This story originally appeared in Alpinist 57–Spring 2017, and recently won the prize at the Banff Mountain Book Festival for best Mountaineering Article.
I NEVER MUCH THOUGHT of the danger when I started all those years ago. I never imagined the pain, the grief. Heroic…. I was indestructible…. I saw myself breaking shackles, becoming free…. But I was naive. In my defense, it’s difficult to see the pain when you don’t really value what you have at the time. It’s easy to make light. Life is cheap, and time is a giveaway. But of course, life is never cheap, and time goes one way only. Entropy.
By September 15, 2016, Paul Ramsden and I had been in Tibet for six days, and the orange tent with its blue-striped tarpaulin had become our home. We sat at our base camp near the river. Several miles up valley, the water sprinted from the snout of the glacier, which inched from the foot of the mountain we hoped to climb. In the morning, the current was subdued–still noisy, but the day’s sun hadn’t yet warmed the ice, and the volume was less. Later, as the grey water rushed, polishing the rocks, the sound increased. After a day or so, the noise became less invasive. Our minds decided it wasn’t important anymore. Threshold shift.
We were here to attempt a new route on the north side of the Nyainqentanglha West Range. To our knowledge, we were the first Westerners to explore this valley. “No, that’s not the side to climb from. It’s too steep, no one has climbed from that side,” local residents told Paul. Truth be told, hardly anyone climbed from either side. This small sub-range was something of an enigma, a very-difficult-to-get-permission, a magician’s trick.
I FOLLOWED PAUL INTO THE UNKNOWN above base camp to begin our acclimatization. Walking into ever-thinner air, walking ever farther from news reports of Brexit and Trump and Aleppo. When the clouds parted, the sun felt warm, as if its protection would last forever. But the sun was burning and aging, and at some point, the sun would die. The river, milky grey, grew shallow. Yaks lifted their heads and watched for a second, before resuming their grazing. Boulders rubbed smooth by glaciation and rumbled by water scattered along the wide valley base. Redstarts, feathers the color of paprika, perched atop large, snow-covered rocks. I imagined there were still birds among the rubble in Syria, but my numb brain was crammed with a glut of images and information and distance, and my privilege made a comprehension of other people’s plights even more unobtainable. Yet the sun was going to die….
The mountains, their danger, their noise was similar to the noise of the river. There, always there, always roaring, much as it had been for over twenty years of my life. But my mind had dumbed the risk. It’s the same as when you are young, and you see an older person push their glasses from their eyes before sitting them on the top of their head. That will never happen to me, the shortsighted, glasses thing, you think. But of course, it does, and as I now read the newspaper with my glasses propped on the top of my head, I can clearly see the mountain’s print and the text reads Loss.
THE RED CUSHION where Mum once sat has a small hollow. The nearby shelf is full of bits and bobs–a small camera, a phone, a picture of me in the snow on Ben Nevis, a dictionary that she used for reference while completing her puzzles. It’s October 24, 2016. Nearly two years have passed since she died, leaving behind Dad, her partner for fifty-four years. I’m in her chair. Everything is covered in a thick layer of dust. I move a photograph that lies flat on the shelf. The wood beneath is bright and sharp. There is a picture shape in the dust. An echo.
Dad sits close by smoking his roll-up and drinking tea while reading an Inspector Morse story. Barney, the parrot, stands on her perch inside the cage on the old oak table. Empty sunflower-seed husks lie scattered. Paddy, the Jack Russell terrier, claws at my legs. Dad’s jeans are unwashed; his flat cap is greasy. His chin is grey whiskers. His mouth is full of yellow stumps. The boat is quiet, apart from the creaking, and the times when Barney talks. Dad appears not to notice, but Barney calls in Mum’s voice.
I picture Mum lying on a trolley in a stark, bright hospital corridor. My sister Lesley was with her. At the time, I was scraping up a snowed-up, rocky cleft in the Cirque Maudit, high above Courmayeur, Italy. It was just before Christmas 2014. Lesley said Mum, covered in a white sheet, remained in the corridor for three hours before a porter took her to the intensive care unit.
In 2003, the year I resigned from my job as a physical education instructor in the Prison Service to become a nomadic writer and full-time climber, Mum and Dad sold their house and almost all their belongings to live in this narrow boat and explore the British waterways. I now stand in the gloom of their kitchen looking into a dirty sink. Butter and bacon grease smears the draining board. Granules of white sugar stick to brown stains of black tea. Mugs, swinging on hooks, are covered in tar. The fridge leaks. A pan on the hob is half-full of congealed fat. The boat, the dream, is disheveled, unloved.
When Mum died, she left behind an on-the-wagon-alcoholic who was used to hiding behind her sociability, her care. Dad has not cooked, shopped for food, tidied or washed clothes at any point in his life. How is this possible? I want to run as far and as fast as I can.
I climb through the small double doors and step to land. The canal is a welt cut through the earth and filled with dirty brown water. Straight, like the cleft I climbed on the day that Mum died. Unforgiving. Compulsive. I’m afraid. I know I’m wrapped in the same skin, blood, bones as the man who sits inside the boat.
Paul Ramsden and I flew back to Britain nine days ago. Tibet feels like a country someone else visited. I’m standing on a towpath in a grey Northamptonshire morning, about to embark on a journey with Dad to move his boat. I left home at age sixteen, thirty-four years ago. The thought of spending so much time with him scares me. What will it reveal? When will it end? Stoke Bruerne to Apsley Marina. Forty-five miles and fifty-three lock gates. A boat named Jasper that hasn’t moved in years. An eighty-three-year-old man who wants to stay where he is. Stoke Bruerne has become the place he calls home. Dad won’t help. “I’m going to sit in my chair drinking tea and smoking,” he says. He prefers to shut himself away. I have no experience of controlling a notoriously unreliable boat. I’m a fifty-year-old man. I can feed myself and keep myself clean, but I’ve made climbing into my comfort blanket, the intermediate between me and the world. Are we so different?
The woman who owns the mooring wants rid of Dad. She has also recently lost her partner of many years; she doesn’t want the hassle of a disagreeable tenant. Dad pees into a bucket at night, and in the morning, he throws the contents into the canal. All his life, Dad took pride in being stand-alone, anti-social. He was insular, a smoldering ash. But even the most driven individual needs a final destination. I understood both sides, though to me, the eviction feels cruel. Imagine being eighty-three and having your home moved overnight. You wake in the morning and look out the same window, but there’s a new, unfamiliar view, with unfamiliar people and pavements and streets you don’t know your way around.
My friends Mark Goodwin and Nikki Clayton will soon arrive to help me. Mark is a poet, and Nikki has a unique, gentle way of viewing the world and its complications. Mark and Nikki have lived together on a narrow boat for fifteen years. For three days, they will teach me how to handle the boat, and perhaps how to handle my lack of understanding for Dad. But my mind screams, The journey could last for five.
ON DAY TWO of our acclimatization, Paul and I walked around a corner, and from nowhere, a towering north face appeared. Immediately, I was beguiled. I felt a deep longing, an ache. I wanted that drunken euphoria that almost nothing else in my life gives. This buttress was a rabbit from the hat, unseen by the mountaineering world. I wanted to down this hill in one swig and revel in its headiness. “I don’t need to look any further for an objective,” I said. And Paul said, “If we don’t do it, you can’t publish a picture anywhere because I will come back.” But we had to do it…. In an instant, my mind had gone from a successful climb, to published articles, to awards, and then, just as quick, to failure. So much failure. So many dreams. So much ambition. So much time. So much life. In another second, I was already plotting a return. I was like Dad, in fact, worse. I had fallen from the wagon even before Paul and I had put the wagon into gear.
In late August, Kyle Dempster and Scott Adamson went missing on the north face of Ogre II. I’d rock climbed with Kyle in Italy, and I couldn’t get the image of him out of my mind, or at least the image of where he once was–those broad, strong shoulders that rose and fell every time he laughed. As I caught the plane to Tibet, I still clung to the belief that he and Scott would stagger into their base camp with another story. I was wrong.
It snowed all through the first night that Paul and I camped beneath the buttress, so we returned to the river. Three days later, we headed back to the start of our route. Lying in the little tent, I came clean with myself. Possibly for the first time in more than twenty years. “Life affirmation, the challenge, live life to the full….” It was true at some point I suppose, and still is for some, but now it all felt cliched. It felt like marketing consumeristic bullshit. The most honest answer I could conjure up is to know what you are and what you have to do when you wake in the morning: today I will walk to the foot of something that intimidates me, and I will begin to climb. But even this statement was untrue, even this was my mind’s marketing, because the real reason was for the after, for the adulation and acceptance and the slap on the back. It was all just a big erect middle finger. I’m getting mine, how about you? But at least I’m being honest, and possibly this is my answer, this is why I do it. Honesty is easy. Honesty is open. Honesty is a weight off. Honesty is no secrets, and once discovered, honesty is peace. Maybe I’m getting old? I am old. Trying to set the record straight.
Maybe it was the picture that got me thinking this way. Luca Signorelli took the photo six years ago at the 2010 Piolets d’Or outside Le Majestic hotel, Chamonix. Andy Houseman laughs while placing a flower in Kei Taniguchi’s hair. I wrap one arm around Kei and one arm around Kyle Dempster. Alexander Ruchkin and Vitaly Gorelik crouch at the front. Everyone is smiling. Now, Kei, Kyle, Alexander and Vitaly are all dead.
Heavy snow covered the cliffs before me. I felt as if I were breathing through plastic stretched over my mouth. At altitude, my lungs crackled; at altitude I had Mum’s physiology, not Dad’s. Mum was tough, but her body was frail, though she always battled and rarely complained. Mum’s mind was tough also, I’m sure of it. She had put up with Dad for fifty-four years.
At times, the drifts were waist deep. Inauspicious. Sixteen hundred meters of ice and rock and unknowns spiraled above us. The summit had a reported elevation of 7046 meters. I plunged and waded, remembering the butterfly. A Red Admiral, with a dried and faded section of wing, had stuttered into the tent at base camp. I cupped the butterfly in both hands and returned it to the outside, but as it took off, a gust of wind pushed it into the snow. I offered the back of one hand. The butterfly, with damp wings, crawled aboard. I placed it atop a brown boulder in the sun. Half an hour later, I watched the butterfly take to the air.
“I can get down from any mountain in any condition.” That was how Paul put it. I didn’t doubt Paul was strong; it was obvious from his big legs. He’d run the Bob Graham Round–one of the three classic mountain challenges in the UK, forty-two Lakeland peaks within a 24-hour period–when he was seventeen. He reminded me of the Shar-Pei dog I had photographed in Lhasa: friendly, but bred for fighting.
That evening, we squeezed onto a tiny snow step for an open bivy. Through the night, I looked at the stars and thought about friends burnt-out by the brightness of living. A few weeks later, I would feel a similar sadness in the squalor of Jasper‘s once-proud interior. A bunch of Mum’s silk roses stood in a round container at the bottom of the dirty bath: faded, disheveled white petals with black edges, covered in tangles of spider webs. The double bed where she last slept was still made with her bedclothes. The floral duvet was brown and damp, its flowers almost invisible beneath a coat of dirt.
So many dead. Friends. Friends of friends. Family. I’d like to say the dead are always with me–locked inside some vault inside my mind. But the days and nights and weeks, the months and years…. All the time I’ve spent in the mountains, all that self-satisfying and goal-driven time, rubs smooth the edge like the grey, numbing water rushing from the glacier. Until it is only on occasion that drops of cold, clear revelation remind me they have gone, they have gone forever, and at some point, I will go also.
TWO PARENT swans and a grey-feathered cygnet run the surface of the brown canal before takeoff. Wings chop the air with a powerful swishing noise. Mark is at the tiller. He could stretch an arm to shake hands with them. The swans are a family, but instead of closeness and unity, I see Vulcan bombers, planes designed to kill. War is in the news. Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq. As we leave the mooring that was Dad’s home, no one comes to say goodbye. He stays inside the boat, sitting in the gloom.
The noise of the engine is as loud as the river in Tibet. My mind vibrates, listening, willing it to stay alive. At seventy feet, Jasper is the longest length of boat able to navigate the canal system. Instead of a standard throttle and gearshift, a long rod of steel gets pushed forward to engage the forward gears and pulled back to engage reverse. The throttle is a small bronze wheel, turned clockwise to increase the revs. It soon becomes apparent how physical it is to jump on and off the boat to prepare for the many lock gates. No wonder Mum always looked so thin and worn out.
Beneath the shredded grey and black thistling of his hair, Mark’s face turns serious with concentration. At first, I think he’s hamming it up, his creative, almost over-the-top exuberance bubbling. Later, I find exactly how much I have to focus just to keep the boat straight. As we pass through narrow bridges, around bends, meeting other boats traveling in the opposite direction or stopping, I realize that rock climbing, in comparison, is almost uncomplicated. Rock climbing is concentration and forethought, but this is like rock climbing with someone else’s body. Nikki reminds me how to operate the lock gates. She explains with such carefully delicate detail, I tell her to simplify her instructions, and then I feel guilty to be so blunt.
When I visited several summers ago, as Dad steered Jasper into a narrow lock, Mum and I had each pushed one of the heavy painted oak gates. When they came together, they juddered. Dad’s large, freckled hands wrapped the polished wood of the tiller as if he were holding the handle of a trowel. Mum walked to the far end of the lock and winded the rack, a metal bar with teeth. I jumped on board and stood alongside Dad. We stared up into the sun as Mum became a thin outline above.
The bar opened the wooden shutters, and water gushed from holes in the gate. Frothy brown bubbles. Old green weed hung between black brick. Drips. Young ferns grew in the rotten joint of the wooden gate dazzled with vibrancy. Imposing, almost impenetrable walls surrounded Dad and me. In the dripping shadows, the sun vanished, and the cold between us deepened. Jasper sank deeper. Aching, arthritic corrosion appeared on the surface of bricks and in the joints that bond them. Stale passage and age. The water level inside the lock equalized with the level outside. The slime-coated gate gave up its struggle. Dad pushed the metal rod forward, and his fingers turned the bronze wheel clockwise. Jasper‘s engine vibrated as the gear engaged, and once again we escaped into the sun. And in the sun, the mood lightened, and the bank of the canal was bright and fresh.
A YEAR AGO, I had decided I had done enough: 2012 was my last expedition to the Greater Ranges, and I was finished, nada. The toll over the years was paid…. Then Paul showed me a picture. Maybe one more time? Go out with style? Finish with something people would remember me by? Ego. People asked why I thought younger climbers weren’t going on expeditions. The reason was easy to see. Expedition success was like crack cocaine, but in the hands of an addict, more dangerous and expensive. I was a pusher. I wrote about what I found: the high, the release, the escape. But as I pushed the glasses to the top of my head, at last I could write with honesty. I thought myself a modern man, but in reality, I was a throwback. Almost extinct.
Threshold shift. Western society, or maybe society as a whole, doesn’t seem to want to wait anymore. The instant is in vogue: instant gratification, instant pictures, instant recognition, instant fame and instant fortune…. Before he met Mum, Dad was drafted into the Korean War. After I was born, he worked a string of jobs to pay the bills: bricklayer; insurance salesman; brewer; social worker; machinery operator for cotton weaving and printing presses. In the evenings, numbed, he watched TV and hardly moved from his chair in front of the fire. He never owned a credit card. Hardship over an extended timeframe is something I appear to have inherited. I battle against my intolerance, something I also inherited from Dad. On occasion, I lose that battle. And at times that failure is difficult to accept. I didn’t ask for intolerance. As for platitudes, I didn’t want those either. I don’t ever want “He died doing what he loved.” Dying young or even dying old but still healthy is desperately sad and heartbreaking and overrated and should not be celebrated. It should be seen for what it is, a terrible waste. Life is the prize. Living more so.
Paul and I christened Day Two the crux day. Runnels of creaking ice. Aretes of snow sculptured by wind. Bulging rock with grains of orange and yellow stripes. The whole face twisted in some warped, massive monster Matterhorn way. Day Two was the test, but of course it wasn’t. The real test is always continuing. “It’s never as bad as people think,” Paul had said. “They always think their situation is much worse than it actually is and come down. You just have to wait it out and carry on up. Don’t come down, take the rough with the smooth.” I gave up easily. Many better climbers stayed up. Many died because they did. If it got really bad, I wanted to come down, instead of hanging-in for the good of the overall outcome. Dad didn’t come down; he stuck at a life that I suspect was not of his complete choosing, one that he accepted for the expectations of his society and the company of the woman he loved. He quenched his aching with alcohol, only to be left alone to grieve.
Paul and I were on our own. Tashi, our liaison officer, knew we had a permit for the range, but he had no idea where we planned to climb. No one did. Paul’s wife, Mary, wasn’t fooled. Before we left, I could see it in her eyes. Paul appears to have bought into the story he told Mary and their daughter, Katy, a fable of safety. Denial. But then again maybe it wasn’t. Paul is obviously very good. He seems, almost, to believe in all he says, and his track record is almost exemplary.
A few years ago, I bumped into Scottish alpinist Rab Carrington in the old chapel on Llanberis High Street that is now a gear shop. Around us, climbers pulled on new rock shoes smelling of glue and rubber.
Couples wearing new and crunchy, vibrant-colored jackets looked at each other and at themselves in a mirror. The coffee machine gurgled to the smell of espresso. I asked Rab why he had given up mountaineering at a time when he was still in such good form. “I wanted to continue living,” he said.
I’ve told myself, if I die on a mountain, it’s going to be the unsuspecting thing that ends it. But of course, this isn’t true. It will be mundane. It will be storms and a slab avalanche, or I’ll be pinned down by bad weather until exhaustion gets the better of me. A year ago in Canada, I was nearly killed by a bear, and for a moment, I’d thought that could happen in Tibet, too.
On the way to Nyainqentanglha, we stopped in the tiny hamlet of Badigog, at a block fortress perched high on a windy plain, where the village leader conducted his business of Tibetan trinkets, yak rides and blessings. We never did get the village leader’s name, but he was generous. He was tall and thin and wrapped in a fur-lined, wine-red colored coat that touched the back of his knees. His eyes were bloodshot and glassy. I liked him, although I’m not sure the feeling was mutual.
The village leader, Tashi and our driver–a young guy with white sunglasses on the back of his head–all spoke Tibetan. I was spinning a little; Paul and I only been in the country for five days, and we sat at 4700 meters. Then Tashi and the driver lifted their arms in surprise, with a look of terror.
“What was that Paul, what was that they just acted out?” I asked.
Paul sat upright.
Tashi looked concerned. “Bears,” he said.
“What does he mean, bears?” I said to Paul.
“Bears,” Tashi said.
“Tell him to stop saying bears,” I pleaded.
Tashi mimed walking through boulders, and a bear springing to bite him in the face, “RAAAAAAAAAA.” And in an instant I was back there…
…high on the side of Mt. Wilson, in the Canadian Rockies, December 2015. Greg Boswell followed in my footsteps. The moon had yet to rise. Snow glittered in the light of our headlamps. The woods and the dark and the cold were silent. And then I heard something that spun me. My headlamp caught blue as Greg flailed past, all arms and legs and snow…and just behind, moving quicker, a grizzly bear. I stood. Helpless. Incapacitated. The bear looked at me for one second. Then the bear saw Greg fall, and its focus shifted. I ran as fast as I could uphill until Greg screamed.
“Nick, Nick, help, it’s got me aaaargh. HELP, Nick, NICK, HELP…”
My mind screeched, The bear has got Greg, let it eat him, run, run as fast as you can, save yourself. But I couldn’t listen and do nothing as my friend was torn apart. I walked toward the bear and Greg knowing this was it: I was about to die, and after fifty years, I was about to return to the stomach of another living creature, when out of the black, a shape sped toward me. The skin at the back of my throat tore as I cried. But it was Greg. My torch shone into his ashen face, and I saw a frailness I had never glimpsed before. We ran through the forest, and after five hours of terror, we reached the road again.
…and I escaped, back to Nyainqentanglha. The final runnel of creaking ice was overhanging and enclosed, a frozen gullet that released me at last. Side by side, Paul and I dug a ledge for the small tent. The blue of Lake Namtso disappeared behind a bank of cloud. This was not going to be one of those wait-for-a-perfect-five-day-forecast climbs, which was OK. We had absolutely no way to get one.
Standing in deep drifts, on the morning of Day Three, we hoped the most technical climbing was below us. We didn’t want more uncertainty. We felt we had earned an easy completion to our climb, and we chose a wide snow ledge that led directly to the central crest, which we hoped, led directly to the summit.
I’ve been climbing and writing full-time with no fixed abode now for thirteen years. I say this as a fact. It’s not a challenge or a boast, so please don’t take it as such. I have witnessed so many people rush and push and strain, attempting to wring the essence from their short period of time away. They appear to cram–or at least try to cram–a lifetime into a weekend, and who can blame them as the existence they are returning to on a Sunday evening, I’m sure, is difficult or disliked or maybe even hated. Have you ever stood back and watched? Have you ever separated yourself and really watched? There is so much disappointment.
But sometimes the most rewarding views only last for a second, and the longer a person looks, the more blurred the vision. After Paul and I had climbed for a total of four and a half days, the central crest led with an almost monotonous and uniform regularity to the summit–a windblown sculpture that didn’t mean anything to anyone, but meant everything to me. That place was years of training and dedication and loss and loneliness. And after twenty minutes, we said our goodbye. As if the curtains were being drawn, the clear lake with its lithe, sparkling blue and warm, comforting sand disappeared once again. The clouds wrapped, and separated us. The view had gone.
Somehow, like a homing pigeon, Paul led across ridges and around unstable snow. We hoped to descend the east ridge to its lowest point, where we would turn left to walk down a gentle snow slope back into our valley. But the cloud, as if it knew our fear, became thicker, and the snow became whiter, and the angle and the many-corniced ridgeline became more dangerous as they blended into one. And after Paul had fallen into three bergschrunds, we pitched the tent in one of the holes that he had found with his body.
I DECIDE AT THE END of the first day’s travel with Dad, I’ll run back to collect my van and park it somewhere nearby to sleep. There’s no way I will spend a night on board. Yet finding the boat again isn’t simple. The canal runs quietly behind gardens and hedgerows and fences and walls. The canal swirls beneath roads. The canal splices farmland and industrial zones alike. The canal passes through the heart of towns and cities. Its deep, swirling brown is surrounded, but separated. At last, with a combination of satellite navigation and walking in circles I arrive where I started.
In the morning, the journey resumes. The water is low, starved by drought. If Jasper veers from the center, she bottoms-out, and all three of us have to push and pole to get her moving again. On one occasion, Dad leaves the gloom and steps to the towpath to join Mark and me on the rope as we pull Jasper‘s bow to the bank. Mark compliments Dad on his strength and tenacity. Dad registers this compliment with an “Aye,” as if this was simply what was expected. Twice, I have to disappear, shoulders deep into a small hole in the back of the boat. I turn my head and hold my breath to try to stop the brown water from entering my mouth. I explore with invisible fingers until I discover the clothes and plastic bags wrapped around the propeller. I lie on my stomach, against Jasper‘s hard steel, and I rip and slice and pull at the rubbish with bear-like hands, and once again I’m a twelve-year-old attempting to help…
…The drains leading from the toilet in 6 Brookhouse Road, in the house where I grew up, were blocked. After measuring, Dad guessed the obstruction was directly under the echinops thistles with their spiky globes of electric blue. For a time, Dad had tended and maintained his garden with love. In the evening, he stood with a mug of tea and a cigarette, taking it in. Often, he chose unusual plants, for he had an exploring, creative imagination, trapped inside what seemed like a narrow existence. Echinops radiate a strong scent, similar to buddleia, and like buddleia they attract butterflies.
In the summers, I sat on the paving stones next to the small pond. I leaned against the wall that Dad built with old red bricks before I was born. Already, the bricks were crumbling, showing their age. Red Admiral butterflies, bumblebees and sparrows orbited the spiky blue globes as they swayed in the wind. A honeysuckle bush cascaded over the wall. The scent from its flowers mixed with the fragrance of the echinops and the flowering lilac. Pond skaters slid on the water’s surface. Occasionally a flash of gold erupted, and a goldfish disturbed the quiet with a pop and a gulping mouth.
The bed of echinops had to be dug up to get to the drains. Dad grasped the wooden handle of a spade tightly as he raised it. He hesitated for a few seconds before chopping into the roots. Eventually the echinops were just a pile of leaves and stalks and fading blue globes thrown over the wall. He and I took turns continuing down into the dark, damp earth. By evening, I hit a brown-colored pipe made from clay. Whoever had installed the drains had cobbled the job. The small, cemented-together sections had fallen apart, causing sewage to leak into the flowerbed. Dad decided we’d done enough for one day, and in the dusk, we walked back to the house together. Perched in the top branches of the lilac tree, a blackbird sang. I was excited to see what tomorrow would bring.
The next day Dad and I dug out the old pipes, and he inserted new ones that would last longer. He was awake for most of that night with vomiting and diarrhea, so in the morning, I went to the garden by myself and filled the hole. After finishing the job, I went to tell Dad. Lying in bed, where the doctor had ordered him to stay, he looked pale, almost embarrassed, before he nodded. Later, Mum let me know that Dad was proud I’d worked so hard. I felt happy to have pleased Dad, but also guilty at the sight of the dark empty space in the ground where once there was so much color and fragrance and life.
…and I rip the last of the rubbish from around Jasper‘s propeller. Dad has left to take Paddy for a walk along the towpath. He expressed surprise at the rubbish around the prop, but no particular encouragement or thanks. I had not expected or wanted any. The sooner we could move again, the sooner I could escape.
The scent of the summit and success vanished with my memory of the echinops. Where once there was blue, there was a space. And where once there were butterflies, there was empty air. Darkness fell, and the empty air filled with snow. It snowed all night long, and all through the night I lay awake, admonishing myself for not insisting on abseiling the way we came up because now we were somewhere teetering on a ridge above 6500 meters in a storm with limited food and limited knowledge of how to get off. Paul and I had climbed the line. This was just the way off. It didn’t matter. It was just a dumping ground over the wall. And we were going to die, and the memory of us would fade….
The morning. Still snowing. Still whiteout. We would have to stay put. But by 9 a.m. the winds abated, the blizzard stopped, and we decided we had to take this opportunity. I couldn’t help voicing my concerns about the amount of snow that had accumulated. But what were we to do, sit there and hope for some kind of miracle? Paul said only two inches had fallen. Did he expect me to believe this? Maybe he said it more for himself and his family?
Once more, like a homing pigeon, Paul found the exit gully to the lower ridge. Snow crystals blown upward turned to rainbows. Behind them shimmered the blurred blue of Lake Namtso. Paul’s route-finding ability, from years of experience, was easy for me to respect. But as I led across large pockets of windblown slab, I imagined myself swept and buried amid a welt of crevasses and seracs. A mess of glacial holes and overhangs blocked the designated left turn to our valley, so we turned right into the south valley, where we spent a sixth night. Almost safe. A mile below, I could see the green of shrubbery. When did Dad give up his garden? It must have been when Mum and he retired to the boat. I suppose to follow a dream there will always be sacrifice.
I HAVE BEEN ON THE BOAT for almost three days. Autumnal sunshine coppers the fields. At last, I understand Jasper‘s idiosyncrasies. I’m beginning to relax, though the thought of Mark and Nikki’s departure is terrifying. We pass a field of fading sunflowers. Wood pigeons, plump and silver, sit on penitent seed heads. Mark and Nikki’s opinion of Dad has mellowed. I didn’t hear Dad say thanks when Nikki shared the large tub of curry she made for our journey, but both she and Mark insist that he had.
Before, they had only my words on which to base their perception of him. Now, after a full seventy-two hours in Dad’s company, they see an old man left behind by time, a man who for so long only needed Mum, and now has to rely on others. They also see a strong, forthright stare and a firm grip. A man who dotes on his dog and his parrot. Maybe I need to lift my glasses, to sharpen the view that dimmed through the passing of the years? For a second, I feel betrayed by my friends’ understanding. I try to throw these thoughts away. If I let this intolerance fester, it will drown me.
A heron, stock upright, proud and grey, stands among green reeds and misses nothing. A cormorant with wings spread, balances in the top branches of a skeletal oak. Dad sits inside, in the dark. The tiller judders in my hand. The hawthorn bordering the canal is tangled with decaying fruits. Goldfinches fill themselves on past-their-best berries. They flit between sharp thorns as if understanding the danger but reveling in the risk. Autumn is nearly gone, and once again the cold will be upon us.
ON THE MORNING of Day Eight, Paul and I followed a jumble of moraine and river, back to the grass and the grazing yaks and the deeper currents. Strings of colorful prayer flags streamed the hillside. Eventually, we popped from our self-imposed isolation into some form of reality near the village where we had started nearly a month before and the house where Tashi was staying. No one was home.
I collapsed amid the concrete blocks and sand piles, before crawling inside my sleeping bag. Paul leaned against a pile of rubble. An old woman from a nearby house walked over. She smiled and spoke. Although we couldn’t understand, she held out a flask of hot water. I joked with Paul, “What do you think would happen at this moment in Britain if people from another country were to appear and lie down outside a house?”
THE INLET TO APSLEY MARINA is narrow and at a right angle to the main canal. I shudder at the thought of turning Jasper into such a confined space. This was once a thriving and active working marina where people mucked-in, side by side. Now it’s a floating housing estate where only a few know their neighbors. The people who live in the new and expensive flats, looking down on the boats, are even more separated. Electronic locks and signs forbid entrance to nonresidents. Teenagers with skateboards stand looking at mobile phones.
Mark and Nikki left the night before, but my nephew Jake arrived earlier that morning to help. Together we have successfully reached our port of call. Dad looks out through the glass doors of the boat, as if he’s scared to encounter this new place. Dave, the marina warden, shouts instructions. His face appears friendly, unconcerned. And with some controlled maneuvering, Jasper slides through the entrance without bumping against other boats. Dad’s final journey is almost at an end.
Later, as I drive West, I look through the windshield into the dark, out over the cold, brown water of the canal and beyond the bright lights of cities. Britain at the moment feels like a land that has forgotten how to care, especially for people with little in their lives, and people from different cultures. A self-proclaimed xenophobe is about to become president of the USA. The conflict in Syria continues with the death toll and displacement of thousands. Mountains once seemed to protect me from such realities. There was always some part of me that wanted to be a hero, an inspiration for the underdog, and I used to believe that climbing could be the way. But there was also a part of me that wanted to be absorbed into something bigger, something better. And now like Dad after he lost Mum, I’m becoming aware of all I refused to see. The world is changing. I’m changing. People–or at least many of them–appear to be more each-for-their-own: they want walls between them, and the louder an individual can shout the better they are thought to be. And what of solidarity, what of feeling of community, what of loyalty? But what do I know of loyalty, because when I read, my glasses are sitting firmly on top of my head, and as I drive, my dad sits on his boat alone.
This story originally appeared in Alpinist 57–Spring 2017,and recently won the prize at the Banff Mountain Book Festival for best Mountaineering Article.