Jamie Taylor sits on the floor at the end of a freshly turned down twin bed, legs folded underneath her, palms flat on her knees. She breathes deeply in through her nose, drawing the still, dry air deep into her diaphragm. The heat, the sweat already trickling down her neck at six in the morning, the low hum of Pakistani town life fades into the background of her consciousness as she continues to breathe. She opens her eyes to the mountain view through the open windows, dipping her chin to her chest in a salute of respect to whoever may be out there.
She’s not religious. She’s gotten to where she is through her own hard work, through meeting the right people, through meeting the wrong ones. But at 32, she’s spent almost half her life climbing mountains and you don’t get that far alive without respecting them. You also don’t spend as much time as she had in the Himalayas without picking up some of the customs of the place, and Jamie knows she’ll need whatever guidance she can get for this expedition.
She pulls a light blue tee shirt on over her sports bra, the front proudly declaring Bly Expeditions. She had flown in from Islamabad a day early, needing the extra time to reacquaint herself with Skardu; with what she’s about to do. Her team would be flying in with their clients later that morning, and from then it would be full on. Owen would lead an introductory presentation over lunch, after which she’ll be caught up in the hustle of getting to know everyone, of learning the people she would be leading.
When she steps outside, the air is thick with June heat. With no wind to speak of, it settles oppressively over the streets. Jamie walks the kilometre into town, skipping out on the buffet breakfast in favour of moving. She picks up a bun kebab from a street vendor, letting the intensity of flavour take over her senses. The market is still coming to life, although even this early vendors selling clothing, jewellery, food, good luck trinkets and other wares line the narrow streets. It’s colourful, and busy, and loud, and Jamie finds herself relaxing into the familiar feel. She’s spent most of her time as a mountain guide in Nepal and Tibet, and despite the difference in core religion, towns like Skardu which make up the last real point of civilisation always carry that air of adventure, of hardiness, almost tangible excitement. It’s the same everywhere she’s been. That buzz beneath her skin, that draw towards the skyline, that never fades. Not even here; not even now.
The locals are friendly and open. Her greetings are met with wide smiles and broken English responses from the market folk. She makes her way through the stalls, stopping again to grab a cup of tea. Its strong; black and smooth and so familiar on her tongue. She doesn’t realise how tight she’s squeezing the cup until the lid pops off and the scalding liquid douses her hand. She swears under her breath.
Her phone chooses that moment to chime discordantly through banged up speakers in the pocket of her denim shorts. She answers, moving slightly off the street so she can hear.
“Jamie! Good morning to you, too.”
“Look, I just spilled fucking tea all over myself, so what’s up?”
“Thought you’d be out. We’ve just landed, thought I’d give you a heads up so you’ve got time to get back.”
Jamie glances at her watch, surprised to see a couple of hours have already passed in her wanderings.
“Not a problem. Hey, Jamie…”
She cuts him off sharply. “I’m fine, Owen. Don’t start.”
“Okay, but you know—”
“It’s about a half hour drive, right? I’ll see you then.” Jamie hangs up, shoving the phone roughly back into her pocket.
She tosses the half empty cup into a bin and shakes the remnants of tea off her hands. Owen Sharma is her boss, fellow head guide, and closest friend. He’s done an awful lot for her, and that’s something she reminds herself of regularly when he starts meddling with things. She is fine. She needs him to believe she’s fine; she needs him not to doubt her, so that she can focus on not doubting herself in this place that holds so many tarnished memories.
Jamie goes straight to the mess hall when she gets back, rolling her shoulders and standing tall before walking in when she notes the extra cars already parked out front. There’s an ease to leading an expedition like this. K2 isn’t some anyone-who-wants-in climb, and it isn’t commercialised like Everest. The clients inside aren’t going to judge her based on her gender, her size. The reputation of the company, her own reputation precedes her. In a way, she’s more at ease here than Everest, where underqualified folk are likely to show up and the first couple of weeks are spent weeding out those who are unfit, unprepared, likely to increase the danger to the whole party. In contrast, the climbers waiting for her inside are all beyond experienced, all at the top of their game, and all acutely aware of the risks and dangers of the Savage Mountain.
She lets herself in, shutting the door quietly behind her, trying not to attract attention before she’s had a chance to take everyone in. The ceiling fan above the door gives the brief illusion of cooler air. Owen is already at the front of the room, fiddling with a laptop and old school projector, and he gives her a nod and smile as she enters. The group is small, and she recognises each of them from the photos and information she’s been given.
Closest to her, facing Owen, are the two Austrian brothers, Sam and Lukas. They’ve already summited 12 of the eight thousander's, with only K2 and Anapurna still to climb. Next to them, scribbling in a worn, leather bound notebook, is the veteran Scottish mountaineer Rob McDougall. She’s been excited about climbing with him for months; he holds many speed ascent records in the Scottish Munros and she’s admired him since she was in training. His wealth of experience will be incredibly useful on the mountain, when the smallest decisions can be the difference between life and death.
At the adjoining table, the familiar form of Cameron Williams is sprawled. The lanky 24 year old likes to joke that he was born on the mountains, growing up in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. At fourteen, he’d scored a sponsorship deal and trained in America before joining Bly Expeditions shortly after his eighteenth birthday. He’s extremely talented with a good head on his shoulders and Jamie knows Owen has high hopes for him making head guide in the next few years. Right now, he’s completely oblivious to both Owen’s preparations and her entry, engrossed in conversation with a Japanese mountaineer, Yasua Ato. Jamie knows that his spoken English isn’t all that great, but it doesn’t deter Cam, who is talking a mile a minute, gesturing with arms flung wide. The Japanese man doesn’t look like he needs immediate rescuing, so Jamie moves on.
At the end of the same table, hands wrapped around a steaming mug, is the one client Jamie has reservations about. Danielle Clayton is a mystery, really. She’d been a prodigious lead climber throughout America, topping the youth lead podium on multiple occasions, before she simply disappeared. Then, in her mid twenties, she’d burst onto the alpine scene, all blonde hair and blue eyes and brand deals. Her climbing history looks legitimate, but the woman looks more like an Instagram model than a serious mountaineer. She had existed on the peripheries of Jamie’s awareness for the last couple of years; she liked to keep up to date and she wasn’t beyond the appeal of a pretty girl in a magazine. But having that pretty girl here, in her territory, under her protection, on one of the most dangerous mountains on earth?
Owen had seen her reticence. But there is no good reason to turn Clayton away. She met the prerequisites. She is, by all accounts, a great climber. She is… looking straight at Jamie.
Jamie clears her throat, tipping her head in greeting, averting her gaze and making her way quickly to the front to join Owen. He flashes her a grin, pulling the first slide up on the laptop.
“Chhiring?” she asks, in lieu of greeting.
“Stopped off in town. Saw an old friend or something. I swear, that man knows people everywhere. He shouldn’t be too long, though.”
Jamie elbows him lightly. “You’re going soft. What happened to throwing people off the team for being late?”
Owen hums. “Yeah, that was that Irish prick on Everest. Bit of a different situation, don’t you think? Anyway, he’s here now, so you can settle, okay?”
Chhiring Sherpa is a short, wiry man with a quick smile that always reaches his eyes. He isn’t officially on their staff, but he might as well be. He’s a good friend and an excellent climber, and while he prefers the freedom to go where and when he wants to, Bly is more than an organisation. They’re all like family to each other, and Chhiring definitely belongs in that sense. Jamie would trust his judgement with her life. She hasn’t climbed with him for a couple of years, but he comes straight to the front, sweeping her into a hug.
“Hey kiddo!” he pulls back, looks her over. “You’re looking good, have you grown?”
She smacks him on the shoulder, properly grinning for the first time that day. “Prat. Good to see you too.”
Chhiring speaks with a London accent and perfect English, which constantly surprises people. They seem to find it incongruent with his looks, his name. But here, he fits; as much a foreigner and as much at home as the rest of them.
Owen clears his throat, clapping his hands together once. The quiet hum of conversation tapers off.
The projector screen displays a “Welcome to the Savage Mountain” message, overlaying the Bly logo. Owen steps forward, formally introducing himself, Jamie and Cam, before jumping into the expedition details. The atmosphere sombers quickly. Owen flicks through slides of proposed itinerary, the background showing K2 literally hanging over them. They’ll leave by jeep for Askole the day after tomorrow, then trek for six days to basecamp with a small army of hired Balti porters. From there, they plan to spend a few days checking gear and acclimatising before starting their assault on the mountain. Everyone in the room knows what they’ll be risking over the next seven weeks. What draws them together is that the 29% death rate inspires reverence and yearning as well as fear. They all know that once they leave Askole, they’ll be as alone as they can get. Owen flicks the projector to the last slide, a simple photo of K2 against a clear summer sky.
“Whether we summit or not is only partly within our control. This is a mountain to be listened to, not fought against. We climb when she says we climb; we back off when she says as well. You are all experienced climbers; you have all earned the right to be here. Let’s do everything in our power to leave the mountain with our team intact, okay?”
His final statement is met with a series of whoops and the clanging of cutlery against the tables. Owen grins, and Jamie lets herself smile too, lets herself be caught up in the infectious thrill of a new challenge.
Owen finishes by posting the order they’ll be called for final medicals the next day, before dismissing them back to less formal discussion. Jamie takes the opportunity to slip to the back, grabbing another cup of tea. The caffeine from the couple of mouthfuls she’d managed of the last had been less than satisfactory, plus having a cup in her hands might stop her from fidgeting. ‘Professionalism’ and ‘making good impressions’ and all that. Cam is suddenly beside her, slapping her on the back in greeting, almost making her spill her second tea of the day. He’s almost vibrating with excitement, like a golden retriever, she’s often thought, and it’s impossible to stay in a bad mood with him bouncing around like that. He looks up to her, Owen’s told her as much on multiple occasions. She raises an eyebrow at him.
He grins down at her. “Can’t wait to get out there! God, I’ve been keen on this mountain since I was six, and now we’re here, and it’s so close—” he trails off, looking over her shoulder, and bends down to grab a sausage roll and stuff it in his mouth. Jamie takes the opportunity to ruffle his hair, barely jumping out of the way as he smacks out at her with the hand not currently holding food. “Careful, I’ve got double your arms pan. Damn , they know how to make food here.”
“Yeah, well, leave some for the rest of us, okay?”
“Hey! It’s a long walk, gotta keep my strength up! Fat supplies, and all that.” He slaps his stomach. Jamie just shakes her head at him, fighting back her own grin.
“What do you think of the others?” They both turn slightly, facing the room, scanning over the team.
“Think we’ve got a good chance,” he tells her, “there’s a fuck ton of experience in this room.”
“Bit of a different gig to Everest, huh?”
“Yeah, you can say that again.” He scrubs at the back of his neck with one hand, moving closer to her. “Don’t tell, but I’m actually a little nervous.”
“It’d be a problem if you weren’t nervous. Nerves are good. Trust me, mate, we’re all nervous. Even Owen.”
“Even me.” Especially me, she thinks. He seems reassured by this, nodding at her and lifting his empty mug.
“Gotta find me some more of this.” He wanders over towards the drinks table, giving out smiles and greetings as he goes. She wishes she had some of his charisma sometimes, his easy way of befriending everyone he meets.
She should go and make nice with the others, she knows, but she hesitates. The beginnings of a headache pulse behind her left eye, and she presses her palm into it. It doesn’t help much; the pain just radiates out. She allows herself a moment to close her eyes, to breathe in, to ignore the bustling energy around her. When she opens her eyes again, Danielle is looking straight at her, and she doesn’t look away when Jamie meets her eyes. Jamie eventually has to be the one to break eye contact, pushing off the wall she’d been leaning against and turning away, when Owen grabs her arm.
He pulls her outside, offers her a cigarette from a squashed packet. She gives him a wry grin. “Should you really be encouraging this?”
He cups his hand around the butt so she can light up. “It’s your lungs. I gave up on telling you what to do a long time ago.”
Jamie taps the ash against the low wall she’s perched on, takes another long drag as the silence between them stretches out. She clenches the smoke tighter between her fingers and clears her throat. “You’ve obviously got something to say, so just get it over with, yeah?”
Owen sighs. “I’m not going to ask you again if you’re okay to be here. But I know it’s hard. And I want you to know—”
“Jesus, can you just—”
“Jamie. You can talk to me. I’ve lost people too.”
She shifts, curls her toes, grinds the butt of the cigarette into black char on the ground and fights the urge to run. “There’s nothing to talk about. It was years ago. I’m fit to lead, don’t worry.”
Owen looks at her, and for a moment she thinks he’s going to push it, and then she really might run. But he just sighs again, and pulls her into an awkward one-armed hug. She stiffens automatically. He stays there until she relaxes somewhat, then, with a final squeeze of her shoulder, pushes away from the wall. “Right. Back to it. The offer stands though. I’m here.”
She retires early, begging off after doing the bare minimum of socialising. She leaves everyone else playing cards around the tables, pushed together as close to the fan as they can get. It’s not a good precedent to send, this ‘absent leader’ thing she’s doing. It’s far from her usual. She knows she needs to get her head under control before they start climbing, before they’re in a situation where her absence could be devastatingly costly. If the memories assaulting her in Skardu are overwhelming, she’s terrified about what awaits her on the mountain.
So she returns to her room, sets a towel on the ground and runs through pushups, crunches, burpees, and planks until every muscle is shaking and she can think of nothing but the burning in her ligaments, her mind finally clear. She’ll be fine, as long as she keeps moving.
Skardu is the last place on the expedition where they’ll have access to proper medical care, so Bly requires all their clients and guides to pass final medical checks there before continuing. Jamie plays with two blades of grass while she waits outside the office space Hannah, Owen’s wife and Bly’s resident doctor, has commandeered for her consultations. It’s mid afternoon already, the sun beating down harsh and unrelenting. She’s second to last to be called, had rushed back from town after checking her watch and once again being shocked by the passage of time. Out here, time seems to lose meaning, seconds ticking by in drips and drabs and then all rushing together, speeding along as if they’ve just realised they’re not doing their job.
Fortunately, Hannah’s running slightly late with Rob, so she takes a few minutes to catch her breath on the stone steps.
The door opening behind her jerks her out of her thoughts, the strands of grass she’d been weaving tearing apart in her fingers. Rob bounces down the steps, a wide grin and a blue slip of paper in his hand. “Got my ticket out of here!” he says, and she high fives him. “Careful in there,” he tells her, “can’t hide anything from that woman.”
“Oh, trust me, I know.” Jamie says with a laugh.
Rob shakes his head. “Good luck, lass. See you on the other side.” And waving his health certificate over his head, he jogs back towards camp.
Hannah Grose is an imposing woman, with a sharp eye and a warm smile, tall and elegantly dressed despite the oppressive heat. Jamie taps on the doorframe, and she smiles in greeting, gesturing to an empty chair. Jamie sprawls across it, fingers playing a restless beat against the arm.
The whole thing takes less than ten minutes; her weight checked, ob's taken, and finally— with a clench of her jaw and her eyes firmly fixed on the corner of the room— her blood drawn. Hannah scribbles her signature on a blue slip pending blood results, and Jamie gives her a terse smile. Hannah holds her gaze for a moment before standing.
“Oh, come here!”
Jamie stands, and Hannah collects her in a firm embrace. “Be safe out there, love.”
“Always do my best.”
“She’ll be watching over you. That woman really loved you, and she’d want you to be safe.”
Jamie nods, throat thick.
Hannah gives her one last tight squeeze before letting go, straightening her skirt. “If you see her, could you send in Ms. Clayton, please.”
“Course. See you, Hannah.”
In the hallway, she leans against the wall, breathing intentionally slowly. Her eyes water anyway, and she swipes a hand across her face before tears can fall. The wall is cool against her palms; she presses harder, splays her fingers.
She’s still trying to centre herself when she hears a raised voice outside. She steps to the doorway, but hesitates, peering out and scanning the path.
“— how did you even get this number? I told you to leave me alone!”
Danielle is pacing the same ten steps back and forth. Her fingers are white where they’re clenched around her phone, her other hand a tight fist at her side. Jamie doesn’t mean to listen, she really doesn’t, but Danielle isn’t exactly being quiet, and this doesn’t feel like something she should interrupt, so she waits.
“No, Eddie, list— listen to me. Don’t call me again—”
There’s a pause, and Jamie watches as Danielle tips her head back, rolling her eyes towards the sky. After a minute she speaks again, too quietly for Jamie to make out the words, before stabbing at the phone screen and shoving it in her pocket. Her shoulders are heaving with each breath and she’s still pacing. Jamie slips out the door while her back is turned, aiming for the sheltered side of the building, already fumbling in her vest pocket for a smoke and lighter. She thinks she’s gotten away unseen, doesn’t really want to have to deal with any of whatever that was and is just reveling in the first deep drag when there’s footsteps approaching.
Jamie doesn’t look over, still slightly disgruntled by the invasion of her smoking spot, and Danielle lets out a loud sigh. “Rough morning?” she asks, because it seems the woman wants to talk, and Jamie’s hoping to get through this in as few words as possible.
“Is it that obvious?”
And christ , Jamie thinks, how does she manage to sound more American every time she speaks?
She brings the cigarette up for another drag, buying herself time to find a way out of this.
“Is that… are you… smoking ?”
“Fantastic observation skills you got there. I can see you’re gonna be a real asset.” She’s being snarky, she knows, and maybe it’s unwarranted but—
“Can I have one?”
That does turn her head. She eyes Danielle up and down, and by the time her gaze is back on her face, the other woman is flushed a deep red. “I mean, you don’t have to, obviously, I just—”
Jamie sighs, cutting her off. “Go for it. Cheap as shit out here.” She offers the packet over, and cups her hand around her lighter flame. Danielle makes no move to light the cigarette, flicking
it between her fingers.
“It can’t be good for you, smoking as a climber.”
Jamie snorts. “Worse things. Do you want that or not?”
Danielle finally holds it to the light and takes a tentative pull. She breaks away coughing. Jamie hides her smirk behind a fist. “Don’t let your fancy sponsors see you doing that. ‘m not sure that’s the look they’re going for.”
She gets a glare in response, and there’s defiance in Danielle’s eyes as she raises the cigarette to her lips again. She breathes in too deeply and ends up hacking again.
“Don’t have to finish it, it’s really not worth learning how to do.”
“Is it supposed to feel good? Cause I feel weird.” She holds a hand out to Jamie, palm facing the ground. “I’m all… shaky.”
Jamie huffs a laugh, entertained despite herself. “Yeah, cause you’re not used to it.” They stand in relative silence for a minute, Jamie smoking and Danielle trying to smoke, before— “Oh shit , I was supposed to send you in to Hannah. Quick, put that out, and please don’t tell her I gave you that.”
She gets a grin in response. Danielle drops the remains of the smoke on the ground, grinding it to ash with her toe, and turns to leave. A loud ring tone has her startling, and she instantly curls in on herself, shoulders drawn.
She’s a few steps off, staring at the screen, and before Jamie can think better of it she’s calling out. “Hey, Danielle. You don’t have to answer it.”
She looks back over her shoulder, mouth curled down, eyes expressive and exhausted. “Yeah, you’re right.” She doesn’t hang up, but doesn’t answer either, just puts the phone back in her pocket and leaves it to ring out. When the automated voice mail recording plays, a male voice echoes tinnily through the speakers.
“Danielle. Answer the goddamned phone. This is stupid and you’re being childish.” There’s no sign off, just a beep and then silence. Jamie sighs, cursing herself already for not being able to leave well enough alone.
Danielle turns to her, embarrassment clear on her face. “I’m sorry you had to hear that. I promise I’m not gonna bring my personal stuff into this.”
Jamie shrugs, moving closer once more. “It’s all good. We’ve all got personal shit. Not judging you for that. Now, you best be getting to Hannah.”
“God, I must look a mess.” She’s fussing with her hair, tousled as it is, swiping a hand over her eyes.
“You’re fine. Promise.”
Their eyes meet again, and then Danielle nods, a slight smile curling up one side of her mouth. “Thanks.”
“It’s nothing.” Jamie rocks back on her heels, suddenly needing to get away.
As she’s turning, Danielle calls after her, “Jamie?”
“It’s— um. I actually prefer Dani.”
And it’s a simple request, but something in the set of her shoulders tells Jamie it might be the first time she’s ever made it.
“Yeah, okay. Dani it is, then.”
And with a blinding grin, Dani disappears into the building.
Jamie walks back to the hotel with her eyes fixed on the horizon and her jaw clenched. Look at you, her mind whispers, you’re going to lose her too. Just like last time, Jamie. Just like with me—
“No.” she grits the word out, turning and slamming her hands into the nearest wall. “It’s not last time. She’s not you. And if you’d just listened to me—” she catches the eyes of a passerby watching her in the reflection of the window and forces herself to move on.
When Jamie gets back to her room, it’s to find Cam sprawled across her bed, snoring into the pillow. She shakes her head and throws a spare pillow at him. He barely responds.
Since the plan is to get away reasonably early tomorrow, all gear needs to be checked and packed tonight. Jamie’s kit is kept neat, but she gives it all a once over anyway, checking crampons and ice axes, counting screws and checking her rope for any signs of wear. She leaves her clothes for last, as Cam seems to be sleeping on top of most of them, but once she’s done everything else she’s finding it hard to put it off. She tugs a sweatshirt out from under a leg, and he groans and rolls over, blinking blearily at her in the fading light. “Wha— what’re you doing?”
“Could ask you the same thing. What’s wrong with your bed?”
Cam rolls over, half falling off the bed and catching himself with a foot. He swings an arm around haphazardly, scrubbing the face of his watch clean. “God, it’s been, like, three hours. Where’ve you been?”
“Got caught up checking gear with Owen for tomorrow. Cam, seriously, what are you doing on my bed?”
He shrugs, kicking absently at the worn carpet. “I don’t know. The guys were talking, and they’ve just done so much , Jamie. All of them, and how am I supposed to lead when they know so much more than I do? They’ll never listen to me. And what if I make the wrong decision? What if I shouldn’t even be here?”
Jamie sighs and sits down on the ground in front of him, cross-legged. “You deserve to be here as much as anyone else. And you know I’m not just saying that, ‘cause I don’t just say shit. You’re gonna learn a lot up there. And lucky for you, the responsibility isn’t on you. Think of it as experience. We need you, kid. You’re a great climber, and you bring a lot to the team.”
He kicks out at her softly. “Now you sound like one of those motivational speeches.”
“Fine. You want the Jamie version?” she stands and grabs her pillow again and starts whacking him in the head. “Get out of your fuckin’ head, you twat. You’ll be fine.”
“Hey! Okay, I get it, I get it! Lay off!”
“Good. Now, can I have my bed back, sleeping beauty? You’re on the stuff I’m trying to pack.”
Cam stands with feigned reluctance, grabbing at the first piece of clothing he finds and tossing it at her. “You’re always so organised. I haven’t even started packing.”
“How do you have stuff to pack? You’ve only been here a day.”
“Mess just— happens .” He shrugs. “Have you always been this neat?”
“Guess I just want to make sure everything in my power goes right. There’s a lot resting on me getting this right. If my things aren’t even in order, how can I keep everything else in order? Anyway— my issues. You— get. I’m busy.”
Cam gives her a long look, then salutes. “Aye, aye, captain. Back to it, all hands on deck, all that.”
She throws a sports bra at him as he slips out the door.