Even after climbing a few mountains in my time, including the one in question, I still have no idea why we do it. “Because it’s there!” seems a trivial, even an off-putting and banal denial of the risks involved. Then again, why does the chicken cross the road? Or – which came first, the chicken or the egg? And oh yes, let’s not forget to ask why we still threaten to annihilate our perceived adversaries with hydrogen bombs? And why, for God’s sake, would anyone eat escargot? Are we simply stupid, or is it something in our humanity that compels us to climb higher and higher? Just something to think about while you read.
And oh yes, music matters very much.
And as if that wasn’t enough, don’t forget this one:
It is said that before entering the sea
a river trembles with fear.
She looks back at the path she has traveled,
from the peaks of the mountains,
the long winding road crossing forests and villages.
And in front of her,
she sees an ocean so vast,
that to enter
there seems nothing more than to disappear forever.
But there is no other way.
The river can not go back.
Nobody can go back.
To go back is impossible in existence.
The river needs to take the risk
of entering the ocean
because only then will fear disappear,
because that’s where the river will know
it’s not about disappearing into the ocean,
but of becoming the ocean.
Kahlil Gibran The River Cannot Go Back
He struggled to find his way to sleep, but it never came his way. Too excited? Perhaps. Or maybe it was something else? Something else pulsing in the night sky?
Sherman finally gave up just before 0200. He’d showered earlier before hitting the sheets, hoping the heat and the water would ease the way ahead, but no, that was simply not to be. There was nothing to do now but wait for the rest of them to wake up, so he dressed and walked down to the restaurant, scents of freshly baked bread filling his mind’s eye with comfortable memories of other mornings, of distant fires and other impossible dreams.
He soon found he wasn’t the only person unable to find sleep. A dozen or so climbers sat alone at tables nursing cups of herbal tea, no one wanting to drink so much that they’d have to stop and pee on the mountain. But really, everyone knew that at this altitude dehydration was the biggest danger. Any perspiration that managed to appear on your skin up there on the mountain would evaporate almost instantly, and between the sun and the wind your body was constantly fighting a losing battle with hydration. Why the big deal? Well, a gallon of water weighs more than six pounds, and that’s six pounds you have to balance with other, more immediate needs…things like rope, for one.
Sherman saw Father Pete sitting by himself, sitting as if lost in a trance, staring out one of the huge panoramic windows that looked out over the valley below, and to the Klein Matterhorn region where they’d practiced on the Breithorn earlier that week – just a few days ago, really. How odd, he thought, that everything they’d done right over there now seemed like it had happened in another lifetime.
‘Time is so fluid up here,’ he said to another passing memory of his father. ‘Isn’t that what you always used to say…before time came and stole all your memories?’ He couldn’t believe how fast he had deteriorated after the strokes.
And how odd that, of all things, he and this priest full of doubt had fallen into one extended conversation about God, a drawn out affair that always picked up where it left off – yet always after another ascent or the next traverse. And how odd that this endless looping conversation always seemed to circle back to the mysterious pulsing light coming from Messier 22.
“Really, Gene, what do you think the light means?” Father Pete asked just before they made it back to the tram to ride back down to Zermatt.
But Sherman had simply evaded the question like any trained astronomer might. “It’s hard to ascribe meaning to something we haven’t had time to study, and as far as meaning goes you might remember that the photons tickling your retina last night got started on that little journey almost eleven thousand years ago…”
“So? Maybe God wanted to send you a message, and knowing where you’d be he snapped his fingers and there you have it…! Instant pulsing light!”
“Do you really think like that?” Sherman remembered asking, and he remembered the impish grin spreading across Father Pete’s sun-drenched face, and the twinkling in his eyes.
“I told you, Professor Gene, about my doubts. Do you not have any of your own?”
“About globular clusters?”
“About belief, or this non-belief of yours.”
They had just stopped outside the gondola station and were taking off their packs, and Father Pete had taken out a fresh bottle of water – yet he handed this bottle over to Sherman, smiling as he did, as if the water might be taken as a peace offering.
“I’ve studied the stars my whole life,” Gene said as he took the bottle, “and I have no idea what it is.”
“And so I assume you’ve had no time to study your fellow man?”
“My fellow man? What has man got to do with beliefs, and God?”
Which made the smile on Peter’s face spread even wider. “But Professor Gene…of course they are one and the same thing. Man is God, and God is man, and to study one is to study the other…”
Sherman scowled and nodded. “Then I understand why you turned your back on the priesthood.”
“Ah? How so?”
“Your story about the two thieves. Human nature guides our destiny, and if that is so then our destiny is inescapable.”
“True enough, Gene, yet I am not so sure about this life, that in our ignorance perhaps we can only perceive the surface of the question. Still, I think that further study will require a trip to the other side, and this I am not sure I am ready to undertake just yet.”
“Perfectly rational point of view, Father Pete. I understand that much completely.”
Now, up here at the Hörnli hut and with the start of their climb up the Matterhorn due to start in an hour and a half, Father Pete was still looking deep into the heart of Sagittarius, into the pulsing globular cluster flailing away to the beat of a distant, unseen drummer. ‘Perhaps he is thinking about his God?’ he thought, somehow finding the notion comfortable.
“She still doing her thing?” Sherman said as he walked up to Pete’s table. “Mind of I sit?”
“No, please. I see you too did not sleep well.”
“No, not well, maybe a couple of hours.”
Pete shrugged. “It is not so unusual. We are now at 3300 meters; the air is very thin. Do you have the headache?”
“No, I drank a bunch of water at dinner, and that seems to have done the trick. I hope I am not intruding, but you seem worried. You okay?”
“Me? Yes, I am fine. If I have any concerns it is about Beth. I think perhaps she has a touch of acrophobia.”
“Then she shouldn’t make this climb,” Sherman said.
“I have watched her, and I have talked to her about this, yet she remains adamant she is going to make this climb. In truth, Gene, this climb is not so difficult. The summit ridge and the Icefield will be the worst for her, and these can be easily avoided.”
“Are you certain?”
“Yes, I think so. I mention this now as you will be ahead of us today, so you will be able to talk with her as we climb. So, yes, I think it will be important that you do.”
“Do you have a contingency plan in mind?”
“Yes, of course, and Hans and I have gone over this. If she has a problem then Betty will join you and I will bring Beth down here to the hut. I will then return to assist with your descent.”
Sherman shook his head. “Peter…I’m not sure this is worth the risk.”
“Well, apparently she does. Gene, I am not sure why she is making this climb, not really, but again I think she is doing this for you.”
“What are you saying, Pete?”
“I am not saying anything, Gene. Yet, perhaps, if because you were not able to sleep you feel that it would be unsafe for you to make the climb, then perhaps she would stay here with you.”
“Oh no, Goddamnit,” Sherman cried, “don’t you dare put this on me! If you see danger you and Hans are being well paid to help us avert trouble. Am I being clear?”
“Yes, Gene, of course, but there is no need to shout. It was just a suggestion that came to me just now. We will proceed as planned, but you keep an eye on her too and let me know what you think. So far, as you have seen, she is an able climber, and I think she will do well, but again, I would keep her off the summit ridge.”
A moment later Betty and Beth came into the dining room and Betty waved at Gene and Pete before she went for tea. Hans followed a few minutes later and they sat together and ate their recommended breakfast in silence, each lost inside that other world, that other place where dreams and reality run into one another…
“Damn!” Betty screeched. “It’s fucking cold out here! What time does the fucking sun come out?”
“It is 38 degrees Fahrenheit right now, and we climb in darkness for more than two hours,” Peter said gently as he checked their headlamps once again, “and don’t forget, there may be ice on the rock…usually a thin layer this time of the morning…so make sure your hand has a solid grip before you shift weight.”
“Gene!” Betty shouted up into the darkness. “What’s it like up there?”
Sherman looked down at the three headlights gathered about twenty meters below him: “Easy going so far. It’s not as steep as it looked yesterday, and the rocks are almost spaced-out like stairs.”
“Cool!” she replied. “That’s great!”
“Okay,” Peter said to Beth and Betty, “now we begin. Again, I will lead, Beth will come next and Betty, you will follow. Beth, stay close so you can see where I place my feet, and Betty, do not fall behind as I do not want to let-out so much rope. And again, whatever you do, do not step on the rope.”
“Got it!” Betty said…a little too loudly. She turned and looked at the hut, still tantalizingly close in the darkness, still only about fifty meters below, then she turned and looked up at the long string of headlights marching up the mountain like luminescent ants – because there were a hundred and forty climbers making the ascent and already they were strung out at dizzying intervals. And because of Gene, and his leg, their little group had elected to go last, which had only made sense.
The rock under lamplight was the same mottled rusty grey-yellow-brown it had been yesterday when they’d made their hike up to the hut, only now they weren’t walking on an old, well-worn trail. She watched Beth make her first few steps, aiming her own lamp to aid with hand placement, then she reached up and felt the rock, savoring the moment.
“One hand after the other,” she sighed, gritting her teeth as the stark terror of the moment finally sunk in. ‘How can I feel so scared and so full of…joy?’
One hour in and finally Hans stopped.
“Time for a sip of water, Herr Professor. How is the leg?”
“Better than expected. How much further until we need crampons?”
“Another hundred or so meters and then we will stop and see. You still have good water left?”
“Your hands are warm enough?”
“Look,” Hans said, pointing across the valley.
“Sweet Jesus,” Sherman sighed as he took in the night sky – and at that pulsing light in Sagittarius – but then he could also just make out the thinnest orange light defining the eastern horizon and the sight was gorgeous. “That’s just outrageous!”
“No camera will ever capture such beauty, Professor, so look now so that you may remember this moment.”
Sherman nodded as he scanned the eastern horizon, purple blending to orange and just now an amber tinge was appearing within the misty line, the horizon line suddenly a serrated jumble as he looked out over the alps – now stretching all the way to Austria – and just then it seemed like visibility was at least a hundred miles, maybe more.
“Gene!” he heard Betty call out. “What is it? Are you okay?”
“Turn and look at the sunrise! I’ve never seen anything like it in my life!” he replied. He soon heard their appreciative gasps and he took another sip of water, then put his bottle away and turned to Hans. “Ready when you are.”
Hans nodded and turned back to the rock. “A very steep pitch comes next, Professor, but there is already a large rope in place. Check that your gloves have a good grip, okay?”
“Got it,” he said as he watched figures within the rock begin to morph through shades of red and orange and a strange, mottled purple-black, then he reached up with his right hand and found the next perfect handhold, then he pulled his rigid left leg up until he sort of felt it slide solidly into the foothold he’d chosen, his eyes always on the rock just overhead, his mind on the hole in his life left by an absent leg. Next, he said to himself, bring the right leg up again and push the body up, then reach up with the left hand and find a solid hold and get stabilized again, then do it all over again. And again.
A moment later he saw the rope Hans had mentioned and he reached up for it, getting his right foot stabilized…again…then he pulled his way up to the next foothold…
Beth watched Peter’s ass. She had since the sun came out, and now she was sure this priest had the best looking ass on planet fucking earth. Yet there was something almost magical about the way he moved up here, too, like he was some kind of Buddhist monk at one with the rock. His motions were both spare and fluid, and there was never any hesitation, either. He reached and he moved up, simple as that. He never retreated, he never made a mistake. When she remembered hearing him say he had only ever known God up on top of these mountains…well…now she understood what he meant.
And then the funniest thing happened. As she watched Peter move, as she moved where he moved, she felt all her fear just sort of wrap itself in a ball and fall away. She leaned out from the rock and looked down the ridge and felt not the slightest whiff of fear, only a deep need to see what was up ahead.
“You are climbing nicely,” Pete said as she came up to him. “Very strong.”
“I’ve never felt better in my life,” she said as she took out her water bottle. “God, it’s magic up here, ya know?”
“I do,” Pete said before he took another sip of water. “The next segment is rope all the way. Very, very steep but there are excellent holds for our hands and feet. One warning, however. Grasping the rope for so long leads to cramping, so switch hands as much as you can,” he said as Betty came up from below. “If you feel your hands cramp get your weight on your feet and shake it out. Wrap the rope around a forearm and just shake it out. Now Beth, just pay attention to where my feet go and try to follow me exactly…
“Exactly,” she sighed as she stared at his ass again. “Can do!”
‘My serum potassium must be low,’ Betty said as another cramp wracked her left thigh, this one leaving her breathless as the pain crushed her will to move up – yet again.
‘It’s not your fucking potassium, you fucking wimp,’ the tormenting inner voice screamed at her again, ‘it’s you! You! You’ve been running from me all your life, haven’t you? Running from me and my fear! But you know what, you stupid low country cunt, you ain’t ever gonna get away from me! Never, because this is the day I’ve been planning for us all our life!’
She stretched her left leg by pointing her toe towards the emptiness below, then she brought her knee up to her waist. She rotated her foot and then took a deep breath before she reached up and felt for the next handhold. She looked up just then and saw Beth on the rope, and she was filled with love and hope. Again. ‘That’s my daughter, my love, my everything!’ she sighed.
‘And fuck you,’ she said to the fear crawling up the hard face of her gut. ‘You ain’t ever gonna beat me so just shut the fuck up and leave me the fuck alone!’
“How is the crampon?” Hans asked.
“Better, but I wish we’d made the two front blades a little longer.”
“That’s what everyone says when they are on the ice,” Hans said, smiling. “Well, the next fifty meters are not so steep but now it is all snow, and there is no rope already there for us so I will lead and place anchors in the ice, and from perhaps twenty meters up I will go ‘on belay.’”
Peter was now just below Sherman, and both Beth and Betty were close behind, listening and looking where Hans pointed. “We move slowly here as we are exposed to sudden wind gusts now that we are close to the summit. Remember, use both axes now as you would use your hands and I will keep the rope tight and out of your way.”
“And once Professor Sherman is off belay,” Peter said, “I will move up and get the rope ready for you, Beth. Betty, you will wait here until I send the rope down to you, then it will be your turn.”
“And this is the last pitch before the summit?” Beth asked.
“Yes, we are almost there. This is the steepest part of the final pitch, what is called the ‘Icefield.’ Once we get to the top of this steep pitch we will walk up the final pitch using our axes. It is not so steep, but we will be approaching the summit ridge so do not get ahead of me, or my rope.”
“Why didn’t they run a rope up this stretch, Hans? It looks like the worst part of the whole climb.”
“Leaving rope exposed in the snow and ice does not work. Chain has been tried but it rusts quickly and is hard on the hands. Just keep your eyes on where I place my feet and stabilize yourself with both of your axes before you take the next step. I will not rush here, and neither should you, and let me get my anchors set before you begin. I will call out ‘On Belay!’ – and you reply with?”
“Belay on. Climbing.”
“Correct. Now watch me closely, and be very careful before you begin.”
“That’s the understatement of the year,” Sherman sighed, staring up the sheer wall of ice overhead – and knowing that there was a sheer drop-off just a few feet away, off his right side, really didn’t help.
“Are you okay, Professor?” Peter said, now coming next to him, Beth and Betty still a few meters below.
“Oh, I was just wondering what the fuck I’m doing up here. No big deal.”
Peter laughed a little. “I think the Icefield as also called the What the Fuck Am I Doing Up Here part of the climb. Everyone reacts this way, so don’t feel despair. It is actually easier than it looks, and you have already finished the worst parts of the climb.”
“Ah. So, this is called the Bullshit Pep Talk, right?”
“Exactly. Just so,” Peter said, chuckling again. “You are too well informed, Professor.”
“When are you going to start calling me Gene?”
“When we become friends, Professor.”
“And when will that be?”
“When we get back down to the hut, of course. I think Hans is ready now.”
“That’s just fucking swell, Pete. I was so enjoying out little talk…”
“You’ll do fine. Get your right axe up and set, then your left.”
“On Belay!” Hans called out from sixty feet above.
“Belay on, climbing,” Sherman called up the mountain, then he muttered: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I got it. Right foot up and get the crampon set, then pull the left leg up and get it set.”
“See, you are already the expert!” Pete said, maybe a little too jovially.
“Pete? Any idea how hard it might be to get one of these ice axes out of your ass?”
“We will discuss these difficulties over dinner this evening. Now, get your left leg set before you transfer weight.”
Beth climbed up to Pete, easily handling the mix of ice and snow and now feeling very happily confident. “Looking good, Gene!” she said as she watched Sherman’s hesitant ascent with a growing sense of alarm. She watched him take a minute to move up to the next foothold, and it should have taken him just a few seconds. “I wonder if his leg is bothering him,” she whispered to Pete.
“I have seen a spot of blood on his pants,” Peter replied.
“He is determined, but his spirit is flagging. The next hundred feet will be critical.”
“Should we start up now, get behind him?”
“No, no. If he falls we might cause a new problem. We will set our own belay, you see.”
“You guys do know I can hear every fucking thing you’re saying, right?” Sherman growled. “And I am not going to fucking fall, okay?”
“Oops,” Beth said, chuckling with Pete.
“What’s up?” Betty said as she finished climbing up to Beth and Pete.
“Oh, nothing,” Pete said.
“Actually,” Sherman added, “I was warning Pete not to come up too close behind me. Must have eaten something real bad last night, ya know? Fartin’ up a storm.”
Betty shook her head. “And here I thought it was just me,” she added.
“We are turning the entire mountain green this morning,” Pete sighed, not taking his eyes off Sherman for a second. “Okay Professor, ten more feet and the worst is behind you. Slow and easy now, do not feel tempted to rush!”
They watched Sherman reach Hans and everyone cheered.
Then, of course, he farted.
“Damn. I thought he was kidding,” Peter sighed. “Oh well, this is one morning I wish the wind was blowing even a little bit.”
There is a little bronze statue of Saint Bernard near the summit of the Matterhorn, and in order to insure a safe trip back to the base it is said climbers must pat Bernard’s head a couple of times before starting back down the mountain. The area around the statue is about the only place on the summit where an exhausted climber can sit, and Sherman had planted himself firmly on top of a snow covered rock right beside the statue – ostensibly to pull out his Leica and blow through a couple of rolls of Kodachrome – and so he was able to photograph Peter and Beth and Betty as they made their way up the last snowy pitch. And, he hoped, these few images would define a completely undefinable moment for them all, because he was coming to realize that words alone could not begin to express what he was seeing, and feeling.
Beyond his feet, just a few feet away, was a sheer thousand meter drop. Behind him, again just a few feet away, was another thousand meter drop. To his right…the Icefield he had just climbed. And to his left, the last real part of the climb – because about ten meters to his left was the official summit. And between the statue of Saint Bernard and the official summit there was a short ridge-line, perhaps twenty feet in length.
Yet this ridge is narrow, and the way across the ridge is composed of ice and snow that has settled into a razor thin knife-edge of finely crenellated rock. There is a path in the snow and ice that crosses the ridge but it is barely a foot wide, and on either side of this ridge are the very same thousand meter drops that end on boulder-strewn fields of fractured glacial moraine. Experienced mountaineers approach this little ridge was extreme caution.
“Herr Professor, do you want to cross to the summit?”
Sherman stood and looked at the knife-edge and grinned. “You’re like a crazy person, right?” he said to Hans.
Who shrugged. “You paid me to bring you to the summit,” he said, pointing at the ridge. “So? What is it to be?”
“You know, I think this works for me right where I am.”
Peter, Beth, and Betty walked up to Sherman and then they looked at the knife-edge.
“Holy shit,” Beth muttered. “Is that for real?”
“That’s about as real as it gets, Beth,” Sherman said. “And I ain’t about to go out on that fucker. No way.”
Betty came up and put her arm around her daughter. “Well, we gonna do it?”
“Seems a shame to come all this way and not to at least try.”
“Hey,” Sherman snarked, “don’t blame me when you shit your pants…”
“Oh, Gene…!” Betty sighed. “Come on, give it a shot!”
“No thanks, Ma’am, I already gave at the office,” Sherman said, grinning. “But you go right ahead…knock yourself out!”
“You’ll take our picture, right?”
“You bet. I got at least two more rolls just ready to go.”
Hans set up their ropes while the girls took off their packs, then he held belay for Pete while he walked slowly across the ridge. When Pete rigged their lines he called “On Belay” to Beth as she walked up to the edge. “Just go slow, and do not look down. Focus a few feet ahead – where you want to place your feet, and remember, if you feel unsteady I’ve got you.”
Yet Beth scuttled across like a mountain goat, like this ridge was just another part of her world, and yet after she crossed she hugged Pete and grinned for the camera, and Sherman obligingly shot off a dozen or so images, even managing to catch a few of her trip across the ridge.
Then Betty inched across the ridge, literally almost one inch at a time, but she made it across and then beamed for Gene’s camera. They walked over to the actual summit – and it might have been a foot higher over there, but if it was Sherman could hardly see the difference…beyond a small cairn that had been placed there. He took several more shots until he reached the end of the roll, then he took off the base-plate and began reloading his camera, leaving only Hans with him now.
“You have plenty of film?”
“Yeah, two more rolls, 36 exposures.”
“Slide or print?”
“Slides. Kodachrome 64.”
“Is that a polarizer?”
“Yup. Pretty bright up here. Thought it might come in handy.”
Peter grabbed the line he’d used to cross and started back across, and Beth came out on the ridge right behind him – just as a colossal burst of wind came up the south face – picking both of them up then in effect knocking them off their feet, and by the time Hans could react both Peter and Beth had disappeared off the ridge, falling down the north face while Betty, still roped-up to Beth, was violently pulled from the summit and over the edge. By the time Sherman looked up from his camera she just falling out of his field of view, and he dashed for the edge, reaching out –
But Hans pulled him back, pushed him down to the snow. “Be still. Stay right here,” Hans said as he grabbed a rope and his ice axes. He made his way to the ridgeline and looked down into the abyss, and then he turned to Sherman and shook his head. “They are gone,” Hans said, his voice suddenly cracked and dry.
Hans came back to his backpack and pulled out a radio and called some sort of dispatcher, and he advised the people down in the village what had just happened.
Sherman was balled up on the snow, his eyes wide and unseeing, and he was completely unaware of what was going on around him. He did not hear the approaching helicopter, nor did he react when helping hands lifted him into the passenger cabin. Hans buckled him into the helicopter’s middle seat and still his eyes remained fixed on some unseen terror off in the mist, yet on the flight down to the village they heard another pilot say that they had found one body so far.
And Sherman came out of it when he heard that.
“We need to go and help find them,” he said to Hans.
“There is nothing we can do now, Gene. Let the experts handle this. This is what they do.”
“Experts,” Sherman mumbled. “There are experts in this?”
Sherman leaned back, closed his eyes. “Pete was a good friend, was he not?” he asked.
“Yes. The best.”
“I’m so sorry, Hans. So sorry.”
“This has been a bad result, Gene. A day we will never forget.”
“No. Never.” Sherman turned and looked at the village – so close now, buildings coming into sharp relief, then he saw the Air Zermatt base and curiously he realized there was no one down there waiting for him. ‘And now I am alone again,’ he sighed, unaware that he was crying for the first time in decades.
Hans walked with him to the hotel and Sherman went up to his room, made two telephone calls then got his belongings and the relevant paperwork from the safe. He looked around the room and shook his head, then he carried his things and the papers down to the lobby. “These are our evacuation and repatriation policies,” he said as he handed over copies of the documents. “The helicopter company will need these, and the hospital I assume.”
“We do not need to talk about these things now.”
“I’m leaving, Hans. Now. Right now. We retained a lawyer in Bern a couple of months ago. His card is in the envelope,” he said as he extended his right hand.
Hans took it. “Are you sure you are alright?”
“I am not alright, Hans. I will never be alright. Not ever again.”
“Herr Doctor Sherman,” the concierge asked as he walked up. “I have a communication for you, from your mother, I believe.”
He took the note and quickly read it, then he turned to the concierge. “Would you change my flight for me, please. I’m currently on the nine thirty flight in the morning, Swiss I think it is now. Geneva to Boston. I’ll need to change that to San Francisco. and could you book me a room in Geneva for tonight, please?”
“Of course, sir.”
“Trouble at home?”
“My father has passed.”
Sherman nodded and looked away for a moment, then he walked over to a huge picture window that looked out over the village, and the Matterhorn stood there in silent majesty, the setting sun bathing her in a golden glory all her own.
© 2021 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | this was a work of fiction, pure and simple. All rights reserved.
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