Mountain Rescue

Mountain Rescue

Peter said nothing. He stood, jostling with the other passengers, holding on to a yellow bar as the Tube train clattered its way into Old Street station. Amy frowned against the noise. Sitting on a fold-down chair, hands gathered in her lap. She looked up at Peter, struggling to find the right words.

– All I'm saying is that a lot of couples take breaks. Susanne's husband went off travelling on his own for a while and came back really happy; she said it worked wonders for their relationship. It's not like I'm trying to get you out the picture or anything. I just think you, well we, could benefit. That’s all.

A man standing next to Peter was leaning a little to listen, but as Peter glanced across at him, he looked away to read a paper over someone else’s shoulder. The train lurched to a stop and Peter prepared to leave.

– Look, let’s talk about it later, he said.

– You’ll be too tired later, Amy said.

– All right. I will think about it. Promise.

– Will you, though?

– I said that I would.

– Okay. See you tonight. Amy offered her cheek, and Peter bent awkwardly to kiss her, aware that he was in the way of the opening doors.

– Bye, he said, and alighted onto the platform. He turned as the train's lady announced her destination and intention to leave, and watched as the doors slid shut. The train pulled off towards the long sooty-dark of the tunnel, carrying Amy away. Peter watched it disappear, and then joined the other commuters on the stairs, up the escalators, past the beggars, and on into London’s cold grey day.


The Nepalese sun was placed high, morning giving way to a weary afternoon, when Peter took another rest. He slowed his pace then stopped, un-slung his rucksack and dumped it on the mud path. Bending over, he placed his hands on his knees and shook his head. He was exhausted.

Sam, his guide, spinning lazily on his heel, shrugged. He gave an expression that suggested he’d seen this behaviour from Westerners before.

– You tire so soon? Sam gave a warm smile, walked over to Peter and gently tugged his arm.

– Tired? Knackered! Peter straightened up. He turned from Sam to catch his breath and to take in the view. Rising before them were the heights of the Langtang valley. In the last few hours the forest had receded and the mountains, that for days had been a backdrop of postcard peaks, now stretched ahead for miles of barren foothills and scrub, subtly gaining height in the pale sunlight until crumpling upwards in jagged fists of rock, the summits silent, dusted white with snow.

– Six days and you will see. Very beautiful view. Sam reached down, hooked up Peter’s bag and began to follow the path onwards, in that same springy, lazy fashion.

– No, I insist; I can handle it. Peter knew that Sam was eager to help, but he hadn’t come here to be dependant. His words met no reply, but the guide turned, waiting a few yards ahead.

Sam gave an unreadable look, a sulky battle between pride and status, then handed over the bag.

– Six days huh? Taking measured breaths, Peter fell into step behind Sam and they continued their ascent.


At first the land was organised into little steps and strips of rice farms, hewn flat into the steep hills, and then Peter passed through countryside that was choked by dense jungle. During the day, the warm sun flared above the canopy, casting long shadows down over the pathways. Each evening as the daylight dissipated, the foliage melded into a thick silhouette, giving the darkness a great depth. The further Peter climbed, the bigger the sky became; stars dominated the cloudless nights in icy clarity, the land quiet beneath.

The previous day, he and Sam had bypassed a tiny village. The slanting path they followed acted as a steep wall behind the cluster of huts and, as it skirted the place, allowed travellers a glimpse into the lives of the people dwelling below.

It was mid-morning. A group of men were talking in what seemed a jovial manner, standing next to a bloody bucket of machetes. By a grey stone bench, some women were busying themselves stretching out a goat’s skin to tan. To one side a young girl, who can’t have been more than eight years old, stood watching the adults. A baby was tied to her back in a wide scarf, staring contentedly off into the distance.

Peter must have slowed his pace because Sam, perhaps assuming they might break early, attempted to commentate on the scene.

– Maybe goat was old, and needs eating. Whole village will feast tonight. Sam looked down approvingly at the men’s handiwork.

Now the animal had been skinned, the women began butchering it, gathering the cuts upon the stone bench, unhesitant in the task.

The young girl looked up then and gave Peter a distrustful look, as if she suspected he might try to buy the food and spoil the festivities to come, though when none of the adults followed her gaze, she turned her attention back to the preparations.

– Where’s the next stop? Peter looked over to Sam.

– Lama Hotel, tea house. Hour? Not far. Sam smiled reassuringly.

– Okay, let’s go. As Sam moved on Peter glanced back at the village. It felt intrusive for an outsider to watch, and as he turned to leave, he was glad to get moving.


Such a casual ascent (casual in Sam’s book) made acclimatising easier and Peter had suffered no altitude sickness. On the contrary, he’d surprised Sam with his fitness. Once the first few days’ stiffness had been walked off, Peter grew more eager by the mile, pushing himself and taking fewer rests. Sam knew though that this final third of the journey was the most gruelling. The gradient increased hourly and the path was less trustworthy, the air thinner and colder, the tea houses less homely. Sam had known tourists to turn back from here; the landscape was impressive, and to many as photogenic as the view from higher up amongst the peaks. Still, this Englishman appeared determined.

Yet to Sam, he also seemed... awkward, after a hard day’s hike. Peter was unwilling to relax and talk about his lifestyle in London, his family or friends, unlike so many of the other Westerners Sam had guided before. Sam always liked working for British people. They often tipped well and were mostly polite, and usually straight-forward. But with Peter, Sam was baffled.

Peter stuck to a formal relationship, allowing his guide to perform his duties, as was normal in Sam’s experience, but there normality ended. The camaraderie which the effort of the climb usually induced seemed to be rebuffed by some stolid shell; unhappiness, indifference? Sam could not put his finger on it.

Only once did Sam see a shade of Peter’s intangible heart. After a full day’s trekking, having eaten a good helping of dhal baht together, Sam and Peter shared some brandy, and Peter became victim to his tiredness. It was curious; Peter swayed in his seat, and leant on Sam, allowing his guide to help him to bed. As Peter’s head hit the pillow, eyes unfocussed, he began to murmur that there was nothing out there, nothing that could move him; nothing visceral, nothing beautiful, nothing at all. Sam didn’t reply, just blew out the candle and quietly left the cold, wooden room.

The next day it was onwards and upwards, and Peter’s thoughts were once again his own.


A week later the two trekkers were about to gain a plateau where, on a clear day, one could see Everest, and from where only another day’s hike would lead them to Langtang base camp. The azure sky met the snow-topped horizon in a scissor-cut jigsaw, the Himalaya now consuming all aspects.

As it was slightly off-season the pair hadn’t encountered much traffic, but here the soft sounds of the wind and occasional forlorn crow call were being intruded upon by a trampling growing louder. Slides of gravel echoed around the rocky pathway as somebody drew close, descending from the plateau above.

A tall, lone tourist came into view, striding down in dusty boots carrying only his water bottle, trailed by two burdened sherpas. He stopped in front of Peter, took a swig from his iodine-coloured water, some of which dripped into his beard. He held out his hand, which Peter shook, then wiped his mouth. His brown eyes focused only on Peter, not acknowledging Sam at all.

– Bloody good view from the top, he said, with a well-spoken English accent.

Peter didn’t know what to say to this, so said nothing.

– Travelling on your own, I see, the man continued expectantly.

– Yes, I, left someone at home. Peter faltered. It felt like a long time since he had thought about Amy, her ways, the reasons for their quips, the reason he was in Nepal at all. It angered him that he had gone along with it, but it was a plain anger, flat, listless. Had he really not thought of her for days? Some of that anger must have found its way into his expression, as the man cleared his throat, hastening on.

– She couldn’t handle the climb eh? At this the man slapped Peter on the shoulder, and though this failed to raise a smile, he seemed not to notice. Instead he stepped slightly to his side, surveying the lay of the land in conceited admiration. He continued in an unctuous tone: It’s a tough world, up here especially. Perhaps it’s best you’re facing it alone. Her loss if you ask me. Won’t learn a damn thing unless you come out here and feel it, right? All this is ours for the taking!

As the tourist gestured to the frozen mountains, Sam and the other sherpas looked subserviently to the ground. Peter shifted his weight and the man talked on.

– When you get to the top, you’ll see; you’ll see what I mean. Suppose you’ll just have to write to her about it. Show her photos. Anyway, can’t hang around here all afternoon, London beckons! On we go chaps, chop chop! He clicked his fingers twice, nodded to Peter and marched on down the path. His sherpas, after a brief conversation with Sam, continued after him.

– His sherpa say clear weather, good views. Sam motioned that Peter should lead the way.

Peter gave a bewildered look back as the man disappeared from view, and then took up the climb once more.


The silence of the peaks was unreadable, their carved loneliness and shadows deep. While Peter sat mesmerised by the sheer weight of the region, a little of his own weight lifted from his mind. It was as if the clamour of his thoughts, which had been tumbling during his journey to the base camp, now quietened to pay homage to the view. It gave Peter a moment of calm, to look back upon the turbulence of his life before reaching this most serene place, a moment to reflect, to see life as it was; cold, vicious, unfeeling and unforgiving. Yet solid.

All of the questions Peter had been sent out to answer were left ignored by the mountains. They glistened knowingly, but gave nothing away. He had reached some cognition though; those smaller queries had been fed to experience, and the passage of time served to massage the duel aches of inadequacy and insecurity. With the breathtaking, massive vision of Langtang's mountains instilled within him, Peter could assume an acceptance of insignificance, a welcoming of the indifference which had dogged and baffled others.

This search for happiness... Perhaps he had never been happy. Perhaps the term happiness is just a word associated with periods of life between crises, when people come to terms with whatever disaster preceded them, and prepared for those they would come into contact with next.

Peter knew what he would be expected to say; When I was trekking in the Himalaya, I found happiness. But, in truth, he had been too overwhelmed. Sam and his infinite kindness. Nepal’s silvery, bare landscape. The humble, impoverished people it was home to. The way other Westerners treated it like a playground. His own mind, calmer when distracted from thoughts of Amy.

Maybe soul-searching was more about gaining a vantage point, not to look inwards, but to look ahead. Was happiness then realisation and acceptance?

Peter heard Sam’s crunching approach. It would soon be time to leave. He looked ahead to the peaks once more.

Maybe Peter was happy now. Maybe for some people, indifference is a kind of happiness, and therefore, acceptable.

It would be a long journey back to London. Of course he had to leave Nepal and continue his life from where he'd left it, yet it wasn’t only the solidity of the Himalaya that he’d be leaving behind, but also other people’s assumptions, ideas, expectations.

Originally published in print by Timezone Magazine, 2013 – journal no longer active

©James Bruce May 2013

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