Monday, December 13, 2010


A publisher is interested in a longer piece, from which this is extracted. Some work to do but I like it, or at least the atmosphere it reminds me of.

Every Storm Ends

(c) Cameron M. Smith

I watched as Chiu cleared snow from the rock wall, found a crack, and began hammering in a piton. Blowing snow sped through my headlamp beam. I couldn’t see Chiu’s face. I looked up towards where the summit should be but there was only a black triangle of starless space. I looked over my shoulder and down, but there was nothing there, either, just snowflakes flashing past. We might as well be on a ledge in space.

I listened to the pitons as Chiu hammered them in. The first sounded good, the pitch rising with every blow of his ice hammer. The second went in poorly with clacking sounds and the third, in crumbly rock a couple of feet away, crushed rock and then wobbled when Chiu tested it before striking again, ineffectually.

Chiu worked stiffly and I watched stiffly, all my muscles tensed, clenched together, pulling myself in on myself as the temperature dropped. We’d spent the day wallowing up big gullies full of loose snow and were soaked with sweat before we set foot onto the summit slope. When we did, the sun was just going down and we looked up five hundred feet, and down two thousand feet, and all but simultaneously said “Let’s get out of here, we’ll freeze to death.”

But going down the gullies—and over a couple of steep sections we’d ascended—would mean traveling right where the avalanches would come as the snow accumulated. So we made our way to a ridge that we knew to drop down through darkness to the valley floor below. We picked our way down the rocky spine carefully, each step down explored ice axe thrust to be sure we wouldn’t trip. The rock composing the heart of Dead Man Peak was crumbly and shapeless, and we rarely were able to hammer in a piton to clip our rope through as we climbed down. When we rested once we said a few words about untying the rope and making our way down alone, but we were tired and cold and it seemed too much trouble. It was a conversation we’d had a dozen times. “Just don’t fall,” one of us said, the other nodded as we wiped snow from our goggles and continued down.

After a while the ridge became steeper, requiring us to turn and face the rock and clamber down using all four limbs. Finally I stopped where it was too close to vertical. I hooked my ice axe on the rock and leaned out and back, looking down. My headlamp showed the rock wall steepening below and then blackness. When Chiu arrived I said “Be careful. Don’t fall.” He nodded, kicked his boots to settle in, then looked down, then up where we’d just been, then left and right, where the gullies, unseen in the dark, flanked the ridge. There was no other way than to begin rappelling down from here.

Holding tight to my ice axe, I started to carefully kick snow off the little ledge, so we could see what we were standing on. Chiu dug in his pack for his water bottle, but there were only ice chips rattling around in it. I knew mine was empty. Chiu put his pack back on and started hammering in pitons, clipping himself into the first one so he could’t fall off the ledge. He clipped me in as well as I worked with the rope.

When the pitons were in, Chiu turned off his headlamp to conserve the battery. As he clipped a network of webbing to the pitons I arranged the rope for a clean toss. “Want to go first?” I asked, but I knew the answer. It was another conversation we’d had a dozen times. “No,” Chiu said, “you’re heavier.” If my weight ripped out the anchors, at least Chiu could try to climb out alone. I clipped the rope through the carabiner connected to the pitons, tied the ends of the rope together so I couldn’t slide off the end by accident and fed a bight of rope through the rappel device that was clipped to my waist harness. My stomach rolled over. Chiu grabbed the a loop on my backpack as I pulled down hard on the anchor sling. Nothing, the pitons didn’t move. I felt sick but leaned carefully back away from the wall. No movement. Chiu still had a firm grip on my pack. I nodded and grunted “OK.” Chiu let go of my pack and then swiftly unclipped himself from the anchors. If they blew out I’d take them and the rope with me, but I didn't have to take Chiu as well.

I began lowering myself into the darkness."

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