It's Never Bad in the Mountains
They had met us at the airport and now we were all together again. Rogers and I in the front seat of his Fiat, Melly and my son Mark in the back. By sunset we were passing through Everett. At Newhalem we would spend the night with Rogers' parents and there Rogers would lay out his plan. Everett, smelling as usual like paper bags, is where one receives his first long look at the ominously serrated peaks of the North Cascades. The others exclaimed, and so did I.
"Beautiful," I said, "just beautiful"—but I did not feel their beauty. Something closer to despair or loss was what I felt, though it wasn't quite either of those. Whatever it was, it included fear, plain old-fashioned fear.
We had spent four hundred dollars we couldn't afford to fly from California to Washington State to put ourselves through this ordeal once again. Why? Hadn't last year been bad enough? Not all bad, no. And when I turned around to smile at Mark—“How about that view?"—I was reminded that these trips were one thing we did together, more or less together, which was strong and solid. For him it would evolve into a bank account of fond memories: mountain peaks, snuggling into sleeping bags, breaking out snacks, catching monster cutthroat, seeing goats, whistling back at marmots, being places where no one had ever been. But as I studied the shadowy snow-flecked peaks I also foresaw how in a few days one of those flecks of confetti—or one like them, several ranges farther back—would turn into a vast glacier up which we would make our way, and I would be worried, worried about slipping, losing my ice ax, losing the rope, pulling others with me, sliding, sliding, falling into the blue-black depths of a crevasse, disappearing.
"That's Bacon Peak, that's Mount Despair, and the nubbin is Green, then Hagen One and Hagen Two." Rogers was showing off for Mark. "That's near where we were last year, remember?" I could hear the excitement in his voice. He loved the prospect of what was before us. He loved it. He was born to it.
"Will it be as bad as last year?" asked Melly happily. He too seemed full of anticipation. At fifty-one he was old enough to know better. Last year, plenty of times, he was as frightened as I was. Had he forgotten?
"Bad?" said Rogers. "Bad? It's never bad in the mountains."
"Last year was a dog trot," said Rogers , looking over at me. "Right, Peter?"
And I smiled back as if I agreed. For several years now Rogers had reserved his difficult, history-making trips for Melly, Mark, and me, his out-of-state friends—or acquaintances, rather. ( Rogers was not exactly a friend, but Melly was, and I met Rogers through him.) If he took Washington State climbers with him, his routes would no longer be secret. He had set himself the task of climbing everything in the North Cascades, and he loved the idea of subsequent climbers years hence finding his cairns on the most remote interior peaks.
"Right, Peter?" he asked again.
"Right." I had come to a stop once last year on the side of a precipice. Clinging there, stone-still, the terror had been tangible: a flock of tiny gray birds landing on my shoulders and thighs, perching on my back and stomach, pecking at me, draining me of myself. I alone was all that mattered in the world. I even forgot about Mark, my son, my responsibility.
* * *
"A dog trot?" said Mr. Mellichamp. "You call that Bataan death march a dog trot?"
Rogers said he did. I wanted to ask what Bataan meant. Rogers was really teasing Mr. Mellichamp, putting him on. "Only a warm-up," said Rogers , and then he predicted three first ascents for us this year. When he talked like that I knew we could do anything. It was fun to be with him and Mr. Mellichamp again. Even my dad was excited.
"And we'll try the north side of Prophet too. It's never been done."
"Oh, no," said Mr. Mellichamp, holding his forehead.
"Sounds good," said Dad.
"It should be a classic," said Rogers.
"Great," said Dad.
* * *
I didn't think Peter felt so great about it, though. Peter was like a man with a tumor saying, "Go ahead, Doctor, and operate," hoping for the best. But last year he had never complained, none of them did. I don't want complainers with me. I want cheerfulness. I see enough complainers. So I was glad to be doing it again with these willing amateurs. They took directions well, they didn't hassle you about routes and techniques, and they lived too far away to give away my routes. Besides, Mark was someone you could teach. I couldn't teach anything to Melly and Peter—they were too old and anyway were teachers themselves. Melly was an unbelievably happy man, and talk about cheerful, Christ, he'd smile if he were falling to his death. Knock on wood. Peter worried all the time but tried not to show it. He was a nice enough guy but not good for Mark. I really liked Mark. He wasn't scared yet and was smart and plucky. Even if I only saw him once a year for a week or so, I could still help him. I could save him from his father.
* * *
When Rogers filled out the wilderness permit at the ranger station and under destination and route put "Southern Pickets via Little Beaver Valley," the old man in charge laughed. "You mean fifty miles in the opposite direction, don't you, Harry?"
"I believe in telling the truth, Matt," said Rogers.
"You wouldn't give your true route to your own mother. One of these days you won't come out, Harry."
"One of these days, Matt."
The ranger shook his head. Then he and Rogers went on to discuss mountaineers they knew, recent expeditions, first ascents. All the while this weathered old man fawned over Rogers as if he were a movie star and not a Seattle physician. The same thing had happened that morning when we left Newhalem: Rogers honked at a man watering his lawn and at another washing his car and they both waved back with an enthusiasm meant for a celebrity. And when we filled up with gas at Ross Lake Dam the teenage attendant nervously asked, "Aren't you Harry Rogers?" Mark took it all in. He kept giving Rogers furtive worshiping glances of the kind he used to give me when he was nine or ten. That didn't bother me—a father can't and shouldn't be his son's hero forever, and I had had my day—but what did annoy me was Rogers' assumption that Mark never regarded me in that way at all. Rogers, twice divorced (you could see why: he was married to the mountains), manly as hell, did things a sixteen-year-old boy would admire. And yet, childless himself, he really knew little about sixteen-year-old boys. I could see he had some sort of plan for Mark this trip.
* * *
I had paid the widow who runs Ross Lake Resort twenty bucks to boat fifteen miles up the lake and drop us off. From here three days of bushwhacking would get us to the north side of Prophet ridge and a group of unclimbed peaks. No one I knew—and I knew them all—had ever taken this route before. No one.
After Mrs. Secord left us, we stood on the shore. I, Harry Rogers, owned it all. At first I saw each thing as separate: each peak, each trout gliding in the lake, each shade of green streaking the mountainsides. In a few minutes, once we were underway, it would all blend together and I could take it for granted as I led these interlopers up the mountain behind me. Then I could concentrate on simply Being here, and being in control of these mountains and these people—and whenever I wanted I could break the place into separate parts again and give an anatomy lesson: look at the Monkey flowers, look at the Devil's Club, look at that ridge, that peak, that bird. I could name everything. So what if I was vain about my own powers out here? So what? What harm? Here I knew what to do.
* * *
We waited for Rogers to lead the way. He was a great guy. He was whistling as he rearranged stuff in his pack. I don't mean he was fussy like Mr. Mellichamp, who had a place for everything and everything in its place. Rogers just dumped all his gear into this giant faded red pack. It was the biggest pack I've ever seen and it was custom-made and had a single giant compartment that opened down the middle. "Like opening a fat man's gut," he always said. He'd pull something out, hold it up, and look dumb. "Anyone recognize this? An inner organ? A spleen perhaps?" And it would be a piton or a can opener or something like that. Weird. Rogers laughed at us for having Keltys with ten zippers and pouches everywhere, but I didn't care.
He got out his topo map and altimeter and checked them both. When he saw me watching, he came over and showed me our route. The destination for tonight was a pothole lake without a name where he guessed there might be fish, but he didn't know for sure. He had never been there before, he said.
Dad had already put on his pack and was leaning on his ice ax, watching us. Mr. Mellichamp was beside him.
* * *
"Peter, that boy is a prince, a winner," said Melly. "They don't make them like that anymore."
"Well—“ Except for a breeze blowing through the pines and the sound of our voices, we seemed surrounded by a huge silence which made me want to whisper. It was like nothing else I knew and it always surprised me. "Go away," it said to me. "This is the raw surface of the planet. No place for you." I forced myself to attend to Melly. He was a lovely man who truly cared about people.
"You've done a tremendous job with him."
"Never complains. Has a lot of grit. Remember last year? That little guy kept on Harry's heels the whole trip."
"Except for the first day."
"He's a natural," said Melly. "Not so little anymore either."
Mark unslung his new camera and took a picture of Melly and me and one of Rogers.
"Hey, that's new, isn't it, Mark?" asked Melly, stepping over to Mark's side. "That's slick. Let's see it. Last year you had an Instamatic, didn't you?"
Mark nodded, surprised and pleased that Melly remembered. Rogers joined them. Both Melly and he were camera buffs and owned expensive Nikons with elaborate lenses. On last year's trip Mark got the idea of saving up for a fancy camera of his own, which he did, except that the camera was one of those Best Buys and wasn't so good after all. I warned him, but he wouldn't listen.
* * *
I had a super job as a busboy—2.85 an hour plus tips—and so I paid two hundred dollars for it. The shutter sometimes stuck. It had a five-year warranty, which I thought excellent. But Dad pointed out that it was a discontinued model, and I'd probably have trouble making them back up the warranty.
"That's a well-built little machine," said Rogers.
"I'll say," said Mr. Mellichamp.
I snapped off another picture, but on the next the shutter stuck again. I pretended nothing was wrong, closed the case, and put the camera in my pack. I really felt dumb.
"Everything okay, Mark?" asked Dad. "Camera all right?"
"Sure," I said.
He had told me to return it to the camera shop and have it fixed before we made this trip, but I hated to go into the place because they treated me like a kid. Until they saw your money, it was hard to get waited on.
"Everything all right, Mark?" asked Dad again.
"I told you. Everything's fine."
* * *
If I had a son like Mark, I'd know when to watch him, when not, when to hang on, when to let go.
"Let's head out, men," I said, hoisting up my pack. "Let's make history."
"History it is," said Melly, raising his ice ax in a toast.
"Let's go," I heard Peter say. "We're off like a herd of turtles."
After fifty yards or so I turned around. They were already a distance behind me. For some reason Mark was hanging back, in between Melly and Peter, and I knew he didn't want to be there.
"Come up here with me, Mark," I said. "Let the Geritol-for-lunch-bunch guard our flank."
So Mark joined me and we began to move.
* * *
The first day last year was bad. I had started out fast, right behind Rogers , but by noon I couldn't keep up. A couple of times I told my dad I had to slow down, that I had a headache. All he said was "Hang in there" or "Well, Mark, I told you to do a little running before this trip." He didn't slow down. It wasn't any fun. For a while just thinking of going on for six more days, up, down, the brush hitting me in the face, getting all scarred up, sweating like mad—made me hate Rogers and everyone. But later that night—I guess it was at dinner—everything was different and Rogers kept saying how great I was, and after that the trip was great too.
This year I knew already I'd have a good first day, except for maybe a blister or two. Already I was moving good, staying with Rogers , no problem. My arms and legs knew right where to go. I had a knack for it. My dad was a good athlete himself, but out in the woods (the real woods, I mean, like these, miles from nowhere, miles from trails) he was not really that confident. He was like those tourists who always have to test the water before going in. But he can run a marathon. I can't do a mile without getting a cramp or wanting to throw up.
* * *
The underbrush was thick and tangled and often I could not see my feet, but Rogers hastened through it as a nimble messenger might move through a crowd of people, shoving branches asides, skipping around exposed roots and boulders, never missing a step. Mark, behind him, did the same. Soon they were out of sight, whistling and shouting now and then to let us know where they were.
I had forgotten the minute-by-minute misery of it all. It would take three days of overland bushwhacking even to reach the peaks which we intended to climb: heavy packs, lifting and lowering ourselves hundreds of times, stumbling and sliding, often crawling. Jagged, wet, and clogged with vegetation, the Cascades made the Sierra seem like a golf course. We would lose weight, our arms and legs would become crisscrossed with cuts and nicks from thorns and rocks and branches, our muscles would ache. Then, once we reached the peaks, we had to go up, and that's what I truly dreaded. And Rogers always made a race out of it. He took it so seriously.
* * *
It was good for them, good for me, to keep a fast pace, especially the first day. You got the kinks out quickly and after a few miles you had committed yourself absolutely to the trip. No turning back, for anything. I liked that feeling. I liked not knowing exactly what was in store but knowing that whatever it was we—or I rather—would have to handle it. Sure, I could slow down and travel at Melly and Peter's pace, but we'd never get anywhere then. Also the whole spirit of the trip would be ruined. This was no Rocky Mountain trail stroll, this was something else. I was leading these people into the unknown interior of a true wilderness. You had to push and cause pain but look at what they got: this was once-in-a-lifetime stuff. They'd surpass themselves. They'd do things no one did. I had to drive them. I admit it: I loved it.
* * *
Halfway up the slope Rogers and I stopped at a clearing for a water break. I yelled. Down the slope and off to our left came a whistle.
"See them?" said Rogers.
"Maybe we shouldn't get so far ahead," said Rogers . "This isn't a race. Or is it?" He looked at me.
"Oh, I don't think they mind. They like to be together and talk. They're old friends." He looked at me again, so I thought about what I had said. Well, it was true. My dad and Melly used to teach together. I knew Rogers didn't like my dad as much as he liked Melly, but they got along okay. I wasn't trying to say that my dad and Rogers weren't friends.
"They're old, certainly," smiled Rogers.
"They're not old," I said. "Anyway, here they come." The top of Mr. Mellichamp's bright red pack was poking up through the brush. Dad was right behind him. As they came into the clearing, they were sort of gray-faced and soaking wet with sweat and walking like it hurt.
"Transfusion time," said Rogers . "Get out the oxygen."
"My dad could probably go faster."
"Just kidding, Mark. The first few hours are always the toughest. Those two'll do just fine."
"I know that."
Dad was peeking out from behind Mr. Mellichamp and up at me. He smiled, but I was pretty sure he was hurting.
"You all right, Mark?" he asked.
"I'm fine, Dad."
"Boots all right?"
That was another thing he had warned me against. I had spent eighty dollars on new boots without having a chance to break them in before the trip.
* * *
Mark nodded but I would have bet a thousand dollars he had hot spots on his feet already. And if he developed a case of blisters, it would cause problems for us all. God, I wished he would learn.
"We've plenty of moleskin," I said.
"I'm fine, Dad."
"If you take care of them now, you'll save yourself a lot of grief later." I looked at Rogers , hoping he would help me out, but all he did was hand me his water bottle as if to say, "Take care of yourself first."
* * *
Peter drank like it was going out of style. He had forgotten to fill his own water bottle, but I decided not to tease him about it. He was having a hard enough time.
"Thanks, Harry," he said. He handed back my bottle. It was almost empty. "I don't know how you two do it."
"We're younger and tougher," I said. "Mark and I." But Peter didn't laugh. He tried to, but he didn't.
"I forgot how hard it is," Peter said. He wiped sweat from his forehead and neck with a shiny blue bandanna he must have bought new for this trip. "It's almost as bad as a marathon."
"Nothing is bad in the mountains," I said. "Nothing." It's not that you can't run into bad situations—I'd been on a trip where we lost a man and another where a guy broke his back and both legs—but you can't have people talking themselves into bad situations either.
"Right," said Peter. Now he smiled. "You're absolutely right." He turned to check on Mark—he couldn't leave the poor kid alone—but before he could say anything Mark handed him a square of chocolate.
"Here you go, Dad," he said. "New life."
* * *
After we ate the chocolate Melly handed around some pepperoni sticks and we took a few more swigs of water. I reapplied Cutters to my arms and neck and offered it to Mark, but he said he didn't need any. He did, though. Mosquitoes were everywhere.
"Just a little?" I said.
"To hell with the bugs," interrupted Rogers, looking at me. "Let's be on our way."
He started off very slowly, pretending to be an aged man, hunched over, leaning on an imaginary cane, making creaking sounds and wheezing like an asthmatic. All at once he straightened up and actually started to run, that huge pack bouncing against his back, his thick boots pounding, his arms pumping. He ran and ran and ran. He ran out of sight. We heard him crashing forward. He reappeared a hundred yards up the slope, scampering along an enormous fallen tree trunk. He stopped and stood there, legs apart, beating his chest, shouting, "The woods, the woods, the woods," like he was insane.
Rogers and I sat on the boulders in the sun next to a stream. We had been out for three days now, and I knew I could do anything. We were going to climb the north side of Prophet this afternoon, and I could hardly wait. We were having a snack. Before us was a small valley, full of snow, which we had just crossed. Beyond this valley was a high ridge and a steep snowfield we had come down an hour earlier. We watched as Dad and Mr. Mellichamp came in sight at the top of that ridge above the snowfield. Rogers shouted. They looked our way and when they saw us Mr. Mellichamp waved his old felt Kentucky mountaineer's hat.
"Glissade it," yelled Rogers . But they couldn't hear. He cupped his hands and yelled again. "Try…a…glissade.” His voice kept echoing and echoing.
"It's too steep for Mr. Mellichamp's bad knee," I said.
"Your dad could try it."
"He'll want to stay with Mr. Mellichamp."
"One step at a time, is that it? Well, that's the safe way. But you and I had one hell of an elevator ride, right, Mark?" He reached over and jiggled my shoulder.
He was right. It had seemed straight down, super fast—but I stayed on my feet. It took only a few seconds. After we had slid to a stop in the snow-filled valley, my arms and legs shook like jell. "Nice going," Rogers said, and we had marched on across to where we were now.
"They had better stay clear of the shade," said Rogers .
"They know that," I said.
* * *
I knew I would fall. I could feel it coming. Ever since Rogers had yelled "Glissade" or whatever, I knew we were being watched, and I was nervous. Even though we had been doing everything right—kicking in with the heels of our boots, plunging our ice axes into the snow and holding on as we made each step, moving slowly and diagonally across the steep slope—we made one stupid mistake. About a fourth of the way down we got a yard or two into a shady section, where the snow was frozen, and when we started to turn around, my right foot crossing over my left, both feet slipped, my sunglasses flew off, and just like that I was sliding down the hill on my back. For the briefest instant, relieved, unburdened, I decided to relax and simply let the snowfield swallow me up.
* * *
For a minute my dad hung there, and then he started to slide. Gross!
"Turn over," whispered Rogers . "Self-arrest."
Almost like he had heard Rogers, he flip-flopped over to his stomach, spread his legs, arched his back, and tried to slam the pick of the ice ax into the snow. That was what Rogers had taught us. But he kept sliding. It was too steep, and his pack too heavy.
* * *
I could not slow myself down. I could not set the ax. The snow was scraping me like gravel. I was helpless, foolish. I prayed that when I hit no bones would break. Far back up the slope Melly leaned over to pick up my sunglasses.
* * *
"That's going to hurt," said Rogers . "A lot."
But I didn't believe him. From where we were Dad looked like a cartoon character, slipping super fast down a mountain, pounding away with his ice ax, but I knew he'd be all right. I was pretty sure, at least. He dropped maybe a hundred yards and came to a stop in the soft snow where the steep slope met the valley at almost the exact spot where Rogers and I had ended our glissade.
"Lord," said Rogers , laughing quietly.
"He's not hurt," I said. My dad jumped up and looked toward Mr. Mellichamp. He didn't even check to see if he was injured.
"He should be wearing a long sleeve shirt."
"Why? He always wears a T-shirt on these trips," I said. "He likes T-shirts."
"That," said Rogers, "was some kind of slide. He'd better have leather for skin."
"He may have let himself go on purpose. For the fun of it."
Rogers looked at me. "Maybe," he said. "Here." He tossed me an open package of dried apricots. "Finish them off."
* * *
I did not wait for Melly. I had to keep walking, partly to see if I could, partly to ease the pain. My face felt as if it had been scalded with boiling water. I did not want to look at my elbows. So I started across the snowy valley to where Mark and Rogers were perched picturesquely on some boulders. Maybe they had been talking or eating and hadn't seen what happened.
* * *
Blood ran down his forearms. He also had raw places on his cheeks, his forehead, and on the tip of his nose. He looked like a clown. He smiled at me and shook his head.
"Did you see that?" he asked.
"You all right?" I said.
"No problem. Actually, it was kind of fun. I was talking to Melly and we got over in that icy spot and when I turned around, zap, there I was on my back. But I did get over on my stomach. For some reason I couldn't self-arrest. Not enough strength, I guess. The old ax just wouldn't hold. For a minute I thought I'd be coasting down the Cascades forever." He laughed and glanced at Mark. "I bet I looked bad from here. But you have to admit, it's an efficient descent. No wasted energy." He held up his arms, examined them, shrugged. "Good thing that snow is cold. Otherwise these babies might hurt."
They did hurt, that was obvious.
* * *
Right below his elbows were two bright red circles, the size of half dollars. They were awful—raw and oozing. I wondered why Rogers didn't get up and look at them, and I think my dad did too.
"Don't those hurt, Dad?" I asked.
"I've got some stuff, if they do," said Rogers .
"No, no," he said. He sat down and slowly unwrapped a piece of cheddar cheese. He kept talking about the great country we had passed through that morning, about how great it was to think of climbing Prophet that afternoon.
* * *
When Melly arrived, twenty minutes later, the subject of my injuries, such as they were, came up again. "Harry should look at those elbows," said Melly. He beckoned to Rogers. “Come over here, Doctor, and have a gander."
"They turned green yet?" asked Rogers . When something amused him or after he told a joke, he had a way of holding his mouth half open like a moron, waiting for your reaction. He was doing that now. He did not get up.
"Nope," I said. "Not yet."
"When they turn green, then you worry," said Rogers .
"Then it's real trouble, huh?" The stinging made me want to scream, and I had to move my arms back and forth to keep them from going stiff. "I think I'll live."
"I'm sure you will," said Rogers.
* * *
But that afternoon on Mt. Prophet everything changed. The ascent was not so bad. Roped together, we moved cautiously, cutting steps in the ice and the hard snow, not daring to look down. Much of it was hand-over-hand, straight up. At the summit Rogers danced around like he had scored a touchdown in the Super Bowl. "They said it couldn't be done," he sang, "couldn't be done, couldn't be done. Not from the north, the north, the north." We all laughed. I, too, was proud of our achievement, but Rogers' ecstatic fit of glee frightened me a little. How could this mean so much to him?
The descent was of another order. Mark was the lightest so he went first, then Rogers, then me, then Melly. Mark was supposed to use the same footholds we had used coming up, but at one point he got off the track, and when he tried to kick out a new foothold with the toe of his boot, he couldn't do it. His legs had no heft. Rogers kept a tight grip on the rope and kept encouraging him, but instead of making a dent in the snow, Mark's boot merely tapped politely at the snow wall. Frozen crumbs fell away. I looked down. Far below I saw a stream winding through a green meadow.
* * *
"Try again," I said. "I've got you."
"I don't think he can do it," I heard Peter say.
He could do it, all right. I gave Mark a reassuring tug on the rope. He looked up at me, grinned bravely, and tried again. Finally, it worked. What a kid! What a trip! He'd never forget it. We inched our way down. A few yards farther on, although I kept reminding them to keep the interval, we became dangerously bunched together—that is, Peter and Melly crowded in on me—and for a moment we all stood huddled there. I was aware of an odor: a sweet syrupy fragrance like a candle burning in a bathroom.
* * *
"My God," said Rogers, "that's the smell of fear, as they say." He chuckled to himself—“I know it well," he said, also to himself—and looked at me. "Dry, huh? Put some snow in your mouth, Peter," he said. I did what he said.
* * *
Peter belonged to me now, and so did his son. Terrible thoughts to have, but I had them, and I admit it. In the wilderness, sooner or later, things become clear.
Two days later, several miles deeper into the interior, a few yards from yet another summit, I found myself praying for this one to be a first ascent, for Mark's sake. Since climbing Prophet we had twice been disappointed. Broken-down cairns , without names or notes, but cairns nevertheless, probably built in the thirties, had sat atop both peaks. So this was our last chance. Tomorrow we had to head back to civilization. Mark and Rogers were waiting for Melly and me to catch up. It satisfied Rogers' sense of decorum that we all reach a summit simultaneously and together touch the topmost rock as though engaged in some sacred ceremony. It seemed silly to me.
* * *
"Go on," I told Mark.
"Don't we have to wait for Dad and Mr. Mellichamp?"
"Go on, Mark."
"Go for it."
* * *
Rogers was grinning, waving me on. So I did it. I felt guilty, but I did it anyway. The summit was covered with these little tiny rocks and lupine and had a bare spot the size of a doormat where I could see goat droppings. No cairn. For a minute I just stood there. I was the first person on earth ever to reach this place. I felt quiet inside, and strong. I was only a high school kid from California, not a real mountain man, but here I was, on top of everything. I looked down at Rogers . He nodded slowly, his face serious. He had been watching me. He's a great guy. Dad and Mr. Mellichamp were watching me too, so I raised my ice ax over my head and they both cheered. It was great to be here with these three men.
But when Rogers drew beside me, he groaned: "Oh, no."
Only then did I see what had been right before my eyes the whole time.
* * *
I saw what Mark had not seen. Thirty feet away, across a chasm, looming up as if coming from miles and miles below, was this other peak, level with our own or maybe a foot or two higher. "Double summit," I said. I knew what it felt like to stand alone on a mountain top, and so I understood why the double summit hadn't registered with Mark. I took out my map and rechecked. Sure enough, it didn't show.
"So this isn't a first," said Mark.
"Half of a first. We'll do that one too."
"Down and up," I said, pointing into the chasm. "No problem." We would have to crawl out on a granite shelf, work our way down to the saddle between the two summits, and climb up the other side. And that saddle would be difficult.
"Let's go then," said Mark.
I laughed. "Can't we wait for a minute or two?"
* * *
My dad narrowed his eyes and took a bead on the other summit. "The one we're on is higher," he said.
"You may be right," said Rogers .
"Higher or lower, I'm staying right here, gentlemen," said Mr. Mellichamp. "I'm tired"—he pronounced it "tarred."
"You've got the right idea," said my dad. "That's too tough for me."
"We've come this far," said Rogers . "We've got to make the true summit."
"I thought you thought this was the true one," said Dad.
"That's what you thought," smiled Rogers . "Nope, the other's higher." He looked at me. "Mark and I'll do it. We'll sign you two in as 'of the party.' How's that?"
"If we're not there, don't sign us in," said Mr. Mellichamp. "Keep it honest. And, honest, this is plenty high enough for me." He lay back, his head against a rock, his arms open to the sky. "What a day."
"It really is," said Dad, sitting down next to him. "Gorgeous. It's worth the trip. You feel on top of the world. Look." Dad pointed south, "just look, off there in the distance. Mount Rainier . Amazing."
* * *
You could see for miles: peak after peak, a world of mountain peaks, blooming alpine meadows, cascading waterfalls glistening in the sunlight. To spend the rest of the day here would be fine with me. Best to stay here. I wasn't going down in that chasm. The sparkling snowfields, the trees. No sign of anyone anywhere. Not even an airplane. Just us four. I wasn't going down in that chasm. Neither was Mark. This was far enough. Rogers could go alone.
"All set, Mark?" said Rogers.
"Let's go, then."
"No, you don't," I said. "Harry, you go on. I don't want Mark—“
"Mark can make it," said Rogers . "But I'll check it out first." He scrambled down the shale, lowered himself around the granite shelf, and disappeared. I was glad he was gone.
Mark was staring at me, unable to speak. At first I thought he might cry, but he gathered himself and looked away. When he finally looked back at me, his cheeks rosy with anger, his forehead pale with outrage, not a tear in sight, I was almost ready to admit my mistake.
"I'm going, Dad," he said.
"I am, too."
"Nope. I have to draw the line somewhere."
The sound of falling rocks echoed up from the vee between the two peaks. We heard the rocks clatter, clatter again, and fall into silence.
"There goes Rogers ," said Melly. "Splat. Dog food. A Gaines Burger."
"Wouldn't want to lose him," I said. And I meant it. What would we do?
"Could you lead us out if we did lose him?"
"You know, Mark, I think I could. But I wouldn't want to try."
"Your old man has a remarkably good sense of direction, Mark," said Melly.
"Why don't we both go?" asked Mark, pointing after Rogers . "You, first."
"Mark, it's not worth it to me. We made this summit. That's enough. Why not sit down and relax and enjoy the view?"
"It's not enough for Rogers."
" Rogers is a fanatic."
"A madman," added Melly. "But a swell guy."
Just then Rogers appeared on the other peak, climbing hand-over-hand toward the top, grunting like a monkey. He grinned at us over his shoulder. "Come on, Mark," he called. "You can make it."
Mark started after him.
"Hold it, Mark," I said.
"Because I said so."
"Mark," called Rogers , "one spot is a little tricky."
"No, you're not," I said.
* * *
Mark paused at the edge of the granite shelf and turned to face Peter, who had stood up and put his hands on his hips. While I had been climbing, they had been talking, and to judge by the strained smiles on both their faces, Peter had stuck to his guns. Stupid man. Now I could hear them clearly.
"Come back here, Mark."
Mark edged out over the shelf and let himself down. He moved fast, almost like climbing down a ladder. God, he was good, sure of himself. He moved right down into the shadow cast by the peak I was standing on.
"He can do it, Peter," I called across the chasm. But now it was my turn to be stupid. We should have roped up. It was too risky, not that Peter knew it. He was frightened for himself.
"You think so?"
"Sure." But I wasn't sure.
"Oh, I know he can," said Peter. "But the point is I don't want him to try. He's already proved himself a hundred times."
"Then he'll do it again," I said. I hoped. When Rod Sears took his fall, it wasn't much different than this: one of those places where you feel silly if you make a production about roping up. Rod dropped onto a ledge a hundred feet below. He was still alive but half conscious and thrashing around. We yelled to him to stop moving, but he couldn't help it. He rolled right off the ledge and fell a thousand feet.
Mark was out of sight now. When he reached the saddle, he would see that the base of the second summit was a sheer granite face. The only route up was for him to jump about four feet to his right, from the saddle to the crack in the granite face.
* * *
When I looked down it was too much. I just didn't think about it.
"See what you have to do, Mark?" called Rogers . Both he and my dad were out of sight.
I leaped. I should have got set and gone over in my mind just how to jump and where to land, but I didn't. I just threw myself at the crack and hoped my feet would find a solid place and my hands something to hang on to. But my feet found nothing and my hands grabbed only one side of the crack. I held on like crazy, my legs pressed against the rock, the weight of my body pulling at my fingers, my wrists, my forearms. No one could see me. I felt alone. I might have even cried a little.
I tried to make myself light as a feather so the mountain could hold me. I tried not to move. My shoulder sockets began to throb and my heart was beating in my arms. I tried not to move, but I did move. I slipped maybe two or three inches. Over to my right I heard a trickle of small rocks falling, but it wasn't Rogers or my dad come to help me. It was just the mountain making noise. That's what Rogers would say. Suddenly I had this urge to let go. I stared at my fingers. My knuckles were white. All I had to do was open my fingers. It would be just as easy as dropping from a chin-up bar. But then came another urge: get up that mountain right now, get going, go. And that's what I did. How I did it—whether I clawed my way or what—I don't know, but I did it.
* * *
A great rattling of falling rocks, a dagger of fear puncturing my heart, and there he was: on the other side, scrambling upwards exactly as Rogers had done a few minutes before. Thank you, Lord. He had been down in that chasm so long.
"You okay, Mark?"
I turned back to Melly. He looked at me and laughed. "Did I ever tell you the one about the midget and the singing giraffe?"
* * *
When Mark reached the second summit, the true summit, I pretended to be busy snapping pictures. I lowered my camera and glanced at him. "A little tricky, right?"
"Where?" he said.
"Down by the saddle." I was so relieved I wanted to giggle.
"No problem. I came right up."
"We should have used ropes." I could hardly believe I had been so reckless. It was partly Peter's fault. "Don't tell your dad how bad it was. And don't ever do that again, even if I tell you to."
"It was no problem."
"Yeah, sure," I said. "Well, maybe you are a goat, like I always said."
As we built the cairn, I noticed that his hands trembled. When it was time to write the note, I whispered, "Should I enter their names?" We both looked over at the other summit. I half expected to see Peter staring menacingly at us, but he was laughing with Melly and when he saw us looking he waved.
"Sure you should," he said.
"Really? They don't deserve it."
He turned his blue eyes on me. "They came pretty far."
"Oh, I know, I'll enter their names."
"Just put 'of the party', like you said before. Because they didn't go all the way." Then he added: "We did."
That made me feel better. I loved this kid.
* * *
When we descended the crack, Rogers went first and he went carefully. At the saddle he leaped back and held out his arm for me to grab. I was glad he did. At the original summit Dad and Mr. Mellichamp teased us about being insane but didn't say anything else. We grabbed our ice axes, took a few more pictures, and started back down, with me bringing up the rear.
* * *
A thousand feet below I saw our red and blue nylon tents nestled among the lavender heather and the granite hillocks. Our camp seemed shockingly small, far away, and assailable. We should not be in these mountains, I thought.
Mark was right behind me, so after a few minutes I turned around and said, "You had trouble down there, didn't you?"
"Sure you did." Why couldn't he admit it? Why couldn't he say, once, that he had learned his lesson? "Don't lie."
"I'm not lying."
Maybe he wasn't. Maybe my son was different from me. We continued down the mountainside. It was true: I wanted him to be frightened. I wanted him to know his limits. A man should know his limits.
Near the bottom, the slope turned into a loose talus landslide, gradually merging into the heather-covered ridge where we had camped. We began to move faster and faster, sliding and schussing like skiers through the looseness, and we both left Melly far behind. Mark stayed on my heels. He was crowding me. He wanted me to know he was there, I guess, and for a while we were in a race. He stumbled several times and nearly fell, spraying rocks and gravel down upon me, but we kept going. Finally, however, I stopped, abruptly, knowing he would push into me, and he did. I was bowled over to my knees.
"Goddamn it," I said. "Watch what you're doing."
"Sorry," he said. "I couldn't stop." And I knew that. I had wanted him to hit me.
"Don't you know enough to keep some distance between us?"
* * *
Dad's face was flushed, his eyes were watery, and he was rubbing the small of his back. "That really hurts," he said.
"Sorry, Dad. I didn't mean to." But I knew he wasn't hurt. I hadn't bumped him that hard.
"Please stay next to me the rest of the way." He spoke slowly, sadly, like I was really dumb. "Do you understand what I am saying?"
"I sure do." We only had a hundred yards to go. As we walked into camp I could tell Rogers had been watching us. He didn't look at me, but he had a big smile for my dad. He crossed the space between his tent and ours and shook Dad's hand.
"Peter, thanks for letting Mark come across up there." He nodded toward the summits. "It was a good thing to do."
"You think so, do you?"
* * *
I knew then I had gone too far. Peter had this strange smile on his face. Down here, in camp, away from the dangerous places, he was pretty tough looking. He was ready to hit me. He looked behind me where Mark was standing. I could understand why he might hate me.
* * *
Dad looked at me over Rogers' shoulder. I raised my hands helplessly. I didn't want them to fight. I begged Dad with my eyes. Then I winked at him. For the only time in my life—except when I was a little kid, learning how—I winked at my dad. Where it came from I don't know. Where I got the energy to get up that summit I don't know either.
* * *
"But you're right, Harry," I said. I had frightened him—not much, just enough—and I was sorry for him, but I had to admire him. I had to. He was admirable. A part of Mark would always be his. "I'm glad I let him." But it was that wink, a small thing, like a beautiful butterfly landing on a green leaf in one's back yard, which made all the difference. It enabled me to say, "And thanks for all your help, Harry." I meant it, too.
(Used by permission of author, originally published in Kansas Quarterly, Winter, 1982.)
Fictional characters "Harry, Mark, Peter, and Melly" August 7, 1977
Mount Prophet, Arctic Glacier route. FA July 28, 1978 John Scurlock photo
Green Elbow Couloir is melted-out polished slab and high patch of ice on left