N14

Eleftheria Tsichli

There were 450 metres left, give or take. I had been climbing for three and a half hours and my hands had become almost pleasantly numb. At least I wasn’t trembling any more. I was far from a professional climber. N14 was the twenty-sixth mountain I attempted, and just the tenth frozen one. Still, my exceptional physical condition and my innate talent led me toward the top. Do I sound cocky? Maybe. But there’s no one around to hear me.

Although it was May, the snow was dense where I had to walk. I felt the slippery ice below my spikes yet, I kept walking, grateful for them. The team hadn’t marked the path apart from a few points. At the steep places, they had put pitons and carabiners where needed. I felt safe, almost relieved that I was on my own. Although it is inadvisable, mountaineering solo is not forbidden, particularly in marked areas. I felt cozy on my own.

I dug the hammer into the ice and made a step upwards, checking the ropes. I should have gotten new ones, but I’ve only used these twice. I looked down at the foggy abyss and I tried to laugh catching my breath. In your face, motherfucking Paul – you and your constant smirk. What do you have to say now that the kid is climbing N14 with a mere three-year alpinism experience? It took you twice as many, asshole.

I never liked them, the climbing group I mean. They were a bunch of pretentious, self-centred pricks. Only Sam had the balls to climb. Bob our instructor, too. The rest of them, mostly novice, were old-money offspring or middle-aged jerks that refused to let their youth slip away, just as they were starting to lose both their hair and their lust for life. Paul Bernard was one of those. He was one of the first to join the group, self-proclaimed second-in-command. Grey temples, trimmed beard, and tanned complexion. A golden boy in an up-and-coming firm, he had been promoted as a senior manager and now he harvested the crops of his efforts. I hated his confidence, his know-it-all attitude, and his fake willingness to assist others. I wondered if everybody could see through him as I did. He liked me though or at least pretended to. He would say that I was just like he had been fifteen years prior, young, arrogant, and oblivious of the risk. And everyone would nod and laugh. I detested him for that. I’m nothing like you, you smug little prick.

I secured the pulley at the carabiner and caught my breath. I swept the sweat with the back of my glove and checked the rope again. It seemed fine. I looked upwards to see the path again. All I could see was ice. The fog was coming fast. I had to be quick and I had to be efficient. Exhaustion was lurking at the next ledge and I had no option but to keep going.

We rarely met apart from training days. This one time, though, we had arranged to meet at this pub, “Hell’s Depths”. I remember the name, as it overflowed with pomp and pretence. It was Paul’s idea of course. In fact, it was his hotspot, as he boasted, saluting the bartender. Worst night of my life. Sam sat next to me, for which I was grateful. They would bang on about their climbing accomplishments and their brand-new equipment as if they had years and years of experience. What a drag. I sipped my one too many, chit-chatting with Sam, when John, a particularly fucked-up jackass asked me something about ropes. I politely turned to face him. ”Whaaat?” He repeated the question, not louder but slowly, as if I was a moron. He was checking how much I knew about ropes and gear, dying to show off my ignorance. I mumbled something which I had no recollection of later. But I remember John’s glance at Paul, and the latter’s smirk, as he tried to defend me, acting all goody-goody.

The climb to the next carabiner was easy. I emptied my mind and I focused on a paced breathing, One and two breathe in, three and four breathe out. Breathe in and push up, breathe out and dig the ice hammer. One in, two out. Right arm, left foot. Left arm, right foot. I was on fire.

Almost one hundred metres and quite a few carabiners up, and my concentration was gone. I was exhausted. I knew I had to be precise now, more than ever. But it became daunting. I felt fainthearted. Naturally, I lost my grip. Shit. I slipped for a few metres, till the rope held me. I fell hard on the vertical surface and I jolted. My heart was pounding and I couldn’t even think straight. I was safe. I exhaled, almost sobbing.

I found a ledge where I could almost sit. I gasped and tried to calculate the time I needed. I had to pull it together. Think. I was desperately hindered by the lack of visibility. If it were a mountain I had climbed before, it wouldn’t be an issue. I was keen on heights and cliffs, enjoyed the cold and the vast whiteness, ever since I was a toddler. My mom would drag me down off trees, rocks, and walls, as my restless climber of a spirit drove me to a new and dicey adventure every day. She had tried everything: threats, lectures, pleas, and tears. There was no hope though, nothing could prevent me from climbing. By the time I became an adult, I had lots of amateur experience but no money to take up mountaineering. You see, it’s an expensive hobby. The gear, I mean, the goddamn gear. It costs so much and you need to regularly replace it. It took me several years to finally have the resources to join a climbing group.

Now, I had no idea where I was going, I was practically blind, everything was too white, too misty, too hostile. All I could make out were the phosphorescent carabiners, green, yellow, blue, orange. Every now and then I saw a purple one. I knew that those were Paul’s, because, of course, he was the only poser self-assured enough to use purple carabiners and pulleys. It was his trademark and he made sure to remind us at every climb. Screw that guy. I had to focus. There was no turning back now, the only way was up.

Four hours had gone by. The numbness in my hands had progressed to my feet and neck as well, the latter felt stiff like wood. I breathed out grunting with every step, as if this would drive me forward. Come on, you can’t give up now. I silently decided that this would be the hardest thing I had ever done. I even thought of the things that I would say to the others when I would tell them about N14, my nemesis. I was starting to get cocky again. Time to focus. You first need to climb up in order to climb down. Focus.

I had reached the final stage. Everyone would talk about these last metres, the most perilous ones. Yet, the danger hardly lurked in my exhaustion, no. The true, objective hazard of N14 lay in these last few metres to the top. There was no flat surface, no grip. It was utterly vertical, steep, without any ledges. N14 was ruthless. If you had to climb up, you should solely rely on your gear.

I set off for the final part, determined to pull this through as fast as I could. If I stalled, exhaustion would eventually break me. I was ready, I knew what I had to do. I had climbed steeper mountains in the past, and I had the best gear possible. Besides, I was twenty-six years old, my muscles showed even when dressed. On weekends I would sweat myself off, and my nutrition was exemplary. Hell, I could climb that top, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

Ten metres up. I secured the pulley to the orange carabiner. Seven metres up. I secured the pulley to the blue carabiner. Nine metres up. I secured the pulley to the purple carabiner. Five metres up. I slipped. Shit. I fell for five metres and the rope held me. No, it didn’t. The purple carabiner shook and broke like a twig. I fell for nine metres. The blue carabiner held me. Yes. That was close. Look at the rope, dick. The rope had swirled. And it tore.

The fall seemed endless. They say life flashes before your eyes, but I saw nothing of my past. Yet, I had time to observe the end of the torn rope, the top of N14 that I would never reach, and ponder over the irreversibility of my fall. I felt the icy air sliding gently by my arms and legs, and my head lighter than ever. It felt as if I was totally still, floating on a frozen cloud. As if I were high. It lasted for a gasp.

I landed on my back on the soft snow, hundreds of metres below. I completely sank in the snow till I hit the rock. It was smooth, solid, and deadly. I heard something break, yet I felt no pain. My head shook so hard that it felt like it was cut off. But no. I was alive, fully conscious, and lucid. For a few seconds, I held my breath. Still no pain. My mind was trying to comprehend what had happened. Saying how unbelievable it felt to be alive would be an understatement. I couldn’t tell how much time went by. I took a deep breath and I opened my eyes. I saw white all around me and a bit of blue sky. I could see. I released my breath and picked up the pace. Breathing was easy. Too easy. I felt like a log, but I was safe and sound. I grunted, mostly out of relief, and I felt the snow in my mouth, a delightful briskness. I raised my arm to brush the snow away. This did nothing.

I could hear my breath. I focused on my breath. Breathe in. Breathe out. And again. Breathe in. Breathe out. Everything’s under control. Breathe in. Hold it. Breathe out. Blow as if you’re blowing birthday candles. Breathe in just like drinking with a straw. Hold it. Out for the candles. In for the straw. Out for the candles. In for the straw. Blow the candles. Drink from the straw. You got this.

An eternity and a few gasps later, I decided reluctantly to attempt to raise my arm. I lowered my eyes and looked at my torso. Nothing moved. Focus. Again. Nothing moved. Once more. Nothing. Try again. Only the right arm. Focus. Do it.
Nothing.

I shut my eyes and smiled. That was it then. I’d die here, immobile and frozen. I survived a long fall only to die from frost and exhaustion. The next few hours, I made sure I digested that. I had time to think over my mistakes. The fucking used ropes. The fucking purple carabiner. Fucking Paul. Fucking N14.

Now that the end is approaching, all the bad thoughts are gone. My tears have iced up on my eyelids and my sobbing has drowned in the snow. My smile has frozen on my purple cheeks and my breath is steaming up the starry sky. It is crystal clear now, the inevitable death is on its way, not as fast as I hope though. It’ll be hours of agonizing stillness, gruelling frost and excruciating thirst. That’s okay, though. Because it will eventually come for me, as creeping and consistent as expected, never too early, never too late. And I’ll be here, waiting, in this almost pleasant numbness.

Eleftheria Tsichli is an English teacher/archaeologist from Greece. Influenced by King, Poe, Lovecraft, Hodgson.