by Dale E. Lehman
Andrew Hofaker’s diary for that morning read, “April 20, 2016. The day of the wager. Weather report not encouraging—heavy afternoon snow predicted. Jorgensen offering odds on death, but no takers. Everyone accusing him of poor taste.”
Thirty minutes into his day, Hofaker stood in the midst of a glacier and warmed his hands on a mug of steaming coffee. Splinters of sunlight flashed from snow-encrusted peaks as he surveyed the camp huddled in the shadow of Mt. Fleiner. His parka-clad companions crept among the orange dome tents, unable or unwilling to disturb the silence. Blue flame flickered on half a dozen stove tops, tickled the underbellies of aluminum pots, enticed the water within to boil. A pair of young women inspected and coiled three lengths of rope, while an older fellow nearby secured a sling of carabiners to the rear of a backpack.
Hofaker pondered the slate clouds encroaching from the west and sipped his coffee. Heat trickled down his throat. Those clouds could mean trouble. Although not technically difficult, today’s climb allowed no room for delay. A sudden bout of bad weather could lose him the wager.
Why do I always think I’m invulnerable? One of these days, I’m going to get myself in trouble.
But not today. Although Mt. Fleiner was the highest in the range, the climb was short. A mere twenty-eight hundred vertical feet. The usual procedure was a two-day ascent by a two-person team with a bivouac at fifteen hundred feet on day one followed by the ascent to the summit and the return to base camp on day two. Hofaker had made the climb five times, once solo. So why the nerves? Today would be like any other day.
But no, it wouldn’t. Everyone expected him to fail. Jorgensen expected him to die. Because today he would not only make the ascent solo, he would take a previously untried route.
In one day.
The latter, the essence of the fifteen thousand dollar wager Hofaker had offered the lot of them eight months before in a fit of hubris, was what everyone refused to believe.
The team finished preparing the equipment and piled it in the center of the camp. Their nervous eyes skipped over him. Hofaker smiled weakly, drained his cup, told himself to get a grip.
Think positive. It’s going to be a great climb.
He inhaled deeply, let the cold sting his nostrils, and expelled a warm cloud of steam.
All set. It’s now or never.
He secured crampons to his boots, slipped into his harness, clipped on the hardware-laden slings, shouldered pack and rope, took up ice axe and ice hammer. The pack felt heavy though it contained only the barest essentials: a day’s food plus emergency rations; a first-aid kit; some extra hardware for setting protection, just in case. He wondered briefly if someone had purposely overloaded him. But no, that was paranoid. They might want him to fail, but nobody, not even Jorgensen, wanted him dead. Indeed, their silence begged him to give up before it was too late.
It was already too late.
One of the women who had inspected the rope gripped Hofaker’s arms with mittened hands. Her jaw tightened as she locked eyes with him. A strand of red hair trailing from her hood fluttered in the breeze. She was a petite thing, but her parka transformed her into a smallish bear.
Protecting her cub? But I’m not Carla’s cub. Just the opposite. I taught her to climb.
He wanted to tell her not to worry, but his voice abandoned him. He might have taught her, but her instincts were nearly as good as his own. What did she fear? What had she seen up the slope that morning, what had the wind whispered in her ear? Did even she know?
Words continued to elude Hofaker. Carla released him and stepped back. Shaken, he set off amidst a quiet chorus of good lucks and Godspeeds.
The mountain had deceived him.
At first the going was easy. He ascended the ridge that butted against the southeast face and followed it until it melded with the rock slope. But once there, he found himself surrounded by the debris of an avalanche at the foot of a snow-choked couloir. There was no obvious way around the gully, nor had he time for extraneous forays.
Hofaker hated to use his rope so early in the climb, but he didn’t dare ascent the couloir without protection. One his previous solo ascent, he hadn’t needed rope until much higher up. Today, therefore, he had opted to lighten his load by carrying only three short lengths. Had he erred?
No choice. He tied in and pushed onward, testing the snow and placing protection as he went, senses alert for signs of impending disaster. The rope ran out fifty feet below the top of the couloir.
Now what? If he used a second rope, he would have only one length for the remainder of the climb. Self-belaying could slow him enough to ruin his chances. He sank his axe into the snow, tested its firmness. Hard packed. Carefully, he unclipped and climbed without protection.
Each step slow, deliberate, he inched forward. A chunk of ice broke free under his weight and clattered downslope. Finally, he reached the top of the couloir, but relief gave way when his eyes lit upon a jagged expanse of barren rock stretching upward. Gathering his wits, Hofaker ventured a few paces further.
The stone proved so rotten that it crumbled underfoot with each step he took. He had never encountered such rock on this mountain. Hofaker paused, unnerved. A slip here could be fatal, throwing him helplessly back into the couloir with no hope of arresting his fall.
He wondered what his companions below would think when they realized what he was doing, but he had no choice. He tied into his second rope, anchored it with two pitons, and resumed the climb. The rock crunched ominously, but he maintained his footing and moved steadily, cautiously upward.
Beyond the treacherous rock lay a steep incline of consolidated snow beneath a thick glaze of ice. More comfortable here, he front-pointed his way up, but each blow of the axe, each kick to embed crampon front points sapped his strength. His weapons bit into the mountain’s skin, again, again, again. The snap of the ice, the low moan of the wind, his own gasps were the only sounds in his world. By the time he came upon the rocky ledge, Hofaker was exhausted. He struggled onto it and rested, gulping air. The cold raked his lungs like shards of ice.
Eyes closed, he contemplated his foolishness. Every other route up Mt. Fleiner had proven easy. The slopes tended toward moderate, the rock solid. Avalanches were almost unheard of. Having climbed those paths time and again, he thought he knew the mountain. But an experienced climber never makes assumptions. Pride had prompted this. Perhaps he deserved to fail.
When Hofaker opened his eyes, he discovered the world at his feet. The forest in the distance was a swirl of autumn color, the surrounding mountains mere points of rock jutting up in its midst. The noontime sun still held at bay the clouds advancing from the west. Spellbound, he let his eyes linger over the view while he ate a lunch of beef flavored concentrated carbohydrate wafers washed down with hot lemonade from an insulated flask. Marginally restored, Hofaker reluctantly returned to the climb.
Only then did he realize that he was less than halfway up. The prospect of a descent in the dark loomed large.
The wind grew stronger as he crawled upward. Fatigue exacted its toll on body and mind. Ice shattered when he thought it should hold, and each blow of the axe took nearly all his strength. But he kept on, forced himself to take each step, thought only as far as the next foothold. The afternoon wore endlessly on. He grew careless, now misjudging a step, now overlooking signs of treacherous footing. Several times he slipped, saved only by reflexes honed through years of experience. He kept his last length of rope against critical need and chanced without protection dangers he ordinarily would have avoided.
Late afternoon. Some part of him on the edge of consciousness cried for rest, but he kept on until the mountain itself forced him to a halt. The slope leveled, and before him sprawled a dark crevasse waiting to swallow him. It split a black expanse of rock which rose temple-like on either side. Scaling the rock would be difficult in his state, if not impossible, and would leave him no time for descent.
Hofaker blinked at the crevasse. How wide was it? His judgement shaky from exhaustion, he studied the chasm, tried to find something against which to gauge the distance.
Less than six feet?
He looked down through one thousand feet of empty space and shivered at the consequences of a mistake. He could, of course, admit defeat, blame it on the route. How was he to have known? Quitting would be honest, not cowardice.
Give up. You don’t want Jorgensen to be right!
Hofaker looked up. The summit loomed no more than a few hundred feet above. So close! But there were other problems. Snow-laden clouds had swallowed the sky, and the light was failing. As if to prompt a decision, the wind gusted at his back.
In a second that lasted an eon, the dark emptiness of the crevasse passed before his eyes.
His feet struck snow, punched through the crust and settled within, but gravity dragged at him like a great hand reaching up from the abyss.
My God! I didn’t anchor myself!
With all his strength, he lunged forward. His feet slipped from under him and dangled in space. He slammed his axe into the snow, felt the concussion jolt through the length of his body.
Hofaker dared not breathe. He felt like a corpse sprawled in a frozen grave. But once certain he wasn’t about to slide over the edge, he pulled himself forward until his feet found purchase and gathered himself up.
Renewed strength coursed through him like water from a hidden spring. He marched up the next rise, tied into his last rope, and hacked his way over a vertical wall of ice. Beyond lay only clouds, black shadows swallowing the last of the day’s light. His heart raced as he climbed the remaining few feet and stood upon the summit, gasping, oblivious to the prospect of the laborious descent he must now make in the dark.
Success overwhelmed him in a rush of adrenaline. He laughed, laughed! He sank to his knees and gathered up fistfuls of snow to hurl into the darkness, heedless of the wet flakes that had begun to fall.
A moment later, exhaustion overtook him.
His voice stilled.
His vision blurred.
The world splintered into a billion glittering fragments.
“Park closes in fifteen minutes.”
Slowly, Hofaker’s eyelids lifted. There were shapes, shadows, things that made no sense. A voice, a male voice, repeated the words: “Park closes in fifteen minutes, sir. You’ll have to change right away.”
Of course. The park. I’m in the Park.
He lifted his aching arms and pulled the transparent mask from his face, pushed back the thick hood, tried to focus on his surroundings. It was a tiny room, barely large enough to contain the well-cushioned recliner in which he sat, and padded with a white rubbery material. He was dressed in a gray coverall, thick but pliable, to which a fiber optic cable was attached at the left wrist. Massive gloves covered his hands and unwieldy boots his feet. The door to the room stood open, its frame filled by a man in a khaki uniform.
A National Park attendant.
Telling him to go home.
Hofaker rose unsteadily, found his clothing folded neatly on a shelf in the corner, and began to remove the coverall.
“You all right?” the attendant asked.
Hofaker grunted an affirmation.
The attendant shrugged and closed the door.
Hofaker placed the coverall on the chair and dressed. Moments later, he walked a long steel corridor, passed a female attendant sleepily watching the exit, and left the Park. His eyes adjusted to the glare of artificial light through which no stars could break, his eardrums shuddered under the assault of the city’s incessant groans and howls and cries, and he disappeared into the maze of steel and concrete beyond.
© August 2016 By Dale E. Lehman. All rights reserved. You may share links to this web page, but otherwise copying and redistribution of page content by any method for any purpose without written consent of the author is prohibited.