[The following story is an excerpt from Chris Kalman’s novella Dammed If You Don’t, which is illustrated by Craig Muderlak and recently won the Mountain Fiction and Poetry category at the annual Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival. Kalman is a longtime contributor to Alpinist and a former intern. Dammed If You Don’t is his third book and can be found on his website ChrisKalman.com. Banff Book Competition jury member Pete Takeda wrote: “Kalman’s third book asks a very topical question: Can we love a place to death? Kalman answers this question with a spare quality that evokes a bit of James Salter…. His writing is peppered with the intimate details that also bring the characters, their foibles, and struggles to life. Their dilemmas soon become our dilemmas. Perhaps the best thing about ‘Dammed If You Don’t’ are the plot twists, building to a final scenario that is plausible, disturbing, and strangely uplifting.”–Ed.]
John and Gary cut poles of cana colihue–an Austral relative of the bamboo family–and awkwardly staggered their way across the river. The water did not rise above their hips, but the current was strong and the bed was lined with slippery round stones that shifted under their bare feet. They waved to Nahuel after making it to the other side and lacing up shoes, then disappeared into the forest.
They macheted their way straight up the mountain slope, climbing the springy branches of lenga where the terrain was near vertical. The steep climb gave way to a somber and quiet plateau where three-thousand year-old alerce trees stood as tall and stoic as redwoods. After three hours of hard and sweaty hiking, they were finally at the toe of the buttress. The wall seemed to curve like a scythe, or a crescent moon–slabby at first, then vertical, and finally overhung, the top guarded by roofs and hanging bottomless corners.
They walked along the base of the wall searching for weaknesses in the fortress of stone–a crack system that went from bottom to top, or a series of corners connected by narrow fissures. Anything but blank, mirror-smooth swaths of vertical rock. Here, Gary did take the binoculars, and used them to investigate micro features far up the thousand-meter wall.
“There,” he said. “You see?”
John took the binos, and nodded. “What about the roof at the top,” he asked?
“What about it?” Gary grinned. He loved overhangs, as John well knew. John rolled his eyes and sighed. Gary’s intuition was probably right. He always seemed to find a way.
They set down their packs and took a brief break, setting their sweat-soaked shirts to dry on the sunny slab. But neither one could sit still, both nervous and excited as they were. Out from the packs came the gear. On went the harnesses. They rock paper scissored to see who would go first. Gary won, so he tied in to the top side of the rope (John, the bottom) changed into climbing shoes, and clipped aluminum chocks and spring loaded camming devices to his harness. He and John bumped fists, their spirits flying like school children at recess. Then Gary began to climb.
He was mesmerizing as he moved up the wall–all controlled strength, and elegant balance. He pressed the flat soles of his shoes into the granite like a gecko, adhering through unseen forces. He did not pull his body up with his arms, but used his palms to shift his center of gravity left and right above his feet, allowing his leg muscles to generate the upward momentum. He was neither quick nor slow; his body neither rigid nor flaccid. He flowed like water in reverse. As Gary climbed, John fed rope through his belay device, giving just enough slack not to restrict Gary’s movement, but not so much as to unnecessarily lengthen a potential fall. At one hundred feet, John called out “Half rope!” letting Gary know that in another hundred feet there would be no more rope to give. Gary climbed fifty feet further until he reached a flat ledge the size of a park bench. He stopped, built an anchor, clipped in, and yelled down “Off belay!”
They climbed in a way that resembled a long and drawn out game of hopscotch. Gary would climb up, pause at a stance to build an anchor, and John would follow. Then John would lead to a logical stopping point, build an anchor, and Gary would follow. They would not have seemed–had they been watched through a spotting scope as is done in the Alps–to move quickly. Nor did they tarry, except for sections where the crack was swallowed up by mud and vegetation, forcing them to pause at tenuous stances and scrape desperately with finger nails and wire brushes to excavate a place to put protection. When these efforts were fruitless, they gathered courage and continued climbing unprotected, hoping to find better luck ahead. Both climbers were fortunate on multiple occasions to avoid potentially fatal falls. They climbed through the day, the meters and hours falling steadily away behind them.
Just below the summit, a final overhang jutted overhead like the prow of a ship–a difficult and ominous ending to an already challenging climb. It was John’s turn to lead. He looked up with fear in his heart, not perceiving any possible way to surmount the overhanging wall. He took the rack, and attempted to traverse left instead, but was quickly dead-ended at a blank expanse. He came back to Gary, shrugged, then tried to circumvent the prow to the right.
As Gary belayed these efforts, he looked up at the seemingly impossible overhang. A series of aberrations in the smooth surface of the stone presented themselves as possible hand and foot holds, and his mind organized these holds into a meaningful pattern, just as the stargazer forms a constellation out of the chaos of stars. He imagined his body executing an elaborate dance: left hand up to the inverted undercling, right hand far right to the vertical edge, left heel pressed on to the protruding knob, right toe pushing down on the small nub of quartz, left hand up to the hand crack. Then the hard part: spin the body 180 degrees and kick the feet upside down over the head catching the lip of the roof with the toes. Place protection in the hand crack. Right hand to the lip, then left hand. Spin back around. Press down. Belly up onto the ledge. He could feel his pectoral muscles flexing through the compression moves, the calf muscle burning from the heel hook, the vertiginous feeling of inverting with one thousand meters of air beneath him.
John made his way back to the anchor looking defeated, and talking about going down. But Gary interrupted him, and walked him through the sequence he had in mind.
“I told you we should have brought the bolts,” John said. If they had, they could have safely protected the initial moves.
“I don’t need the bolts,” Gary said; “give me the rack.”
John shook his head, but did as he was told. Then he belayed, watching dumbfounded and awestruck as Gary flawlessly climbed the moves exactly as he had described them–the veins bulging in his forearms, his breathing deep and intentional as he maintained composure through the dangerous inversion. He disappeared over the lip of the roof, then let out a victorious whoop that rang through the valley.
Gary pulled up the slack, and put John on belay. Then John tried the moves. He made it to the inversion by the skin of his teeth, but lacked the abdominal strength to kick his foot over the lip. He fell on the taut rope, swinging into space. Jesus christ, he thought, grateful to be following instead of leading, and trying not to imagine what would have happened to Gary had he fallen instead. Unable to swing back into the wall, John was forced to tie two prusiks and ascend the rope to Gary.
Now safely on relatively flat ground, they untied, coiled the rope, slung it over a pack, and hiked the last hundred meters of nontechnical ridge to the summit. When they arrived the light was fading, and everything was cast in a sublime crepuscular stillness. The air chilled, the bellies of clouds shone with the final pink radiance of day, the clicking of bats seeking insects filled the air. Gary was struck by the sensation of being seen by unseen creatures.
To the south, buttress after buttress extended into the distance like layers of an onion, cut in half and left peeling away from each other on the counter. North, on the other side of the Rio Lahuenco, alpine ridges emptied their snowfields into sapphire lakes. East, the deep emerald defile and the shimmering river went on as far as the eye could see. Down below was the peaceful meadow at the forest’s edge. They could just make out their tents–small dots of out-of-place fluorescence on the grassy ground. And to the west, a blood orange sun melted into the Coinco fiord. The village of Calihue was somewhere in the distance, along the two-track that wrapped out of sight to the north.
They settled in to sleep upon the summit, which was not–it turned out–a dramatic point at all, but a plateau as broad and flat as a granite basketball court. They spread out ropes as makeshift pads and huddled together under a single sleeping bag breathing small clouds into the quickening darkness. The gaseous glow of a thousand galaxies bombarded their tired minds, barring them from sleep. The Southern Cross, the luminous Milky Way, an endless stream of shooting stars.
[This story was excerpted from Chris Kalman’s novella Dammed If You Don’t, which recently won the category for Mountain Fiction and Poetry at the annual Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival. Kalman is a longtime contributor to Alpinist and a former intern. Dammed If You Don’t is his third book and can be found on his website ChrisKalman.com.–Ed.]