The Ascent (23 page)

“I just want to get this all over with.”

“This climb?”

“The whole trip.”

Petras nodded. That nod said,
I know the feeling
. “I’m worried about Hollinger.”

“He’ll be okay,” I said, not quite sure why I said it. I recalled the way he’d been sitting in the tent across from me last night, his disembodied voice calling to me in the darkness.
I was wondering what happened to you
. It suddenly occurred to me that Hollinger had probably been awake when I’d left the tent. I would ask him about it, but I’d wait until we were safely on the other side of the icefall. The last thing I wanted to do was spook him before the climb.

Twenty minutes later, Andrew had rigged a pretty decent rope-and-pulley system at the base of the arch and was prepared to begin his climbalong the belly of the arch. While his plan had sounded ridiculous, watching him execute it only reconfirmed it. Several times he nearly lost his grip, flailing one-handed by a single cam, suspended from the bottom of the arch as his legs dangled over the abyss. A fall from this height would ensure death, and it didn’t matter if it was the icefall beneath us or a cushion of mattresses; the sudden stop upon landing would be enough to reconfigure someone’s internal organs.

Andrew had also clipped the second safety line to his belt, and Curtis tied it to an anchor on our side of the arch. This would be the line we’d use to send our gear so we wouldn’t have to cross with any extra weight on our shoulders.

“Holy shit,” Chad commented as Andrew finally touched down on the other side of the canyon. The entire commute had taken him three full minutes. “I can’t believe the dickhead pulled it off.” He cupped his hands to the sides of his mouth and shouted, “You’re a fucking nutcase—you know that, Trumbauer? A fucking
nutcase
!”

“He’s also the first person to ever set foot on that side of the canyon,” Curtis said, not without some awe in his voice.

Petras began applauding, and we all quickly followed suit. Only Hollinger didn’t join in. He remained perched at the base of one of the stone towers, a haunted look in his eyes. The wound at his temple had scabbed over but looked stark and severe against the sudden paleness of his face. His own beard—like mine—had materialized in mangy patches, like miniature crop circles. The frigid Himalayan wind had chapped and split his lips. They were the lips of a leper.

Yet Andrew’s success had reinvigorated the rest of us. Petras and Curtis rigged our gear to the second line and shoved the packs over the abyss. On Andrew’s end, he’d angled the line so that it stood at a gradual decline. The packs rolled across the line toward Andrew as if on a zip line. After he’d finished collecting our gear, he waved both arms as if signaling an aircraft to land.

Chad was anxious to climb next. He popped in the earbuds tohis iPod and allowed Curtis to boost him up using Andrew’s rope-and-pulley system until he was able to grasp the first of the cams. Curtis secured the safety line and fed it out to him as Chad loped like an ape, hand over hand, going twice as fast as Andrew had.

“Let’s keep the train moving,” Curtis said.

Petras motioned to Hollinger. “Come on, bro. You and me. We’re up.”

Like a zombie, Hollinger stood and strapped on his helmet. With the enthusiasm of someone walking to the electric chair, he unzipped his parka and stomped his feet in the snow. Petras secured himself to Hollinger with a tertiary line and told Hollinger to go ahead. Without a word, Hollinger mounted the stone parapet that preceded the arch. Curtis clapped his back and told him everything would be cool, man.

“Yeah,” Hollinger said, offering Curtis a half smile. “Cool, man.” He swung out and gripped the camming device on the first try.

Meanwhile, Chad was nearly all the way across and on the other side of the canyon. He was already shouting praise to himself.

“I’ll be right behind you,” Petras assured Hollinger as he continued to climb.

“You’re up,” Curtis said and helped Petras across to the first cam. The moment Petras’s feet left the platform and swung out into open space, my stomach cramped and I buckled over.

Curtis must have heard me groan. “You okay?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re next, Shakes.” Over the past two weeks, Chad’s pet name for me had caught on.

“Shit,” I moaned. “You go ahead.”

“You sure?”

“Quite. I gotta make a pit stop.”

Curtis laughed, running the safety line through his own karabiners. He genuflected and stepped out onto the parapet. Before reaching forthe first camming device, he turned back to me and said, “Can you imagine old Shotsky doing this? Lucky bastard is probably sipping hot chocolate and flipping through girlie magazines back at camp.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Lucky bastard …”

I scurried around the other side of the pass and ducked behind a stand of stone pylons. Unbuckling my trousers and squatting, I groaned as I squirted out a ribbon of hot, brown fluid onto the snow. My stomach growled and felt like a fist clenching and unclenching.

Back at the arch, Curtis was halfway across and moving fast. I untied the safe line at my end and ran Andrew’s secondary line through the karabiners at my waist. Then I climbed to the edge of the platform and reached out for the first cam. For a moment, I was hypnotized at the rise and swell of the icefall below. Looking at it too long was like looking into a pocket watch swinging like a hypnotist’s pendulum. Tearing my eyes away, I gripped the cam and kicked off the platform. My legs swung over the abyss.

The trick was to not think about it. Hand over hand, I swung from cam to cam, finding it easier as I progressed, fueled by the sheer exhilaration of it. In fact, I was moving so fast I was closing in on Curtis, who was only two or three cams ahead of me.

“Catchin’ up to you, big man,” I called, laughing.

“No chance, white boy!”

“Shake your ass, Booker—I’m on your tail.”

On the other side of the canyon, Chad pumped a hand in the air, egging us on.

“You on vacation up here, Booker?” I chided. “You planning to hang around here all day?”

“Yeah … sure …” He was running out of breath.

“Yeah …” I was running out of breath now, too.

“If you think—,” Curtis began. Then there sounded a metallic thunk, and one of Curtis’s hands fell away from the camming device. A second after that, gravity pulled him straight down. He did notmake a sound; the only sound was the whir of the safety line gathering slack as Curtis dropped.

“Curtis!”

When the slack ran out, Curtis’s falling body jerked at the end of the line, his arms still flailing. He should have stopped right there, dangling like bait at the end of the line, but then there was a second sound
—twink
!—as the safety line snapped. The release sent Curtis into a spiral, cartwheeling down, down, down.

Mesmerized, I watched him plummet, his arms and legs suddenly still. He shuttled down until he was a tiny smear in midair, no different than an imperfection on a photograph. A moment later, he was swallowed up by the icefall.

And he was gone …

“Curtis!” someone shouted from the other side of the canyon. “Curtis! Curtis, you—”

The only remnant of Curtis was the small, wallet-sized photograph of his daughter that had somehow come loose during the fall and now fluttered like a butterfly out over the abyss until that, too, disappeared.

For a moment, I felt as though I’d blinked out of existence. One minute I was dangling from beneath the stone arch, and the next I was floating in some cottony, colorless orbit. Sound was nonexistent. I could see nothing, nothing at all. Everything was white; everything was black. The only feeling was the needling prick of heat shooting up through my body.

Curtis was dead. Curtis was—

“Shut up!” Petras shouted from across the reach. “We’ve still got a man out there!”

I clung with both hands to the single cam above my head, staring at the roiling channels of ice at the bottom of the canyon. Curtis was gone, completely disappeared …

Petras called out to me, “You’ve got to get your head back in the game, man! Come on! Forget what you just saw! Climb to me, Tim!

Climb to me!”

I managed to pull my gaze from the spot where I’d last seen Curtis Booker and to the opposite side of the canyon. The others were there, their bodies smeared as my vision refused to clear. But I hardly saw them. What I saw was the loose end of the safety line that had snapped and now whipped in the wind.

Which meant I had no safety line …

“Come on, Tim!” Petras hollered. The others joined him. “Come on, man! Get your fucking head in the game!”

Head in the game, head in the game, head in the game …

I blinked several times, trying to focus not on the dangling section of rope but on Petras, Andrew, Chad, and Hollinger. Holding my breath, I reached for the next cam. I crossed without difficulty. But when I reached for the next one, I found it wasn’t fully there: the spiked base was still fixed to the rock but the head was missing, the titanium having snapped off in Curtis’s hand. There was no way for me to grab hold of it; it was just a mere glint of metal jutting from the underside of the arch. And the cam beyond that was four feet away.

“Come on!” Petras urged.

“I can’t!” I shouted. “The cam’s gone!”

“Grab the next one!”

“It’s too far!”

“Tim,” Andrew interrupted, “swing out and grab the next cam. You can do it. It’s not too far.”

“It’s too far!” I cried. My feet suddenly felt like they weighed fifty pounds each.

“It’s not!” Petras added. “You can do it! It’s just an arm’s length away.”

I strained, trying to reach past the broken cam to the next one in line. It was too damn far. An impossibility. The only possible way would be to start a momentum, to swing out and grab it. But if I missed, the strain on my other arm would be too much. I’d surely suffer the same fate as Curtis.

“Stop! Wait! Don’t fucking move, Shakes! Don’t fucking move!” Chad hooked himself up to a fresh line, intent on climbing out toward me with a safe line he had looped around his shoulder. “I’m coming! Hang on!”

“Too … dangerous,” I called, but I doubt anyone heard me. My voice was no louder than a child’s sob. And my goddamn feet were weighing me down. I closed my eyes and thought of the comic books I used to read as a kid, the ones with Plastic Man who could stretch to preternatural lengths.

“Tim—”

When I opened my eyes, I saw Chad hanging from beneath the stone arch facing me, no more than four feet away. He hung from one camming device while harnessed to a series of ropes. He shook the wound safe line off his shoulder, down his arm, and into his hand.

“Here,” he said. “You gotta fuckin’ catch this, dude.”

“I’m … a horrible … shortstop,” I responded.

Chad actually chuckled, and had we been on solid land I would have wrapped my arms around him and kissed him right on the goddamn lips.

“You’re a wiseass, Shakes,” he said and tossed the rope.

I didn’t so much as catch it as it got tangled around my arm. Nonetheless, I snatched it, worked it through the karabiners, and cinched it at my waist. The strain in my other hand from hanging from the spring-loaded camming device was causing numbness throughout my whole arm.

“Let go,” Chad said.

“No, man. Let me … reach for the … the goddamn …”

“Just fucking let go, Shakes. The rope’ll hold.”

“I think I can—”

“Do it!”

I closed my eyes and let go. My stomach lurched as I felt myself drop and swing in an arc at the end of Chad’s line. I couldn’t tell when I stopped swinging, and I wouldn’t open my eyes. I wouldn’t.

The line strained, sounding like someone twisting a leather wallet in big hands.
Open your fucking eyes, coward
, I thought and opened my eyes. I was turned on my side, twisting horizontally in midair, as the safe line held me suspended over the abyss.

“You’re still alive,” Chad said.

“I’m gonna puke.”

“Climb up.”

I was beginning to hyperventilate. My exhalations burned my throat. Suddenly I was positive I was going to die out here. But unlike that day in the cave, lying in the dark with my bone jutting from my leg, I did not want to die.
You might have come out here not caring whether you lived or died
, a small voice spoke up in my head,
but you care now, and you’re not going to die. Do you hear me, Overleigh? You’re not going to die
.

I rolled over and gripped the safe line. A single tug sent me vertical. Hand over hand, I climbed up until the bottoms of Chad’s boots thumped against my helmet. I climbed higher, so intent on Chad’s pant legs I could make out the individual fibers woven together in the fabric. When I’d climbed high enough, Chad grabbed my shoulder.

Petras shouted something incomprehensible. He could have been shouting from another planet, for all it mattered to me.

“Up, up,” Chad urged. He was running out of breath. “Grab onto me if you have to. Just climb up and grab the cam above your head. Come on, Shakes. You can do it.”

Somehow I managed to do it. Using Chad’s body for extra support, I climbed the rope until I was able to hook back into the network of cams that ran the length of the arch. I wasn’t quite out of the woods yet, and I had serious doubts as to what strength remained in me to climb the rest of the way, but the outcome was suddenly looking much better.

“All right,” Chad mumbled, his voice nearly a gasp. He seized the next cam with his free hand. “Not bad for a lousy artist.”

“Move … your … ass,” I said. “In … my way.”

“Let’s go, fireball.”

It seemed to take an eternity to make it across. I hadn’t come down from the final cam before Petras and Hollinger dragged me onto the ledge. Solid ground never felt so good. I staggered a few feet, brushing off all the hands that were eager to hold me up, until I dropped to my knees and vomited in the snow.

4

PETRAS WAITED TILL AROUND MIDNIGHT BEFORE

going back for the rest of Curtis’s gear. After what happened crossing the arch, there was nothing left in us to continue, so we built camp against the mountain and lit a fire. The wind came moaning through the canyon, so cold it could fillet the skin off our bones.

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