Soul Mountain

“Climb to the Bottom”

Bethany Lee has saved many lives at Earth’s highest altitudes. But when a personal achievement lies just a few steps ahead of her, will she put her dreams aside to meet the needs of another helpless climber one last time? 

Ascent

Summit

Search

Storm

Bivouac

Descent

 

Ascent

Bethany Lee waited.

Above her, some three hundred vertical meters or so, the summit of Vinson Massif stood watch over the continent of Antarctica at an altitude of nearly five kilometers. The muscles in her legs flexed like rubber bands, yearning to push the rest of the way to the top. It was so close. Her final prize, the last of seven.

The early morning sun teased Beth’s cheeks with a stinging warmth in the frozen white desert. The flaps of her down suit fluttered and slapped her face as she sat on the steep ridge of the mountain in the brutal wind. Bits of ice tumbled around her like rapids of salt, wriggled loose by the squall. The Dater Glacier seeped down and away into valleys of barren wilderness, disappearing under a growing boil of fog and cloud.

She was crouching, one leg on either side of the jagged knife-blade that climbed in rivets up to Vinson’s zenith. Below, a herd of slow-moving climbers in blue and red tarried toward her. At the rear of the pack, lagging on the upper shoulder with its fixed lines, was a tiny figure in a bright yellow suit wobbling over an ice axe plunged deep into the loose, fluffy snow. Beth looked away to the south and eyed the mustering fog, a gathering tempest that screened the open plain. She turned back to the group and its plodding caboose.

It was going to be close.

Far below, the yellow-clad figure looked up and peered into the crystalline air toward her. With a free hand the figure waved, yanked its axe free with a spray of crystals, and resumed the climb. The little body waved and continued plodding, duck-walking up the mountain a few inches at a time.

Then, across the chasms of infertile rock and ice, she heard a shout.

“I’m coming, Beth!”

She gritted her teeth but waved back. “You’re doing great!” she called to her lagging companion.

The duck waddle quickened and Beth rose on powerful legs and started back down. She would make the summit. She surely would. But she would do it with the girl in yellow by her side.

Beth befriended the compactly formed Italian girl without any effort.

In Punta Arenas, as the team assembled for the five-hour flight to Glacier Base Camp, Beth was stunned when the fresh-faced, diminutive girl grasped her hand and kissed it.

“You’re Dr. Bethany Lee!” the girl cried with a wispy accent. “It is such an honor to meet you!”

Mona Cattaneo had spent her childhood gazing up at the Alps, dreaming of wondrous adventures and courageous thrills. She had climbed little, struggling with even the lowest elevations back home. But after a recurring dream about dying in childbirth, she vowed to explore her limits as a woman and an adventurer. Apparently a close friend, a climber with the résumé for a peak like Vinson, had been forced to opt out at the last minute – a pregnancy, ironically – and would forfeit her deposit if a replacement climber could not be found. Mona embellished her experience enough to earn the friend’s spot on the expedition, so here she was, struggling with a thirty-degree incline that required little technical skill beyond putting one foot in front of the other.

Beth urged the rest of the team up to the top and took a moment to savor the view. For her it was one of modest beauty. After the thin-aired glory of the shimmering Himalayas, viewed from the perch of the gods, the pinnacles of Antarctica were beautiful mostly in their stark isolation. Their white teeth perforated the horizon in each direction as robes of cloud encircled them, melding with the blanket of snow and ice that masked the continent hidden far below. The snaking fingers of glaciers dug into the earth, their cracked knuckles bending against the more stubborn spines of rock that rose up from the unknown depths.

She heard the crunch of snow and crampons arriving with a fresh, brisk wind, and she looked up to find that her companion was finally catching up. When Mona arrived she dropped to her knees, gasping but smiling with childlike embarrassment. Beth squatted to the ice and rubbed circles on Mona’s back. “You’re doing great. We’re almost to the top.”

The wheezing Italian flashed a thumbs-up at her guide, then bent over the ice on all fours. Beth took long smooth breaths of her own through her fleece scarf, enjoying the thick, fruitful air at nearly 16,000 feet. It was crisp but oxygen-rich and her blood welcomed it. Energy sparked at her fingertips. Sure, it was cold as the devil, but Beth had known unfathomable cold, that lonely appointment with death when all things seem to stop and one simply prays to go quickly. She had known it many times.

Mona pushed herself to one knee, then up to both feet. “I’m ready, Beth. Let’s go.” She began to shove off on her own, perhaps anxious to prove herself.

But Beth took the woman’s shoulder. “Hold on,” she said. Mona turned, her eyes mixing surprise and shame, and Beth sat on the mountain beside her. They were practically at eye level.

“Listen to me, Mona,” Beth said. “Do you see those clouds?” She pointed into the distance with her gloved hand.

Mona looked obediently into the distant, swollen murk, and nodded. “Yes.”

“Those will be here in about three hours.”

“Three hours.”

“If we aren’t back to High Camp by then, we’re in trouble. Do you understand me?”

Mona nodded. “I understand.”

Beth searched Mona’s eyes as they flitted back and forth to the tempest. The pupils pulsing with tension. Naivety shimmered in the liquid film that covered them.

Send her down now, Beth thought. Mona stared back, so humble, entirely reverent, her eyes gaping for approval.

Don’t let her do this.

“From now on,” Beth said, “you need to keep up with me, Mona. Can you do that?”

“Yes, Beth.”

“Right behind me. Breathe slowly. Concentrate on each step. Build a rhythm. Can you do that?”

“Yes. I’m ready.”

So young. She’d never invested months of training and travel, thousands of dollars, the lives of those most precious to her, only to glimpse the summit and turn back soaked in ice and ignominy. Beth’s stomach turned.

Turn her back.

“Okay. Let’s go,” Beth said quietly.

She stood, ice axe in hand, and took the first determined step up the slope. Mona stepped in Beth’s boot prints and mirrored her movements. The wind seemed to kick up as they climbed, whistling with a fury that threatened to blow them over and down the shoulder-blades of the mountain.

How did this keep on happening? Why were these inexperienced, clueless people throwing themselves at such brutal, high-altitude peaks? What did they expect would happen?

Someone must have lied to Mona about her ability – or perhaps Mona was good at lying to herself. At least, Beth thought, they weren’t on Everest, the great Himalayan orgy of stupidity and machismo. She had hoped that here, on the lone remaining frontier of the Earth, she would be free from it. But the moment she met Mona and looked into her star-struck eyes, Beth knew that she would be coaching again. Never mind that she was here on a quest. Never mind that she was about to become one of a handful of women to conquer the famed Seven Summits. None of that mattered when it became obvious that Mona’s European team cared little for shepherding her up the hill. So once again, it was up to Beth.

Mona was falling behind. Almost ten meters downhill from Beth, the puny woman was struggling with the gradually sharpening angle of the ascent. One by one, her European teammates passed on their descent, some smiling and shouting about their summit success. The team leader and guide, a Norwegian named Nord, smirked at her as he passed, and muttered in his broken English, “Do good girls, make top today!” But Beth ignored his remark and looked over her shoulder; The clouds mushroomed in the distance, shrouding the valley miles below.

“Mona! On me!” Beth shouted, looking down again.

Mona was on the ground. She looked up, ashamed. Then Beth saw, sprinkled in the snow below her, brilliant spots of red blood. Mona looked down again and did not move.

Shit.

Beth reversed and scrambled down the slope, covering the distance to her companion in a small cloud of swirling ice and snow. Mona was coughing, her heaves painting the white mountain canvas with tiny spatters.

“You’re okay, baby, you’re okay,” Beth stammered. With a final desperate cough, Mona lifted her eyes to her guide, salty tears beginning to form and wobble in her cheeks. “It’s okay, you’re going to be okay.”

Mona said nothing, lowering her head and coughing again. Beth looked up – perhaps the Europeans were near – but the line of descending climbers bobbed in a narrow line, far below. The wind shrieked as it powered over the empty Antarctic plateau and the sun glowed brightly overhead, casting a thin gray shadow between the distant clouds and the flat white plains. Ice danced between them in small cyclones, biting their noses with tiny teeth. The summit stood some two-hundred feet above them, accessible by a simple footpath. Beth craned her head around to see the way; It was clear, well-beaten from the boots that had just passed. She could thank the Europeans at least for that.

Mona rolled to her side. Blood congealed in the snow beside her. Her eyes were closed, the chest rising and falling rapidly. Beth’s heart pounded in her ears. Working quickly, she shed her straps and pack and fumbled at the stubborn zipper in the blasting wind.

She retrieved her radio and pulled away at her mask, the invisible, icy mountain lashing at her lips.

“Lee to Glacier, Lee to Glacier!”

She peeled back her suit and hat and pressed the bulky metal unit to her ear, cupping a gloved hand over her other. The radio chirped, a garbled voice in the noise. She brought it back to her mouth. “A climber is down; Repeat, climber Cattaneo is down.” Back to the ear, the frigid metal painfully cold. Crackle, static, hissing. Mona moaned, a pitiful low song in the void. Beth waited. The worm of climbers below began to disappear behind a cleft of jagged stone.

Her ear exploded. “Lee – climber Cattaneo – summit elevation where – team above or – copy, Lee?”

“Turn the team back,” Beth said into the box. “I can’t help Cattaneo myself.”

Mona’s eyes remained closed, her breathing laborious. Beth held the radio at arm’s length, waiting for a response. It sparked again: “Cattaneo with you, Lee?”

“Turn the team back to get her,” Beth ordered.

“Nord – Nord, do you copy that?” it chirped.

Beth glanced up at the storm. Jesus, it was moving fast, its feet invisible at the base of the massif. She knelt in the snow and laid the radio beside Mona and dug into her bag again and found another fleece head scarf, a backup she kept for extreme cold.

“Mona,” she said.

Her eyes parted, seeing Beth. Her lips moved purple and slow, tracing words in the cold. I’m sorry, they struggled to say, but Beth was working too quickly to let her apologize any further.

“Here, wear this.”

Beth slid her a scarf over Mona’s face, aligning the gap for the mouth. She pulled the wool hat back over the scarf and tightened the hood on the suit, forming a puckered gap.

“Listen to me, Mona – I’m going up,” Beth said. “But I will come back and help you down.” From behind the narrow porthole of her suit, Mona’s eyes fell. They were filled with a weary, surrendering fear. But Beth firmly gripped Mona’s shoulder. “I’m leaving the radio with you. Either you stay and wait for me, or you head down yourself. Just let them know if you go anywhere, okay?”

The tiny figure, curled into a ball in the snow on the side of the great Vinson Massif, gave a microscopic nod. The gloved hands groped and clasped the radio. Relieved, Beth squeezed the shoulder again, bracing herself to leave. But a pang of guilt seized her mid-section, a lingering fear that the past was about to repeat itself. Beth paused, staring into Mona’s eyes. They stared back, waiting.

“I promise,” Beth said, fighting the rising scream of the wind. “I will not leave you up here. I promise!”

Standing, Beth kicked at the snow to cover and mute the crimson stains that might ultimately paralyze the terrified climber. With one final look into Mona’s face, Beth turned away and began the final crawl up to the summit of Mount Vinson. With each step, the picture of Mona’s body burned bright and yellow against the white negative of the slope. Beth pressed on and didn’t look back. If Mona was crying, or shouting out to her, she could not hear it. The blast of the wind muted all except for the blinding monologue in her mind.

The summit was within reach.

She had to keep climbing.

 

Summit

As she covered the final meters to the top of the mountain, Beth couldn’t help but recall that no one had ever died climbing Vinson Massif.

It was not a mountain that allured the world’s dare-devils. Its remoteness was a fence that protected it from the weak or the foolish, or even the lazy. Thousands had summited Everest thanks only to the labor and sacrifice of the Sherpa people, human workhorses who carried staggering loads up the mountain for laughable wages. No such indigenous workers lived near Vinson, so all the labor had to be done by the climber, an obvious turn-off to the braggart or white-collar professional exercising a mid-life demon.

Would Mona be the first Vinson fatality? And would her death be Beth’s fault? That immortal surge of guilt kept telling Beth that if Mona died, and it would be her fault.

But there were rules of the mountain, rules about teamwork and individual responsibility. Where was Mona’s team when she needed it? They were descending toward hot tea and biscuits, Beth mused with a scowl. And still the question remained: What in the hell was a girl like Mona doing in the world’s largest desert? A plucky, innocent thing like her should be far away from Vinson, riding bicycles with a handsome boy or painting landscapes. Beth’s disgust met pity somewhere in the middle as she drove forward, stabbing the ice with her axe and grinding out the final passage to Vinson’s summit.

As one reaches the top of the bottom of the world, one sees the Earth for what it is. In each direction there is a gentle arc as the globe tumbles into spherical purity. Plentiful peaks tempt photographers amidst the haunting emptiness of infinite white fields.

With slow, patient steps, Beth placed a boot on the summit of Vinson Massif and rested on her knee. She pulled her goggles down onto her scarf, taking in the view with naked eyes. The massif bent into the west as it perforated the longitude of the last continent; To the southwest, a vast expanse of perfect silver eternity. She sat, resting her arms on her knees, drinking it in.

The Seventh Summit.

I’ve finally done it.

How few women had seen what she had seen, compared with so many men! But there was no fanfare, no journalist leaning nearby with notes and a camera, no news coverage. As she turned to inspect the rest of the small, sloping landing of the summit, she verified what she had supposed would be true this time around: She was alone.

As the wind shrieked about her, the void was eerie in its emptiness. Around her the sticks of axes with flags wrapped around them represented various nations that had sent ambassadors to the last frontier. Boot prints dotted the coat of ice, some approaching the precipice of Vinson’s southwestern ridge, a steep face that tumbled thousands of feet to the Branscomb Glacier far below. Beth breathed slowly, recovering her strength

from the climb. Then, for a moment, a sudden break in the howling winds arrived, giving all to staggering silence. The air was still, the snow settled to the ground, and nothing dared disturb it.

It was in this absence of so much noise, in such a noisy life, that Bethany finally felt that he was gone. Her husband’s absence was palpable, the barren ice around her so lonely and empty as her mouth quivered with the cold. She had imagined his excitement at the flight into the continent. She had heard his awed murmurings in her heart as she drank in the remote beauty of the desolate massif. At times his ghost had walked with her, smiling in the story-book snow, a mirage that always blurred and faded once she reached it.

But there was no ghost on the summit of Vinson Massif. In the moment of unsullied quiet, when all things seemed to become clear, she knew once again that he was gone and that she was on her own and no new expedition or mountain or lofty goal could change that.

Then the quiet was gone. The wind gripped her hood and it rippled about her like flags in a gale. The summit plunged into a lifeless cold and snow knifed through her exposed skin. She pushed against her axe and rose to her feet. The summit appeared smaller while she stood, a tiny platform balanced precariously in the sky. Moving slowly and methodically she worked her to its lip and stepped off the roof of Antarctica and into the thickening snow and darkening skies.

Only then, her trophy bagged, did her thoughts returned to Mona. Sudden dizziness gripped her as she wondered in agony again if the girl would be alive when Beth found her.

 

Far below, the clouds were crashing into the base of the mountain, pluming like mushroom clouds of snowy ash. Soon the entire range of Sentinel Mountains would disappear under the crown of a furious squall. Beth was cursing as she labored down the ridge because she had left the radio with Mona. The storm was must faster, much more deadly, than she had anticipated. She did her best to run, digging the sides of her boots into the slope to keep her footing. She came to a stop, resting above a rather severe drop-off lined with deadly rocks. Looking over them, Beth had a
blurry view of the windswept face where she had left Mona. Her eyes pierced the dimming horizon, searching for the iconic yellow suit.

But Mona wasn’t there.

The surge of panic found Beth and paralyzed her. Her ears lost all feeling and the sound of the crashing wind coiled in them like water in a cave. The screaming of the mountain became a blank canvas and listening for a human voice, trying to sneak out of the noisy mire, was exhausting. The image of Mona’s face, imprinted so boldly in her mind’s eye, burned brightly before her again. So thin, so foolishly helpless.

You stupid girl, Beth thought. Swinging her axe into the ground, she lowered herself along a narrow shelf of ice that allowed passage over the rocks. Taking it slow, she kept sweeping the valley below for any signs, any hint of yellow peeking back in the thickening gloom.

Below the rocks, the shining apron of Vinson spread itself before her. If she was going to make time, it was here. Back-walking on all fours, Beth flew down the mountain, following the half-disappeared tracks of the Europeans who had long since descended, all while wincing at the wail of the mountain. She remembered the blood, and how she had covered it up to help encourage Mona. That would have been the perfect marker, but Beth had presumed Mona would still be there. Maybe she had roused herself, Beth thought. Maybe she was back with her comrades, warming herself with tea.

Beth clambered several hundred feet, finally pausing to catch her breath. She was still a long ways up the face of the mountain. Thick tentacles wound their way from the blizzard and up the valley, snaking between the peaks before her. There was no time to rest, but she was afraid of testing her limits. Just a few seconds more.

She rotated to a sitting position, scanning the hill again. The trail of footsteps continued down, arcing to the northwest far below. A short ways below, she thought there was a different color below the snow, something dark like rock against the pure blanket of white nothingness on the snow-swept breast of Vinson. Rolling back onto all fours, she worked her way there, fighting the wind that blew at her and up the slope.

As she descended, her breath seemed determined to flee from her, as if her body was refusing to play the hero again. Over and over Beth stopped to paused, dig her boots into the slope, and shield herself from the wind while her lungs caught precious gulps of frigid air before continuing onward.

She finally reached the spot, crawling around it, brushing away snow like an archeologist digging for buried artifacts. With just a few touches of her hand, the snow exposed splotches of thick, browning muck.

Mona’s blood.

This is where Beth had left her. Next to the blood, lower than the surrounding terrain, was a divot in the snow the size of a small human.

Where was she?

Damn it. Did she walk back with the others? What else could have happened? Beth peered into the snow, looking for answers. The footsteps were nearby, but Beth didn’t see any fresh ones leading away from the shadow of Mona’s body. She had gone somewhere else. But where?

Crouching to regain lost warmth, Beth gritted her teeth, her mind screaming in a long-burning rage. Why? Why were there such fools in the world? Fools who worked themselves into deadly situations and expected someone, someone like Bethany Jireh Lee, to save them. Why? She had come here with a personal and selfish goal in mind: To bag the final summit of the Seven – and perhaps her last ever. And why should she feel guilty? Climbing was an openly narcissistic and lonely sport. The rules of the mountain were cruel and Darwinian.

But Mona was still out here somewhere, Beth couldn’t help but think as the howl of the storm grew out of the depths below. She was inexperienced and alone, a child, gripped with the terror of a frozen doom.

And she was going to die.

Standing, Beth looked in every direction for any sign of the yellow down suit. There were no tracks from her body sliding down, helplessly lost to the rocks below; there were no tiny boot prints leading away, down the way with her teammates. Had the mountain wrapped its arms around her and absorbed her into its belly, claiming its first human remains?

Beth walked a circle around the spot, blood pumping in desperation.

Where the hell is she?

The woman was gone. Or – Beth reasoned finally – maybe she was there, but had simply melded with the blank world around her. It was impossible, of course, Beth decided, but at places like this, the impossible seemed to pop up all the time. Extreme cold and altitude did horrific wonders to the human brain, especially when deprived of sleep and solid food – hallucinations and visions were commonplace. She thought of Beck Weathers, the dead man walking of Everest in 1996, the man who’d been left on the South Col and awoke in the snow with a block of solid ice frozen to his face. Yet Weathers claimed to have seen a vision of his wife and children, beckoning him. Near-blind and stumbling dangerously close to the jagged edge of the mountain that tumbled thousands of feet to the valleys of Tibet, Weathers miraculously wandered about two hundred meters straight back into Camp 4. If an inexperienced doctor from Texas could survive, perhaps Mona could, too.

“Mona!” she called. “Mona!

The wind bellowed in reply. Her calls couldn’t have traveled more than a yard. Still, she called. “Mona! Mona Cattaneo! Are you here? Mona!” She waited, her voice burning from the effort. Thirty seconds, she told herself, eyeing the oil-black clouds that walled up the northern half of the continent. Thirty seconds, then Mona was on her own.

She waited, looking around her again. Still no yellow. Still no human life to speak of. Twenty seconds. She called again weakly, with hope that faded like the afternoon light of her summit day. Let her go, Beth told herself. You need the strength to get down. The storm boiled near. Thunder rolled softly over the empty plain below her, rebounding between the crags in an unholy symphony.

Ten seconds.

She called. This is the last time, she told herself. She was getting terribly cold, sitting alone on the mountain face. She stood, stretching her legs and swinging her arms. The wind screamed for a moment, a terrible sound, and Beth shuddered at it. She looked below; It was a long way down.

It was time. With a final glance at the place where Mona had lain, Beth stepped away, back into the path of beaten snow. The wind rose and shrieked again; It descended from the narrow rock paths above. Beth shivered once more; it was a disturbing sound, unnatural even. It screamed again, a deathly noise. Beth stopped.

It wasn’t the wind.

She spun around. The horrible shrieking was certainly coming from above her, far away up the side of the mountain, away from the well-worn path and among the treacherous rocks that guarded Vinson’s summit. Tucked in the rocks, waving slowly in the distance, was a yellow down suit.

 

Storm

Her lungs churned with a burning fury as Beth worked her way up the tallest mountain in Antarctica for a second time. There was little she could do to hurry other than climb with careful steps and selfless passion. Her body protested. She had left little in reserve after her summit bid and her mind spat at her to give up the rescue act.

Turn back.

She pushed onward. Despite the numbing of her weary mind, Beth quickly reasoned out the situation. Like so many other climbers and thrill-junkies, Mona had enjoyed a second-wind, an intoxicating burst of energy that she thought would carry her to the summit of wings of adrenaline. But it had worn off far earlier than she thought it would, and her body hit a debilitating wall of exhaustion.

Beth closed on the rocks, the second ascent sucking at time as the storm opened its jaws behind her. Ahead, her mark was no longer waving, but lying motionless as her protective coat fluttered in the wind like a Nepalese prayer banner. As she drew herself up the mountain the picture grew grimmer. Mona lay at the base of a steep wall, her yellow suit obscured by rocky, jagged teeth. She held her right leg in gloved hands. Beth scrambled up the last feet of the ridge and crawled into the maw of the rocky cliff. The tiny woman was huddled there, her hood open and trails of frozen tears streaking her face. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled, both hands holding her leg, “I couldn’t see…”

Beth said nothing and went about inspecting the leg. Hidden beneath the suit, she couldn’t know if it was swollen, lacerated, or both. She touched it gently and Mona yelped. Beth looked up; The cliff towered over them some thirty feet. The fall must have been brutal, shattering the bone. She looked back down at Mona, the eyes huge with terror. For a moment she glanced back at the leg, but it was useless to fuss over it any longer. “Can you move?” she asked.

Mona’s lips shivered uncontrollably. “I… I don’t know. I’m so tired, I’m so….”

The thunder echoed like a savage drumbeat below. Ice ripped through the air, darkness closing in, an inexorable pall. There would be no camp, Beth knew. She had known it the moment she came back for Mona. No tea, no soup, no fires. They would face the storm and it would test them. She would know the cold again, and she would not know it alone.

Beth emptied her pack with practiced speed. A sleeping bag, thin but lined with thermal sensors that reacted to body heat; Lengths of rope; Bottles of water; A tiny flashlight; A shovel. Beth laid them in the snow and turned to Mona. “Listen to me, Mona. I need to move you.”

The head shook and Beth saw the eyes bulge and the lips quivering, forming a word. Beth knew what it was, but she couldn’t care.

“You’ll be okay, just trust me.”

Squatting behind her, Beth hooked her arms around Mona’s chest and lifted. A wail of pain filled the air as Beth dragged her out of the rocks, over a shelf of ice and into the snow. Laying Mona down, the woman still cried and whimpered, holding her leg again.

There was no time to comfort or console. Beth scooped up the shovel and attacked the snow before her, digging as fast as she could. The sky was gray now, the mountain shrouded in a tempestuous night unnatural for this place and this season. Poor Mona lay nearby, mumbling in Italian, weeping anew. Minutes passed as Beth carved into the mountain, building a small hovel, angled into the south and away from the driving winds and snows of the storm.

“Almost there, Mona, hang on…”

Beth retrieved the coil of snake-like neon rope. Setting the shovel alongside Mona’s broken leg, she lifted the leg gently and began looping the rope as Mona howled in agony.

“You’re doing great, stay with me, sweetie….”

She pulled the rope tight around the splint with the lightest jerk she could manage. Mona let out another pathetic wail as Beth moved from the leg to the shoulders.

“Listen, Mona, I have to move you,” she said. “It’ll only be a meter or two.”

“No, please – ”

“Here we go.”

Beth lifted.

The victim unleashed a horrendous cry as Beth lifted, dragged, and laid the poor woman into the crude shelter. The break was certainly mid-femur, perhaps the most excruciating of all bone-injuries. Beth had seen them before.

“It’s okay, Mona,” Beth began to repeat between raspy breaths, “we’re safe, it’s okay.”

Next was the sleeping bag. It would be unbearable for the wounded, but it had to be done. Sheets of razor ice swirled and filled her lungs with burning glaciers.

Beginning with the ankles, Beth began to wrap the bag around Mona’s body, working it up the calves and to the knees. She reached the thigh and Mona screamed, begging for her to stop, fighting her and pushing Beth’s hands away.

“Lift yourself!” Beth shouted.

But Mona lay still, her eyes closed against the slicing snow of the storm. “Mona, lift yourself up!”

She didn’t move. There wasn’t any time. Beth shouted, “I’m sorry!” and jammed her arm under Mona’s bottom. With a grunt, she lifted her and yanked the bag up the body with a free hand. With a spasm, Mona shook to life and screamed in rapid bursts.

“Help me, damn it!”

Beth pulled on the bag, inching it up to Mona’s face. Mona writhed, lost in a world of terrible pain that would not end. With a single, defiant tug, Beth brought the bag up over Mona’s head, draw-stringed it shut, and collapsed. Her lungs seared and her chest felt heavy with thin air and exhaustion. Clawing her way into the hovel and next to Mona’s tightly-bagged form, she drew the water bottles and flashlight to her and clutched them close. She groped for the strings of her own hood with numb fingers in their useless gloves, fingering the one barrier between her head and the raw force of an Antarctic storm. Lost in the snow, somewhere nearby, the radio buzzed some gibberish into the fray.

Jesus Christ, she thought, at least I had a sleeping bag on Everest.

Frostbite was mere seconds away. Her cheeks and nose seemed pleasantly warm – a sure sign the nerves were beginning to die. She caught a draw-sting – then the other – and yanked at them with weak, flimsy fingers. Tugging with the last of her strength, Beth’s vision narrowed to a tiny porthole. Beyond, in the unseen void, the storm finally descended on them with its full strength, a deafening black and unspeakable cold.

She knew she would not sleep. Bivouacs like these were long and filled with endless thoughts and questions, the by-products of exhaustion and fear. She pressed her body against Mona’s on the other side of the sleeping bag, feeling the slow rhythm of her labored breathing. She closed her eyes.

She would not pray. She would not beg.

She would only wait for whatever end may come.

 

Bivouac

In the blinding fury of the exposed mountain, the cold extended its icy fingers and pried into Beth’s mind.

On the morning of January 21st. Bethany Thema Jireh submitted a hand-written essay to her science teacher titled, “The Definition of ‘Bivouac’.” She watched as Mrs. Cohen, a squat ice cream scoop of a woman, read the document with careful eyes. Then, halfway down, the eyes bulged into full moon disks that looked up at Beth, back to the essay, and to the phone, which she picked up and dialed hastily. A freckled boy nearby said, “Did Beth say a bad word?”

Beth shook uncontrollably as the cold washed over her. After so many climbs she could numb herself to the cold as long as she could keep moving. But lying in her shallow snowy grave, rolling about to keep both herself and Mona warm, the cold slipped its fingers through the cracks in her suit and mask. Her blood was cooling rapidly. She closed her eyes and rocked back and forth – anything to keep her body busy.

Afternoon. The same day. Or was it the next day? She couldn’t remember for sure. She could remember the gray front step of the house. Like a dream remembered but grasped at until it fades, leaving only shreds of detail that confuse and exhaust. Light, green paint faded like autumn. Her mother answering the door while she stood outside with two tall white policemen.

Mrs. Jireh, they said, may we have a word with you?

No, no, she thought, wriggling and rubbing her gloved hands together between her clenched legs. She could remember that day now. How long ago was that? How old? Ten? Eleven?

Later that night.

“Mona,” she said to the sleeping bag, “I’m right here.”

The form seemed to give a shudder, though it could have been the wind. The sting of ice crystals forced her eyes to slam shut.

The living room.

Dark.

One solitary light in the corner while her mother sat on the couch, her face half-hidden in the shadows. Her father pacing, shouting, slapping the back of one hand into the palm of the other for emphasis, SLAP, SLAP, wave-wave-SLAP. His words, shaming her: I have enough to worry about without you freezing to death, Bethany.

Maybe I’m remembering it wrong. That was a long time ago.

People die up there.

I know, Daddy.

She twisted her head to evict the memory and warm her brain. She flexed her toes in the boots and rubbed gloves together until her flesh seemed to burn.

Yes, she thought, people do die up here.

But not me.

You don’t have to worry, Daddy. I’ll be fine.

The primordial words convulsed her and she trembled for a moment, fighting the salty warmth in her eyes. But, as if to offer penance for her tears, the swirling cold stilled and retracted its tentacles to molest some other poor soul elsewhere on the mountain, and Beth breathed softly and easily.

A layer of jagged powder had settled on them and she brushed it off, rising to one knee. The sky was still black. The storm was nowhere near its end. Her mind busied itself planning her descent once the storm had completely passed so she could lead the Norwegians up to their fallen teammate. Doing the math, she rationed her remaining water and calculated the calories she’d need upon her return to High Camp. Mona’s time was preciously short and Beth would have to be as efficient as possible, which she could do when the dreaded tempest was over.

“I’ll get you out of here as soon as I can,” she said, patting the sleeping bag gently. It remained still, but Beth heard a low moan from behind the protective layers. “Once the storm clears,” she said, “I’ll get you out of here.”

Below them, another wall of pallid horror was spraying into the air as if by machine gun fire. Tucking herself in against Mona’s body once more, Beth closed her eyes and waited for the second wave. The darkness was silent for a moment, eerily peaceful, accented by the sound of her carefully paced breathing. There was, she believed in those fragmented seconds of calm, hope for the two of them. Maybe it would blow over within an hour or two. She wasn’t nearly so optimistic about Mona’s injury – she may never walk again, at least not on her own legs – but she would certainly make it down the mountain alive with a hell of a story to tell.

And then the icy hands returned with frozen calloused palms to undo every good and beneficial thought. It was an unholy cold, the breath of Satan, blown to strip men and women of their dignity and strength. It was as if she had never known warmth and never would again.

 “To stay warm during my first bivouac, I crawled into my pink sleeping back and sang some of Daddy’s favorite hymns….”

The cold fingers pressed their rigid prints into her skull, and Beth took to shaking and shivering once more as the storm rolled over her like the heels of a glacier. She was instantly a child again, humiliated and ashamed. She was loved and abandoned, cherished and thrown away. In the tormenting sphere of her memories, she couldn’t tell the difference between fiction and truth. All stung of pain and isolation. All went cold and dark as Beth pressed against Mona’s motionless form, willing the storm to pass.

It raged on.

The cold remained.

 

Descent

At roughly 3,850 meters the summit plateau is a gently sloping lip near a sharp rampart of crags. Visible from nearly the entire summit descent, the village of tightly pitched tents stands starkly brilliant with its neon blues and yellows against the blank waves of snow. Beth spied them soon after departing the site of her bivouac, and also saw a column of climbers snaking its way upward from that dense pocket of human civilization. She instantly recognized them. The Europeans were finally coming for their teammate.

Bethany Lee descended slowly. She hadn’t eaten in nearly twenty-four hours. Her body twitched, chills still gripping the weakened marrow and bone. Crampons crunched into the mountainside as she took measured steps towards the High Camp below her, punctuating her slow breathing that drew in deep gulps of air and released them through pursed lips that burned from exposure to the unlivable cold. She could still feel her nose and creeks – by some miracle they hadn’t been frostbit beyond repair.

The leader of the column, still an insect-like speck on the horizon, waved to her. She saw the wave but did not return it, using one arm for balance and the other to keep an ice axe at the ready in case she slipped or lost her balance and needed to self-arrest. He waved again but she pretended she hadn’t seen it, instead focusing on her own descent.

Let the bastards climb.

Merely a dozen or so steps into her descent, Beth made her final decision.

She would never climb again.

This would be her last, she resolved, although she sensed the that resolved had been cooking in her soul for months now. She had climbed all that was necessary and spent more than enough time with climbers, the last great races of arrogant heroes.

What awaited her, though?

Her thoughts flew north, to Los Angeles and her professorial post at the University of Southern California. She didn’t have to figure it all out now. She just had to get off this damned peak and the rest would work itself out.

She could tell by the European expedition leader’s expression that he was assuming the worst. Nord, the Norwegian, led the column of would-be rescuers. He had pulled up his goggles to greet her as they drew near on the slope. “Lee,” he said, his voice raspy with the effort, “Is Mona okay up there?” He looked past her, up the slope, the way she’d come.

Nord was genuine. There was no doubt about it. But his agonizing tardiness – his cold adherence to the mountain code –nauseated her, so she said nothing and continued her step-by-step retreat from the sky.

“Lee!” Nord shouted. “Is she okay?”

Beth took a few more steps. She did not look any of them in the eye.

Did it matter to them? Did it even matter to her? She paused to take a quick drink from her bottle and look down at the camp.

“She’s dead,” Beth said.

It was matter-of-fact, emotionless, a report of events past. Having said it, she resumed the descent, passing each European as they stared at her.

Two hours and nearly fifteen-hundred vertical meters ago, the storm finally fizzled so the snow and ice could thin into a poetic crystalline mist under the emerging sun.

Beth rose to her knees and shook her body to get the blood flowing once again. She stood, surveyed the course ahead, checked her gear, and kneeled by Mona’s side. Tapping the sleeping bag, Beth said, “I’m going to get help.”

Nothing moved. No sound came in reply. Beth gripped the bag with firm fingers where the shoulder should be. “Mona, can you hear me?”

Nothing. The bag lay motionless under a thick layer of fresh snow. Wiping it aside, Beth pulled at the head of the bag.

“Just be asleep, girl, be asleep for me….”

The hood of the yellow suit was still drawn into a tight aperture. It did not move.

“Mona?” she said, loosening the gap with her gloved hands. The tiny face became visible. A thin ribbon of purple lay where lips should be. The face was the color of cold wax. Her eyes open. Unblinking.

Bethany rolled onto her backside, sitting in the cavity she had dug to protect them. Her clenched teeth sent a shooting pain up her neck but she didn’t care. She stared into the motionless face of the Italian woman.

The first victim of Vinson.

With all the gentleness and respect she could muster, Beth tugged at the sleeping bag and pulled it up over the head, covering the deathly face. She gathered her pack and ice axe and stood, glued to the spot of Mona’s demise, waiting for some eulogy to deliver itself from the depths of the Earth’s foundations. When it didn’t come, Beth whispered, “I’m sorry,” and took her first steps down the mountain.

That’s when she decided.

Yes. I’m done with this.

Only when Beth reached her tent and was brewing ginger tea and dissolving a biscuit on her tongue did she relax. After all, she was safe. Her body’s energy would soon be restored. Her spirit would mend but never fully, she thought with a grim frown. She had seen plenty of frozen bodies with expressions twisted or paralyzed in confusion and horror. Mona’s would hopefully be the last.

Despite multiple intrusions into her privacy, Beth spoke to no one until they flew back to Union Glacier Camp, a one-hour hop over the mountains and wastelands of Antarctica. While at first Nord thanked Beth for trying to help Mona, within six hours he was accusing her of negligence and wrongfully leading the young Italian to an altitude where she would surely perish. Beth ignored him. By the time they were boarding the plane to Union, Nord seemed to be happy treating the situation like nothing had happened, as if Mona’s unclaimed luggage was simply leftover manna from heaven. Still, Beth gave him no ear or word. It wasn’t personal. It was just easier.

The only exception to her silence came upon her return to Union when Camp Manger Hector Gonzales, an expedition manager she’d known from her climb of Aconcagua, sat across her in the mess tent with two steaming mugs of coffee. He placed one before her and brought his own to his lips, sipping beneath his thin black mustache. Outside, Mona’s still-sleeping body remain wrapped in Beth’s sleeping bag, waiting for its final journey.

When Beth ignored the cup of coffee, Hector pushed it toward her. “You need this,” he said softly.

Nearby the assorted teammates of Mona Cattaneo were communicating with family via satellite phone and email, trumpeting their success. Beth took the mug and reminded herself that she, too, had once sent similar messages in spite of similar tragedy. Now there was no one to inform. So she muttered, “Thanks,” and brought the warm liquid to her lips.

“I told Dr. Matthews that you need to get checked out,” Hector said. His eyes were narrow, fatherly.

“I will.”

“I’m not joking, Lee. You were exposed in that storm for hours. How are your feet?”

She rolled her eyes. “I walked down the mountain, Gonzo. They’re fine.”

“You’re a piece of work, Lee.”

“Well, you can relax,” she said. “This is my last climb.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“It is,” she said. “I’ve seen enough bodies, enough snow, enough ice for a lifetime.”

“You did all you could,” he said quietly.

She shrugged.

“You did all you could,” he repeated.

Her eyebrows twitched. “I know. The girl fell from a rock face and fractured her femur. The storm made descent impossible.” She released a long, weary sigh, then ducked into the coffee mug again. “It’s just… I don’t know,” she said, her thoughts evaporating.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Shit happens, Gonzo.”

“It sure does,” he said.

She drained the coffee and wiped her mouth. “How’s your wife, by the way?”

He smiled. “She wants this to be my last climb, too. Imagine that.”

Beth smiled, a muted laugh, and patted him on the shoulder. “You’re the best, Gonzo.” She stood to give him a quick hug. “Thank you for the coffee.”

“Any time,” he said. “And hey – I’ll see you next season.”

The words stayed her, and she stopped to gaze around the tent, considering the thought of leaving it all. The mess tent was a symbol of her life’s passion for so many years. She felt her heart slam against its cage for a moment. That, she knew, was normal.

“No, Gonzo,” she said. A contented smile formed between her warming cheeks. “No, you won’t.”

 

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Image: Gavin_Antarctica_Vinson, Flickr (Creative Commons)

“Climb to the Bottom” © 2016, David H. Safford

“Climb to the Bottom” is a part of Soul Mountain, a collection of short fiction and poetry. Click here or on the image to read more stories. Download the Kindle version or purchase a print copy soon.

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