“Look mate. I’m not arguing with you. We’re stopping here for the night,” James yelled at his traveling companion. They had completed the drive from Changwuxiang to Tingri without incident, but it had taken longer than expected, and it was getting dark outside. “This is a dangerous storm. I can barely see five feet in front of me, and we’re in the last town before Rongbuk. Everest is only fifty kilometers down this road. We will get there tomorrow for God’s sake!”
Though Brig was inclined to push harder, he’d spent enough time with James to tell that he would go no further. They had had this argument all day at almost every town they had passed through, and Brig had been able to keep James and his jeep moving forward until now. Now James was angry, exhausted, and dug in. Brig finally relented, jerked his backpack out of the jeep, and slammed the vehicle’s passenger door like a spoiled child.
They bent their heads against the driving wind and snow as they forced their way to what they assumed was the hotel lobby, that wasn’t actually a hotel, but more of a hostel, the kind of place James had described to Brig in Shigatse. He could tell by looking at him that Brig didn’t approve. To Brig’s credit, he kept those thoughts to himself. James knew from experience they had few options. It was this place or another place just like it. The only ones that made the trek this far out were serious mountaineers, or day trippers who only stayed long enough to snap a few pictures and then quickly back to a lower elevation.
“You know, if it weren’t for the storm you could see the north face of Everest right there,” James pointed up and directly south. “At certain times of the day we’d be standing in its shadow. We’re that close,” James proffered as they entered their rustic room and laid their packs down on their rustic beds. There was no television or even a closet. There was a bathroom, however, but Brig sighed when he saw his nemesis, “the squatter.”
“Great! There’s no fucking toilet paper!” Brig complained. “How the hell do they wipe their asses in this place?”
“Use the hand you don’t eat with,” James suggested, laughing at himself.
Brig realized he was acting childish, but he was in a bad mood and James was the only one around to take it out on.
There was also a sink and a showerhead that hung dangerously close to the open hole that was their toilet. Brig made a mental note to be careful if he had to get up and take a piss, or God forbid, a dump, in the middle of the night. Brig turned the hot water handle on the sink to see if he would at least be able to take a warm shower in the morning, and to his surprise the water turned warm, if not a little brown. James had found the “on” button to the room’s space heater, and the room warmed quickly.
James was looking at his phone for messages, and Brig considered turning his on to see if he had received anything interesting. “Are you able to get a signal?”
“Yeahnah. Haven’t been able to get one all day. We’re definitely at the arse end of nowhere,” James responded. “Funny thing is, the closer you get to EBC, the stronger the signal. Some Chinese telecom company put up a base station back in 2008 when China hosted the Olympics. Now you can stream your favorite porn when you’re bored and need to rub one out.”
Brig gave James a disgusted look.
“What’s that look? You know somebody’s done it.”
Brig kicked his boots off and laid down on his bed.
“Hey! You forgot to do your t-shirt trick with your pillow,” James observed.
“Oh, shit!” Brig’s head rocketed off his pillow like it was on fire.
“You’re an odd bugger. A mountaineering germaphobe.”
“I’m not a germaphobe. I’m just uncomfortable breathing in someone else’s…” Brig almost said germs. “…deadly virus?” Brig slid one of his last clean t-shirts over a pillow.
“Germaphobe,” James said decisively. “But don’t be afraid. There are no germs on Everest.”
“Oh really? Why’s that?” Brig asked skeptically.
“If you were a germ, would you live here? Fuck no!” James said, answering his own question. “You’d live somewhere wet and warm, and make lots of germ babies. Like the jungle. Lots of germs in the jungle, bro.”
“So why do you live here? There’s probably fewer Kiwi’s on Everest than germs.”
“You’d be surprised. Lot’s of New Zealanders make the pilgrimage to Everest at least once in their lives. Rob Hall and Andy Harris were Kiwis,” reminded James. Rob Hall was the leader of the climbing team that Krakauer was a member of when he wrote Into Thin Air. Andy Harris was one of Rob Hall’s hired hands. Both men perished during the 1996 disaster. Harris’ body was never found. “As was Sir Hillary,” James added.
“That’s right! I’d forgotten. Still, none of that explains why you live here.”
“I was chased out of New Zealand by an evil bitch. My ex-wife.”
“She wasn’t triad was she?”
James laughed. “No. But she was a master torturess. When we separated, I came here and decided to stay. It’s much harder for her to get alimony from me up here,” James explained.
“Anyway, I’m bushed. If I keep you up again with my snoring, turn me onto my side. I’m told that I’m not as loud when I’m curled up.”
“Maybe I’ll stick your thumb in your mouth while I’m at it. The one you don’t use to eat with.”
When they had stopped laughing, an awkward silence filled the room. The men listened as the wind outside threatened to blow the door down.
“You’re still planning on killing yourself aren’t you?” James asked flatly and without emotion.
Brig took a moment to consider his answer. Should he continue the lie, keeping James off balance? Or should he come clean and let the cards fall where they would. They had become friends, and he respected James. Besides, he thought, he was too close to EBC for James to stop him now, at least not without getting physical. James was a tall, muscular man that could easily overpower a recovering opiate addict. But violence wasn’t part of the Kiwi’s character.
“Yes. I am,” Brig pronounced as he turned off the light.