Copyright © 2016
by Nathan M. Hurst
Life was full of ‘looking forward’. It had so far been pretty linear, joining the rat race from college and off he sped, but now and then things came along which really inspired him, gave the rest meaning. Generally, his life could be described as dull, occasionally punctuated with moments of adrenaline fuelled crazy. Today was one of those days. A crazy day.
With the sun at his back he concentrated on the craggy vertical face of the mountain before him. Always with three points of contact and searching for his next hand hold or foot placement he inched his way up. Muscles ached, but in a way which reminded him he was alive, breathing in the crisp mountain air, bathing in the warm autumn sun. Life didn’t get any better.
A cry from an mountain eagle pierced the wealth of sound. Often he would speak to others and they would comment on the silence, but he found climbing anything but silent. The wildlife would shriek and hoot, his heart beat and breathing would pound with his exertions while the wind would buffet and wail as it argued with the solid rock as it passed. Even the kit he carried would clank or creak as it moved around his body, flexed and jostled by his motion. No, climbing was nothing but feedback through sound. Every noise a message informing him of progress, of danger and of success.
He had set off at dawn with the radio already playing music for commuters heading into the city. However, he headed in the opposite direction with a wide grin on his face as he saw the sun rise through his shades. It was shaping up to be a perfect day for climbing, not a cloud in the sky and the sun not too hot. The radio station weather man agreed.
The rumble and hum of the road could be felt through his seat, a soft massaging of his body as the rugged wheels of his Jeep ran across the smooth surface of the highway. Already he could see the sunlight streaming over the mountains throwing the range into silhouette. The DJ ran the next track and a pumping rhythm accompanied the sounds and sensations of the vehicle, in his mind he had been driving through a MTV video lit in burnt orange and blue.
Now, he was anything but comfortable. The weather had unexpectedly turned and he was beginning to struggle against the rising wind shear on the cliff face. The angle of each gust was almost completely perpendicular to his ascent and was pulling at his clothes and occasionally threatening to lift him bodily away. He worked the rope and hung in his harness against the carabiner, angled himself and proceeded to tap a piton into the rock, looping the rope through and securing it he took a moment to assess the closing weather.
There was no need to wonder where the storm had suddenly sprung from, that was how these things happened. The unexpected simply needed to be dealt with. Looking to the top of the face he considered he had another 30 minute climb, possibly a little less, but with the weather changing as fast as it was he may not have that long. He could assemble and fix the shelter to the face in five minutes. He had just fixed the first anchoring piton, he began setting up the shelter.
Inside as he got settled he heard the storm intensify. Unpacking a tea sachet he pinched the corner and cracked the exothermic crystal, instantly the sachet began to warm and the packet to reform and mould itself into the solid form of a covered cup. Once hot he clipped the two perforated holes opposite each other on the cup's cover and began to huff and sip the hot tea.
Considering his next steps he picked up his ReadyComm personal device. The GPS was working and picking up the satellite without issue. ReadyComm was a neat bit of kit. Linked into his comms account and from there to his health and wellbeing service and the mountain rescue service. If anything happened to him this little gizmo would scramble rescue teams to his location, teams who would in turn apply immediate treatment or speed him to a hospital if required. It had battery charge for two weeks and more than enough to see him though his vacation. It was a thing of to inspire techno-joy.
The storm was getting worse, throwing his shelter around and flapping the strengthened nanofibre exterior in ever more violent gusts. Checking his ReadyComm he found the local weather status, it was reporting winds in excess of 120 mph. Now he was worried. He took a rope and secured it to the apex of the shelter which in turn was anchored to the rock face by the highest piton he had set earlier then ran it around and through his harness ending in a stopper knot. Now even if the shelter failed, he would be staying where he was.
As if he had cursed himself by the very thought a gust pulled hard at the shelter and howled like a banshee as it tore and ravaged the flimsy structure. Acting like a sail in the storm the strain on the trailing anchor became too much and in a moment he found himself folded and wrapped up a toppling and confused environment. There was a loud tearing sound and the side of the shelter gave way under the huge forces now applied, in addition to his weight and that of his kit. He instantly tried to reach out and grab for his unsecured kitbag, but the last he saw was a momentary glimpse as it fell from view through the rent in the exterior.
Trying to make sense of his surroundings he found himself dangling at the end of his secure line, the remains of the shelter wrapped around his head and upper body. He scrambled against the material and managed to get free, the shelter now flapping around flat to the rock face but away from him.
Squinting into the distance he could see the storm charging him, heavy formations of clouds tumbling and boiling towards him. He needed to get off the rock face and to the top of the climb. The distance hadn't changed but the circumstances had, now without his kit and additional rope his only option was to free climb the rest. He had done this climb dozens of times in the past so knew it well, even so the risk was high. Missing a hold or slipping in his footing would be the end, but staying here in the storm on a single tether was also suicide.
Remembering his ReadyComm he quickly tried to locate it. Being his lifeline to the outside world it was always tied to him by a strong durable line, it now dangled and clattered about him as he was buffeted by the storm. Pulling in the line he raised the device to his eye-line to read but the screen was inoperable, having fallen and smashed forcefully against the rock face the screen was now a splintering of different tiny fragments all held in place by the polycarbonate laminate. It was more than useless, unable to activate the distress beacon he had no one to call on, there was no rescue to this nightmare. He growled in rage and threw the device away from himself, only to have it recoil and strike him in the chest after reaching the full length of its tether.
He had to climb.
Carefully finding his footing and handholds he raised himself up to create slack in his secure line. Once in place he took a calming breath and released the linking carabiner. He was now on his own and working without a safety line. In this weather he didn't fancy his chances, but it was better than hanging there to get battered to death. Staying close to the rock to try and reduce the effect of the wind he reached up with this fingers feeling their way over the surface of the rock as delicately as over the skin of a lover. Each handhold tested for durability and security he raised himself up one sure movement at a time.
Trying to keep his breath calm and concentrate on each move it was like playing chess with nature, any moment he could fall into a checkmate which would be the last move he ever made. But in some regard he felt lucky, at least it wasn't raining, that would really take any hope he had a way. It would become like climbing a sheet of ice in plimsolls. Looking over his shoulder he could see the clouds almost on him, dark and sinister. Five minutes, all he needed was five minutes.
He slipped. Screaming with effort he could feel the tendons of his right arm extending and all his joints rage in pain. His world became dark and grey as he felt himself starting to pass out. Controlling his flailing limbs he twisted himself back to a solid position on the rock and for a moment releasing his grip and the strain in his right arm. It hurt like hell, but he was meters away from his goal. Gritting his teeth he pressed on, cursing himself for his lapse in concentration so close to the end.
With his right arm clearly now weaker to him, the last few meters took longer than he anticipated. Knowing he would be unlikely to hold on if he slipped in the same way again, he took his time with every handhold and foot placement measured and certain. The top of the climb seemed to him like a watched kettle, each unbearable push and pull getting him no closer to the top. But finally with a touch that made his heart leap he realised he was at the ridge. His breath began to wobble, but this was not the time. Giving every last ounce of focus he pulled himself to safety.
Now at the top of the stack his emotion gave way and tears flooded his eyes as he rolled onto his back and looked skyward to the thundering clouds which now blotted out the sun, his shout of defiance stolen by the wind as it continued to wrestle with the world it passed. He had survived. Life had thrown him a fireball and he had evaded it. As the adrenaline of the desperate climb ebbed away, exhaustion began to take hold and he lay there at peace with himself. An internal quiet which ran counter to the violence of the world around him which had recently tried to kill him. For a moment he closed his eyes, just to rest.
He woke cold, with the chill of icy rain peppering his face like needles. The storm had not relented. His clothes which ran with sweat before now stuck to him in the terrible clammy way wet clothes do, pulling horribly at the skin and making every movement physically noticeable. More than ever he needed to find some level of shelter from the elements.
As he knelt his first view of the top of El Diablo was obscured by the dark and driving rain, but the oddity of the weather gave him an orange horizon where the world beyond the storm still bathed in sunlight. The orange line was broken in places by the silhouette of large boulders and some smaller scattered about. He chose the largest he could see and headed to the leeward side. Jamming himself hard against the boulder he felt the force of the wind drop, occasionally it still licked at him, but now the worst of the driving rain was off him.
Huddling in the small oasis his mind began to go through his options. Picking up the ReadyComm, he looked at it again. This was his only link to the outside world, he had to make it work for him. Before, he would have told someone where he was going, his mother, his sister, someone who would become worried if they hadn't heard from him by the evening. Help was always only hours away. But ReadyComm was the future, the ultimate independence, no longer did you need to bother your folks about a simple climb. ReadyComm was plugged into all your essential services. Even in the event of your death, ReadyComm services could track your vital signs or lack of them and locate your body. It was a full and well thought through service, every outcome assessed and planned for.
Apart for a smashed touchscreen, it seemed.
With an irreparably damaged screen all the comms would still connect although now he couldn't operate the device. His vital systems tracking would still work and be telling any potential rescuers that he was fine, his heart still pumping like an athlete. But he was far from fine. He was beginning to shiver hard and where once he felt cold, now he felt nothing. The driving rain and constant ferocious gale had slowly but inevitably drained him of warmth, he was now entering the beginnings of hypothermia. Soon he would be unable to think rationally, he was already feeling mentally lazy and ready to give in.
Somewhere within his blunted and sluggish reasoning a small light shone. Something about the ReadyComm, they could find your body even when dead. They would come for him if he died. But he wouldn’t need to die, only the device would need to stop transmitting. With the hope of life rekindled he began scrabbling around for a stone, heavy and hammer-like. Following the sling to the ReadyComm he placed it on the hard rock surface at his feet. With repeated heavy blows he struck the device again and again, crushing the outer casing and smashing the transmitter inside to fragments. With a final strike the power indicator on the upper casing blinked out.
He backed up to the boulder again and took what shelter from it he could. Staring out at the orange horizon between the darkness of ground and sky he now focused on the sun and its life giving rays, so far away yet somehow closer now. He had given himself a chance. Help would come. It had to come.