Once upon a time some friends and I decided to climb Long's Peak, a fourteener at the southern end of Rocky Mountain National Park. I can't remember whose idea this was. There were four of us: my old friend Steve who was always up for some strenuous adventure, his kid brother from Chicago who was unknown to me, and a woman I had recently developed ideas about who worked with me at the tea factory bagging tea.
She had given herself the name Pine Wolf, recently changed from something less memorable. She was a quiet woman with a lanky frame and kind eyes who believed in country living. I didn't mind the name too much because she seemed about as fit as anyone to try it out, and wasn't pushy about it. (More about her later.*)
Since it was an eight-hour hike, and late in the summer when thunderstorms come up quickly and hard most afternoons, we planned to begin at midnight and climb by the light of the full moon. Steve had procured some large black capsules of biphetamine (Black Beauties) which I knew from experience were full of giddy, bottomless energy.
We pulled in to a dark driveway near the trailhead about nine, and followed it to a large empty house with red aluminum siding. We laid our sleeping bags at the end of the track. No one spoke much; we were determined to nap if we could for a few hours. And strangely, we did sleep for a time.
The moon was overhead when someone's alarm woke us. We picked up as quietly as we came and drove a mile or so down the highway to the trail. We had small packs with raincoat, a sandwich and a beer (maybe two for Steve). The beginning miles led through a spruce forest which was aromatic and dark; as the moon began to slip away from the zenith, the trail was hidden and we stumbled across roots and small gullies.
Soon enough we came to the open country at the tree line, where bunch grasses and the occasional outcrop spread between isolated stands of krummholz, wind-matted juniper.
"It's fine, isn't it?" I asked Steve as we relaxed on a rock during on a sandwich and beer break. He grinned broadly. We were warm and sweaty from the uphill pull and bathed in blue moonlight. Pine seemed pleased with the scene and brother John from Chicago was placid. The biphetamine had begun to work so noone was actually hungry; but eating and drinking were a necessary part of celebrating the crystalline moment.
We made the long flat walk across a bouldery field of tundra on the shoulder of the montain. By four we had reached the beginning of the steep granite slopes and cliffs at twelve thousand feet, and the choice of routes to the summit.
We knew two routes to the summit. One led on around the mountain and followed up a grueling (but safe) staircase in a broad glacial trough. The other way went directly up from where we rested, skirting the Diamond Face, two thousand feet of vertical stone. It was still called the "cable route" although the cables had been removed from the steepest part years ago. No doubt that had been wise move taken to discourage fools like us--no rope and no map and little to no experience, snorting and prancing with chemical courage. I was a good freehand climber and had confidence in Steve. The others, for all I knew, had never set foot to sloped rock before. And this turned out to be the case.
We began to climb, over small outcrops and along ledges. There was ice. At times we could see out and down, past pieces of the Diamond that leaned away from the main face like gothic pulpits. I was blissfully in my element, and the rest were all too slow. I butterfly-bounced up the route with skill and concentration, in a state of absorption which is the headiest, highest sense of freedom I yet had had the privilege to taste.... that there were moments still more exquisite I didn't know yet, states which linger in memory as well and as long as the hand cups water. Some moments exist for themselves alone.
I went up on ahead. I had tennis shoes and suede gloves which clung to granite. I crept like a tarantula up the polished pitch ahead of me. There was light breeze. I could the hear the others talking in low voices back down behind my feet.
After some minutes the smooth slope was steeper; its gradual advance had been barely perceptible. Gloves and shoes began to slip a bit. Where the rising curve came to match the friction between my body and the rock, I stopped.
There was no chance of return. A step downward would have taken on some slight momentum, overcoming friction; to lift hand or foot to advance forward was to reduce my hold by a quarter, and the fall would begin. The fall meant a slide along a steep flank for thirty feet or so-- an easy ride, nothing to scrape the knuckles or bang the knees-- then on into the air, accelerating to terminal velocity while drifting down like a fleshy bag into rubble at the bottom of the Diamond Face many seconds later.
Of course, I refused to believe it. I shook my head, trying to dispel the illusion, as if stumbling on a momentary error of arithmetic in the course of reconciling a checkbook. But the overdraft would not fade away. The world calmly reported itself to be as it was, without overt drama or fanfare. The plain truth, if I cared to face it, was that I was about to die there.
In a movie there would have been portentious music with drums, clashing cymbals. ethereal strings, but here there was only silence. I was not weeping or howling in pain, not dramatically dangling over the abyss. The scene lacked drama. Rather than a tableau suggesting imminent danger, there was only the serene silhouette of a man leaning against sloped rock under a full moon.
Inwardly I began to beg. Oh, no, no, no. This cannot be. This is nothing like I imagined. It doesn't fit. This is nowhere near the right time. There is no reason for this to happen. Really, how silly, only a stupid situation, grown from trivial roots. There is no justice in this, no elegance. I am not ready. I am not ready.
I watched myself, petulant, childlike, insisting over and over on what was and was not permissible by my standards, arguing without hope or reason while some other me understood with perfect clarity how things were. I was adrift in a sea of terror, yet still able to observe with detachment the trembling animal alone in the night, whose death will not affect the stones and grass.
Time was suspended. I refused to surrender the present because the future was literally unthinkable; I had no future. I realized that I would go on living indefinitely at this one point in time, though it would pass like the rest for the world beyond -- exactly the same warpage physicists predict along the edge of a black hole's accretion disc. I knew I had finally seen a truth behind universal myths of immortality, the truth that everyone lives forever in the last moment of life.
I did not have the slightest desire to scream aloud or call out to the others. I could still hear them sitting and talking in the middle distance. My silence had nothing to do with stoic courage-- there was nothing they could do for me; climbing to my aid would have been futile, and probably fatal, for any one of them.
I had gradually exhausted my begging, bargaining and whining. Into the vacuum crept quiet resignation. I said it to myself several times, I am going to die. The fact was losing its sting, while my arms and legs had begun to spasm a bit. Not long now.
I did not have a religion per se. Granted, there might be some afterlife where a jealous god rewards the faithful and banishes skeptics to eternal torture-- but still believing that was a barbaric cosmology, shameful cowardice to embrace it at the end. If the universe really works that way, I vote for Lucifer.
I realized then that my decisions until now had all been expressions of a survival instinct, human decisions usually were, even last-ditch attempts to bargain for an afterlife. Giving up hope allowed another kind of choice. Beyond life, there was still something other to crave. Maybe call it art; whether or not art is the same as religion is an argument for people at leisure; the dying have no taste for it.
So how will you do it? I asked myself. In useless panic and horror? Damning your stupidity, cursing fate? Is that necessary or avoidable? One way or the other you will fly for a while, once and never again. The mountain will be silent and the moon brilliant, your heart will beat, you will breathe crisp air while you slip through it. Don't waste a single instant. Remain calm and alert. If there really is something after, or if not, cheer up.
Only tell the poor animal inside you to lie down, because the chase is over.
I raised up my gloved hand in a casual reach overhead. No harm in trying. As the slip began, my fingers found a hidden ledge and locked on. The animal pulled me up, with unexpected strength. It pulled all of me onto that ledge, which was more than broad enough to stretch out on. But I lay curled and rocking, arms around belly, breathing deep, noticing the white disc of moon as it swept across my vision, a pendulum keeping time to the marvelous chant:
I'm alive. I'm alive.
Pine and the brothers eventually reached the same terminal ledge by a less challenging route a few minutes after sunrise. By now Ms. Wolf had reached the end of her psychological rope (the only kind she used) and began to wail something irrational about a helicopter, let's call one, now, screw the price, just get me out of here.... as she struggled and bucked in our precarious shared niche, with only enough horizontal space for the four of us to sit quietly.
This constituted, under the circumstances, an emergency. Brute that I am, I briefly pondered a slapping her face, like in the American movies, though we eventually calmed her down with a sharp but reassuring pep talk. This miserable event, however, had clearly scarred the tender bud of our relationship, and it failed to thrive.
And the rest: Real climbers with proper gear passed by after a while. They helped us off of that awkward ledge without snickering. The summit was a nice view, but nothing special.