Welp, shit, I thought as I surveyed my perch from the side of the mountain, far below I could see the city of Kathmandu. Nothing more than a small collection of buildings among the other mountains, the sky above aggravatingly clear. I felt a right idiot hanging off this mountain in my harness, with rope, pitons, and clamps in my pack. The biggest fear when climbing or bouldering is falling, doesn’t matter if you are five feet off the ground, ten feet, or almost a thousand feet. Looking down the way I’d come I could see the headlines clear as the sky: “Travel Journalist and Mountaineer Ana No Name has Climbed Her Last Peak.” Why am I such an idiot? I thought as I secured my harness to the mountain and then wedge myself into a crevice to rest.
“Never climb alone” that’s the advice I always give when people ask me for tips. It’s a matter of safety if you are going to take on a mountain like this. Call me a hypocrite if you want, but I’ve only ever solo climbed. I mean sure, when I was first taking courses in climbing gyms there were other people there, the instructors and people who were also learning. But in the real world, when hanging off mountains and scaling cliffs to find the places to write about, I had only ever had myself. Something which I was seriously regretting right now. The thing about hanging off the side of a mountain with only a few bits of metal and rope between you and the great beyond, is that it gives you lots of time to think about things. And right now I was thinking about the mistakes I had made, the reason I am hanging up here alone, and the person I had pushed away.
The bazaars of Kathmandu were packed under the sweltering August sun. It had taken barely ten minutes for my sun hat to wilt and my clothes to become glued to my skin in the humidity. My phone had said the walk to the cafe would take five minutes, clearly it didn’t account for all the people here. Being a travel writer for a mountaineering journal was always a weird thing, on one hand I had to interact with people a lot, my editors, my supervisors, the residents of the places I went. But those were interviews and emails and orders shouted down a phone line. “Ana fly here.” “Ana fly there.” “Ana climb the tallest mountain in the world by Saturday.” “Ana write me a full story on the Devil’s Thumb.” Don’t get me wrong, I love my work, it is just a very lonely profession, I climb all sorts of mountains and formations in order to help me write my articles, but I am always alone, it is hard to have a family or friends when you are constantly traveling the world writing stories and risking your life. It is the loneliness that you can only feel when surrounded by a crowd. That gets me to why I am so excited for today, because today Elise Samuels, a fellow writer and my primary competitor in this game of insanity, and I were going to meet up for coffee. She and I had worked on a few stories together before and were often in the same area at the same time for our work. She is my colleague, but she is also the closest thing I have to a friend, and she is someone whom I desire to befriend. A good number of our interactions consisted of racing up cliffs and trying to get interviews with local officials before the other person could. When we weren’t competing for the title of most likely to die first, our meetings tended to be in coffee shops, or we would go wandering around foreign cities without our cameras and just take in the sights as a couple of friends.
I got plenty of weird looks as I made my way through the crowds, but this was normal for me. A short white woman wearing fewer clothes than most people here and carrying a camera and climbing gear, yeah I stood out. Men eyed me disdainfully, women eyed me suspiciously, a foreign woman traveling unaccompanied; people stop and stare often. Regardless of the looks I continued on, everywhere I go in the world people find some reason to stare, so I might as well embrace it.
The cafe itself is old and open air, serving tea and local food items as well as imported coffee. The term cafe makes it sound very formal and western, while in reality it is not much more than a series of tables outside a small storefront on the side of the market. “Ana,” a friendly voice with a Minnesota accent calls to me. “Over here! I got us a table!”
“Good to see you as well Liz!” I reply warmly to the dark haired, fair skinned, Minnesota writer sitting across from me. “How is the climbing around here?”
“Good, good, could be better. High gas prices, dislike of americans, you can thank the president for that one. The views are fantastic though.” She shrugged indifferently.
“Any trouble with local police or gangs?” I inquired. This was one major difference between us, she was always a rule follower, made sure to have all her forms and paperwork complete for every place she went. She would follow all local laws related to her work, if she could, but even with all that there were still sometimes problems. Some gang might have rolled up, black market smugglers got in the way, terrorists had taken over a region, or the government suddenly just said no. She would wait things out, or move on to the next city, or do more paperwork, but I have never been able to stand that. Passport and driver’s license are all the paperwork I need, sneaking up mountains, hopping fences, dodging the law, and hiding in bushes have got me this far. I’ve always had a bit of a problem following rules, it is one reason why we work against each other instead of together.
“I haven’t had a single issue, certainly better than some places. But the Chinese government is always putting pressure on these nearby countries.” I nodded solemnly as she said this.
“So how is Kat?” I said trying to lighten the mood.
“Pretty good, couldn’t come this time though, she has a big deposition coming up. Plus someone has to watch the kids.” The hint of homesickness in her voice went right over my head.
“And how are they doing? It’s Sally and … Jimmy? Right?” The strain of trying to remember their names evident on my face.
Her eyes lit up. “Oh they are doing just wonderful. Sally just started 5th grade last week, that’s the start of junior high where we are, and the new school is absolutely marvelous. Some rich guy had been a student there once, and he gave them a load of money to upgrade the school, so now they have all these awesome facilities. Not to mention her teachers, some of the sweetest people you will ever meet. And Jimmy is in 3rd grade now, he is soooooo cute. He has just hit that phase now where we doesn’t want to be seen giving kisses to his moms when he gets dropped off for school, so we have to do them before we get in the car to take him to school. AND he has the same teacher that Sally did, how crazy is that? Ms. Irons, oh she is just amazing, I think he will really enjoy this year, if he can avoid another concussion.” Doesn’t matter the parent, when you get them talking about their kids they suddenly become very talkative. “Jimmy is still playing soccer, he started travel league this year even though he is a year too young! As for Sally, well she said to me the other day that she wanted to join theater staff, WHICH IS AMAZING, I’m sure she will do great, and even if …. I know that look in your eyes.” She grinned, her hazel eyes flashing in the sunlight.
“Hmmm? What look?” I felt the color rising to my face already.
“The wistful one you have right now, looking out blankly at empty space. I recognize it.” Her sly smile ever so slightly unnerving.
“What look?!” I protested, perhaps a bit too forcefully.
“The look that says you’re lonely and wish you had some kids of your own.” She pantomimed cradling a baby in her well toned arms.
“I do not!” The back and forth movement of my palms on my shorts while I swayed from side to side in hopes of finding some way out of this subject did nothing to stall her.
“Mmmhmmm, whatever you say. But you can’t run from your desires.” There was a sultry flirt to her tone, or was it my imagination.
“You know I don’t like people, why on Earth would I ever want kids. I am perfectly happy on my own, I always have been and I always will!” A nervous laugh escaped my lips.
She sighed and held up her coffee cup as if to use it for explaining my issues. “You and I both know that isn’t true. You forget I used to be a psychologist, I know what I’m looking at.”
“I have no idea what you mean.” I insisted, she could be so annoying sometimes.
“Methinks the lady doth protest too much.” She said with a joking smile, the coffee cup returning to the table. “But seriously, no use denying it Ana, you can’t run from your past forever.”
“I’m not running at all.” I affirmed through tight lips, my cup blocking her from seeing my whole face.
Her left eyebrow went up. “The woman who was raised by nuns in an orphanage, never having known her parents. Wasn’t treated very well for her lack of faith in god, was bullied constantly at school, has shut herself off from people at every chance, and pursues a near suicidal profession on her own? You are telling me that she doesn’t want some sense of love and affection?”
“Yes. That is exactly that I’m telling you” My voice full of strength that was not there, or at least I hoped it wasn’t.
“So then, have you at least found a climbing partner yet?” She inquired, changing the subject, but not completely.
I suddenly found myself very interested in the crowds and not the eye contact she was trying to establish. “No, but I have someone in mind.” I lied. I didn’t have the courage for this conversation, let alone the eye contact. And somehow I knew this would come up, it always did. Why did she have to ask this question? Why?
Her face formed an expression of mock surprise. “Oh really, who is it then?”
Something inside me snapped, the little voice in my head whispered Don’t do it. But it was too late. “Someone other than you! Someone you definitely wouldn’t know!” I blurted out, “I mean do you really think I would ever want to climb with a hard-ass, up tight, rule follower like you? You would spend the whole time trying to psychoanalyze me. You’re the last type of person I would ever consider climbing with. We aren’t even really friends.” I added with a nervous laugh. Fuck, I thought as I said it, Why the heck do I have to blurt things like that out when I get stressed.
Her face hardened. “Oh,” she said evenly, I could see her fist clench in her pocket, “I can see when I’m unwanted. Well I’m sorry for wasting your time like this. Maybe you’re right, maybe you don’t need an expert.”
I reached my hand out to stop her. “Wait!” I called, but it was too late, she had already disappeared into the crowd. I looked at the cups on the table. “Well I guess it’s just me and you guys.”
As I said this a young man came up and placed the check on the table. “Did you have a good time?” He inquired in heavily accented english as he picked up the cups.
“Yes.” I lied. After he left I stayed at the table a minute longer. “I guess even the coffee cups don’t like me.”
As I resume my climb all I feel is a strong sense of self loathing. Here I am, climbing the side of a mountain, on my own, having alienated the closest thing I have to a friend. I’m probably gonna die up here, not ever getting the chance to apologize to her. This is why I don’t make friends, this is why I walk the world alone. But the beauty you see from way up here, it isn’t something you can ever describe. It isn’t something you ever want to see alone. Ah well, I think as I keep moving upwards, not much I can do at the moment. Hand after hand, foot after foot, I keep the pace up. Remember the rule Ana, three before one, three limbs firmly planted before you go for the next hold. Put the clamps in the cracks, thread the rope through, then move. Stab the pitons into the soft rock like a knife into the heart of an animal, that’s how they described it, then rope through it and move on. Not even a hundred feet from the top now, my heart is beating like crazy from my excitement. Eh, I’m close enough now, I know what I’m doing. I thrust my arm up, not taking all aspects of procedure into account, and grab a chunk of rock, putting my whole weight on it to boost my self up. There is a sudden cracking sound. A sound that can mean only one thing. Oh shit. I start scrambling with my hands for a better hand hold, but I dead ended myself here. The wind is picking up in my ears. My phone is ringing, the song means it is her. The lurching of gravity in my body tells me the truth just before I black out.