[These stories originally appeared in The Climbing Life section of Alpinist 75, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 75 for all the goodness!–Ed.]
The magazine lies in my weathered hands, its faded colors a testimony to days gone by. It doesn’t look like much in this age of glossy periodical perfection. Its delicate cover, dog-eared pages and crumbling spine impel me to cradle it gently, like a newborn baby. I touch the cover, staring at the iconic photograph within the yellow frame. I close my eyes and imagine I’m young again, with warm sun on my face and sweat glistening on my skin. I try to hold the memory there: one breath, two breaths, three. Soon, I tire of the effort. I open my eyes, push myself up and out of the chair, and stretch my aching muscles–the same ones that once propelled me relentlessly toward the sky. I pad across the room to look out the frosty window. And I contemplate the power of the photograph that changed my life forever.
The First Sally
Summer 2015: Suspended in nervous half-sleep, I hear the alarm go off. 1 a.m. Ugh. I open my eyes, put on a headlamp and paw for my socks. I remember vaguely that they’re in the foot of my sleeping bag. After fishing them out, I start the stove. The smell of the black, steaming coffee is invigorating, if only for a short while. Soon, my partner and I nod at each other. There is no need to talk. Noiselessly, we shoulder our packs and turn to walk down the well-worn trail. Simple as that.
After about an hour, I lose all sense of time and space. The world slows down. My perception is focused on a small tunnel of light in front of me and on the crunchy pebbles underfoot. I remember what my favorite uncle once told me–that time, and only time, has the power to change the world. Nothing else matters as much. And in this immense, grand place, where sheer granite cliffs and elephantine domes guard the sky, each and every one of them will someday be rubble.
Still, I walk the trail. One foot in front of the other. The trees cast their sweet scent over me like a sorcerer’s spell. My breath slows. My heart beats. My chest expands and contracts as I devour the pre-dawn air.
A noisy waterfall gradually appears. We walk by, and its spray cools us. The pack digs into my shoulders. Already, a sizzle of fatigue develops deep in my thighs. And finally, in the distance, a purplish-brown haze percolates on the horizon, its soft hue illuminating the grim outline of a hulking mass.
Dread rises inside me. After all, it’s taken me forty-one years to get here. In that time I’ve climbed all over: gleaming High Sierra granite, lung-searing Peruvian peaks, even the top of the world. Something always held me back from this place. Now, as we round the final corner on the trail, the breath catches in my throat at the sight of the vast wall, and I feel, once more, like a teenager. Such a big climb. I think, “Am I ready? Will I ever be ready?”
Even now, I can remember every detail of the warm, southern California day when the magazine arrived at our house. It was June 1974, and I was a sophomore in high school. A thickset kid with a lumpy, nondescript body, I harbored one gift: I had no gifts. I was mediocre at just about everything I tried: sports, school, conversation, making friends. I wasn’t, in today’s terms, “anti-social,” “defiant” or “oppositional.” Nothing that complex. You could have probably called me a “loner,” and just left it at that. I drifted aimlessly, one day to the next, hopelessly uninspired and positively uninspiring.
Arriving home from school that day, I did what I always did: I checked the mailbox. It usually contained some junk mail, or maybe a few bills for my parents. Today, however, it held a big, thick magazine wrapped in brown paper. I knew instantly what it was. It was the monthly National Geographic magazine, the only mail I ever cared about. Alluring and mysterious, its stories captured my teenage imagination. And every time, before I tore the wrapper off, I thought: What kind of picture will be on the cover this time? A herd of trumpeting elephants? A bug-eyed ocean creature?
I tore the brown paper off and stared at a color photograph of a tanned, rugged climber balanced precariously on the side of a cliff, surrounded by an azure sky. He was clad in a white turtleneck and brown knickers, his hair slightly windblown. He’d turned to look down, as if he was concentrating hard on some task at hand. His right hand, stretched out, seemed to be clipping a red rope into a tarnished silver carabiner. His left foot, balanced nonchalantly on the wall, hung over a deep abyss. He appeared utterly relaxed and cool.
Cool? Fucking radical.
I shuffled through the pages to get to the article. It told the story of the first all-clean ascent of Half Dome, a groundbreaking achievement at the time. Over three days, a team of three climbers had proven that big walls could be scaled without hammers and pitons. In the article, one of the climbers, the legendary Galen Rowell, wrote, “Fear is normal for anyone attempting the unknown, and we too were trying something never attempted.” My brain inhaled that idea. Whoa, I thought. Maybe someday that might be me.
Over the next few weeks, I read the story over and over again, stealing away any moment I could to try to learn the magic lessons these wizards might teach me. I studied everything: how they hauled their gear, what they wore, how they constructed their belays. I committed long passages to memory, prompting my mind to relive the moment captured in the cover photo. After all, it represented everything I aspired to: wild and free, risky and dangerous, pure and true, all principles that I wanted to…oh so much…grab ahold of and never let go.
The next week, while doing research for a history paper in the school library, I came across a shelf filled with climbing books. It was like discovering a buried treasure. I filled my arms with a half dozen of the most promising ones. That night, I gorged myself on Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna. And when I came to the part where Herzog forgets that his spare pair of socks sits in a backpack–socks that might have saved his hands from frostbite–I groaned out loud. Oh no, I’d never let that happen to me!
Within a month, I’d read every climbing book in the library, consuming classic volumes at one sitting, sometimes under covers by flashlight. Slender, snow-clad Swiss aretes and dark Canadian towers became my version of Narnia, the hidden realm in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, beyond the everyday world of home and school. I imagined one day tiptoeing up the Shattered Pillar of the Eiger, banging a piton into a perfect slot, and yelling “ON BELAY!” to my ropemate below. Free from probing eyes, accusing glances and silly rules, I could be who I wanted to be: a knight on a quest for a golden climbing Grail.
The Second Sally
Carried bandolier-style across my chest, the rack jangles loudly as I clamber from hold to hold and ledge to ledge. Each piece chimes in its own distinct way. Amid the commotion, I can recognize a #2 Camalot the same way I can recognize a friend’s voice from across a room, or a dog’s bark from outside a door.
I carry other tools as well: rope, chalk, harness and shoes. The rope, snaked out behind me, is soft to touch but strong as steel. The chalk, kept in a pouch off my hip, is at the ready for my calloused, nervous fingers. The harness, pulled firm around my waist, reminds me of the too-tight cummerbund I wore to my cousin’s wedding. And my expensive Italian leather shoes gently enfold my aching feet. In short, I am utterly, and most happily, prepared for battle.
And battle I will. A desperate, foolish, furious type of combat. You never forget frontpointing up perfect neve to the crest of a knife-edge summit. Or a fifty-foot runout above an ancient bolt. Or watching a blazing sunset while huddled on a cold, sloping bivy with a friend, wondering if you will both survive the night.
Alpinism can seem like a battle for self-discovery and awareness. And ultimately, a battle for life. The experiences should prepare us, I think, for bigger, metaphorical struggles in the rest of our existence. But can they actually refine our minds and senses so that we might live in peace with nature, or do they merely encourage a desire for more combat? Today, if I’m lucky, I might find out.
Which gets us to the final point: Why do this anyway? What is the ultimate goal? Standing here, tilting at cliffs, towers and mountains as Don Quixote once tilted at windmills…why? Good question. My reply: perhaps the process is so beautiful it doesn’t need a point.
In the autumn of 1974, after reading the article one last time, I decided to take a chance and share it with my friend. After all, he was just as much of a misfit as I was. I thought I could predict his reaction. I knew he’d look at the cover and exclaim, “When do we start?” From that moment on, we’d be inseparable. We’d trek through Namche Bazaar on our way to scale icy Himalayan giants; share pints with Scottish cragsters after scratching up thin Ben Nevis ice; and climb through boiling clouds on Ecuadorian volcanoes…each adventure seared in our mind, each moment bringing us closer to perfection….
I saw my friend across the hall at our high school. This was my chance. Nervous, I pulled the magazine out of my bag and handed it to him. He slowly looked it over. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking by the expression on his face, but I was certain he was ready to commit, ready to embrace the climbing life.
Finally, he looked up at me and let out a crooked laugh. “That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Rocks? Ropes? Hanging on the side of a cliff? You’re insane. Why don’t you forget this stuff and live a normal life? You’re going to get yourself killed.” He handed the magazine back to me.
I stood there, barely breathing. I didn’t know what to say. So I walked away.
After a period of morose reflection, I understood. He meant well. But he had no idea about what I was trying to do and who I was trying to become. Didn’t he know I’d found my life’s purpose?
The Third Sally
I start by saying, “On belay.” It’s as simple as that.
Before climbing, I chalk up and gently touch the rock. It feels cold and strange, like a metal fence in winter. I get a few feet above the ground. Everything is off. My timing, my balance, my breathing. I pause to warm my hands and think. After a minute, I realize I’m mostly struggling to trust: the holds, my feet, my mind. I slow down, take a deep breath and remind myself that I’m just one of hundreds of climbers who have touched this same granite and who have ultimately gone to the top. I begin to relax. My feet balance on tiny nubbins and sloping holds. My clumsy, semi-ballistic movements evolve into smooth, confident action.
Somewhere around noon, an improbable, vertical hand crack appears thirty feet to the right of the belay. I remember it from the picture in the magazine. I shuffle right, with faith in my footholds and hope for my hands. When the crack is just a body-length away, I step right and slip my right hand deep inside and grasp the hidden rail. I place my right foot in, just below. It fits perfectly. Then my left hand, and then my left foot. Soon, I’m moving upward, ecstatic, the ground a far-off memory, the sky a blue oasis shimmering ahead. My soul, so patchy and unhappy before, seems to embrace the peace it craves.
But soon, the moment ends. I scurry over to the belay, sit down, shake my head, and take a long sip of water. I look down and stare at my abraded, chalked-up hands. I think, “No matter what these hands might accomplish for the rest of my life, at least I know, just this once, they’ve come close to touching the divine.”
Several hours later, we encounter an offwidth crack more than 1,500 feet in the air. As I follow the pitch, my worm-like moves wedge me deep inside the fissure. So deep, in fact, that gradually I realize I’m stuck. My harness, rack and chalk bag pin me in the depths of the fissure. Strength waning, I attempt to brace my left foot between two slight bulges below, but fail. I curse, wanting to be out on the other side of this mess.
After a moment, I twist my knee, brace my left foot just a bit higher than before, and set my heel in a small pocket. I inch my body up and reach for a solid edge. My bulk shifts slightly sideways, precariously out toward space. Then I pass through the constriction, and I’m safely up the crack. I think, “Yeah, that’s it. That’s the way to do it. Those old ghosts would be proud of me now.”
The last pitch finally arrives. Moving crab-like across a steep slab, above the gaping air, I wonder how the climbers immortalized by National Geographic forty-one years ago must have felt here. Terrified? Awestruck? Or just proud and relieved to have achieved their improbable goal?
When we arrive on top, the flat ground seems awkward and foreign, and we teeter like sailors from a month at sea. I coil the rope. My partner settles the gear into his pack. We are silent amid the wind and birds. I walk over to the edge of the cliff. Illuminated by hazy, dusky light, the valley is silent far below. Each remote corner is immersed in blue shadow. And, out in the distance, the orange-yellow sun lies low on the horizon as if frozen in time.
Hunched under heavy packs and dried by thirst, we descend the cables, and then the trail. I am not even tired. Instead, I’m filled, once more, with the energy of youth. I cartwheel down the path. For an instant, I hold a glowing image in my mind–a brief, golden moment in which the photo and my life seem to merge–before the light begins to fade, already part of the past, and I acknowledge the inescapable truth that my end is my inception…and my inception is my end.
–Douglas Brockmeyer, Salt Lake City, Utah
[The last line of this story was partly inspired by T.S. Eliot’s words in Four Quartets: “In my beginning is my end…. In my end is my beginning.”]
[Due to miscommunication, during the final production stages of the print magazine, we failed to remember to add the above note. The correct version appears in the digital magazine, and a correction will be made in the print edition of Alpinist 76. Our apologies for the error.–Ed.]
A Woman Climber in Antiquity: Two Poems
During the late fourth century AD, Egeria made a pilgrimage from modern-day France or Spain across the Roman Empire to the Holy Land. The following poems come from a series written in her imagined voice. In letters about her travels, she described climbing several mountains, including Mt. Sinai. (Many scholars today suggest that this legendary peak is a 2285-meter red granite summit, known as Jebel Musa or the “Mountain of Moses” in Arabic, which rises from the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt.) Egeria wrote that Mt. Sinai “cannot be seen unless you come to the very foot of it,” perhaps a reference to the many rocky mountains that surround it. She also indicated how steep the climb was, noting with surprise how she and her fellow travelers had to ascend “completely straight up as if by a wall.” (See The Pilgrimage of Egeria, translated by Anne McGowan and Paul F. Bradshaw.)
Seeing Mt. Sinai for the First Time
Here I am a lowly echo
Circling your hem of stone
And shadow interwoven the garment
You spun from depths below and bare
I cannot say for certain anything
Of darkness what lies beneath the bones
Brought up again and fierce what blessings
I might seek and holding firm of feldspar
Feel rise within me sharp as dawn
Climbing Mt. Sinai
The high mountains smoke
Uplift their morning sacrifice
I leave camp for the burning
Ascend the hard scree the arc
Of the range a spine her soft
Underbelly prostrate in the sand
The higher I climb the more downcast
My eyes O Lord I want no more
Shadows between us
The wind loosens
Frees my scarf is it you who wants
To see my face ablaze is it you
Bathing in smoke at daybreak preparing
To wield me as a torch among men
–Katherine Indermaur, desert Southwest
Ways of Looking at a Wall
Let’s go, his older brother said, standing early that morning in the bedroom doorway, a pack over his shoulder. Having not slept well, T wanted to stay in bed, and also he was afraid. Let’s go, the brother said again a minute later. T rose and took his own pack downstairs. They ate breakfast with their father in the dark. Their father waved to them as they left the house, and soon they were hiking. All night the wall had disintegrated in a strange dream, stone falling slowly like snow. But now, over his brother’s shoulder, T saw the face of granite, half lit by the rising sun. T then noticed his brother’s shadow folded sideways in the snowdrifts behind his boots, and he began thinking of a favorite Sunday cartoon. How strange dreams and cartoons could be, when compared to real life. T smelled the clear white snow and the pine trees. He was happy to be here walking up the mountain behind his brother rather than watching TV at home. By the time they got to the ridge, the wall was in full view: tall, true and luminous, massive enough to live in both dreams and real life, through both night and day.
Hours ago, she accidentally kicked her partner’s water jug off the cliff. Now the heat makes their tongues like dishcloths pulled from the dryer. Her partner’s severe nut allergy does not allow them to share her water, so in solidarity, she also does not drink. In her head, she apologizes for the lack of breeze and shade, for their melting shoes. Sunbathing lizards keep doing push-ups on vertical stone beside crusty vegetation, impervious to heat. The route seems to jump three grades in difficulty, and their hearts thump in their forearms, louder and louder. Birds the size of condors circle in the thermals, causing them to feel like dead fish. The shadows of those birds pass over them from time to time, bringing flickers of teasing shade. A low-flying plane momentarily blocks the sun, which only blazes hotter once the aircraft passes, and they imagine its pilot laughing at them. For the rest of the climb, all she can think about is diving into cool water. And finally, when they flop over the wall, they hide under a very small tree. A light breeze brushes past. Between them they find a small spiral sea fossil stuck into the rock, and she and her partner begin laughing. The wall was once the floor of an ocean bed, now uplifted and turned.
Two climbers stared upward. One wanted the wall and one needed the wall. They had hiked many miles and seven thousand feet to its base, their packs heavy with extra rope and a drill and bolts. Steam rose from the sweat on their backs as they stood, looking. Impossible, one said after a minute, seeing a blank shield, walking away to look elsewhere. I don’t even need to rap down to know. The other, the one who needed the wall, lingered, looking with needy eyes, connecting possibilities, thinking it might go. Even more impossible! the one who wanted it yelled. Blank! Blank! The needy climber turned around and looked outward at the sky above the horizon. Blank! Blank! Bit by bit, the horizon painted itself; drops of blood fell into the clouds. Later, the one who shouted Blank would nickname the other Believer. But it was about need. A wall to test oneself, that was why it would go, requiring blood and chalk and screams and whatever was necessary from wherever it could be found.
The grey-crowned rosy finches startled out of sight of the elderly man’s binoculars when a group of young people arrived in the meadow. Those kids assembled a telescope and began taking turns leaning into its eyepiece, looking up at the cliff and cheering. Turning his binoculars, the birder slowly looked at the big wall, too. Soon enough, he located one, two, three, four little shapes, two thousand feet up. These were rock climbers, wearing bright-colored shirts: red, yellow, blue and white. The birder shifted his binoculars toward the young people. Toward a woman with a black eye, barefoot. Toward a tall blond kid pointing with a finger. The birder saw freckles and young teeth and dancing hair. One of them pulled back their face from the telescope and shouted, Those guys up there look like men on the moon! The birder let out a quiet laugh. He was eighty-four and he remembered watching the moon landing firsthand, on a small black-and-white television. The world keeps going, he thought to himself. The finches returned to a nearby tree, and he returned to watching them jump and flitter in the branches.
Atop the canyon, a plant crushed and churned quarried limestone into cement. A long conveyor brought the processed stone to an enormous rotating kiln before it was trucked away to building sites. When the climbers drove past this enormous machinery, they saw three workers smoking by a fence, their faces covered in white stone dust. As the climbers hiked down into the canyon behind the plant, the sounds of the crusher were accompanied by the steady hum of the highway and sometimes by the rumble of a distant train. One of the climbers had a day job as a geologist, and the other was a professional athlete. Because limestone is sedimentary, it contains Earth’s history, like the chapters in a long book, the geologist explained to her companion while they descended. Every past plant and animal and organic thing that ever lived here, compressed into stone. At the floor of the canyon, the air was quiet, cool and still. A million seasonal floods had cut deep into the base of the limestone wall. On a fixed line, the climbers took turns cleaning a new route with brushes and a crowbar to dislodge loose pieces. That afternoon, the professional sat tucked safely away in a shallow cave at the base of their climb, retaping a finger, eating a sandwich, checking the time on his phone. He knew his partner, the geologist, had passed the point where he’d left off when rock began to tumble and crash from above. He sat at a safe distance, watching ancient limestone pieces fall. As he inhaled the exploded rock into his nose, he thought how lucky he was to be alive, during this chapter, spending his time doing this.
A young man faces a wall and quietly begins reading a love poem. The poem begins with a description of a volcano and touches on the topic of eternal love. The wall before him is full of tall columns of dark basalt, like the pipes of a church organ. He clears his throat and reads it again to the wall, a bit louder. It is not about the wall. It is about someone he loves who he is convinced does not love him. Lovesick, with a cold, he nearly sneezes halfway through the poem, but he holds the sneeze inside and finishes reading. Then suddenly he screams a name: L–, until it echoes off the wall back to him. He screams his own name, then the other name again: L–. Then suddenly, he sneezes: Ahh-choo! And again, two more giant, uncontrollable sneezes. All of this echoes down the canyon to hidden, astonished ears. To the ears of someone walking the canyon in the other direction. This person stops and stares at the columned wall. The redirected voice made it seem to the receiver as if the wall itself were speaking: I love you!
He awoke from a dream, looked at his bedsheets, and saw mountains. The way they were raised and rumpled that morning seemed three dimensional, like a range of great peaks. He called for his wife and told her he would climb a mountain; he had seen this in the dream! She raised her eyebrows, as if to say, You? But he bought all the necessary gear and informed everyone he knew of his goal. He did some squats. Then, he went to the mountains. He barely got above the tree line when, sweating and panting, he sat down on a rock. It was here he stopped and really looked. He chose the biggest face in the crags above. His eyes stopped at the steepest section. It did not resemble his bedsheets. It had a great shadow across it and lines of dark color and it “meant business.” Oh no, he thought, lying down on the ground, that’s not for me. Without getting up, he shrugged off his pack and removed his shoes, looking from time to time at the wall, glancing at the sky, raising his head and staring once more at the wall. Then he closed his eyes and fell asleep and dreamed anew.
The only moving thing on the wall was the climber’s leg. The climber had been stalled at the crux for two minutes now, sixty feet above the belayer, motionless except for that shaking leg. The belayer was carefully watching, not blinking: I am with you. The belayer and climber were one. When the climber finally stuck a toe and began to reach, a peregrine falcon arrived from above. The belayer somehow expected this bird before it appeared. And as its blur whizzed black behind the climber’s shoulders and then behind the belayer’s shoulders, the climber and belayer and bird were one. The climber shouted, reaching sideways to dip fingertips into a shallow crack. Then came the other arm, extending wide in the other direction for a tiny nub of rock. The belayer now saw the climber through the round eye of the passing bird looking at them look at the wall. Hello human, hello human, hello. The climber ascended the wall with outstretched arms until he clipped the next piece, let out a triumphant cry, and continued upward. The belayer replied with rope: I am with you. The bird had become as large as a human. It climbed on, more quickly now, taking out the rope like a kite on a string. The climber had wings and was flying up the wall. I am with you, whispered the belayer. The climber and the bird and the belayer and that wall were one.
Tonight all are fed, the hostel full of after-dinner murmurs, foreign voices. It’s like running a factory: in they come and then up and out they go, season after season. It has been this way all her life, for as long as mountains beckoned them. The old woman sinks into a chair inside her mountain shack, looks at her hands, and thinks how time is a translator of great granite walls. There it is, outside her window. A wall. Not the wall her son climbed as a child, the one in the woods where she stood under him, her arms up, ready to catch him. That was a little wall, though it was then twice his size. It too had been translated since those days, along with the boy. The climbers pass it on their way to taller ones, and the boy is a man now, far away. For time is a translator of all great granite. There is an underground factory where walls are forged and lifted, and a factory where they are sheared and shaped. And her factory, cooking meals and cleaning rooms and washing dishes. Tired from the day’s work, she sinks deeper into the chair. Out the window of her mountain shack, she watches headlamps wander up the great wall. She shuffles her feet and tries not to think about the wall as a wall at all. Not about the climbers climbing or how their headlamps wash or move. Just the always black night sky, breathing slowly with stars, for which there is no factory and no translation.
When the tired American climbers pulled themselves to the small ledge, there were two strangers already bivouacked in the tight spot. The pairs did not speak the same language. They managed one question: How many years have you been climbing? The Americans used their fingers and the other, more experienced party–their shoes were already off and clipped to the wall–used both their fingers and toes. They were invited to try to fit, and soon they all lay squished together, side by side amid gear and ropes, like a single eight-legged arthropod. That night, though it was very quiet, one American climber could not sleep, half from being uncomfortable and half from the moon reflecting off the wall above. The American looked at the stranger beside him and found his eyes also open, just looking up at tomorrow’s pitches, his breath visible in the air through beams of moonlight. The American wonders about the stranger’s language of the wall, specifically his word for climbing. This stranger points with a free toe at the sheer face rising above and utters an unknown word. The American returns his gaze upward, and then sees what is really being pointed at: a spider has emerged from a crack and with its long legs is moving up the wall, knitting its web and its majesty.
Hiking one day with a camera around her neck, a shy woman heard voices from somewhere above. She saw no one, just heard a first voice: I can’t find it! And then a second: Look hard! Two minutes passed. The woman stood still, trying to hear more. The voices again: It’s not there! The same reply: Look harder! The woman wiped her hands over her face and then stepped out of the shade and stood on a small rock in the sun, trying to find a better place to listen. The first voice arrived again: Maybe a hold broke off…. There’s nothing here! Suddenly the shy woman felt a strong urge to join in. Was it some power of the sunlight in which she now stood, her anonymity, or the silent minute that followed without a second voice? She cupped her hands to her mouth and in a cool, deep voice, yelled up at the wall: Look hard! Look harder! That afternoon, she hiked to an elevation high enough to photograph the wall in full. She didn’t see any people until she enlarged the image at home and noticed a tiny figure on the stone. She magnified it further, and there, at a long distance, was a rock climber in a striped shirt, tucked just above a shadow. She named the picture “Where’s Waldo” and hung a very large copy on her living room wall, for it gave her power. She began to host small parties and asked her guests to find Waldo. When they couldn’t find the human figure, she would shout: Look hard! Look harder!
Six days had now passed. One of their team had been forced to descend. Now it was only three of them. Six bad weather days in a row. They paced their small camp in circles, eyeing the wall. No one had said whether they should go up. The clouds, impenetrable and confusing, roiled in around them. The forecasts were conflicting. Finally, one of the three, a mountaineer in a blue winter hat, chose a new authority. That morning he’d dug down in the snow with his axe and knocked free a roughly orbed glob of quartz. Their very own crystal ball. He began scrying the wall every hour, holding the quartz outside his tent, looking up into the clouds. What does that mean? Scrying? He explained to the others with a smile: It means to predict the future. They passed the orb around, predicting all sorts of things through the stone, but most of all they wanted to know when they would be allowed to continue up. When the stone came back to the man in the blue hat, he slowly looked from it to the wall. Not today, he said. And not this afternoon. He turned the stone over seriously in his hands. But tonight looks good. They ate and rested accordingly, with hope. That night, the uppermost tower appeared, and behind it a sky clear and full of stars.
She left base camp and went off to be alone. Leaning her back against a boulder, she hung her gloved hands at her sides and looked upward, gazing upon what they had just climbed. It looked different now than it did yesterday. It felt different. Yesterday, abstract shadows had rushed across the route, as if telling her that there was no way. Yesterday, she had felt every lie, failure and wall in her life. But now she was back on the ground. The mountain had done what mountains do, removed indecisiveness and left a path. She studied every pitch they had linked through ice and snow and rock, lingering on the headwall. Why did she love stone so much? Looking at that hulking mass now, she thought of a small dry riverbed she used to walk barefoot as a child, a horizontal path of round stones, cool and smooth to the touch, with a sheen like the moon. It seemed like a trail to anywhere. She removed her hat. Thank you, she finally whispered. She waited, as if the wall would come alive and congratulate her triumph. But the wall stood as walls stand, indifferent to what they had done. Thank you, she said again. Thank you.
[Inspired by Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”–Author.]
–Erin Connery, San Francisco, California
[These stories originally appeared in The Climbing Life section of Alpinist 75, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 75 for all the goodness!–Ed.]