Closer to heaven

As Calvin sat back in his seat, a glass of red wine in one hand and a natural horn and bone hand carved Bespoke Woods pen in the other, he looked through the glass porthole and gazed at the clouds they flew above, lost in memory’s. The glass of wine had been an indulgence that would fill his vacant hours, the pen was used for writing a note to his late wife. From the outside this would have seemed odd, his wife had been dead for ten years now, but for Calvin it was just part of his final plan. May 12th would have been their twenty fifth wedding anniversary, he spoke to empty rooms as if she were there more and more often as the years went by, he missed her more every second of every day. Until cancer had struck their lives they had been inseparable, you would rarely see one without the other, their friends had always commented on how perfect they were for each other, he never tired of hearing her voice, he could lose himself for weeks looking in to her blue eyes, a day without her was like a day without sunshine, and the weather for the last ten years had been very gloomy.

They first met in their late teens in collage, and Calvin had likened it to a Hollywood chic flick, the moment he saw her the hubbub from the gathering around him time slowed to half its normal speed, and all he saw was her beautiful face, olive skin, part Italian beauty, with the deepest blue eyes he had ever seen, and the darkest brown hair in natural tight curls. He was not just smitten, he was madly and deeply in love. It took him a few months of being caught staring, before their hands touched as they reached for the same can of a popular sparkling orange drink. They clicked together as if they were born just for one another. Calvin often likened it to buying a murder mystery novel, with the ‘who done it’ page missing. Living in ignorance until he finally found the last page to once more complete the puzzle. Within weeks they were inseparable, it took the death of Olivia to rip them apart.

View from the top of the world

Some may say he died that day too, and although the thought to join her constantly nagged at the back of his mind on those gloomy Sundays, he could not face the indignity of it, the pity that would circle their social group, and although he would not have been around to notice it, it still remains the metaphorical safety catch to stop this particular gun going off. Calvin had a good reputation amongst his peer group, he and his wife Olivia would volunteer at homeless shelters in their free time, he was always there to help a friend in need, offer a bed to those who needed a little refuge in times of need, their friends all knew they were the first people to call for help, anytime, night or day. So for Calvin to imagine himself being found hanging, or floating in the bath, all bloated and blue, just made his whole body shudder as the cold chill caressed its way down his spine. It was in the first few weeks that his final plan began to form, it was all positives and very few negatives, and as he was gliding through the clouds, he felt it was a perfect way to go.

The seed had been planted in his mind in the first few days after Olivia’s funeral, when everyone had left and he was for the first time in his life, home alone. The TV had been chattering away in the corner twenty four hours of day, the quiet was just too unbearable. He was returning to his spot on the sofa with a fresh bottle of wine, and as he sat, his attention was caught by a documentary on TV. He had put the TV on, not bothering to choose a channel, when everyone had gone home, it was on the same documentary channel he had last watched with his dying wife several weeks back. Now it was showing a documentary series called ‘Everest, beyond limits’ and he was hooked. For the first time in weeks he had forgotten about his wife, his loneliness, confusion, anger and frustration, he devoured two bottles of wine during the first season.

Calvin was woken by the bright July sunshine streaming through his windows, he was groggy, lost and hung over, as he sat up his lined paper pad and pen fell to the floor, he scrambled to stop them both dropping but got nowhere near to catching either, and a wave of relief rolled over him when he finally focused on what he had dropped, he didn’t know what he thought it could have been, but was happy to see it was nothing delicate. When he returned to his seat he took a closer look at the scribbling on the yellow paper, and while the first few pages were almost legible, after that the drunken scrawl became barely decipherable, but he got the gist of it and then his memory kicked back in. It seemed to him, from his own fevered doodling that a plan had formed while the wine was in full control, and it was a cracker.

From the top of Everest

He and his late wife had met on a rock wall at their local climbing centre, they were hobbyists, not serious climbers. They had never climbed outside of their own country, the United States, their high point being their tenth anniversary being spent on top of Mount Rainier, standing at a little over 14,000 feet, they had to train for the more advanced technical skill they had needed, and for their fifteenth anniversary they had been planning a bigger climb in the Swiss Alps, but life, as it sometimes does, got in the way. Over the years they had scaled bigger and bigger challenges, the dream was always to spend a big anniversary on top of Mount Everest, they did not know if they ever would get that far, but that was the point of having a dream, better to fall short of a dream than to regret just accepting second best. They both knew once back on the ground that Rainier had been within their means and had an eye on taking time off to try the trio of Jungfrau, Monch and the Eiger.

Calvin’s climbing had become an addiction since Olivia’s passing, and he had a natural affinity to it, although they were only hobbyists when he and his wife met, it soon became a serious past time they both loved, and pushed each other on to bigger things, like two children daring each other on to bigger quests. Since her death he felt close to his late wife when he climbed, reaching for the skies, almost able to touch her once more. He sold his tech company for a small fortune after his wife’s death, and over the few months that followed her funeral, Calvin systematically sold everything he owned from the furniture and ornaments in his home to the house itself, all he needed was what would fit in to a small suitcase or the pack on his back. He had a farewell party for all his friends in an empty house, that come the morning would no longer be his house, he had an early afternoon flight booked and a hotel reservation, his home would from then on be, where ever he laid his hat.

That was almost ten years ago, and in those intervening years he had perfected his skills, he had done the alps, and laid a red rose, and a picture of his wife on top of Jung Frau. Since then he has completed six of the seven summits, the highest mountains on each of the seven continents, with just the biggest beast of them all, Everest left to go. He had read up on it, and he had to choose which list he was to follow, he chose the Messner list because he didn’t want to do the 7,310 feet Mount Kosciuszko as it felt to him a step back in his progression, but the thought of doing Puncak Jaya in Indonesia, at 16,024 really got his juices running. He had deliberately saved Everest until last for a few reasons, there is an average of 4 deaths a year, with the exception of 1977, only 66% of the 1,000 climbers a year, ever reach the summit and finally the DeathZone above 25,000 feet, a place the human body was never meant to be, a point where your body begins to devour itself to stay alive. There was also the Khumbu icefall, a slowly moving glacier, full of crevices to get through, he had heard people tell of a ghostly creaking of the ice as it shifts, or is it the ghost of the fallen. There was always the debate on whether it was right or wrong to try to save a climber in trouble on Everest, or remove the bodies of those who’s dreams died with their last frozen breath. It was a fascinating mountain, and to be the last one you climb was very special, this was the culmination of his efforts since he lost his wife. He intended on reaching the summit, it was the descent he was planning on missing out on. He had his wife’s ashes, the letter he was writing, and his last picture of her. His iPod was loaded with all their favourite tracks, all was ready, but was he?

He had pushed past the mental barriers on big climbs before, you don’t climb six of the seven highest mountains without having to dig deep to achieve your goal, but nothing came close to this rock, one reason it may have taken so long to crack. It didn’t just depend on your skills, HAPE (High altitude pulmonary edema) and HACE (high altitude cerebral edema) could effect you without warning. You cant test for it, you just have to hope those around you spot it quick enough to get you treatment, then there’s the frost bite and burning eye balls if you go too long without goggles on. All these things to think about, before you think of avalanche, falls, broken bones or even earthquakes. He would be lucky to reach the top, even on his best day, 50/50 chance of getting there, maybe his experience, and skill could maybe knock that up to 70/30, at best, but it was far from a sure thing. The other thing that didn’t go in his favour was the commercial climbing business he used was not top end, not because he was too short on cash, he could have afforded the $45,000 dollars. These guys relied on their reputations, nannying climbers to the top, pull out those they feel are not good enough to get to the summit, and complete a fatality free season. He didn’t want someone to be screaming in his ear to come down, he was going out on the highest point on earth, as close to heaven as he could physically get. He went for one of the budget companies, $25,000 with oxygen, un-guided, he could go up when he wanted and do the climb his way.

He arrived in Kathmandu airport, in to a wild maelstrom of activity, millions of voices shouting at the same time, and car horns added to the hubbub as he went to exit the terminal, and a short cab ride later and he was at his hotel a more serene atmosphere, and air conditioned. He had a week of contemplation before the hike to base camp, he had heard some horror stories about the inns on route to mountain. He would camp where he could, and he had some army rations to make sure he didn’t eat something he would be regretting while trying to acclimatise to Everest, if your caught short there, you will not be up for flashing your bum, far too cold. The horror he felt for one poor climber with the trots who just had to fill the legs of his climbing suit with liquid effluent on one documentary he had binged watched.

This week was to be his last seven days living in luxury, he had stayed in better hotels, but not many, and this was the best one in town, he would make the most of what he had. He relaxed back on the bed, and just lost himself in his music, he must have dropped off and his 7pm alarm went of telling it was time to shower, shit and shave before going down for dinner. Dinner at the Dwarikas Hotel, was a hard choice, four restaurants from traditional Nepali to Japanese, but tonight he was going to indulge in the local cuisine they had to offer. He sat in the bar after his meal, which he found to be very pleasant, sipping at his Bourbon and smoking a cigar, just watching the world go by. People dashing in each and every direction, but yet in the hotel everything seemed calm, a ballet in perfect harmony, he rediscovered his ability to smile, to just enjoy breathing in and out, rather than the chore it seemed to be when he was not climbing mountains. He retired to his room, sleep was starting to caress the backs of his eyes, and he was feeling a little drunk, two bottles of wine and a handful of after dinner drinks were not an excessive amount to drink, he blamed the fact he was 4,344 feet above sea level, but he didn’t for a moment really believe it. He slept like a baby, best nights sleep he had had since his wife’s diagnosis, he had become close friends with insomnia since.

He spent his last seven days of luxury, eating, drinking and walking of a groggy head on seeing the sights. In the early evenings he would use the internet to plot his route from here to base camp, he had just over a hundred miles as the crow flies, he was going to take his time, he had already touched base with the expedition organiser to let them know he was on his way. He had already explained in an email, that he intended to trek from his hotel to base camp, his way of getting physically stronger, not that he was walking his own personal green mile. The morning came to leave the hotel. He had his whole world strapped to his back,
“Every journey starts with a single step” he said to himself as he stepped beyond the threshold of the hotel, and so began his final adventure. The scenery was breathtaking, he spent more time photographing everything, than he did walking. He had plenty of time, he would use his sat-phone to check in with base camp, just so they knew he was still alive or on route. He did think in those days rambling, he would miss the beauty of this world, but what better place could you pick to die?

He had spent two weeks getting to brace camp, 4 days longer than recommended, but this was a plus. He still had 6-8 weeks, weather dependant, to go through the up mountain, down mountain, up further, down lower monotony of acclimatisation, keeping an eye out for signs of edema, and gauging how good he felt at the higher levels, he had paid for twenty oxygen canisters, which he stashed as he went up further. He never wanted to cut things like that fine, he should only need seven, but if he was in difficulty during acclimatisation, or he is held up in a tailback, can you believe it? A tailback on Mount Everest, but with over a thousand climbers looking to do it each year, and the season being so short, and often tempestuous weather, you just could not tell how slow you may be. He had looked in to it over and over during the years, the one thing you cant tell is just how cold it could be, with all the latest fabric technology, there was only so much it could do, pure cold reaching right in to the center of your core. He was musing on wether he would be compus mentis enough to notice the point where you become so hypothermic that the blood rushes to the skin and you begin to feel so hot, you strip off. When the sun was up it was too hot in all the thermal gear, when it went down, it was too cold, there was a brief window of a couple of minutes where you were for once the perfect temperature.

Now, with all the preparations behind him, he was finally here, he had waited for the last of the climber to pass his tent on their decent to lower climbs after their summit bids. Now the death zone was his and his alone, he made good time, he ascended in about fourteen hours, mostly in the dark, to be sitting at the pinnacle in plenty of time to see the sunrise, briefly before the wind picked up and cloud came down, now he felt what real cold was. There he sat, a metal vile in one hand, containing his wife’s ashes, a laminated picture of her smiling, and the letter he had written to her, which the hotel kindly laminated for him when he finally finished it the evening before he left. He froze in place, smiling as if he had seen an old friend, the letter read,


To my beautiful Olivia,
I love you more now than ever, you are my every waking thought, and my goodnight kiss. Since you have been gone I have been preparing for this moment, I have got as close to you as I possibly can, please meet me half way. We can watch the sunrise from the most beautiful place on earth, we said we would do it, and we did. I cant wait to see you soon, tell you how much I have missed you, to share my stories, to feel you in my arms once more, to feel you gently breath against skin, to gaze in to your deep blue eyes, and to hear you whisper, I love you.
Calvin

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