Frost Heaves

A cold trickle of ice water runs down my cheek, freezing me back into reality. I look upward into blue overhanging gobs of frozen water. Stupid. The ice water runs smack between my eyes and fills my right ear. I take a few steps to the side and drier ground. Looking back up I see my partner, Bill, wrench his ice axe from chest level and begin to hack into the frozen mass that looms above him. Golden sunlight touches the top of the frozen waterfall we are climbing, illuminating its layers in whites and wintergreens, but is well beyond where he stands. Wriggling my toes now, I can just barely feel them. I wish he’d hurry up.

Bill is smashing away at the bulge that looms three feet out and over him, cursing it wildly. After what seems an eternity his right axe sticks solidly above him. I forget about my toes and pull the rope cautiously in a bit. He only has one screw below him, but he’s far enough above it that he’d hit the ground if he fell. I don’t know why he doesn’t fire another screw in. Bill’s swinging with his other axe now. Large pieces splinter off and shower down around me. A few bounce from my helmet. He seems to get a stick—okay now, just pull over the damn thing and let’s get to the sun, I think. Bill begins to walk his feet slowly up beneath him. “Watch me,” he says.

“I am,” I reply. “You got it.”

Bill removes his right pick and starts to swing a bit higher than the left, a bit up and beyond the bulging lip where the angle starts to kick back. Thunk! Thunk! Kerack! Suddenly the ice shatters outward in all directions from his ice axe point, dinner-plating into a piece the size of a kitchen table. I barely have time to think of the right expletive before I see him cut loose. I’m lucky. The kitchen-table-sized piece slides with a groan over Bill’s head, and craters a few feet from me with a horrendous thud.

Bill lets loose a blood-curdling cry. I manage to look back up in time to capture an image of crampon-festooned purple boots swooping wildly out to one side as Bill swings like a monkey onto his right ice axe—his only point left in the ice. Before it even begins, it’s over and he’s back onto the ice like a treed cat. All four points are anchored and hyperventilation ensues.

“You all right?” I query. No reply. “Take a deep breath!” I yell encouragingly. This statement is about as moot as Bill’s screw. “Put something in!” I yell again. Silence. He seems to be calming since I can’t hear him breathing anymore. Okay, I think, the bulge is gone now, no more water running down my neck, pull it together now and finish it off.

Minutes pass. I’m looking over to the other side of the canyon with its looming rock walls and gullies, where water slowly dribbles that can be traced downward in glowing frozen rivulets and dark black streaks that symbolize ice. Some of the gullies lie dry and dormant. No water moves through them, nothing clings to their walls. It is so beautiful here in winter. Is Bill all right?

I look up. Bill still stands at his station silent and unmoving. I feel guilty for enjoying the view while he idles away in terror up there. Selfish, yes, but what can I do? It’s pretty well up to him now. Again I find myself looking longingly up past him through thinning trees where the sun shines beyond the top of our climb and on past small outcroppings of rust-colored rocks with huge cool whippings of snow on top. Way, way up there I can see the source of the trickle that splashed in my ear. I’m following it as it winds down through a tight chimney of stone then cascades outward from another cliff edge like silver into space. Very softly now I can hear it spatter on those rocks far above.

Suddenly the rope comes tight. “Climbing!” Bill yells down. He begins climbing again, twenty feet farther, and then thirty feet, he just keeps going up the vertical drool, no screws, nothing, he becomes his own protection, and climbs unhurried but swift and strong and remarkably better than he ever has before. Pretty soon he’s out of sight up over the top of the climb and I have to hurry to keep the rope moving with his pace. Finally the rope stops moving. I hear that he is off belay, and before too long the rope comes tight to my waist. I begin climbing up, taking out the only screw he has placed, slowly hooking his old ice axe holes and stabbing with my cramponed feet.

It all goes pretty smoothly. I reach the place where he almost decked and steal a glance over my shoulder. I mark my trajectory should I have been him and he me, but I can’t reproduce what terror he must have felt and soon I’m just marveling at this frozen chunk of ice we’re on and the view around again and the sun sparkling on snow crystals and warming my back. I feel three tugs on the rope so, reluctantly, I kick it in the last few feet and quickly I am up and over the top where I find Bill dry-heaving into a snow drift. His body continues to tense and relax as I tramp up towards him more than a little horrified. I ask if he’s all right. He grunts and heaves again.

“You know, it wasn’t too bad,” I add weakly. A big stream of noxious yellow drool hangs from his lip as he turns, smiles at me and says, “It’s your lead.” OB