I stared mesmerized at the August sunset. At this height, the sinking red orb cleaved two distant mountains so exactly it looked staged. Nature couldn’t produce a better end for a day. I let out a long weary breath, part rarefied air, part exertion.
Beside me Allie looked at it wide-eyed, breathing hard. She had to be thinking the same thing as me. We’d just finished our climb and stood together on an irregular rectangular rock about ten feet square. The last part, walking over a sixty-foot wide area of shelly, feldspathic granite had slowed us down. I gave Allie my hand as we started across and she grasped it fiercely. The land canted at a doable angle, crowned much like a roadway, but the stuff could slide. Angie looked at it fearfully.
“Jon, I don’t think we should do this,” she said, slightly perturbed.
“No sweat, Allie. It’s only a few more feet; up there,” I pointed, “just beyond that stone face it gets better.
I didn’t know for sure, but she needed to get control. Panic causes unexpected reactions, mostly violent. Besides, I couldn’t give Allie the impression that the stuff scared me a little, could I?
“Stay as close to the ridge as possible. Walk flatfooted. Feel each piece before putting your full weight on it. You take that side of the crown and I’ll take this. We’ll be fine.”
Hand in hand we had stepped out onto the last obstacle that kept us from the sight my older brother Paul had told me about two years ago.
Like a switch clicked on from some remote place in my brain Paul’s concerned face loomed in front of me, and a tremor ran through my body. Paul had been dead a year and a half now.
How could it have happened? He’d owned all the equipment. The meticulous man trained mountaineers, for God sakes! I remembered the day Paul’s partner Josh Benner called the house as we ate supper. Mom could barely understand him.
“It was an accident…” He said it over and over.
Mom panicked. She knew. She’d told Paul he had to find something else, that this was too dangerous. She knew what he would say. The conversation came back, word for word.
“Not to worry, Mom.”
“Paul, it’s not you, it’s the mountain. I worry about the mountain. Please.”
“Don’t worry, Mom. This is me, Mom.”
“Oh, why won’t you listen?” Mom got exasperated. Paul knew she would. He wrapped his arms around her and gave her a hug.
But she did worry. She spent nine months with him totally under her control. Then she birthed him and even early on she began to see his directions, the falls, the scrapes, the risk taking.
Pa said, “Leave him be, Ma. He’ll be what he’ll be.”
Mom wouldn’t listen to Pa, the man. Paul was her baby. What would Pa know about how a woman feels?
I came along in the way of things and Mom loved me, I knew, but Paul…her special child, her first? She may have felt some guilt, because being fair-minded, she understood that all her children should be treated equally, but she couldn’t…she simply couldn’t.
I sucked it up, but I made sure I did what I wanted first and listened to Mom second. I couldn’t help that, either.
Paul faded. Alone with Allie again, I felt shaken. I faked a smile and continued on. We crossed the field carefully and very few pieces moved under us. Once, halfway across, Allie felt something give under her feet, and she shrieked. We stopped. Nothing moved. A few seconds later a tiny mountain echo came back to us. Realizing that she’d momentarily lost it, she laughed nervously. The bad part thinned and solid rock replaced the flat, shelly, shale-like granite. Now on good footing, Allie regained her sense of humor.
“Piece of cake from here on,” I said. I saw no trail, so we followed the contours of the mountain and I searched for the best path. Every minute or so I would look back, find an unforgettable feature and memorize it. You didn’t want to get lost in the Grand Tetons.
A couple hundred yards ahead I saw what Paul described. The little outcrop rose prominently another fifteen feet and beyond that, nothing. We had arrived. Coulter Peak commanded a great view of picturesque Turret Mountain and the whole range beyond. The coming twilight didn’t bother me. Not far from where we stood, a rocky cleft created an excellent windbreak. We would stay the night. I wouldn’t try this in the winter, but late June had cleared the mountain tops of snow and the nippy wind wouldn’t bother us snuggled in a double-wide down bag.
“Wow!” Allie said. “You were right, honey: worth it, absolutely worth it!”
I stood with my arm around her and held her close. Just what the doctor ordered, I thought. Soon we released our jackets from around our waists and put them on. Hiking generated heat, standing on top of the world didn’t.
The sun disappeared below the cleft in the mountain and put us in shadow. With plenty of residual light left, I inspected the place I’d picked to bunk down and saw that nature had done a nice thing. The space between the walls of the cleft would accommodate us and nothing else. Allie helped me out of my thirty-pound pack. I assembled our two-man tent, laid the sleeping bag out and pushed it inside. With our weight, even if it clouded over and we got wind, our bodies would anchor it and we’d be safe and warm.
I handed Allie the little Coleman propane stove. She fired it up and put on the pork and beans.
“How long will this take?” she asked.
“At this altitude, give it some time.” I said. “We have all night.”
“My stomach doesn’t.” She smirked.
Later, relaxed and with our backs against a friendly rock wall we enjoyed the blaze of stars in air so clear we couldn’t make out the constellations.
When we finally turned in, Allie made a comment about how awesome it would be to make love on top of the world. I couldn’t agree more.
Wind ruffled the tent during the night, but we woke to crisp, clean air at daybreak. We each took turns around the corner and then had breakfast. Packing took a half hour. I put our accumulated debris in a plastic bag and packed it. We left the campsite the way we’d found it. With reasonable people, mountaineers’ etiquette rules.
With a song in our hearts, a whole day to return to the lodge in Jackson, and about as carefree and we’d ever been, I started picking our way down the mountain. We got back to that scary part and negotiated it carefully. I know Allie felt much relieved when she finally put her feet on solid surface again, and so did I.
I couldn’t have guessed it. At the beginning of the tree line we were moving pretty fast on a downgrade, watching our steps and taking an occasional peek at the surrounding territory. I’d just jumped down from a boulder and positioned my feet for my next leap when behind me Allie suddenly stumbled. Her scream reverberated through my head and airborne, her body crashed into mine, knocking me to the ground. Momentarily stunned, I cleared my head and horrified, I saw Allie lying face down on a severely tilted granite slab.
Her parka had caught a little gnarled juniper tree that grew in a crack in the slab and stopped her. My mind went crazy thinking what might have happened. I stood stock-still and got control. I stared at her, at the little tree, and assessed the danger. If that tree let go…
Blood pooled under her face. She lay unmoving.
“Allie!” I cried. Nothing. I forced down rising panic.
Cool head, I thought, I need a cool head.
Beyond the slab the mountain ended in a fifty-foot drop. I had no rope. Paul said this mountain didn’t require it and the ranger in the valley agreed. Wish I hadn’t listened.
Shaking the cobwebs out of my head I thought hard. Ten feet separated us. Quickly removing my pack and parka, I unrolled the two-person tent and twisted it into a nylon rope. The edge of the slab ended with enough undercut so I could fan the tent end over it and I thought it would hold. It had to.
Fearful but determined, I went over the edge, keeping pressure on the “rope” and slid to Allie’s position. Another foot…there! I remembered that Allie had kept her parka zipped up, so I grabbed the collar and applied pressure. Just then she moaned and moved.
“Allie, don’t move a muscle.”
Gradually she came to. When I thought I’d gotten through to her I told her of the tight spot we were in. I had hold of her, but no way could I drag her back up this granite slab.
“How are you hurt?” I asked.
“Head hurts. Bleeding, cheek, I think.” Quiet for a few seconds, she said, “No broken bones, I think.”
“Good,” I said. “Can you move carefully up and climb over me?”
“You’re too heavy.” I meant I couldn’t drag her, but that sense of humor I loved zinged back.
“You’re going to pay for that comment.”
I laughed. My Allie.
After that she began to move and managed to creep up my body. Finally she acquired lip of the rock above and went over the top. I pulled myself up wearily, but gladly. She had cut her cheek open and messed up her North Face Parka. She’d need stitches.
I assisted her down without incident, thank God, and got her fixed up. I proposed to her at the ranger station.
She said, “Even with a messed up face?”
“Sure,” I said, “I’ve got to be around to explain to our kids that I didn’t do it.”
I got a punch in the arm for that one.