In Deep

Posted on: June 12, 2020


[This fiction story originally appeared in The Climbing Life section of Alpinist 50 (Summer 2015).—Ed.]

This image is from the award-winning film documenting the first African-American team on Denali. More information can be found at AnAmericanAscent.com. [Photo] Hudson HenryThis image is from the award-winning film documenting the first African American team on Denali. More information can be found at AnAmericanAscent.com. [Photo] Hudson Henry

Jamal's senses snapped into focus with a sudden burst of light. The darkness that enveloped him had lasted only an instant as his mind recovered from the shock of having fallen. In those first few moments, he wasn't entirely sure where he was. The bright flashes of blue and white seemed to reflect the intricate patterns of chipped and cracked tiles on the countertop of his mother's warm kitchen. But why I am so cold? He wondered. And then, all at once, he knew exactly what had happened.

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Grey clouds drifted overhead. Through the gaps, the perpetual sun of an Alaskan summer lit the walls of ice around him in bright flashes of blue and white. Snow drifted down and onto his face. Only the glacier glasses he wore kept the flakes from falling into his eyes. Just moments earlier, he'd been walking behind his two partners, across a vast field of ice and snow on the Matanuska Glacier in the Chugach Range of Alaska. A snow bridge broke beneath his feet, and he fell into the crevasse. Now he hung suspended above an abyss, the rope still tied securely to his harness. The bulk of his heavy pack wedged him between the walls like a cork in a bottle. He couldn't see the depths beneath him, but his legs dangled free. He felt as though he'd been buried alive.

Jamal Franklin was only seventeen years old. Days earlier, when the small bush plane first touched down on the glacier, he realized immediately that he was farther from his home in Washington, DC, than he'd ever been in his life. Despite the company of his friends, Michael Pope and Carmela Espinoza, he felt isolated and horribly vulnerable. He imagined himself a tiny speck in the middle of an infinite universe without color, distinguished only by varying shades of grey. When the plane whined off into the distance, a great silence fell over the landscape like a heavy curtain. Doubt rippled down his spine. Am I supposed to be here?

No answer came from the enormous mountains all around him. His presence or absence on the landscape had no more significance than a single flake of snow. All he heard was the pounding of his heart and the noise of his own breathing. At first the surrounding quiet unnerved him. He'd been on many winter climbing trips in the White Mountains. Cold was nothing new to him, but he hadn't realized, until this moment, submerged in the vast Alaskan wild, just how much the city still echoed in his mind: the growl of car engines; the blare of truck horns; a constant thrum of noise that enveloped him in waves, washing over him as he walked from his apartment to school and back again; rhythmic currents of constant motion, pulsing at a frequency so familiar they passed unnoticed in his wake.

Here, the silence appeared, strangely, to amplify his perceptions: the loud crunch of snow that seemed to reverberate off the mountains when Carmela slung her pack onto the crusty glacier; the small orange flags tied to wands that marked their base camp and flapped in the breeze with snaps as sharp as gunfire; the bright, shimmering shades of blue that gleamed in every crystal of ice; the weight of memories. From time to time, the voices of classmates resounded in his ears. In his thoughts, he heard them say without ambiguity, Climbing is one of those fool things white people do.

As one of the few African American climbers who frequented the local gym, Jamal had sometimes felt self-conscious and lonely. But when he met Michael there—an older black man with a thick mane of dreadlocks and an air of unassailable confidence—it was as though he'd found a man he could imagine himself, one day, becoming.

Encouraged by Michael and his partner Carmela, Jamal found he could move with ease over increasingly difficult rock, ice and snow. Stories of their ascents in the Cascades and the Rockies filled his mind with images of jagged, golden ridgelines and steep, ice-covered faces. He began daydreaming of exploring the famous peaks he'd read about in the pages of books like Annapurna. He pictured himself as a black Jonathan Hemlock, like the main character in The Eiger Sanction, his favorite film, but standing on some Himalayan summit instead of in the Alps, wearing glacier glasses and smiling into the glare of high-altitude snow and sun. And when he walked to and from school, his favorite line echoed with the sound of his footsteps: We shall continue with style. He imagined, one day, writing his own stories.

His mother didn't like the idea of an Alaskan expedition. She'd worked too hard, she said, to give her only child a life in which he didn't have to be cold or hungry. Each morning with an apron over her tailored business suit, she'd fix him a hot breakfast with an old cast-iron skillet on the gleaming, new stove. While he dressed for school, she'd set a plate of fried eggs and toast on the kitchen counter, its blue and white tiles still scarred by one deep fissure and a series of thin cracks—all that remained of the loud clatter that awoke him when someone threw that same skillet on the night his father left for the last time.

"You're going to leave too someday," she once said to him. "And when you do you're going to be a man I can be proud of."

Every morning she sent him off to school with a kiss on his forehead and the same two commands. Be smart. Stay safe. The expression in her eyes, so full of love and strength, compelled upon him the binding conviction of that promise. "If these mountains are where you need to be," she had said, "then go. Be smart. Stay safe."

But the mountains were indifferent to promises, he now realized. Inside the crevasse, he stared at the icy blue walls. There was nothing he could do except trust and wait. He focused only on the warmth of her love. From above, a noise came distorted, as if passing underwater. Carmela was shouting instructions. The rope began to rise.

"We've got you!" Michael yelled.

And at those words, time and space collapsed from an unfathomable void to a single point in the present, fine and sharp as a pin. From the depths of the crevasse, Jamal was pulled up into the light. His backpack popped loose of the constricting walls. The braided strands of the rope spiraled above him until he could see the glacier expand out before him again in a never-ending sea of white. And in a few minutes more, he was free.

Michael placed a gloved hand on Jamal's shoulder. Despite the cold, sweat ran down his face and several locks of matted hair clung to his damp cheeks. He asked between ragged breaths, "Are you all right?"

Jamal pressed his tongue to a small cut on the inside of his lower lip, his only apparent injury. He hesitated, but then he smiled. "Yeah, I'm OK. Thank you." To his embarrassment, the words sputtered from his dry throat in a rasp. The fear ebbed away. "Yes, I'm fine," he said.

Carmela shivered, smiling as she rubbed warmth back into her weary arms. "Good," she said. "Let's get moving."

A few moments later, they began walking. It was as if nothing had happened, Jamal thought. They took their place on the landscape, each of them, once more, an insignificant speck in an endless universe, roped together, on course toward their objective. Far away, the sound of avalanches boomed. And for a moment, the absurdity of so much beauty, so much danger, made him tremble. He glanced behind him: their small tracks still sparkled and vanished—each footprint just as brief and inconsequential as a crystal of snow. The mountains didn't care about his plans, his dreams or his promises. Yet still he knew, in a way beyond words and reason, that he belonged in this place. He was in deep, now. Ahead, the summit loomed unperturbed in the distance, prepared to receive, with neither welcome nor discretion, all those willing to climb.

—James Edward Mills, Madison, Wisconsin

[This fiction story originally appeared in The Climbing Life section of Alpinist 50 (Summer 2015).—Ed.]

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