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The Last Mountain


Submitted by apoorva on 2003-12-25

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Arjan looked up at the last two hundred feet of the climb. Only one pitch left now. An expanse of searing dark sky-blue edged the end, sharply cutting the wall of cold grey stone and black ice above him. The exposed rib of the mountain they were climbing went thousands of feet below to the glacier.

After a certain point the human mind failed to comprehend the vacuum of open spaces. Beyond a certain height, it didn’t matter because the eye lost depth perception. Sixty metres or 600, it was the same. And the open expanse of horizon appeared like a picture, or an image in an IMAX theatre. The mind filed it away, not connecting it with reality.

So close now. It had been mixed rock and ice all the way; not that hard in terms of technical difficulty, not for the experts. But they were only mediocre climbers, and at high altitude everything was hard, and it had been a very long day so far, all forty odd bloody hours of it. Sleep; sleep seemed like the only thing he wanted and would ever want. Heaven was a mat of spring grass where he could lie for a few moments to close his eyes. Lying naked in the sun, fingers spread, resting on the soft blades of warm green…

No. Not now. They had to keep moving. This last pitch was not his to lead, it was his partner’s. Victor was a few feet below, moving like an exhausted old man as he front-pointed up slowly on his crampons. His safety was ensured by the rope Arjan had trailed while leading the pitch. As he climbed up, Victor removed the stubby ice-screws and barely pounded pins the leader had placed as anchors to protect a fall. None looked solid enough to take a big one.

He would have to keep on going, swing past Arjan as he belayed him, to lead the final vertical distance to easier ground and summit.

His partner looked pretty wasted. Perhaps he should offer to take the lead once again. But if he looked at a mirror, there would probably be the same lost look in the fear-glazed eyes, the same faraway gaze, the sagging muscles of the face, clenched for too long.

Arjan leaned back, the rotten snow on the belay ledge crumbling underfoot. The anchors were solid, all two of them – the pick of one ice tool planted firmly into thin millimetres of ice, and his last cam in a crack of exposed rock. (Unbelievably, it was the right size. If he were religious, it would seem to him that fate played an important role in every climb he did, every accident he survived. Perhaps that was why they were still alive, why he was still alive. In the back of his mind, he may have believed that).

Victor climbed up and moved above and beyond him. Soon he was wandering in the maze of tiered rocks puzzling out the route, and it hurt to crane his neck to look up at him, so he sunk his chin to his chest to conserve heat and tried to stay awake and keep belaying. Once more Arjan was alone. [page] He pulled up on his ice tools, their picks precariously dug into soft snow. Crampons furiously scratched on rock, as he raised his leg up and onto the lip of the snow-covered overhang. Flopping over onto the top… the summit snowfield. Tired… so very tired. The snow was a sharp blinding white, after having been climbing in the shadow for… so long, too long to really remember. This was another world. Light glinted off something. Bright. It hurt, he felt blinded, the...

Flash

The house was the same as it ever was and would be. The early morning autumn light glinted off the eaves. He walked past the car parked in the driveway, onto the cobbled path to the door. The smell was what made things so different, so comfortable.

The door was never locked, and he walked in across the threshold, into the hallway. The kids were awake; they must be getting ready for school. He could hear the noise, the early morning chaos of a normal family.

The crampons went clack-clack, sharply, the metal points ringing in his ears with each step.

Strands of music came from the living room, familiar lines.

”It's dark
In the white bones of coldness and frost
You're the blood of my heart
My clay butterfly
Don't forget”
Je tma (it's dark) – Iva Bittova

But she was in the kitchen. The stove burned, boiling water for tea. Blue flames dancing outside the circular base of the pot reflected on her face. Or perhaps he was imagining things. She glanced up at the sound.

“Where have you been!? The children are almost ready, you need to drop them today! Did you get the paper? Oh no, forget it, I’ll take them to school. You watch the baby. Ok? And don’t forget to call the Joneses about dinner. Oh no, he’s crying again, please go and see to him!”

His wife rushed past him, packing their children’s lunch.

He looked down at the ice tool dangling limply by his side, his wrist still in the wrist loop. The pick was black, and serrated, it’s wickedly curved profile swaying, gently touching his leg.

He wanted to reach out, touch her, hold her. But the sharp ice tool was on his hand, he didn’t want to hurt her with it. The leash was right up on the glove. The glove. How could he feel her smooth soft skin with a hand armoured in Kevlar and Gore-Tex…

The crampons scraped across the kitchen floor, cutting grooves into the wood. He couldn’t move to her without damaging the floor. He didn’t know what to do, how to...

Flash

He blinked, and reached into his jacket pocket for the goggles. Put them on. The sharp white became yellowish, the afterburn in his eyes fading with the pain in his retinas. The snowfield banked gently upwards, a gradual little hillock all the way to the summit. The top of the world was only a few hundred feet away, a few hundred near-horizontal feet, a ride compared to deadly vertical.

Victor was pretty gone, he could see that. The usual pact was; the summit didn’t matter all that much, survival was more important, but even beyond that, it was the route, the struggle, the new way up. The journey mattered; the destination only significant because of the uselessness, the nothingness of it all. So better to do the route, as cleanly and quickly as possible, push the limits of your body and soul, and retreat as soon as the line was done, the route bagged. They, the Conquistadors of the Useless.

[page] Victor sat down, shaking his head in an attempt to clear the fog overwhelming his brain. Arjan looked at him, and broke their pact, their team, by saying, “I’m going to the summit, I’m carrying on. I need to do this. Do you want to wait here?”

It was unspoken, but expected; even though the best thing to do was descend now, this very moment, if they were to maximise their chances of staying alive. To continue was madness, treachery, and death. The descent route was following the ridgeline down till easy rappels; hopefully most of the ridge descent was easy, unroped walking on slopes of snow – that’s what it looked like, at this point, as far as they could see.

Victor wanted to wait.

He turned to the summit again. The snow was not too soft, compact enough to take steps in without sinking too deep. Water. He wanted to stop and brew up. Put some nutrition into his system, even if the quantity was too little to actually matter to his body. But no, that would be afterwards. He started walking up, one ice tool in the holster, the other held between curled fingers and thumb, in the self-arrest position, the wrist loop tight on his gloved hand.

Flash

Little Jihan ran across the room, emerging from the door to the kitchen, shaking her long flowing hair. Her mother instantly stopped her, picking her up, “Jihan! Tie up your hair! Go on, back to your room, get your hair-band! Come on now, quickly, we’re getting late!”

Fairuza…
She wasn’t listening, the world moved too fast.
Louder, once again.
Fairuza...
Insistently. Once more
Fairuza!

She turned around, looking at him. “What? What is it? Oh my god, its getting late! We have to leave!”

He spoke quietly, almost in a whisper. “Let’s go away Fairuza, let’s go on a holiday, just us, we can leave the children with your parents. It’s been so long. Let’s go today.”

She brushed past him, reaching for the paper bags on the table, to put the lunchboxes in. It seemed like she hadn’t heard, hadn’t registered his words.

What was he doing here? The yellow Gore-Tex shell crinkled as he quizzically looked down at his smoothly armoured body, the thick black gloves, gaiters covering his heavy steel-shank Vibram-soled plastic double mountaineering boots. Melting ice dripped from the ice screws dangling from the loops on the harness at his waist. Why was he dressed like this? It was difficult to think. His mouth was dry, and he felt very tired. It was difficult to move. He took a step forward, towards his wife. She always looked beautiful, no matter what. There was music playing softly in the background, when the children stopped making their usual noise, it had become apparent, recognisable once more.

She liked fusion, the eastern blends reminded her of home.

“Can't feel you anymore
Don't need you anymore
Don't believe you anymore
I don't need you anymore”
Conjure One - Premonition

Flash

The sun was hot now. It seemed to be midday, or sometime around then. They had started sometime late in the night, or early in the morning, depending on the way you looked at it. When was that now? He couldn’t really remember.

Sleep, he just wanted to sleep.

One step in front of another, that was all there was too it. His lungs burned, his thighs had burnt to a crisp and he couldn’t really feel them anymore, just a dull pain below his waist, but he kept moving, willpower stronger than physical feeling. Each step produced meaningless nothing, yet he moved on, automatically, the granular white drifting past his eyes into a sea of dead waves. [page] The nausea hit hard, once more. He bent down to retch, nothing exiting his system because there was nothing inside except the ashes of burning muscle. Ammonia wafted from his clothes, he would have noticed if he could. The summit was a blurry patch of rock and snow just a little ahead now. It was so close, so easy to reach on level ground, in the park, in the world below.

The park, with strong tall trees on the sides of the path. He pushed the pram straight, his little baby boy inside, gurgling at the world. It was so simple right now, so easy. The sun shone through the leaves of the trees adjacent to the path, light, shade, light, shade, light, shade.

In his mind he could only see the pick of the tool buried in the ice above his head, barely a few centimetres of the metal in the black ice. A single point of the crampon stayed on the micro edge of exposed rock below him. A few seconds ago the left tool had scrabbled against bare, clean rock, no ice, edge or crack for the tool to catch or hook into. His weight was on crumbling muddy ice, leaning backward to negotiate the overhanging section. There was no rope, no partner or belay. Terror flooded through his mind, fear numbing his arms and legs as the fall seemed imminent. But it held, and he managed to get the right tool up into (marginally) thicker ice, only slightly solider but enough for him to survive.

The ground did not exist.

The wheels of the pram bounced regularly on the cobblestones, a rhythm to put any infant asleep, but little Arjen was fully awake and alert, enjoying the motion, the movement, and the free, open air. He tried to catch the rays of the sun as they lit up the bar in front of his face, yellow black yellow black. It came and it went.

He had needed someone to reach out to him, to tell him that climbing wasn’t necessarily the way to find the answer to what he was searching for. That he didn’t have to come close to death to find the truths of life. That there were other ways to reach for the sun, that perhaps, the sun could come to him. If someone had known, and had tried to understand the things even he did not.

That’s what he wanted, all along, he had wanted someone to tell him, to explain that there was another option, another way, that pushing higher, harder, faster, closer to the edge (even though he had a gift for it, an ability), there were other safer things, things more compatible with living ensconced in the warmth and security of an ideal.

There had to be another way to stop the nausea in the morning, the abrupt waking because of a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach without knowing why, just the an empty hollow inside and the need to retch. The fading nightmare that refused to away through the day, the memories of all that he had lost, and all that could have been. He needed something that quelled the sickness in his soul. Climbing had come to him by accident, and it was simply an addiction that controlled the symptoms, a drug which when taken away, brought back the disease in full force.

He just wanted to wake in the morning, look at the light pouring in through the windows on his wife’s face, and feel alright, feel satisfied. Feel happy, if that was something that existed.

His little boy was going to be so tall, so strong, he would be all that he hadn’t and couldn’t. He looked down at his son, almost in surprise that he could feel this way. That this little human sitting here, happily smiling at the big German Shepard walking by, without a care. This little being, who was completely and absolutely dependent on him for everything.

How was he going to tell her that he was going again, that he would be gone for at least a month? It… there was no way he…
(“It’s the Karakoram! A NEW route, alpine style. They invited me, I may never get a chance again! I need to do this, you know that, you knew that all along!”

“BUT you can’t go! Not again! You can’t leave so soon! What about your family, us, the children!? What’s wrong with you, aren’t we enough for you? You just came back, what, its only been a few months! And you nearly died that time. I can’t keep on going like this, Arjan, I just CAN’T!”)

Fairuza had dropped the children to school, her daughter and the neighbour’s. Somehow she had made it in time. That still left her… an hour before she had to get to work. And she was already dressed and ready. So she decided to go to her lover’s house, for a quick screw before work. He would be there, he didn’t leave till late... hmm, now what did he do? She couldn’t remember. It didn’t really matter. [page] He stared at the blank whiteness. There was nothing there, nothing at all, no shape, no pattern, nothing. It should have been white but it seemed yellow, this yellowish tinge that his mind seemed to inflict upon it, he knew that he should be seeing white, that it was clear clean unsullied fresh snow, but…

Move on. Keep moving.

He loved his wife. It was awful, and he didn’t know what to do about it.

It hurt like crazy, but to embrace the pain, that was the motivation for moving. To keep going, ahead.

He knew she was having an affair, he had seen the warm, post-orgasmic glow on her face when she returned. A pink sheen to her skin, a smell on her that he had thought was completely private, so obviously theirs to know, to cherish and share.

“I promise darling, this is it. No more, no more after this. I am getting old now, I know this. I’ve done what I can, what I had to do. This is it. This is the last mountain.”

“That’s what you said the last time, Arjan”.

But he meant it, he really did. This was going to be his last mountain. He intended to stop, intended for it to finish. He had stopped asking the question. “Why?” Why he climbed, it didn’t matter anymore. All he knew was that it helped, that if he didn’t, there would be that familiar gnawing in his stomach, that nausea in the morning, the bitterness in his throat and the muffled ringing in his head that would drive him mad.

He knew that if he stopped then he would slip into insanity, rotting from the inside out. He had stopped asking the question ever since he started, since his twenties, when it everything was fun and easy and the future was a place with some hope still, when every corner hadn’t been turned and every path wasn’t covered in a cloying mud of mediocrity. He was going to stop, because either way he was going to die. Sometimes he wondered why the mountains hadn’t killed him earlier, before he had the chance to drag others into this mess with him.

He should have kept this hell more private than he did.

He turned towards the ridge, at the edge of the snowfield, to look for Victor. All that could be seen was a little orange mound in the snow, strangely still, unmoving. The wind blew again, strongly, insistently, a reminder that the afternoon had disappeared and evening was here. In another world he might have seen the long shadows of sunset upon him, noticed that the light had changed permanently.

Why was Victor so small, and silent? Perhaps he was resting, brewing up something to hydrate and energize, sugar and melted snow.

Weight. Everything felt unbearably heavy, so he took off his pack, just for a second. A little rest. Dizzy, he felt very dizzy. He bent down, doubled up, leaning over the axe. His heart wasn’t beating, it was vibrating. The regular rhythm wasn’t enough to keep thick blood and thin oxygen flowing to the abused body. Faster and faster and faster, it was now a LOUD thud-thud-thud-thud-thudthudthud that he could feel in his head and feel on his tongue.

The mountain was all around him, and it moved with the wind. Cold wind; he could taste the ice on its breath. He could hear violins playing in his head, like someone very near him was listening to music on headphones, just loud enough to be brought to his ears on the wind. Not just violins, no, there was an orchestra… but the music was unfamiliar.

Perhaps he could close his eyes for a moment, rest for a second more. Put his head on the ground, rest it on his pack… ahh, it was blissful, to close his eyes, my god he couldn’t feel anything except unbelievable relief. To rest. Close his eyes. For a moment...

Just for a moment...

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