He makes it across to a relatively flat traverse and everyone exhales. There are no more rocks or crevasses between here and the summit. Just snow. But from here on, it’s unrelentingly upward, and the air is getting rare. Five minutes into the next leg, Smiley and the other unacclimated members of the group are huffing like emphysema patients, and Smiley is back to suffering. The constant stress of having to balance without visual cues has spread to his abs and back and arms–everything taut and sore–and now the thin air has put his pulse to pounding in his head. Think through it, he tells himself. My feet, he thinks. My calves. And more to the point: Why did I say yes to this? Break after break, he is sure he won’t continue. The pitch is so steep Fawley and Rausch have warned him not to set his water bottle on the snow or it will slide off to some couloir thousands of feet below. Each time, he catches his breath just enough to tell Rausch he’ll go one more. He is on autopilot.
The sun is well up when Marin’s group summits. Turning, they drop their packs and sit, watching for Scotty. He will be hidden until the final switchback. Last they saw him, Smiley wasn’t talking, all his energy devoted to putting one foot before the other. Another party of climbers celebrates boisterously, but Marin’s group is quiet, eyes fixed on the final switchback. At some point during the climb, each person has closed his eyes for a step or two, just to get a sense. The vertigo comes on fast, like a shove on the shoulder. Your hand shoots out, you drop your center of gravity, your eyes snap open. Given a sliver of Scott Smiley’s life, you opt out.
And there he is now.
“Y’got it, bud!”