Tell me the story of Everest,” she said, a fervent smile sweeping across her face, creasing the corners of her eyes. “Tell me about this mountain that’s stealing you away from me.”
George and Ruth sat on the drawing room floor, laughing and tipsy, dinner growing cold on the table in the next room. Ruth was cross-legged opposite him, her gray skirt pulled tight across her knees. She picked up the single sheet of thick ivory paper from her lap and reread the invitation from the newly formed Mount Ever- est Committee again. “My husband, the world-famous explorer.” Ruth held up her glass of wine and he reached out with his own, the crystal ringing in the lamplit room. She was fairly bursting with happiness.
“I like the sound of that,” George said, and let himself imagine what it would be like to have people thinking about him, talking about him. The opportunities that success on Everest would bring. “I might be able to leave teaching, maybe even write full time. We could travel,” he said. “Have our own adventures.”
Handing him the invitation, Ruth rose unsteadily to her feet and gulped at her wine. He scanned the words again—hope that you’ ll join the Everest reconnaissance, pursuit of the final Pole, for the honour of King and Country—as she crossed the room to the bookcase. Stretch- ing up on her bare feet, she reached for the atlas on the top shelf before turning to pad back to him. “Show me,” she said, sitting back down beside him. Her hair had come loose from where it had been pinned up and haloed her in the dim light. She pushed it off her brow with the back of her hand.
He laid out The Times Atlas of the World on the floor, on the blue Turkish rug with its woven colors of water and sky, ice and snow. When he found the proper map, George took Ruth’s hand and with her finger drew a line around Europe, the path of a ship past France, around capes and narrow islands and the ruins of the Greeks. Through the canal that split the desert in two and past the land of Lawrence’s Arabs. Their hands described reckless adventure, sailing over longitudes and latitudes, past Here there be monsters and the arched backs of sea serpents painted on the blue of the Indian Ocean, and into the port of Bombay. George drew lines across the plains of India, around bazaars and villages, landscapes of tea and Hindu cows, into the curved spine of the Himalaya with its foothills and plateaus. “It’s blank,” Ruth exclaimed when their hands reached the spot where Everest should be; there was only a series of names—no relief, no lines of ridges or elevations. Just words floating in an empty space, waiting to be claimed by him.
“No one has mapped her yet. That’s what we’re going to do, Ruth—reconnoiter her, bring back the shape of her.” He stroked his fingers across the map, as if he could explore the range through the pages, feeling for the relief of peaks. “These are the highest moun- tains on earth.” There was an awe in his voice that he wanted her to share. He recited names and caressed the page before moving from the map to navigate her skin beneath the folds of her skirt. “West to east—imagine them. Cho Uyo, Gyanchungkang, Everest, Makalu, Kangchenjunga.” They were like spices on his tongue, on hers, tingling.
In a cloud of lavender soap and cloves for the toothache she had complained of earlier, Ruth pressed against him, promised curries for dinner. “You’ll have to write me about everything. Every detail so it will be almost like I am with you.” There was a thread unraveling at her collar, marking a line on her pale throat.
“You will be with me,” he said. “Every step of the way.” “Everest,” she said, “sounds like a foreigner.”
He took her hands again and traced the lines of her palms, like horizons. “She was named for George Everest. He was the surveyor general of India, but he died before he ever saw her. From malaria, after blindness, paralysis, and wild bouts of insanity. He was a bully apparently—drove his men mad. He set out to force some order on the world with his maps. He started at the bottom and swept his survey up the whole arc of India.”
He whispered words like “trigonometrical” and “triangulation” against her throat, at the pulse below her ear. With the back of his fingers he skimmed the long declension of her throat, traced the line of her collarbone where it slipped beneath her blouse.
“Everest was measured from a horizon away.” He traced the cur- vature of the earth along the concave of her stomach. Pushed her back onto the blue carpet, unearthed her.
“They crept from hill to hill, building towers and measuring the angle of peaks on the horizon. A fraction of a degree could make all the difference.” He pressed on top of her, tilted her hips, and pulled her to him.
The atlas ripped under her, the paper stuck to her wet skin.
After a few minutes, Ruth rolled onto her side, curved her body around his, and tucked her head under his chin. She could smell herself on him.
“There were three problems with the measurements. Corrections to be made, all by mathematics. The curvature of the earth, the refraction of the light through the thinner air and colder tempera- tures. And the weight of the mountain.”
The air was cooling now on her naked skin. After a moment, Ruth began to shiver despite still being slick with sweat. She pulled herself up, sat facing him, hugged her knees to her chest. She couldn’t believe how happy she felt, how proud, that George had been chosen. The scent of him rose off her skin. “The weight of the mountain?” she asked.
The light was thinning in the room, etching the two of them in dusk-blue lines. George stood, strode to the window, and gazed out toward the towers of Charterhouse while Ruth shrugged into the jacket he had thrown aside. He shut the window tight and came back, kneeled in front of her. He tugged at the lapels of his jacket, drawing it tight around her shoulders.
“It’s so massive it affects the gravity around it. They used theodoites to survey her, but the pull of the mountain threw the mea- surements off. Can you imagine anything so powerful, Ruth? This mountain has a presence. Everest knew it when he planned to mea- sure her—and he didn’t even go near her, never even saw her.” Clos- ing her eyes, Ruth leaned against his shoulder and pictured the jagged skyline of the mountain.
“Twenty-nine thousand feet.” A whispered invocation. A prayer. She imagined his letters arriving from the Himalaya, herself
curled up by the fire to read them. She thought about his returning home to her, victorious. Her face split into another smile, her cheeks aching from it. She couldn’t help it. The happiness she felt for him swept through her. She tried not to think that being apart only seemed romantic when you were together.
“How do they know?” she asked. “How do they know how tall it is if no one’s been there?”
He reached out again and Ruth stretched out her hand to meet his. She would take his hand, pull him to his feet, lead him up the stairs to their bedroom. But he brushed past her to touch the waiting emptiness of the map.
A little while longer, then, she thought. She would wait while he planned for and dreamed about the mountain, the future. “How do they know?” she asked again. “Maybe it isn’t even the tallest.”
“It has to be,” he said, his fingers lingering on the map. “It has to be.”
the voyage out
He still remembered the first time he saw her. He felt the pull of her, even then.
In 1921 the members of the expedition had planned the sighting, knew roughly where they would get their first glimpse of her. But when the group arrived at the predetermined Himalayan pass, they saw nothing but banks of clouds pierced by the nearer ridges. Still, they set up camp and over the course of the afternoon and evening Everest slowly unveiled herself. They watched her stripping away clouds and light.
“There!” someone had called out when the summit finally appeared—a great fang thrust into the expanse of sky. She towered head and shoulders over all the other peaks nearby.
They camped at the apex of the pass overnight and watched her reappear in the morning, noting the play of light and weather on her. The way the clouds rushed up to veil her again in the afternoon. They had already come closer than anyone else had ever been.
The first time, George thought, he’d been successful before he
By the time he returned to England from the second Everest expedition a year later, success was impossible to claim. The Times was already blaming him for the disaster that had put an abrupt end to the 1922 attempt. It wasn’t fair, but for good or ill it was his name that had become synonymous with Everest.
When he met Ruth in Paris on his return, he was certain he was done with the mountain. In the hotel room, he swore to her he would never go back: “I promise I’m done with it. I don’t need it. I need to be with you.” He believed it at the time. Continued to believe it the next year, even after Arthur Hinks, the chairman of the Mount Everest Committee, asked him to consider returning a third time, in
1924, even as other names were put forward and a team began to form without him.
He tried to push Everest out of his mind, but it remained—his first thought on waking, his last at night. She was there as he read the newspaper articles about who from the previous expedition was returning for the new attempt: Colonel Edward “Teddy” Norton, Dr. Howard Somervell. As he imagined that they might summit his mountain.
Then one day Ruth said, “You’re thinking of going back.” It wasn’t a question. She looked past him to the rain-pocked window. He could hear the spatter of water against the glass, the gush in the downspouts. He should have denied it—he shouldn’t have said anything—but it was too late for that.
“Perhaps we should at least think about it. They need my experience. No one has been to Everest more often than I have. If they succeed this time and I’m not with them . . . Do you remember everything we dreamed about when they first asked me?”
“Teddy’s been to the mountain,” Ruth countered. “And Dr.
Somervell too. You only have one more season than them, George. They’re not your responsibility. You have responsibilities here. There’s your new teaching position at Cambridge. And I don’t think the children could bear for you to go away again.”
He tried not to remember how John had shied away from him when he came home in ’22. But John had been only a baby then. Now he’d had time with his father, knew him. This time would be different.
“You said you were done with it. You promised.” Her voice sounded tight. She breathed in deeply. “I know you, George. What you want is for me to give you leave to go.”
“No,” he started to protest, but she was right. They both knew it. Eventually, Ruth agreed they should think about it, and he prom- ised they’d make the decision together. But when Hinks’s final invi- tation came, George accepted without discussing it with her. He couldn’t help himself. For days after, he waited for the right moment to tell her what he’d done.
He returned from a meeting at the college determined to tell her. She was in the dining room—a perfect silhouette in the evening gloom, her features outlined by the dusk glow of the window behind her. Stepping into the room, he wanted to kiss her, to scoop her up, but something about how still she was, the sad line of her mouth, stopped him.
“I knew you’d never let anyone else climb it,” she said, not even looking at him. Her backlit profile was a cameo he wanted to carry with him. “As soon as the Committee decided they were going back, I knew you’d be going, despite all the protestations, all the promises. You should have just told me.”
She was right. He hadn’t meant her to find out this way. The telegram on the table in front of her was luminescent on the dark
wood. He knew what it must say—Glad to have you aboard again.
“I’m sorry, Ruth,” he said. “But I have to do this. I have to. It’s my mountain. You have to understand.” She shook her head as if to say she didn’t, she wouldn’t. “This will be the last time. It has to be.”
“You’ve said that before, George. And I believed you. I’m not sure
I can this time.” “Ruth—”
“Don’t.” She stood, and the movement sent the telegram wafting to the floor. When he looked up from where it had landed, she was staring at him, her eyes shrouded by the dim light. Her hands flut- tered near her mouth, her throat. “You’ll have to find a way to tell the children. Clare will be so disappointed,” she said as she stepped around him, moving toward the door. Disappointed. The word stung. He knew that’s what she felt more than anything. Disappointed, betrayed. He winced, tried to banish the word from his mind.
“When do you leave?” She stood in the doorway, her back to him. “Ruth, you’ll see. It will all be all right. I’ll do it this time and
then I’ll never have to leave again.” “When do you leave?” she asked again.
The months that followed were difficult. Ruth was quiet, with- drawn, her words always politely supportive. He found himself miss- ing her before he’d even left.
The night before his departure, they made love in the unfamiliar hotel room and she clung to him desperately, like the wind on the mountain, bucking against him until he was gasping, drained. They were both different when he was leaving; the imminent separation had changed them, made them bolder.
The next morning, on board the SS California, she kissed him good-bye, nodded emphatically, and then turned to walk down the gangplank, her hips switching under her long skirt. God. How could she not believe him when he said she was beautiful? She’d shake her head and cover her mouth with her hands—even more beautiful for her denial. There was the hot prick of tears in his eyes, a dull ache in his throat. He swallowed and watched her go. He counted in his head. It would be six months, maybe more, before he saw her again.
That was weeks ago. Now, standing on the deck of the California, George cast his gaze back across the Indian Ocean to where he imagined the horizon must be, where it had disappeared when the sun set an hour before. There was no way to make things right between them except to do what he’d been promising Ruth for years: succeed and put Everest behind him once and for all. He had tried to explain again, in the letter he’d started earlier, just why he had to go—how it had nothing to do with his love for her—but the right words never ended up on the page. My Dearest Ruth, I know this has been hard for you, but you must know how very much you mean to me, how much knowing you are waiting for my success and return drives me forward so that every day farther away is also a day closer to my returning to you again.
The ship rolled slightly under him, raising a chorus of metallic clangs and creaks from nearby lifeboats and chains. Ignoring the clamor, he pulled out his diary from the pocket of his dinner jacket. The bold dates at the tops of the pages were barely visible in the gathering darkness. He leaned farther over the railing to catch some of the light reflecting off the water. He counted down the days. Two more nights. Then the Indian subcontinent, the baked heat of it, the blaze of exotic chaos before they disappeared off the map.