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An Occurrence at Greyside Cliffs


by Brent McDaniel

August 28, 2002

Swing, stick, swing, stick, breathe, step, crunch, step, crunch, breathe. Clean frigid air fills Alex Greer's lungs as adrenaline races through his body. Despite the cold temperatures he sweats under his helmet, a good sweat, born of exertion and fear. He stops to place a screw in the brittle ice, knowing that it's less than ideal but better than nothing. As Alex attaches a screamer to the screw, he looks down at Scott, his belayer, trying to convey just how perfect this pitch is but Scott is huddled in a shallow ice cave, hiding from the inevitable falling ice dislodged from Alex's tools.

Alex pauses and looks up; the crux looms above, a hanging curtain of steep ice jutting out over a chandeliered section of sun-rotted nastiness. He's leading the fourth pitch of five, with the fifth going at easy WI3. The top is so close, the safety of the trees and then an easy descent gully to the car and warm liquids. Ah, hot coffee and the car's heater. Looking back over his shoulder, the exposure brings him back to reality. The crux still has to be dealt with. The first-ascensionists rated it WI6+ and Alex wonders if this year’s conditions are better or worse than last's. He tries not to think about it, instead getting back into the rhythm of steady breathing and upward progress.

Hanging from his tools, he looks up at the curtain looming just above, ends hanging down like daggers ready to impale anyone foolish enough to try to climb it. Alex looks for solid gear, first in the rock exposed under the curtain. The search yields only chossy, rotten limestone with nary a seam for a pin. Now he scans the ice, chandeliered and brittle. He slings a tunnel and clips a screamer on it, knowing that as bad as this piece is, it's the best he's going to get. Now for the roof, two deep breaths and he's ready. He stands up high, scumming his left shoulder under the curtain and reaching high onto the curtain with the right tool. It's awkward, hard to generate force with his right arm but eventually he gets a good stick. Carefully, Alex locks off with his right arm, holding his breath for fear that any excess movement might dislodge the right tool. Slowly, he works his left shoulder out from under the curtain, placing his left crampon on the rock under the curtain directly under the right tool while his right foot is flagged out in space. A hard pull with his abs and a lunging swing with the left tool yields a solid stick on the curtain. Yes! The hard part is over, he thinks and begins breathing again. He brings his feet up and carefully places them on the ice. With his feet taking the weight, he can get a higher placement with his right tool. The right tool frees with alarming ease and Alex goes to place it high on the curtain. A solid swing, as hard as he dares on the fragile curtain, feels secure and he shifts his feet higher.

Then comes the sound that ice climbers fear, Crack!, and, slowly at first, Alex and the ice curtain begin to plummet downward. ROCK! ROCK! he yells as loud as he can and then he's falling. The initial feeling of weightlessness gives way to acceleration as he picks up speed, passing the rotten roof in a blur. The ice, chandeliered and beautiful, dazzles his eyes as the sun refracts off millions of tiny crystals. And then he begins to slow as the ice tunnel groans in protest.. Stitches pop in a staccato rhythm as the screamer does its job and still the thin ice tunnel holds. He looks up as the ropes become taunt and then watches in horror as a massive chunk of ice slices them in twain. Gravity again imposes its will and Alex begins falling faster toward the harsh ground. He speeds past Scott, seeing the look of disbelief on his face as he huddles in the small cave. As Alex falls, he turns, facing the ground, watching it speed toward him as the ends of his severed ropes snap in the wind. And then he hits, all is darkness.

Alex slowly opens his eyes, the sun glinting off the snow threatening to blind him. Without thinking, he stands up and brushes the snow off of him, his red Gore-Tex suit in sharp contrast to the pure white all around. And then like a hammer's blow it hits him, he's alive. He moves his arms and legs, rolls his neck, flexes his fingers. Everything seems to be working fine, not even any soreness. He looks up to shouts of 'Alex, Alex!' and there is Scott, hanging from the belay, calling his name. He looks above Scott at the roof and it's gone; everything, the entire curtain, fallen in that one instant. He yells back to Scott that he's ok and for him to rappel down and then Alex Greer sits down in the snow, wondering how he's alive.

Scott reaches the ground, still in disbelief. They look each other in the eye, not knowing what to say, and then they both grin and clap each other on the back. 'Let's go get a beer,' they say together. Gear is packed, ropes are coiled, they start toward the car. Pausing, Alex turns and looks back at the perfect human-shaped crater formed in the snow. He shrugs and shakes his head slowly, then begins plodding through the snow toward the car.

Hot coffee and warm down wait at the car and quickly they're comfortable and happy. Alex changes out of his Gore-Tex suit and takes a minute for a more thorough physical exam. Nothing, no scratches, no cuts, nothing at all that indicates the impossible fall that he just survived. He wonders about a concussion but realizes that the world isn't blurry, there's no fog or haze in his mind. If anything, he's seeing life more clearly than ever before. Tiny details, scratches on his tools, a tiny fleck of rust on his crampons, details usually glossed over and forgotten, now stand out in stark contrast to the banality of everyday life. 'You feeling up to getting a beer?' asks Scott and Alex nods slowly, a smile spreading across his face.

A five-minute drive later and they're at Moe's Tavern, drinking Guinness and romanticizing what just happened. They both tiptoe around the details until Alex finally asks, 'How long was I out?'. 'Out? You were knocked out? From where I was, it looked like you hit and then got right up. Damnest thing I've ever seen.' They talk more and drink more, the Guinness going down smooth and easy as the afternoon turns into evening. As the evening progresses, Alex's perception of the room becomes increasingly cloudy. He blames it on the beer and lack of lunch or dinner, yet feels no appetite. 'Let's get you home', Scott says as he winks at the waitress. Alex realizes that he's been sitting at the table, staring at the wall, lost in thought for quite some time. 'What time is it?', he asks? '11:45, Theresa's going to kill me when I bring you home this late.'

Alex rises from his chair and stumbles, not realizing how impaired he seems to be. He makes it to Scott's car under his own power and gets in the passenger seat, for the first time aware just how bone-weary he is. The ride to his house is short and soon they arrive. He retrieves his gear from the trunk and begins walking up the sidewalk where suddenly Theresa is waiting for him, clad only in a white nightgown. She greets him and takes his pack; with Alex leaning on her shoulder, they walk into the house.

He walks to the bedroom, undressing as he goes. The house is eerily silent but he takes no notice; the warm bed and sleep dominating his thoughts. They lay in bed, Theresa beside him, her head on his chest. Her steady breathing and warm cheek adding a sense of security and normalcy. He takes a deep breath and exhales, feeling every muscle relax. At peace, he closes his eyes.

And then he's falling. He opens his eyes and there's Scott, his eyes wide in horror, hands clutching the useless ends of the severed ropes as Alex rockets past. The ends of the ropes crack angrily in the wind while his ears are filled with screaming, part the wind, part his own. He turns in the air, seeing the ground rush toward him. Every crystal in the ice shines, the sky a perfect blue, the ground a blanket of white, calling to him. He hits the ground with a thud and all is dark. Alex Greer lay dead.

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