Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Mysterium

A Novel

Susan Froderberg

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

1.

ALPINE JOURNAL


Spectacular mountains are alike in their call to the sublime. Dangerous mountains are particularly spectacular, having the power to startle and bewilder, as well as the means of being distinguished by remaining improbable to human life. The way up every daring summit characterizes itself, and a foothold or a handhold taken, an abseil or belay, a pitch, a bivouac, an anchor placed, will be imprinted in the body and in the mind of a climber, thereby becoming part of his or her being. Whether it is Everest with its Icefall, El Capitan with its Ahab, Rainier and its Cadaver Gap, or Mysterium its Sanctuary, it cannot be otherwise: the attempt to reach the top will alter or defeat any woman or man.

* * *

THERE WAS more to be written, but the professor closed his notebook. He wanted yet to say that climbing a mountain was like producing a work of art, that not only did one need endurance, perseverance, nerve, strength, and skill, as well as a degree of intelligence, but it was also necessary to be afraid if the accomplishment was to matter. The professor clipped the pen to the notebook and put them back into his rucksack. He switched the headlamp off, then zipped himself into the downy loft of his mummy-shaped bag. He would think more about what he wanted to say later. He needed a good sleep tonight and an early start tomorrow.

* * *

WHO WILL be the first to take? Who will be displaced? These are not simple questions of heights reached or distances achieved, but ways in which the triumphs are attained. The quest is one of danger and desire, this all would agree. Many speak of conquering, be it that of the fear of perishing, or the vanquishing of a given pinnacle. But how are we to live without fear, when the fear within us is the will to exist?

One must be afraid to fall.

One must be willing to fall.

* * *

THERE WAS a cry in the dark, a long delirious calling out. It took him time to climb out of the dream and put himself back to here where he was. He opened the tent flap and regarded the silence. The moon was full and had crossed to the other side of the valley since rising, shining sentinel upon the arsenal of gear the professor had racked up before sleep: a silvery chain of carabiners, an array of cams and stoppers and chocks, pulleys and runners and aid slings, coils of rope for haul and belay. There were water jugs huddled in the luminescence, a tin cup lambent alone, a bag of food that hung larval from a tree. There was another tent now, one that wasn’t there before the professor had closed his eyes for the night. He had hoped to have the wall to himself for the days ahead. Ridiculous, but still a wish. He switched the headlamp on and looked at the hands that glowed from his watch face. He could beat the sun in its breach over the peaks if he got the stove going right away and water heated up. He shimmied out of his mummy bag, crammed the bulk into its tubular sack, and began to dress before the oncoming dawn.

* * *

COURAGE IS esteemed a Platonic ideal in the Western world. To move toward some unknown, to venture, to risk are strivings we are born to. In our willingness to enter the remote or the hidden, the rare, the strange, the alien, we are rendered not only braver but better and more industrious with respect to that which befalls someone unwilling to attempt the seemingly impossible. To strive is to pull away the cotton in our days, those stretches of time that dull the tongue and muffle the spirit.

Just as the climber aspires to feel more alive, so too the climber may climb for immortality. In choosing a course that could lead to death he or she chooses the glory of being remembered. Though there be no such apparent heroism in poetry, is it not for the same honor the truly noble writer writes?

* * *

THE PROFESSOR opened a can of Viennese wieners, plucked the pasty little hot dog shapes of uncertain meats from the tin, and sandwiched them into day-old bread. He swallowed the breakfast down with swigs of instant coffee, considering the words written the night prior. Hardly a beginning. There was so much to be said. But how to say it—and what was the it?—to say what has not been said? He looked out to the valley beyond. The light of daybreak paled the face of the wall, making the hump of colossal rock shimmer like the flesh of an enormous sea creature. Luster of granite. Igneous mass. Well-formed crystals of feldspar. Resistant to weathering. Ability to take on a polish. Flesh-colored. Block-jointed. Formed by cooling magma. Widely used as ornamental stone. Those who want monuments. To-tock-ah-noo-lah. An aggregate of minerals he would have a chance to dance upon. He had studied the way up yesterday, climbing from the base to the crest with his eyes, and now he did so again, reminding himself how to proceed. He would not be going up the easiest route, but instead following the line a drop of water would take on its way down, this for the sake of the purity of the line itself. He would get at least a third of the way up the prow by sundown, averaging at least as much each day after. It would take him three days of steady upward gain to get to the top; could be four if there were weather or some other unforeseeable go-wrong or whipper. There were unknown variables ahead, but with them clear ways as to how to proceed and so a notion of safety. The route had been planned. He had the power of technique and practice, moreover, the intent. It was all a matter of wanting to do it, wanting to do it enough. With such conviction it would then require only the ability to keep on until reaching the zenith, all the while aiming for some intangible point beyond.

Someone inside the tent opposite coughed. The professor looked out to see the shelter bubble and pock. He heard metal of zipper, mumble of voice, rustling from within. He packed his sleeping belongings into the haulbag, stowed the food sack and water jugs into the pig too, adding any miscellaneous gear for what-ifs: space blanket, extra batteries, anorak, bandages, repair kit, ointment, tape. He picked the burden up and heaved it over his shoulder, adding his coils of ropes onto that. He placed the rack of hardware around his neck for now, planning to shift some of this ironmongery to his hip when he arrived to the base of the cloven dome. He slipped the hammer into its holster, filled his chalk pouch with chalk, took a last swig of the instant and tossed the tin cup into the tent. Then he zipped the tent fly closed and was off before the new light.

* * *

CLIMBING IS a matter of style, perhaps more so of social ethos. Above all, it is a subject of ideology and credo.

* * *

HE STARTED up. He hammered and clipped in, ratcheting his way with jumars, using pitons, skyhooks, chockstones, bolts and nuts and cams, and like this he laddered the face of the granite beast. There were stretches of rock where he could climb free, places that felt like play, and he took full advantage of these occasions, securing the etriers to the back of his harness, placing his hands into cracks and fisting to lift himself, laddering up fissures and seams with his feet. The days ahead would be filled with a mix of jamming and edging, stemming and chimneying, fixing hardware, fiddling with riggings, hauling up the unruly pig of a haulbag; all in all, a lot of work. Climbing a big wall is always that, no question. Especially solo. Alone. Lonely. What it could do. Bewildering as a person disappearing on you.

He thought of her again. Amanda. A name that had become an ache. She had been a mirror to him. Now the wall was his mirror; this trace of glacier he hung upon, a polished shield of rock, a revealing glimpse of all that is.

* * *

ONE MUST abandon oneself to the mountain, embracing a doctrine of boldness. One must give all, despite the terror of falling. The way of overcoming foreboding is to remain in fixed contemplation of the object. Do the work, become absorbed by it, and there will be no time to be afraid. One must be aware of the opacity of any emotion that might veil reason. Cease to consider the when, the where, the why of something, and look simply and solely at the what of it. In the doing, one becomes lost in the object. One becomes the object itself.

* * *

ONLY STONE and space and the rope writing scroll in the wind below. The coolness of granite and metal of tool, air that would ruffle his hair and billow his sleeves. A body in motion searching for the lost one. He hammered. He placed an hexentric for aid. He jugged the fixed line, pulled himself farther up the face, cleaned the pitch, set the pulleys, and lifted the pig. He stood in his etriers, one leg bent under him and the other leg straight, dangling on the lip of a bulge, scanning the wall to choose the next piece of rock, repeating the sequence over and again. Then rappelling, cleaning, hauling, moving upward out of instinct and need. Any monotony was broken by a pause to take his jacket off or halt for a long draw of water, to take a chew of jerky or a necessary piss. He rested, penduled in a granite crucible, with towering pines ministering shadows far down in the valley. Throngs of autos moved sluggishly along, some of the motorists pulling over to stop at the side of the road and lumber out of vehicles, pointing, exclaiming, holding binoculars skyward, shifting their weight. The professor wallowed in the glory of being removed, above the pettiness, the trivial, the mundane. But the smugness was checked as he went back to work, back to pitch after pitch until the end of the day, when finally he reached enough ledge to stretch himself out on.

Night one bivouac. A place to rest. A place to lie against the wall like a tired child. He opened the haulbag, retrieved the mummy bag and the foam pad, and spread them onto the ledge. He unfastened the gear loops from his hip but left the harness on, remaining clipped to a bolt in the rock. He would eat in this rig, sleep in it, live in it, in it answer nature’s callings. He took a bag of food and a jug of water out, the headlamp and the notebook and pen, arranging all within the narrow limits of his berth. He looked out to the vastness about him, gobbling almonds, guzzling water. He thought about hot food, cold wine. He imagined Amanda beside him.

He checked the knot at his waist, stowed the food and the water, then opened the notebook to add to what was there. He looked out to the start of the night, the mountains all the greater in their armor of darkness, their backdrop an inky-blue empyrean. He switched the headlamp on, and put pen tip to the page.

* * *

EXPOSURE, FATIGUE, anxiety gripping me. But I cling to the rock and let the days pass as the wall falls slowly away.

* * *

HE KNEW as he wrote that there were truths impossible to articulate, truths that could be realized only in the doing. The poetry was in the climbing.

* * *

AS TO the matter of style: Is one a peak-bagger, or a lover of icy dales and cols? Does he or she climb as an amateur, a mere player, or in the manner of an aristocrat? Is the game bourgeois or professional, an expression of aesthetic or commercial success? Is it sport for sport’s sake, or is it striving for an ideal? And as to the ideal? The thing in and of itself.

* * *

MORNING CREPT across the valley and onto the wall in a delicate calligraphy of shadow and light. The professor molted the confines of the mummy bag and sat upright onto his quoin of rock, clinging to a dream in the warm sun. No aperçu. A sleepy mist lingered very low in the vale. There was fruit cocktail for breakfast that he devoured straight from the tin, a hunk of dried meat and hard bread, a ration of water to follow. He watched little cliff swallows dip and swoop as they fed on the wing. They settled on ledges next to him and lifted their feathery scapulars. They panted. They flitted and chittered. They looked in wonder at the man.

* * *

ALL HAS not been told nor all told shall it ever be.

* * *

HE GATHERED food, water, bed, pad, trash, the notebook and pen, and stuffed all the belongings back inside the haulbag. The air was cool and dry, the rock cool and dry, the world of horizontal far below. He looked for a handhold and started up, a way of getting away from the failings he had left on the page. He chalked and sunk fingers into a crack, using grappling-hook hands to pull himself up, fractioning and edging his feet on nubbins of glassy granite. He moved deliberately, lightly, with backstep and cross step, eyeing for holds, transferring weight, not hugging the rock but standing erect, finessing hardware into cracks, manteling onto ledges, crimping and palming and pinching, jamming, smearing, wedging, spidering himself higher. How to describe the tactile delight? The visual delight? He could only consider this later. It was impossible now. Now all he could do was look for the next grip, fit his foot against the roughness, the smoothness, the coolness, and like this ascend the monolith. Where a hand or a foot was placed, this is what determined his life. One step, next step, eye on rock. This was the only truth there was.

* * *

AS TO social ethos: Does one prefer to climb with a crowd or wander uphill alone? Each way up requires a different scheme or tactical ploy. With the former there is mass, with mass comes object, with object the need to conquer by means of assault, with the use of oppression or force. Troops of climbers become a mountain’s invaders, with siege tactics requiring quasi-military strategies; loads and relays, depots, supply lines, columns of porters, canisters of oxygen, councils of war, camp upon camp.

Alpine-style, on the other hand, makes room for the individual. In surroundings of beautiful desolation, one strides not toward mass, but toward anonymity. One moves away from the mob in the direction of spirit, imagination, soul, with the want of the prophet. Alone, one moves in the rhythm of feet and breathing, and in the moment there arises a sense of being and becoming that is not separate from things, but the same. One becomes orbit and poise. One is rock and space and light.

* * *

THE PROFESSOR anchored himself at the top point of the pendulum, paid out rope enough to make his way across the granite by swaying himself onto the new crack stratum. He ran forth and back over the rock, increasing his momentum and building to a long series of running swings, coming up short of his aim the first try. He hung on the face, waited for his breath to settle before rejigging the jumar and going at it again. He took off scrambling, leaping like a deer across the wall. And again he was short. It took several more tries for him to finally reach the far crack, but reach it he did. He clipped into an old bolt he found there. The pendulum endeavor had drained him. He took a moment to rest, bending the knee of his uppermost leg, the other leg outstretched in a sling for balancing. The sun was on him, and sweat rolled down the back of his neck. He wanted a drink, but knew he should hold off. He licked his dry lips, sleeved his brow. He could see his long shadow suspended under him, trembling against the cliff. The trees beneath were turned grassy spears, the river a snake through the green. He had come to the most exposed section of the climb, the point where no possibility of retreat existed. He felt very small, no more than a pebble in a crease of the granite mammoth. He leaned into his bent leg more deeply, swallowing drily in the boundlessness that surrounded him, and as he did he heard the dreadful ping—that sharp and terrible sound you know too well—and with it the air slapped at his face and he tumbled back into a sudden nothingness, clinging to a bloodcurdling scream that went echoing down through the valley. He dangled like a rag doll, thinking he could still hear the hollow repeat of his horrible wail below. He hung there, oscillating elastically in the stretch of the rope, believing only in the power of the well-placed piton that had arrested him. He bobbed and twirled in a peculiar aftersensation of pleasure, overcome by the weightlessness and spectral light show of his falling. It was a pleasure cut short by the effort to right himself, the thrill dulled too by the irritability he felt for not placing the nut more securely; a feeling made worse by the piece that betrayed when it hit him between the eyes. The nut had slid down the rope to his harness, and he looked at it now with disdain: the aid changed to traitor. He struggled upright, and once more faced the face.

“God,” he said, his voice gone oddly tremolo. He took a breath, calming his tone to fatherly. “You’re all right,” he said, as if he were speaking to his daughter. He rubbed at the bump on his forehead, and moved on to what became steeper yet.

* * *

AS TO the question of conquering.

* * *

KALEIDOSCOPE OF rock, crystal patterns in the mass. “Look,” he said, “keep looking.” Eyes to the next reach. “Do not forget,” the voice sounding alien to his ear, thinking only of the cold hard grain of mineral now against his fingertips. “Feel it,” he told himself. He had to, to ease the cold hard fear of falling, with handholds thin as pencil widths, the slipping grip of his shoe on the rock, arteries of magma intruding into the granite, his blood swelling in the veins to bloat the arms, the aorta, his heart pounding a sound of wanting out, the coarseness of nothing giving beneath him, the coarseness of his breath. He felt the hardness in his body as if he were mineralized, as if he were a man of granite, a man willing himself, reaching, his swiftness increasing with the basic sequence repeating, repeating, and no two moves the same. The rock holds all possibilities.

* * *

DOES ONE grant a right to royal blood, or take the stand of the self-made man? When climbing a mountain, one climbs within a society, even when climbing alone. Why should primogeniture be forever a cardinal rule of laying claim? Upon the mountain, the hopes and the aims of the commoners are those of the patricians. For as piracy and war are the beginnings of nobility, so the beginnings of nobility are but an individual’s natural superiority; this be true for any woman or man willing to play high for great stakes. Thus mountains are a paradise for those who might become nobles, where every man has a chance to be a baron or a knight, every woman a countess or a queen. At the precipice, one may wander in the kingdom of the possible. Even the names might be taken. Chomolungma yields to Everest as Tahoma does to Rainier; Denali reigns again over McKinley, while Mount Sarasvati remains forever our Mysterium.

A climber climbs to name things.

* * *

THE TEDIUM. The teeming space. The blazing sun. The incense smell of cedar from the heat off the trees so far down in the valley. The dihedral, the great open book of rock in front of him, hands and feet along the long crack that spines the parts into two and he creeping up and into it, moving forth, duteous, unquestioning. The geometry of the rock, the geodesy; beauty of a perfectly faceted diamond. The mechanical actions, the movements methodical: placing nuts, chocks, slivers of metal, clipping in, rappelling after the pitch, lifting the pig, removing hardware as he moved along, untangling lines, checking the harness knot and buckles too often but instinctively, preparing the next section to repeat the process again, time evaporating like the sweat on his flesh, talking to himself, talking to Amanda. Shadows on the wall across the valley made the shape of a large heart, dark and perfect. His swollen hands pulsed out each beat of his own hollowed muscle; closed-chambered and fisted as it was. He leaned back in the harness, suspicious. He saw her here. She had climbed this face. She had waltzed upon it. Now he pictured her down on the valley floor looking up at him. His Amanda. If only to fall to her. Fall with her. Wonderful. A wonder fall.

What if?

Wasn’t it the what if that made him climb? Made any climber climb?

It has to be real enough to kill you.

The final night. The dark slammed down on him. He slept in the hammock beneath the overhang, cradled thousands of feet in the air, a caterpillar in its silken girdle. The rock swelled into a roof that loomed above. He moved from one disagreeable position to another, bent and shifting continuously throughout the night to alleviate the numbness, the spasms and twinges. He was thirsty, but saved what water remained for the heat of tomorrow. He tried to think of pleasant things. If she were here. They could complain together, joke together, manage the night together in their way. He thought of her in her fall. He rarely did this. He wouldn’t allow it. But he let himself think of it now, imagining her in the outward arc she drew through empty space. Ten years ago, this day. He pictured the accident for just a minute—no, less—just for the time it took from beginning to end—the mere seconds it takes for a thousand-foot drop. He stopped just before she hit earth, as it happens in a terrifying dream.

He settled into the grateful ache of the need to be with her again.

He drifted into something near sleep.

“Why do the days pass by too quickly, when the nights can be so long?” he had asked her. “The nights are so long because the days pass by too quickly,” she had said.

* * *

THERE ARE climbers who climb primarily to enter a deepening mystery. For this woman or man, the long haul up the mountain contains the ecstasy of devotion. No seeker forgoes the slope.

* * *

THE PROFESSOR stood at the top of the mountain, no longer burdened by coils of ropes and racks of pitons and the weight of the haulbag. He was parched and chalked, dirty, thirsty, so very thirsty, his lips blistered, fingers bloated, the skin of his hands worn thin, feet swollen, toes gone numb. He lingered in the strange exhilaration that comes with exhaustion, feeling himself a giant now, with the cliffs and the meadows and the road all so very small below. He looked out to a passing cloud, seeing nature as the manifold, that which bestows and opens. A world of atoms and fire and flux: in it, we are all absorbed.

He turned to what was behind him, feeling suddenly accompanied.

A glove, picked up in a gust, blew past and down off the cliff.


Copyright © 2018 by Susan Froderberg