Two am. Ann chokes off the alarm on her watch. Her bones ache, even the sockets of her eyes. She probes her flesh, groping for her moxie. How much does she have left? Yeah, and how much will she need? Half breaths of wind rattle the fabric of her bivy sack. Ha! One vertical mile of snowy Alaskan beast below the foot-wide sleeping ledge she’s chopped in the ice, and the beast is snoring. Ann unzips the hood of her bivy sack. Stars! Bright goddamn stars. And cold. Cold as a wage slave’s soul. Perfect. Day three, and her weather window has held. She’ll meet the sun on top of the mountain.
She pops two caffeine pills and swallows a gel. She puts her earphones in and thumbs up the sound. Tom Paine lunges at her ears like a dog barking nose-down in a hole: Nothing more certain than death / Nothing less sure than its time. White noise obliterates the last syllable, turns to nasty, fire-breathing music just when she’s sure her eardrums will tear. Ann made this mix expressly for the small hours. The hairs prickle off her arms. Guitars peeling back her skin, that’s what she wants. Metal and caffeine, the gods’ own breakfast. All else is just calories. Inside her bag, Ann wrestles her plastic doubles onto her feet. Paine comes back to remind her that men beg for kings to rule them. No, she’ll have no kings.
Ann unzips her cocoon, clips herself in short to the two ice screws keeping her leashed against gravity. She packs away her sleeping kit. Her headlamp pricks the darkness, barely wounding it. The horns of the mountain above and the mind-trapping drop below are shadows on black shadows. She steps into her crampons, her favorite part of the morning. With spikes on her feet, she can go crusading.
The cold already has its teeth in her, and she’s no apple-cheeked gal. When single digits slap her in the face, the color dies out of her skin, and Ann knows she must be chalk white. She grins juicily. She should have brought some props, some plastic fangs and black eyeliner, give the mountain a scare. Deep night, laser-white stars, the gigantic black void behind and below—Ann imagines climbing into outer space. Drum blasts displace her skull bones. Heat rises through her flesh to meet the cold. The music is her armor against the void. She means someday to write out her will, which will consist of nothing but a playlist for her funeral, and that will make her happy. Ann threads the leg loops of her harness, drinks half her water, and puts her pack on her back. Her insides twitch. She feels vicious. The knife cutting open the future. She doesn’t know what she’ll find there, but it’s bound to be different from the past if she can just make herself sharp enough.
Fuck the climbing press and their backhanded praise, the “Psycho Bitch Rises” headline most of all. She was told to relax and take it as a compliment. Fuck ’em. Does she look relaxed?
Fuck the city people hiding from death in their homes. Binding themselves to their neighbors and their neighbors’ neighbors till they’re left wriggling on their own webs. Secure, sure. Ann’s fighting the good fight, trying to bump humanity off its inward spiral.
Fuck the whole brotherhood of the rope—they’re just as bad. Dudes tied together, married by their knots and common purpose. Greybeards in Anchorage or Aspen or wherever they take themselves to rot in their own memories and dream up new certifications and associations. One way or the other, head up or down, she’ll be there to remind them of their white hair and their caution.
Ann cups her mouth with her gloves and owl-screeches at the night, then takes a breath and cycles a few more times through her mantra: DPO. Dead till Proven Otherwise. She has the words tattooed in black under her collarbones. From the moment she touches the mountain, she is dead, clawing at the dirt from six feet under. She swings her right-hand tool into the ice and cleans the anchor screws with her left. If she wants to live, she’ll have to prove it.
She began down at Satan’s icy asshole, where she climbed gunslinger quick, as fast as she knew how, racing the sun and the devil’s daily bowel movement, when he drops a white load from a serac band two thousand feet up. Then she’d been up in his lungs, where the wind blew to tear her off the mountain and the ice looked like ropes of frozen snot hanging down over ribs of black rock. And even though she now has ol’ scratch by the neck, it’s only if and when she tops out his horns that she’ll have passed the underworld. Then she can reclaim her place in the land of the living, wherever in hell that is. DPO.
DANIEL ARNOLD is the author of the nonfiction books From Salt to Summit and Early Days in the Range of Light. His debut collection of short stories, Snowblind: Stories of Alpine Obsession, is now on-sale from Counterpoint Press. Arnold’s work has appeared in Rock and Ice, The Mountain Gazette, and elsewhere. He lives in Sonora, California with his wife and son.
Adapted from Snowblind, by Daniel Arnold, Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Arnold. With the permission of the publisher, Counterpoint Press.