In just a few hours, late August turned into midwinter. My partner’s dark eyes dulled. Ahead, the North Ridge of the Grand rose deeper into shadow.
We were already climbing in our down jackets and softshell pants; we had nothing warmer left in our packs. The pitch above us rippled without a clear line to follow, merely some wavering ice tendrils like the veins of fallen leaves, the sheen of verglas like a fading forest trail.
“Just so you know,” he said, “I’m tired and cold and scared.”
We’d wasted too much time on the traverse from Mount Owen, fumbling along ledges and down wrong turns, until our judgment and our fingers numbed: Were we lost again?
“Do you want me to lead this one?” I said. He was older and stronger, but I’d gotten him into climbing so I had to take care of him, I thought.
“No,” he said, “I just wanted to let you know.” As his back disappeared over a bulge, I imagined my sharp, silent awareness ringing through his arms and legs, reminding him he could not fall.
Wind shook through his clothing. By the time we reached the second ledge, the gusts had grown so strong we couldn’t stand, and we crawled into a shallow cave to bivy. We’d planned to climb Mount Owen and the Grand in a day, so we didn’t have much besides an emergency blanket. That year, I’d worked too many late nights, forgotten too often to eat. Now I had too little body fat against the cold. Twilight seared like dry ice on my skin. Only the side touching his side felt warm.
I couldn’t make my brain calculate the hours until dawn. Instead, my mother’s voice echoed, All things, no matter how terrible, soon pass. Images flickered with an unlikely comfort, an odd tenderness: a childhood memory of all the glasses in my family’s cupboard thrown to the floor, the strange beauty of the broken, glittering shards, the eerie peace after that much anger and abandon. There was his story, too, that seemed my own: a small unwashed boy in an uncleaned trailer, in Southern blue-hazed hills, looking up to hear the postman say, “There’s some heavy-duty living going on here.”
Every half-hour or so, my shaking became uncontrollable. “I think I’m freezing to death,” I’d say, and I’d apologize for waking him. There wasn’t much he could do; I just wanted to let him know. He’d tuck the blanket over me and huddle closer. When he fell asleep, I’d stare at the entrance to the cave, as I’d once sat up during grade school on other endless evenings, waiting for my mother’s car to head down the driveway, to fill the blackened window with its light.
At last the air changed from black to rose and grey. The winds died a little, just enough. He stumbled out of the cave, came back to tell me that he’d found the sun. In the thin smolder of sunrise, I crouched trembling, until he grinned and said, “Your lead now.”
I winced but knew he’d had to say it to get me to move. Stemming
up the chimney, my axe in a patch of weak ice, my feet smearing on rock, I looked down at his upturned face and I stopped shivering, finally. I remembered how much I liked to be responsible for him.
Three pitches later, arriving at the summit seemed too abrupt. Ahead lay only the familiar Owen-Spaulding descent toward the late-summer heat of the valley and the harder, individual navigations of our waking lives – where we could no longer take turns protecting each other. Yet even as we set up the last rappel, I guessed that, looking back, I’d feel something like homesickness for our small epic. For then, and always in such moments, we were like brother and sister erring in a fairytale wood, following a path of bread crumbs with only memory, affection and intuition to guide us, as hungry birds consumed it in the dark.