Monday, January 02, 2006

Climber's Goggles

We awoke at dawn and broke camp in silence, our empty stares and frostbite sores obscured behind scarves and climber's goggles. We shoveled a meager breakfast across frozen taste buds and tried not to think of home. Then compressed a day's supply of snow into our bottles, shouldered packs, and set off to summit a mountain we no longer wanted to defeat, simply survive.

At 4,000 feet you start to notice something is different about the air you're sucking. At 10,000 feet the trees stop growing. Marmots refuse to go any higher than 15,000, and dumb as they are, they must know something. At 20,000 feet above sea level, sneezes become potentially life threatening and you sometimes bleed from your hairline for no apparent reason.

We were at twenty-nine thousand, five hundred feet above sea level, slowly making the westerly traverse of Hyperventilation Ridge, still a good four climbing hours from the Suicide Steppes, that near-vertical ascent of rock and ice that separates mortals from the summit of K4. (K4 is not as well known a mountain as its little brother, K2, but is easily twice as deadly.)

In fact, K4 has claimed so many lives, local and foreign alike, that in 1989 the Sherpa’s Union in association with the Himalayan Board of Tourism unanimously voted to permanently deny the mountain's very existence.

"Pray tell good Sherpa, what is the name of that mountain?"
You can ask, pointing at the gnarled pillar of ice and snow that looms on the horizon, dwarfing famous summits like an optical illusion. The Sherpa will follow your finger, then abruptly drop his gaze.

"You are pointing at the outhouse directly in front of us atop a little hill." He'll reply. "We call it Nearby Hill with an Outhouse."

"No, no." You'll splutter. "I see the outhouse--I'm talking about way above and beyond, that massive peak jutting up in the distance."

"Oh that?...That is a circling bird; it is known locally as Bird that Circles."

"No dammit, you wretched Sherpa!!! To the left of the friggin bird and way behind it--the giant mountain on the horizon line." But it's no use.

"Time for tea!" He'll shout and quickly scamper away.

Press the issue any further and they crush your skull with rocks and blame it on a yak stampede.

Needless to say, K4 is a seldom-climbed mountain, and by the time what was left of our party reached Hyperventilation Ridge, we had long since discovered why.

I could tell you that seventeen of the original twenty in our party had simply turned back and were waiting for us, cozy and warm at base camp--but that would be a lie. I could tell you that a succession of avalanches didn't sweep away some of the finest climbers I ever saw, and was so random in its death-selection that the witnesses’ only response was a silent rededication to nightly-prayer.

I could tell you that Bobby "Good Hands" McGraw hadn't slid, screaming and wailing into an endless ice fissure, his final descent marked only by bloody fingernail grooves and snot. I could tell you that a freak wind flurry hadn't picked up the muscular Bavarian Twins and deposited them in a pulpy lump at the bottom of a thousand-foot gorge. I could tell you that later that day the remaining members of the group, myself included, didn't bludgeon Charles Haverley to death with his own ice axe after he refused to stop whistling Neil Diamond's Sweet Caroline over and over as we climbed--

I could tell you many things that would make this, if not a happy tale, at least a hopeful one--but they would all be lies and Latigo Flint is nothing if not truthful.

It is very cold and Latigo Flint needs to sleep now. So goodnight to you, or, to quote an old Sherpa saying: May the yak of your dreams be gentle and rarely given to trample.

9 Comments:

At 11:17 PM, Blogger fourth_fret said...

well, at least there was one happy ending... for our dear latigo made it home.

(not without blood on his hands, of course, but home, nonetheless.)

 
At 4:58 AM, Blogger Peter said...

Does nothing stop you Latigo? a man of many talents.

 
At 1:47 PM, Blogger Amandarama said...

Hot damn, Latigo! That is a helluva story. And may all your dream-yaks be gentle too.

 
At 2:35 PM, Blogger Bottle Rocket Fire Alarm said...

I know it well. Wind like skeleton fingers sheathed in ice, tickling at your adam's apple. Oxygen so thin it floats in the air like fat globules atop broth, and you have to snatch it with your jaw and make it last. The sun so large and close you can hear it humming Sweet Caroline. I hate the mountains.

 
At 7:21 PM, Blogger Ari said...

That you would escape the clutches of a rocky, mountainous death prettily fringed in icicles was never in question.

Whether or not you got your hands on the world's most valuable stockpile of pashmina too... well, that was less obvious.

 
At 11:32 PM, Blogger Lightning Bug's Butt said...

Another for the Portable Latigo Flint Reader.

You know you can suck on coca leaves to mitigate altitude sickness? It might also help your insan... eh, mood swings.

 
At 11:55 PM, Blogger Latigo Flint said...

Fourth Fret, I was born with blood on my hands. (Oh wait, I guess we all were, huh?)

I cannot be stopped Peter, because in fact, I have never started. It is much the same principle as: You'll never fail if you never try. And its logic is impenetrable.

Thank you very much Amandarama. I am actually quite fond of it as well, and that is rather rare.

There's a steady solace and pureness of being, Bottle Rocket Steve, which can only be found through lakeside contemplation awash with alpine glow... unless there are mosquitoes about... or you have to take a crap and know you're days away from the nearest porcelain bowl. And since both are a constant, I may have just proved you right.

It was implied Ari, but never outright stated. (You and I know very well of course that the feral goat was never born what could outrun the likes of me.)

Thanks LBB--I have no idea why Harper Collins won't return my calls. (And altitude sickness builds character, everybody knows that.)

 
At 8:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looks to me like Latigo has pulled up lame. It's hell when ya have that mountain goggle fantasy while shitfaced on the barroom floor. The new quickest draw, I think he's just around the corner. And yes ladies, Quickdraw, unlike TexasHoldEm, is a man's game.

 
At 10:55 PM, Blogger Latigo Flint said...

Mighty tough words, Anonymous, coming like they did, from the very back of a crowded bar--and with one foot already out the cook's door I reckon.

 

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