One Last Question

Blithe overconfidence has killed at least one of us. A quick favour to the exhausted team has led to a situation I’ve only heard whispered about.

In good weather Flinty Grave is an easy scramble and it should have been no bother to search for equipment lost or abandoned in last night’s rescue. Shahn and I volunteered but the weather changed twice – neither predicted in mountain forecasts.

Now I can’t see more than ten metres at best. Heavy snow falls on warm rock and even the verglas has water dribbling behind it.

Shahn’s hanging on the rope, out of sight, not moving, and not responding to my shouts. She hasn’t used enough line to reach the next pitch and there’s a lethal cliff below – but an easy slope beneath that. We’re so close to safety. I don’t know what to do except phone the rest of the team to help us out – and they’ll take at least two hours to get here.

Clumps of melting snow fall from my jacket or creak under me as I move. Shit, my totally stormproof pocket has water in it. Holding a glove between my teeth I draw the phone out. Fortunately it’s in a pouch guaranteed to three metres immersion.

No, water dribbles out. Why didn’t I test my jacket and pouch? Why have I never done that? – just because they’ve always worked in the past…

I’m still shivering which means I can probably think clearly, more or less. I’m trapped, helpless and going to die: both of us are – unless I do something. Shahn may be dead already, though I can’t think why. In futile hope I click my head torch on to flash. The batteries will last several days – long after our bodies freeze and it’s noticed.

Is the rope jammed? Probably not. The way I’ve secured us means I’m a vital part of the connection between Shahn and the belays – which I left long so I could sit here. Too long, I can’t reach them which was lazy and stupid of me.

A decision has to be made and it’s all about whether I cut the rope or not.

If I don’t I will freeze soon. Shahn may be unconscious for some reason and, head down as she hangs below, suffocating. Cutting it could save her.

If I do she may fall onto the pitch-ledge or miss and tumble over the cliff – which may mean a landing on jagged rocks or down a soft snowy slope. Maybe she could get herself out then: I don’t know. I have no idea if I can actually get down here alone now anyway. Thick wet snow on melting verglas is perilous even without the inevitable avalanches. A wet-snow avalanche and merciless rocks are not to be imagined if you want to stay sane.

I don’t have enough information to arrive at a logical decision.
But I still have to make the choice.

Do I struggle back to a world where I have to face her family, my friends and myself – always knowing I cut the rope on someone? Is life worth it?

Could I trust myself with a friend after that?

Damn this! I can’t make a decision based on fear, that’s what advertisers work with. Shit, I’ve stopped shivering, now I’m too far gone to trust my own thinking. But … fear of shame, fear of judgement, fear of rejection, loneliness, self-revulsion, these things count for a lot whether I like it or not.

Hope? No, we’re not due down for a while and even then it takes a long time for the team to prepare let alone get through this weather. We’ll both be dead.

Maybe as I lose consciousness I can play a game, imagine the weather clearing, people on the ridge, Shahn shouting, or at least the rope moving: there: like that. That light too, answering my flashes – amazing how wishful thinking can make pure fantasy seem so real.

It would take the team another half hour to reach the bluff and send people down. Briony’s always energy and quick sensible decisions; Michiel, the pragmatic meticulous bear of a man, just gets on with things. There would be at least five others. In half an hour, if I can, I’ll imagine voices, radios, maybe even a helicopter coming.
In the meantime I’ll think about sleep … and a favourite tune. Comfortably Numb by Floyd will do, except I can’t remember it very well for some reason.

So, I made the decision not to cut – though I don’t know when and I’ve no memory of doing it. I can’t even work out on what criteria I made it.

As I doze off I wonder if I’ve ever been able to make a decision. Are we really in command of what we think are our selves – or just deluded observers?

©Gary Bonn, 2019