Chapter II. The First Climb

Fisher, Frank, and I had been hunting for elk in the dense forests along the foot of one of these mountains; and for a half day, drenched with sweat, had toiled continuously up and down steep slopes, trying to go quietly, trying to keep our wind, trying to pierce the secrets of the leafy screen always about us. We were tired of it.

"Let's go to the top and look for goats," suggested Frank. "There are some goat cliffs on the other side of her. It isn't very far."

It was not very far, as measured by the main ranges, but it was a two hours' steady climb nearly straight up. We would toil doggedly for a hundred feet, or until our wind gave out and our hearts began to pound distressingly; then we would rest a moment. After doing this a few hundred times we would venture a look upward, confidently expecting the summit to be close at hand. It seemed as far as ever. We suffered a dozen or so of these disappointments, and then learned not to look up. This was only after we had risen above timber line to the smooth, rounded rock-and-grass shoulder of the mountain. Then three times we made what we thought was a last spurt, only to find ourselves on a "false summit." After a while we grew resigned, we realized that we were never going to get anywhere, but were to go on forever, without ultimate purpose and without hope, pushing with tired legs, gasping with inadequate lungs. When we had fully made up our minds to that, we arrived. This is typical of all high-mountain climbing--the dogged, hard, hopeless work that can never reach an accomplishment; and then at last the sudden, unexpected culmination.

We topped a gently rounding summit; took several deep breaths into the uttermost cells of our distressed lungs; walked forward a dozen steps--and found ourselves looking over the sheer brink of a precipice. So startlingly unforeseen was the swoop into blue space that I recoiled hastily, feeling a little dizzy. Then I recovered and stepped forward cautiously for another look. As with all sheer precipices, the lip on which we stood seemed slightly to overhang, so that in order to see one had apparently to crane away over, quite off balance. Only by the strongest effort of the will is one able to rid oneself of the notion that the centre of gravity is about to plunge one off head first into blue space. For it was fairly blue space below our precipice. We could see birds wheeling below us; and then below them again, very tiny, the fall away of talus, and the tops of trees in the basin below. And opposite, and all around, even down over the horizon, were other majestic peaks, peers of our own, naked and rugged. From camp the great forests had seemed to us the most important, most dominant, most pervading feature of the wilderness. Now in the high sisterhood of the peaks we saw they were as mantles that had been dropped about the feet.

Across the face of the cliff below us ran irregular tiny ledges; buttresses ended in narrow peaks; "chimneys" ran down irregularly to the talus. Here were supposed to dwell the goats.

We proceeded along the crest, spying eagerly. We saw tracks; but no animals. By now it was four o'clock, and past time to turn campward. We struck down the mountain on a diagonal that should take us home. For some distance all went well enough. To be sure, it was very steep, and we had to pay due attention to balance and sliding. Then a rock wall barred our way. It was not a very large rock wall. We went below it. After a hundred yards we struck another. By now the first had risen until it towered far above us, a sheer, gray cliff behind which the sky was very blue. We skirted the base of the second and lower cliff. It led us to another; and to still another. Each of these we passed on the talus beneath it; but with increasing difficulty, owing to the fact that the wide ledges were pinching out. At last we found ourselves cut off from farther progress. To our right rose tier after tier of great cliffs, serenely and loftily unconscious of any little insects like ourselves that might be puttering around their feet. Straight ahead the ledge ceased to exist. To our left was a hundred-foot drop to the talus that sloped down to the canon. The canon did not look so very far away, and we desired mightily to reach it. The only alternative to getting straight down was to climb back the weary way we had come; and that meant all night without food, warm clothing, or shelter on a snow-and-ice mountain.

Therefore, we scouted that hundred-foot drop to our left very carefully. It seemed hopeless; but at last I found a place where a point of the talus ran up to a level not much below our own. The only difficulty was that between ourselves and that point of talus extended a piece of sheer wall. I slung my rifle over my back, and gave myself to a serious consideration of that wall. Then I began to work out across its face.

The principle of safe climbing is to maintain always three points of suspension: that it to say, one should keep either both footholds and one handhold, or both handholds and one foothold. Failing that, one is taking long chances. With this firmly in mind, I spidered out across the wall, testing every projection and cranny before I trusted any weight to it. One apparently solid projection as big as my head came away at the first touch, and went bouncing off into space. Finally I stood, or rather sprawled, almost within arm's length of a tiny scrub pine growing solidly in a crevice just over the talus. Once there, our troubles were over; but there seemed no way of crossing. For the moment it actually looked as though four feet only would be sufficient to turn us back.

At last, however, I found a toehold half way across. It was a very slight crevice, and not more than two inches deep. The toe of a boot would just hold there without slipping. Unfortunately, there were no handholds above it. After thinking the matter over, however, I made up my mind to violate, for this occasion only, the rules for climbing. I inserted the toe, gathered myself, and with one smooth swoop swung myself across and grabbed that tiny pine!

Fisher now worked his way out and crossed in the same manner. But Frank was too heavy for such gymnastics. Fisher therefore took a firm grip on the pine, inserted his toe in the crevice, and hung on with all his strength while Frank crossed on his shoulders!