The Wall: A Thriller

by Jeff Long

Published by Atria

304 pages, 2006



  

 

 

On the vast, sunlit walls of the world's greatest monolith, two veteran climbers unwittingly ascend into a vertical underworld. In a place where obsession kills, they quickly fall prey to past loves, old demons, and ghostly revenge.

 

 
One

 

When God throws angels down, it starts like this.

A breeze stirs. It carries the slightest distraction, a scent of trees perhaps, or a hint of evening chill, or a song on a radio in a car passing three thousand feet below. In some form, temptation always whispers.

High above the earth, toes smeared against the stone, fingers crimped on microholds, the woman turns her head. Not even that: she turns her mind, for an instant, for even less. That's all it takes.

The stone evicts her.

The wall tilts. The sky bends. Her holds . . . don't hold.

She falls.

By now, eight days high, her body is burning adrenaline like common blood sugar, one more fuel in her system. So in the beginning of her fall, she doesn't even register fear. She is calm, even curious.

Every climber knows this rupture. One moment you have contact, the next it's outer space. That's what rope is for. She waits.

Her mind catches up with her body. A first thought forms, a natural. My hands.

All our lives, from the cradle to the grave, our hands are our most constant companions. Like the back of my hand. They give. They take. They roam and shape the world around us. But hers have turned to stone. Or time has stopped.

Each finger is frozen just so, still hooking on holds that no longer exist. Her high arm is still stretched high, her low arm still bent low. One leg is cocked, the other is straight to the tiptoe of her climbing slipper. She could be a statue of a dancer tipped from its pedestal.

Her paralysis does not alarm her. Hollywood shows victims swimming through air, limbs splayed and paddling. In reality, when a climber is climbing -- really climbing, not fretting the fall, but totally engaged -- and the holds blow and you peel, what happens is like a motor locking. "Rigor" is the formal term, as in rigor mortis. Your muscles stiffen. Body memory freezes, at least for a moment. It doesn't matter what your mind knows. Your body stubbornly believes it is still attached to the world.

What surprises her is the length of the moment. Time stretches like a rubber band. The moment is more than a moment. More than two. Patience, she tells herself.

There will be a tug at her waist when the rope takes over. Then there will be an elastic aftershock. She knows how it will go. She's no virgin.

Her synapses are firing furiously now. She overrides her Zen focus on what civilians call pulling up, and what climbers call pulling down. The rock has let go of her. Now she forces her body to let go of the rock. Her fingers move. She starts to inhabit her fall.

For the last day, they have been struggling to break through a transition band between two species of granite, one light, one dark. In this borderland, the rock is manky and loose. Their protection has been increasingly tenuous and their holds delicate as sand castles.

And so she was -- necessarily -- way too high above her last piece of protection, climbing on crystals of quartz, almost within reach of a big crack. She had the summit in sight. Maybe that was her downfall. It was right there for the taking, and maybe she grabbed for the vision too soon.

From the ground up, the beast has begrudged them every inch. They have done everything in their power to pretend it was a contest, not a war, nothing personal. Now suddenly it bears in on her, the territorial imperative of a piece of rock. El Cap is fighting back.

Part of her brain tries to catalog the risks of this fall. Much depends on the nature of the rope, the weight of the failing object, all 108 pounds of her, and the length of the drop. Any point in the system could fail, the runner slings, the carabiners, her placements, their anchor, the rope. The weakest link in that chain of mechanisms is the human body.

On her back now, helpless, she glances past her fingers. The rope is making loose, pink snake shapes in the air above her. She's riding big air now.

A dark shape flashes past. It is last night's bivvy camp, gone in a blink of the eye. Do they even know I'm falling? At this speed, the camp is the last of her landmarks. The wall is a blur. Her braids with the rainbow beads whip her eyes.

Except for the grinding of her teeth, she falls in silence. No chatter of gear. No whistle of wind. Oh, there's a whiff of music, a spark in the brain. Bruce, the Boss. "Philadelphia." Faithless kiss.

She's fallen many times. At her level of the game, no climber has not given in to gravity. You build it into the budget. It comes to her that she's counting heartbeats, six, seven, eight . . .

Her freefall starts to ease. Finally.

The serpent loops straighten. A line -- hot pink -- begins to form in the dead center of her sky. The seat harness squeezes around her pelvic bones.

Abruptly the line snaps taut with a bowstring twang. | January 2006

 

Copyright © 2006 Jeff Long

 

Jeff Long is a veteran climber and traveler in the Himalayas. He has worked as a journalist, a historian, and a climbing instructor. He is the bestselling author of seven novels, including Empire of Bones, The Descent, Year Zero and The Reckoning. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.

 

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