“The Earth tells the truth”
Archimedes Jackson watched the slab of ice crash below, evaluated his predicament, and decided he was screwed.
Ten seconds ago, the 60-degree incline had been a solid, adherent snow-and-ice ramp over stone. But no longer. Now he hung from the tip of his left ice axe — supported by his left foot — hanging precariously above the glacier. Neither his right arm nor his right leg had any sort of anchoring contact with the mountain. He looked down and saw that the two crampon front-points on his left boot were dug solidly into the ice face.
He had selected this route to bypass the more difficult vertical ice spilling over the ridge to the east. It looked to be the safer route. And it was fine, until it wasn’t.
His thoughts went back to the accident: his partner; falling.
He gazed up and saw that only the tip of the pick was wedged into a tiny crack in the otherwise smooth rock; he was a hair’s breadth from plummeting.
He needed firm support with his right arm and leg, so he searched for a way out of the quandary. But he was angled down and off to the right. He had lost his right ice axe: he hung sideways and down — dangling an arm and a leg like a kid hanging from a set of monkey-bars on a playground.
Attempting to swing his right leg to gain a foothold was out of the question, as it would likely pop the tip of the pick off its tiny sliver of a hold. His life depended upon that 2 mm of stainless steel staying hooked in the rock crack. If it came out, or the rock lip split, Archimedes would fall off the face. He held his breath. The roaring of water echoed from the glacier below.
His left leg began to fatigue and then cramp, but he couldn’t risk shifting his weight much to relieve the tetany setting into the muscles. He panted short, calming breaths. The quadriceps in his left thigh began to quiver as the muscles exhausted their energy reserves. Don’t look down. Look up.
He looked down, trying to see where he would fall. His quads began a clonic, Elvis-leg jerking; a sign of imminent muscle failure. A death dance.
He fell –
— and had a brief glimpse of the azure sky before his back slammed into the snow slope below, stunning him. Then he was in the air again, and felt a disorienting spin: the sky and the snow exchanged places before the glacier rose up and smacked him in the chest, driving the air from his lungs. A harsh rasping sound assaulted his ears and he recovered enough awareness to know he was sliding — and accelerating. Belly down, feet first, he struggled to drive the ice axe pick into the glacier to arrest the slide.
He saw the mountain face from which he’d just fallen retreat rapidly. Urgency and desperation gripped his brain as the primal centers screamed: he clawed with the axe and kicked with the crampons.
Stop. Please God. Stop!
A crampon front-point bit into the ice and drove his right knee up into his chest, somersaulting him backwards into the air. When he contacted the ice again, he was moving much faster and then began to tumble. Each jarring impact with the glacier punched him like a heavyweight boxer.
Archimedes plunged into frigid water — and choked until he managed to get his face above the surface to gasp in a spluttering breath: he coughed. The nauseating sensation of falling continued to scream in his brain. He struggled in the torrent coursing rapidly downslope – a polished luge course of fast-moving ice-water.
Crap! I’m in a melt channel.
He felt ice grip his guts: he knew these rapid glacier-melt flows ultimately ended in a cliff or a crevasse. I’m dead if I don’t get out of this.
He dug the pick of his axe into the closest edge of the channel, but the ice was too hard and he was moving too fast. The stream intersected with another and dumped Archimedes into a large basin, where crashing waves and swirling water pushed him under. Flailing up to the surface and gulping air, he saw that the strong currents were dragging him towards a swirling vortex at the opposite end of the basin. A huge drain hole, a moulin, was sucking the water hundreds of feet down into, and underneath, the glacier.
He fought in vain, but circled the drain; the moulin sucked him under. Struggling, he lost consciousness in the darkening, drowning-tunnel.
A concussive wave blasted through Archimedes and jarred him awake. He was underwater. Desperately kicking upwards, lungs screaming for air, he burst through the surface, and heaved and choked in the dark.
The warm water pushed him gently downstream. Where the hell am I? What happened?
His brain replayed everything as he tried to understand why he was still alive. Or perhaps he wasn’t, and these were the last moments of an anoxic, dying brain, imagining a miraculous rescue in warm water, beaches, white sand, sun, and drinks with little umbrellas. Maybe my brain is supplying me with soothing images as my neurons die. Bye-bye.
Except there was no sun or sand, only darkness, as he floated along in the warm water.
He tried to concentrate on one thing. Just one thing. But his thoughts flitted and could not perch.
Nothing equated with any previous experience. The lukewarm water was soothing after the frigid cold but it didn’t make sense. Nothing made sense.
Archimedes retrieved his headlight from his jacket pocket and switched it on. The beam bounced off walls and ceiling, which looked like the surface of a golf ball, with scalloped and concave chunks in the white ice. It was a cathedral-sized ice cavern that looked like someone had been at it with a large melon-baller. The ice facets reflected the LED light in jumping, ephemeral patterns.
More water channels poured in from the ice ceiling above.
Why is the water warm? Geothermal?
His awakening brain continued to pepper him with questions that he couldn’t answer, and then settled on one: Am I alive?
That got his attention.
Well, if I’m not, then nothing matters. But if I am, then I need to stop pondering and focus on survival.
The trapped air in Archimedes’ watertight pack kept him from sinking as he floated downstream. The dimpled ceiling began to glow, then ahead of him a bright spot appeared intermittently. The ice ceiling brightened into a powder-blue luminescence. The light downstream grew into a wide mouth: the exit.
He floated beyond the threshold and emerged underneath an overcast sky. The current slowed and flattened out into a shallow, muddy delta with a small channel in the center. His butt scraped the bottom and he rolled over onto his knees. Standing, he staggered to shore, collapsed onto all fours, retched, and blacked out.