Authors: Jeff Long
Angels of Light
Empire of Bones
Outlaw: The Story of Claude Dallas
Duel of Eagles: The Mexican and U.S. Fight for the Alamo
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2006 by Jeff Long, LLC
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
For information address Atria Books, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The wall : a thriller / Jeff Long.
1. Mountaineering—Fiction. I. Title.
is a trademark of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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my Trojan woman
When God throws
angels down, it starts like this.
A breeze stirs. It carries the slightest distraction, a scent of trees perhaps, or a hint of evening chill, or a song on a radio in a car passing three thousand feet below. In some form, temptation always whispers.
High above the earth, toes smeared against the stone, fingers crimped on microholds, the woman turns her head. Not even that: she turns her mind, for an instant, for even less. That’s all it takes.
The stone evicts her.
The wall tilts. The sky bends. Her holds…don’t hold.
By now, eight days high, her body is burning adrenaline like common blood sugar, one more fuel in her system. So in the beginning of her fall, she doesn’t even register fear. She is calm, even curious.
Every climber knows this rupture. One moment you have contact, the next it’s outer space. That’s what rope is for. She waits.
Her mind catches up with her body. A first thought forms, a natural.
All our lives, from the cradle to the grave, our hands are our most constant companions.
Like the back of my hand.
They give. They take. They roam and shape the world around us. But hers have turned to stone. Or time has stopped.
Each finger is frozen just so, still hooking on holds that no longer exist. Her high arm is still stretched high, her low arm still bent low. One leg is cocked, the other is straight to the tiptoe of her climbing slipper. She could be a statue of a dancer tipped from its pedestal.
Her paralysis does not alarm her. Hollywood shows victims swimming through air, limbs splayed and paddling. In reality, when a climber is climbing—really climbing, not fretting the fall, but totally engaged—and the holds blow and you peel, what happens is like a motor locking. “Rigor” is the formal term, as in rigor mortis. Your muscles stiffen. Body memory freezes, at least for a moment. It doesn’t matter what your mind knows. Your body stubbornly believes it is still attached to the world.
What surprises her is the length of the moment. Time stretches like a rubber band. The moment is more than a moment. More than two.
she tells herself.
There will be a tug at her waist when the rope takes over. Then there will be an elastic aftershock. She knows how it will go. She’s no virgin.
Her synapses are firing furiously now. She overrides her Zen focus on what civilians call pulling up, and what climbers call pulling down. The rock has let go of her. Now she forces her body to let go of the rock. Her fingers move. She starts to inhabit her fall.
For the last day, they have been struggling to break through a transition band between two species of granite, one light, one dark. In this borderland, the rock is manky and loose. Their protection has been increasingly tenuous and their holds delicate as sand castles.
And so she was—necessarily—way too high above her last piece of protection, climbing on crystals of quartz, almost within reach of a big crack. She had the summit in sight. Maybe that was her downfall. It was right there for the taking, and maybe she grabbed for the vision too soon.
From the ground up, the beast has begrudged them every inch. They have done everything in their power to pretend it was a contest, not a war, nothing personal. Now suddenly it bears in on her, the territorial imperative of a piece of rock. El Cap is fighting back.
Part of her brain tries to catalog the risks of this fall. Much depends on the nature of the rope, the weight of the falling object, all 108 pounds of her, and the length of the drop. Any point in the system could fail, the runner slings, the carabiners, her placements, their anchor, the rope. The weakest link in that chain of mechanisms is the human body.
On her back now, helpless, she glances past her fingers. The rope is making loose, pink snake shapes in the air above her. She’s riding big air now.
A dark shape flashes past. It is last night’s bivvy camp, gone in a blink of the eye.
Do they even know I’m falling?
At this speed, the camp is the last of her landmarks. The wall is a blur. Her braids with the rainbow beads whip her eyes.
Except for the grinding of her teeth, she falls in silence. No chatter of gear. No whistle of wind. Oh, there’s a whiff of music, a spark in the brain. Bruce, the Boss. “Philadelphia.” Faithless kiss.
She’s fallen many times. At her level of the game, no climber has not given in to gravity. You build it into the budget. It comes to her that she’s counting heartbeats, six, seven, eight….
Her freefall starts to ease. Finally.
The serpent loops straighten. A line—hot pink—begins to form in the dead center of her sky. The seat harness squeezes around her pelvic bones.
Abruptly the line snaps taut with a bowstring
The rope claims her. She gains weight, a carload of it, a solid ton of shock load.
The catch—or its commencement—is brute ugly. Her arms and legs jack down like puppet jumble. Her spine creaks. Head back, medusa coils flying, throat bared to the summit, she comes eye to eye with the abyss behind and below her.
It’s totally still in the valley. Autumn is in high gear. The leaves are blazing red and orange. But there’s hunger in the beauty. Pandemonium. You could get swallowed alive down there. She jerks her head from the hypnotic sight. She tunes it out. Turns it off.
She grabs for it.
She centers herself.
Eyes up, she takes a breath, her first since coming off, a deep, ragged drag of air. Like breaking to the surface again, she gasps.
Her fists lock on the rope. Sunshine is painting the rim. She curses, full of fighting spirit. They were so close, just hours shy. The fall will cost them.
She blames herself for rushing. They were banking on making land by night. They had gorged on all but the last gallon of their water, and eaten all but some scraps. They’d even high-fived their victory. Dumb. Jinxy. The wall moves with a tempo all its own. Full of wishes, too ready for flat land, she’d pushed too fast.
She yo-yos on the rope.
The recoil dangles her up and down in the depths. Eleven-millimeter kernmantle is built for shock. A fifty-meter section—the standard for climbing—has a break strength of five thousand pounds. Cavers shun “dynamic” climbing rope: it’s too bouncy for them in dark, bottomless shafts. But for a climber, elasticity is the very hand of the lord and savior.
Her mind brims with next thoughts. She doesn’t offer thanks. Fate is action, that’s her mantra.
The rope’s still quivering, and already she’s doing damage control. The fall could have been bad. She could have hit the wall or blown her harness. The line could have tangled in a limb or wrapped in a noose and snapped her neck. If not for years of yoga practiced everywhere, in gyms, dorm rooms, friends’ apartments, and campgrounds, her vertebrae would be scrambled eggs. But she’s whole, unwounded, not even a rope burn. The soreness will come, but not, by God, before she gets back on the horse.
Twisting in midair, she gathers herself together. The woods are darkening below. The sun band is creeping higher up the headwall, ebbing away. No way they’ll beat night today.
Knowing it will never work, she tries pulling herself up the taut, thin line and gains not an inch. It’s too thin, too taut, like a wire. She quits to save her strength. She settles into her harness, waiting. She needs a pair of jumar clamps and stirrups so that she can ascend the rope. One of her partners will lower the necessary gear, they’ll know.
She is impatient to return to the headwall above their hollow and finish what she started. It’s more than stubbornness, more than getting back in the saddle. She’s raving on endorphins, wild with energy. Her memory of the moves is crisp. She knows the holds. She’s cracked the code.
Come on, girls
. “Yoo-hoo,” she calls. And waits.
As the moments go by, she rehearses the sequence of moves: left toe here, pinch the white quartz crystal, reach right, stack her fingers on a seam hidden in a splash of sunlight.
In her mind, she makes it all the way to the big crack running straight to the skyline. The crack was so close, just a move away, and then she would have owned the stone. Now she’s forfeited the day. They’ll have to wait until tomorrow night for their seafood and wine at the Mountain Room Restaurant.
At last a voice seeps down from their camp in the vertical hollow. It is a single syllable, her name. But also it is a warning. Pain, she hears, and desperation.
Something is wrong up there. Her fall has wreaked some kind of havoc in the camp, there can be no other explanation. Clutching the rope, still as a fawn, she peers up in time to see the pink sheath blow.
For all its strength, a rope is a fragile thing. A grain of sand inside the sheath, a spot of acidic urine, even the rays of sunlight can destroy the core’s integrity. In this case, the rope fails at the threshold of their sanctuary. The hollow’s rim is not a knife edge, but it’s an edge just the same.
Fifty feet overhead, right where it bends from sight, the rope bursts into flower. It happens in a small, white explosion of nylon fibers. It looks like a magician’s trick, like a bouquet springing from a wand.
Chrysanthemums, how pretty.
But she knows the truth of it.
Quick as a bird, she steals a sip of air.
She grips the rope with all her might and wills the world to freeze, the rope to weave itself together, her body to be light as a feather. Abruptly she is weightless.
It breaks her heart. She whispers, “No.”
It was not supposed to end this way. You climb hard, get high, tango with the sun. When you fall, you fall with grace and the rope takes over. You heal, if necessary, and reach into your heart. Chalk up, tighten the knots, and get on with the climb. That’s the way of it. Ascent abides. Always.
The physics of the breaking rope flips her sideways, and then facedown. Like that she goes, chest first into a hurricane of her own making.
She could close her eyes. She wants to. But of course she can’t. This is the rest of her life.
The air cools instantly. The light changes. It goes from that golden honey to starved blue steeples. She has dropped into the shadow zone.
This is a different kind of falling. This one is full of forbidden thoughts. She has never not known hope. That’s the greatest shock. She is staring at the end of time. There is not one thing she can do to improve her situation. And yet she hopes. She can’t help herself.
Her mind goes on grasping. Command, of a sort, comes second nature to her breed. Even as she plunges, she calculates madly. In the back of her mind,
Like a cat, land like a cat. On your hands and feet. Light as a cat.
Climbers have a natural fascination with falling. Its discussion, usually held by a campfire or on long road trips, draws heavily on legend, anecdote, and personal experience, and includes falls one has survived and falls one has witnessed and even falls one has merely dreamed about but forgotten they were dreams. You learn from the fuckups. The accident reports almost always come with names, if not of the victims, then most certainly of their routes, and dates, and the type of gear and precise condition of the rock, ice, or snow involved. Often they list the temperature. Anything to make the unknown seem known.
For many climbers, “terminal velocity” refers to a death drop, sometimes known as “cratering.” In fact, the term specifies that point when a falling object reaches zero acceleration. Air resistance from below becomes equal to the mass of the object times the force of gravity. You don’t slow down, but for what it’s worth, you quit falling any faster.
All of this occurs to her in an instant. A million synapses are firing now. Images, words, forgotten smells, and emotions all spring loose in a flood. She remembers sparks from a campfire, the exact scent of cedar smoke, that taste of his lips, his finger.
Butterflies, the seashore, Mom, a singsong alphabet.
More and more.
The terminal velocity of a human averages 120 miles per hour, or roughly 165 feet—the length of a fifty-meter rope—per second. But it takes time to reach that state of zero acceleration.
In her first second, she falls just sixteen feet. By the end of her third second, she has covered 148 feet; by the end of the sixth second, some 500 feet. That leaves roughly a half mile to go, and she is just reaching terminal velocity. What it comes down to is this. She has eighteen more seconds to live.
The wind robs her lungs. It just sucks her empty. It makes her deaf, that or the blood roaring in her head.
She commands herself to see. She keeps her eyes bared. This is for keeps.
The ground does not rush up at her. If anything, it opens wide, growing deeper and broader. She is a pebble tossed into still water, except the ripples precede her in great concentric expanses of earth.
Swallows make way for her.
The forest becomes trees.
Out beyond the road, the river runs black through the white autumn meadow.