The Wall: A Thrillerby Jeff Long
Once upon a time, thirty-five years ago, Hugh and Lewis were Yosemite legends. El Capitan was their holy grail, and/b>
On the vast, sunlit walls of the world's greatest monolith, two veteran climbers unwittingly ascend into a vertical underworld. In a place where obsession kills, they quickly fall prey to past loves, old demons, and ghostly revenge.
Once upon a time, thirty-five years ago, Hugh and Lewis were Yosemite legends. El Capitan was their holy grail, and their destiny seemed written on its big walls. Here they met the women who married, then left them. Hugh's wife mysteriously disappeared into the desert. Lewis's wife is divorcing him. Now, the old friends reunite to climb El Cap one last time and make a fresh start.
But "the Captain" seems cursed this time around. Even before the aging "wall rats" leave the ground, disaster strikes three young women high on a neighboring route. Hugh discovers one body in the forest and spies a second dangling a half mile overhead. He and Lewis launch their ascent, desperate to leave the terrible omens behind.
But there is no escape. Doubts haunt them, the elements plague them, and an eerie reptilian woman invades their sleep. Nothing comes free up here. Every vertical inch, the men must battle the stone, their aging bodies, fear, and the memories of great loves lost.
They doggedly climb on, only to be drawn into a deadly rescue attempt by Augustine, a search-and-rescue expert. Like a man possessed, he is hell-bent on saving his lover, one of the doomed women. Hugh ties in to the rope with him and climbs through a gauntlet of fire, ice, and deep gravity to the wreckage of the fall.
There, he and Augustine find a survivor, starved, half-mad, and holding a corpse. The battered young woman raves that El Cap requires one final sacrifice. On this tiny island in the sky, the rescuers become the victims, hounded by some ruthless spirit and caught between the golden summit and terminal velocity.
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Read an Excerpt
When God throws angels down, it starts like this.
A breeze stirs. It carries the slightest distraction, a scent of trees perhaps, or a hint of evening chill, or a song on a radio in a car passing three thousand feet below. In some form, temptation always whispers.
High above the earth, toes smeared against the stone, fingers crimped on microholds, the woman turns her head. Not even that: she turns her mind, for an instant, for even less. That's all it takes.
The stone evicts her.
The wall tilts. The sky bends. Her holds...don't hold.
By now, eight days high, her body is burning adrenaline like common blood sugar, one more fuel in her system. So in the beginning of her fall, she doesn't even register fear. She is calm, even curious.
Every climber knows this rupture. One moment you have contact, the next it's outer space. That's what rope is for. She waits.
Her mind catches up with her body. A first thought forms, a natural. My hands.
All our lives, from the cradle to the grave, our hands are our most constant companions. Like the back of my hand. They give. They take. They roam and shape the world around us. But hers have turned to stone. Or time has stopped.
Each finger is frozen just so, still hooking on holds that no longer exist. Her high arm is still stretched high, her low arm still bent low. One leg is cocked, the other is straight to the tiptoe of her climbing slipper. She could be a statue of a dancer tipped from its pedestal.
Her paralysis does not alarm her. Hollywood shows victims swimming through air, limbs splayed and paddling. In reality, when a climber is climbing -- really climbing, not fretting the fall, but totally engaged -- and the holds blow and you peel, what happens is like a motor locking. "Rigor" is the formal term, as in rigor mortis. Your muscles stiffen. Body memory freezes, at least for a moment. It doesn't matter what your mind knows. Your body stubbornly believes it is still attached to the world.
What surprises her is the length of the moment. Time stretches like a rubber band. The moment is more than a moment. More than two. Patience, she tells herself.
There will be a tug at her waist when the rope takes over. Then there will be an elastic aftershock. She knows how it will go. She's no virgin.
Her synapses are firing furiously now. She overrides her Zen focus on what civilians call pulling up, and what climbers call pulling down. The rock has let go of her. Now she forces her body to let go of the rock. Her fingers move. She starts to inhabit her fall.
For the last day, they have been struggling to break through a transition band between two species of granite, one light, one dark. In this borderland, the rock is manky and loose. Their protection has been increasingly tenuous and their holds delicate as sand castles.
And so she was -- necessarily -- way too high above her last piece of protection, climbing on crystals of quartz, almost within reach of a big crack. She had the summit in sight. Maybe that was her downfall. It was right there for the taking, and maybe she grabbed for the vision too soon.
From the ground up, the beast has begrudged them every inch. They have done everything in their power to pretend it was a contest, not a war, nothing personal. Now suddenly it bears in on her, the territorial imperative of a piece of rock. El Cap is fighting back.
Part of her brain tries to catalog the risks of this fall. Much depends on the nature of the rope, the weight of the falling object, all 108 pounds of her, and the length of the drop. Any point in the system could fail, the runner slings, the carabiners, her placements, their anchor, the rope. The weakest link in that chain of mechanisms is the human body.
On her back now, helpless, she glances past her fingers. The rope is making loose, pink snake shapes in the air above her. She's riding big air now.
A dark shape flashes past. It is last night's bivvy camp, gone in a blink of the eye. Do they even know I'm falling? At this speed, the camp is the last of her landmarks. The wall is a blur. Her braids with the rainbow beads whip her eyes.
Except for the grinding of her teeth, she falls in silence. No chatter of gear. No whistle of wind. Oh, there's a whiff of music, a spark in the brain. Bruce, the Boss. "Philadelphia." Faithless kiss.
She's fallen many times. At her level of the game, no climber has not given in to gravity. You build it into the budget. It comes to her that she's counting heartbeats, six, seven, eight....
Her freefall starts to ease. Finally.
The serpent loops straighten. A line -- hot pink -- begins to form in the dead center of her sky. The seat harness squeezes around her pelvic bones.
Abruptly the line snaps taut with a bowstring twang.
The rope claims her. She gains weight, a carload of it, a solid ton of shock load.
The catch -- or its commencement -- is brute ugly. Her arms and legs jack down like puppet jumble. Her spine creaks. Head back, medusa coils flying, throat bared to the summit, she comes eye to eye with the abyss behind and below her.
It's totally still in the valley. Autumn is in high gear. The leaves are blazing red and orange. But there's hunger in the beauty. Pandemonium. You could get swallowed alive down there. She jerks her head from the hypnotic sight. She tunes it out. Turns it off.
The rope. She grabs for it.
The summit. She centers herself.
Eyes up, she takes a breath, her first since coming off, a deep, ragged drag of air. Like breaking to the surface again, she gasps.
Her fists lock on the rope. Sunshine is painting the rim. She curses, full of fighting spirit. They were so close, just hours shy. The fall will cost them.
She blames herself for rushing. They were banking on making land by night. They had gorged on all but the last gallon of their water, and eaten all but some scraps. They'd even high-fived their victory. Dumb. Jinxy. The wall moves with a tempo all its own. Full of wishes, too ready for flat land, she'd pushed too fast.
She yo-yos on the rope.
The recoil dangles her up and down in the depths. Eleven-millimeter kernmantle is built for shock. A fifty-meter section -- the standard for climbing -- has a break strength of five thousand pounds. Cavers shun "dynamic" climbing rope: it's too bouncy for them in dark, bottomless shafts. But for a climber, elasticity is the very hand of the lord and savior.
Her mind brims with next thoughts. She doesn't offer thanks. Fate is action, that's her mantra.
The rope's still quivering, and already she's doing damage control. The fall could have been bad. She could have hit the wall or blown her harness. The line could have tangled in a limb or wrapped in a noose and snapped her neck. If not for years of yoga practiced everywhere, in gyms, dorm rooms, friends' apartments, and campgrounds, her vertebrae would be scrambled eggs. But she's whole, unwounded, not even a rope burn. The soreness will come, but not, by God, before she gets back on the horse.
Twisting in midair, she gathers herself together. The woods are darkening below. The sun band is creeping higher up the headwall, ebbing away. No way they'll beat night today.
Knowing it will never work, she tries pulling herself up the taut, thin line and gains not an inch. It's too thin, too taut, like a wire. She quits to save her strength. She settles into her harness, waiting. She needs a pair of jumar clamps and stirrups so that she can ascend the rope. One of her partners will lower the necessary gear, they'll know.
She is impatient to return to the headwall above their hollow and finish what she started. It's more than stubbornness, more than getting back in the saddle. She's raving on endorphins, wild with energy. Her memory of the moves is crisp. She knows the holds. She's cracked the code.
Come on, girls. "Yoo-hoo," she calls. And waits.
As the moments go by, she rehearses the sequence of moves: left toe here, pinch the white quartz crystal, reach right, stack her fingers on a seam hidden in a splash of sunlight.
In her mind, she makes it all the way to the big crack running straight to the skyline. The crack was so close, just a move away, and then she would have owned the stone. Now she's forfeited the day. They'll have to wait until tomorrow night for their seafood and wine at the Mountain Room Restaurant.
At last a voice seeps down from their camp in the vertical hollow. It is a single syllable, her name. But also it is a warning. Pain, she hears, and desperation.
Something is wrong up there. Her fall has wreaked some kind of havoc in the camp, there can be no other explanation. Clutching the rope, still as a fawn, she peers up in time to see the pink sheath blow.
For all its strength, a rope is a fragile thing. A grain of sand inside the sheath, a spot of acidic urine, even the rays of sunlight can destroy the core's integrity. In this case, the rope fails at the threshold of their sanctuary. The hollow's rim is not a knife edge, but it's an edge just the same.
Fifty feet overhead, right where it bends from sight, the rope bursts into flower. It happens in a small, white explosion of nylon fibers. It looks like a magician's trick, like a bouquet springing from a wand. Chrysanthemums, how pretty. But she knows the truth of it.
Quick as a bird, she steals a sip of air. Faith. She grips the rope with all her might and wills the world to freeze, the rope to weave itself together, her body to be light as a feather. Abruptly she is weightless.
It breaks her heart. She whispers, "No."
It was not supposed to end this way. You climb hard, get high, tango with the sun. When you fall, you fall with grace and the rope takes over. You heal, if necessary, and reach into your heart. Chalk up, tighten the knots, and get on with the climb. That's the way of it. Ascent abides. Always.
The physics of the breaking rope flips her sideways, and then facedown. Like that she goes, chest first into a hurricane of her own making.
She could close her eyes. She wants to. But of course she can't. This is the rest of her life.
The air cools instantly. The light changes. It goes from that golden honey to starved blue steeples. She has dropped into the shadow zone. Already?
This is a different kind of falling. This one is full of forbidden thoughts. She has never not known hope. That's the greatest shock. She is staring at the end of time. There is not one thing she can do to improve her situation. And yet she hopes. She can't help herself.
Her mind goes on grasping. Command, of a sort, comes second nature to her breed. Even as she plunges, she calculates madly. In the back of her mind, Like a cat, land like a cat. On your hands and feet. Light as a cat.
Climbers have a natural fascination with falling. Its discussion, usually held by a campfire or on long road trips, draws heavily on legend, anecdote, and personal experience, and includes falls one has survived and falls one has witnessed and even falls one has merely dreamed about but forgotten they were dreams. You learn from the fuckups. The accident reports almost always come with names, if not of the victims, then most certainly of their routes, and dates, and the type of gear and precise condition of the rock, ice, or snow involved. Often they list the temperature. Anything to make the unknown seem known.
For many climbers, "terminal velocity" refers to a death drop, sometimes known as "cratering." In fact, the term specifies that point when a falling object reaches zero acceleration. Air resistance from below becomes equal to the mass of the object times the force of gravity. You don't slow down, but for what it's worth, you quit falling any faster.
All of this occurs to her in an instant. A million synapses are firing now. Images, words, forgotten smells, and emotions all spring loose in a flood. She remembers sparks from a campfire, the exact scent of cedar smoke, that taste of his lips, his finger. Butterflies, the seashore, Mom, a singsong alphabet. More and more.
The terminal velocity of a human averages 120 miles per hour, or roughly 165 feet -- the length of a fifty-meter rope -- per second. But it takes time to reach that state of zero acceleration.
In her first second, she falls just sixteen feet. By the end of her third second, she has covered 148 feet; by the end of the sixth second, some 500 feet. That leaves roughly a half mile to go, and she is just reaching terminal velocity. What it comes down to is this. She has eighteen more seconds to live.
The wind robs her lungs. It just sucks her empty. It makes her deaf, that or the blood roaring in her head.
She commands herself to see. She keeps her eyes bared. This is for keeps.
The ground does not rush up at her. If anything, it opens wide, growing deeper and broader. She is a pebble tossed into still water, except the ripples precede her in great concentric expanses of earth.
Swallows make way for her.
The forest becomes trees.
Out beyond the road, the river runs black through the white autumn meadow.
Such beauty. It fills her. It's like seeing for the first time.
She knows the blood chemicals must be taking her away. How else to explain this sense of being chosen? Of being received. Of being freed. She's never felt such rapture. It's glorious. I'm going right through the skin of the world.
And yet she fights paradise. The glory is too glorious, the abyss too welcoming. It means to kill her. That quickly she despairs.
If only she could catch her breath. There is no in between. Fear, ecstasy, anguish: each extreme, all amok. Death. She keeps that word at bay. She tries.
And yet here is the sum total of every climb and every ambition and every desire she's ever felt. Stack them end to end and they reach to the moon, and for what? It strikes her. She has wrecked her life. Her barren life. A fool's trade. All for nothing.
It is then that she spies her savior.
The trees part and there he is, a tiny, lone figure moving along the valley floor. He is approaching El Cap. But also, impossibly, and yet absolutely, he is making a beeline for her.
Everything changes. Her fear dissipates. Her wolves lie still. A great calm pacifies the storm.
I'm not alone.
It's so simple. Whoever he is, he's coming for her. Nothing else explains it. Random chance does not exist for a woman with no chances left.
From high above, settling through the air, she watches him labor between the trees, bent beneath his loaded pack. He's a climber, plainly, and well off the main trail. In forging his own path, he is marrying hers. It's deliberate. It's destined. There is not the slightest doubt in her mind. Whoever he is, he's traveled the earth and followed his dreams and timed his days exactly to receive her.
If only he would lift his head. She wants his face. His eyes.
Above the trees, she opens her arms. She arranges herself like some beatific creature. The air sings through her fingers. The feathers of her wings.
And still he is unaware of her. She wants him to look up and see her. She wants him to open his arms and embrace her. With all the love in her, she loves this man. Every memory she contains, all her being, lies in his hands now.
Her heart swells, her giant heart. Oh, she loves this life. There was so much more to do. Even one more sunset. And children, God.
She pierces the forest, thinking, Forgive me.
Copyright © 2006 by Jeff Long, LLC
Meet the Author
Jeff Long is the New York Times bestselling author whose novels include The Wall, The Reckoning (in development with Reese Witherspoon at Type A Productions), Year Zero, and The Descent. He is a veteran climber and traveler in the Himalayas and has worked as a stonemason, journalist, historian, screenwriter, and elections supervisor for Bosnia's first democratic election. His next novel, Deeper, is forthcoming in hardcover from Atria Books. He lives in Colorado.
Visit his website at www.jefflongbooks.com.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Jeff Long's latest offering, The Wall, is an incredible read! Literally from the get-go this unrelenting and suspenseful tale of two climbers exorcising their physical and mental demons on 'the wall,' a 3600 foot sheer stone face in Yosemite valley, never lets up. Long knows his climbing, so the terms inherent in the sport distract from the tale at times, but never enough to mar the incessant atmosphere of doom destined to befall these lifelong climbers. The shocking surprise ending, however, seemed incongruous at first glance, in light of what had come before. But after some consideration might actually have been the most appropriate ending of all. Still, for this reviewer, an alternate ending would have bumped this incredible read to the five star category.
This book bugs me because it had so much potential. Long dashed a bit of climber lingo here, there and everywhere throughout the story. I suppose he was trying to lend authenticity to the narrative. A little bit of background information and lingo would have gone a long way, but my reading was disrupted by the sense that Long was showing off. In school, teachers tell students in writing classes, "Show me don't tell me." In the same vein, I wish that he had shown the ordeal at the wall, instead of telling us obscure climbing metaphors and his brilliant vocabulary. This book could've been great.
Jeff Long's latest offering, The Wall, is an incredible read. Literally from the get-go this unrelenting and suspenseful tale of two climbers exorcising their physical and mental demons on 'the wall,' a 3600 foot sheer stone face in Yosemite valley, never lets up. Long knows his climbing, so the terms inherent in the sport distract from the tale at times, but never enough to mar the incessant atmosphere of doom destined to befall these lifelong climbers. The shocking surprise ending, however, seemed incongruous at first glance, in light of what had come before. But after some consideration might actually have been the most appropriate ending of all. Still, for this reviewer, an alternate ending would have bumped this incredible read to the five star category.
I wanted to enjoy this book but I just could not get in to the writing style of this author. Even tho I finished the book there were parts I just didn't understand. Not a good read for me.
Reading the reviews posted on this site encouraged me to try this writer. The ending was supposed to be a shocker, but for me it was a let down. I, at first, found the plot and the main characters intriquing. I also found since I was not a climber I had no idea what carabiners or jumars are. And my Webster's II Riverside Dictionary doesn't either! Apparently the author seems to feel those terms and other obsure descriptions of mountain angles and 'roofs' on crevices are household words. I once climbed Mt. Hood to the top so I thought that experience might have helped me visualize the treacherous climb here. No such luck. The beginning is quite stunning but the end is more of a 'huh?' Not as much thrilling but rather a tedious bore. Halfway through the plot I felt I wanted the author to get on with it and it surely would have helped if he would have written the book for those who like thrillers but who are not mountaineers.
Thirty-five years ago buddies Hugh Glass and Lewis Cole climbed Yosemite's El Cap Mountain where they also met their future wives. However, now Hugh¿s wife is gone and Lewis¿ spouse is divorcing him. Yearning for a repeat of their greatest triumph, the two friends agree to climb El Cap again though they do not expect to find the respective highlight film of their lives when they met their beloveds.------ Hugh and Lewis are lonely, missing their wives, as they begin the ascent. However, they soon find a corpse of an apparent person who fell off the cliff. Shocked already, a wild caveman Joshua attacks the two climbers and abducts the body they found. They continue their trek when they run into a search and rescue guide Augustine who hunts for his missing fiancée. Lewis abruptly leaves the climb while Hugh joins the SAR guide on his quest to find lost climbers even as a nasty storm is coming and Joshua stalks the two men.----- The key element to this exciting thriller is the treatment of THE WALL the mountain side seems like the prime protagonist with Hugh and Lewis acting more like major support players. For instance the description of the impact of gravity on a woman falling off the wall will shake the audience. The tension picks up as Hugh helps the SAR guide while Lewis leaves and never slows down through a shocking final twist that will leave the audience longing more natural thrillers like this tense tale.---- Harriet Klausner