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December 2006, vol 2 no 4

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Gary Eaton

Cliff Hanger

He has done the climb before, and says it's an easy peak, a veritable romp to the summit! Indeed.

On a fine morning in late spring four of us start out, and we make good time most of the way to the top, but by noon we're strung out in a steep line on the mountain side, and we haven't moved for an hour. Wolfgang, our leader, is halted on a ledge a short way above by a difficult overhang. In a highly vulnerable position, he's deliberating. I'm second on the mountain, and though I can't see him, I can hear him muttering from time to time, and cursing softly in German.

We've been having a bit of trouble finding dry footing because of water left from late spring rains, and it's particularly bad just where he is. I can move around my ledge enough to shift my balance once in awhile to rest my legs, and I could probably turn around, if I was careful, and lean back to rest, but there's no possibility for an easy retreat to safety, and no way to go higher until he moves up. Fortunately, it's cool, dry weather. We wait.

falling rock -
above the crowded peak
slow drift of cloud

I try to ignore my growing vexation, and chat with the climbers below. They're not saying much. We were all ready for a bit of a scramble, but nothing like this. My vision is confined because I'm staying as close to the rock face as possible to avoid rock fall. My neck and shoulders are getting tired, and I'm struggling to relax. The rocks around me are damp in many places. Though it may not have rained for days, trapped runoff is slowly making its way here and there through the fissures, causing an insidious slipperiness. When a mountain seems to turn into an enemy, the best thing is to get off it as soon as possible.

Just then there comes a beguiling diversion. A spring azure which has fluttered up from the valley below pauses on a nearby shrub, then wends its way over to a bit of damp caught in my shadow on the rock face, inches from my chin. These must be fairly common below the tree line in this valley, for I recall seeing a few of them this morning. But butterflies seldom venture this high. As it drinks, it slowly opens and closes its wings. It seems to take me for part of the mountain. I am reminded of my own thirst, and I press my lips to a rivulet within reach, causing the azure to flutter off. For a moment, I have a memory of myself as a boy, with a slingshot, holding a supply of pebbles in my mouth. The taste of granite. The taste of nothing.

But my mind can't be distracted for long. It keeps returning to the question uppermost: if this overhang challenges Wolf, by far the most experienced climber in the group, how will the rest of us cope with it? I hear sounds of movement above, and wonder, vaguely, how this will end. With our bones picked clean by crows and mountain lions? Have we filed an itinerary? I'm reminded of some recent reading about Mallory, the famous Himalayan climber obsessed by Everest, who wandered off alone toward its summit and disappeared into a snow storm during a critical moment in his last attempt at an ascent, never to be seen again. Or so they thought, until his corpse was washed out years later at the base of the Rongbuk Glacier. He had fallen into a crevasse, and the moving ice had slowly conveyed him over eighteen miles, meanwhile stripping his body of its clothing and bleaching it an unearthly white, but leaving it otherwise intact.

the mountain lover's
long and fierce embrace
sheets of ice

Photographs of his corpse circulated in England where they were seen by the poet Sassoon, who recorded later his astonished admiration for the physical beauty of Mallory's dead body.

Spooked by these chilly reflections, I cautiously urge Wolf to consider beating a retreat. There's a long pause, then I am reminded in a deliberate, steady voice that feeling for footholds below as you descend can be very dicey. Evidently we're committed to finishing this ascent! I realize that if something should happen to him now, and he couldn't lead us out of here, we could end up lost in the wilderness even if we were able to get off the mountain by ourselves. Apart from a couple of sandwiches and a bottle of wine I'm carrying in my knapsack to toast the summit, we're totally without resources or supplies.

Next thing I hear his confident voice reassuring me that once he gets over this "wrinkle," the summit is ours. I'm finally tempted to rebel. "What do I care if the summit is ours, ever?" I want to yell. Doesn't he see the situation he has recklessly put us in? But almost with his next breath, to my enormous relief, he announces he's passed the difficulty. I'm so grateful, I unconsciously relax, and without warning one of my legs begins the "sewing machine," a condition familiar to mountain climbers in which the knee and lower leg, after a long period of unrelieved strain, involuntarily jumps up and down, out of control, making it difficult to stand. I'm forced to clutch the rock face and struggle for balance. Eventually it passes, and fortunately it doesn't turn into cramps, but it makes me doubly aware of the risk he has just taken, and the fact that I'm next in line. I'm not eager to get up there to see what problems I face.

Though I can't go back now, I caution those below me not to advance from where they are until I'm also up. They could probably go down safely from that position if necessary. But I hear Wolf saying no, no, he can help, if needed. He has a rope he's been carrying since we started, a thin piece of yellow polypropylene about fifteen or twenty feet long, wound around his waist. It looked faded and frayed, and at first I thought he might be using it to hold up his pants. But now I fear we might have to trust this thread with our lives! Good God, what next? I continue to insist, and eventually he agrees, that it would be best for the two below not to commit themselves until we are certain I can make it over. I am buoyed by this small victory, but when I reach the troublesome plateau, I find it very wet, and I understand his delay. He quickly drops me the end of his thin life line, telling me to tie it around my waist, grab hold, dig into the side of the rock face with my feet, and lean back on the rope with my full weight. He will pull, and I just have to walk up! It's about eight feet. I look at the rope, and then at him, to see if he is serious, but he's smiling. Is what I see in his eyes amusement at my fear? "The rope will hold," he says. "Don't worry." I shiver, imagining the sensation of falling backward through several hundred feet of empty space while seeing him fade away above me with a surprised expression, and a few feet of broken rope in his hands.

Though I try to do as he directs, it's no use. My ascent up these last few yards turns into an undignified and hasty scramble, partly on hands and knees, with my heart in my mouth and a length of eighth inch poly wrapped around me to break my fall in case I slip. Finally up, I see Wolfgang is disappointed I didn't take the high road, but I am glad to accept this minor disgrace. I've made it, after all!

When the four of us finally stand together on the summit, we're unusually quiet, and tired out. There's a patch of alpine meadow, and as we sit around, resting our feet, with the soothing afternoon sun shining softly down, and pass around the wine bottle, I again notice a spring azure, perhaps the same one, picking its way over a nearby scattering of alpine flowers, searching for that special nectar that has brought it to this height. Despite a certain lingering tension, and the fact that we still have the downward leg ahead, I lie back for a rest, more than content, and suddenly seeing this beautiful world with an unwonted clarity and gratitude.

at the summit
boots lying in a heap
tongues hanging out