Just the time

The Climber set down his pack and looked back across the barren rock field to the campsite. An orange speck of tent was just visible in the grey, several hours behind him.

His shirt pocket beeped and vibrated for attention. He flicked the flap off the button and pulled out a stubby plastic GPS receiver. Angling the device to see through the glare and scratches, he studied the screen. NOAA weather report: SEVERE WEATHER ALERT. STORM WARNING. HIGH WINDS EXPECTED. He pressed the rubbery ‘down’ button and quickly scanned the rest of the message. The storm was expected an hour sooner than in the forecast that morning.

For much of the year, the winds were too high for climbers to safely reach the summit. Today was the last day of the season. If the forecasts held up, it could be over a year before the next window. Assuming the Climber could even get time off from work again.

He canceled the message, bringing back the map. The route he plotted the day before was marked in red along the contour lines, some so tightly grouped the terrain was almost solid black. A red triangle, with the light blue line of his traveled path snaking out behind it. A yellow line forked to the right across more widely spaced contours.

The Climber looked up at the mountain. To his right, its South face gradually blended into the foothills. The worn path corresponding to his alternate, yellow route stretched out from where he stood, winding back and forth along the face. The knife edge of his chosen route up the West face rose before him. The darker terrain of the mountain silhouetted against the overcast sky.

The faster West route was definitely the one he wanted to take, he reassured himself. The Climber reached for his pack on the ground.

Sudden footsteps crunching in gravel surprised him. He looked up to see a man coming down the South trail, swinging a walking stick in rhythm with his steps. The man seemed familiar despite his dark sunglasses, scruffy beard, and bucket hat pulled low on his brow. Surprisingly, he had no pack.

“Howdy,” the man called out and offered a weathered hand. As he reached out, the canvas sleeve of his shirt pulled back and revealed a shiny, brass-colored watch. Intricate gears and dials on the face spun excitedly, backed by a blue glow. An old scar traced along his forearm and disappeared up his sleeve. The Climber shook his hand with a firm grip.

“I didn’t realize anyone else was on the mountain. Where’s your camp?” the Climber asked.

“Oh it’s down there” he said with a vague wave of his hand. “The view from the top is really something, even with this sky.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard it’s great. This is my first attempt.”

“I tried to summit once, long ago. Didn’t make it all the way.”

“That tough, huh?”

“You should think about the route up the South face, not West.” the man advised.

“Don’t think I have the time. Wind is up and pressure’s dropping.” the Climber said, looking down at the GPS. “Won’t get another chance for a long time.”

“Oh, you never know. Anyway, that thing won’t tell you the full story.”

A gust of wind sprayed their faces with dust. The Climber squinted to shield his eyes.

“Thanks for the advice, but it’s served me well, so far.”

The man raised his arm and looked at his watch. The face now had an orange glow.

“Is that another weather alert?” the Climber asked.

“Ah no, just the time. Which I’m also running out of. Good luck to you.” He walked around the Climber and continued down the trail. A few paces away the man raised his finger said “South!” without turning back. The Climber watched for a moment, trying to recall when they might have met before. He shouldered his pack and proceeded up the West route, using his hands to steady himself on the steep slope of gravel and boulders.

The GPS beeped again. The Climber reached for his pocket, but a stray thread from the flap snagged on the button. He took his other hand off the rock and tried to free the flap. Just then, a gust of wind pushed him back, the weight of the pack pulling him off balance. He flailed his arms in search of support. The loose gravel beneath his feet gave way and he tumbled backward. The Climber grabbed desperately at the rock sliding by. His arm dragged over a sharp edge of granite, fingers catching a flat face of the rock and stopping his descent. He pulled himself into a seated position and braced his leg against a boulder. He winced with pain as the adrenaline wore off, and looked down at his arm. The shirt sleeve was in tatters and wet with blood.

The Climber wedged his pack against the boulder and pulled out a steel bottle and red medical pouch. He washed the wound, tore open a bandage, and pressed it firm on his arm. Deep red quickly spread through the white square. The Climber reached for a second bandage, tore open the paper wrapping with his teeth, and applied it on top of the first. The bleeding slowed. He wrapped a roll of gauze around the bandages and tied the ends using his working arm and his teeth.

He pulled out the GPS. The screen was blank. A green silicon circuit board was visible through a large crack in the side of the casing. So much for “heavy duty”. He felt a warmth on his face and looked up to see a ray of sun poking through the clouds. The storm was a fizzle. Not that it matters now, he said to himself. There was no hope of summiting with this injury. He took a swig from the bottle and stood up.

The Climber picked up his pack, looked behind him toward the summit, then turned and started down the mountain.