Not too long, not so short to be a pain in the ass, but we gain in altitude this time out, so be careful…
Music? Right…off we go!
“More light, more light! Open the window so that more light may come in!”
Goethe Last words spoken before his death
The sun was out, the air on the mountain remarkably warm. Snow and ice were melting off the Matterhorn’s north face, something that was happening with more frequency. Two climbers the day before had gained the summit without employing a guide, and both had fallen to their deaths just after they started their descent – and these were the fifteenth and sixteenth deaths so far this summer. Two weeks before Sherman arrived in Zermatt so many people reached the summit at almost the same time that guides had had to act like traffic cops, keeping several groups from making the summit so that those ready to start their descent could safely do so. Things were getting out of hand.
But, Gene said to Betty after they’d checked-in at the Zermatterhof, the same thing was happening on Everest, and even on the Savage Mountain – K2. A carnival-like atmosphere prevailed when the weather cooperated on these mountains, and huge groups made mad dashes for the summits of these dangerous mountains. So many people with almost no climbing background had summited Everest that the allure was beginning to fade, causing the real extreme climbers to look for even more extreme challenges far off the now well beaten path.
“It’s almost like the adrenaline junkies are taking over the world,” Beth Cohen said – as she took another bite from her kale salad at lunch.
“Some people need challenges like this to simply feel like they are still alive,” Betty said.
“Do you feel that way, Mom?”
“Sometimes I think I do,” Betty said, sighing as she looked up at the Matterhorn from her seat on the patio outside the hotel. “I kind of hate to admit it, but I deal with death so often, you know, on a day-in day-out basis, that in a way I almost feel – sometimes, I guess – like I’m just shuffling in slow motion towards my own shallow grave.”
Sherman looked up from his salad, not quite sure he’d heard her correctly. “What do you mean by that, Bett?”
“I’m not sure, Gene, not really, but I think it all goes back to what you’ve been saying all along, about facing new challenges and feeling alive. You know, I move from one case to the next and one day blends into the next and it feels like my life has turned into an endless parade of death.” Betty looked down at her plate of untouched food and shook her head. “Yet I remember seeing pictures of this crazy mountain when I was a kid and it’s funny but even then I wanted to know what it would feel like to stand up there with the wind in my face and look out over the world…”
When she looked up again there were tears running down her face, and Gene reached across and wiped them away. “You don’t have to do this, you know? Just because I…”
“You have nothing to do with it, Gene. I decided to come to Zermatt last Christmas because I wanted to see this mountain for myself. I wanted to hear her call, see if her call was true. I did, and it is. She’s calling me, Gene.”
“I’ve been seeing her in my dreams, and before you look at me like that you need to hear me out.”
Beth looked at Gene then at her mother, but Gene simply nodded, in effect telling her to go ahead…
“The dream starts the same way every time. I’m falling through darkening clouds and then into a forest. It’s dark out. Dark trees, like trees in winter. Bare limbs. Cold air. Black leaves, moldy black leaves,” she said, yet she decided to leave out the skulls waiting for her under all that decay, “then I see an old lamp, like a streetlight really, glowing in the distance. I go there and she’s waiting for me.”
“She?” Gene asked. “As in…the mountain?”
“No. A woman. A woman in a deep red cape, and she leads me to a stairway. The stairway leads me, every time, to that mountain. And I climb into the mountain, Gene, I mean into the mountain. To a beating heart within the stone, Gene, and that stone, that’s what calls out to me…”
“What does it say, Mom?”
Betty looked at her daughter and smiled. “I think that’s between me and the mountain,” she sighed.
“I know this is gonna sound weird,” Beth said, “but I’ve had pretty much the same dream. Only in mine there are moldy black skulls under the leaves, like an ocean of skulls under there, waiting, and calling…”
Betty felt an icy grip fall on her chest, tightening with every new breath she made. “Skulls?” she said
“Me too,” Betty added. “Gene? What about you? Have you had dreams like this?”
He shook his head. “No, but this is getting pretty goddamn weird. Mind if we talk about something else?”
“I thought Hans and Peter were meeting us for lunch today?” Beth said.
“They’re going to come by at four, and we’ll have tea with them here while we go over the training climb.”
“Is all this really necessary?” Betty asked.
“They do it with all their clients, and they seem to think it’s vital. First we’ll do the Breithorn, then we do some ice climbing on a glacier, then, if the weather cooperates, we head up to the lodge on the mountain.”
“So, two days of training before we make the climb?” Beth asked. “Don’t we need more time to get acclimated to the altitude?”
“If we have trouble up on the Breithorn then yes, we’ll spend a few more days walking around up there, around the Klein Matterhorn area, and work some more on our rope skills.”
“I’m ready,” Betty said, her voice a cold, matter-of-fact remnant – that Beth suspected came from within an uncertain dreamscape.
“You know,” Hans said to Betty at tea later that afternoon, “I was surprised to learn that you and Beth had decided to join the Professor. May I ask why?”
“It has been a dream of mine for some time,” Betty said.
“Well, I am most surprised at the change I see in your daughter. Beth? You almost look like a different person. How much weight have you lost?”
Beth cringed inside, still tired of being judged because of her weight, only now from the opposite vantage. “My weight didn’t change all that much,” Beth said. “I think because muscle weighs more than fat.”
“What did you do to accomplish this?” Peter asked.
“Running, weight training, climbing walls…you know, the usual. So, Peter, you will be guiding my mother and me?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“And you’ve been doing this a while?” Beth asked.
“This will be my sixtieth ascent.”
“You will be in most capable hands,” Hans added. “Peter has been a member of the mountain rescue team for more than ten years, so he has lots of experience dealing with complex situations as well as simple guiding up the mountain.”
“Well, I was curious,” Beth said, “because I had thought the instructor who was with us last December was going to make the trip with us.”
Hans and Peter exchanged looks, but it was Hans who spoke now. “He was involved in an accident two weeks ago.”
“Is he alright?” Betty asked.
But when Hans simply shook his head, in effect opting to leave the rest unsaid, Betty blanched and voiced her most immediate concern: “And you didn’t think we’d need to know this?” she cried. “What else have you kept from us?”
“It was not his fault, this accident, and so there is nothing else you needed to concern yourself with. Dwelling on these events only upsets a climber needlessly, prevents the focus necessary for a successful climb, and this I must not allow. We stay focused on our climb, okay?!”
“What about tomorrow?” Sherman said, trying to break free from Betty’s sudden hysterics. “What do we need to bring?”
“You will need your crampons and ice axe, only you will need a walking length axe, as opposed to the shorter length you will use on your ascent.”
Betty was still visibly perturbed but allowed herself to move on. “So, we will need to bring two axes on the Matterhorn?”
“If possible, yes. The shorter length is preferred on the ascent, but it becomes useless on your descent. Some experienced climbers can make do with a long shaft, but then again they will usually bring two, because this is optimal. Gene? What will you do about crampons?”
“Ah, Hans, this is the really cool part. I had a couple of engineering students design a leg with multiple spring pre-loads, but, no, well, here’s the cool part. The foot detaches and I can, in effect, attach a dedicated crampon foot, one that is optimally suited to ascents on rock, and I have a third optimized for descents on rock or scree. While you guys are putting on crampons I’ll just need to change foots!”
“Really!” Han and Peter both said. “But this is amazing!”
“Yeah, part of my conditioning routine was to load up a pack with sixty pounds of rock and step up and down on an eighteen inch step. The spring pre-load on the ascent foot actually helps stabilize the motion, and the descent module has a shock absorber!”
“Cool!” Hans shouted. “When can I see these?”
“I’ll bring all of them with me tomorrow?”
“Excellent, but what about the weight of so much gear?”
“Oh, that’s the best part, Hans. They’re titanium and they weigh almost nothing! MIT patented the design and a company in California is going to put them into production, because it turns out they’re really good for all kinds of activities, even skiing.”
Hans and Peter both shook their heads, and both were grinning knowingly, because they understood how this could impact the disabled climbing community – which was a lot larger than most people knew.
“Did you design an axe, too?” Peter asked.
“We did, and I brought one with me, but I’m not sure how practical it is. I’ll bring it along tomorrow and you can look it over.”
“Excellent!” Hans said.
Betty and Beth had quietly watched this exchange, and though somewhat mollified Betty had crossed her arms sullenly over her chest. “Hans, perhaps you could come with Beth and I and help us get the best axes for the Matterhorn.”
“What about our crampons, Mom? You wanted to have him check out the ones we got in New York, didn’t you?”
“Bring what you have tomorrow morning,” Hans said. “We will have plenty of time to make changes after we return from the mountain.”
“I wanted to pick up a camera,” Sherman said, out of the blue. “Is there a good shop here in town?”
“Yes, there is a old, established shop next to the Mont Cervin. Tell Max I sent you and he will be accommodating.”
“Perfect. Betty? Beth? I’ll leave you to it and see you back at the hotel in a couple of hours. Hans? See you at tea time?”
“Yes, we will meet you in the lobby of the hotel at 1600. And I have made arrangements for breakfast in the hotel at 0500, and then we go up the mountain and begin our walk after the sun has been up for a while.”
“Sounds good to me,” Sherman said. “See you then.”
He turned and left Betty and Beth standing there with their mouths hanging open, but he was a little angry now and wanted to get away from Betty before she recognized his feelings. Even Beth had watched her mother’s outburst and turned away, and Sherman could see the humiliation on her face, and a part of him imagined this was just what her father had done from time to time, and suddenly he wasn’t too sure this was a good dynamic to have on a climb like this.
‘But why now?’ he asked as he walked down the main street to the huge old Mont Cervin Hotel. They’d seemed perfectly attuned to each other on their three practice climbs over spring break, and there’d been no friction at all. At least none that he’d seen.
“Hi!” he heard Beth say as she jogged up to him. “Mind of I tag along?”
“No, not at all. What’s your mother up to?”
“She said she was going shopping. Climbing pants, I think she said.”
“Climbing pants?” Sherman sighed. “Shit. I was gonna wear an old pair of Levis.”
“Mom’ll kill you if you do.”
“Won’t look good in photographs.”
“Blue jeans? No shit?”
“Well, pardon my french,” Sherman growled, “but what the fuck are you going to wear?”
“Levis. I mean…I will if you will,” she grinned.
“Well fuck-a-doodle-do…I guess we better go look for some climbing pants.”
“Add that to the list, you mean?”
“So, what kind of camera are you looking for?”
“Simple and light, but super high quality.”
“Well,” she said as they walked up to the camera store, “this place ought to have what you need.”
Sherman looked at the red Leica sign and sighed. ‘Well, you can’t take it with you, so I might as well spend it now.’
“I hope you slept well,” Hans said to Betty as he walked into the lobby early the next morning. “Any signs of altitude sickness?”
“No, no, we slept well,” Betty said cheerfully, “all of us.”
“Excellent! Now, I have taken the liberty of ordering breakfast ahead, so let us be seated and go over the next two days.”
They walked into the dining room and Beth noticed their usual table was ready for them, their places already set with plates of poached eggs and smoked salmon, as well as a huge salad of carrots, beets, and…pineapple?
“These are all optimal foods for the day ahead, so load up now as we will only have a small midday meal, and our supper at the hut this evening will be very spartan indeed.” Hans looked at the spread he’d ordered, satisfied that all was as it should be. “And before I forget, no caffeine from now until after we return from the Matterhorn. If you need a hot beverage we will drink herbal teas only!”
“I stopped a month ago,” Betty said. “I tried to get these two off of the stuff…” she added.
“But I had finals, Mom.”
“And I had to grade finals, Mom,” Sherman added, grinning.
Han shrugged. “So, this morning we ride up to the Klein Matterhorn. From there we will rope up, with Peter, Betty, and Beth leading the way, while Professor Sherman and I follow. We will be making what is called the Breithorn Traverse, from west to east, and we will summit all three peaks and then retire to the Breithorn hut, which is located under the eastern summit. Tomorrow we will return to the central peak and make a lengthy trek across the rock face to an ice climb, then we will return by gondola, to the village, and hopefully in time for supper. We will rest at least two days and closely examine the weather forecast before we decide on making an ascent of Matterhorn, but I must warn you. Rain down here in the valley often means heavy snow up on the mountain, and by heavy I mean that a meter or more is not at all unusual, even in July. After such an event it usually takes at least four days of sunshine until the route is clear enough to make an attempt.”
“Oh, swell,” Betty said.
“Yes,” Hans sighed, “as you say, swell. You see, there is a big storm coming up from Genoa, and a cold front from the north is possible. If that happens this will be the end of the season. No climbing until next summer.”
Sherman looked up. “Why not come back tomorrow and make our attempt the next day?”
“Even if everyone does well on the rocks today and tomorrow, we will have equipment issues and even health issues to deal with, and believe me, you will want all the rest possible before we make our climb.”
“Yeah, I know. And me most of all,” Sherman added.
“The mountain is not going anywhere,” Peter said. “Many an effort has come undone because of the weather. Flexibility is key to not only success, Herr Professor, as even your survival is at stake, as well.”
“What an optimist!” Betty sighed.
“Mom…take it easy, okay?”
“Well,” Han concluded, “let’s finish eating and get our gear. The tram opens in twenty minutes and we want to get to the top as soon as possible.”
“Shit! It’s almost impossible to tell how far away things are up here!” Betty growled. “I’ve got no depth perception at all!”
“Keep probing with your axe as you walk,” Peter advised. “If you stumble upon a crevasse you will only fall as far as the amount of rope between us.”
Gene Sherman, standing ten meters behind Betty’s group, had been listening to her nonstop griping for at least a half hour, as almost as soon as she exited the tram her complaining started. Even Beth had moved off, asking Peter to take-up the position between Beth and her mother, and now even Sherman was beginning to feel a little embarrassed for Betty. Peter, on the other hand, appeared to have the patience of a saint and he was handling her outbursts perfectly. Instructing, calming her, helping with new ideas, keeping her focused on the plan, not allowing her rants to gather momentum…
As the sun rose and cleared the range to the east, right on cue the Breithorn’s long shadows appeared – shadows like dark claws spanning the vast white plain they were crossing to reach the first summit.
But even this innocuous looking plain was littered with hidden dangers. Crevasses barely covered with loose snow were everywhere, their presence betrayed by only the slightest depressions in the otherwise flat white snow. One step into a crevasse meant a sudden fall, with sudden injury or even death being averted only by being roped-up to the people behind you.
So one of the first drills they practiced was how to use their ice axe to stop a sliding fall. Left hand on the bottom of the axe, right covering the crossing of the T, and they practiced falling on moderate slopes then digging the long, sharp part of the T into the snow – while keeping the bottom anchored to their hips. If, as Hans intimated, one of them fell into a crevasse it would be up to the others roped onto that chain to get down and anchored to the snow – in order to keep everyone from disappearing into the maw.
The first summit appeared, from some distance, to be little more than a brooding shoulder of snow, but as they closed on this first summit the trail narrowed until they were making their way up along a knife edge, with a thousand meter sheer drop to their left, and a long, sloping fall to the right. And the further the two groups progressed the narrower the trail became – and the more vocal Betty Cohen’s complaints grew. First her feet hurt, then her hands were too cold. She was tired of leading. Her eyes were watering. Her gripes became a constant refrain, the music they marched too, and as the morning wore on Gene Sherman began to have his doubts. His first doubts, as it happened, about her.
He’d run into Pretenders everywhere, of course. When he learned to ski, when he and his father first started climbing and SCUBA diving. They were there, always there. When they barely knew how to ski they showed up with ‘pro’ racing skis. When he went to star parties with his simple four inch refractor the Pretenders came with enough equipment to stock a professional observatory. They were everywhere, yet they were nowhere. They did little but get in the way – but, by golly, they were good for business, and yet more and more it seemed like the Pretenders were extending their reach into matters that they simply had no business getting into. Like going into politics or becoming celebrities, and now it seemed that their poisoned reach was beginning to pollute everything they touched.
And that morning Sherman watched Betty Cohen as she griped her way up the Breithorn and he wondered if she too was a Pretender. By mid-morning he was sure that she was…until they’d made their way across to the rock-faces of the central peak…and all of a sudden, when the going became incredibly tough and then outright dangerous, Betty seemed to fall into an unsuspected groove. She climbed with the dexterity of an animal raised on sheer mountain faces and her complaints simply fell away as the danger increased – and his eyes met Hans’ at one point and the guide merely shrugged, as if to say “Hey, you never know…”
The key to deciphering this performance, he decided, must lay with Beth…so he started to watch as she reacted to her mother’s rants. Yet if anything Beth had become a master of concealment, and in a way Sherman realized she’d probably learned to conceal her emotions simply in order to survive around two toxic parents. When he caught fleeting glimpses of the expression on her face he realized he might as well have been looking at rock.
Yet he soon realized that Beth was not at home on the sheer rock face. She was struggling with fear, and the realization hit him hard. She was, he thought, the last person he’d ever considered being a Pretender – so why was she pretending now?
He came up right behind her at one point and stood on the face by her side.
“How’re you feeling?” he asked.
“I’m okay,” she answered, “but I sure wasn’t expecting the gut punch I feel up here.”
“What? The sheer face? The drop-off?”
“Yeah. I mean, it’s one thing to look at drops like this in a book or on TV, but when there’s nothing under your feet but a thousand feet of air…”
“Butterflies in the stomach, right?”
“Do you feel anything, well, like vertigo?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like there’s an invisible hand pulling you, pulling you down, something you can’t control.”
“No,” she said, shaking her head and not avoiding eye contact, “nothing like that. It’s more like I really don’t like looking down right now,” she said, laughing a little.
“Want to stop? Ready to go home?”
She turned and faced him. “You gotta be kidding, right? Man, I’ve never had as much fun in my life, and we just got to the good part!”
“Okay. I had to ask. But if you do, don’t let me be the last to find out, okay?”
“Ain’t gonna happen, Gene.”
Sherman was sitting on a boulder near the mountain hut’s stone patio, his good knee pulled up close to his chest, maintaining his balance on the rock with an outstretched left hand. The sun was still about a fist above the horizon, and the last of the day’s warmth felt good on his face – even if Hans’ observations about the day’s lack of progress had unsettled him. Now he was nursing a precious bottle of Evian, and at this altitude he thought he could feel his cells soaking up the water. After he finished the bottle he put it down then rubbed the bridge of his nose, even his eyes – just a little – because they were still tearing up in the dry air.
“I am surprised to see you out here, Professor,” Peter said as he walked up, sitting on another boulder just a few feet away. “I had thought you would go right to bed after our meal.”
“Sunset looked too pretty to pass up,” Sherman said, holding up his Leica.
“Ah. The golden light. One never knows when it will come…”
“I think about ten minutes more and it will put on a good show. The clouds look about right.”
“So tell me, what did you think of our day on the rocks?”
Sherman shrugged. “You saw the same thing I did.”
“Indeed. They are both technically competent, but I worry about the emotions we observed. I am curious, but why do you think Beth is here? To compete with her mother?”
“Compete? For what?”
“For you, Herr professor. For your attention, and your affections.”
Sherman shook his head. “That’s never been a question, Peter.”
“Ah, well, then perhaps my observation lacks clarity.”
“Did you grow up in the village too?”
“Too? Oh, you mean Hans. In a way. I grew up in a smaller village down the valley. I went to seminary, became a priest and returned to our parish.”
“You? A priest? Now that I didn’t see coming…”
“Thank you. I will take that as a compliment.”
“Yes, you see I have never experienced God in a church, or inside a cathedral, yet every time I climb a difficult mountain He and I usually have extended conversations.”
“And you’re sure this isn’t hypoxia?”
“Reasonably so, yes, but of course, one never really truly knows, right?”
“So,” Sherman remarked – pointedly, “you were a priest – with doubts. That sounds somewhat reasonable to me.”
“Perhaps so, yet my superiors failed to understand such a position.”
“Only true believers need apply?”
“Something like that, yes.”
“Well, understandable when you consider the Church is just another money making enterprise.”
Peter shrugged. “You have not seen the good the Church can accomplish, Professor…”
“And yet, here you are.”
“Yes, here I am. May I tell you a story, a kind of parable, really?”
Sherman held up his camera and metered the horizon. “Sure, fire away.”
“Two thieves, perhaps they were bank robbers, got away after a – oh, what is the word…?”
“Yes, just so. Well, the two had been friends since childhood, best friends, yet one of them was apprehended and eventually he was taken to prison, and for a very long time. The other thief was actually an decent enough fellow, and he had hidden the money well, and had even promised to never spend any of the money they had stolen.”
“Ah, so we’re talking real fiction here.”
Peter chuckled. “Perhaps. Anyway, after forty years the friend was released from prison and he returned to his village and of course he went to his friend’s house and he wanted to know about the money. ‘I have not spend a single franc, my friend,’ the other man said to his friend, to which he replied ‘That is good.’”
“And, I assume, this story has a point?” Sherman asked, framing a shot through the Leica’s viewfinder.
“Indeed. So the friend took the released prisoner to see the money, and all was as the man said it was. The money was all there, undisturbed, so the released prisoner asked his friend how he had managed to avoid the temptation of so much easy money so close at hand, and the friend replied that only his faith in God had prevented him from taking all the money and running away. ‘Faith in God?” the other friend replied. ‘How is this so?’ Well, the other friend replied, because you were in prison and it must have felt as though God had forsaken you, but then one day God came to me and told me that if I kept the money safe I would restore your faith in Him, and that after that happened we could take the money and go live the life we had always dreamed of living.”
“Indeed,” Sherman said, as he composed an image and tripped the shutter.
“Yes. Indeed. But then the man just released from prison walked over and stabbed his friend, very nearly killing the man, but it turned out the police had followed both men and they swooped down and arrested the man just released from prison, and they took the other man to the hospital.”
“There, you see,” Sherman sighed as he advanced the frame and took another picture, “justice after all.”
“Truly? I think not, for once the man was well enough he too was sent to prison, only now all the money was gone, taken by the police and returned to the rightful owners. But now the two men were together again, sharing a cell in the very same prison, and the man who stabbed his friend asked his friend one day, ‘Now, what do you think of your God?’ to which the other man replied, ‘God? What has this to do with God?’ ‘So, you haven’t lost your faith?’ the first friend asked. ‘I haven’t lost a thing,’ the other man replied– just before he turned and stabbed his friend in the back, killing him. ‘You stole my life, just as you stole the life of my friend,’ the murderer said to his dying friend, ‘and now I will spend the rest of my life in this living hell.’ And his dying friend spoke his last words just then, saying to his friend: ‘And you will spend those days alone,’ the friend said as he died. And after his friend was taken away he sat in his cell and he smiled, because he was not alone. He never had been, and he never would be.”
“So, he was with God all along? Is that the point of your story?”
“Perhaps that is the point of religion, Herr Professor.”
Sherman shook his head. “It all sounds rather pointless to me, Peter.”
“And perhaps that is why I am no longer a priest, Professor. You have found the perfect picture here on the side of this mountain. I hope you are able to capture the essence of the moment.”
And spread out before the two men was an orange sky fading to deepest purple overhead, the summer stars overhead just coming out to play, and yet deep within an ancient globular cluster a faint pulsing light arrived, after having crossed the gulf of space and time for thousands upon thousands of years, and astronomers around the world watched, fascinated, knowing that only one astronomer alive might truly understand what was happening.
“Do you see that?” Peter asked, pointing up into the night sky – as the pulsing light had suddenly caught his eye. “What on earth could that be?”
Sherman followed the man’s hand to his old friend, yet when he saw the pulsing light he was at a loss for words. “This doesn’t make any sense,” he whispered.
“God seldom does, Professor,” the man who talked to God on mountaintops said – as he saw two men in a prison cell face off again and again.
© 2021 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | this was a work of fiction, pure and simple. All rights reserved.
Adios, and seeya next time.
So what’s happened to the 88th key mate?