19 May 2016

The Waitress - After Mt Hicks - the longest day

We'd had a long climb on Hicks (previous post, we spent the night on top) and a rather frightening descent in the midst of a storm the next morning. After getting back to our snowcave and recovering we woke the next morning to discover just how lucky we'd been - the face was plastered with snow.

It was time to go home. We rose at 2am the following morning, packed as fast as possible and headed up onto Clark Saddle. So began the longest and most strenuous 24 hours I can remember. I wrote the story below for a short story competition (- it didn't get anywhere!). With allowance for some creative writing, it is pretty much what happened. I hope none of my old mates are offended by the story we are still great friends sixty years on.
Polly (from Faulty Towers)

The Waitress

All day they battled downhill against time and the pull of gravity on heavy packs, edging about schrunds and crevasses on belays and slogging down the mountain through knee-deep snow. They had started early in the half-light of dawn from their snow cave high on the La Perouse Glacier and struggled over Clarke Saddle. Now the burn of the sun and the sweat of their exertions contrasted with their cold feet. In the mid-afternoon they passed over Glacier Dome and soon after, on the upper Haast Ridge, saw their first plants in over two weeks, some gentians and daisies. After so long snow caving at over nine thousand feet the close-up green of the vegetation looked great and they marvelled at its freshness. Barry was taken with their restful effect on the eyes. It had been a great trip, he reflected, enjoyable but tough – his first among the ten thousand footers. They had managed some first ascents in the area. Far below, on the main glacier, the four of them noticed a trail of tiny figures, tourists, making their way off the ice and onto the lateral moraine. “We’re going to be lucky to catch the bus”, Barry mused to himself as he started picking his way down the ridge after the others.

They travelled down the last of the Tasman Glacier as the shadows of ridges climbed up the mountain faces across the valley. It wasn’t by accident that Jim and Dave managed to pick separate routes through the glacial moraine. Things had been strained for a few days. Now in the last of the daylight they pulled themselves exhausted up over the lip of the moraine wall – just in time to watch the dust of the last tourist bus disappearing down the road to the Hermitage. The place was deserted and they knew there would be no other bus. They sagged onto the rocks and thought about how far they were from anywhere. About them the mountain daisies were at their best, bathed in the reflected light from nearby peaks, but they were in no mood to appreciate the natural beauty that surrounded them. A distant kea’s call failed to register. One way or another they'd been on the go for about eighteen hours, their shoulders and knees ached and their backs were raw in places from the constant rubbing of packs.

The bus for Christchurch would depart from the Mt Cook Village at nine the next morning and for the past few days they’d looked forward to that last luxurious breakfast in the restaurant in the Hermitage. They had planned it from the start of their trip. They listened carefully – perhaps the sound of a last tourist car. There was nothing, only the distant whisper of mountain streams. No option but to walk the extra distance - an extra twenty kilometres on screaming feet. That was when Dave decided how it should be done.

“A ten-minute rest every hour.” he offered. Jim disagreed. “Let’s just keep going till we get there,” he suggested. It was all on. All the tensions and resentments of the trip boiled over. Jim suddenly had had enough of Dave’s extras, the huge first aid kit, his extra pitons and their weight, the extra abseiling line – even if it had saved them once. And he remembered the row over the preparations for the first big climb. They all knew about Dave and his idiosyncrasies. He had this obsession with detail. When it came to planning the trips there was no one more thorough. Everything was thought through, but there had been problems with what they described as his “belt and braces” approach to mountaineering. Dave's insistence on getting everything right had been his undoing during his first year at University, despite his disciplined hard work. When finals came he’d only revised half the course. And in the exams he spent so much time on only half the questions that he managed to get ninety percent for those he answered – forty five percent. So the story went.

Every argument was now proposed - the distance - the time - the weariness - the need to stop to eat or drink - to ease the feet. The need to keep the party together. No use; it was pigheaded stuff. The moon rose up over the ridge across the valley and still they continued arguing. Angry voices destroyed the peace of the valley. Jim was the one of the quartet with the greatest natural physical ability. He had the strength and agility of a gymnast. He’d excelled at rugby at school and it was said that if he'd put as much time into rugby as he had into mountaineering he could have played representative rugby at high levels. Now he punctuated his arguments by poking his ice axe at a nearby rock. Metallic clanks and sparks punctured the night. The white snow-cream, matted in his stubble together with his blazing eyes, all quite visible in the moonlit dusk, gave him a surreal appearance. It wasn’t that he wasn’t prepared to rest every hour – it was just - now that it didn’t matter about the unity of the group - he was going to settle some old scores from earlier in the trip. Their weariness seemed to have departed and neither of them was prepared to budge. Mike and Barry just sat and gaped. For a while they had tried to resolve their conflict. Does it matter? Let’s split the difference? Does it really matter? Why argue? It was hopeless. They gave up. Finally they shouldered their packs and just walked off down the road, leaving the other two arguing. They would just rest when we felt like it!

So the night passed. Jim and Dave followed eventually, everyone, just doing their own thing. Occasionally a stone worked its way down within a sock, chafing away at some part, already sore, adding to the discontent. All of them suffered aching feet from the hard shingled road
 The issue of how to get there was still unresolved. Finally, in the small hours of the morning, four disgruntled sleepwalkers dragged themselves to a halt and threw down their packs. They pulled their sleeping bags out and fell asleep under shrubs just below the Hermitage. After dawn one of them hobbled up to reception and retrieved the clean clothes sent up by bus three weeks ago. No one argued as they washed and dressed at the nearby creek. The previous night preyed on the silence. They stuffed smelly old clothes from the trip into a large plastic bag, dropped their packs off at the bus depot and made their way across the road to the Hermitage dining room. They sat about the table for breakfast in silence. Plenty of time now to look glumly at each another; snow burned faces peeling, unshaven, unruly hair. A miserable shamefaced lot. What an ending to their great adventure.

The waitress arrived at their table. She was young, slim and blue-eyed – a blond Australian girl from Bondi beach, having her first OE in New Zealand. Everyone ordered bacon and eggs. As she departed with the orders, four pairs of eyes followed the flare of her uniform and the neat white bow of her apron - her narrow waist. The sigh was audible. Jim observed that she was the first woman he’d seen in three weeks and a pleasant change from the usual breakfast view of someone’s stubble. When she returned with the food they were all smiles. Where was she from? Where was she going? Where had they been? What had they done? They sparkled. Coffee? They were beside themselves with excitement. There was hardly anyone else in the dining room so she could lavish them with service. Would they like more bacon and eggs? Coffee? “No extra charge,” she said. While she was out of the room they raved about her. Shamelessly, Barry raced outside and, with no regard for the management or conservation, picked flowers for her. Dave wrote her Sydney address on the table napkin. Mike found out which hotel she was moving to next. Not too far from where he was going to do his engineering practical stint in May. He didn’t tell the others. And Barry again….. As she passed a plate, managed to brush his cheek against her arm. It was so soft and warm. A third helping of bacon and eggs arrived, then toast and marmalade. The coffee percolator couldn’t keep up. And she was so pretty. Girlfriends back in Christchurch were forgotten. So, nearly, was the bus.

They hardly had time to say goodbye as they staggered, bloated, from the dining room and fell into the near-empty bus. Jim and Dave collapsed together onto the back seat. They smiled at each another and spent the rest of the trip discussing a route on the unclimbed Caroline face of Cook. The one everyone said was impossible – too dangerous.

From the panoramic window of the dining room the waitress watched the bus depart and wondered if she would see any of them again. She had taken a liking to a couple of them but it was always the same. They would leave on the next bus. She sighed as she picked up the flowers from the table. Already they were wilting.



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