Trial of the Moons
Chapter 1. The Climb
The storm was now rolling in at an increased pace. The sun was shining a mere 45 minutes ago, but just as base camp predicted, a high pressure system was working it’s way over the lower mountains a couple thousand feet below William and his four man group. This was the third attempt this season for group leaders Will and John, yet the ascent to the summit looked more futile than ever. They would have to hold off until next summer to conquer a mountain that remained in the greatest of legends. The Himalayas were a wonder of their own, and at 27,000 feet life seemed to take on a oxymoron way of being. Nothing other than the climbers with the help of concealed oxygen could survive at this height, but that was one of many quests lead by man. They were there for one lone purpose, to reach the Summit of Everest. Death, a feasible outcome in a virtually deadly environment; only a certain type of person would gaze above in a state of exhaustion, hypothermia and delirium and think “I’d rather die then not place my feet on that peak.” John Maxwell and William Clark were the exact people willing to test every boundary set by their kind. Determined, this lead two men to take a team of climbers and attempt the highest climb on Earth.
The extremity of cold, snow and endurance above twenty thousand feet reminded William of the vacuum of space. A chaotic neutral where nothing survives, yet humanity had to lay claim. Will had been in orbit around Earth studying fragments of a comet that broke up in the Astroid belt and sent shards of frozen elements rocketing towards our planet and Mars. Though a majority of the shrapnel entered orbit with our oxidized sibling planet, a showering amount still raced for Earth.
John Maxwell was the most experienced of the group, a man who looked up and questioned, but within the boundaries of our atmosphere. Climbing was his art. For every peak he rested on he saw another on the horizon. An addiction for perspective clawed his insides with every trip back “home”, for the only home he ever truly had was a tent breathing and bending with the wind on a slope. He had met William, or Clark as he was known as by anyone who knew of his background, through climbing. As a geologist, Clark climbed for work, but after his first climb he knew it was more than work that kept him going up. On his first research trip Clark was assigned in Antarctica to study the meteorite phenomenon striking the ice continent, where he met Maxwell, the trip tied them to the spiral of events that lead them to Everest. The phenomenon was in tune with a measured surge of gravity outside of Earth’s orbit that attracted the remains of a comet that collided with an astroid before Mars. Multi-mineral infused meteorites plummeted to the side of a small mountain 500 miles East of the south pole. This lead to the discovery of the anomaly that remained on the dark side of our moon until a manned mission passed through it, stopping the barrage of light shows. A manned mission that would include William Clark.
Shortly after the wind started its raid Clark lost his left glove trying to put his camera in his back pack. After only an hour in sub zero temperatures his spare glove was failing to protect against the ravenous wind-chill and rush of fresh snow. After the pain of immense cold, the feeling in his hand was rapidly fading. He almost wanted to chuckle at the fact his hand felt like it was burning from heat before he could no longer feel it. “God this storm came in quick.” He shouted to John. John taking a second to crouch and look back at the group scowled with an almost closed eye squint towards the direction of the storm. He looked forward at the remaining distance and back at the group. “Well boys, it seems mother nature decided to swing in early and fuck us.” John had a fashion of using words that usually involved cursing. He continued shouting, “We have a couple options. One, we all head back down to camp IV two, we see if we can get a radio in on how long the storm is purposed to last, or three, tell the wind and snow to fuck off and keep trucking.” No one had the energy reserves to laugh but it helped lighten the dismal mood. Clark quickly adding to Maxwell’s propositions. “Obviously two of those options are to be focused on.” He inhaled a dragged out breath and focused on the rolling clouds approaching. “Granted, base camp informed us our ascent would be graced with a small storm but the size could of grown in those few hours, so let’s play it safe and check in on the system.” As Clark finished his sentence he had to fight the thin atmosphere for a full inhale of oxygen his body craved. Complete sentences were becoming difficult to accomplish at this elevation, due to the lack of air, and after he completed his input Clark took a seat on a nearby rock and looked down at his hands. A numbing presence slowly crept into his left hand from his finger tips.
Only a couple minutes passed before base camp replied. By then the group had prepared for the worst and adjusted their lines and carabiners to head back down the slope. As expected the storm was honing in on the mountain and the group had no option but to make a break for camp IV. A little over a thousand feet of meticulous stepping and back tracking. On their ascent they had to make a slight detour on their climb to avoid a newly formed crevasse in snow and ice. With the rushed planned descent they had no choice but to cross the divide before the full force of the storm hit the slope they were trekking down. Maxwell made it to the lip of the crevasse and started the appropriate measures to secure a crossing line attached to a makeshift ladder bridge. The ladder had been placed and secured by a previous summit hungry group with no obvious fear of the seemingly endless abyss below. It bent with the wind and one of the ropes to tether the bottom was noticeably loose. As Maxwell worked on adjusting the top rope for their grip, Clark began to tighten the lower rope for their carabiners to latch onto. He pulled the rope so that almost no slack remained and jerked it to test its threshold in case of a fall. After it was deemed strong enough he attempted to tie it off on a new ice screw. This is were his numb and near useless left hand finally stuck out. After three failed attempts he felt pressure on his right shoulder and looked up to see a hand placed by Maxwell to let Clark know he could take a break while Maxwell finished securing the rope. In what seemed like seconds, the ladder was secure and the ropes fastened to perfection. Though the ropes might have been new and strong, the “bridge” was far from perfect in any eye of the five man group, and with the first man to step on it they knew this was going to test their limits of life and death.
The ladder creaked and bent into an almost nauseating angle midway through the first man to dare the crossing. He was the youngest out of the group but this was far from his first climb. “Alright Dave, now when you make it across check the rope and ice screw on that side before we send anyone else!” Maxwell yelled out between wind gusts. As soon as David examined the critical points for the bridge anchors he gave a thumbs up. Next to cross was Chuck, the old man they called him. At 43 he was one of the oldest past camp III. He crossed without a hitch and waved over the next. Chuck had made it to the summit once before and was hoping on a second, but knew not dare test the mountain. So heading back down had no effect on his patience. Though crossing a bridge that bent on every step and shook with each gust put a little more ‘life’ perspective into his eyes. As soon as he set foot onto the other side he gasped at what felt like a miracle and sat down to take a breather while the remainder of the team crossed.
At this point Clark was ready to cross, so he adjusted his poles to the side of his backpack, lifted up his goggles so he could see clearly and fastened a carabiner to the top and bottom ropes.
The first step onto the bridge was no big deal, being he was still semi-grounded, but the second step is when he knew gravity in all its entirety. He was a mere mass of bones, muscle, and tendon relying on cold aluminum and stretched nylon rope to carry him over a pit with no end. His mind would not stop. His boot spikes on each rung of the ladder felt like a joke of a secure footstep. There was no way to place his foot in a way that he felt he could control. How alien his own body felt to him crossing the pit. His left hand was completely numb, his feet were weighed down by boots and ice straps, and his vision was beginning to blur after a gust of snow hit through the crevasse. He was counting his steps and knew he only needed to make six more to place a foot on the edge of the other side, and it wasn’t going to get easier. He attempted to focus his mind on the task at hand but it fought any persuasive thought and instead flooded his brain with fear. Not fear of falling to his death, but into pure darkness and leaving no trace of his physical existence behind. They came to summit the highest point in the world, and the feasible chance he would remain alongside the mountain and get swallowed up by its enormity and absolute power remained. A godly focal point on planet Earth transcending into the heavens attempting to be tamed by ants. It could claim all five men and never be blamed, only more respected, for any force that takes can’t expect to be questioned, only acknowledged.
Chapter 2. The Fall
All his over thinking eventually made Clark hone in on the last few steps, but his comfort was short lived. Three steps from the edge, the storm that was creeping up the slope finally hit them with a gust that nearly flipped the ladder and launched Clark with immense force over the side. In an instant he reached for the side most near to him before his lead ropes caught him, a move that he would instantly regret. The sudden shift of weight dislodged the ice screws that the closer edge of the ladder were secured to, and left him holding on for dear life while the ladder swung with him like a pendulum into the starting ice wall. Clark, still being attached to the ladder, went along for the ride and slammed into the frozen wall hard enough to make him loose his ice ax and nearly knock him unconscious.
The ladder was only attached by two screws now and the top rope remained attached to Clark, meaning he was on his last literal life line. He was in shock and all he heard after the deafening crash was the wind and ice shards descend into the pit that wanted to claim him more than anything. He tried to adjust himself back on the ladder in order to climb back up the starting side of the crevasse, where Maxwell was already setting up an emergency repel mission. Maxwell knew the ladder could fall at any moment and wasn’t about to watch his friend fall into the nothingness. He looked over the edge praying Clark was still attached to something, and was slightly relived to see him still grasping the ladder and attempting to re-position himself. “Stay still Clark, I’m lowering myself down to you!” Maxwell shouted as loud as he could as the rest of the group looking on in horror as the were trying to communicate to the two men in peril. Clark heard none of this and began to give up until he looked up to see his friend lowering himself alongside the ladder. “No”, Clark thought. “Don’t risk yourself I got this, and if I don’t please don’t put anyone else in danger.” But it was too late, Maxwell was already half way down and not slowing. “Go back up John, don’t risk your life!” Will was finally able to speak. “Shut up Will.” Maxwell shouted back, “I brought you up this God forsaken mountain I’m bringing you back down, I owe this to you.” That was all either of them could possibly say. Exhaustion and adrenaline were mixing in their systems and survival was put into overdrive. When Maxwell was finally able to get next to Clark on his left side, he attached Clark to his harness, told Clark to dig his boots into the wall and push up while he pulled their weight up the side of the ice wall. John handed his friend his ice ax and Clark knew to use it with his free hands. Kick wall, stick ax and pull up. They were in tune with each others movements and became a handicapped climbing machine. About halfway up they realized how physically drained the both of them were. This wasn’t going to work and they needed a new plan to finish the climb. As they both scanned for options John noticed the top rope that was attached to the ladder as a tether still remained. He could tie onto it and shift the weight off of Clark while he finished his ascent to safety.
“You’re not going to like this much but I have another idea.” John still had to yell to make sure Clark heard him over the wind blowing through the divide. Without hesitation John began to tie and secure himself to the separate rope neither of them were attached to. When Clark saw what he was doing he had only enough energy to place his hand on the knot John was tying and shake his head. “That rope could loosen at any moment with the ladder.” Said a very exhausted Wiliam Clark. “Leave me and go back up, if I make it I make it, if I don’t, well then fuck this mountain.” He yelled and threw a slight grin. Yet John knew there was know way in hell he could leave his colleague and friend to die. He saw the comfort with death in his eyes and knew if he pulled through he would do something great. John looked up while Clark was still attached to him and noticed the moon was directly above them peaking over the lip of the crevasse. In what seemed like only a couple of fluid motions John switched over to the free rope to the side of the ladder and yelled at Clark to climb up it while he dug into the ice wall directly beneath working at a vertical anchor point. Clarks’ head was drooping now and payed little attention in the last couple of minutes. Will delivered a swift punch in the arm to make him realize he had to move without anymore say in the matter.
Similar to the initial crossing of the bridge, the climb up was a process that seemed like forever. Clark grabbed the closest rung to him and began the climb. Step up, push up, grab, step up, push. Every so often he would look back down to see William farther and farther from reach, until a strong gust of wind made him focus at the task at hand. This gust was strong. Almost the same magnitude that blew him off the ladder. “Just end it and quit the goddamn games already.” He thought. Clark hated this ladder. He hated the wind and he hated how his left hand became so useless he had to wrap his arm around each rung to make sure he had a grip. The climbing process and lack of awareness made Clark forget the security he had now was all thanks to the orange jacket man at the bottom of this ladder. Clark was so exhausted he forgot the name of the man who lead him up this mountain and was in the act of saving his life. As Clark reached up to grab another rung of the ladder he realized it felt different and glanced up, it was no longer metal he gripped but the edge of the crevasse. The adrenaline flowed from the last part of its reserves and for an instant Clark knew to yell at the man below him that he made it.
John heard Clark yell and looked up to see he had both arms around the edge and was pulling himself up. The weight of the ladder eased up from his body and he was able to start the same ascent his friend had just made, but he had run out of energy. Without assistance John the climber could not move any further than the end segment of the ladder. By then Dave and Chuck had secured a safety rope on the other side and began tossing it to John in hopes he would grab it and fasten it to is harness to get puled up. It was 20 feet to the other side the the swinging motion alone would do more harm then good. This much he knew. Plus two guys pulling dead weight in a storm could end more badly then it already was. He began to release his carabiner and untie the knot that secured him to the lone ice screw next to the start of the ladder. Clark had made it on the rope Will set to rescue him and now that left him hanging on nothing but the ladder. Clark, worried about his friend, swung back around and looked over the edge to see Will with two free ropes swaying in the wind, clinging to the ladder. Will had given up. Clark knew this because he was in the same state mere minutes ago. “Will! I made it, now get up that fucking ladder!” Clark shouted. As he finished that sentence he fought to catch his breath again and looked down to see Will throwing a thumbs up but not looking up at his friend. Clark crouched and went to hit the edge of the crevasse out of frustration for being helpless, but as he rose his hand a final gust blew his weakened body on its side. He rolled his head over to peak over the edge and he was able to witness he ladder twist with Johns weight on it and break its grip from the second to last ice screw. With John still hanging on, the ladder could not remain secure enough for one ice screw and began to fall. Out of an act of final thought and strength Clark lunged with his left hand to grab the top rung before it completely loosened itself from the ice wall. He was able to hold the ladder enough to see Will look up through the snow and meet eyes with Clark. When the ladder continued to twist with the wind Clark lost his final inch of grip on the ladder and John. It then broke free from the ice wall and plummeted into the darkness. The orange jacket worn by his friend faded last into the unknown and that was the final climb and descent John Maxwell would ever make.
The storm lasted a total of six hours but for Clark and the remaining group it felt like a lifetime. Very much alive but with a dark spot on each of their minds and hearts, they did what they could to make it back to safety.
When Clark watched his friend fall to into the darkness, a cluster of invisible strings grappled deep into his chest and tore out a piece of his humanity. He was at fault for the death of his friend. He was the one who met eyes with a dead man. He was the one who survived. To forgive himself would be to erase the event from his mind, but that would never happen. It was all so clear.