Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Slave of Adventure, Part II

For the opening, see previous post. This concludes the tale.

For several reasons, then, my movements are those of a burglar, quiet and controlled, and to add to this feeling of stealth I have not registered with rangers for this climb and do not carry any kind of communication device. It is up to me to sneak past the giant, pluck the golden egg, and get myself home safe. I feel fortunate that I began climbing before cellphones and beacons were taken to the mountains.

When I have cleared some steep terrain I set my ice axes in a patch of firm snow and clip into their slings to rest. I puff into my gloves, where ice is forming at the fingertips. It is cold here in the shadows but soon I will climb into the sunlight. I smile, thinking of the steep and difficult climbing in darkness hours before. Climbing by headlamp I had had only a small pool of light to illuminate my immediate surroundings, allowing me a laser focus on every delicate move up through the steep ice battlements. I had clambered like a crab, carefully picking my way up the strange, ropy ice formations that presented a world as alien as the sea floor. I know that that experience will be a treasure for the rest of my life.

The summit; a thousand feet above and left of me. I am climbing out of the graveyard and into blinding sunlit snowslopes but I must pick two locks before I can snatch the golden egg of the summit. First there is a 100-foot wall of steep snow; I must get up it before crossing a 100-foot long knife edge ridge of snow that I will have to traverse with one foot placed carefully before the other, as on a tightrope. At the base of the snow wall I find a desk--sized perch where I can stop and clip again to my axes. The steep face is a sheet of glaring white and I put on my snow googles, coloring the snow a mellow amber. I reach out to touch the steep wall. My glove pushes into light, powdery snow. A clump falls away and disintegrates in the sunlight, glitter scattering in space. Loose, dry snow pours out of the hole in the snow as from a fountain. I push farther but even up to my elbow there is nothing firmer beneath. I take a deep breath and windmill my arms to drive blood back into my fingertips but also to give myself some time. I look left and right for a different way to reach the knife edge ridge, but there are only crumbling ice towers that will become even more infirm in the sunlight and the steep slope, which could be filed under ‘Avalanche Slope’ in a mountaineering text. Half an hour later I am near the top, swimming up through the loose snow with rather impossible motions. My universe is suffused with fear and my eyes are wide as I gasp the thin air, one moment wondering what I am doing and the next driving all my focus, my entire life, into carefully burying my arms and legs in the snow to hoist myself up another foot with maneuvers that keep my body weight distributed as widely as I can arrange. If I do not topple backwards, and if the slope does not avalanche, I will be on the knife edge ridge in just twenty more feet. At the top of the wall I haul myself up gingerly and then fling one leg over each side of the ridge and sit trembling with cold, exhaustion and fear. Sunlight melts snow that has stuck to my beard, then evaporates it, drying and warming my cheeks. I open mental drains to let the fear pour away from me. Like the bout of predawn climbing the climb of the loose snow wall is now banked in memory, a gem that can never be taken from me. I cross the knife edge with my arms held out to my sides and my axes extending outward as balances. The ridge is a foot wide and drops 600 feet to the left and 3,000 feet on the right. At the far side I drop to my hands and knees and close my eyes, taking deep, controlled breaths. I compose myself, reeling in my thoughts which seem to have scattered, making it hard to concentrate on any thought for more than a few moments before my mind leaps to the most unconnected and distant thought. For the moment I wash away gruesome visions of my body tumbling down the mountainside, but weeks later I know this has not been entirely successful as I begin to see that small body tumbling through space in my dreams.

I spend no time on the summit and head immediately downward on the South side of the mountain, back into shadow where I pass a large fumarole chugging out sulfurous clouds of vapor from the volcanic mountain’s heart, a magma chamber miles below my boots. The vapors rise with a dark, metallic color here in the shade but when they pass into sunlight above they flash white before dissolving. Trudging down the safe descent slopes I do the arithmetic. In return for six hours of quiet thievery, or climbing, perhaps, I had earned four treasures; clambering through crackling ice that glinted in my headlamp beam, swimming up a steep wall of sugary snow, traversing a snow vane the shape of a jetliner wing set on end and seeing the fumarole that might as well have been on the surface of Venus. These are treasures locked away in memory, each a vision I can draw up at will. But I wonder; did I earn them, or did I steal them? Was a debt accrued, and in what coin would I pay, and when? I dismiss the idea. Risk is an issue of probability per episode and cannot accrue. However, on each climb there is a new roll of the dice, and if one continues to gamble statistics demand that eventually one will lose.

Whatever the cost I want more. I cannot be called moderate in my desire for more such experiences and if we define addiction to be persistence in some act to the detriment of the rest of life it is here that I feel myself step firmly into the world of the addict, where desire eclipses all else and only the correct drug will do. For me it will be snow and ice, the glitter of blown snow in moonlight, the crunch of ice below my boots. These will enslave me to adventure. I know this will happened and I am terrified of the loss of control but also enchanted by what I might find.

By the time I reach the car, stamping my boots in the parking lot after eight hours on the go, I am thinking about a map I have recently seen, a map of Iceland and its vast ice caps, half a world away and just grazed by the Arctic Circle. I start the car and suck down a liter of orange juice as it warms up. Turning down the winding mountain roads for home I am wondering what gems are guarded by Iceland’s snows and winds, and how I can get my hands on them. For the addict, thievery is nothing; for the passionate lover, what price is too high to ensure being with the one they love? I am told that love is admirable, but passion for climbing, because it involves risk, is foolish. Does the lover not expose themself to excruciating hearbreak, disruption of multiple lives, even suicide, when engaging in love? By comparison most mountaineering deaths are painless; a swift strike on the head by falling objects, or a tumbing down rocky terrain. The pains of romantic love are clearly more penetrating and comprehesive and potentially lifelong. Who is the crazy man?

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