Under the Green Desk Lamp…
The peak of the mountain was still a ways off when everything started to sour.
Earlier that day, the world had been filled with all the resplendent promise of nature, and I, along with 2 friends, decided to scale the peak of TuffPuff Mountain, under which we’d been camping for the last few days.
The rock was warm and rough under my hands as I pulled my way inch by inch up the sheer face of a small cranny, my back wedged against the stone behind me as I picked my handholds and made my way along. The air was warm, and the sun on my face sped my way towards the small enclave of light shining above me.
With a final surge, I heaved myself onto the shelf of the mountain, panting and exhausted, yet thrilled with the excitement of my progress. Turning, I stopped to take in the vast distance I had come. Below, I could see my campsite, a tiny dot beside the shimmering green lake, so far below me now.
Exultation—I’d never been a climber, so this tenuous foray brought a sense of inspiration and pride to me I had been sorely in need of. But the view brought something else as well, and as I watched the great black thunderheads rolling across the valley, I knew immediately that the journey down would be far different than the way up.
There was no hope in climbing down the cliff-face with the rain so close—that would surely mean a terrible plummet and tragic conclusion. Three of us had journeyed up from our campsite, but one had split off just before the cliff-face—unwilling to risk scaling this potential hazard.
He was the smart one.
The plan had been to reach the peak, take in the view, and enjoy a meandering wind back down through the wooded slopes on the further side. Any ideas or detours along the way were to be welcomed with the sort of earnest glee inherent to the free-wheeling voyages of vacationers out in the elements. Now, all that had changed. Where moments ago the potential of the day had been wild and boundless, now we had only one goal: Get off the mountain.
We turned east, hoping to intercept our wiser friend on the trek back to camp…but first we needed to find a safe means of getting down from the heights we’d climbed…back down to the somewhat gentler slopes on the side of the mountain.
I remember the first crack of lightning—loud like nothing I’d ever heard. Like the wrath of God smiting down upon the cold stone all around us.
Then came the rain.
A wall of water and hail, it hit us hard, and head on. A ceaseless tempest moving into us—as if to drive us further up the mountain, away from any hope of safety.
Hurrying along the stony precipice, scouting for potential paths, the storm only increased. With each ear-shattering crack of lightning, the wet hair on my arms rose from the charge in the air.
But with every potential path we spotted, we were met with disappointment alone. Our approach proved each to steep, or too wet. One would be rocky and near vertical, the next slick with snow and ice. And all were hazardous—with new-formed streams rushing down their lengths.
We’d lost sight of our other friend now, and the palpable tension between my companion and I was already reaching a crescendo—the unspoken words between us driving home but two clear ideas: one strike of lightning would kill us up here, and there was no safe way down.
With all hope exhausted, and the storm worsening by the minute, our desperation peaked, and searching about us for deliverance, we were only met with damnation.
Before us stretched a long plain of ice—a sharp slope of about 40 feet that ended in a rocky cliff face…then a long drop.
Beside the ice was a steep incline of rock and mud, and the water washing down it had turned it into a veritable waterfall. All the while, rocks dislodged from above came tumbling past us, threatening an early end to our faint hopes.
He went first—inching and sliding his way down the ice—planted on his ass and clawing to maintain his grip.
Then it was my turn.
My instincts raged—the same way they had when I’d went skydiving the summer before. Standing upon the lip of the plane door, looking out into the endless blue, a wordless voice had spoken in my ear, telling me it was a dreadfully bad idea to jump from a perfectly good plane.
The voice was louder now. ‘Sliding down a snowy mountainside in a lightning storm will not end well.’
I had no doubt the voice was right.
But some of my friend’s panic about our imminent lightning-death had spread to me now, despite my earlier sentiments that it would sooner be the decent that brought about our end. Besides that, he was already down past the point of return, and I was loathe to part with another friend in such dreadful circumstances.
And so I went.
It started slowly enough. Clutching my heavy wooden staff in one hand, I inched along. My empty right hand dug into the snow, and I slid bit by bit as the freezing water soaked into my pants.
But I was going faster now. Then faster still. I knew what was happening…my mind processed the math of it faster than it could articulate the threat. Faster and faster. I dug deeper into the ice, tearing my skin and cracking my nails as I slid along.
I could see the rocks below, growing larger with their approach. My friend had nearly reached them.
I was sliding far too fast to stop now. With a final, desperate effort, I clutched my staff in both hands, and slammed the point into the ice, hoping to create an anchor.
The staff broke, twisting my wrist and sending its two halves scattering down the mountain.
Everything after was too fast for conscious thought, yet I remember vividly the bleak sentiment which settled immediately into my conscience. ‘That was my only shot’.
The pull of the staff before it broke had set me spinning, and so I sped down the slope—20 feet, 30 feet, 35…the rocks were close now, and I fully understood what was coming.
Before I hit the rocks, I glimpsed my friend just below me. Colliding with him would surely send us both tumbling over the edge. As a matter of instinct, I jammed my left foot out to brace against the impact.
It hit hard.
Hard like nothing I’ve ever felt.
In the din of the tempest, I couldn’t hear the bones shatter.
Three of them, I later learned. My ankle utterly destroyed.
Despite the effort, I slammed into my friend. Then we were both rolling. Tumbling head over feet, like a child somersaulting down a peaceful summer hill.
End over end I fell, stone and sky blurring together—an all encircling tomb.
The voice was in my head again. ‘So, this is how it ends.’
There were other thoughts too—wordless but present.
A lonely dog.
A mourning family.
A touch of humility, a touch of pride…plenty of regret.
Then peace, and the thrill of adventure, bouncing and rolling down the ice-slick slopes of the mountainside for who knows how many seconds.
…Then curtains. Faster than thought, there was no doubt in my heart that the end was only a blink away. ‘One more rotation, maybe two.’ Then my skull would hit some rock and pour my brains into the torrent of water, down the stone, and finally into the lake—about two kilometers below.
The bruises I discovered later bespoke the force of my fall. But I felt none of that just then. One final thought came to me—‘It’s not a bad death.’
Then a hard thump, and I slid to a stop against a dark brown rock. I saw my friend roll over once more, then back flip over the ledge. ‘Dead,’ I had no doubt.
The ground against my hands was cold and wet as I pushed myself to my feet. I remember what I expected to see—a little black form, bouncing and tumbling down the slope so far from me now. Hopeless.
But there he was—about five feet below, springing to his feet with the frantic energy of a panicked child. “Brad, we’ve got to get out of this lightning!” he screamed. Then, turning, he fled off on his way back towards camp.
It seemed like the only logical choice, so I moved to follow.
It wasn’t until I hit the ground again that I perceived the state of my foot. Then my head was a cacophony of alarm bells and sirens.
I rolled onto my back, pulling my knee to my chest. Touching my ankle, I knew immediately it was far too bad to walk on.
My friend was a speck in the distance now. The storm continued. I was shaking from head to toe—from the cold, from the pain, from the adrenaline.
Freezing to death in the fetal position on a mountainside didn’t promise the same vainglorious ending I’d just missed out on, however.
And so I pushed on.
A few steps here, then I’d fall again. There was no self-conscious muting of my screams. With each step, each fall, I let them come. They were between the mountain and I now, and if I didn’t get back to camp fast, my secret would surely be safe.
I cursed my friend for leaving me.
I bemoaned my ambition for taking me here.
I lamented things I hadn’t done, and regretted things I had.
But just then, there was only one thing to be done.
One step. Then another.
A hundred steps…a thousand.
Much of the journey I spent seated—pulling myself downward with my one good leg. The other slid along by my side.
My pants were shredded now, and I chuckled like a madman at the spectacle I must have been. Bloody, exposed, and broken. A damn fool human who had taken it all too far.
It wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling, and yet something was entirely different about it. Moments ago, I had accepted entirely—deep down in my bones—the fact that I was about to die. Not only that, I’d even felt that it would have been a good death. Guts, glory…all that. But when the dust settled, I found myself broken, battered, and helpless as my ‘friend’ retreated down the mountainside, flatly rejecting my pleas and condemning me to my fate. It was a complete reversal of fortunes. From a blaze of glory to a sad, pathetic, wet little thing sliding down the rocky face of the mountain. I was humbled, and humiliated. And yet, the humiliation was worth it entirely, I knew, to be able to go on with life. It was worth it in spite of—nay, perhaps even because of the suffering it entailed.
This was the crucial lesson I took of those terrible slopes—that to suffer through and persevere when faced with no alternative is no cruel fate, but a blessing rather; a testament of the human spirit and the greatness we are capable of when no easier way is afforded to us. In adversity there is growth, and only through struggle can we achieve our highest potential.
I would go on, I knew, step after step, never again to toil in the mires of apathy or flippancy.
Step after step. Ice and rock passed into trees and valleys. The lake grew bigger. The storm pounded ever on.
But there was no doubt anymore. Not since I found out that movement was possible. I would make it back to camp. I’d get off this cursed mountain if only to strangle that damn snake of a ‘friend’ who’d left me up there to die.
I didn’t in the end.
I may have actually hugged him. It’s hard to say.
When I got to flat ground, I made my way along by grasping pine branches and dragging myself forward. Pain was nothing now. The damage was already done. Survival was all that remained.
I remember stumbling into camp. The first thing I saw was the friend we’d separated from part way up—safe and sound. This was a relief. The entire journey down, he’d been in my thoughts—and I’d often considered the dread I would feel if I’d made it back to camp to find him absent. That would inevitably have meant a trip back up the mountain. Damn the storm, damn my foot. If he was left up there, I’d have to go after him.
We would both have died.
‘Another good death.’
The next thing I saw was the friend who’d left me there. But the anger was gone now.
Before that day, I’d never faced the certainty of my own death. Grudges mattered less now.
In a day, I would be home with my dog. He wouldn’t need to be lonely. My family wouldn’t need to mourn. More than any of that, I’d learned something incredible about my own potential. To look into the eye of doom and persevere is an uplifting experience.
…and that was something I needed to hang onto.
I bound my ankle with a tensor bandage, and curled up in my flooded, freezing tent with a bottle of cheap white rum.
The next day meant a seven kilometer hike down the steep, wooded slopes back to the highway and my car.
But now, I had no doubt that I could handle it.
-Brad OH Inc.
That sure was one hell of a fiasco! 🙂 glad you came out alive!
Thanks Joe, so are we!