DANCE WITH WHITE CLOUDS©
A novel by Mark Heber Miller
Chapter One: "Now I can die."
The valley was gone now. Gone under a tidal wave of clouds splashing at the granite edges of mile-high cliffs, spilling into dark canyons and cold ravines. The trees were gone. The village was gone. The voices were gone. The voices of people down there. Straight down there. Bloody awful straight down there.
She thought that was good. Then whispered in that voice she had begun to use when talking to herself two days earlier: "Now I can die alone and in peace."
The sky was gone too. And, she thought, "out there" was gone. For that is what she had begun to call the yawning chasm of space.
She looked down between her knees - between thighs in white tights spotted red with Canadian maple leafs. She watched the rising clouds. Phantasms, she thought, running to a convention of the mountain gods. Ghostly zephyrs, she wondered, pausing to study this tiny spec of worthless humanity clinging to this forbidden vertical landscape. As she watched the filmy specters race away, she whispered, "You don’t give a damn, do you?"
Now fingers - nervous fingers whitened with gymnastic chalk, nails worn to the quick - gently brushed rock of super-fine sandpaper and polished granite - feeling, searching for an invisible irregularity - powder exploding on to floating breezes - toes of smooth black boots smearing, measuring the delicate balance between friction and gravity. Trim, muscular legs stretched in splits on the vertical face. Feminine buttocks pulsed on the thin edge between adherence and - and one final slip. Shoulders and arms trembled between control and panic. Green eyes blinked against the burning sweat. Her tongue wet a full mouth and she bit her lip as she inched upward. She blew the sun-burnt bangs of a boyish haircut and let a bronze forehead rest against ancient rock. Now the rock was cold and wet and she let cheek rest for a moment. Her nostrils flared as she absorbed the unique smell of granite and black lichen.
One finger crept upward, finally caressing the pea-sized nubbin. She hooked her middle finger atop the pinching fore-finger and thumb. Her body slipped and her weight hung from the tiny hold. She swung for a moment, then struggled for control.
Hang in there, Peche, she told herself. Relax. Relax your mind, Gabriella. Her curses spit silently in sharp grunts, hot breath blowing in a staccato hymn. And then suddenly, without warning, her fingers scraped and her toes slipped. She slid backward - downward. O, God, no! Down, down, as in her dreams of falling forever. Then, carefully, surely without hesitation, she jammed two fingers in a crack - no, not a crack, a mere seam - and regained her grip.
Damn! One mistake, she thought. Perfect climbing in three-thousand feet. "Just one mistake," she grunted to herself, "that’s all you need, Peche."
She looked up and could see the lightning streak of a dark crack. It began three feet above her fingers. The thin, palm-sized fissure wandered right and left, vertical as a plumb-line. "Come to Momma," she spoke to the crack. "Fente, you are my friend." She studied the black shadow until it ended four-hundred feet in the sharp corner where the great ceiling met the wall. She leaned back, arching her neck and wondered in awe at the immense size of the over-hang. She studied it until it disappeared in the cloud-mist "out there."
She whispered in her exhausted throaty voice, "Fente, you are extremely difficult. Not insanely difficult - folle, folle - as everything below. I will rest in you, Fente. You are wet, Rocher. That is why I slipped. I am tired, Rocher. Rocher, just this bit. Let me up just this one meter to Monsieur Fente. And then it will be easy for Peaches."
She dipped into the chalk bag. She looked for a moment below, back between her thighs, following the thin red line of her hauling rope as it hung free all the way down two-hundred feet to her equipment sack. "Just three meters, now, Rocher."
Gabriella pressed her pinch-hold and slapped white chalk against the pin-head. She pulled and let go the finger-jam at her waist. Her boots smeared against wet rock, pushing her small frame upward - slowly, carefully - until all her weight was on the fingernail ledge. "Is it now, Rocher? It is to be now? Or, will you be kind to me once again?" She knew the hauling rope would be of no help in a fall. It only attached her to the bag far below. The rope would never stop her. It would kill her if she fell - if she fell another two-hundred feet - and then she knew she would feel the rope go tight at four-hundred feet. She had fallen before in the Grand Tetons and knew the feeling of a robe stretched to its limits. But, here, now, with this thin-line, she knew it would snap and pull the bag with it as she fell forever, just as in her nightmares.
Now near her shoulder, her single fingertip trembled against the invisible edge. Slow she raised her left hand and strained for the beginning of the lightning-shaped crack. She locked two fingertips in the bottom of the crack here it looked like the slash of a knife. Her right finger tore loose just as she weighted her other hand. Her body swung free as she dangled from the jammed fingers. Now her boots scraped as she pulled herself up and in one smooth motion jammed her other palm above her locked fingertips. Without hesitation she moved higher up the crack as it became easier with each upward meter.
"Merci, Rocher," she whispered. "Thank you for this time. For I am tired and about to flame-out. I love you, Crack."
Above, lost in mist, the great over-hang disappeared like a mythic black beast. "So, this is Neosynephrine?" Gabriella moved smoothly, hand-jam above hand-jam, boot-jam above boot-jam, trailing the thin red line - climbing forever on an infinite dark wall. With nothing above but clouds, she thought, and nothing but cloud below. Nothing but cloud "out there." It was all gray with splashes of black and white here and there - accept for her white form with its burst of red maple leaves.
"I am coming, Roof," she whispered as she moved. "And then I will sleep beneath your protective over-hang." Snow brushed her brassy cheek and corn snow began to stick to sun-bleached hair.
Gabriella Baptiste hung in claustrophobic darkness, snug inside a climber’s bivouac hammock-tent. The storm outside hurled icy spray, snapping and popping against the rain-fly. She removed her cap and rumpled her short bob. She breathed out, "Not today, Death. Maybe tomorrow. But, Peaches cheated you today." Her dreams were always about death and the dying. Not just about her own death, but the death of others. Emergency room deaths. Trauma deaths.
She thought, it was not that it had been thirty-eight hours in the emergency trauma unit. It was not the black kid and the hit and run, the ruptured spleen, the third-impact heart loosing blood fast. Not the couple in the drive-by shooting with the smell of spurting blood on the overhead lamps. That powerful arterial explosion when the clamp slipped. Not the Asian girl who accidentally overdosed on crack. It was none of these. It was that she had lost them all and finally she collapsed in desperate tears - shaking, trembling and then gagging uncontrollably.
Then Stephen wondered why I was so late. Well that was that. And his, "Get yourself together," could go all the way to hell. "I can’t stand by and wait for a phone call that you’ve killed yourself!" he had shouted in her face. She remembered screaming back at him, "Get out of the apartment and take the Porsche" - and leave me alone forever - "if you can’t live with a doctor and tolerate my rock climbing craziness." He had said, "Suicidal craziness!" Then in a fit she cut off her blond mane he had liked so much. Cut it short. Efficiently short. Almost military short.
"Se suicider. Se suicider." She whispered the words in darkness.
She snuggled warm in a knee-length down parka. She pulled up the half-bag to her armpits. Wrapped in a water-proof bivouac sack, the young blond doctor hung in a single-point climber’s tent-hammock. Below the famous granite ceiling called The Nose, she was protected from the blowing snow - protected from the cutting wind by the orange weather-fly - enshrouded in pre-dawn darkness. The coldest hour of a very long night.
The infamous granite rock of the overhang was above, outside the tent, within arm’s reach if she stretched. It her dreams she conjured up images of the enormous overhanging pitches on Cold Mountain. She whispered, "How do you climb upside down, backwards, for a city block? Why am I this high already? A woman alone, a day away from success, on one of the most dangerous rock faces in the world. All that stood between Gabriella Baptiste and the summit was the legendary Nose. "Why am I still alive?" she asked herself. "When I want to die."
Now or never, she had thought. Almost thirty, she marveled, and it’s my last chance. Perfect control. And, relax the mind. Those were the keys to a free-solo attempt without rope on any great wall. Light and fast. And perfect form. No mistakes. Not a single one. And, audacity, she had thought. One more day. Only death can stop me. Gabriella Baptiste put the impossible out of her mind, and will her one-hundred pound athletic body into a deeper nocturnal sedation. The wind snapping the zippered rain-fly did not bother her slumber.
The rain beat on the black tarmac. A Cessna-182 engine revved. Its wind-shield did not blink against the deluge. It stared open-eyed into the brooding storm. Liquid diamonds exploded on the plexi-glass.
"Orange County Tower. Two-One-Eight-Niner Foxtrot. Clear for take off."
"Roger, Orange County," doctor Samuel Rosenthal said as he looked at his wife Sarah. His children, Solomon and Tamara, noses smudging the perspiring plexi-glass, sat transfixed as the lights of John Wayne Orange County terminal passed by.
"Ah, Two-one-eight-Niner Foxtrot. Be advised 727 commuter is three miles on final."
"Roger. Eight-Niner Foxtrot out."
Doctor Rosenthal’s right hand pushed the throttle forward. The Cessna vibrated in respond as it eased down the air strip. Slowly it gained speed. Rain beat and exploded against the unblinking windshield. Good girl, the pilot thought affectionately about his small plane.
Straining, the aircraft lurched upward, already bouncing against chaotic wind currents. It rose above the lights of Newport Harbor. The children in the back seats pressed their noses harder against the rushing vision of lights in the darkness below.
"Are you sure, Sam?" Mrs. Rosenthal’s voice cracked with the fear of someone who never adjusted to flight in a small plane. Any place for that manner. "Ohhhh!" she hissed under her breath at the sudden thud of an air pocket. She never trusted such a pitiful machine. Her face was filled with fright as weather tossed the Cessna like a cork in roaring surf.
"Nothing to worry about. Just local stuff."
"You’re talking like a doctor. You did file a flight plan?"
"I don’t have to." He was irritated and his face said, "Crap yourself!" Fighting the controls, he told her, "I didn’t file this trip to Reno. This is just local soup. You watch. We’ll break through at 2,000 feet."
"Sam, I wish....."
".......Please?" He did not look at her. "Let me get us above this junk."
Solomon watched the Cessna climb into darkness, its own lights radiating against the clouds and rain. Glistening rain drops fell, it seemed to a young face, not down toward the ground, but sideways.
"Papa, when will we get there?" four-year old Tamara asked the age-old question of children.
"Three hours. Go to sleep, Tammy."
The plane turned south and then around to a north-east heading aiming for the Biggest Little City in the World. It began to rise above the coast range, bouncing and shuddering as small planes above the Tehachapies at ten-thousand feet. The San Joaquin Valley spilled out below, interstate five a thin strip of light slicing the earth beneath. A light mist continued to wet the Cessna.
Raising his voice over the engine noise, twelve-year old Solomon asked, "Will we cross the Sierras, Papa?" He did not remove his nose from the cold plexi-glass. His breath fogged the window.
"Right over the Valley, Solly. There’ll be a full-moon. See, it’s clearing now."
The coastal rain-clouds vanished above the Grapevine, the moon exposing a storm building over the High Sierras. The doctor said nothing about this as the small plane followed its course in its typical lurching manner. It tossed up and down yet sideways at the same time. The boy had grown used to it, but his mother always gripped her armrest with white knuckles. She willed herself to sleep. Little Tamara was already slumbering with her stuffed rabbit. Solomon could not sleep. Every light deserved his inspection. Every bit of moonlit landscape riveted his attention. His father remained silent as he guided the plane toward the Fresno vector.
"More burgundy?" The sunburnt-blonde Californian’s voice fogged in the chilling atmosphere.
"Need you ask?" said the short Japanese-American. And then in his best John Wayne imitation, "Just put a little of the red right there, Pilgrim." He reached his metal cup toward the Californian. "You?"
"No. I’m cutting back."
They swung gently in hammocks, rocking against the frigid air of Camp Four, The Valley’s resident site for climbers and mountain rescue volunteers. The only light came from a rising moon. A fading lantern glowed on reddened faces in a state of tranquil oblivion. The bottle of cheap California burgundy balanced on the wet ground between them. The sweet-sour scent of marijuana wafted in a matrix of two dozen camp fires in The Valley’s only walk-in campground. A woman’s giggle diverted their attention. Looking at each other with a smile, they raised their cups. They turned to strain over their shoulders toward the restroom lights. They pulled down-jackets tighter as they rocked, pulling caps down over cold ears. The stars disappeared behind a late spring storm.
Floating on erratic breezes camp voices were once clear then distorted. A babel of languages merged with laughter and singing. The delicate strings of a guitar mellowed the air. Campers spoke of the one subject that brought them here - rock climbing. Words like grimper, klettern, yoji-borou caromed from Douglas fir to sugar pine to black oak. Merging in one strange universal language, words were softened here and there by green moss and bright yellow lichen.
The word "bear" - ours, bar, kuma - came out of the darkness. It was followed by the sound of beating metal pans and cups. Just as it started, the clanging quickly stopped. A few curse words echoed.
Other words came and went throughout the camp. A special lexicon no matter the language or accent: route, class, leader fall, run-out, hit and run, bivy, interesting, psycho, grade-six, flashing, hang-dogging, yoyo, redpoint, a’vue, zug, beta-flash. Numbers indicating climbing difficulty came from one direction, then another - five-ten, five-eleven, five-twelve. Rarely one heard the limits of the humanly possible - five-thirteen, five-fourteen. Or, in artificial climbing - A-5-plus, A-6. These possessed their own lexicon: stacking, copper-heading, bashie. And the word spoken with a hushed voice - zipper. The rarest of all words were "first ascent" or "directisima." One name was mentioned more than others - Douglas Martin. And, then, another - Yakko Iwamoto.
"What you thinkin there, Pilgrim?" Yakko said it with a strained, over-accentuated Oriental accent, squinting his eyes even tighter in his famous mimic of Buddha. Then Buddha spoke in the voice of John Wayne, "What is my favorite pilgrim thinking there? About the pure life?"
"The old days, Yakko." Douglas Martin spoke his name with great affection after years of use. He paused and thought how much he had loved this man. Loved him through too much, too many memories, too many forgotten dreams, too many horrors, too many....edges. Very thin edges, he thought, and then absent-mindedly spoke out loud, "Laser thin edges. God, we’re getting old!" His whole body jerked in a sudden uncontrollable spasm.
"You okay, Bac?" Yakko used the nick-name Douglas Martin had gained because of his affection for Dark Bacardi rum.
Douglas Martin did not answer.
The small Japanese - built like an age-hardened gymnast - had more than enough room in the hammock. He kicked one bare foot against the cold ground and swung wildly. He cursed in Japanese as his wine spilled in his effort.
Douglas Martin snorted in laughter. "Another pour, you Buddhist heathen?" And then his laughter was wild.
Yakko grinned. His memories stirred also. Both old farts, he told himself, and then out loud, "We’ve become certifiable Olde Farts. I didn’t want to believe it, until the other day I looked up the word ‘old fart’ in the dictionary, and there, damn, there was your picture."
Yakko continued, "A clear sign is when you speak how you ‘used to do this’ or ‘used to do that’. ‘Used to’ is another way of saying ‘has-been’."
Douglas Martin spit, beginning to slightly slur his words, "Living legends in our own time." Their reputations were recorded in the rock-climbing guide books. And their names were whispered respectfully in something of an undoubting awe.
Raising his cup, Yakko grunted hysterically, "in our own minds," and fell out of his hammock.
"Yakko, how many years have you spent in hammocks?" He looked down on him sprawled in the pine needles.
Yakko swore in Japanese. Grabbing for the hammock he fell again, still laughing at himself. "I’ve had it!" he moaned.
"Yakko, you need to hit the sack? You need help, my worthless friend?"
"Naw, Captain. Let me crawl." His forehead rested on pine needles. "Damn ground is moving!" The Japanese climber, whose name appeared more than a dozen times in the Valley climbing guidebooks, pulled himself to his tent. Without zipping the tent shut, he was gone and snoring within seconds.
"USA, one. Japan, nil." Douglas Martin wet a finger and marked an i8maginary score board. In a quiet, soft voice he called to the tent, "Sweet dreams, Lieutenant Yakko Iwamoto, United States navy retired. Yeah, ree-tired. Sleep my friend. Dream of white horses. You deserve some peace. God knows you’ve already been to hell."
Douglas Martin swung pleasantly in the hammock, watching the last glow of coals in the fire. In an alcoholic haze he noticed the stars were gone and corn snow fell in the lantern light. He was hot and the chilling air felt good. The scent of pine mixed with dwindling camp fires. He breathed deeply. God it smells good, he thought. He fell asleep. His pale-blue eyes blinked as corn snow softened into large flakes. Douglas Martin did not feel them.
"Fresno radio. This is Two-One-Eight-Niner Foxtrot." Doctor Rosenthal’s eyes strained for a horizon.
"2189 Foxtrot. Fresno," came the tower’s response.
"Ah, will you give me The Valley and Reno weather? Over."
"Foxtrot, we have a cold front forming over the Valley. Snow level 3,500 feet. Temperature 28 degrees and dropping. Over."
"Roger, Fresno. Thank you. 2189 Foxtrot out." Doctor Rosenthal was alone. His family slept despite the buffeting, stirring occasional in a rough air pocket. He turned to a new bearing and began to climb to ten thousand feet. He made the change slowly so it was imperceptible to Sarah. The mist graded to invisible ice and in the moonlight it brushed against the small plane.
"Papa?" Solomon shifted in his seat but did not remove his face from the window.
"Sleep, Solly," order the father.
"Okay." And the boy did not know what was slowly happening to the Cessna.
Sarah Rosenthal shifted to her side as she sought a deeper sleep, a forced narcosis.
Tamara was curled up with her doll. The moon outlined her cheeky face.
The hum of the Cessna engine was constant and steady. Only an occasional lurch, followed by a sudden drop, disturbed Samuel Rosenthal’s slumbering family.
Under his breath the doctor expressed his awe as a full moon competed with the crystalline stars. Mars and Jupiter aligned at the horizon.
The Cessna began to buffet and shudder. The foothills of the Sierra with its gold rush country and Highway 49 were moonlit below. The Cessna climbed, trembling. The doctor had made the decision to cross the Sierra spine over the Valley. He told himself that it was shorter. More direct. I’ve done it before, he thought. Besides this is a rare opportunity with a full moon. He justified his altered plans.
"What?" Sarah stirred with the increased stomach-wrenching turbulence, which seemed to throw the small plane wherever it wanted.
Rosenthal held the wheel with both hands, trying to compensate for the unpredictable, chaotic movements of the Cessna.
"Everything is okay. Go to sleep, honey."
Sleep was Sarah’s only escape and she willed herself again into nocturnal sedation. But her knuckles gripped the arm-rest and seat belt.
The late spring storm was building directly in the flight pattern of Two-Eight-Niner Foxtrot. Its windshield was like an open eyelid frozen against the temperature. Ice crystals grew heavier and began molding to cold metal.
"Papa, when will we be there?" Tamara asked.
The doctor said, "Go to sleep, Tammy. Pretty soon."
Even Sarah caught a change in the confidence of her husband’s voice. She forced herself to sleep, curled up in the cramp position with her seatbelt as tight as she could make it. She fought her nausea and fear.
Slowly, from some ghostly presence that resides in black clouds - and in something of an optical illusion where there was no up or down - ice and snow fell horizontally against the Cessna’s windshield.
"That’s Martin? The ole man ‘imself?" Tommy the English lad asked in a hushed tone. He adjusted in the folding chair and moved his feet closer to the fire.
Sean Townsend said, "Douglas Martin. The Captain. In the flesh." He stretched his lanky frame and it seemed his clothing was too short for his gangly arms and spindly legs. He did not seem to be the rock climbing phenom he was reputed to be.
They leaned and strained to see into the yellow tent in the black forest night. Douglas Martin slumbered in his hammock.
"Why is he called ‘the Captain’?" the younger one asked, his wind-burnt face thin and gaunt from climbing.
"United States Navy. Retired. Tough-nuts x-Seal now considerably softened by booze."
The two British climbers sat huddled around the small camp fire, waiting for it to give up its last warmth before they turned in. The darkness spit snowflakes in the meager flame.
"Nice enough chap, actually." Sean Townsend respected a legend. "But, as we Brits say, a real hard man. I met him once but I don’t think he remembers. He had a bottle in his hand and I was trying to solve a hard move on the Camp Four boulder. Martin saunters up and ‘e says, ‘Try a ‘eel lock, up there, to your left,’ and by God, it worked. Then when I was up and turned to thank ‘im, ‘e was gone. ‘e left the empty rum bottle right there. I should have kept it."
"A dozen grade-six first ascents?" There was awe in Tommy Ashment’s accent. "Just in the Valley."
Sean pulled his parka tighter. "And that was before all the climbing topos. When you had to figure the route out yourself. Only one route remains to be repeated."
"That would be Cold Mountain?" asked Tommy. "Wasn’t the bottom third re-climbed?"
‘Well, yes, if you count Rene Laursen’s attempt to erase the Cold Mountain route. Now that was really stupid. Hubris run amuck. The ultimate egotist’s big statement on climbing ethics. If a climb wasn’t done by Laursen’s talmud it deserved to be wiped out by chisel. Martin wrote in something critical in some journal. ‘e said: ‘Moral saints on the rock and ethical pigs on the ground.’"
"Martin ‘ated Laursen?"
"The other way round I think. When the two of them climbed the Dru in the Alps, after ten days, when they came down, Laursen told the press, ‘Martin is a man I just do not like.’"
"What’s Laursen’s problem?"
"The pure competitive ego. Insanely competitive."
"I ‘eard Laursen was gay?"
"Gay? No. I don’t think anyone could love Laursen, male or female, as much as Laursen loved himself. A pure narcissist."
"What happened?" asked Tommy. He rubbed the thin beard of his austere cheek.
"Martin, well ‘he’s nicknamed Bacardi. Sometimes just Bac, for Blood Alchohol Contents. For ‘is ‘abit of carrying Sigg bottles of dark rum…"
"….a certified rummy, eh?" Tommy asked. He pulled the collar of his bivouac parka tight up against the back of his head.
"If any man deserves a dram or two, Martin does. They say ‘e’s seen enough evil in jungles, deserts, mountains or oceans to drive any man crazy."
The climbers watched Douglas Martin gently swing in his hammock at his traditional campsite, number seventeen. They saw Yakko fall on his face and then crawl away into the tent.
"And ‘is mate?" Tommy asked.
Ole navy buddy. One crazy climber ‘imself. They’re both crazy. Some say their climbing days are over. But, others think they steal off quietly and do Chinese water torture things in Chile, on Cerro Torre in Patagonia. I met one bloke who said ‘e had seen ‘im in the Baffins. On some mile-high granite tooth. ‘ell, they once snuck into the Valley dresses as women, with blond wigs and fake boobs. Flashed a radical line up El Cap, and everyone was talking about the all-female climb up Sea of Dreams. But, ‘ell, others said it was Martin and Iwamoto, because they left one long red line of spilled burgundy all the way to the top."
"So, why did he call the Martin-Chen route Cold Mountain?" Tommy asked.
"More for the dark affair of the whole thing. And, the dark accusations that followed. And the delerium tremons that followed that. Bad press business. A media circus thing. And Martin being blamed for nasty stuff because of the drinking. Some said back in Nam a mortar round landed too close once, or its was brain damage from agent orange. A definite candidate for some kind of delayed syndrome something or other. That kinda crap."
"What is Cold Mountain like?" asked Tommy. He put his palms over the dwindling coals.
"It’s an ugly route, see. What the Italians call a directisima. Straight up from bottom to top. Come ‘ell or ‘igh water."
"Tell me about it."
"It begins with the flawless China Plates. Granite ground so smooth you can see your face in it. Every climber who comes to the Valley just goes over and stares at it. It has been impossible to get up the first pitch free."
"So, what’s it rated?"
"Off the scale. At least back then, ten years ago. Five-ten-plus and very sustained. I suppose today some of the aid climbing – back then A5+ - would be upper five-twelve stuff with no pro. But the aid climbing would still remain the ‘ardest in the world. No one else ‘as gotten ‘igh enough to know how ‘ard it really is. But, no, not dark because of the difficulty. Dark because ‘e lost his best friend, ‘is climbing mate during all his first ascents way back. An Asian, Chen Wu was his name. A real marvel. Some kinda Berkeley mathematics professor. A little guy who never learned how to spell the word ‘fear’. Neither of the bastards knew what fear was."
"And, so the name of the first great roof – Chen’s Chin?"
"Yeah. Chen Wu lead the entire roof, all two-hundred feet of it. With one severe hanging belay under the ceiling. A crackless bastard, it’s all skyhooks … rurps …knife blades … and zero wire-nuts. Of course, mashies and copperheads bashed by hammer into impossible seams. All driven or placed up, like a spider in a corner coming to the ceiling, and then just crawling upside down across it. Chen Wu put in three bolts. Took hours to drill over head. They hung from that for days, a thousand feet up, working to get around the bloody lip in a freak storm, retreating to their bat-tents in the hanging bivouac."
"Can you imagine hanging upside down over three thousand feet of exposure. ‘ow long did the route take?"
"Three weeks, with only two ledges larger than a chessboard. And, of course Thank God Ledge, but it’s just a bit wider than a sidewalk."
"The big flake, The Ear, below the second roof?" asked Tommy.
"Four-hundred feet below. They spent days in the only comfortable bivy on the whole climb."
"So? Go on, Sean."
"Days passed with rain and snow. They labored around The Lip, up The Ear chimney. Then a four-hundred foot extremely severe five-ten crack system. Fingernail thin, psycho stuff. Beta-blast. It looks like a perfect lightning bolt straight up. Directly above Thank God Ledge into the corner where the second roof begins. The Nose overhang. They called the two long ceiling pitches Neosinepherin, because though it was shorter than The Chin, water drained from it constantly. Just like a bloody dripping nose. There is mud and moss and greasy slop everywhere. Car-sized boulders waiting to fall out. A slummy bit of crap. They say frogs live up there, and bats."
"That would scare the ooze outa ya! ‘aving a bloody toad plop on yer face as ya nail the roof on yer back. Bloody awful!" Tommy shivered.
The moon broke through the gathering storm. Its brilliance cast shadows among the snow-covered pines. Their fire popped in its last twitch of life. There were long pauses as they read the pages of an old guidebook, pondering old routes put up by Douglas Martin, Chen Wu, and later, Yakko Iwamoto. They stared into the embers and fell into those trances the American Indians call fire-dreaming.
Both men jerked upright as Douglas Martin suddenly stood before them out of the forest darkness – a ghost in the dark shroud of his parka – a phantom’s eyes glaring red into the night.
"Bloody bugger!" Sean Townsend caught himself in his beach chair.
"Scared me jewels off!" Tommy spit. "Damn…"
Douglas Martin quietly sat down on a stump and the creased, weathered face stared into the last fire embers. They thought he must be dreaming of hell. They were transfixed in shock and dare not interrupt the sedated gaze of the tall sun-burnt Californian.
"You awright, mate?" Sean broke his reverie.
Douglas Martin did not alter his forever-gaze – that thousand-yard stare – as he softly whispered, "You talk too loud."
"We…." Sean started.
"….the camp is quiet. The trees silent. The snow gentle. I could hear all your…distortions." Douglas Martin pronounced the word carefully. His eyes were reddened by the fire’s glimmer and his pleasant alcoholic euphoria. His thinning blond hair showing the strain of gray, and his face with a two-day stubble amplified his brooding trance. Still without visually recognizing them, Douglas Martin continued, "Might as well get the shit from the ‘orse’s mouth, ‘eh buggers?"
"’eh, chap, meant no ‘arm," Tommy objected.
"None taken. You climbing tomorrow?" Douglas Martin looked at the younger lad for the first time.
"Naw. Backed off The Heart on Salathe. No point in tempting this weather, ‘eh?" Tommy was apologetic.
"Leave fixed ropes?" Douglas Martin asked.
Sean and Tommy shrugged. Both were embarrassed by their admission. "Yeah…"
"Laursen would not approve." Douglas Martin gave a knowing smile. "But, then, retreat is often the best form of bravery."
"Right…" Tommy started.
"…..on the other hand, the wise man said, ‘He who watcheth the clouds will never driveth a piton.’ Or, so says my Oriental friend."
They all grinned.
The moon broke through again and lit their faces. They thought Douglas Martin almost leaned back to avoid the light. The lunar glow flushed a weathered face, creased and furrowed by laugh-lines, a worried brow, and eyes that had squinted into ten-thousand brilliant suns – eyes straining to see the climbing route above.
They studied the somber face. The snow had stopped for a moment.
"I named Cold Mountain for my friend Chen Wu." He seemed to stretch a six-foot frame – a frame finally succumbing to gravity – as he lengthened the name of his old climbing buddy. "Little scrawny fella – though he could beat me in at Indian wrestling – from Red China, via Frisco. Best aid climber I ever met. Better than Kor, Frost, even better than Long. If Robbins or Harding even dreamed they were as good, they would apologize. You got any wine?"
They shook their heads.
"You see Cold Mountain is a series of Chinese verses by a Buddhist poet, Han-shan. Chen Wu was always citing verses." Douglas Martin relaxed, then stiffened again as in a sudden shiver. He yawned. Then leaning forward he whispered in a mimic of the dead Chinese climber’s voice: "Delighting in mountains, I scaled the mile high peaks. Today I have come home to Cold Mountain. Sit with me among the white clouds? People who try to climb Cold Mountain always get scared. Only in good weather can you make the climb. A wanderer….drowned in delusion….at dawn, I dance with white clouds.’ Twelve-hundred AD." Staring as though at a vision of his friend, he repeated, "I dance with white clouds." Douglas Martin choked and tried to clear his throat.
The young climber leaned forward and lowered his voice, "What happened?"
Douglas Martin hesitated, thinking a thousand years ago.
"You don’t ‘ave to…" Sean started.
"…he bought the farm," said Douglas Martin. "Or, as Yakko would say, ‘It became too wet to plow.’"
"’ow?" Sean’s tone was almost reverent. Both leaned closer. It began to snow seriously now. The moon vanished for good and darkness enshrouded the Valley.
Douglas Martin swallowed and they thought he found comfort in the darkness. "He got axed." He sniffed and breathed out hard.
"Chen Wu…" began Tommy.
Douglas Martin was entranced and they thought if they had gotten up and walked away, he still would have begun, "Our belay was…tenuous. Hanging from a mixed bag of small chocks. A psycho combination of rurps and cliffhangers. Bolts wouldn’t work. I thought the whole ceiling would just collapse. One big pile of granite falling loose. Frankly, the sky-hooks were the best of the whole pitch. Nerves on razors. Couldn’t sleep. Wet. Frozen. The rock was a mess on the tip of The Nose, near the end of Neosinepherin. All our ropes, hauling bags, hardware just hung down, et, everything covered with moss, mud and frog snot." "Caw blimey!" And chills vibrated through both at the thought of such extreme exposure over so long a time. "Chen Wu knew the belay would never hold a real fall. In extreme conditions he led off on rotten rock to surmount the tip of The Nose. He disappeared around the corner. He yelled he’s gotten in a good horizontal pin. I eased a bit." "Why didn’t you move the belay to that spot?" asked Tommy. "Good question. I thought of it. But the wind was bad and we were maxed. Couldn’t hear a thing. Sounded like big storm surf. Ears just hummed. Communication, well, there was a lot of screaming. It got terrible, worst on the climb. I knew it was bad when Chen Wu started cursing in Mandarin. He always did that. When he started cursing in Chinese, wee, it was one place on earth you didn’t want to be. From the movement of the rope I could tell he was climbing slow. Then a strong tug indicated slack. Chen Wu was going free. A lot of line ran out, perhaps a hundred free…." "…a hundred feet?" asked Tommy. "No pro? A run out? Right there?" "I thought he had reached a belay because the rope went limp. I relaxed a bit, thinking he had found good anchors and I would hear ‘off belay’. I remember my hands were shaking, not from cold, but from fear. That had not ever happened to me before. But, it didn’t matter." He swallowed and wiped his face with a rough, scarred palm. Tommy spit out, "What? What didn’t matter?" Douglas Martin was mesmerized by his own memory and a story he had not told in ten years. "It was so….quiet for a moment. Then…." The young faces did not interrupt. They waited. "…Chen Wu, well, he just fell past me." Douglas Martin sniffed and gestured with his hand the direction of the fall. "At first I thought it was rock. I was watching the edge of the overhang. Clouds boiling right there, and then, God, I was knocked back. He went by, bang, like that. Chen…Wu…" Douglas Martin hesitated as though he did not want to bring finality to it all. "…He kept going, clean and clear, disappearing into the clouds. Couldn’t believe it. It was in the blink of an eye, and yet, it seemed….to take forever. Two-hundred feet straight down in free space!" Sean and Tommy cursed their mothers under their breath. "Longer than Chouinard in the Tetons," Douglas Martin continued. Or Bonati on The Dru. "But, of course, they didn’t die!" "The belay?" asked Tommy. "The rope had wrapped around his neck and the jerk was worse than ten-thousand hangings. The little crapper never knew. I’m glad of that." Tommy persisted, "But, the belay? Those bloody anchors?" ""The violence of the force nearly snapped the rope. I was pulled up and slammed into the ceiling. My head began bleeding down my face. Everything ripped loose. Just coming toward me and popping out. I fell with al the gear. Then…suddenly…I stopped, swinging almost unconscious in the tangle of ropes and equipment..." Nausea in his voice, palms sweating, Tommy the younger climber grunted as he interrupted, "…the horizontal pin held?" "Poor dead Wu, and dumb Doug. We just hung there. Damn Valley was full of media, hidden in the soup below. I could only think…it kept hitting my brain over and over, the front page magazine picture of Wu hanging there, three thousand feet above the ground, exposed to the whole damn world." There was a sarcastic irony in his throat as he whispered the story for the second time in a decade. "What did you do?" they both asked at the same time. "I was stunned. First, unbelieving. Then I moved on animal instinct. I tied the ropes off and anchored with Jumars. It was an impossible situation. Chen Wu was gone. I would go soon. I kept seeing in my mind that hidden piton above…shifting…grating…read to pop. I really thought I would come off next." "So?" Tommy prodded. Douglas Martin sniffed, "I just cut Chen Wu away." "Blood gawd!" Tommy grabbed his mouth. There was another long pause. All of them stared hypnotized into the dark forest. And the very thought of it. The horrible memory of it. "I just watched the little bastard fall. I kept screaming his name." Then he lowered his voice, a mere whisper, a swallow from his dry throat, "That sight of his little body just, just, you know, twisting lifelessly, cart-wheeling, for three-thousand feet. Until he bounced the first time on China Plates. Shot like from a canon, ricocheted off the face below and into the storm. I turned away and had the dry heaves. But, I could hear the sound – I’ll never, never forget that sound – know what a body sounds like when it hits? A melon. He went tumbling from rock to rock, across the talus to the scree and finally into the scrub pine on the Valley floor. And, then…I was alone. More alone than I had ever felt." "Bloody awful," gasped Tommy. Sean was quiet. He rubbed the shivers from his long arms.
"Would you go back?" And then Tommy wished he had not asked.
"Hell no!" Douglas Martin leaned back, deeper in the shadows to hide the lines of fear in his face, the terror of twenty years climbing on the absolute edge of insanity. "There is no place on earth I’d rather not be, than ever, ever return to that nightmare climb. Hell, no man with a love of his mother would go up that obscene monster a second time. No one will ever do it again." They tried to examine his face, trying to find a deliberate attempt to discourage them from ever seconding Cold Mountain, the greatest climbing route still around. "If I had one word of advice?" Douglas Martin paused and pointed a scarred finger. "Yeah, guv?" Douglas Martin rose and hitting his chest said, "Watch the booze. "Now you see what it does to a man." He swallowed with difficulty, gulping back emotions and forbidden tears, wanting to hide his shame in the dark forest. He stepped back unsteadily and as quickly as he had appeared he stumbled off through the pines and snow. They watched him crawl into the tent. They thought they saw him wipe his eyes. Douglas Martin cursed his painful knees and fell onto his sleeping bad. He heard Yakko Iwamoto stir and mumble, "Captain?" Douglas Martin’s dreams came quickly, and late in the night, his nightmares. Yakko Iwamoto shook him he seemed out of control and the Californian jolted upright in the tent. "What, Captain?" "God, tomatoes again. I hate tomatoes!"
"All these people with heads like tomatoes. They keep coming at me, and then their heads explode..." "…Captain…" "…and then Chen Wu is standing there and his head is a tomato and I reach toward him and scream and then his head explodes." "Go to sleep, Captain." And then Douglas Martin rolled over and was snoring again and Yakko knew in the morning he would not remember. The snow began to fall seriously, and in the night it stuck to the ground and the tree branches above. Like the walk of a cat, the snow fell quietly. In the dark the British climbers backed away as their urine fogged against a tree trunk. Then they made ready for their tent. "’ow’d he get off the bloody thing?" asked Tommy.
"’e soloed the top third of Cold Mountain in two days in blizzard conditions. "My bloody jewels!" "He was next to dead when mountain search and rescue found him on the summit of Cold Mountain." "Poor bastard. His last grade six?" "There are rumors about seconding Yakko Iwamoto on some secret routes. Only they know about them. Martin’s pissed with the media and he shuns any publicity. Then that glorified idiot Laursen his stunt." "Rene Laursen?" asked Tommy. "They go way back?" ‘There was this intense competitive thing between them. Laursen was always the second to tackle Martin’s routes. And he did them fast, and, he thought, in a better style. Once, I’m told, there was the bloody fight right there, over by the Camp Four boulder. The Seal versus the Ranger. They would never quit, neither giving up, and they fought bloody awful, until they both passed out and had to be taken to the clinic to get stitched up." "Laursen hated Martin?" "Very….intensely. Yeah. Laursen was very verbal. ‘e wrote for all the climbing journals. He objected publicly about the climbing ethics on Cold Mountain, and as ‘e put it, the unnatural line and siege tactics. To ‘is mind Cold Mountain violated any decent climbing purity. Of course, Martin pointed out that ‘e was not adverse to hang-doggin. Or, rappelling a route to put in belay bolts at the cruxes. Laursen climbed with the Mexican Jorge Jarre. They went back up Cold Mountain and chopped all the bolts and rivets on China Plates. It was the first time chisels were carried on a grade six." "They erased the route?" asked Tommy. "Well, they climbed the eighty-five degree apron, China Plates, part way, about one-third up that part. They chopped the line of bolts and rivets. Martin had drilled shallow holes. They barely held the tip of a sky-hooks and cliffhangers. Some were in rows of twenty and thirty without an anchor." "Judas!" They climbed on knees into their tent and pulled sleeping bags up over their shoulders and heads. Sean leaned on an elbow facing Tommy. "And, about three-hundred feet up Laursen zippered on a row of fifteen cliffhangers, and quite properly, everyone thought, shattered his jaw. It was wired shut for months. Well, they came down very slowly with their tails between their legs. Cold Mountain is Martin’s only route Laursen never got up." "And no one has attempted it since?" asked Tommy. "No one has even thought of it. An, any one who dreamed it would apologize to Martin. Cold Mountain is the kind of thing, if you committed to the climb, well, you would have to factor in death." "I’d like to go look." Tommy fell asleep seeing his reflection in China Plates. Sean began to doze and then jolted in spasm. He shook away the vision of a ninety-foot zipper. And the ground rushing up – closer and closer.
END CHAPTER ONE