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Killing the crow was how the trip began. I should have known that things could only get worse.
The violent death of the bird was telling me NOT to try and climb Shiva Direct that day. I was riding my motorbike at the time. My Tibetan girlfriend Tashi was on the back. We had finished work at the refugee camp and were heading out for a weekend’s climbing on one of Nepal’s most challenging cliffs.
‘It looks like another dust storm is coming in,’ Tashi shouted in my ear. ‘Sure you don’t want to change your mind, Ryan?’
A great reddish-brown cloud was massing ominously on the horizon.
These dry storms had become a regular scourge in this zone of Nepal. The monsoon summer rains had failed for two years in a row. Topsoil was blown off thousands of desiccated fields, countless tons of airborne dust particles merging with ferocious thermal currents.
The result was lightning, not rain.
The local farmers spoke of these storms in superstitious tones. They were generated by evil spirits, they whispered, by devils and demons.
Lightning bolts had struck the camp we worked at on numerous occasions in recent months. Forest fires had raged close by.
I twisted the accelerator. The motorbike engine throbbed like an angry wasp.
Ahead of us I could see the cliffs. A little kick of adrenaline swept through my body.
It was a well-timed trip. A wild experience out here would help me focus on my dilemma. My university back in England had written with a final ultimatum: take up my place to study as a vet, or lose the offer for good.
Trouble was I was still obsessed with climbing Everest. That was why I was hanging out in Nepal, hoping I could find a way back to the mountain. I saw an obstacle ahead, birds pecking at some sort of roadkill.
‘Ten points for a crow!’ I laughed. I accelerated a little, just for a joke.
The first of the birds launched skywards, flapping clear. Others followed. I saw the roadkill was a young deer.
One of the crows was not so sharp.
It hit the visor of my helmet with a sickening thud. Tashi screamed. The air filled with feathers and a thin spray of blood.
I stopped the motorbike. The bird was lying dead behind us. Crumpled. Broken. ‘Poor thing,’ Tashi shook her head, looking pale.
I took a tissue and tried to scrape my visor clean, succeeding only in spreading the blood across it.
‘Bad karma,’ Tashi said. A moment later she ran to the verge and was sick.
We kept heading north, the remains of the poor crow gradually congealing in front of my eyes.
I was seeing the world through a haze of blood. But I was too stupid to see what it meant.
A year had passed since Tashi and I had been on Everest.
We had shared an incredible adventure together on the North Face. But we hadn’t summited. The ultimate Everest experience was still waiting. Hardly a day went by that we didn’t talk about going back. Hardly a day went by that I didn’t take my precious Everest books out of the battered tin trunk that contained my possessions, poring over the images of that most magical of peaks.
Now we were working in a refugee camp in Nepal, helping to care for the thousands of Tibetans who had crossed the border in search of a new life. Tashi was Tibetan as well, forced out of her homeland by the repressive policies of the Chinese government. Most evenings, after the potato peeling and washing up had finished, Tashi and I would take a trek to the top of a small hill next to the camp.
From there we could see Everest. Far away in the distance. Enigmatic. Alluring. Inescapable. I normally took my camera and telephoto lens, capturing the ways the different moods of light played on the high slopes.
‘How are you going to get this mountain out of your system?’ Tashi asked me one time with a smile. ‘Is it even possible?’
‘Only one way,’ I replied. ‘Reach the top.’
She squeezed my arm. ‘You need help,’ she laughed.
‘I’d prefer 50,000 dollars,’ I said. ‘Buy my way on to a team.’
We walked back to the camp, hand in hand as the final rays of light fell across the Himalaya. Both of us knew my Everest dream was likely to stay just that – a dream.
Life was simple in the camp but these were uncertain times for Nepal. The collapse of the monsoon had cast a dark shadow over the lands around the refugee centre.
Hunger was in the eyes of the children who came to the camp gates looking for scraps. Dust storms whipped through the valleys. Vultures scoured the skies, looking for animals too weak to resist another day without water, without fodder.
A ticking environmental clock was pushing the people of Nepal closer and closer to the edge. A clock was ticking for me too. A different type of countdown, but one just as pressing.
‘I feel like I’m split down the middle,’ I confessed to Tashi. ‘One version of me wants to go back to England, qualify as a vet, help my parents with the family farm.
The other version … well, you know … ’
Tashi looked at me with those jet-black Tibetan eyes. She had been so patient with me, far more patient than I deserved.
‘You need a sign,’ she said.
‘A sign?’ I laughed. ‘Like a bolt from the blue?’
‘Could be anything,’ Tashi laughed. ‘Fate needs to decide for you.’
‘Why don’t we go to the Buddha Cliffs?’ Tashi said. ‘Climb one of those big routes we’ve had our eyes on? Maybe a change of scene will help you make up your mind?’
We filled up my motorbike with petrol and packed our climbing gear in a rucksack.
Two hours later, after the crow incident, we reached the Buddha Cliffs.
‘Got to love this place,’ Tashi said.
The location was spectacular; a vast wall of rock into which a ten-metre-high Buddha figure had been carved. Pilgrims flocked to the spot. Climbers too.
We had no money to pay for a guesthouse; our trip was low budget, wild camping in a leaky old canvas tent. Food was basic that night, a plate of pasta daubed in tomato sauce.
We camped close to the crag, pitching the tent on ground so baked by an unrelenting sun that it felt like sleeping on concrete.
I reached into my pocket for my lucky charm, the palmsized metal shrine bell I had been given by my Nepali friends Shreeya and Kami.
It was unusually cold to the touch. I shivered. The crow incident had been a real downer. I felt stupid for shouting that thing about ten points.
A sense of foreboding suddenly hit me.
A cluster of dark thoughts crowded into my mind.
Neither of us had ever been injured on our crazy climbing weekends.
But there was always a first time.
Breakfast was a muesli bar and a cup of sweet tea.
Then we were off to the cliff, ropes draped over our shoulders, harnesses jangling with the metal chinking of karabiners and other bits of climbing gear.
‘Let’s do a couple of warm-up routes,’ Tashi said.
The morning went well and my depression lifted. Half a dozen pitches with Tashi put me in a great mood, the climbing challenging and fun.
A couple of other groups turned up, students from a nearby college and some serious Nepali rock athletes we had seen profiled in climbing magazines.
We had sandwiches for lunch, sheltering beneath a twisted old jacaranda tree. A distant rumble of thunder broke the air and Tashi turned towards me.
‘How about the two of us try Shiva Direct?’
A jolt of adrenaline rushed through me.
Shiva Direct was a classic, graded at a level I aspired to but had never yet achieved.
Climbing it successfully would be a total rush.
We finished off our cheese butties and trekked up to the cliff face. Shiva Direct soared above us, a blunt and uncompromising wall of vertical rock many hundreds of metres high.
‘Better get a move on,’ Tashi said. She pointed to the south where the brooding front of a new dust storm was now gathered. ‘You want to lead?’ I didn’t need to be asked twice. We uncoiled the rope and I tied on. Minutes later I was making moves on the route, climbing rapidly up the strenuous first section, relieved to find a range of decent handholds and footholds.
‘Nice work, Ryan,’ Tashi called up. ‘Looking good.’
There were no bolts on the wall. The climb relied on my own skill at finding protection. Every five or six metres I had to find a natural feature, which I could exploit as an anchor.
A blustering wind began. My body swayed with the power of it. The rock became more challenging as the friendly features of the lower section gave way to a more hostile environment.
Handholds became finger jams. Platforms that could take a whole foot became narrow cracks in which a toehold was the best that could be hoped for.
I found myself losing track of time. The problem-solving aspect of climbing meant my mind was utterly focused and absorbed. All the everyday cares of life simply dissolved on a route like this.
‘Get some protection in,’ Tashi called up. I looked down, finding to my surprise that I had ascended almost half a rope length without putting in any safety gear.
I slotted a camming device into a crack and clipped the rope into it with a karabiner.
‘Come on up,’ I told Tashi. She began to climb, supported by the belay I had rigged.
Another wind front throbbed through the air. A blast of skin-stinging dust hit the crag. A handful of gravel came pinging down the cliff. I pressed my face close to the rock, the little stones clattering off the plastic shell of my helmet.
A warning. The wind was dislodging loose debris. Anything bigger could get serious.
I felt my hair prickle. The dust storm was loading the air with static.
‘My brain’s beginning to buzz,’ Tashi called up. Her voice was clipped, serious. ‘We need to get off this route.’
I stared down the cliff, my heart sinking as I saw how high we were. Abseiling down would be complicated and time-consuming.
I craned my neck in the other direction, staring up the cliff. Half a pitch above us was a break in the sheer rock. ‘It looks like there’s a ledge,’ I told her. ‘I’ll take a look.’
A slender crack split the route above me. I finger-jammed my way up it, my knuckles raw and bloodied by the sharp granite. Lightning flashed on the crag top. The air was humming with electric charge.
The dust was thicker now, a lung-clogging red haze. The route became overhanging. My feet scrambled for purchase in a crumbling crack. I could feel lactic acid building in the muscles of my arms. My breathing began to accelerate.
The route had a sting in the tail.
I gritted my teeth, hurriedly smashing in a piton, the steel singing with the hammer blows as a further electric roar filled the valley.
A sling gave me protection. Three stretchy moves got me through the hard section. I got to the ledge and jugged up on to it.
A quick glance told me what I needed to know. The ledge was a perfect refuge from the wind and lightning, a stony platform with a scooped-out little overhang at the back.
‘There’s space for both of us,’ I yelled. Just to the left of the cave was a convenient spike of rock.
I draped a sling over it and snapped the rope on with a figure-of eight device.
‘Climb when you’re ready,’ I called down. A muffled cry from Tashi came back and I tightened up the line as the anchor took her weight.
Five minutes later I could hear her panting on the crux section below me. The sound of her boots jamming into the tiny footholds. An occasional grunt. Then two rippedup hands clutched at the rock ledge and a dust-covered face popped up.
‘Nice find!’ Tashi exclaimed. She flopped on to the rocky platform beside me.
Two minutes of co-ordinated shuffling got us side by side, pressed into the tiny cave. I shivered as the wind rocked us again.
A flash of intense light ripped the air. Ear-splitting thunder a second later.
‘Dust storm getting closer,’ Tashi muttered. The sharp, explosive smell of scorched rock swept down. There was a sulphurous tang to the air. A boulder tumbled heavily down the cliff face, passing just a few metres to the left of our ledge.
‘You still call this fun?’ Tashi smiled. ‘Let’s have a brew.’
I shrugged off the little backpack, opening it up carefully and taking out the few items it contained. An emergency foil blanket. My drinks flask. A compact camera. A balaclava and spare set of gloves.
A glint of metal caught Tashi’s eye.
‘Should have known you’d have your talisman along for the ride,’ she said.
She picked up the object, the brass bell that I kept close to me at all times.
‘You know how it is,’ I told her. ‘Superstition and all that.’
Tashi turned the little bell in her hands, tracing the engravings one by one.
‘I remember how you carried this on Everest,’ she said. ‘Maybe it really did bring us luck.’
Tashi held the polished wooden handle and shook the bell, the delicate ‘ting’ sounding alien and bizarrely out of place amidst the elemental roar of the storm.
‘We might need a prayer or two,’ she remarked. ‘Help us get off this climb in one piece.’
She frowned, juggling the bell from one hand to the other. ‘Strange,’ she passed it back to me. ‘It feels like it’s alive.’
I cradled the bell in my hands, my fingers tingling as the object throbbed. The metal bell was acting as a conductor, the atmosphere alive with lightning charge.
I had experienced similar events in other electrical storms. Ice axes could spit out sparks as tens of thousands of volts raged through the air.
We could hear it buzzing in our ears. I could taste it, ferrous, on my tongue.
‘Whoa!’ The bell began to heat up. Suddenly it was red hot.
My fingers fumbled. I dropped it. The bell tumbled on to the ledge, bouncing instantly towards the drop.
Tashi gasped. I lunged out, snatching the bell as it bounced. At that precise moment a deafening explosion rent the air. A blinding flash came with it. For the briefest of moments I felt I had been speared through the shoulder.
I saw Tashi’s eyes wide with shock.
I smelled burning flesh.
Then everything went dark.