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Nanda Devi

by Kate Thompson

I am old. I am one of those people who goes on living, despite being childless, despite having nothing to live for. Throughout my life I have covered thousands of pages like these ones with little lessons, small observations for the world. The world has not been interested. Lately I have noticed that my handwriting is becoming weaker, though I don’t feel frail in myself. And it has made me think. What should I write? If there is a limit to my words, which ones would it be best to use? What would I tell my children now, if I had them? Whenever I ask myself that question there is only ever one answer. It is not what I would wish, because it is an unsatisfactory story. It is something, perhaps the only thing, unresolved in my life. A fable without a moral, the lesson that I cannot teach, because I do not know what it means.
It helps me as I write to have an imaginary listener. So let you be my child or my grandchild, I don’t mind which, and I will tell you how it is that you never came into existence, how you were lost on the icy flanks of Nanda Devi.
How far do I need to go back to find a beginning? Do you need to know how it was that I found myself farming sheep in the Welsh mountains? I don’t think so. It’s enough to start from there. I, alone, way up in the mists beneath the twin peaks of Moel Hebog, trying to be a farmer.
Every summer my nephew Simon came to stay for two or three weeks. I liked Simon, but I didn’t enjoy his visits. He was a town boy and couldn’t make the effort to involve himself in the countryside. The first two summers, when he was quite young, were a misery for him. He was lonely and homesick. As he grew older and more independent, he was merely bored. I tried to get him interested in the farm, but he didn’t like all the walking, and he said the sheep were smelly. The best times we had together were beside the fire, taking turns to read stories to each other. Horror or science fiction. That was all.
As Simon grew older, and into his early teens, it became more and more difficult to entertain him. So one year, before he came, I sat down with the local tourist guide and drew up a prospectus for him. A set of possibilities. I don’t remember them all. There were things like pony-trekking, pot-holing, hill-walking. Some music class or other, Welsh language for beginners, and rock-climbing. I was impressed by the list; well satisfied by my consideration. Simon was less enthusiastic.
    “Do I have to choose one?” he said.
    I didn’t force him, but I used strong persuasion, and eventually he decided on rock-climbing. So the next day we went to Tremadog to sign him up. The instructor there was a Yorkshireman; a climber of some repute I later learnt, and we spent maybe half-an-hour with him going over all that was involved. Simon was impressed. It was one of those rare occasions in life when an apparently ordinary situation turns out to be something more. I left Tremadog enriched. I had sorted out Simon’s holiday and I had picked up two new interests. Once has in rock-climbing, the other in Jack Crowther, who did it for a living.
    Looking back now over the distance of years I find that I have no lack of respect for that former self of mine. For although it is easy to see now that the two interests were in fact one and the same, there was nothing shameful in my behaviour. There was no teenage fantasy, no manoeuvring for a meeting or a view. In fact I became so involved in researching the craft that I believe I genuinely forgot about the man and his attraction. And after Simon was finished with his course, I didn’t see Jack again for a year. He used to go off on expeditions each spring, I think it was Kanchenjunga that year. Or was it Changabang? But though I read about it in the climbing magazines and saw the summit photos, it produced no alteration in my heart-rate.
    By the following August, I had read all I could find on climbing. I knew how to tie a sheep-shank, which type of piton to use and where, and how to use karabiners, descendeurs and a dozen other devices whose names I have forgotten. I was well prepared when I signed up for a day’s climbing with Jack. I even knew what kind of rope he was using as he led us out onto the rock-faces below Nant-Gwynant, and that they had been used in the latest Everest expedition. But all that knowledge turned out to be completely useless. I knew all the gear, but when it came to it, I just couldn’t trust it. The very first time I had to take my weight on the rope, I froze. It wasn’t the height, the height didn’t bother me. It was thought of my life hanging from a piece of rope and a metal spike hammered into a rock. I stayed where I was, rigid with fear, until Jack came and helped me down. He was great, didn’t make me feel bad at all, and even during those agonising moments I was aware of the absurdity of all that worthless knowledge, and I laughed, and he shared the joke. On the way back to Tremadog we shared a lot more.
    So, my attention was diverted back to its true source, and in the weeks that followed, I would often find myself smiling at the ground on some mountain walk, remembering his smile.
    I suppose I should describe him to you. That’s the usual thing, I know. But really I don’t see the point. To say that someone’s hair is black or brown, to say their eyes are blue, it doesn’t capture what it is that makes someone so special to the one who loves them. He was good-looking, I think he may have been attractive to other women as well, but I have no evidence of that. There’s no point. He was Jack. Smiling, gently cynical, just lovely.
    Still I didn’t manoeuvre. When Simon came in August he was genuinely keen to do more climbing, so with a free conscience I brought him to Tremadog to sign up. The three of us went for coffee. Jack and I laughed a lot. And for the next few days we met now and then, coming and going, and lingered over each other just a little each time.
    The climbing had given Simon a new interest in the mountains. I didn’t allow him to take ropes out on his own, but he went out without them and walked and scrambled among the rocks. Until one day he found a cave. He was full of excitement about it, wanted a make a den there and sleep there sometimes. He said it went on and on, into the mountain.
    I was unhappy about it, and after much soul-searching, decided that I would be justified in asking Jack, as an expert, to come and examine the cave. So I phoned him, and he agreed readily, and in the thrill of the moment I asked him to stay for dinner.
    He came on a Sunday, and he and Simon went off together while I knuckled down to making the meal. My excitement was absurd, and I raged at myself constantly, but the meal was a great success.
    The cave turned out to be part of an old mine working, and Jack thought it might possibly have been a railway tunnel going right through the mountain. He asked if he could come back some day with proper gear, and take Simon through. My satisfaction was almost painful.   
    That night, and the night he and Simon went through the tunnel, Jack stayed late with me. After Simon had gone to bed, we sat on the floor in front of the fire and talked through the hours, growing closer all the time. He told me that he had never married because he didn’t believe it would be fair on anyone to be waiting around while he went off escapading in the Himalayas. And then he smiled at the fire, and said that, in fact, he hadn’t yet found a woman worth giving up the mountains for, but he hoped that he would before life passed him by. I looked at the ground. It was the only moment of awkwardness in two long evenings.
    Simon went home; for the first time reluctantly. Jack was busy with the climbing, but over the following winter we met often for a meal or a pint. One Sunday afternoon we laughed through a showing of “MacKenna’s Gold” at the local cinema.   
    Being with him was just so easy. I was totally, unashamedly in love. I suspected that he was as well, but it seems to be so often the case that the one whose feelings matter most is the one whose feelings are most difficult to gauge. In any case, it was usually he who suggested our meetings, so I felt secure in his affections.
    Then the spring was upon us, and he was suddenly getting ready for departure. He got frantically busy organising tickets and gathering stuff together. I phoned him once and suggested a quick drink, but he said he hadn’t time. That threw me a bit. The vulnerability of someone in love. Ostensibly I carried on with my life, but, by some curious co-incidence, my business for those days did not require me to go beyond earshot of the phone. He did not ring. As time went on my nerves deteriorated. Eventually, on the day before he was due to leave, I gathered the courage to phone him. He wasn’t there. His landlady didn’t know when he’d be back. I left a message. Waited, between hope and dread. I hadn’t seen the sheep on the mountain for two weeks. It was time to bring them down for lambing. I stayed in the house.
    At six o’clock he arrived at the door, and instantly everything was alright again. It was evident that he’d been suffering as well. We made dinner together, as close as it’s possible to be without touching, without being lovers. We ate, then sat beside the fire and dragged out those last moments of togetherness until they were gone.
    Then I went out with him to his car, and the night was the best those mountains could give us; wide, moonless, full of stars. He put a hand on the doorhandle of his car, then turned back, and we embraced silently for a long time. We didn’t kiss, but that embrace was a completion of some sort for me, the closing of a circuit, the arrival at a wholeness my life had never had before. So total that, when we did break apart, there was no pain.
    “I’ll write to you,” he said, and drove away. Everything was right with the world.
    A few days later, the first letter came, from London. I read those letters so often in the weeks that followed that I know them almost by heart. Even now, all these years later.
Dear Beth,
    Arrived here yesterday, somehow. I was like a pack-mule getting down off the train in Paddington, thought I’d never make it. Bits and pieces sticking out all over. The ticket collector walked all the way round me before he let me through. I don’t know if he though I had a couple of stowaways aboard, or what. Maybe he thought I was trying to rob the train. I would if I could have. 2/6 for a bloody sandwich! By the time I got to the Taxi-rank I was buckling at the knees. The Taxi-driver wanted to charge me extra for all the bits. I said it’d be cheaper to fly. He said, ‘Suit yourself.’ I said, ‘Alright, I’ll walk.’ He laughed so hard he hit his head off the steering-wheel and gave himself a little nosebleed. Then he got out and started to unload me and put the stuff in the car. We had gathered an audience by this stage. He asked me where I was going and I said, ‘London Bridge’. ‘Are you going to blow it up?’, he says
    I asked him if he’d like another nosebleed, a better one maybe, and he slapped me on the arm and said he’d take me wherever I wanted to go, free of charge. I said that’s great, but would he mind if we stopped in New Delhi on the way because I’d had some of my stuff sent on ahead. I tell you, by the time we got to David’s house he nearly would have done, too. Right decent bloke in the end.
    Anyway, I didn’t mean to write down all that. Just to say Hello. And to say I’m beginning to wish I wasn’t going. The worst part of all this business is ahead. Once we get onto the mountain it’s OK, but between here and there it’s sheer misery. A few days now having last-minute panics, then the flight out to Delhi and finding out what’s there and what’s got lost on the way. And then the delights of Indian bureaucracy. It’s all to come.
    I have to go now. If you feel like writing you can send it to Post Restante, New Delhi.

    I walked the hills twice a day, looking out for sheep in difficulty, and checking the new lambs. It’s a favourite time of year for me, because I have a purpose for walking, and I feel pleasantly tired at the end of the day, and fitter all the time. It was a beautiful spring. I had only one pet lamb that year.
The next letter from Jack arrived about three weeks later.

Dear Beth,
    We’re ensnarled here in Delhi. The heat is catastrophic, but bloody officialdom is worse. We’ve already got permission to do this climb, but it looks as if they might wriggle out on us. Nanda Devi is on the border with Tibet, and they’re having skirmishes with the Chinese. Operations they call it. How can they have bloody operations at twenty thousand feet beats me. Anyway, we’re sticking to our guns and enlisting all the diplomatic assistance we can. We may get through in the end, but the trouble is it’s getting very late in the year and we can’t afford the delay. Anyhow, what with one thing and another I wish I’d never come. But I suppose I’ll feel different if we ever get as far as Nanda Devi. I’ve seen it from a distance, and I really believe it’s the most beautiful mountain in the world.
Wish I could think of something funny to report, but I can’t. I miss you.

    A couple of days later, about the end of May, there was a postcard of the Red Fort in Delhi. Jack had drawn an arrow pointing at a large crowd of tiny, indistinct figures and written ME. On the other side it said; “We got our permit. We’re off!”
Then a week passed, and another. I had a few friends in the area, dotted around here and there. The closest of them was a woman called Carys, who lived between my house and the village. She and I often passed a winter evening playing darts against the men in the pub, and we were pretty good, too. We won often as we lost. I think we were winning that evening. I had the darts in my hand, and was lining up at the mark on the floor, when I became aware of a nearby conversation opening to include me.
“You knew him, didn’t you, Bethan?”
“Knew who?” I asked.
I was still looking at the dartboard. Old Cledwyn, in the corner, swaying slightly above his pint, growled, “Englishman.”
“Climber fellow,” said the barman.
“Tremadog,” said someone else.
I feel cold, and a sort of white noise fills my head. The newspaper is there below my eyes and I can’t read any further than the headlines, LOCAL CLIMBER KILLED. There’s a photograph, blurred, a man with a beard and little round snow-glasses. It could be anyone. But it isn’t, it’s Jack. My eye catches his name, standing out among the litter of small words below the headline. Jack Crowther, aged 31.
Cledwyn mumbles again, “Englishman.”
And someone else says “God, I’m sorry love, I didn’t realise,” and I’m not sure that I can stay standing up.
Carys took my arm and led me to the door, and I gasped for a moment in the damp air. There were soft voices behind us. I couldn’t speak, couldn’t cry. Carys brought me to her car and let me in. I must, after all, have thrown one of the darts. In the car, when I opened my hand, there were only two of them, lying beside the bleached imprint of their tooling.
I don’t remember much about that night, except that Carys was there any time I surfaced from the stupor of my shock. She said it was an awful night. I stared into the fire, and often I didn’t see her even when she stood in front of me. I hadn’t begun to grieve. There was a hollowness so total in me that I hadn’t a clue how to go about filling it again. And I don’t know if I ever did, despite what happened later. Rather I learned to live with it, accept it as the lack of substance inherent in my barren existence, still with me now, even as I write.
Carys died four years ago, at Christmas. We were still good friends. I have never forgotten her loyalty at that time, and her faith in me. Because she didn’t call for a doctor that night or during the difficult days that followed. She left her young children to the good will of the village, and took it upon herself to see me through. It wasn’t easy for her.
When it grew light, Carys got me moving. She took me around the sheep, pushed me through the mechanics of making breakfast and eating it. When the postman came she sent me to the door.
He stood with his cap in his hand.
“We’re sorry to hear about your young man,” he said. “My wife’s sorry, too, we’re all sorry.”
I nodded and took my mail.
“If there’s anything we can do,” he said.
I think I closed the door in his face. There were two letters. One was a bill, and the other was from Jack.

Dear Beth,
This is the last Post Office before Nanda Devi, so fill up now. I thought of sending you ten letters, but there isn’t that much to say. Anyway, no time. We’re here, with a liaison officer each to make sure we don’t wander off into Tibet. They’re awfully suspicious, they jump every time one of us goes to the loo, (which, owing to judicious use of iodine in the water isn’t as often as it might be, thank God.) Another night here in the heat and the bedbugs, then off, uphill all the way. We’ve sorted out our porters for tomorrow, after an exhausting day of negotiation. They’re used to these wealthy international expeditions and it took them a long time before they realised we really are only two blokes with very limited finances. After that they were great. Big relief, because we’ve got an enormous amount of gear. It seems absurd, but we’ve gone through it time and time again and we can’t thin it out any more.
I got your letter in Delhi, and it really gave me a lift. I’ll give up mountaineering for you if you’ll have me. If you won’t, just pretend I never mentioned it, will you? I leave the next move up to you.
Write c/o Delhi again, I wouldn’t trust the post here.
Looking forward to getting back.
Love you,

    I won’t go into the grief that followed. Grief is grief, and if you’re lucky enough to have escaped it, then descriptions won’t help. I will assume, however, that you are curious to know what occurred on the mountain. I needed desperately to know, but had no way of finding out, until I got a letter from Jack’s partner, Dave. If I can find it I’ll reproduce it for you, as he can explain it better than I.
Here. You won’t need the introduction.
“We had been pushed badly off schedule by the delays in Delhi, and had to make sporadic progress up the mountain between storms. However, we managed to lay out all the fixed rope we needed to allow an attempt on the summit. In retrospect, it was too late in the year, we should have gone down long before. The constant battle with the weather had exhausted us, and we were both suffering from some degree of frostbite in our hands. When the weather was clear on that last morning we decided on a last-ditch drive for the summit, even though it was clear that it wouldn’t hold. We almost made it before the storm broke. Then, suddenly, we were down to almost zero visibility. We turned back, staying close together, tracing our steps back along the ridge towards the fixed ropes. It was a narrow ridge, and it wasn’t easy to see where the cornice lay. We were roped together, and walking slightly apart, one to each side of the centre of the ridge, in anticipation of exactly what happened next. There was a sudden, ferocious gust of wind which made us both stagger. Jack stepped sideways to get his balance, and went through the edge of the cornice. I flung myself down on my face and slammed in my ice-axe. I was dragged maybe a yard before it held, but when it did I couldn’t believe our luck. All Jack had to do was to jumar up the rope and we’d be OK. So I stayed stock still and waited. I could hear Jack shouting occasionally, but the wind carried away his words. After a while I began to realise that something was wrong. I still don’t know what. I can only imagine that in some way he got snagged in the rope or in his harness when he fell, and couldn’t get free to use the jumar. Then I got frightened. I didn’t dare move, even the slightest disturbance could dislodge the precious grip of the ice-axe, but at the same time I was getting dangerously cold and wouldn’t be able to hold on much longer. We were both yelling at the top of our lungs. The sound carried, but the words lost their shape. Then my hand began to slip on the handle of the axe. As slowly as I could I brought my other arm round and got hold, but even that small movement was too much. The powdery snow began to move. I was sure we were both gone. But suddenly I stopped moving and the pressure was gone from my harness. Jack had cut the rope.”
He goes on, about how he got down and barely made it before the storms closed the place off for the winter. He offered to come and see me, but I put him off. To tell the truth I held a grudge against him. He seemed to have enjoyed the drama too much. I believed that it was him, and not Jack, who had cut the rope.   
So, the weeks passed and the community, headed by Carys, kept a gentle eye on me as I struggled to rebuild my life. Days and nights got mixed up, as they do, and the farm and the house got neglected, but I was doing alright. I was getting a hold. Then, about ten weeks after David’s letter, I got a phone call which froze the fluid in my spine. A Yorkshireman, undoubtedly, on a hissing and spitting line, calling my name.
“Beth?...Hello?...Hello? Is that you, Beth?”
Then the connection closed. A few minutes later it happened again. That was all. It had to be Jack, or someone pretending to be Jack, because everyone else calls me Bethan, and always have. As soon as I found courage to approach the phone again I called Carys, and she came and spent the night with me. But I was alone when it happened again, two days later. The line was still unclear, but this time he could hear me as well.
“Is that you, Beth?”
“This is Jack.”
I threw it down and left the house, without even a coat. Carys accepted me willingly, though for the first time she suggested I might see a doctor. I didn’t. I knew I just needed time, and she gave it to me. Late at night, over her shoulder as she washed up, above the unsteady head of her youngest. She gave me time she couldn’t afford, and I never forgot it.
I don’t know how long I would have stayed there, nursing my preoccupation amid the household bedlam. But on a Friday evening, when I had been there three days, there came a knock at the door. Carys was stuffing sandwiches. I opened it. It was Jack. Thinner, paler, but unmistakenly Jack.   
So, there you have it. What more do you need to know? How my head went white inside when I saw him, and I nearly passed out? How long it took to get into his arms? It seems so complete, doesn’t it? So fairy-tale. Girl meets boy, girl loses boy, boy overcomes death to re-unite with girl.
I will rob you if I don’t continue, but this is where it gets difficult for me. The whole point, the reason for your non-existence. Well, let’s go on. The first part is easy enough.
Jack did indeed get snarled in the rope as he fell. So badly that his right arm was broken, and even if he’d managed to free it it would have been useless. My misgivings about David were unjust. Jack found his pen-knife with his left hand, opened it with his teeth, and cut the rope just as David was beginning to slide. Luckily he didn’t fall too far. The story of his night on the mountain and his descent to the safety of a sherpa village have been told elsewhere, and told well. He was too far behind David to make it down to the plains, and spent the winter snowed-in in the village. All that is in his book. It’s a good read.
And as the snow receded he came down and found his way back to me, phoning along the way, worried by my initial response, and then by getting no answer.
So now we’re left with the difficult part. Our failure to come to anything. We gave it a try, a few weeks, a few months, but it was gone. We couldn’t recapture the ease, the totality.
We were like strangers.
He did marry, some years later, and started a family, but there is no doubt that I was the great love of his life, as he was of mine. We told each other so when we last met, early on in the degenerative disease that brought him to an early death. He told me that if it hadn’t been for me, for his determination to reach me, he’d never have made it off the mountain.
So, ask me about life. I am old, now, and wise. There is little I cannot tell you. But in more than forty years I have been unable to understand how it was that Nanda Devi came to dispossess us, and of what. Perhaps it is something simple. Perhaps you have the answer already.


Taken from ‘Roughly Speaking’ (1991), pages 34-42.

Kate Thompson

Kay Twohig