Within an hour, the group reaches its first snow at around 5,600 feet. “We’ll break here, guys,” says Art Rausch. Salau steps into the snow and tips over. The climbing boot is just too clunky. After Salau gets himself upright and seated on his pack, Rausch kneels and removes the boot. “Let’s try something different,” he says, stripping the sock away to reveal a tan plastic foot that looks–right down to its sculpted toes–like it was filched from a department store mannequin. This “foot shell” slips over the actual weight-bearing base of the prosthetic to provide an anatomical fit inside a boot or shoe. The image of Ed eating a candy bar with one bare foot plonked in the snow makes the other climbers giggle. “Maybe the crampon,” says Rausch, unrigging a pair from Salau’s pack. Salau detaches his prosthetic at the knee and hands it to Rausch, who straps the crampon to the foot. He has to modify the perforated adjustment plate, and Ed gives a campy wince as Rausch uses a pair of multitool pliers to crimp the cold steel around the flesh-toned heel. Salau reattaches the leg and stands to check the balance: better. It’s a distinctive look: one orange climbing boot and one nude-footed Franken-sandal. There are snow crystals on his toenails.
The break ends. The men shoulder their packs, taking a moment to squint across the snowfield and up the Nisqually Glacier all the way to the summit, brown and white against the blue sky. They are mountain climbers. Ed leads the way back to the trail, pausing a moment to let pass a pair of chubby first-graders in flip-flops.
There is a ways to go.
A point of semantics: First Lieutenant Ed Salau did not lose his leg. Tough to lose your leg, he will point out, when it is strapped across your sternum, just six inches below your chin. Standard military procedure. The leg was apocalyptically detached, but it was not lost. That would come later, when the docs determined the damage was irreversible. From the day he got his orders for Iraq, he knew he might be killed or wounded. “I had accepted that,” he says. “But I was a runner. I trained hard, and I ran for fun. And I do remember thinking, ‘As long as nothing happens to my legs…’”
He was leading the platoon home from a patrol. It was getting dark. He was on lookout, standing in the turret of a Bradley fighting vehicle. “Head on a swivel,” he says. “Look left, look right, look…there he is.” The first grenade was already on its way. It slammed into the vehicle, shattering the armor plating. The second grenade hit in the same spot, penetrating the vehicle, taking off Salau’s leg and that of his gunner. First chance, he stuck his hands down his pants to make sure he had his gonads. “You’re good, sir,” said the medic attending him. Still bleeding, and he was already learning to recalibrate the standard for positive developments.
He’s up there now, on point, humping along. Viewed from the rear, the backpacks ride high in a neat stair-stepped file, but every time Ed swings that leg through, his pack wags off-kilter like a shoulder-mounted metronome. Tick by tock, the cumulative lateral movement ratchets up his workload. The trail has turned gravelly and uneven. He’s sweating. A breeze crosses the snow and cools his face. Rausch has had him redistribute a few items from his pack among the other climbers. His crampon grates in the shale. He is fighting for every foot of territory.
For his part, Scott Smiley is going pretty much unnoticed. Just stepping quietly along, tap-tapping his poles, sometimes using them like curb feelers to find larger stones beside the trail. Clark and Fawley cue him now and then, and in steeper rock jumbles he reaches ahead with his hands and sorts things out that way. He can feel the sun and then the breeze, hot and cool, and sometimes he smells the scent of fir trees. The other climbers feed him scenes now and then, describing how the treeline has given way to rocks and snow, how the clouds are skiffing past the peak, how his progress is being surveilled by a distant marmot. Off and on he has heard the sound of water, and now he hears it grow more insistent. It is time to cross Pebble Creek.