There had been a reluctance to move from under the warm blankets earlier, the breath misty in the still candlelight had also been expelled on doubting the sanity of midnight rising. But then, the blue-flamed primuses, the promise of a fine day written in bright stars above the lonely peaks; warm clothes, breakfast and cups of tea; these things had replaced torpor with at least an anticipation of enthusiasm. The ridge had been attempted before but the parties were always defeated by adverse conditions.
The leader of the party, sipping the hot tea from a green-jacketed thermos warming his thighs, looked down past his clinkered boots to the glacier below. There, remote and tiny, was the red roof of the hut they had left. He remembered the bepuzzlement of the tourists over their ambitions for this unclimbed ridge "Why not climb the mountain by one of the easier, usual routes?", one lady had asked. "The main thing is to get to the top. Isn't it?" "I suppose it is." (One could not communicate the incommunicable,he thought, then decided that was wrong. There was no incommunicable; that myth was due to the inability to find the formula of communication. The mystics identity with their God, the conciousness unfolding to contain the universe, was this communicable? No. This one thing seemingly impossible to make real to another was identity, one's own identity. But if the form was there, outside one somewhere would find the understanding complement. That was why there would never exist the optimists golden age; education could not create lenses only polish them.)
He lit his pipe and lay back looking at the sky.
To the west on the small rock eyrie where the three men rested, the ridge proper swept away in an ascending curb of ice, like a tilted sickle cutting at the clouds. This curving sickle of ice, blue-white in the rising sun like newly quarried marble, stretched up to a summit so graceful and small it seemed but a cloud.
The leader sighed, knocked out his pipe and stood up, his clinkers grinding on the white veined rock. (The frozen page 17blood of the mountains). Standing there he could see the wilderness of ranges stretching into the distance to three sides; there in the northern horizon a piled cloudbank suggested a higher, whiter world. His two companions also rose and the three checked the thin life-line that linked them, body and purpose, together. Ice claws strapped on, they gave a last glance at the hut far below then moved off along the ridge.
The going was easy for a starts a steep fan of hard snow leading up to where the climb would really begin. Feet moving in slow rythmic time the three moved upward. The second man on the rope felt the strain of the steepness in his ankles as he put his feet flat for the greatest grip of the claws. He thought wistfully of suggesting to the leader a zigzag course but refrained in dogged pride. The end man moved in a species of mindless ecstasy, whistling a fragment of music soundlessly over and over. He grasped his axe remembering how cold the metal had felt in his hands flushed from the early morning exertion. Now he felt capable of anything under the risen sun.
The first avalanche of the morning shook the air with a distant roaring. The leader glanced at the snow-cloud in the slopes of the range across the glacier. (The music of falling mountains). He reached the point of the fan and stopped, waiting. The other two climbed up to him taking in coils of rope as they came. "Here it starts," he said, looking dubiously at the ridge. His companions glanced at him and were silent. The leader tapped his boots one by one with the ferrule of his ice-axe to dislodge any snow that might have balled up in his crampons. Then he looked at his friends. Their eyes stared back expectantly through their goggles. "Hum!" he said, then to his second man: "Give us a belay, Harry."
The man grunted and drove the shaft of his axe in up to the head. Around this he looped the rope attached to the leaders waist. "Ahuh!" The leader moved out on the thin ridge seemingly oblivious of the twin gulfs to either side. (Now it has begun. Cornice. Have to move off the crest. Hell of a place to be in a high wind.) He started to cut steps along the uncorniced side of the ridge, while the sastrugi ice,thousand hooked, tinkled away into the void at the page 18blows of his adze.
"Six feet," called the second man, intimating that the length of rope had almost run out. A few more steps and the leader stopped, digging in the shaft of his axe. Then his second moved out to join him. "A man could fall two thousand feet here and not bounce one. Nice and exposed." The leader smiled then moved away along the ridge running out another length of rope. The second man watched him go, ignoring the chips of ice pelting his body as the steps were formed; he was more concerned in feeding the rope slowly from his hand around his axe. When the leader had gone as far as possible, the patiently waiting third man came up to the second. As he reached him his face, excited, contorted in semi-mock alarm, "Lets go home to momma. Whew ! What a Place to be !"
On they went as the sun climbed higher in the sky; never relaxing caution for a moment, though conscious,intensly conscious, of the void about them; of the sun, the sparkling air, and the valleys far below with blue streams in glaciers quivering with light. At the curve in the ridge the cornice tapered in to non-existence and the sastrugi gave way to smooth solid ice. Tirelessly the leader chopped steps, swinging easily from the hip; one, in the pick would sink --- a quick jerk and a piece of ice detached from the parent mass, then a few trimming blows and a foot moved forward. All used pick belays now to guard each others progress, the surface being so solid that only a pick could enter an inch or two --- and that with a hard blow. The rope that tied them together with greater intimacy than the umbolical cord the child to its mother, was zealously watched as it slithered slowly around the belaying axes.
They had been moving for almost two hours when the first hint of danger came. It came from the north in the form of a cooling breeze to the leader's hot face. He paused and licked his dry lips, looking away to the northern horizon. The snowy bank of clouds that had lain masking the distance was now moving towards them. (How fast ?) And preceeding it came this chill harbinger of danger. (To be caught here in a high wind !) He decided quickly. "Weather making. We'd better turn back."
His companions, now moved within conversing distance,agreed.page 19
"Blast!" The third man gave vent to the feelings of the party. "There'll be other days," the leader said, but he felt the same disappointment.(Who would have thought ?... Ah well!)
They started to retrace their steps with careful haste, the leader now coming last.
The wind blew softly first, but strengthened when about two-thirds of their return journey was accomplished.
The last few hundred feet they travelled in a nightmarish trance, heads averted, leaning into the blast to keep upright, all the while feeling the mountain shudder with the furious rush of air. Eyes watering and hands numbing they fought the wind as if it were a live thing, their jaws grim, teeth clenched, muscles tense and straining. The leader felt the movements of his companions in the dimness ahead communicated in sympathetic jerks and trembles in the rope held fast in his hand. Those intimations of the human mitigated the feeling of being alone in a scene utterly alien. As he sucked at the flying air, endeavouring to breathe he realised suddenly that the alieness consisted solely in the impersonality of the menace.
Off the ridge and down the fan of snow they battled, vague shapes in the flying snow. They hastened now to be in the lea of the droning, drumming hell. The leader began to feel elation over the conflict nearly ended. (Safe you winds! Safe you chanting flanks!) His ecstasy was shattered by a sudden loud cry below. "Hold!" Despite the wind it seemed echoed from a thousand throats - "Hold ... Hold ... Hold ... Hold ... !" Though the cry rang demanding and desperate the leader felt no alarm; felt only the need to act swiftly, instinctively, as he had acted a hundred times before. He half turned and with a powerful thrust drove the shaft of his axe into the snow, throwing the rope in his other hand over it in almost the same motion.
Nothing happened for a moment's space, then came another faint cry from below and the rope started to slip snakelike away. He let a few coils disappear then slowly applied pressure, the rope breaking the fall, cutting deeply into his flesh. As he felt the rope stretch and quiver his mind page 20partly relaxed, then another noise dulled by the wind and the rope leapt hack against the axe to lie limp and lifeless.
The leader locked at it stupidly a few seconds then. started shaking with horror. "No !" Frantically he jerked on the line; the frayed end came up to his feet. He screamed into the wind, screamed many times hoping; but no answer came. From side to side he looked his head nodding sagely, his expression almost that of an idiot; than he moaned and sank to his knees pressing his face against the cold steel of the axe in sad desperation. He knew that he would return safe to the hut in the valley, he knew he would lie in the warmth looking out at the moonlit peaks; he knew that, as certainly his companions would not; would never do these things again.
A vast bitterness filled his throat. "Why ? Why ? "
Then he realised that his question was pointless. He saw in a vision Man building his cities, his roads and bridges; his philosophies and religions; saw him trying to shape the universe to his image in his longing to belong. But he did not belong. Beyond the prison of the mind and longing was the utter finality of the not human. The rope was broken, and now he was alone.