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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.

“Scotty! Scotty! The jets!”

There are four F-16s, formed up tight, carving a vast curve around the mountain. Clark arranged the salute, and up to this minute he wasn’t sure it would happen. Flat gray and solid in the sky, the jets hiss past at what seems eye level or a little below, and then they are gone, and a raven drifts up the Emmons Glacier.

The fly-by gives everyone a boost, but soon it’s back to the slog. The snow is ever slushier, and when he walks close to the crevasse edges, Smiley can hear the trickling melt. Time and time again he falls to his knees, time and time again he stands and resumes hiking. Two hours into the descent, Kittleson stops the group.

“Disappointment Cleaver, Scotty,” says Rausch. As he starts down, Smiley remembers he was ready to quit here. It seems a week ago, and maybe he relaxes a little, because suddenly he is sliding and his feet shoot out and there is only air and just like he trained he announces, “Falling!” Only he says it in that young boy voice calm as if he is excusing himself from the dinner table. He whirls and tries to get into self-arrest position, but when he comes to a stop he is sideways, suspended in the vee of the rope, ice axe scratching the snow.

“Okay, Scotty, okay, we’ve got you, you’re good.” Rausch and Fawley are holding rock-solid, but there is a pitch to their voices. Smiley is dangling 500 feet above the next switchback. A few stones have rattled off and scattered across the snow far below. With Kittleson on anchor, Rausch and Fawley reel the big soldier in, draw him back to the trail, help him to his feet. And then Kittleson leads out again. There is no shortcut home. No survivable shortcut.

Ed Salau has been scanning Cathedral Gap for hours before Smiley appears. When news comes ahead that he made the summit, Salau is elated. An hour later, everyone is circled up, sitting on packs and snowbanks, jabbering. Smiley removes his boots and socks and says it’s the finest thing he’s felt since leaving camp. Describing the Cleaver descent to Ed, Smiley says, “I guess I fell in a trough or something,” and the other climbers hoot when they realize he has no idea. Ed tells the best one-legged story ever, about the time he went out wearing shorts and sandals and his cosmetic leg–the one made by the same people who do dead bodies for CSI, the one with actual toe hair shaved from his right leg–and when this drunk lady kept pestering him he surreptitiously hit the swivel button and walked a complete circle around his fake foot while it stayed planted, at which point the woman barfed and ran from the bar.

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