A Long, Lonely Climb

#picturefiction #flashfiction

The sun punched through the swirling snow returning Paul Ling to the world. The blizzard which had forced him to shelter under the rock outcrop had turned the mountain into deepest night and then when actual nightfall had come the world seemed to disappear leaving him floating, cold and alone in the void.

The near solid wall of snowflakes had thinned to mere wisps; so Paul shook himself off and emerged from his hidey-hole. The wind, which had raged like a banshee through the night whispered to him like a tired child, exhausted from its play. He checked his altimeter – 8,000 meters – he was so close to the top it had pained him to seek shelter but the storm had been one for the ages, if he had continued he would have died.

As the air continued to clear he looked up and down slope; a handful of other climbers emerged from their impromptu shelters brushing snow and ice from their climbing gear. Paul waved, nobody responded but then again they were a bit preoccupied with their own recovery.

Paul shouldered his pack and oxygen tank and turned his back on the climbers below him; the summit was still to come. The ground continued to rise before him; the trail was not the most direct to the top of the mountain but it was less dangerous than paths taken by earlier climbers. After a mile and a mere 100 meters of altitude gain he found himself gaining on a blue jacketed climber. The climber was moving slowly, painfully; the storm seemed to have taken a hard toll on him. Paul came abreast of the climber and appraised his situation. The man hiked with his head bowed, his right leg dragged, and his face was covered by his oxygen mask; he must be really bad off, Paul had yet to feel the need for oxygen.

“You OK buddy?”

The man limped along silently, ignoring Paul.

“Hey, do you need any help?”

Again the stoic climber ignored Paul. He had tried; if the man wanted to just push on through his discomfort it was his choice. Paul was a bit annoyed at the man’s rudeness; he could at least have acknowledged the offers of help and companionship.

Paul increased his pace and soon left the man far behind. Paul passed a yellow jacketed climber and his Sherpa resting beside the trail. He raised a hand in greeting but neither man acknowledged him. Was there an asshole convention engaged in the climb today? He shook his head in disgust and pressed on; he felt better than he had during the entire earlier portion of the climb. The proximity of the summit seemed to energize him to the point where he felt like he could sprint the rest of the way; even the extreme cold and the thin air seemed to present no hardship for him.

Step by step the summit of the mountain approached. The sun emerged from behind the peak as he negotiated the final turn in the trail and then it was over; Paul had reached the top. He placed his neon colored boot atop a boulder symbolically defeating the mountain and raised his arms in victory; he had never felt so powerful, so alive, in his entire life. Paul basked in his glory for several minutes and then resigned himself to the fact that his glory was to be fleeting; the long ascent was only the beginning, now he needed to go back down.

Paul gave one last look at the peak before setting his feet to the downward slope. He passed yellow jacket and his Sherpa who again refused to acknowledge him; a mile further and the limping climber came into view, resting on a rock. Paul didn’t want to blunt his joy by trying to engage the grump again.

Several miles further he came around a turn in the trail and spotted a huddled shape partially buried in snow beneath an overhang. Rude climbers were one thing, this was a fellow human in distress; Paul raced forward.

Paul prayed as he ran, if the man had been buried for any length of time it would be too late. He could see the red jacket peeking through the snow and a pair of neon boots shining like beacons. The guy had been smart and bought climbing boots like his own; easily visible. The man’s orange oxygen tanks came into view and Paul’s headlong rush faltered; the man was dressed exactly like him. He didn’t remember seeing another climber wearing clothing like his; could this be one of the famous frozen corpses which littered the mountain.

He approached cautiously.

“Hey buddy, are you OK?”

A shiver ran through Paul’s body as he drew closer to the silent shape. The two-toned pants were also exactly the same as his; it was like looking into a horrible mirror. Paul reached the body and knelt beside it. Desiccated, frozen features stared at him from beneath the snow. Paul had seen this man every day in the mirror; somehow, the frozen corpse was him. The world grew dark around Paul and he heard the raging wind begin to roar, driving snow into the pile of rocks. In moments the world was completely black.

The sun punched through the swirling snow returning Paul Ling to the world. The blizzard which had forced him to shelter under the rock outcrop had turned the mountain into deepest night and then when actual nightfall had come the world seemed to disappear leaving him floating, cold and alone in the void.

Paul crawled from his impromptu shelter and looked uphill, the summit and glory awaited him.




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