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The Cirque of the Unfallen

The Cirque of the Unfallen

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David Pickford
October 2017 | Read
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-  A climbing ghost story by David Pickford from his 2015 collection After The Crash and Other Stories  -


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In the distance, cloud had started to build above the high crags that ran along the edge of the cirque. She reached for a blue ripple in the granite wall that ran strong and thin as a human vein over the rough grey stone. At its apex, the fingers of her left hand closed on a small edge. 

It was enough, but only just. 

Pulling hard on the edge, she ran her feet up to the sloping shelf and stood in balance for the first time in a hundred and forty feet. 

The sun was falling fast towards a gap in the ridge more than three hundred feet above. Her rope disappeared down the steep slab beneath into the rising shadow of evening. Where was the last gear that would hold a fall?  She didn’t know.

Just above, a pair of choughs quartered out from the wall. As they ascended into space, their cries echoed for a while in the cooling air before falling silent.

The evening sky reeked with shifting light and omen. 

The lichen under her fingers smelt of damp earth on an autumn night. Twenty feet above, a stunted pine grew out from the wall: the lone sentinel of this high tower that rose sharply for a thousand feet above a silver lake that gleamed between the trees beneath. 

She swarmed up the final plinth above the sloping shelf and belayed to the pine, wrapping a sling around the base of the foot-wide trunk that disappeared into a small chimney. 

Why was it growing here, this lonely tree? From where did it find water and nourishment? How did it survive the winter ice and snow?

She didn’t know.

There was almost no rope left to take in. She took off her helmet and clipped it to the sling around the tree. Beads of sweat balled up on her straw-coloured curls and ran down her bare arms and across the weathered skin of her hands that the high Sierra sun had turned to fired bronze. As she leaned back against the wall and took in the ropes, her chalk bag compressed against the stone and a cloud of chalk dust hung in the still air above the pine tree. 

He started climbing almost immediately. No more than a few seconds elapsed between the ropes coming tight and starting to move again.

They had been climbing together for a long time now, the girl and the boy. Everything they did was intuitive. 

Fifteen minutes later, he arrived at her belay on the pine tree, breathing hard. 

‘Nice lead’ he said as he grabbed the gear she’d already racked on a sling that hung on the tree, ready for him to take. 

‘Your pitch looks harder’ she replied. ‘Look at that roof at the top the upper arête. There’s a thin crack, maybe small cams. That’s it.’ 

‘Hmm, yeah. Well, I guess we’ll see.’ He chuckled to himself as he got ready to climb again. It was a trick he used to calm his nerves. 

She gave him a slow, deliberate wink of her left eye as he was about to set off up the pitch, as if to say she was ready, so he might as well get on with it. The one-eyed wink was her thing, but it had become their ritual before either of them went for a hard lead. 

Twenty minutes later, he was at the top of the arête. The sun was almost touching the ridge on the other side of the cirque. He plugged a small cam in the crack in the roof and chalked up. He could see what looked like a good hold on the lip of the metre-wide roof. His left hand slipped a centimeter in a poor finger lock. He stabbed his left foot against the wall, torquing his fingers harder in the crack. It’s now or never, kid, he said to himself. 

He eyeballed the hold. He ran his right foot up to a high smear. Pulling outwards on the finger lock, he caught the small, sloping undercut at the back of the roof with the fingertips of his left hand. His right hand flew from the finger jam, making a lightning arc through the evening. 

He hit the hold at the same time as his right foot exploded from the smear. His feet cut loose, and he caught the edge on the lip of the roof with both hands. His legs spun in a whirl beneath him, a lone ballerina suspended in space in mid-pirouette above the darkening void below.

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"He knew of all the stories that other climbers had told about this place, about the things that happened after dark up here in the Cirque. The sudden shadows moving on the ridge. The lost voices in the cloud" 

**************

The sky crackled with static electricity that made the tiny hairs on the back of his neck rise up as he hung there from the dragon-crest of the wall.  Far to the southeast, thunderheads were building over Nevada. Beyond them and further out, in some lost region of the air, something was stirring. 

On her belay down at the stunted pine, the girl glanced up towards the edge of the cirque as he disappeared from sight high on the arête above. Why did the tiny hairs on the bare skin of her arms and at the back of her neck rise up as soon as she was alone here? And was she really alone here?

She didn’t know.

He ran out the ropes to a tiny ledge perched on the apex of the upper arête; an eyrie that looked out across the cirque and across the world below. The sun had fallen behind the ridge now, and the sky was shifting from blue to indigo. Long ribbons of dark cirrostratus were floating around the higher crags and were interspersed by vagrant rafts of rising vapour that blew opaque and strange through the low notch where the cirque dipped before the cliffs rose again to the north.

As she followed the pitch, a light wind picked up, blowing in slow gusts through the notch in the ridge. Far below, the surface of the lake hovered at the edge of the forest. The quicksilver film of the dead calm water spread out like a slick of split mercury across the darkening fathoms of the mountains about him. 

As he belayed her up, he shivered slightly in his windproof.

He knew of all the stories that other climbers had told about this place, about the strange things that happened after dark up here in the cirque. The sudden shadows moving on the ridge. The lost voices in the cloud. The presence in the air. And the whistle of the night wind from all directions. 

She reached the ledge where he was belayed after twenty minutes of climbing in a flurry of laughter and curses. The lines of his face looked pale now in the fading light, she thought, and as keen as a hunting wolf. As she clipped in to the sling at the belay, he turned to her. 

‘See the inscription, just down there’. He pointed to the words etched into the granite at the base of the ledge. 

 

In the cirque of the unfallen

they who passed this way

will rise again


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‘What the hell is that?’ Her eyes darkened as she looked down at the inscription. 

‘It’s kinda creepy’.

‘It dates back to the early 1970s. Two climbers disappeared somewhere on the ridge over there. It was the beginning of winter. There was a freak ice storm that came out of nowhere, apparently. Neither of the bodies was ever found. The inscription was cut by one of their friends, one of the old pioneers of the cirque, the following summer. Nobody knows who. The old guy who lives in that tumbledown shack by the road head told me about it. It’s a legend among the older folk in the high Sierra. That’s why the local climbers are afraid of staying too late here. They think the dead climbers haunt this place at night.’

She stared at a gap in the cloud just above the notch in the ridge. The wind blew in quick eddies around them, back and forth, shifting and starting, then falling away before it suddenly rose up in a series of gusts that made a low whistle as they passed over the crest of the ridge above. 

‘We better get going, then’ she said as she grabbed the gear that was hanging from a sling on the belay. ‘I don’t believe in any of that ghost story stuff. I’m a scientist, remember. Occam’s Razor suggests it’s all bullshit. As does the last five hundred years of human progress.  Anyway, enough storytelling. Time to climb!’

‘Okay, go for it’ he said, glancing upward with a raised eyebrow. It was a gesture, she thought, to find out what really existed here, and what didn’t.

She winked at him with her left eye as she set off up the final pitch. 

Climbing fast, she hardly bothered to stop and place gear; just a solid cam in a horizontal break ten metres above the belay. She ran out the sixty metre ropes up a series of overlapping slabs all the way to the ridge. 

Darkness was falling fast by the time she’d set up a belay in a jumble of blocks just under the upper crest of the wall. The shadows of the cirque had deepened into a sluice of jet-black liquid that swept westwards into the forest beyond the lake, which had become nothing more than the faintest pulse of pale light on the outer edge of the mountain’s penumbra. Why did she feel so cold, all of a sudden?

She didn’t know.

She saw the first of them as she took the ropes in tight and he began to climb. The outline was faint at first among the boulders that lay in the notch of the ridge, but resolved into form as she stared towards it. She was transfixed by the strange appearance of another climber, as if he’d risen out of nowhere. He was tall and lean. He carried an old-fashioned backpack of the style used by climbers of a generation ago, and a long-handled ice axe with a wooden shaft was fastened to the side of the pack. His movements spoke of the careful and deliberate motion of an experienced mountaineer. Although his clothes were tattered and faded, he was unmistakably moving up the ridge towards her.

A lost rider on the rising night. 

As she continued to stare, the second figure appeared. Climbing just behind the man, she moved with the lithe, light and delicate gait of an athletic young woman. She was also carrying a backpack, which was slightly smaller than the man’s though of the same style.

Now the girl could see the rope trailing between them. The two ends of the rope were coiled in loops around the shoulders of the two figures. The two of them were moving together slowly and carefully up the ridge. They were heading, it seemed, for the precise point at which she’d made the belay.

She shivered as waves of nervous electricity darted through her. The last words of the inscription on the ledge below suddenly came back to her:

 

they who passed this way

will rise again

 

In a trance of cold attention, she took the rope in through her belay plate and watched as the two figures climbed up the ridge. She could feel her partner’s fast movements across the slab, invisible now in the darkness below, through the sudden release of tension on the rope as soon she took in the slack. He would be here in less than a minute. 

Would he believe her when she told him?

She didn’t know.

The two climbers on the ridge below continued to make their way towards her as the wind blew a long streamer of pale cloud through the dark air between her position and theirs.  This delicate thread of vapour stretched a thin grey line over the granite, defining the no-man’s-land in the middle distance between her and the two figures. Somewhere in that forbidden tract of boulder and scree, the space between the past and the present suddenly collapsed and was no more part of the world up here. The insatiable mountain had consumed time itself for a while, just as it had consumed those who had once passed this way, and as it might consume others.

It was nearly dark when he arrived at the belay. His head torch beam made quick movements across the stone. High above them, in the centre of a black atrium revealed by the parting cloud, two stars began to blink.

Nothing visible below them now remained. The streamer of vapour was clearing fast, leaving the ridge dark and desolate under the sliver of a crescent moon that was rising above the boulders that lay on the crest of the cirque. Before they started down, the final strands of cloud were carried away eastwards by the wind, and the chill of the night began to fall across the unknown path of their descent. 

 

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David Pickford's After the Crash and other stories is a collection of nine short stories, published in 2015 by Vertebrate Publishing. The stories will take you from The Door to the River to the wildest reaches of the Sahara in The Jahannam s Lair; on board Twenty Red Twenty, the first manned mission to Mars, and into the labyrinth of Cain and Abel s psychodrama in The End of the Past.

Five of the stories compose a series of vividly descriptive episodes of mountain literature, where the perilous conditions of the adventurous life are explored and questioned, extreme skiers are tested to the limit, an alpinist suddenly finds himself marooned high in the Himalaya after a plane crash, the border between myth and reality is blurred during a long solo climb, and a tragic mystery is solved by a lone climber who reassembles the lost pieces of The Map of Thunder Canyon. The remaining four stories range from the visionary dreams of a child to the ideology of a Waziristani jihadist. Controversial, poetic, melancholy, original and thought provoking, each story is revealed in just enough detail to let your imagination conceive what might happen next.

 

 

 


 

Written By
David Pickford

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