Read The Ascent Online

Authors: Ronald Malfi

The Ascent

DEDICATION:

For my parents and grandparents,
who taught me to never stop climbing.

Published 2010 by Medallion Press, Inc.

The MEDALLION PRESS LOGO
is a registered trademark of Medallion Press, Inc.

If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment from this “stripped book.”

Copyright © 2010 by Ronald Malfi
Cover design by James Tampa
Edited by Lorie Popp

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.

Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Typeset in Adobe Garamond Pro
Printed in the United
States of America Title font set in Cacavia01

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Malfi, Ronald Damien.

The ascent : a novel of survival / Ronald Malfi.
      p. cm.
   ISBN-13: 978-1-60542-067-7 (alk. paper)
   ISBN-10: 1-60542-067-0 (alk. paper)
   1. Self-actualization (Psychology)–Fiction. 2. Mountaineering–Fiction. 3. Psychological fiction. I. Title.
     PS3613.A4355A93 2010
    813’.6–dc22

2010008942

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
First Edition

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS:

Having never attempted to climb a mountain, I must confess to a certain degree of ignorance—both in the act of climbing as well as the undertaking of writing a novel centered on such a subject.

The following books helped me in the writing of this novel:
No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World’s 14 Highest Peaks
by Ed Viesturs with David Roberts; Jon Krakauer’s breathtaking
Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster; Chris Bonington’s Everest
by Sir Chris Bonington as well as Bonington and Charles Clarke’s
Everest: The Unclimbed Ridge; Everest: Alone at the Summit
by Stephen Venables; Ian Baker’s astounding
The Heart of the World: A Journey to Tibet’s Lost Paradise;
and a countless selection of Let’s Go travel guides.

Thanks also to Helen A Rosburg and the folks at Medallion Press, particularly Lorie Popp for her priceless editorial assistance, and Kerry Estevez, who has guided me like a Sherpa through this publishing terrain.

PART ONE
THE GHOSTS WE TAKE WITH US
Chapter 1

1

I WASN’T THERE WHEN IT HAPPENED. BUT I CAN SEE

it nonetheless: the Italian countryside, cool in the stirrings of an early summer that promises not to be too overbearing. Clouds sit motionless in the bluest of skies like great seagoing vessels. I imagine the lush, sloping hills spilling into the scenic valley, the grass aquamarine and populated by a dazzling array of thimble-shaped purple and yellow flowers. There is a rutted dirt road, just wide enough for a single vehicle, which winds around the hillside like a satin ribbon.

The vehicle appears first as a glinting beacon over the farthest hill. The stillness of the afternoon vibrates with the grinding of gears and the rumbling of tires. I imagine the vehicle to be an old motorcar, something from the 1920s, with a convertible top stripped away, rubber matte running boards, headlamps like snare drums.

David is behind the wheel. I dress him in ridiculous driving goggles, racing gloves, a worn bomber jacket. The only thing missing is a silk scarf flapping behind him in the wind.

Hannah is in the passenger seat. She laughs, and I can see the glitter of her teeth, the faint parenthetical lines at either side of her mouth. Her hair is short, curling just at her jaw, and appears the

color of new copper in midday.

When the car strikes something in the road—an errant tree limb or a large stone—David jerks the wheel, and Hannah’s laughter dies. I watch the motorcar swerve off the narrow, gouged road and rumble over a grassy knoll. The vehicle crests an embankment, and in that moment, it seems plausible that it will come to rest at the zenith of the embankment, seesawing precipitously on its undercarriage but secure.

Instead, it clears the embankment and barrels right over to the other side where it teeters motionlessly in the air for what seems like both a millisecond and a millennium at the same time. The motorcar tips forward and plummets to the mountainous terrain below, then erupts at the bottom in a dazzling belch of fire.

This image runs through my mind over and over as I lay dying.

2

AT LEAST. I THOUGHT I WAS DYING …

My eyes fluttered open, yet I could not see. Pure darkness surrounded me. My hand splashed through the freezing water until it fell on the cylindrical shell of the flashlight. I cracked it against my palm a few times until the light winked on. The beam illuminated a wall of limestone a mere two feet from my face. I was in a cavern chamber of sorts, sprawled out in several inches of water. Eleven hundred feet below the surface of the earth, I was overcome by disorientation.

I tried to sit up, but a searing pain shot through my left leg and blossomed like an explosion in my stomach. I turned the light toward one of the cavern walls and closed my eyes until my respiration was once again under control.

The foolishness in coming out here alone was suddenly all too apparent. It went against the tenants of the trade.
Always go exploring with a partner; always tell people where you’re planning to go so they know when to expect your return
. Stupidly, I’d done neither.

“Fuck,” I uttered, my voice echoing all around me.

I reached down and felt the cut in my left leg, the jagged serration of my shinbone projecting through the tissue and the fabric of my pants. I refused to shine the light on my wound, refused to look at it. My ignorance kept me anchored to sanity.

I directed the beam along the walls of the cave. The light reflected and refracted off the frozen javelins of ice. At one point, the beam fragmented into a rainbow prism, and I tried to hold it there, unmoving, while I caught my breath.

It was cold, but I was sweating through my anorak. I adjusted the couplings—metal hooks digging into my waist—and wiped my brow with one shaky hand. I glanced up. The ceiling of the cave pressed close to my face. I could see the calcium deposits, the shimmering constellations of mica embedded in the rock. I found the narrow hole, too—the hole I’d carelessly fallen through just moments ago—and that was when my flashlight died on me again.

Absolute darkness.

“Come on, you son of a bitch …”

I slapped the flashlight a few times, but it wouldn’t come on. Seconds passed, but it felt like hours. The pain in my leg seemed to intensify in the darkness, its throb in synchronization with the pulsing, vinegar threads of burst blood vessels behind my eyelids. I was beginning to breathe my own spent breath; it was coming back at me like reverberations off the cave walls. How much air was down here, anyway? How much time before I bled out?

After a time, I realized I could make out the paleness of my hands in the darkness, which meant the darkness was not absolute after all. Squinting, I discovered the suggestion of light issuing from a coin-sized opening somewhere far above my head. I did not know if this was actual daylight or just its reflection off a frozen, glossy spire. It was like trying to weed out reality in a hall of mirrors.

The flashlight came to life in my hands, startling me. I aimed thebeam into the hole where the light dulled to a milky nothingness. The fall could have been twenty or thirty feet, but I couldn’t tell for sure. The flashlight’s beam fell upon vague indentations in the walls, which might serve as handholds, but the passageway itself looked dubiously narrow. How in the hell had I managed to fall down such a tight shaft?

You came down that way, I told myself. You can climb back up.

Taking a deep breath, I attempted to stand on my one good leg. My thighs, which had been soaking in the stagnant, icy water, were practically numb. The shaft was narrow enough to lean against and keep pressure off my wounded leg, although the mere act of readjusting its position sent fireworks up my spine. I gritted my teeth so hard I nearly ground them to powder. Still, I raised myself on one leg, easing my head and shoulders into the hole in the cave ceiling. I heard the fabric of my anorak ripping and the metal hooks on my belt scraping against the stone. Each exhalation brought my breath back in my face. The opening was snug enough to disallow my arms to pass through; panic shook me as, for one terrifying second, I felt stuck.

Then somehow I managed to free myself and push through. Halfway up, the flexing of my muscles caused the space to tighten around me, and I froze with one hand pinned against my chest. The hand holding the flashlight was still below, too bulky to work its way through the narrow mouth of the hole, so my vision was dependent upon the minimal amount of light issuing from somewhere far above me.

My injured leg refused to straighten out. It would be impossible to climb the shaft without straightening the leg. Trying not to think about it, I attempted to slide my hand back down, but it wouldn’t budge. I was stuck.

Jesus

I started thinking about my SUV, and that was always a bad sign. My metallic green Jeep Cherokee was parked maybe thirty yards from the main road, visible only to those who might actively been searching for it. Not that anyone would be searching for it. I’dheard enough stories from spelunkers to know that when you started wondering if your car was visible from the highway, you were already in too deep. You’d bought the farm, as the saying went.

But I was panicking. I wasn’t thinking.

Five years old, I thought. Swimming lessons. Dad kept telling you to put your head underwater, put your head underwater, put your head underwater. Deep breath and put your head—

“Underwater,” I whispered. I said it not to hear the word but to release the last bit of air in my lungs, narrowing my chest in the process.

The rock loosened around me, and I was again able to move my hand. I thrust it upward and slapped a numb palm against the wall of the shaft, groping for one of those handholds I’d spotted. My fingers slipped into a groove and gripped it. Something caught in my throat. I thought of skeletons blanketed in cobwebs. I was able to rise on the tips of my toes and snake my other hand through the maw, spilling white light from the flashlight straight up through the narrow tunnel. Everything smelled of sulfur.

It’s not sulfur. It’s chlorine, I kept hearing in my head. This is no different than swimming. You’re swimming. This is swimming in a pool; can’t you tell?

I could tell. I could tell, all right.

The flashlight fell from my hand. I heard it clatter against the rocks as it dropped, pulling the light with it. It struck the water with a hollow, plastic sound. An instant later, I was awash in blackness again.

This is swimming. This is swimming—

I realized I hadn’t taken a breath in quite a while. I took one now, my lungs aching and my chest expanding, pressing hard against the stone all around me. The constriction was too great. I couldn’t catch a full breath.

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