Fiction: THE RED TENT by Kassandra Kelly

On the third day we camped next to a red tent with the loose rain fly. Cam pitched our yellow SuperDome a few feet away, and I looked inside the netted windows of the red tent for any sign that the owners would be back soon. All I saw was a stuff bag of extra clothes and a ski pole. Where ever they’d gone, they took most of their gear with them.

During dinner the wind picked up and by the time Cam topped our tea with rum, it was more insistent, a living thing coming awake.

“Well, John, how do you like this wind?” asked Cam.

For a moment I wondered if I’d heard the words in my head as we hadn’t spoken much since we left the parking lot. Cam and I weren’t close friends, but we’d been climbing together for a long time and one of the things I liked about Cam was the silence that built up between us on the trail. I never asked but I guessed he liked it too.

I took my time responding. The wind licked up a loose end of the rain fly and dropped it on the red tent’s dome where it slithered down to its starting place. “I don’t know. Maybe it’ll blow off by morning.”

A long pause from Cam. The peak of the mountain was hidden behind its own shoulder, now pinked with the setting sun. “We knew weather was a possibility. We waited.”

Two weeks ago, my wife had sprained her ankle and we postponed the climb. Cam had taken the set-back silently, no doubt saving it for the moment he had solid proof that waiting had been a fatal mistake. The unoccupied red tent and the lifting wind were his proof. The owners of that tent could well be on the summit this minute, congratulating themselves on pushing for the top despite advancing weather.

“It’s just a little wind.”

Cam tossed the dregs of his tea against the rocks. “Hope you’re right. Long way to come for a hike.”

Sunset slanted between the gaunt pines on the windward side of the ridge. Though we still had light, the air was already blue. I couldn’t see anything in the fraction of sky visible between the rocks and the trees, not even a mare’s tail of cloud. Below us the lake trembled with ripples, dark passing thoughts that rose as quickly as they fell.

It was our route. Cam had come up here three years ago rock-climbing and saw a route to the summit along the northeast ridge. He hadn’t said anything to his companions, just saved the thought until he could get a topo map and his North Cascades guide books. As near as we could tell, this route had never been described anywhere.

We tried it in September of last year. August had been brilliantly hot, making the safest climbing that which could be done between midnight and ten a.m. before the sun hit the glaciers and loosened the rocks. We waited until the temperatures dropped in September, but the weather turned when we were at Camp One. At first it was a few thready clouds and a little wind. The next day clouds closed over us and rain descended, fusing into a rimy sleet on the ground, our clothes and gear. We took turns knocking ice off the roof of the tent and waited for the weather to break. It didn’t.

But this year, it wasn’t just the weather.

The red tent’s rain fly popped in the breeze. How long does a tent peg take to worry itself out of the ground? A day, two? If Jean hadn’t sprained her ankle, we’d have summated and gone home long before those climbers ever pitched their tent.

Cam stood and walked up the trail a few yards. “The wind will let up by morning. The weather’s going to hold.”

That night I awoke several times to the thrumming of wind in the loose rain fly. It was a sound I’d trained myself to hear in the wilderness, any change in the weather, any movement in camp. Tonight it was like sleeping next to a haunted house. I could tell from Cam’s breathing he heard it too, the emptiness.

*****

Every climb has a story in it, sometimes more than one story. The stories might be about one guy you know and all the different climbs you’ve been on with him. Sometimes you talk about climbers you’ve only heard about or disastrous climbs on other mountains. But the story is always about how the same event or circumstances keeps repeating itself out of all understanding. One climber I knew had fifty stories about times he’d left his only climbing rope at base camp, in a car, at a gas station, or on another continent.

Sometimes you roped up with someone who was haunted by a bad climb. Every step he takes is a step taken on another mountain. By nightfall, the guy can’t see you anymore. Maybe he started off okay, telling the usual stories. Long bivouacs in inclement weather, three guys in a wet tent, a forty-eight card deck, eating all the food as the rain continued to fall. You both laugh when he tells these stories. You tell a few of your own because everyone has these stories.

As you go on, the stories change. His voice gets quieter, the words come more slowly. Soon the weather is more than bad, it’s scary. The weather has become the fourth member of the expedition, the guy no one has ever climbed with before and doesn’t want to find on the end of his rope. The story always comes out the same from this point on: “She took a step backwards and was gone.” “I must have passed him in the dark.” “I watched them until they were out of sight.” “We lost radio contact.”

The thing is, most climbers know, sooner or later, someone will be telling a story like this about you.

*****

The next day, the wind dropped and the sky was clear. We strapped our ice axes and crampons to our packs and left our heavier gear behind as we started up the trail to base camp. Within minutes we were seeing patches of ice in the shadows of rocks, and not long after we stopped to put on crampons.

In the afternoon, we traversed an exposed face slick with hard ice. It was pure technique. On front points and ice tools, we flashed the wall like it was our first time. I wondered if I would ever have another moment as essential and perfect.

At base camp, we saw no sign that anyone else had been there. Cam relaxed and took out his flask of rum. “Did I ever you tell you about Nepal?”

Cam was on a guided expedition to a peak in Nepal, not Everest, but a smaller eight thousand meter peak. I’d heard a lot of his stories before but when Cam had a little alcohol and found himself in an expansive mood, I didn’t mind hearing them again.

“I was one of six clients. The leader was a guy named Bill Varley who’d been leading junkets in Patagonia. He was a first-rate climber, but it was his first time in the Himalayas too.” Cam passed me the flask. “This was a couple of years before the disaster on Everest in 1996. We had perfect weather for the ascent, we were all strong and healthy, and it seemed like one of those times, and I truly believe this, when nothing could possibly go wrong.”

On the way in, a trek that took fifteen days on foot, they encountered a little weather. They had thirty porters in sneakers to help over a seventeen-thousand foot pass in a snowstorm. The wind almost blew a bunch of them off the trail, including their one hundred-pound loads. Cam grabbed one porter’s jacket and held on, their combined weight the only thing that kept them both on the mountain.

“When we got to base camp, you could walk around and find gas and oxygen canisters from every expedition that had ever been there. No one was hauling much garbage off the mountains in those days. It was like seeing history.”

I added a portion of rum to my tea.

“And you know, there were bodies,” Cam continued. “People died up there. Sometimes they fell and the bodies couldn’t be recovered, other times the weather was so bad all the climbers could do was get their own selves off the mountain. We saw the left behind bodies. I remember one woman sitting by the side of the trail. Dead. Her hair was loose in the wind. Looked like she’d just brushed it a minute before we found her.”

“What did you do?” I asked.

“Nothing to do. It would have taken ten, twelve climbers to get her down, and we didn’t have the time. One guy touched her hair, took a handful and just let it slide through his fingers. Like you would.” He paused for another pull of rum. “She was beautiful.”

“Who was she?”

Cam shrugged. “Someone thought she was a Brit who fell in 1981. By the time I saw her, she’d been dead for years. No rush to get her down.”

The expedition summited. All the clients got up and everyone took pictures. When it was his turn, Cam saw the first big cirrus clouds boiling up from India and realized they had stayed too long on top.

Experienced climbers know the hardest part of the climb isn’t going up but coming down. The real work comes later, after you’ve taken your pictures, when it’s late in the day and you’ve been awake for twenty-four hours and your energy is gone.

They had fixed ropes. Bill tried to keep the group together, but he’d developed a cough and inevitably the stronger people moved faster. Cam stayed behind with Bill.

“He’d been coughing for days, but he kept saying it was viral, not altitude sickness. He’d done great on the ascent, but now he was stumbling, disorganized. He lost a glove. When I asked him where his glove was, he said he’d left it in the airport in Hong Kong. And the weather was coming up, wind blowing hard, and before long, snow. I tied Bill to me on a short rope, and down we went, one step at a time. I had no confidence he could hold me in a fall, and very little confidence I could hold him. I stopped thinking. I stopped having a name. I went on training alone.”

As Cam told the story, I looked at the sweep of land below us as it changed from white to gray to green and finally to blue, miles and miles away. I hadn’t been to the Himalayas, but after a certain point, snow is snow and falling is falling. I could picture it well enough.

“At first I couldn’t see my feet. And then it was my knees. I could be walking off the edge of something with any step. I knew vaguely how to get down but I had no visual clues. If we went too far to the right we’d come out on a sheer face. Bill’s stumbling and coughing got worse. He had altitude sickness for sure.”

Lost and alone, they struggled for hours. Cam stopped from time to time to let Bill cough, but the last time, Bill sat down in the snow and wouldn’t get up. Cam half-carried, half-dragged him from then on.

“And then I saw it—a tent, way out in the middle of nowhere. It was one of those old canvas army tents. I thought I was dreaming—there it was, looming out of the snow, all the corners absolutely crisp and the entrance closed up tight. Only a little bit of snow drifted around it, and only a little had settled on top. I thought who in the hell would carry a heavy thing like that—some crazy solo climber in hob-nailed boots and woolen knickers? I called out, I pounded on the canvas. No answer. It didn’t occur to me to wonder what a canvas tent was doing at twenty-one thousand feet until I opened the flap and looked inside.”

Cam had his headlamp on over his hat. He had light. He looked inside and saw a bundled figure in a sleeping bag, a canvas rucksack, a pair of heavy leather boots. A book. Glacier goggles. The figure wasn’t moving.

“By then I knew and I didn’t care. I hauled Varley into the tent, shook out his sleeping bag and zipped him up next to the dead guy. I got into my bag, and the three of us had a very good night’s sleep. The next morning Bill felt better. We had a drink, ate some chocolate and were on our way. The weather improved, and we caught up with our group. It wasn’t until days later, at base camp, that Bill showed me the book he’d taken from the dead man’s tent. It was a journal. The last entry was May 11th, 1938.”

“Sixty-six years he’d been up there.” Cam took another sip of rum. “Tent was in perfect shape. I closed it up tight when we left.”

*****

On the second day above base camp, we climbed the back of an ugly gnarled glacier. Serracs clung to the cliffs like cracked teeth, and as the day wore on we heard more and more ice bombs breaking off and tumbling down the mountain. Across from us, on another face, we saw the ice hit and cause two or three slab avalanches. On our side, we had a graveyard of crevasses to contend with. The visible ones were a blue splits in the ice, the color of a chlorinated swimming pool. They plunged to mesmerizing depths and it wasn’t hard to imagine they went all the way down to the center of the earth.

Walking half a rope length apart, Cam was leading when he broke through the crust of a hidden crevasse. He plunged from view. I fell lengthwise into a self-arrest, drove my axe deep into the snow and braced for the snap when Cam came to the end of the rope. He dragged me a few feet before my belay held. A minute later, the rope went slack and I started pulling it in, and another minute after that, Cam climbed out, his beard hoary with ice crystals. We got back on the route.

We were traversing a sheer white face with edges cutting the sky at either end. I lived in each step and my mind worked along the length of rope between Cam and me. I thought of my axe balanced in my hand. I thought of my crampons biting the ice. I measured my inhalations against the angle of the slope.

When we finally stopped to rest, the serracs were well below us and above was a jumble of black rocks that had burned out of the snow. We passed a bottle of tea back and forth. I thought of the topographical map we’d spread out on a table eight months ago, the corners weighted with our empty beer bottles. We were near the summit, where the elevation lines on the map had compressed to ripples so tight they were nothing but a geographic fog. It was the last pitch of the climb.

“John. Look.”

Cam pointed to a bright object in the snow a few yards below us. An ice axe. At first I thought it was Cam’s but the colors were wrong, red instead of blue. I saw a long cut in the snow above the axe, as though the tool had self-arrested. Cam side-stepped down to the axe and pulled it out of the snow.

I looked up the mountain in the direction the axe must have come. Not far above us were footprints, deep postholes like the ones we’d been making all morning. In the bottom of the nearest posthole, I saw the tiny dents of crampon points. Down the mountain, past Cam who was still holding the axe, I saw long glissade skids and chaotic disturbances in the snow, struggles of a large animal in free-fall with no tool for self arrest.

The marks stopped at the edge of a deep blue crevasse.

I walked down to Cam. “Let’s check it out.”

Cam replaced the axe in the hole. “Fuck.”

I kicked the snow balls out of my crampons and we started down. The slope was steep and by the time we reached the crevasse it was clear from the marks in the snow that no one had climbed out of the crevasse. We set up a belay and Cam edged to the crack, stomping out each step before committing his weight. The crevasse might bulge like a cavern under his feet and collapse under his weight, the ice eaten rotten by an underground river. Cold breath leaked from the lips of the hole.

I shoved my goggles off my face and stared at the snowfield until my eyes adjusted to the light. There was no wind anywhere on the mountain. The air lay thick and warm as a ripe peach, and the sun was early in the sky.

I felt the pressure of the belay on my harness as Cam leaned over the edge.

“Anything?” I asked.

Cam looked down for a long time. Finally he turned back and I gathered in the rope.

“Dead,” he said. “Nothing that won’t keep.”

“There’s a dead climber down there? Man, we have to call it in.”

“He’s not going anywhere, John.” Cam peeled back his sleeve and looked at his watch. “Fuck. You want to climb this thing, or what?”

The weather was so good that Mountain Rescue could fly directly into this bowl and we’d be riding back to the world in no time, the dead man in a basket next to us, and the mountain getting smaller and flatter in the distance.

“Give me the cell phone, Cam.”

He stared at me for a moment, hard, his eyes buried under his frosted brows before slowly bending to his pack. He tossed the phone and I stripped off my gloves to check for a signal. When I looked at Cam again, he had his axe in hand and he was methodically placing his points up the mountain. I wondered if Bill Varley had looked like this after his climb, alone but still moving.

I picked up my pack. “You’re an asshole!”

We summited the northeast ridge in the early afternoon and dropped our packs in the snow. There was no wind. We took a roll of pictures and made tea. Cam thought if we pushed it, we’d make base camp in a few hours easy and we’d call Mountain Rescue from there.

I couldn’t see the crevasse from the summit, only rocks and the dirty gray jungle of serracs. It had been just above the serracs, but I didn’t know how it would be found again if someone wasn’t there to show them the spot. And the weather wouldn’t hold forever. Everyone knew that.

*****

Kassandra is a graduate of Reed College and Pacific University. In 2008 she was published in Rose &Thorn, Future Fire, Clonepod, Reflections Edge and the Oregon Insider. She lives in Oregon City, Oregon and is currently at work on a post-apocalyptic novel. Visit her novel in progress at:http://madisonafter.blogspot.com/

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3 Replies to “Fiction: THE RED TENT by Kassandra Kelly”

  1. Nice example of the stories that do not make it off the mountain. I imagine you have a few more.

  2. Very well written and chilling. I’m not usually drawn to outdoor action settings, but this immediately pulled me in and gripped me to the last line.

    Well done!