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Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Slip of the Rope, Brent Rankin

    If he spat, the tiny movement of the rope would work the piton from its hold in the cliff just above, causing his primary anchor to give and dropping him ten feet. Then the domino effect would occur, his weight abruptly dislodging one locked carabiner, then the next and the next, until finally nothing would be holding him from the 500-foot fall below. He will have had zipped out. He held his breath. The thin air seemed to amplify the wayward crying of the nylon rope as he swayed helplessly in the wind.
    He’d climbed here before, and hiked the white plateau on the mountain so many times that the place felt like an old home. Three, maybe four times he’d cross the ice bridge that he hadn’t known was there. Luckily, when it collapsed into the crevasse where he hung now, he had secured enough belaying anchors to hold his weight and more. He knew not to trust snow; he trusted rope.
    The cold wind on the mountain blew across the peak, whipped the snow into a white lather and, in a vortex, dropped down over the edge of the cliff. It chewed through his parka and wool sweater, biting his flesh. Each time the wind caught him, he bounced between the flat vertical surface from which he hung and sheer nothing behind and below. He felt the piton give a little. The rope…she held.
    The harness tightened across his shoulders and back. If he could only inch up the rope, get to the piton; he might be able to drive it back into the face of the cliff. The hammer hung from his belt on a loop, but the anchor was yards above him. Could he make it? Inch by inch? He reached up and pulled, cautiously, cautiously.
     He made about a foot. A foot! He looked up through his darkened goggles and estimated another 29 feet to go. The rope, she held.
     The blistering wind blew down through the crevasse, again, spinning him helplessly, like a baby’s plaything. He knew to close his eyes. He wouldn’t see things spinning, thus upsetting the equilibrium in his inner ear and making him dizzy. With dizziness came loss of control and motor function. He waited for the spinning to stop.
     He felt the warm sunlight resting on his back, and he opened his eyes. He was still now, hanging toward the face of the cliff about two feet away. But, because of the extreme cold at this altitude and the warming sunlight, he expected more of the violent winds to move down the chasm. Cold air sinks, warm air rises. It’s a fundamental law in nature.
     He pulled on the rope, and she helped lift him another foot or two. The rope was his only help. Looking up, he saw the ice covered cornice at the edge of the precipice, now maybe 25 feet above him and the loose piton that threatened his life ten feet below that. Yes, he’d make it to the top. He promised.
     He worked in a self-belaying motion. Webbed loops of nylon were fastened onto the rope at intervals and by tugging on them he had a makeshift ladder. The rope held him softly.
     Unexpectedly, a webbed loop broke under his weight and his foot dropped through. He grabbed the rope more tightly and pulled it against his chest, maximizing his center of gravity. The rope held him, too. He groaned and the sound echoed in the chamber. Snow off the cornice fell past and he watched as it vanished into the black empty space below him.
      He hung like a rag doll on a clothesline, legs dangling and arms limp. He was getting tired and exhaustion was the last thing he needed. He had to fight. He was a man and that was his due. It was nature fighting him. It had always been that way, something undefined and threatening, against him. Perhaps that was why he climbed, to satisfy that indefinable turmoil in his soul. The rope, in the wind, whispered hold on.
      He’d found the strength somewhere, and was within ten feet of the icy overhang. The piton was now directly in front of him. He grinned at it as he raised the hammer in his fist. With two heavy whams, he sunk the brass end back into the rock. He tested it and then he ran the loose rope-end through the metal cleat attached to the anchor. He tugged at the rope. Everything held firm.
     There was a muffled cracking sound and the rope yanked against the carabiner. Another unexpected quick jerk and the cliff surface that the piton had been hammered back into exploded. He dropped twelve feet, and stopped with an intense jolt that rattled his teeth and twisted his back in the harness. He grimaced painfully. The rope couldn’t help. She tried.
     He saw it happening in slow motion. The second piton gave way and he dropped again, pulling out the next anchor and the one after that. Like an opening zipper, one piton after the next popped from the holes where they’d been hammered. The rope loped high above him, as he dug the crampons on his boots into the face of the cliff, trying to delay the fall. He looked up. He could have sworn he saw purple flowers growing out of the ice-packed overhang.
     But with nothing to hold him, he dropped like waste paper to the snow-covered floor of the crevasse 500 feet below, the rope following him, snapping and pulling down the flowers into the icy mist, chasing after him like an abandoned lover.

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