Tyler Galloway hoisted his pack onto his shoulders and secured the straps. It was before dawn and pitch-black outside except for the stars spread across the sky like a spilled bucket of sand. It took some doing to be completely cut off from civilization, but it was still possible, especially in a place as remote as the Karakoram Mountains.
It had been a dream for a long time to get here, harkening back to stories his mother would tell him when he was a boy of her climbing adventures. She had never made it to K2—and once she had married his father and begun having children, she had abandoned the drive for remote and dangerous endeavors—but she had often spoken of the mystique of this mountain that was so very different from Everest. For Ty’s entire life, it had hung like a beacon in his mind, lighting the way to a goal he was hungry to conquer, a feat he could hold up to Jim Galloway’s scrutiny. Ty was no different than any other son when it came to seeking approval from his dad.
The light from David Shaw’s headlamp bobbed up and down as he readied himself for the hike from Advanced Base Camp, or ABC, back to Base Camp, a short trek that should take only two hours. They would arrive in time for a hot breakfast from Habibe.
David looked in Ty’s direction, his face but a shadow beyond the light, and Tyler gave a nod. They began their journey off the glacier, the scraping of crampons acutely loud in the stillness of the night.
Brynn had radioed the day before that the remainder of the team had arrived—Packer, Ditch, and Lindsey. It would be good to assemble and map out their plan of attack. He and David had just spent two days fixing rope—sleeping one night at Camp One and the next at ABC—and while they’d spoken a little about Packer and Ditch, David had hardly mentioned Lindsey.
Tyler hadn’t broached the subject, thinking that maybe it was a painful reminder of losing Lindsey’s sister, Alison, but in truth Ty really hadn’t wanted to swap stories with the man. A desire tugged at him to get to know Coulson directly, not from hearsay. Gossip had a way of inflating climbers into raging egomaniacs or heartless bastards or incompetent ninnies. None of it was ever true. Well, mostly.
That he harbored a secret admiration for Lindsey was beside the point. She was a good climber. That was it. And she had a nice smile.
Once they were past a stream of blue water that had broken through the glacier, Ty was able to walk beside David.
“Alison hated slogging through flows like that when we were here,” David said.
“I don’t blame her.” Ty kept his face forward, so his headlamp illuminated the path ahead of him. He didn’t want to fall into a hidden hole or even a crevasse.
“I always told her it was some of the purest water she would ever see. It was like being baptized by the earth.”
“If it wasn’t so cold, I’d say we shed our clothes and do our own version of a polar plunge.” Since David had offered an opening, Ty added, “You okay?”
It had to be difficult coming back to the place where he had lost the love of his life.
David cleared his throat. “Yeah. It’s strange, but sometimes I feel her.”
“There’s just no figuring out the mind of God.”
David laughed, but it trailed off into something filled less with humor and more with sadness. “I wonder if Lindsey should be here.”
“I’m assuming she considered that before she approached me.”
The dark sky gave way to a tint of pink as sunrise approached.
“My experience with Lindsey was that she was a bit of a maverick when I climbed with her and Alison,” David said.
“You’re saying she always wanted to climb alone?”
“She never hung with the team.”
“How often did you climb with her?”
“Twice,” David said. “No, it was three times.”
“That’s not too many, Shaw. Maybe she just didn’t want to share a tent with you and Alison. You probably couldn’t keep your hands off each other,” Ty teased, trying to lighten the mood.
David nodded. “Maybe.”
Since Lindsey and Alison had always climbed together, it was likely that Lindsey had stepped back when David had become involved with her sister, becoming an inevitable third wheel. Or maybe Ty was completely off-base.
Ty had checked with David—as well as Ditch and Packer—before he’d invited Lindsey to come on board, and the three of them had agreed that Lindsey was a skilled mountaineer and would be an asset to the team.
“Are you having second thoughts about her?” Ty asked.
“You mean Lindsey?”
“Yes.” Who else would he have meant?
David was silent for a moment as their crampons crunched along the icy path. Ty switched off his headlamp as there was now enough sunlight to see without it.
David released a heavy breath. “No. Sorry. I just didn’t expect to feel so … heavy once I got here. Lindsey will be a reminder, that’s all.”
“This whole place is a reminder. Isn’t that why you came? To put the ghosts to rest?”
He shook his head. “No. I came here to get this damned mountain off my checklist once and for all.”
* * *
Lindsey awoke with a splitting headache. She pulled on a fleece jacket and boots, brushed her blond hair into a ponytail, and headed to the mess tent with her mug in hand. Packer sat eating scrambled eggs and sipping coffee, while Ditch was on the computer.
“Good morning,” Lindsey mumbled. “Is there any aspirin?”
Habibe produced two caplets and poured water into her cup. Lindsey thanked him, swallowed the medicine, then sat down.
“You better take it easy,” Packer said around a mouthful of food. He pointed his fork at her. “Three years of no climbing—your acclimatization is shit. You should probably live here for a month before you even head up the mountain.”
He spoke a measure of truth, but hell if she was going to sit for weeks and do nothing. “Don’t worry about me. I start every climb with a headache.”
Ditch looked over his shoulder at Packer. “I think she means you.”
“Don’t expect to follow me up the mountain,” he replied to the older man, indignant.
“I won’t. You break trail like a mouse. Look at you. You’re no bigger than an eleven-year-old.”
Packer made a face then grinned at her, his long wavy hair flowing from beneath the green knit hat he wore. “Small is good. Trust me.”
She ignored the innuendo and took the plate of food Habibe offered. She did her best to eat the eggs and potatoes, knowing her lack of appetite was a sign of altitude sickness. She forced herself to drink a good amount of tea as well.
Brynn poked her head inside the tent. “Ty and David are coming in.”
Packer stood. “Let’s go greet the boss. It’s hard to kiss ass when he’s already up there fixin’ ropes. How am I supposed to show him I’m the best climber here?”
“By climbing your ass off.” Ditch logged off from his email. “There’re no shortcuts.”
As Packer left the tent, Habibe cleaned up the breakfast dishes, and Lindsey rubbed her forehead. She hoped the aspirin would kick in soon.
“You should take it easy,” Ditch said. “It’s been a while since you’ve climbed.”
Lindsey silently agreed, but she didn’t want to be treated like a child. Ditch’s tone had been kind, not condescending, but a part of her chafed under his assessment. She had always felt a need to prove herself, some inward drive that propelled her to out-climb men who either tried to hit on her or talk shit about her.
“You … okay?” Habibe said.
Lindsey stood and nodded.
“Choclit?” He held out a box of chocolate bars.
“Thanks.” She took one and put it in the thigh pocket of her black cargo pants as she emerged into the sunny day. Before her stood the mountain that of late had been haunting her sleep. She pushed her sunglasses on as she scanned the Abruzzi Spur, the most traversed route on the mountain and considered the easiest. But easy was a misleading word for an 8000-meter peak. Her gaze followed the southeast ridge to an area known as House’s Chimney, up higher to a dark rocky section known as the Black Pyramid, and higher to the Bottleneck, the site of many deaths. Beyond that, out of view, was the summit.
Where are you, Al?
Lindsey scanned the mountain, wondering where Alison’s body might have taken refuge. Were there any climbers on the mountain today? She couldn’t tell, couldn’t see any tiny black specks creeping along the white spaces.
Lindsey closed her eyes and breathed in the cold air, breathed in the eternal promise of salvation that climbing offered. Within the pain and suffering, the mental anguish and physical toll, lay the assurance of renewal, of new life, of a moment so exquisite no words could describe it.
She loved to climb.
With immense relief the rush of that love filled her, an emotion she hadn’t felt in such a long time. She thought she’d lost it, that connection, that spark that filled her spirit with such gladness and such familiarity. This was home for her. Thank God it hadn’t abandoned her.
K2 stood in massive stillness, creating its own weather patterns, a mountain that gave peace but in the next breath took life. It was a relationship never to be reconciled. Maybe that was why climbers returned time and again, trying to understand, or maybe just reveling in the presence of their beloved once more.
A loud kraaah brought her attention back. A large black bird circled just beyond the tents, at the edge of the ice fall. Locals called them goraks, but Lindsey knew them to be giant ravens, present in the Himalaya as well as the Karakoram where they were known to scavenge the bodies of dead climbers.
Lindsey watched this one swoop and circle, clearly checking out the camp below, probably searching for booty. She looked for other birds since they usually flew in pairs or groups, but this one was alone.
“Charon,” she said quietly, remembering her Greek mythology. Ferrier of the dead across the River Styx.
She picked her way past the German camp and the men who had disposed of Broucet’s body the previous day. She nodded to Frieder, whom she had met on Everest several years ago, but she didn’t stop to chat. He’d been a bit of a prick back then, and she had no desire to expend the energy to see whether that had changed. Three other men rounded out their team—Volker, Wolfgang, and Karl. At the moment their last names eluded her.
Further away was a Polish encampment, ten tents in all. She had spoken with her friend, Piotr, and he’d introduced her around. Some of the Poles were already on the mountain, climbing the south-southeast ridge. According to Brynn, two more teams were expected soon, but nothing was certain until porters and climbers appeared after the long trek from Skardu.
In the distance, two men approached from the tricky ice fall that lay at the base of the mountain; Brynn, Ditch, and Packer greeted them. Soon Lindsey caught up.
David gave her a hug as soon as he saw her, and she awkwardly accepted it.
“It’s great to see you, Lindsey,” he said.
“You too.” He was much as she remembered, although a faint shadow seemed to haunt his features. Still, he appeared strong and tall, a man accustomed to hard work and a sense of control. Alison had found him irresistible during her time spent at Annapurna Base Camp. Isolation and a handsome face can confuse any woman. Lindsey’s few mountain romances had never panned out into anything of merit—as much as she liked climbers, and male climbers were often muscular in physique and very easy on the eyes—it was usually the absence of common intellectual ground that left her wanting once they were back in civilization. And, in all honesty, male climbers lacked emotional maturity. Maybe it was something about that devil called pride that brought out the “king of the hill” mentality. After a while, it grew tiresome.
She turned to Galloway, who shook her hand. “How was your trek in?” he asked, pulling his sunglasses from his nose and letting them hang on the cord around his neck.
“Well, we lost a few porters in a crevasse, but we threw them some food before we abandoned them.”
Galloway stopped, his blue-green eyes staring at her. “Seriously?”
She smiled and shook her head. “No. Sorry. It was fine.”
He gave her an amused look of confusion and removed his fleece hat, running a hand through his short hair. “That’s good. We’re gonna need ’em on the way out.”
She was glad to see him.
The thought caught her off-guard. This was a distraction she really didn’t want. She pushed the tendrils of attraction aside, reminding herself it was just hormones. He likely had a girlfriend anyway. Male climbers usually had many.
As they walked back to camp, he started talking to Ditch.
David fell into step beside her as they trailed behind the other four, the helmet hanging from the center of his pack swinging back and forth.
“How’s the mountain?” she asked.
David glanced at the white and silent sentinel. “Calm.”
“What have you done so far?”
“We’ve got two tents at Camp One stocked with stoves, fuel, food for six days and extra rope. We left two sleeping bags, so we’ll need to take up more.”
“Did you fix all the ropes?”
“About a third done on the way to Camp One.”
“The weather’s been good, so no time to waste.”
Lindsey silently agreed. The throbbing in her head was a dull ache now. “I may need a few days before heading up.” She wished she didn’t have to wait. To be considered a strong member of the team, she needed to help stock Camps One, Two, and Three, and fix ropes. But altitude sickness wasn’t something to be taken lightly. She would be strong only if she gave her body time to acclimate, to begin generating the red blood cells that would increase the flow of oxygen to all parts of her body.
He squinted as if he were smiling, except the rest of his face bore little amusement and simply appeared strained. “Not adjusting as quickly as you used to?”
“I must be getting old.”
“You are looking a bit decrepit.” But the teasing fell flat.
Unease lingered on the edge of her psyche, reminding her why she had never cared for David Shaw—not when he was a new acquaintance after she and Alison had befriended him on Annapurna, not when Al had uncharacteristically drunk too much tequila one night and found herself in his tent on that same trip, and especially not when he and her sister had announced their engagement after knowing each other for only three months.
Lindsey slowed her pace, and soon David moved ahead of her.
Why had she come, knowing that David would be a climbing partner?
Her eyes shifted to Ty. Despite his yellow and black climbing suit, his tall physique was apparent. Her friend, Mariah—once she had learned that Lindsey would be on expedition with Galloway—had sent her links to write-ups and videos of his surfing days. He’d been much younger then, but he’d had a raw energy to him, and she’d wasted an entire afternoon glued to her computer screen, watching competition videos.
She liked to think she was levelheaded and not easily distracted by a handsome face and the potential of hot sex, so she had read some of his articles about his climbing endeavors. It had served only to make her like him more.
Had that been Alison’s problem? Truthfully, her sister had had few boyfriends, and Shaw had certainly exuded a quiet magnetism. Lindsey really shouldn’t fault Al for falling for him. Except that it had led her here. And here is where she would stay for eternity.
Lindsey blinked back tears and squared her shoulders.
No man would decide her fate. She wouldn’t let Shaw keep her from the mountain. And she wouldn’t let a distraction like Galloway—no matter how compelling—mess with her head.
She glanced at K2.
You’re the only thing that matters.
Copyright © 2019 K. McCaffrey LLC