by Robert Walton
Norman Clyde Peak shines behind me. Its summit — silent as only high, stony places can be — is with me still. I glance down. My climbing partners are already threading a path through the terminal moraine of Clyde’s pocket glacier. I’ve tarried too long.
I reach across my pack for my water bottle and dislodge my prescription sunglasses. Left casually on the pack flap, they skitter away from my fingers and drop off the ice ledge. They bounce and leap down the seemingly gentle slope of ice and disappear in a crack a hundred feet below me. Damn. That’s $250 I don’t want to lose.
No glacier is a benign place and no accident on a glacier is a minor one. Each small mishap can explode into disaster. I know this. I’ve climbed in these places for thirty years and learned their rules.
I shrug my shoulders into my pack’s straps and buckle the waist belt. I grip my ice ax with care and make sure its wrist loop is around my right wrist. I glance at my crampons to confirm that they are securely fastened to my boots. All is in order. I rise.
The first step, up or down, is most crucial on ice. But the angle here truly is not steep. I plant my ax, step down with my right foot sideways, bend my ankle, place all ten crampon points against the ice and transfer weight to them. I do the same for my left foot, lift my ax and plant it lower. I repeat these motions, establish a meticulous rhythm, and proceed downwards. My world shrinks to the few feet of ice around me. Slushy snow atop the ice is the only complication, but it’s a minor one.
When I lift my eyes to check my progress, I discover that I’ve reached the same level as the crack where my sunglasses disappeared. It’s a few yards to my left. I move left and pause below the lip of the crack. The crack is really a crevasse partially sealed by mature snow. I widen the opening with my ax and peer in.
My glasses are perched on an edge of ice a few feet down, but there is something else in the blue shadows below them. I reach past the glasses with the adze of my ax, bring it back slowly, catch the nosepiece and lift my $250 prize free of the crevasse. I grip the glasses with satisfaction, my carelessness redeemed, tuck them into my jacket’s chest pocket and seal it. I look back down the crevasse.
A sinking feeling comes over me as recognizable shapes coalesce from the shadows. I take my headlamp out of my jacket’s right pocket to make sure. I click it on. The beam reveals a skeletal hand and arm covered with scraps of red cloth.
Death is no infrequent traveler in the mountains. I’ve encountered it before and, indeed, it follows every climber’s every move like a shadow. Claire and I climbed together when we courted and accepted mortality with clear eyes, or so we thought. Last year, cancer’s blunt irony mocked our decades-long understanding. She’s gone, but not from my mind. I feel her at my elbow at the stove as I prepare to flip an omelette, and she climbs with me still. She must. We shared the mountains too long for death to intervene.
My children are grown now, so I’ve spoken with them about death while climbing, my own. It’s possible. Should it occur, I’ve urged them not to take it as a tragedy. Living with beauty entails risk, and I cannot live without beauty. I would be most irritated, however, if my death came as a result of some lapse of skill or attention on my part — like dropping my sunglasses.
This death is an old one. There is no immediate urgency to bring knowledge of it back to everyday life, back to friends and family members long saddened by an unexplained disappearance. But there is urgency.
I remove one of my collapsible hiking poles and my red bandana from my pack. I extend the pole to its full length and affix the bandana to its handle. I secure the tip of the pole inside the crevasse and pile loose snow around it. The top three feet with the attached bandana extend into the air and make a satisfactory marker flag.
Sobered, I lift my ax and check my crampon straps. Bodies, however old, are the business of search and rescue. I will contact the SAR team in Fresno when I reach a phone in Big Pine. These thoughts occupy me as I climb down the remaining ice, step onto scree and remove my crampons.
A growing roar shreds itself through rock spires and bounces off peaks behind me. I glance to the east and see an airplane approaching, a big one, a Boeing 767 airliner. Smoke trails from the engine beneath the left wing. The pilot obviously intends to cross the Sierras and trade altitude for speed down to the flatlands. He’s not going to make it.
Horror freezes me in place. I don’t want to watch this, but I can’t help myself. My eyes follow the staggering plane as it smokes, stutters and whines toward me. Impact against the Palisade Crest behind me is seconds away.
Suddenly, a silver streak rises from the glacier behind me. The streak intersects the path of the doomed plane, flares sun-gold and forms into a hand with fingers of light. A sound like the tuning of a thousand violins thrums through mountain air and the hand lifts the 767.
The plane lurches and then soars higher. It arches far above the Palisades on a golden rainbow, begins gliding down toward Fresno and disappears beyond jagged, black peaks. The violin notes rise in pitch and swell in volume. The column of light burns orange, flames blood red, flares once like an exploding bulb and vanishes.
I breathe. I breathe again. I turn and look up the ice-path I just descended. A scoop of ice the size of a football field has disappeared from the upper glacier. A golden glow emanates from the crevasse next to my hiking pole. My mind shies away from pondering the impossible, from pondering a miracle. My partners await me at Sam Mack Lake, below intervening moraines. They must wait longer.
I put all questions out of my mind as I prepare to retrace my upward steps. I don my crampons, check my pack straps and retreat into the narrow focus mountaineering imposes. Ice is still ice. I near my improvised flag and pause. Someone is here.
A naked woman lies on the very lip of the crevasse. Hands at her side, she lies on her back with her feet together. She is short, anorexically slender and young. Her eyes are closed and I cannot tell if she’s breathing. If she lives, she must be hypothermic. I approach her.
Her eyes open.
I stop, unsure of what to do or say.
She turns her head. Her eyes, midnight blue, pierce me.
I stammer, “You must be cold. May I help you?”
She says nothing.
I step closer. “Are you hurt?”
Her lips do not move, but her voice sounds within my ear like a whisper of breeze. “I’m sorry you’ve come back, though I expected it.”
I bend closer. “Pardon me? What did you say?”
She continues as if I hadn’t spoken. “You were on the Clyde summit. You should have been well down the mountain, but something delayed you. What?”
“My sunglasses fell and I had to find them.”
A smile traces her thin lips. “Sunglasses, such a small detail. I missed it.”
Time might be crucial for her. I try again. “Are you cold?”
“Are you injured?”
“I am. But help is coming.”
I glance above and behind. Nothing moves and nothing makes a sound other than the distant susurrus of wind passing through rock spires. We are alone. I hack snow and ice with my ax, fashion a crude platform. I remove my pack and my jacket. I put the pack on the platform and sling it to the buried hiking pole. I offer her the jacket. “Please, take it.”
She nods. “If you wish.”
I cover her. It is not possible, but certainty rises within me that this girl has somehow saved the 767. I utter my next words most reluctantly. “You lifted the airliner?”
She closes her eyes. “At need, I can initiate a fusion reaction” — she strokes the ice next to her — “and use its energies for my own purposes. I consumed a not insignificant fraction of this glacier to do so.”
I shake my head. “No human can do that.”
She opens her eyes. “I am no human.”
“I appear to you in a form you can comprehend. It is not my own. I used the dead woman in this crevasse for a focus and a frame. She will be as she was when I depart.”
I ponder this and finally ask, “Do you have a name?”
She smiles and looks skyward. “Call me Moroni.”
“Ah, Moroni, please let me initiate a rescue. Human or not, you need help. Darkness will bring freezing temperatures. It will be hours before rescuers can arrive, even if I leave now.”
She shakes her head. “Time is not what you think it is.”
That stops me. “What do you mean?”
“Have you seen the Pacific ocean?”
She smiles. “No, you haven’t.”
“I tell you, I’ve seen it.”
“You’ve seen the great waves at Big Sur or San Francisco Bay. You haven’t seen it all, not all at once.”
I scoff, “It’s vast. No human can see it all.”
She nods. “You are right. No human can. Know then that time is a great ocean, perhaps the greatest. It’s all there, though you see only small bits of it. Sometimes you share small bits of it with others. Your life is a sequence of fragments.”
I shrug. “So?”
“Oceans surge within oceans within endless oceans.” She looks at me. “Your life is a molecule next to mine as mine is next to that of those greater than I. You perceive existence sequentially. I assure you, there are higher orders of sequence, infinitely higher, infinitely more numerous.” She smiles. “Some stars are sentient, you know.”
I nod. “I get it. We’re from different neighborhoods. I’d still like to help you out.”
“No, you cannot. The impulse ennobles you, but no. We are too different.”
“If we’re so different, why did you save those people on the plane?”
Moroni looks at me. “All lives interact. A hummingbird’s wingbeats move galaxies you cannot see. There was an old woman on that plane who is important. She must not die in blood and fire.”
“An old woman?”
“Seventy-six of your years. She will help care for her granddaughter until she is eighty-four. Her granddaughter will save us all.”
She shakes her head. “Sometimes even to speak of it is to change it.”
I think about that. Finally, I look at her directly. “But you do change things? You intervene here?”
“We. Me, my kind.”
“All the time?”
She shakes her head. “Rarely and in the smallest ways.”
I laugh. “Boosting an airliner over a mountain is small?”
She nods. “Had you not seen me, it would have been only a trick of the wind.”
I think some more. “When you act, is it for our good?”
“For the good of all.”
“I suppose the missing chunk of the glacier up there will get blamed on global warming, but you know we really are making a mess of this world. With the powers you have, the knowledge, you could help us a great deal more.”
She shakes her head. “No, we must not contact you directly.”
“We harm you.”
“Harm us? How?”
She closes her eyes, thinks. At last she looks at me again. “Would you put a naked newborn beneath desert sun?”
“Of course not.”
“Your minds and spirits wither when they touch ours, like babies beneath desert sun. We cannot prevent it.”
Dizziness, a touch of altitude sickness, washes through me. I sit beside her. “But we need so much from you!”
She nods. “And we from you. We will commune. Not this day, not soon, but we will. I promise.”
“A complex question — orders of infinity are involved.”
I shrug. “I’ll tell others about you. We’ll seek you out.”
She looks at me for a long moment. “No, you won’t.”
“You’ll prevent me?”
“No,” she shakes her head, “though it was my mistake that allowed you to perceive me. I’m sorry for that.”
Her eyes, deep and kind, capture mine. “You are dying as we speak.”
“Dying? How? When?”
She smiles sadly, but does not reply.
I lie back on the platform. Blue twilight grows above the crest. The first stars soar above me.
Copyright © 2020 by Robert Walton