Their mistake was obvious, Jagger knew. They had pushed too hard and too far for a mountaintop that was unreachable. They had committed the most deadly of mountaineering sins, feeling invincible in the face of nature’s fury. And now, like a thousand climbers before them, they were going to pay the price.
“If we can follow our tracks back down to the ridge,” he said, “we can make it back down to Trail Crest.”
Rick, who sat opposite on the wooden bench, nodded his head, but his blank stare told that he knew different. In the minutes before reaching the summit hut, the snow had been coming at them sideways. Still now they could hear it piling on outside.
“Why leave at all?” he asked. “I mean… maybe our chances are better staying? We stay warm, we stay alive, and we wait for the storm to blow over.”
“And if the storm doesn’t blow over?” Jagger said. “…if it goes on for a week or two?”
“Or three days for that matter,” Rick replied.
There was silence again, except for the sound of the wind howling outside. Jagger looked up and listened. He could hear the wind whispering through the ceiling cracks, like the sirens that had called them to the summit.
How was it that two experienced climbers could have gotten themselves into such a mess? he thought. It was the Sierras. That’s how. The storms always come from the West, from the Pacific, deceivingly, unexpectedly, from where you can’t see them until they’re on you. And then you’re caught in it and there’s nothing you can do about it but try to fight your way through it, and try to survive. He recalled the news about the search and rescue climber found frozen to death just one week before, barely eighty feet from his tent. Dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, he had gone out for an autumn climb and could not make his way back in a white-out. He didn’t even have a simple wind parka with him in the event of a snow flurry.
How could he not make eighty feet? Jagger had asked himself. It’s easy when you can’t see the hand in front of your face, he now knew.
They too had climbed out of the Portals the day before in eighty-degree heat wearing nothing but T-shirts and shorts. By mid-afternoon, the heat rising from the high desert floor formed huge thunderclouds along the eastern slopes. It was typical of late October, so they thought nothing of it, but by the time they reached the timberline it was completely overcast. The following morning they found themselves staring up at large droplets of rain and ice coming down against the nylon of their tent.
“With each passing day the snow will be that much higher,” Rick said.
“And we will be that much weaker,” Jagger added.
“And our toes will be that much more frozen.”
“And we’ll have no trail to follow.”
“We go?” Rick asked.
Jagger nodded his head.
The heavy steel door swung open with the full force of the wind behind it. They stepped out into the whiteness and looked southwest, into the direction from which they had come, and they could see that their tracks, which had been knee-deep in the snow just moments before, were already gone, buried in the snow.
“This way,” Jagger shouted, stepping forward
He disappeared into the white haze and Rick followed at his heels, leaning low into the wind to keep from blowing over.
They cut diagonally through the snow, down across the large buttress which formed the backbone of the mountain. There were trail markers at first, dark rock pilings that peeked above the snow. But soon the markers were gone, covered by the heavy snowfall, and they made their way by memory and intuition. About a quarter mile down, the backbone steepened. Ahead they could see a cliff, strewn with talus rock and granite boulders.
“Is this it?” Rick asked. He shouted loudly so he could be heard over the sound of the storm.
Jagger wiped the snow from his goggles and looked west. It was difficult to see anything beyond a few feet, but from what he could make out, some dark blotches of talus rock steeply below them, he believed it to be the place where the trail switched back to the west.
“Yes,” he shouted back. “I think it is!”
He pulled the scarf back across his face, tucked the end of it down the neck of his collar, and turned east, heading down along a steep white slope below an incline of huge granite rocks. Within minutes he knew they had made the right choice as he could see a trail marker ahead perched on the top of a huge granite boulder. He turned back and waited for Rick, who was now stumbling through the snow.
“Are you okay?” Jagger yelled out.
“It’s the altitude,” Rick shouted back, inhaling the cold, thin air greedily into his lungs. “Keep going! Don’t stop!”
Jagger obliged, slogging on through the thigh-deep snow. The descent was steeper now and more difficult, nearly impossible to find sure footing between the snow and a smooth granite ledge which rose above them.
Further down, they saw the dark outline of granite pillars. It was the Keeler Needles, Jagger knew, rising into the clouds – the saw-toothed ridge that marked the crest of the continental divide, beyond which was Owens Valley and the warmth of desert sun. It was a heartening sight. The ridge itself, a narrow rocky staircase, would provide a navigational respite, and from there it was a direct, angular descent to Trail Crest.
He waited for Rick to emerge from the haze. He looked slow and disheveled with icicles hanging from his face.
“Are you okay?” Jagger asked again.
“It’s the ridge,” Jagger shouted cheerfully. He motioned with his hand down to the south. “We can be at base camp in a couple hours. We go fast?”
Rick nodded again.
Together they headed down the ridge, quickly, negotiating the granite pathway between ice and snowdrifts, blasted by winds on both sides. There were huge granite spires that provided protection from the wind. Each time they stepped behind one, the wind would die down, but each time they stepped back out they were met by a blustery stream of cold air. From one rock shelter to the next, they fought their way downward, trying to gain as much ground as they could as quickly as they could in fear that if they did not, they would be blown off the ridge or frozen in the snow.
Running seemed to make it better, Jagger thought. If they ran, maybe their feet would thaw out? It amazed him that he could walk at all on feet so frozen that he could not feel them when they hit the earth.
They crossed an ice bridge, beyond which the ridge narrowed even more. The roar of the wind made it nearly impossible to communicate. Each time Jagger looked back he had to wait longer for Rick’s dark figure to emerge from the clouds. But when he would emerge, like a ghost from a white abyss, his hand would be waving forward and he would shout, “Go! Go! Don’t stop!”
But the intervals of time between seeing Rick and not seeing him grew longer. Each time Jagger waited, the ghostly apparition would reappear more slowly, its hand waving forward with less enthusiasm. The urgency to move and go quickly weighed upon Jagger, and despite Rick’s lagging, Jagger did not want to stop. A mountain is not something you conquer, he thought, it is something you survive. And to survive you must be as unyielding as the mountain itself.
Again he found himself standing there, waiting for Rick for what seemed to be an eternity. And as he stood there, he could feel his legs stiffening up.
“Come on, Rick!” he yelled into the whiteness. He felt himself shivering all over. “Rick!”
Once again the ghostly apparition emerged from the clouds, stumbling, its hand no longer waving forward.
Now the whiteness seemed eternal, and before the dark blurry image emerged again, Jagger felt himself loosing his senses. Each time he lifted his head to look forward, colored spots shot through the sky. When he looked back, he felt the blood throbbing through his head. He could not recall when he had last seen Rick, nor could he wait for him. All that was mortal within him told him that he must go, and go quickly. Yet he stopped once more and gazed back into the milky haze.
He’s a tough guy, he thought. He’ll make it fine.
Down through the wraithlike swirls of snow and ice, he rushed. He could feel the mobility of his legs restricting further. It was happening, he knew, his joints were freezing. Above all, he knew he must overcome the overwhelming desire to cease and rest. He recalled the many mountaineering stories of men fighting for their lives, as they fought now, who had stopped to rest only to find themselves unable to move again, and it caused a great fear to well up inside him.
Continuing down, stumbling in a quick, mindless shuffle, his thoughts drifted. With every stride, his mind wandered further away, and it enabled him to escape the fear of his current predicament. He recalled a time in his distant past – a beautiful summer day in the Sierras. Early in July, when it was hot in the valley but Spring in the high country, and the meadows were all green and full of flowers and the creeks were brimming with crystal clear water of melted snow. The trail ahead was gentle and inviting, winding its way up through the forest into a high valley. He felt the weight of his pack comfortable on his back, felt the buckwheat brushing against his leg, the warm sunrays which came against his cheeks, and the cool breeze from the snow of the mountain peaks which intermittently crossed his path. He could smell the odor of pine and the junipers, and the violets and woodrush which had sprung along the creek.
It was the odor of nostalgia, he thought, as the wind bit coldly at his nose now.
So many times as a child, he had gone to the mountains with his father, and they had walked through these beautiful meadows, crossed through patches of latent snow, watched the wind blow the treetops back and forth, and made a campfire along a creek. They had made beds of pine needles and laid a tarp upon them, and slept comfortably and peacefully in their bags. So many memorable experiences… It was why being in the Sierras for him, had always been like being in the cradle of a mother’s arms, or being warm next to a fire in a mountain cabin, next to an old friend cheerfully exchanging experiences of adventure and mountain triumphs. The rivers and streams of the Sierra, the annual snowfalls and spring melting was a rejuvenation of life, he knew, bringing back to the earth all that was taken in the dark winter. The experience of nature, and being in it, replenished his soul. Every foot he stepped into the wilderness was, for him, like stepping a foot into heaven. And of all the wildernesses he had ever walked in, the High Sierra was unmatched in its splendor and grandeur.
There was that time he had come across the dead mule in the grass. It was in a high meadow near Piute Pass, and he was alone at the time. He remembered seeing it there, suddenly, along the side of the trail with its rib bones exposed in the sunlight, protruding from its hide. It had been there since the summer before, likely frozen and covered in snow during the long winter, and now beneath the warm sun again, continuing on its natural path of decay.
The hide had dried and split open in places, exposing some of the skeleton beneath, but also intact in places. Its brown fur shone brightly where it remained. The head had decomposed considerably, its eye-sockets dark and hollow, and where the hide had pulled back from the teeth, it exposed them in a way that made it seem as if the mule was smiling.
And why not? Jagger recalled thinking. If one could choose a place for eternal rest, why not choose a place of absolute serenity? Here where nature rejuvenates itself every year?
Dying was something he knew little of, but living was something he rejoiced in and relished. He recalled the delight of taking the last few steps up a hilltop covered in wildflowers, feeling the tall, wind-blown grass brush against his legs and the pack-straps tight against his shoulders. He remembered diving into a crystal clear pool beneath a waterfall in a hot tropical paradise and feeling the coolness of the water all around him; he recalled the warm rush of air coming up from a Parisian subway tunnel as he descended on a cold night; and the time he walked through a bamboo forest with a woman he loved and how they had stopped and listened to the tall wooden shafts clicking overhead like wind chimes.
To live is to dance like no one’s watching, he thought.
Now the wind blew cold against his face, biting deeply into his skin. The amount of time that had passed since he last saw Rick was uncertain, but seemed considerable. And in fact, the amount of time that had passed since they left the summit hut was unknown to him, as he had lost all concept of time. Though his legs were still moving methodically forward, the angle at which he could bend them had severely constricted. Each step seemed shorter. It was an effort just to extend them, reaching eagerly for a smaller piece of frozen ground each time. Yet if he stopped for even a second, he knew his legs would freeze. He was a gaunt old man, he thought, hunched over and hobbling; or a fish trying to walk on the frozen earth with his fins.
And when he thought of it, he felt the fear coming back. It was nature that did the taking, and the greatest of all takers were the tall mountains.
He passed through another rock formation that blocked the wind, shutting it down like a switch on a fan, and there was a place at the base of the rock without snow that looked warm and lovely, like the lap of a beautiful woman in which to lay one’s head. If only for a moment he could stop and rest, he’d curl up behind a rock and get warm. But then he would never straighten his legs again, he knew.
Again he came out from behind the rocks and was slapped by the wind. He could no longer feel it biting his face. The throbbing in his head was gone now and there was only numbness. The grey sky was full of colorful sunspots. His body felt unevenly balanced. His equilibrium had lost its center. When he touched his nose, there was no sensation. Nor could he feel his legs, although they were still moving beneath him, they did so as if they were not attached to his body.
He came past another large west-facing rock, and in the moment he stepped behind it, he was again out of the wind. And like before, he saw a place at the base of the rock where no snow had reached, and it looked warm and inviting, like the arms of a lover. He thought of the happy mule. It would be so nice to lie in the tall grass of a high meadow, warm in the summer sun. For all of eternity to be basking in sunlight!
He awoke in his right mind, curled in a ball on a rocky ledge. For some time he lay motionless, the genial sunshine pouring upon him and saturating his frozen body with its warmth. He looked up and saw the clouds breaking. He had vague memories of his flight down the mountain. He recalled the wind and the snow, but for how long he had been beaten by it, for two days or two weeks, he did not know. In his mind he saw only the sunshine and the dead mule in the tall grass, smiling, happy and content.
And from the meadows below the timberline, where the sun was breaking through the clouds, came the odor of pine and junipers, and of the violets along the creeks. He could imagine the mule lying there in the grass, the warm sun on its flanks, the smells of the meadow sweetly breathing in through its nostrils.
And now he imagined himself there in the meadow, and he could smell the junipers himself as if the wind had caught their scent from the icy canyons below and brought it up to him.