by Luke Draper
FRANK HAD CLIMBED. Mount Fuji was first in the summer of 1993. Frank’s colleagues at the English conversation school balked at his assertions of ‘climbing’ the mountain. It’s a hike, not a climb, they argued, though none had attempted it themselves. A month later, still stung, Frank climbed Yarigatake, shorter than Fuji, but with steeper slopes, and ladders and chains for the ascent. That, Frank reconciled, made it a climb. His colleagues reluctantly agreed and passively listened as Frank retold stories of rockslides and watching a bear fight in the forest far below him and burning his mouth on soup in the hut he was told was haunted by the ghosts of ancient mountain tribes.
The following year, he climbed mountains in Malaysia, Indonesia, China and Laos. He climbed Pico do Orizaba in Mexico and a challenging route on the Breithorn, earning money through English teaching.
Returning home to London, he considered taking up travel mountaineering as his primary hobby, but at the age of twenty-eight and with a promising career in advertising, he had no time to invest in such activities.
Now at forty-seven, Frank had been regional manager for nine-and-a-half years. That climb, he realized, was over, and the ambition he once held for a chair at the American headquarters slowly evaporated with each received email.
After long days of listening to pitches and overlong presentations from overkeen graduates, he would go to the gym off Lambeth Walk and clear the mind-fog on the cross trainer and Stairmaster.
One crisp January evening, Frank entered the gym to see it had been remodeled overnight. The machines in the cardio area had been switched around and the walls that were bare brick before were now painted in strips of pastel pink and blue and stenciled with motivational quotes. You will never know your limits until you push them yourself…Be stronger than your strongest excuse. Frank rolled his eyes.
“Yo, Franky!” The young trainer slapped Frank on the shoulder.
Frank tensed up.
“What do you think of the new set-up?”
Frank thought deeply about the question, then became conscious he was taking too long to answer. In his younger days, he would often reply immediately, often without thinking at all. Though he couldn’t recall any negative consequences of this habit, he learned to take time before answering, even when he didn’t need it.
“it’s certainly something,” Frank replied.
“It’s really something. Here, check out the new machines, we got six new vari-stride ellipticals. You’ll love them! It’s like a cross-trainer and Stairmaster combined because you can adapt your stride! Pretty sweet, right?”
Frank looked past the new ellipticals toward the membership room window. There stood the simplest looking of apparatus. A modest, black contraption that stood at an acute angle with round wooden rungs running upward. It looked flimsy, as if it were made of plywood, but stood firm as treadmills and ellipticals rattled.
“Ah, the ladder,” the trainer sighed, sensing Frank’s gaze. “Pretty simple tech, really. Self-paced, non motorized. You just, you know climb.”
A meek squeal came from the strength machines. A woman with a greying bun and in attire more suitable for summer picnics than exercise sat bolt upright on the thigh machine, her legs pulled wide apart and her face a burst of surprise.
The trainer ran over to assist her.
Frank tried the new ellipticals, found the absence of symmetry unpleasant and went back to his usual workout, rarely removing his eyes from the ladder.
The next day after work, Frank approached the ladder with cattish curiosity, circling it, observing. There were no dials and no buttons. He’d need to use his watch to measure any achieved distance.
He grabbed a rung and pulled it down. The movement was stiff and there was zero torque. It ground to a halt immediately after Frank had yanked it. Frank was impressed. He lifted his leg, pulled himself onto it with the handlebar, and began climbing.
Two weeks later, Frank signed up for the Everest Challenge: a climb of twenty-nine thousand and twenty-nine feet – the equivalent distance from base to peak of the mountain – on the Ladder.
He used the machine every other day after work, climbing two-thousand feet a session. At home, into the night, his quadriceps and calf muscles would burn and throb, and his lower back would pulsate with pain, but he knew twenty-nine thousand and twenty-nine feet was achievable, and in one go.
At work, his subordinates convinced Frank to climb for charity. He feigned enthusiasm. The young marketers all knew how to promote the event on social media. They dragged Frank to the gym to pose in his suit on the ladder for a publicity photo. They printed it out on A-zero and hung it in the office workspace.
There were whisperings of the local newspaper running the story. This panicked Frank. At lunch and on breaks he would research the charity he was supposed to be climbing for, and statistics about children in London living in poverty.
In the evening, he again went to the gym and again began climbing. Usually when he climbed, he thought of the day’s projects. This evening, he thought only of numbers. Seven hundred thousand children live in poverty in London…Fifty three percent in Tower hamlets…thirty-nine-point eight percent in Cambden…twenty-seven point…
Frank felt the room spin and a heavy pressure in his head and stepped off the ladder.
The trainer ran to the ladder. “Franky! You alright, Frank?”
The next day, Frank was, as usual, the first in the office. From the floor-to-ceiling window, Frank saw pockets of sunlight smiling on parts of the city, Elephant and Castle, St Paul’s, the Angel, all kissed by light. Soon, the sun would rise higher and guide the team’s work, powering their creativity.
Frank felt strong and positive, pumped for a good day. Last night was only dehydration, he was sure. He slept it off well.
Then Frank looked at his photograph on the wall. The suit covered most of his lean muscle, but his undone jacket revealed the soft belly he could not shift. His neck looked thick and vascular over the collar, and Frank focused proudly on the swollen, authoritative vein. But he followed the vein up to the head, to the strong though slightly sagging chin, and small, weak mouth. To the eyes that were once wide open but now half-buried under wilting lids. To the lines on his unfrowned forehead. To the thinning hairline.
At the first meeting of the day, after everyone had arrived and discussed the Arsenal away game over coffee, Frank withdrew from his charity climb.
Again, Frank went to the gym after work.
“How’re you feeling today, Franky? Ready to jump back on that horse?”
Horse. Frank eyed the Ladder as if it really was an animal that had spurned him.
“I’m feeling great!” Frank replied. “I must have been dehydrated. Too much coffee during the day, you know how it is.”
“Well, drink plenty of water and take it easy today. You don’t want to overdo it.”
Frank hung a bag filled with four two-litre bottles of water and six face towels on the hook on the side of the ladder.
Today was the day.
He climbed a thousand feet in sixteen minutes without stopping, stepping through the initial cardiovascular shock, controlling his breathing, measuredly climbing.
He reached two thousand feet twenty-four minutes later.
The trainer watched on from the stretching area, poised for another blackout, yet assured by Frank’s straight back and balanced strides.
Frank had climbed for nearly an hour. He avoided looking at his watch and instead watched the subtitled quiz show on the wall-mounted television.
What country is Jakarta the capital of? Asked the quiz show host.
Frank hadn’t been to Jakarta, but he had hiked Mount Pangrango in West Java. It wasn’t that challenging of a walk. Seventeen kilometers of gentle incline through subalpine forests led them dreamily to the later abrupt slopes.
Yuriko, as usual, had overprepared for such an undemanding hike by overfilling her backpack with energy bars and bottles of isotonic drinks. She soon exchanged backpacks with Frank, who was minimally equipped and fully expecting to be back in the hostel by a reasonable time. Yuriko wondered why Frank was so quiet throughout the walk. Frank fretted that she would go into the side pocket of his rucksack and discover the engagement ring.
Close to the top, Yuriko sat on a rock near patches of edelweiss and soaked her feet in the hot spring stream. Frank paced around the scree-strewn footpath, kicking crushed pet bottles into the piles of burnt trash in the fauna.
The area was lit only by small patches of sky between the treetops, and with Yuriko’s rucksack digging into his clavicle, Frank’s mood had darkened with the trail.
The ring stayed in the side pocket of the backpack for days until Frank, alone at the airport, fished it out and threw it in the bin at security with a half-drunk bottle of tea.
By midnight, Frank had climbed fourteen-thousand feet. The burning pain in his hips had dulled, but he had slowed considerably, with each step striking a tired but deliberate thrust.
The trainer had clocked out and the televisions were switched off; it was now free card-entry for midnight workouts. Nobody came, and only Frank remained, quietly grunting, wiping his sweat away. Climbing…
…Climbing. By one-thirty, Frank hit the wall. He tried to focus his effort, but this only drew his attention to the labour of his breathing and the renewed pain in his legs and shoulders. He closed his eyes and allowed the motion to mesmerize him. Each step, every reach became a kind of hypnotism, and his mind quarried for memories buried in an explorer’s grounds.
He remembered the lightning storm in Tokyo, waiting under a bridge for the rain that crashed down like a taiko drum crescendo to ease. He remembered the night markets in Bangkok, the fragrance of lemongrass and the strange stall that sold wooden masks of mythical man-creatures. He remembered the snake-blood vodka and beers on floating river bars in Nha Trang. But these memories were backdrops to the conversations. The laughs of young men and women, some still lost over there, some lost at home.
Frank was so lost in memories he hadn’t noticed someone had entered the gym. The clang of steel weights roused him to think a male lifter had come for a midnight workout, but in the reflection of the stretching area mirror, he could see it was a young woman on the lat-pulldown machine.
As they continued their activities back-to-back, Frank watched in the mirror the woman pulling the bar down to her shoulders. Her arms were taut and powerful, yet not brawny. Her hair was in a messy, blond-streaked bun.
Frank thought she was the sort of girl who would look away with disdain if their eyes accidently met. Yet when she stood up to reveal the shape of backside only disciplined, informed exercise could form, Frank’s toes skimmed the next rung. His knee noisily clattered against the tread as he dropped to the floor and the ladder whined to a crawl.
With one foot on the ground and the other on the lowest rung, he gripped the handlebars tightly, his legs trembling.
This was a massive setback. He couldn’t settle for too long, or he’d need to catch a second wind to get back into the motion. He looked at his watch.
Fifteen-thousand two-hundred and eighty-four feet.
His heart skipped a beat and then thudded like a barrel drum. He could be proud of this climb. But he was only half-way there. Feverishly, ignoring the sudden grip of nausea, he pulled himself back up and began to climb again.
“Are you alright?” the woman called over.
Frank was startled. Raising his head and peering back into the mirror, he noticed the girl standing by the pulldown machine and staring at him intently. He wanted to call back, or raise his arm in affirmation, but could only manage a slight head turn and nod.
“Frank?” She said, walking over
She leant on the Stairmaster just behind and to the side of the ladder and stared at the side of Frank’s face.
“It is you!” She exclaimed. “Don’t worry, I won’t disturb your workout. I can see you’re really going for it.”
Frank waved her words off.
The woman stole a glance at Frank’s watch.
“Fifteen thousand feet!? That’s incredible. I can only do two thousand. But I get bored easily.”
Silence, punctuated by whirring torsion, briefly hung in the air.
Frank wondered who she was. She was young, perhaps mid-to-late twenties, so not from his past. She must work somewhere in the office, he thought. Perhaps a weekend receptionist.
“Um…Frank, I want to thank you for what you said about my idea for Yuriko. You might not know, but it really helped my confidence.”
The previous spring, Frank managed a contract for a Japanese company called Yuriko, a woman’s shoes designer in the affordable-yet-exclusive range. They marketed their own products around Pacific Asia. But European women had different discernments. Frank wanted nothing to do with the contract, so coordinated a brand campaign challenge for the junior executives.
Frank couldn’t remember the selected pitch. Shoes, shiny shoes, heeled shoes, bare ankles, long-legged women in shoes in the park, long-legged women in shoes in the boardroom, all blurred into one formulaic image.
The woman’s presence was beginning to irritate Frank. His lungs burned and his heartbeat struggled to settle into a decent pace.
He glowered and looked at his watch. But she continued.
“I think the campaign really played to my strengths. Fashion is really my thing. I studied fashion design at university but dropped out to study marketing. The strange thing is that my mum was a fashion designer, and my dad was in marketing. He was the one who always told me to chase my dreams. If you want to be a fashion designer, he said, then that is what you should do. But mum was always the practical one. Follow a steady career, she said …Fashion is too cutthroat. But what’s strange is mum was a really successful designer. She worked with big names and even started a label. But she met dad and gave it all up. Dad didn’t do much, got to lower executive level. He’s not the most creative person in the world. When I started with you, I asked him why he got into marketing. He just shrugged and said, ‘I don’t remember’. Hardly the inspiring, is it? But anyway, they were so happy when my pitch was selected. So thanks Frank, it means a lot.”
With that, she went back to her workout.
Her words reran in Frank’s mind like soundwaves from a distant radio. Her mother was a successful fashion designer, her father a mediocre advertising executive. But she goes into advertising. To Frank, it was perverse that parents would steer their child toward something they themselves had failed at.
He couldn’t get his head around it. But he was exhausted. He felt in the grip of an irregular fever, and that his body was suddenly on autopilot. He could barely feel the rungs beneath his feet or within his grasp. Pain had given way to a particular numbness.
It could be the most normal thing in the world.
“But Frank,” the woman coming back said. “Whilst we’re here, it might be a good time to tell you. I’m leaving. I appreciate the opportunity, I really do. But I don’t think I’m ready for a career yet. I’m actually going to travel for a bit. South America, then the States. For a year, maybe. I’m sorry to spring this on you, and I’m really thankful for your support. But I think I ought to see the world while I can.”
Frank smiled. It was as if he was having a conversation with himself.
The woman went back to her workout. After an hour, she left, and Frank felt safe distracting himself with memories of a fantasy. He imagined her sitting barefoot on a hostel bed surrounded by frayed maps and guidebooks. Then he imagined himself on the bed with her, not the lumpy man with greying hair, but the young explorer who taught English in a cheap suit in the week and climbed at the weekends.
At six thirty-four in the morning, Frank had climbed twenty-two thousand feet.
The trainer had clocked in for the morning shift and ran over to the ladder.
“Woah, Franky boy! Frankerino! Have you been at it all night?”
Frank, mesmerized, didn’t respond. His ashen face showed no pain or emotion. It was as if he had melded with the machine to become an android programmed to perform the most redundant task of climbing. But in his mind, he was scaling Everest, Annapurna, Mont blanc, K2, Cerro Torre. The wind buoyed him. He felt like he could fall into it and be gently cradled to the peak if he let go.
The gym gradually came back to life. The televisions came on, machines started to hum and weights clanked, all in an unmelodious tune.
The trainer greeted all who came for an early workout with the news that Frank was on his way to completing the Everest challenge.
“What’s the Everest challenge”? asked the old man who had come with his wife.
“He’s climbing that ladder all the way to the top of Everest!” the trainer excitedly answered. “Forty thousand feet!”
“Goodness me!” his wife exclaimed, in the same summer clothes. “Is he doing it for charity?”
The trainer shrugged.
The old man and his wife stepped into the gym area and separated, the woman going to the leg weights and the man, curious, to the Stairmaster. He tried to synchronise his steps with Frank’s slow ascent, but the lack of momentum and his aged slightness caused the steps to lock, so he stood on the steps and watched.
“Where do you expect to get?”
Frank heard the old man’s voice behind him. Like a faint echo from the distant end of a tunnel, the sound was frail enough for Frank to dismiss as a whine of fleeting wind.
“There’s nothing waiting for you at the end, you know.” The old man pressed.
These words carried over to Frank as clear as hot spring water and just as sulfuric. His leg buckled. The ladder’s hum softened, but the sudden anger at these words lifted his tired leg to the middle rung and forced all of frank’s resolve into stamping the machine back to life.
Silence hung between them.
The old man, feeling spurned his banter had landed on deaf ears, scratched the back of his head and was about to join his wife, when the need to press further needled him into talking.
“Nope. Nothing at the end but a sore back and a pocket full of nothing. You’re just like my daughter. She’s decided it’s a good idea to quit her job to go travelling. Just when she was starting to make progress too. Waste of time. You’ve probably got a better view from that ladder. Don’t get me wrong, travel is important, but what’s wrong with a holiday around the pool in Spain? Or Mexico. Yeah…Mexico is nice this time of year.”
A timid cry came from the weight machines and then a muffled shriek.
The old man grumbled, “Ah what is it now?”
His eyes widened at the sight of his wife at the lat-pulldown machine. Her baggy t-shirt had caught in the hanging bar and she dangled limply like an unworked marionette.
“Oh!” The old man gasped and shuffled off the Stairmaster toward his wife. As he passed the ladder, Frank drowsily reached out to grab the old man by the arm.
“This is something you should see,” he said.
The commotion beside them slowly faded away like the sound of a train rumbling away into the distance.
Together, Frank and the old man clung on to the side of the mountain. Their hands grasped the rocks, and their feet probed for any trench in which to find a toehold above an expanse of eternity.
“I can’t hold on much longer,” The old man cried as the wind howled around them.
“There’s nothing there,” Frank replied, kicking shale away for a footing. “You said so yourself!”
Then the old man let the wind snatch him from the rock. Frank submissively followed. From their cloud, they watched the vast and falling blue horizon shimmer in the sun, and they peered down at the woodland and towns until, as they rose further into the sky, it shrank into flecks until it resembled nothing more than a mossy puddle.
Then the mountain shrank into a tiny churn of snow. They eventually had nothing to look at but each other, and in that, themselves.
Was it always this mundane? asked the old man, slumped and dejected on their cloud.
No…we did stuff, Frank replied.
The old man sighed. I don’t remember at all.
It does seem like a long time ago, Frank agreed.
Then the old man laughed. But I remember my sweet wife. We met her in Mexico, do you remember?
No… Yuriko? I don’t know any Yuriko. The old man griped.
Frank began to gradually disappear. I think we’re getting our wires crossed, he whispered.
I guess so, said the old man, also vanishing into space. You know what they say, different paths, and all that.
Frank, all but gone and in the smallest of voices, almost that of a child, asked, but we climbed, didn’t we?
Ah Yes! cried out the shadow of the old man We climbed. Different paths, different paces. But we climbed alright.