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Shock And Awe

You think climbing Rainier is tough? Try it blind. Or with one leg. Then see who you pity.

After the crevasses, Kittleson paces the team up through Disappointment Cleaver, and Smiley is shortly believing the stretch is aptly named. Half the time he’s nearly knee-walking, feeling his way up the rocky spine. Rausch and Fawley patiently coach his every step, their headlamps trained on his feet. Kittleson is constantly on guard, ready to drop and lock at the first sound of a slip. So early, and already Smiley is suffering. “My calves,” he tells Rausch during a break. “They feel like they’re about to blow up.” “Tweak your foot placement,” says Rausch. “Displace the strain to other muscles.”

The team emerges from the Cleaver two hours later. Smiley is whipped. He sinks to the snow. Rausch and Fawley wrap him in his parka, and the three discuss the situation. “I don’t think I can make it,” Smiley says. “My calves…” Behind him the sky is becoming a bandshell of light, the rim of the earth molten orange. Smiley thinks he should turn back. “It’s your decision,” says Rausch, “but I really believe you can do this.” Gentle but insistent, the guides have seen this before. “The Cleaver is your first real taste,” says Fawley. “It’s a psychological thing.”

“One more section,” says Smiley finally. “See how I feel.” Overheated on the climb, he’s shivering now. One of the climbing party eases up beside him to describe the sunrise. Smiley listens–what choice does he have–but you can see his head is elsewhere. Barely begun, and it’s no fun anymore. In pushing Smiley, Rausch is making a calculated gamble. The ascent is going much slower than he and Fawley hoped, and long before you make the summit, you must contemplate the descent. There is only so much time to get off the mountain. All signs are for a sunny day–that sounds good now, but melting ice and softening snow lead to dangerously unstable conditions and Smiley is less stable than most.

For now, temperatures remain frigid. Andres Marin is parsing his team around the fissured blue maw of a prodigious crevasse, spreading them out along the rope as they approach a vanishingly narrow ice bridge. Stepping meticulously, Marin eases across the abyss and sets a picket, to which he secures a line so that the other climbers can clip in for the crossing. Clark is next across. Kneeling to unclip, he loses hold of his ice axe. It rattles across the ice and does a slow-motion gainer into the crevasse. Smiley and his team have caught up now, and after the axe drops from sight, everyone remains frozen for a beat, ears cocked for a ping or clang. Nothing.

Fawley clips Smiley to the fixed line and begins to coach him across the span. For fear of overloading the bridge, the two guides have to let Smiley go solo. The ice axe incident has left everyone a little edgy. Smiley puts one foot before the other in super slow motion. “Keep feeling that uphill edge, Scotty,” says Fawley. He tries for an even tone, but Smiley detects the tension. When he lost his sight, his fear of heights went with it, and it’s a good thing. The ice along the chasm lip is heaved and tumbled, and the aquamarine void beneath him seems cut to the very core of the earth.

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