Deep in Alaska, a fanatic soloist seeks her way back through the wilderness when her pilot fails to pick her up after a triumphant climb. In a climbers' hostel in Argentina, a young mountaineer tries to explain abandoning his fallen partner in a blizzard on Aconcagua. On K2, an anarchist fails to fit in on a modern Himalayan expedition—with disastrous results. Tension fills Arnold's stories, both from the finely crafted, sweaty–palmed drama of the climbs he imagines, and also from the cracks that open in each of his characters' psyches.
Snowblind is a dose of old world adventure writing made modern for a new generation fascinated by the mystique of climbing. For both serious climbers and those who may never tie onto a rope the thrill of these stories, complete
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THE CLEANING CREW
MENDOZA, THE AUSTRAL summer of 2005. Dry, hot December dust and soot from old cars hacking through the streets stuck to the flat-faced buildings, the trees, and the people strolling down the broad sidewalks. But not to the doors, which were polished and brightly colored and swung open on oiled hinges, looking both newer and older than the faded concrete of the street front. Paco's was no exception, and I raised my fist to knock wondering how he managed to keep his door immaculate with so many people like me coming to pound on it.
After a moment, Paco appeared and told me all his rooms were full. He looked the same, filling the vertical reach of his doorway, but not the horizontal. He and his brother could have stood there comfortably side-by-side.
"What about the roof?" I said. "I'd put my tent up on the roof."
Paco raised a shaggy eyebrow and held it there a moment. The matter needed careful thought. "Why not?" he said. "It's summertime. Anything goes. You know? Five dollars a night. Don't use too much water. There's a queue for the baño every damn morning."
I piloted the seventy pounds on my back through Paco's narrow hallways, trying not to scrape the walls with the sharp edges of my load. I heard English falling down through the plaster above my head. One voice only, an avalanche of words, words, words. I passed rooms filled with things and no people, rucksacks open, jackets, sleeping bags, crampons, ice screws scattered over the beds and floor.
Everyone in the house was up on the second level, in the room stocked with third-hand couches and chairs that merged into the public kitchen and overlooked Calle 25 de Mayo through two large windows. Except for Paco, who was tinkering with the stove burners and could claim to be there for his own purposes, they all listened to the kid behind the voice. Paco's brother sat in a metal folding chair, and the kid — I found out later he answered to JD — sat across from him with a wobbly card table between them, though it could have been the pearly gates and an audition with Saint Peter from the way the kid talked. He wanted, what, applause? Absolution? He was trying hard, that was damn sure. A fine kid, someone's son, one presumes. Born into a generation that never shook off its bewilderment, its disbelief in the actual workings of the universe. He watched his hands, which crawled all across the tabletop, and Paco's brother stayed quiet behind the wrinkled old leather of his face. JD never swapped eyes with the rest of us, but he didn't lower his voice either, and we circled around him.
I was relieved to take the pack off my back, to be in Paco's dark, cool house, out of the city heat, to have the mountain far away and flattening to snapshots. I sat myself on the floor next to a couch occupied by an American husband-and-wife team I'd met once in Peru. He drank maté out of a gourd through a wooden straw, which disappeared into the heavy curls of his beard. She kept her hands busy sharpening the business end of an ice tool with a bastard file.
All this time, JD was sawing away, face pinched, voice stretched tight.
"It's heaven till it's hell, right? It's all make-believe until it turns to shit and you think you're going to die. You're up there with the white angels watching movie magic — like you're in a place the movies can't touch. Then the sky goes black and drops on your head. I was little-kid scared. It was that big. In real life — or flatland life, whatever — Rex was a Unitarian minister. Maybe it was a part-time gig — I fucking can't believe it myself. I didn't know him. He'd lead AA groups in the church basement, the whole ball of wax. But he was full of shit, because midweek he was pressing flesh on the rock. He should have founded Climbers Anonymous. Up there it was like he was drunk, like he was mainlining the storm.
"Rex, he had wild eyes," JD said. "He didn't look human. More like a wounded animal. The wind was in our heads. My lungs got no grip on the air. It played with us. Let us up, knocked us down. There were gaps when it went still and my brain started to clear, but then it swung back at us and you'd feel it coming. Ten seconds, five seconds — then out with the claws, man, and we'd be down and pinned again. I got killer-mad, was screaming at the lulls. For giving us space just enough to know how bad it was going to be.
"Rex led through the cliff band. The rocks stuck out like rotten teeth — all sharp and black. They freaked me out. I pulled on them, and they moved and spat gravel in my face. Ice covered everything, but not enough for my tools to stick. Every time I swung an axe, I got sparks jumping back, and rock splinters flying around.
"We were managing, though. That was the thing. Rex finished his lead and got enough of a break to yell, 'Come on up, girly-boy.' Something like that. 'Don't be afraid, Daddy don't spank that hard.' Stupid stuff, saying it now. The kind of thing the dickheads say at the crag. But it got me laughing, and the climbing through the teeth didn't seem as scary as it should have. The mountain was big and bad, more than we'd seen. But we weren't fools. It wasn't like that."
I thought: Keep saying it. Maybe it'll come true. JD was filthy. I was too. His hair hung down to his shoulders in thick, shiny mats. He had an inch of oily blond beard. His lips were split and puffy. White craters dimpled the skin around his cheekbones where the cold had done its damage, and the tip of his nose was black, though it didn't look too bad. He would probably get to keep it. But he couldn't have been twenty-three, so he still looked healthy under all that dirt and hair and frostbite. You see a forty-year-old man walk out of an extended epic, and he looks like a bus-stop bum, but JD still had a kid's flush under the wreckage of his face. Scrub him up, and he'd be a college boy. He was still wet clay.
"The snow started dumping. Spindrift came down all over us off the cliffs. Whoosh. At first we'd see a slide coming and hunker down. But they were nothing, like being hit with a pillow, only no pillow, just the feathers flying past.
"We tried to climb fast. Up above us, it was all grey and snow, and then black clouds came out of nowhere, just dropped right out of the grey, right on top of us. But going fast up there doesn't mean much, you know? We crawled along, too slow. I was panicking. I wanted to puke. Rex screamed at me and screamed at the weather and cursed at his feet for going so slow when we were so close. The snow was building above us — we could feel it. We could see where we needed to get to, this cluster of rocks up on a shoulder. But we couldn't move any faster. The real avalanche was coming. We knew it. The spindrift came down all the time. Both of us were covered. It found all the gaps in my clothes. I had a whole inside jacket made of snow.
"I don't know how long it took to reach the rocks. Hours is what it felt like. But maybe only twenty minutes. There wasn't a single thing up there I could trust. My mind kept running ahead of me. It would make it to the rocks, but I was stuck in the snow waiting for the avalanche. So my mind got yanked back down. Like a dog on a leash. Run, run, run, run — pow — yanked back to the body.
"We made it to the rocks, and the storm blew up in our face. The wind was a jet engine. It picked up chunks of ice and threw them at me hard enough to feel through all my clothes. Rocks, too. The snow came at us in curtains. I was so cold. It was in my bones, man. You don't understand how deep it went. I never knew which direction I'd be able to see. Sometimes in my eyes there was nothing but static. Rex would disappear even though I could reach over and poke him with my axe. Then the wind would hit again, and the snow tilted horizontal, like we were going into hyperspace, only we were lying on the ground curled up in balls waiting for space to breathe."
Who else was there? Three Eastern Europeans — probably Czechs or Slovenians from the bygone olive and brown they wore. Their faces looked carved by some sculptor with eighteen-inch biceps, one who used only long, straight chisel cuts. Formidable men, no doubt. There were four Germans who wore matching black pants and kept their glacier glasses hung round their necks, even indoors. They looked to be sucking on rocks, cultivating the scowls they'd wear to the summit or the sixth beer.
There were others there too, less recognizable to me beyond the general category: human flotsam, drawn by the mountain. The room stayed quiet except for JD's voice and the hiss and rasp of Angela's file. Maybe earlier people had made an effort to look occupied. Not now. JD never once looked around, but all eyes pointed in. He kept talking, and I sat there. Sat on my hands, so to speak, while the future loomed. I was under pressure, the lowland air frothing up inside me. I wanted to shake the kid, get him out of his shell. He had his chance. If he was going to tell his story, he'd damn well better get it right.
"We tunneled in. There was old snow under the powder, and we dug a cave. Our brains were gone. Mine anyway. The thinking parts. I guess I shouldn't talk for Rex. I've never felt more like an animal, digging into the ground on instinct. When we were done, I couldn't feel my hands or feet. It took me fifteen minutes to zip my sleeping bag. I couldn't hold the zipper in my fingers — I had to squeeze it between my hands.
"Rex was shivering bad. He kept knocking snow from the roof of the cave down on us. I told him to get in his sleeping bag, and Reverend Rex told me to shut the fuck up, he was just resting.
"No way could I light the stove. You understand? I couldn't move. My hands were still blocks. And that meant no water. Rex was no help. How was I supposed to know what was happening inside of him? I got at some chocolate — I tore open the bag with my teeth and put my whole face in — but it was concrete in my mouth. It wouldn't dissolve. I couldn't get away from the thirst. It just kept drilling at me.
"The noise never let up. The wind shook the cave all night long. I thought waves were going to come through the walls. You're sitting here, and it's ninety degrees outside, and you can't know. It was a horrible night. I fell asleep twenty, thirty times. I wish I could have knocked myself out because being unconscious was better. But then the wind would shift and blow snow through the breathing hole we'd left ourselves. I'd wake up, blind in the dark and not knowing where I was, choking on ice in my nose and mouth. It crawled into my sleeping bag. I was out of my head. I thought about termites. Ice cockroaches finding all the spaces.
"We wanted this. We were either going to get broken or remade. We'd said we were badasses. But I didn't feel badass. I was shivering so hard I couldn't see straight and burning up inside.
"Each time I woke up, I was thirstier. Preacher's hell — water all around, and my blood felt like sand. I'd check to see if my hands were alive enough to light the stove. I'd say, 'dude, get something going, get the stove, get some water.' But then coming out of my sleeping bag would have been insane. I turned on my headlamp once, and the ceiling was ten inches away from my face. Couldn't have been more. A white coffin and two half-dead climbers. I looked over, and Rex was unconscious but breathing. At some point he'd gotten half into his sleeping bag. He didn't deserve to be out like that. How could he fight back when he was beef in a meat locker? Fucking mountain. It didn't let us do what we could have done.
"We had the snow and the storm between us and the sun, so even when day finally came back around, the cave was still dark. A miserable hole. But we could see, and that was huge. I got the stove running and put Rex deeper in his sleeping bag. He couldn't use his hands, so I spooned soup into his mouth. He gave me a big plastic grin and said, 'This is it, this is what legends are made of. Give me a moment to get thawed out, and we'll get back out there.' Dude had psych even then, and where was mine? I half believed his bullshit, I always did. He was a lunatic. When I went out with him, I never had to worry about being crazy enough. But now the bullshit was real, and I was panicking, and I never knew if he knew it was real, and that made it worse.
"The wind kept blowing snow into the cave, and I wasted our fuel lighting and relighting the stove. Loose snow was all over. The walls closed in. I tried to shovel it out, but whenever I moved, I got so much snow in my sleeping bag that I gave up.
"Rex said he was amazed he could stay so warm with all the snow around, and I yelled at him to pull himself together, which was stupid because he was better off in his own world. He took a long time turning his head in his sleeping bag to look at me. 'Don't get shrill, now, kiddo,' he said.
"He blanked out then. Went somewhere else and came back. I thought he'd just shivered himself stiff. Maybe he had a seizure. I don't know.
"The fuel ran out just when the cave went dark for the second night. I never really slept. I decided we'd leave the next day no matter what. We were getting killed where we were, and I didn't know what we'd have left.
"It probably took me two hours to get us up and moving. Rex kept falling over, and he still couldn't move any of his fingers. He said it felt like bugs were crawling up his arms. I didn't look. What could I do? I shoved a piece of chocolate in his mouth and put his harness and crampons on for him and packed his gear.
"I'd hoped it would feel good to be moving. It didn't. I felt weak. Hungover. Like my brain was stuffed with cotton balls. I smelled something like formaldehyde, but I think it was just in my head. The wind blew so hard it'd throw us down, and I kept having to pick Rex up. I hardly noticed when I'd go down. My mind went somewhere else, just split from the body there and drifted. The tethers keeping me together got real loose.
"I tied Rex to me with ten feet of rope between us and pulled him along. We couldn't go down. We could barely walk, so how would we pass the hourglass, or the cliff bands? The only way I saw was going over the top and down the north side. I couldn't see anything, but I could crawl uphill. I don't know why we didn't get killed by avalanches.
"When Rex died, he just fell over into the snow and stopped moving. I screamed in his ear, shook him, punched him. Nothing. I tried to pry open his eyelids, but they were frozen shut, and I couldn't get a grip through my mittens. I don't know how long he'd been following me blind.
"It was easy to leave him. I didn't even untie the rope. I just took off my harness and left all the extra weight behind. Way too easy. Nothing felt real. Still doesn't. Not then, not now. I feel like I'm telling you all of what happened, but none of what's important. Two came, one left. My pace dropped to four breaths between each step. Even then, I had to rest after sets of thirty. I went on my hands and knees a lot because the snow was too deep and loose to stay upright.
"I got to the summit ridge and started down the north side. It wasn't snowing as hard, I think. But this freezing ice fog made the whole mountain blind. I could see even less, and my mind started making things up. It told me I'd hallucinated the ridge. I'd done nothing but turn around. I was headed back to the cave. I got totally wrapped up in the idea, but gravity pulled me down, and I kept walking. Every time I saw a rock ahead of me in the snow, I expected it to be Rex.
"Two human shapes passed me in the fog. I grabbed at them and screamed at them, but either they couldn't understand, or they were too far gone to help me. They wouldn't answer or give me any water. I followed their tracks after they disappeared, and I found the high camp of the normal route and a few tents.
"Someone took me in. They didn't want to, and they made me sleep in their tent's vestibule. Their language didn't mean anything to me, but I got that. The storm let up maybe days later — they all blurred together — and I hiked down and around the mountain to our basecamp."
JD stopped talking. No one else said anything. We waited for a last morsel. JD tapped the table with the palms of his hands. "Fuck, fuck, fuck," he said. "We were close. And the mountain never gave us a chance. You see that, right? We needed one hour. If the storm had held off one hour, we'd have been all right. Rex would have been all right. He'd be sitting here grinning at me like a jack-o-'lantern, like always. It could have given us an hour." That was it. JD looked up without tilting his head, just his eyes. His eyes were blue, and they shifted back and forth. Twenty faces, that was how many of us were in the room, looked back. The moment stretched, then the flock of us broke into smaller groups and an international babble of conversations. Paco brought JD a little glass of wine, and his brother said a few inaudible words.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Snowblind"
Copyright © 2015 Daniel Arnold.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
THE CLEANING CREW,
DEAD TILL PROVEN OTHERWISE,
NO PLACE FOR VAGABONDS,
THE SKIN OF THE WORLD,
DOWN FROM THE COLD,