. They built a small fire and pooled their food, coming up with a couple of Vegemite sandwiches, wrapped in plastic, two Mars bars, an apple Bill cut in thirds with his penknife, and a packet of corn chips. They ate in silence, Bill sneaking a glance at Rob every now and then, until Rob caught him looking.
“I’m sure I’ve seen you somewhere before.”
Rob shook his head. “Maybe I’m your fairy godmother.”
It wasn’t until Craig pulled from his pack a hip flask of whiskey and passed it around a couple of times that the mental link was made.
“Everest!” Bill said, pointing the flask like a weapon. “You climbed Everest! Jesus! I knew I’d seen you somewhere before.”
Rob shrugged. “It’s not quite how the newspaper had it.”
He sighed and told them the story. The whole deal, the climb, the doubts, the nightmares, everything up until meeting them that afternoon. Afterwards, they sat in silence for a while, the fire now little more than a few smouldering coals.
“You can’t change what’s in the past, so why sweat on it?” Craig said. “You got further than about ninety-nine point nine-nine per cent of the population.”
“Jesus,” Bill said. “We’d kill to get that close.”
Rob nodded, staring at the coals. Angry at them for dismissing his pain so easily, but mostly angry at himself for wasting a year of his life. They were right - he was making a mountain out of a molehill. Har-de-bloody-har-har. He was still angry, still disappointed, still frustrated, but what could he do? He looked up into the clear night sky, amazed at the clarity of the stars. He didn’t want to go back to just surviving.
“Hey,” he said, “are you guys going climbing next weekend?”
"This is an excellently written story that held my attention all the way through. Wonderful dialogue and a creative look into your key characters perspective."
"ur really good. r u a girl./ u r a guy right?"
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