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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.

He comes on steady, just as he has since the trailhead at Paradise. Twenty yards…15…10….The persistent pace, the strong, implacable face. Kittleson and Fawley coil the line as he closes the gap, but they do not pull him. Down at Muir, Smiley had taken Rausch aside: “Make it or not, let me climb this thing myself. I don’t want be a football.”

“You made it, Scotty,” says Fawley, and he guides Smiley to the ground, where he sits with a big loose-mouthed grin, his tongue at a comical loll. Smiley came of age in nearby Pasco and spent a good chunk of his Army career at Fort Lewis, so he carries a clear image of Rainier and can conjure a picture of himself atop the blazing white peak, high above the curve of the world. Turning to the video camera, he says he loves his wife, and he says he is thinking of Ed. He says he would have given up if Art hadn’t pushed him.

The sun is brilliant. Down below, the melt is on.

It’s time to go.

The descent is a whole new sort of trouble. In the time since Smiley summited, the snow has gone slushy. After the first couple of switchbacks, it clogs his crampons and turns his boots into size 10 1/2 snowboards. “Jam your foot heel-first in the snow,” Rausch reminds him, but it’s tough, not being able to read the angle of the slope first. He falls, then falls again. Nothing spectacular, he just drops to his knees, but then he has to lurch upright, reposition his ice axe, get oriented, and take the next step. Jam, jam, slide. Jam, jam, slide. He senses all of the free-fall air to the downslope side and worries that one of these times he will plunge and drag the entire team down with him. At every switchback, he swaps his axe to his upslope hand, repeating the position of self-arrest until it becomes reflex.

By the time he reaches the ice bridge, it has deteriorated to the point that Marin has cut a new path between two monstrous parallel crevasses, one of which calves a chunk of ice the size of a city bus right when the team is strung out on the rope. Smiley can hear the chunks breaking loose. It is a nerve-wracking stretch, and just when Fawley tells him the diciest portion is past, he hears a distant rumble. Rausch pauses, and Smiley, feeling the rope go taut, stops. The rumble is swelling–an avalanche? Smiley can hear Micah Clark, hollering from several hundred feet below.

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