The Matthew Willis story ‘The Ascent of Man’ has been published in the anthology A Test of Time, which appeared in November and is raising money for the Foodbank charity.
Excerpt from The Ascent of Man
First, thinks Michael, you climb away from the ground below, then you start to climb above the lower slopes around you. Eventually you can see over the tops of the highest peaks around, and the world begins to appear as though it is spread out beneath. And still you keep on going, into the sky. Sometimes you climb way above the clouds, and there are little fleecy puffs hurrying along seeming much closer to the ground than you are to them. It’s the sort of view you would only otherwise get from an aeroplane, but here you aren’t sealed up in a metal tube and peering through thick glass. You’re breathing the thin air and feeling the sunlight right on your face. Those are the good days.
This is one of the other kind.
But the good days have been so very good. He’s just a human being most of the time, but not during the good days. When he stands on a summit, looking down at the whole world, feeling peace coursing through him, he feels more like an angel. He briefly thinks back to his father, and everything the man had done to rob him of that experience.
Moving the family to the flat, soulless plains of endless agricultural land as soon as Michael had shown an interest in hill walking and a bit of rock climbing. Forbidding him from going on any school trips where they might be near any sort of ascent. Refusing him money for membership of climbing clubs and even walking clubs. Michael’s uncle Tomas has tried to talk to him about why his father feels the way he does about the mountains, but Michael doesn’t want to know. He doesn’t blame Mum for walking out.
The challenges have only made him more determined. There has always been something about a challenging rock face that makes him want to scale it. Something about a peak spied high above the land that makes him want to see the world from up there. The amount of work you have to put in is phenomenal. The care and attention you need. It drives everything out of his mind except him and the mountain. The only peace he has ever really known has been on the mountain. Away from his crazy father.
But for every day like that you have to face one, or two or a hundred like this.
It isn’t considered a particularly difficult climb these days. The truth is that he’d considered it as a trial run for his expedition to Nanga Parbat in the Himalayas. Nearly forty expeditions have successfully climbed the Eiger Nordwand. Nobody’s died in years.
But now he is hanging onto the edge of an overhanging ice chimney on the third ice field, watching the piton he has just driven in moving alarmingly. He drives his ice axe into the surface and tries again with the piton. Johan is below waiting for him to belay. Michael finally hauls himself over the edge. The piton seems OK. It’s the only one he has left. Just then, a rumbling sound reaches him but he can’t tell where it’s coming from. The mist is so very thick and he can’t see any more than a few yards.
It could be below, or off to one side…
A cascade of rock and water thunders past. He flattens himself to the wall, shuffling to find a slightly more secure spot, and watches his ice axe tumbling down into the void.
The rockfall fades, and the last of the sound echoes into nothing.
Johan’s taking his time.
Tentatively, Michael leans over the edge. Johan has vanished.
He carries on, kicking steps into the new snow with his boot, finding what grip he can with his gloves, but his fingertips are already getting numb. This is bad.
It’s at this point that his hand closes over something that isn’t rock or snow. It’s rope, frozen solid. He clears some of the snow away. There’s a tangle of rope here, and God be praised, an ice axe. Some poor bastard left this here. Years ago too. It’s an old, old ice axe. Wooden handled with a forged steel head.
They don’t make them like this any more, but it’s lucky for me they did.
He wonders which of the failed expeditions this had belonged to. Well, there are a few candidates. That Italian fellow three years ago who had to be rescued, and the other one who died. But they would have had newer equipment than this.
Surely not the Toni Kurz expedition? No, they hadn’t quite made it this high. The very first attempt then. He tries to ignore the rust-red smudge on the handle. It was around the top of the third ice field they had last been seen. ‘Death bivouac’. Great. Not an omen I hope.
The weather has other ideas. Michael bivouacs at that awful place, roping himself to the mountain. The weather has closed in and is blasting snowflakes horizontally at the face. He starts to lose sensation in his fingers and toes but he daren’t let himself shiver. Shivering uses up energy and even though it would warm him up a little, that’s energy he can’t spare. The blast of snow thickens. He can feel it building up around him, between his arms and his torso, up into his hood, around his feet…
His body begins to function at a glacial pace. In his mind now, there is no future or past, just forever. The black void is there and it’s coming for him. He is standing on the top of the Schreckhorn as the sun sets over the Alps and everything is the colour of new copper. He is pleading with his father to be allowed to go to Grindelwald with his schoolfriends. He is storming out of his house and vowing never to speak to his parents again. He is a schoolboy reading The White Spider under the covers with his torch. He is laughing with Johan on the flanks of El Kapitan in California. He is an angel made of ice.