Umpqua National Forest, Oregon
The summer season is starting to take shape. Let’s see what “the worst drought in centuries” has in store for us…
Springtime always brings them out in full display. So cheery and exuberant as they prance bushy-tailed from one hidey-hole to another. Such energy and peace rarely coexist in nature as they do in these fuzzy, chipper forest creatures. But lest you be lulled into a false sense of comfort by their seemingly innocent charm, should you find yourself bound captive by the depths of their obsidian eyes, heed my warning: Don’t touch the squirrels.
She was a Pine Squirrel, and I not much more than a fool. Our meeting at first seemed happenstance. She had flung herself thirty feet from the nearest towering fir to the balcony of my third-story apartment, boldly allowing herself entry through the open patio door. I was taken aback by such forward behavior from a rodent. Was this the manifestation of destiny? The timeless clockwork of fate? Had all that granola I’d been eating finally paid off? In retrospect, it would seem that the scampering of these tiny toes across my linoleum floor was nothing more than the scheming of an evil genus: Tamiasciurus.
Frozen in my recliner, I scarcely dared to breath for fear of sparking her flighty nature into retreat. Curiosity, however, bested her as she was drawn to the nutty aroma of a half-empty bottle of hazel-weizen beer on the bar. Maybe she saw it as half-full, and maybe she knew already who would play the role of curiosity’s pawn as I quietly slipped across the room and closed the door behind her.
Perhaps I’d rushed things. It’s true we’d only known each other for less than two minutes before we had moved in together, but I couldn’t deny the chemistry. Her relentlessly playful, inquisitive instinct had been just the distraction I had been seeking to save me from a day of mind-numbing Seinfeld reruns. I’m sure I probably talked too much that afternoon. It was plain amid my nervous chatter that she was only pretending to listen. Ushering her from room to room, gracefully perched on my shoulder, she raced down my arm to investigate anything that caught the mischievous gleam in her eye.
That evening I crafted a bed for her out of an old shoe box, some dish rags, tissues, popsicle sticks, super-glue, and duct tape. Placing it on the bathroom counter, I wished her sweet dreams and closed the door. Restlessly, I tossed in bed, my thoughts troubled. The next day was my scheduled shift at the fire station, and I dreaded leaving her alone that long.
The following morning, I reluctantly left for work, confident that the Snickers candy bar I had left on the counter along with plenty of water would satisfy her in my absence.
Twenty-four long hours later I found out how distinctly unsatisfied she was. Returning home, I should have immediately known something was horribly wrong; had I been paying attention, I could have smelled it. Blinded by thoughts of reuniting with her, I rushed to open the bathroom door. The rancid odor of squirrel urine was dizzying. The walls, bathtub, towel rack, sink, light fixtures, mirror, ceiling fan – everything streaked with squirrel piss. Clearly my toothbrush had been violated. Scientists have since discovered that the combining of chocolate, caramel, creamy delicious nougat and peanuts with the methamphetamine based metabolism of the pine squirrel results in a vortex wherein the laws of time, physics, and digestion are temporarily suspended. Sadly, this warning would come too late for people like me.
But where was she? I sifted through roll after roll of shredded toilet paper, tossed aside my electric shaver, the cord gnawed down to bare wire now. Through tear-streaked eyes I tried to decipher the note she had written on my mirror. Nonsense, I thought. Not until I turned to examine the door did I find my answer. She had chewed off a full half-inch of solid maple from the bottom of the door, end to end, securing her escape. Code Reddish-brown: pine squirrel at large.
Tracking bits of unraveled bath mat behind me, I inspected the rest of my apartment. Passing by the kitchen bar, the same half-full bottle of beer had been knocked to the floor and the spillage licked clean. As I flipped the light switch in the living room, an odor that had become all-too-familiar, something like wet musty hay and wasabi, returned on my fingertips. Awestruck, I fell to my knees among pieces of tattered carpet, letting slip the utterance, “Holy Father, I once was blind.”
There on my ceiling and walls, what had taken Michelangelo four years to complete had been painstakingly recreated in excrement by a 3.2 ounce netherworldian furball in less than a day. Overcome with emotion and nausea, I stumbled out the patio door trying to make sense of it all. Silently, she crept past me, sprang nimbly from deck to ground and passed into the shadow of the forest and was gone. “I never even knew your name” was all I could scratch out of my choking larynx.
A year passed before I saw her again, halfway up an oak in the distance, now with two young ones of her own. Of course I knew she’d move on, meet someone else; I just hoped she was happy. The shrill bark of her voice echoing in the treetops told me she was.
Where did we go wrong? I’m still not sure. It may be that we were just two different species. Regardless, I now know that I would have been better served to laugh hardily at Jerry’s and Elaine’s absurd dialogue, to chortle with Kramer and grimace at George. In my folly, I learned a timeless lesson that my grandfather had tried to impart to me when he said “Leave them gol’durned varmints be!” I lament the loss of my $350 security deposit—and also the gaining of an ex-squirrelfriend.
We arrived an hour late to find Blaire Kennedy waiting at the trailhead parking lot wearing an impatient frown. He shuffled and paced in a stiff pair of climbing boots, the polished newness of their leather apparent fifty yards away as we drove up the gravel road.
“Are you sure he’s up for this?” I asked as we pulled in beside the Volvo station wagon Blaire had borrowed from his aunt for the trip. Plumes of dust blew past Tim’s jacked up Bronco as we came to a stop; he killed the engine.
“I dunno,” Tim said. “Guess we’ll find out. You up for this?”
“Guess we’ll find out.”
I’d met Blaire a few years ago at Tim’s sister’s wedding. He was a bridesmaid. ‘They were close’ was all the explanation Tim had offered at the time; I hadn’t seen him since. I had known Tim for only a few years as well, but those years had been spent cementing our friendship on the cliff faces of dozens of the Northwest’s rock climbing hotspots. From our first climb on Madrone Wall to the long summer months camped among the crags of Smith Rock, we had been inseparable for nearly four years. Coiled on my pack, our constant companion, fifty meters of ten-and-a-half millimeter thick, neon-pink kernmantle rope caught Blaire’s eye.
“We aren’t going to need that are we?” he questioned.
“Oh hell yeah we—“
“Nah, it’s just in case,” Tim cut me off, handing him a rented pair of crampons and an ice axe.
“Nice boots,” I said, catching him shifting uncomfortably. “Did you break them in yet?”
“Thanks. No, they’re new. My aunt bought ‘em for me when I told her we were gonna do this. ”
“Nice aunt,” Tim replied, modeling his concrete-crusted workboots that had been repurposed to the task of mountaineering. I laughed.
The furrow deepening in Blaire’s brow signaled he was beginning to understand that Tim and I were two sides of the same knuckleheaded coin, and that his fate would soon be left up to our toss.
Fifteen minutes into our hike and he hadn’t shut up. He just bought a new football game for his PlayStation that he really likes, but isn’t sure yet if it’s any better than Madden for the Xbox, which at this point, he rarely ever plays since the hard drive started to go out, but he has a friend in his math class who will hook him up with a used one so he doesn’t have to send it in to get it repaired, oh, and his aunt got a great deal on some season passes for something somewhere and for reasons that will remain insignificant.
“Did you guys see the Redskins game on Sunday? Twenty-one to fourteen Raiders lead with two minutes left in the fourth when Davis ties it with an eighty-eight yard kickoff return, Raiders fumble the first possession and Redskins win with a field goal. So awesome.”
“I don’t watch baseball,” I said, realizing too late that I was only encouraging him.
“Football. Ha! That’s funny, but yeah, it’s football.”
“Do you play?”
“Which? Football or baseball?”
“No, but the Redskins have been my favorite team since fourth grade when my aunt took me to a playoff game. They ended up losing but still it was…oh damn. Did you guys remember to bring toilet paper? I totally forgot. I can’t believe I forgot. I seriously have to poo. Can I borrow some?”
“Maybe your aunt can bring you some. Has she looked into adoption?” I said.
“What am I supposed I do?” The unforced urgency in Blaire’s voice spoke of a world where soiled trousers ranked among the worst imaginable calamities.
“Just use some leaves.” Tim pointed off to the right of the trail, trying to hide a hint of a smile curling at the corners of his mouth.
It was a smile I had become too familiar with as his roommate for the past year and a half. I had missed the significance of that smile the day he’d emptied a box of baking soda in a gallon of my milk, and the morning I passed him in the hall on the way to find my toothbrush soaked with bear spray, and every time I found him feigning innocence, sitting on the couch, wearing that same stupid hint of a smile as I walked from the bathroom, saturated in Purplesaurus Rex from the shower head he had packed with Koolaid, smelling like chicken, because Koolaid wasn’t enough, so he had put in some bouillon cubes for good measure; and then, in order to fully enjoy his handiwork, he’d turned the hot water off in the garage, after allowing just enough time for me to get soaked, stained blue, and marinated. As I stomp back by, returning from the garage, he never appears to have moved. He’s still staring at the TV with the same twist of the lips, but sure enough, there’s a blue rubber chicken in the bottom of the shower waiting for me. Every time.
Watching Blaire traipse off through the brush, I immediately recognized the bright red leaves rubbing past his bare legs. An oily sheen on their surface reflected the afternoon sun filtering in through the canopy of firs.
“Remember how sad I was when I found out you weren’t allergic to poison oak?” Tim asked.
“Broke your black little heart. I doubt Blaire will disappoint you.”
Just as the afternoon glow faded to dusk, we crested a small ridge and the open meadows of Jefferson Park welcomed us from the airy forest. Our three pairs of boots slowed to a stop in synchronized apprehension. There she was. Robes of mist flung skyward from her shoulders were lit like crimson tendrils of flame by the setting sun.
“Well, hello Miss Jefferson,” Tim said.
“That’s Mount Jefferson?!” Blaire’s voice cracked as he said it. “I thought a mount was two-thirds of a mountain. Maybe three-quarters. That’s a full-size mountain. Do either of you understand how big that really is?”
“It’s all a matter of perspective,” I replied. “The whole world will seem small from up there.”
At 10,497 feet, Mt. Jefferson is far from peerless even in her own range of the Cascades. She doesn’t have the legs of the Himalayas, the centerfold stretch of the Rockies, or the bust of the Tetons. But she sure has angry eyes. The simmering, sultry look she gave me, the way the late summer ice clung to her exposed rock buttresses like lace lingerie raised goosebumps along my arms and neck.
“Okay, but how do we even get up there to see this small world of yours? Can’t we just go to Disneyland? They have a small world. Seriously, it’s like forty bucks. My aunt will pay for all of us.”
A towering castle of 500-foot cliffs guards her peak; only a sliver of ridgeline breaks the sheer ice slopes plummeting from the base of its walls. After attaining the saddle of that knife’s edge ribbon of rock, we hoped from there to sneak within striking distance of her coveted pinnacle.
That spring, five high school seniors had made front-page news here when their climb ended in a twelve-hundred foot tumble down a glacier on her southwest flank followed by another thirty-foot plunge into the yawning mouth of a crevasse. The Air Force’s 1042nd rescue wing carried all five off the mountain in the bellies of Pavehawk helicopters. The kids suffered pulverized femurs, crushed ribs, and the overwhelming realization that they should’ve just gone to Disneyland instead.
The tantalizing description in our climber’s guide had utterly failed to capture what now stood before us. For a moment, I shared Blaire’s reservations. I searched for some excuse to turn back that would leave me with any shred of dignity. Tim started off down the path; sheepishly, I followed his lead. Blaire lingered behind a moment then trailed me like a shadow of my own fear.
Searching for a campsite at one of the half-dozen lakes that dot the Jefferson Park plateau was a pleasant change from the five-mile ascent, allowing the burn in my thighs a chance to cool while blistering heels coasted effortlessly along the flat trail. We unshouldered our packs at Scout Lake; I set up my one-man tent, as Tim and Blaire spread out their sleeping bags in dusty beds. Within minutes, the alpine breeze gently swaying the fir boughs sent me drifting toward slumber. “Does somebody have some bug spray I can use?” I heard Blaire ask but pretended not to. Tim was already snoring.
Soon thereafter, I was awakened by a horrific scream. Tearing my tent flap open, my flashlight illuminated Tim’s featherweight frame looking out into the night wearing only a pair of cotton briefs.
“What is it? Bear?” I asked him.
A shrill, childlike soprano screamed in the dark: “Stay away! Get off me!”
“Yeah, but what’s attacking him? A little girl?”
“He was too hot in his bag, tried sleeping on top. Woke me up with all his scratching. Has a pretty bad case of poison oak.” I could hear the smile in Tim’s voice. “They can smell raw flesh a mile off.”
“The entire Pacific fleet.”
“Never! Neverrrr!” Blaire’s screams grew more distant, more desperate. “I’ll never let you!”
“Unreal. Does he at least have his flashlight?”
“Don’t think so.”
“Is he naked?”
“Should we hide his sleeping bag?”
“Already did.” I heard Tim spit in the dirt before turning to go back to his bed. I don’t know how long or how far Blaire ran that night, but I do know that, when he did manage to find his way back to camp, all he found waiting for him was a vacant patch of dust with a spit-sized glob of mud in the middle.
Troubled dreams had already stirred me awake when I heard the sound of Tim’s watch chirping its alarm. “Jeannine?” Blaire asked before realizing where he was. We moved quickly to ready our gear for the climb, the pale beams from our lights darting back and forth. The giant black shadow of a mountain outlined in the predawn sky had followed me from my dream world. We needed to get moving while she still slept.
Unstuffing our packs of anything but bare climbing essentials, Tim discovered the foot-long section of forged steel railroad track his dad had placed with loving care in the bottom of his pack; it must’ve weighed fifteen pounds.
“Hmph” he grunted, a proud smile spreading across his face. “The old man still has it.”
“He’ll be sad to hear you found it before you carried it to the summit.”
“Yeah, I better bring it,” he said, appearing to be thoughtfully replacing it in his pack. Blaire turned his back, only for a moment, and just like that, his pack was fifteen pounds heavier.
A silence settled on us. I noticed Blaire’s aunt had supplied him with a new pair of wool pants as well, his hands taking over the constant motion that his mouth had relinquished. Between the poison oak, mosquito bites, and scratchy pants, Blaire had achieved a trifecta of irritated skin. I focused on dressing a few blisters in duct tape but could hear him wrestling with himself beyond the periphery of my headlamp.
Heavy timber skirts her on all sides like a seductively discarded garment, bare rock and ice beyond. We entered its folds ten minutes from camp, losing sight of her completely. Two hours spent wandering in umber forest finally gained us passage above timberline. I expected her to be closer by then, but she was only bigger.
Out of the trees the wind ripped through our clothes, forcing us to keep moving to stay warm. We followed the curve of a ridge to its convergence with the base of a half-mile wide glacier. Affording ourselves only a brief stop here, we geared up for glacier travel. The sun was already too high for an August climb on a thawing volcano.
Lacing the twelve-toothed crampons to the bottom of my leather boots, I surveyed the terrain ahead—a playground for unforgiving consequences. I reached into my pack and retrieved our climbing rope. Its surface, worn fuzzy from use, calmed my throbbing nerves. My hands weaved the familiar figure-8 knot, clipping it into my harness. The idea was that, if one of us fell, the other two would sink their ice axes into the glacier and arrest the fall. The reality was that we would all fit in the same casket if any one of us fell. Tim and Blaire moved to join me, beginning to tie themselves in at intervals along its length. Seeing Blaire struggle, I offered to help him, noticing Tim had left too much rope between the two of them.
“You’re gonna want to be closer to Blaire, Tim”
“But he smells like camphor and his aunt’s station wagon.”
“Crampons? Is that really what they’re called? They feel like high heels,” Blaire said, ignoring Tim.
“If you fall with that much distance between you, by the time the slack runs out, your velocity will be unstoppable.”
“Unshtoppabubble veloshity!?” Tim mocked but walked another ten feet closer and began to retie.
“You guys know what you’re doing, right?” Blaire glanced back and forth, bloodshot eyes resting briefly on each of us in turn.
“Definitely not” and “Nope, no clue,” we replied in unison, shaking our heads. Returning his gaze, I wondered if he was going to burst into tears or throw himself off the mountain. He seemed uncertain himself, one hand, palm flat against his face, vigorously working over the puffy red patches on his cheek, the other scratching his thigh, then crotch, then slipping inside his shirt before returning to his thigh, still scratching.
Late summer crevasses split the glacier, creating a labyrinth that criss-crossed our path to the saddle. After spending the remainder of the morning meandering through this maze, we turned aside to the eastern edge that traced a steep wall of rock, allowing us unimpeded progress to a perch of ice a mere hundred vertical feet from the ridgeline that would gain us passage to the summit.
Furniture-sized boulders lay scattered across the ice. We sat on one large stone that formed a ten-foot long couch. Looking down toward camp, we ate lunch, marveling at our progress and the smallness of the world below. I took a photo of Tim and Blaire seated there. Tim’s broad confident smile, Blaire’s wistful gaze transfixed on the valley floor, his left hand frozen mid-scratch, a trail of pink rope following me out of frame.
Three hundred yards directly across from our seat, a burgschrund crevasse would offer us a final rest before our leap to the ridgeline saddle. But those three hundred yards crossed the steepest ice I had ever seen. Halfway there, pinned in a vertical embrace with the frigid queen, I peeled my eyes from the point where my axe intersected her ice and peered down. What I found, spilling from the soles of my boots, was a bottomless void that defied measure. She had waited millennia for that look.
By the time my mind registered what was happening, two had already passed through our lunch spot, trailing a spray of white slush, spinning faster and faster, plowing trenches in the ice as they rolled. A third smashed directly into the slab we had sat on, filling the air with a cataclysmic CLACK!, shattering into a hundred pieces. Another flew by, buffeting me with a blast of air, ten feet away, but close enough that I could smell its wet, musty odor. Then another, and three more; it felt as if the world began to spin around us.
“Oh God I don’t wanna die! We’re gonna die! Oh my God are we dead?! Are we dead? We’re not dead? Oh shit are we gonna die?!” Blaire screamed.
HUSHHH! she scolded, sending geysers of molten ice launching into space, boulders as big as trucks cascading down the glacier below. The entire avalanche missed us, barely; only one huge rock had clipped between Blaire and me. The rest shredded the ice to my left.
In the silence that followed I could almost hear a piece of Blaire’s already brittle psyche fracture and tumble off in pursuit of the ten-thousand metric tons of earth that had just raced past. The tink-tink, tink-tink of crampons kicking across the glacier face was the only answer Blaire got to his string of questions. He followed us to the shelter of a sheer ice barrier that sent tiny rocks zinging well over our dizzy heads.
Crawling deeper inside the crevasse we found a small shelf where we huddled together in starry-eyed reverence. We had planned on retreat as an option if the climb became too intense. Now, in the heat of the day, retreat would lead us back through a mine-field of lethal rockfall.
“What’s the plan?” I asked Tim.
“Have to look for another route off the south side, then work our way around the base, back to camp. After a quick jaunt to the top.” He remained defiantly fearless.
A 15-foot vertical wall of ice separated us from the relative safety of the ridge’s crest. Tim would have to climb out of a narrow gap on the west end, face a 2,000 foot drop-off, and take the lead end of the rope with him to the saddle where he could anchor it for us to follow.
I wrapped the slack end of the rope around my hips and wedged myself as tightly as I could between the walls of ice. Tim poked his head out the slit that opened onto the face of the glacier and hesitated. The sight of him stalled there in indecision knotted every muscle in my body. Tim squeezed out of sight, burning rope across my back as he went; I braced for the worst.
“Why does he always go first?” Blaire asked.
“The leader must never fall,” I recited an age-old piece of climbing wisdom. “But if he does, it’s best that he weighs eighty pounds less than the guy holding the rope.”
“So if he fell right now, you’d catch him?”
“Maybe.” I tried to focus on the rope sliding past the lip of the crevasse.
“That’s not the answer I was looking for.”
Tim surprised me with a sharp tug, signaling his arrival at the top.
“The answer you’re looking for is right around the corner, Blaire. You up for this?”
“I don’t know. Guess we’ll find out.”
He left without pause. I waited for a scream that never came. Bits of ice, small stones. Too much time. There were no shouts, no directions or cries for help. Just wind and more tiny bits of ice. Then, another tug on the rope, and I unclenched my hand.
Peeking out of the gap, my breath was stolen by a cold, hard wind in my face. My body felt heavy as I balanced on the toe-spikes of my crampons, kicked into glass-hard ice. My calves were shaking. I wanted to let go. I just wanted to let go and sit on a couch with Blaire and play videogames and dream about pretty girls and eat his aunt’s waffles. The rope tightened then pulled hard. I swung my axe high overhead; it sunk in a disheartening half inch. I didn’t look down; I’d seen all she had to show me. Just kick, step, swing.
Minutes passed like years before I was beyond the ice, seated with Tim and Blaire on a spine of rock ten thousand feet in the air. Blaire looked scared and that worried me. Tim looked worried and that scared me. I followed his gaze to what we had aimed at all along, the summit. What had seemed so close was revealed as an imposter, a giant fan of rotten volcanic igneous that had eclipsed her without our knowing. The knife’s edge ridge continued for a full quarter-mile on the far side, across to her fortress of towering cliffs.
Tim’s worry vanished under the cover of his best brave face. “Think we can make it?”
Blaire had opened a granola bar to snack on but apparently forgot to eat it. He stared at the bloody skin he’d torn on his hands during the final push to the saddle, covered in miserable welts and rashes, too injured to itch. A single tear trickled down his cheek, bouncing back and forth between the swollen mosquito bites that peppered his face. Then, suddenly, as we watched him, he turned up to look at her. Tim and I did the same. For a moment the stars in my eyes sparkled back at her but quickly melted at the dawning realization that this was as close as I would come.
“Maybe not,” I said.
“Yeah. Prob’ly right,” Tim agreed. “We’ll head down the southwest ridge here.” He already had his map out, showing Blaire in an attempt to console him. “Looks a lot less steep, mostly rock. Shouldn’t even need crampons.”
A few steps down and my confidence was renewed. It wasn’t that steep; it was all rock. We took our crampons off. Blaire finally ate his Luna bar. Fifteen minutes later, we even untied the rope.
We followed a ridge of rock clockwise toward camp until a line of hundred foot cliffs stopped us short. Retracing our steps, we soon found a chimney-like chute through which we could scramble down off the rocks. This, however, would land us on a treacherous slope of mostly ice, its surface worn thin by the southern exposure to the sun. A few step-like rocks protruded from the ice, inviting us to walk across them to a trail of glacial debris, which we could walk down all the way to the base of the glacier.
The carabiner on my harness snapped closed around the knot at the lead end of the fuzzy rope. Tim spooled rope out to me, as I climbed down to the glacier’s edge, then stepped tentatively onto the first rock. Testing each step as I went, I crossed the ice wondering if we should have taken the time to put our crampons back on. Blaire clipped into the rope, a full forty feet distant from me, Tim fifteen feet farther down from him. The two traced my path down the rock wall to the glacier’s edge.
“Wait, I thought Tim always went first?” Blaire asked as he tapped the surface of the ice with his axe. “What happens if I fall? Who’s catching me?”
“Don’t fall,” Tim answered. The look on Blaire’s face told me he wasn’t happy with that answer either.
Seated in the soft dirt, straddling the shaft of my ice axe planted to its head in deep moraine between my legs, facing down the mountain, my back resting on the slope behind me, legs stretched and heels dug in, I echoed Tim’s words in my head. Blaire began his traverse across the ice. Please don’t fall. A giggle of small stones tumbled past on my right from above. She could barely contain herself.
I glanced away from Blaire to see if more rocks would be coming my way, looking back just in time to see his foot prod a loose stone from its place and begin his downhill descent with it. His mouth was frozen in a silent scream, unable to make a sound as the vacuum of gravity gripped him. Tim, tied close, sunk his axe in the crust of ice, and held him.
“I got you!”
Blaire hung by the neon thread, choking tears, for one terrified moment before Tim’s axe tore through the weakened ice, sweeping the two of them below me in a giant bullwhip pendulum, snapping Tim at the far end as the tether went stiff. The full force of their ‘unstoppable velocity’ hit me in the seat of my pants, jolted me upright by my harness, and gave me one split-second survey of the plunge I was about to take.
The ravine’s slope cushioned my landing but in no way slowed my descent. She had hurled us clear of the ice, into a channel of black rock even steeper than the glacier. Tim logrolled ahead of me, I cartwheeled helplessly behind, Blaire was somewhere close. Sky, then rock; blue, then black; the colors flashed over and over as she mercilessly beat them into us. Above us I heard some of the rocks we had fallen through begin to tumble and accelerate. One gem in particular, nine inches in diameter, perfectly round except for a four-inch horn jutting out like a party hat, sped away from the rest. Just as I took my last tumble, it found me, prone, spread-eagle and dazed. Horn first, it split the seam of my pants in an instant. Scattered among the detritus at the very nearly terminal end of the glacial ravine, we were nothing more than dice in a cup to her. Yahtzee.
For several long minutes, none of us moved or made a sound. Inventory of body parts began in the hushed aftershock. My ice axe had driven clean into the joint of my right knee; clear blood-tinged fluid drained out. It looked gruesome but wasn’t nearly as painful as the bruised tissue from the impact to my posterior.
“Huh,” Tim finally said, displaying his solitary injury: a miniscule cut on his middle finger; he raised it high and waved it back and forth at her. I held the horny rock up, showing him the hole it blasted through my pants; it must have weighed fifteen pounds. Blaire got up and we could see that the entire left half of his shirt was missing. Rather than tumbling, he’d skidded down, grinding his side into raw meat from hip to armpit. He didn’t even look at us, just turned and walked away, unclipping the rope from his harness.
“This is really messed up, man,” he said, his voice soft and tired, arms pumping in fevered spasms of scratching. “I’m walkin’.” He spoke to the air around him, addressing neither Tim nor I. “Y-yeah, I love waffles, who doesn’t love waffles?”
Seeing the gash in my knee, Tim offered to carry the rope as he coiled it on my pack lying on the ground behind me. I nodded; he said he was going after Blaire to try to steer him back to camp and maybe even give him a nudge back to reality.
“Don’t put too much weight on that knee,” he said with a telling smile.
A strange weightlessness accompanied me during my companionless limp around Mt. Jefferson back to Scout Lake. I can’t believe Tim offered to take the rope, I thought. Maybe she touched him too. Back at camp, I began packing for the five-mile hike out. Then, and of course only then, did I find the fifteen-pound stone he’d hidden in the bottom of my pack, a tattered thread of my shorts still dangling from it.
Long shadows stretched across the meadow by the time I reached the top of the steep trail leading back to the parking lot. I paused briefly there with two out of breath, incoming climbers.
“Watch out for the mosquitoes at Scout Lake,” I cautioned.
“Did you make it to the top?” one asked, seeing the ice axe strapped to my pack.
“No,” I said. “I’m afraid not.”