Ed goes first, and he’s plenty nervous. It’s not the rushing water, it’s the fact that he has to teeter on these rocks. They drop sharply, and if he falls downhill he’s going to take quite a crack. He’s worried about gashing his face, smashing the prosthetic. He moves slowly, placing his crutches and plastic foot with great care, testing the stability, rock by rock. A misty fog has blown in. The stones are cold and gray. Once he commits to swinging his good leg through, he is an inverted pendulum, and all bets are off. “If I do fall,” he says, “I hope to be knocked unconscious so I can feel the pain another day.” Rausch, Fawley, and Garman triangulate, hovering around Salau, but keep their hands off. His lips are pinched with concentration. Rock to rock. The scrape of the crampon, the clunk of the boot. And then, the final pivot. The crampon bites into gravel and everyone exhales.
Scott is more stable, but it takes him longer to place his sticks and feet. Clark holds his left arm, more to steady than to guide him. Garman follows close behind. Smiley crouches, and he places his sticks wide, like outriggers. When he completes the crossing, there are congratulations and smiles all around, but the cheerleading is contained. Everyone is working out the line between encouragement and patronization. After all, the men simply crossed a small creek.
It’s a steep stretch now, up to a nearly vertical snowbank. Ed turns sideways, his prosthetic on the downside. Trading his upside pole for a shorter ice axe, he begins edging up, his left leg doing all the lifting while he drags the prosthetic. He grimaces with effort, his teeth in white contrast to his whisker stubble. The snow bank is cut with chutes and troughs. Descending hikers choose chutes and slide down. Their wind pants pass over the granular snow with a high-pitched zizzzz. “What’s that sound?” asks Smiley. It had not occurred to the rest of the crew to explain the sound. They had seen the sound.
At the next break, Art and Curtis huddle with Ed. He is redlining. At the current rate, it isn’t at all clear that he can continue. Salau is disappointed, but he looks Rausch directly in the eye, and speaks crisply, militarily, matter-of-factly: “What are my options?” It’s a question he’s been asking ever since the grenade.
In the end, Rausch decides to redistribute the weight in his pack further. Everybody takes a few items. “Thanks, guys,” says Salau. It’s a tough moment. Tough for him to have to thank the team, even though every member would gladly take the man up the mountain piggyback. These are the things that go beyond losing your leg. Like having to hand stuff off to people.
The snow is wet and grainy. When the grade allows, Ed faces forward and moves straight ahead. It seems to help when he steps in the footprint of the hiker preceding. But he is puffing out his cheeks now, on the exhale.
Art steps in, helping Salau readjust the prosthesis. They are seeking the perfect uphill combination: knee locked, knee unlocked, sidestepping, whatever it takes. At one point, Salau swivels the plastic foot backward so it pivots off the heel rather than the toes. It’s not the answer, but he leaves some confounding tracks.The sun is dropping. The peak is outlined against the sky. Salau leans into the slope and disappears over the ridge.