Angels of Light | Ascent

In winter 1977 a Lockheed Lodestar with over two tons of high-grade marijuana in its hold crashed in Lower Merced Pass Lake in Tuolumne. Alerted by a friendly park ranger, Yosemite’s Camp 4 emptied practically overnight as broke-as-a-joke climbers hiked 18 miles to the lake to chop through two feet of ice and recover the score of a lifetime. Some estimates place the value of the weed as high as $600,000. But the story didn’t end there. No one knew who had owned the “Lodestar Lightning,” or whether they’d want it back—Narcos weren’t known for their generosity.

In “Angels of Light,” published in Ascent in 1984, Jeff Long wove fact with fiction to produce one of the richest pieces of climbing writing ever put down. Thirty-three years later the plane crash and its aftermath are one of climbing’s greatest and most-repeated campfire tales.

By Jeff Long | July 14th, 2020

CHAPTER ONE

 

Illustration by Sam Lubicz

Ice—a gigantic, primeval sheet of it—peeled loose from the summit rim and fluttered by like a torn wing, sucking at the night air. It glinted once in the cold moonlight as it sank away, then exploded with a roar against a girdle of rock 3,000 feet lower and scourged the spidery forest with shrapnel

“Jesus,” breathed John Dog, a brief anthem of relief. His fingers were numb and he was tiny, a slight creature willing itself up the hard space and color that formed the vertical walls of El Capitan. “Veins like rope,” he silently chanted as if to pull the rim lower. “Like rope, my veins.” It was Christmas Eve, and all he was wishing was for an end to this killing beauty, for respite from this night upon this drifting continent.

Frost poured from his mouth. He was tired to the bone. Even his mane of black hair weighed heavy. But the summit was no more than a couple dozen yards now. And he had veins like rope. A chronic voyeur of his own possibilities, he told himself that again. Then, for the fifth time in an hour, El Cap’s icy rim creaked like cast iron bending and sent a huge sheet knifing overhead, and he flinched.

Two ropes were knotted at his waist. One bellied out into open space, arcing down and then back into the wall where the far end was tied to his partner, Tinkerbell. The second rope fed through a series of rusting pitons and nuts fixed into the wall. It was this second rope that was supposed to catch John Dog if he fell.

Three thousand feet above the dark soil of California, he pinched a slight granite flake and shifted his weight from the toe of one foot to the other. It was a wintry motion, slow and brittle. The moon, carved white, hung beside John Dog’s poised feet, searing the vertical rock and starving his shadow. Fifty feet more, he coaxed himself. Fifty feet into midnight and he’d be up, just ahead of the approaching storm. Then he would haul their gear up one line while Tinkerbell ascended the other. Fifty feet to reentry, to the horizontal globe where trees grew upright and gravity was not a mortal consideration. It had been an endless five days of climbing. The days had been short, the nights arctic. Now the distant storm was boiling to a soft crescendo. A tidal wave of clouds engulfed half the sky, bending to flood the moon, his only source of light. The sense of urgency was not unfamiliar.

He’d been here before, muscling against the elements, hugging close to walls while exhaustion or fear or storms or the mountain itself conspired to dislodge him. He had always survived, sometimes just barely, but never stupidly. “Skin like a condom, veins like rope … ” He caught the echoes more fully now. That’s what a sports magazine had once written about him, drafting a portrait of a witless barbarian. He should have known better than to talk to that journalist. “The grandson of a Chiricahua Apache shaman, half Apache and magician himself, he can stick a finger or toe to almost any surface—granite, brick, or the sandstone of his native desert spires—and it will stick like a spot weld. One of the nation’s premier rock climbers, a natural-born mountaineer … ” A grim, cold cuate, shivered John Dog. Beat, frozen, and 50 feet short. But no barbarian.

He eased upward, locking his taped knuckles inside a deep fissure. The way it felt, the movement it invited, the very smell … all were echoes of a thousand similar cracks. There were other echoes, too, other dimensions as he pulled higher and edged the inner toe of each worn rubber sole against new crystals. Not all were as immediate as the bite of stone against his fist or the urgency rearing high in that cloudbank. Some of the resonance was so old and persistent that it was next to silence. There was, for instance, no ignoring the Chiricahua advice that no one is your friend, not even your brother or father or mother; only your legs are your friends, only your brain, your eyesight, your hair, and your hands. My son, echoed the void gaping under each toe, you must do something with those things.

He fell.

It was that sudden.

As if skinning off a glove, John Dog felt his hand slide from the crack. His toes lost their granite purchase. He gave a reflexive slap to the rock, and then he was off, flying toward the ground, far, far below. The wall overhung, and so he drifted, mute and free, full of fear. The air was clear, a buoyant, sucking emptiness. I’m falling, he registered. It was a soft moment, which allowed him thoughts.

This shoulder, he predicted without question, this hip. They’ll hit first. Christ. You’ve done it this time. He glimpsed the cadaverous moon tilting sideways, then rapidly upside-down. He heard a thin, metallic pop followed by a second one. Oh, Christ. He gritted his teeth, his dread deepening. There go the pins. One by one the ancient pitons that he’d clipped into as he climbed by them failed. Pop, pop. The sound of crystal exploding. Or breakfast cereal. Pop. His protection jerked out of the rock like joints from sockets. He had nothing else to do as he unzipped; so he counted the pops.

He passed Tinkerbell. He saw the moonlit boy as an instant of mercy. Spare me, thought John Dog. Catch me, Tink. Please. But not a sound passed his lips. He felt the rope tighten at his waist and counted two more pops. With each pop the rope relaxed again. Gone, he thought without astonishment. I’m gone away.

But suddenly, with a long, dreamlike bounce, he stopped. The rope stretched elastically, snatching him away from the abyss, and then he was slammed pell-mell into the wall, his shoulder and hip striking first. His lungs emptied with a frosty whoof.

Tink had caught his fall.

He felt pain, but it was a distant, unflowered sensation. John Dog didn’t care. As if in supplication, he reached both hands above his head and grasped the rope, gasping. He touched his forehead to the rough perlon line. “Padre nuestro,” he started the prayer, then gave in to his adrenalin and simply sat there. Still clutching the rope, he dangled above the inky forest floor. He raised his head, listening for the stars to twinkle audibly like a chandelier just barely disturbed. But all he heard was the abrupt, mossy burp of a faraway frog. In a slow, noiseless spin, the world began to accumulate around him again. The same moon was gleaming across the same cold acres of vertical granite, illuminating John Dog’s long, black hair, washing the whiskers on his face quicksilver. It was like him to watch himself dangling there, tied to a puppet string far too close to God.

At an even six feet he was barrel-chested with aboriginal legs that were longer than Apache but slightly bandy all the same. He didn’t have to wonder what his mother had looked like; one glance down his hybrid body and he could catalog her features. Besides those long legs, she’d carried narrow feet and small hands that looked almost delicate on him. He was self-conscious about those hands. They seemed so inadequate for all the gripping and grabbing and pliers- tight pinching that climbing demanded.

Certainly his hands seemed less than true to the desert savagery that was the other half of his heritage and had stalked and worried his younger self like a scorpion. The Indian in him was prominent: straight hair, black eyes, and huge, Mongolian cheekbones. What he most often recognized in the mirror, though, was neither the Anglo nor the Indian. What he saw was the impact of one culture upon the other, something quieter than intercourse, the mark of history all over his face. And it never failed to shame him: smallpox scars. The pockmarks ruined his wide, angular cheeks. He saw himself as a bad invention, the product of too fierce a seed or a not quite certain ovary. The pitting scars were proof that his mother had vanished into mystery, marooning him and his brother with a dusky, nomadic man who knew roughnecking and bars and a thousand stories of his father’s fathers and who could track bobcat from horseback and cut water from cactus and coax crude oil from the barren earth, a man who’d struggled like a hero to be both father and mother to two dusky sons but never quite got it down. His pa had forgotten to get John Dog immunized, and by the time he’d remembered, the disease had finished with his younger son. John Dog didn’t blame his father.

He’d even quit blaming himself for the ugly scars. He could look in the mirror now and touch the pockmarks and accept that he was marred, but that it wasn’t his fault. With a sort of reverse vanity that had infuriated his Jesuit high-school teachers, he carried humility with him everywhere. He was reticent in crowds, shy around strangers, and coeds had never quit teasing that he must be retarded or mute. The pockmarks gave him a vigilance. When he looked at people, his dark eyes always saw them looking first, studying his face, his skin, his fallibility. Lately, he could say it wasn’t his fault: maybe they weren’t looking critically, just out of interest. But that still didn’t take the sting out. Too many years had gone into feeling marked. Maybe, he sometimes smiled in the mirror, maybe he carried penitente blood in him along with the Chiricahua and Anglo and just enjoyed torturing himself. Sort of like climbing with knees he could scarcely bend some mornings and hands plagued by arthritis and wrists with tendinitis. Or hoping for Harvard when Berkeley had proved too much after three short semesters.

The moon floated perilously close to the billowing cloudbank, and frost drifted from his nostrils.

“John?” Tinkerbell’s voice floated down and clutched him in midsentiment. John Dog looked up toward the paltry cobweb of nylon straps and ropes that anchored both their lives to El Cap, but didn’t answer.

“Hey, John,” Tinkerbell repeated blindly, more urgently.

“You O.K.?” John Dog called up, stealing the initiative. His voice quavered a little, which annoyed him. He scolded himself with a hiss.

“Fine,” Tinkerbell called down. “You?”

“Crazy, man. Crazy.” But John Dog was not amused. It was cold, he was exhausted, and the summit was much more than 50 feet away now. He’d have to climb the pitch all over again. Glittering overhead, liquid in the moonlight, hung the icy summit. The holy fucking grail. He sighed. Now it would take three hours to get to the top, maybe four or five. They’d be lucky to get off by dawn, and luckier still to beat the storm. John Dog moved his limbs one by one, checking his shoulder and hip for damage. Bruised, he knew. He studied his taped hands as if they were traitors, his body a Judas.

Ten months into his twenty-eighth year, he was hanging on the very brink of adulthood. It was high time to quit climbing but difficult to let go. More than the lifestyle of a rock jock tiptoed in the balance; it was also a heritage, a full-blown past rooted in centuries of simple lust for the mountains. On both sides of his family, Anglo and ’skin, ancestors had loved and coveted their abrupt landscapes. More than anything else, the defiance of gravity guided his thoughts about heritage and gave him license to think of himself as a mountain man. The thought of leaving these walls and mountains caused him pain— pain, he sometimes rhapsodized, like the fur-trapper Hugh Glass must have felt, grizzly-scarred and lame, bidding adios to his people at the 1824 rendezvous in Jackson Hole. Like Maurice Herzog, the great French alpinist, must have felt as he watched the doctor snip off frostbitten joints in the jungles below Annapurna. Echoes. The thought of turning his back on the mountains and never returning was as terrible to him as it was romanticized. That was all part of it, though. The overblown melancholy. The power and glory.

“Be up in a minute,” he called. He wanted to rest and digest the adrenalin, draw in the moment. Once this climb was over, he’d forget these thoughts about mortality or, better yet, would fish the thick spiral notebook out of his backpack down in Camp 4 and jot down his confessions under Mosquito Wall, the name of this route, just the way he had under Muir Wall, North America Wall, Bonatti Pillar, Supercouloir, Walker Spur, Ama Dablam, and all the other major routes he’d done. “Finger paintings” he’d called the journal, the stuff of his never-ending childhood. His eyes followed a lone set of headlights creeping along the valley floor. An orange satellite floated up beside Sagittarius, then sank into storm clouds.

And then, for just two or three moments, between wisps of sharp breeze, John Dog heard something new and separate. A faint, irrelevant buzz, like the drone of a gnat. Then it was gone, next to imaginary. It was an airplane, off course and sliding to its doom, but John Dog didn’t bother wondering about the source of the sound. He didn’t care. He sniffed the air and wondered how Tink could have put up with the stink for so many days. He grinned a small one at that, then grabbed the rope. Up, he commanded. Up so you can go down. Up. Down. The no-exit, alpine-circle game. Sisyphus never had it so good. He pulled hard.


 

CHAPTER TWO

 

On the night before Christmas, the Sierra Nevada set in motion columnar inversions over lakes that served as constant temperature sources. Through such whirlpools of air, an aging Lockheed Lodestar, off course, tried to thread the mountain range. Near the crest a fierce and sudden battle of physics ensued, during which the aircraft sacrificed its right wing in order to maintain a temporary equilibrium of its whole.

Seconds later the greater part of the plane came to rest at the bottom of Ophidian Lake, an oval tarn coiled just below treeline. As if closing one contented eye, the lake slowly froze over in the following weeks, covering the dead machine with a thick sheath of ice, snow, and pine needles. It would have been a perfectly kept winter secret except for one thing: seven telltale feet of the tail section jutted above the lake’s surface.

On February 28, more than two months after the crash, a party of snowshoers discovered an airplane wing with the obituary N8106R emblazoned on its metal skin. On their way back out of the forests high above Yosemite Valley, the snowshoers forgot exactly where they’d found the wing, but that was all right. For the time being, the call letters were quite sufficient.

The Federal Aviation Administration was first. Contacted by the snowshoers, they pieced together a background report on the plane. It was a Lockheed Lodestar with a 5,000-pound load capacity, registered to a fictitious person in Albuquerque and purchased in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Beyond that there seemed to be little information: no flight plan had been filed. The news of an unknown plane crash puzzled the FAA only mildly. The rationale behind a flight over the Sierra in a snowstorm at night was odd, but not so odd that the plane’s purpose was totally mystifying. Smugglers rarely file flight plans.

The FAA contacted Customs. The presumption that drugs were involved was automatic; therefore Customs contacted the Drug Enforcement Agency. What exactly was being smuggled, how much, and where it was at present remained unanswered questions, but three federal agencies were now involved. That, the respective authorities felt, was a good start.

Had the crash occurred in warmer weather and closer to the highway, representatives of the three agencies no doubt would have examined the site themselves. But given the 15-foot backcountry snows, it was deemed wise to contact the National Park Service. The Park Service jumped to life and on March 10 dispatched 10 rangers from its winter staff to pinpoint the wreckage. The rangers were rebuffed once, then twice, by blizzards. Finally, on March 27, a young ranger by the name of Elizabeth Jenks unlocked the mystery of N8106R.

A bright, large-boned girl from a southeastern Oregon cattle ranch, and a graduate of the University of Washington’s forestry program, Jenks was the sole woman in the company of nine men, some taciturn about their doubts and two or three openly delighted to have her along. Sex discrimination was a brand-new term in the Park Service in 1973, a buzzword associated with hairy armpits, equal opportunity, and forests of clenched female fists. She had been hired to satisfy a trend; that’s how most of the men lived with it. For them, her rationale was simple: she was on a husband hunt. Besides doing a good job and keeping it, however, what Jenks wanted most this first year was to make it through without having to grow testicles. She was a methodical skier, nicely attuned to her own pace, and as a result was the first to close in on the lake.

No one knew exactly where they might find the downed plane, or if they ever would. After 14 miles and seven hours of travel, the general feeling was that if they hadn’t yet skied 10 feet above the buried wreckage, then soon they would, and would never know it. They had found the wing, of course, but the plane could be anywhere. Another commonly held opinion was that an airplane filled with dope would not be going anywhere until spring thaw, at which time two hippies on a leash could locate it with minimal effort. The party stopped for the night, made camp, and resumed the hunt the next morning, cold and grouchy about the task at hand. Nevertheless, they continued to search all day, devoting themselves to cursory probing into likely looking humps of snow and occasional glances into the surrounding forest for signs of sudden trauma: broken treetops, torn metal, dead bodies.

By six o’clock most of the rangers were neatly burrowed in snow caves, snug and drowsy. But before she surrendered the search— and, even more importantly, missed the subtle red alpenglow that had blossomed without warning—Jenks skied toward the crest of a nearby ridge. The ridge was bare, its vegetation long ago slaughtered by the wind. At the north end of the ridge a gentle decline swept out through a miniature forest of stunted pines and introduced Ophidian Lake. Perhaps a hundred feet from the drift-covered beach, she saw the upright tail section of an airplane. It jutted like an unflagging erection, the sole clue that something larger and more stimulating lay locked beneath the ice.

The day had been long and aggravating, and Jenks’s glide was a trifle more aggressive than it should have been. Her speed picked up on the crusted snow. She tried unsuccessfully to telemark, but the powder was too deep. A suitcase-size mound loomed in her immediate path, threatening to snap her wooden ski tips. With a last-minute twist she managed to ram the object broadside instead of tips first and ignobly toppled over.

Jenks’s first reaction was to look toward the ridge to make sure none of the men had witnessed her graceless halt. “Hell,” she sniffed in irritation. Her second reaction was to brush the telltale snow off her clothing and check her skis and poles for fractures. Her pride and equipment accounted for, Jenks stabbed at the offending lump with one pole. To her surprise, the tip penetrated what she’d thought was a rock. Curious, she brushed a little snow off the lump, then more.

The lump was burlap, and under that, showing through a gash in the corner, was yellow plastic. She dusted more snow off, enough to uncover black lettering stenciled on the burlap.

On the first line was the word Especial.

The line beneath consisted of three red X’s.

And beneath that was an ostentatious, hand-size outline of a marijuana leaf, its five toothy fingers splayed like a partial sunburst. Jenks exhumed the bundle and stepped back, amazed. It was a cubic foot of grass. On the butt end were painted the numerals 23. Twenty-three pounds, she wondered, or the 23rd bale? Or, more likely, 23 kilos. Fifty pounds of pot? She lifted her wide, gray eyes from the bale. Only then did she notice that on every side, upslope and all the way down to the lake, she was surrounded by lumps of snow, all of them just like this one.


 

CHAPTER THREE

 

They were expatriate rabble with their hair in leonine disarray and their clothing either unwashed or so old and patchy that washing was a questionable expense. A dozen or so of them lorded it over two tables shoved together in the middle of the Four Seasons restaurant in Yosemite Lodge. Some wore tennis shoes with the soles taped to the toes; others sat bundled in lifeless parkas devoid of down feathers and repaired with crude X’s of white adhesive tape. Legwear ranged from ankle-length knickers to navy-surplus wool pants and blue jeans; on their heads were caps, wool balaclavas, and one or two bandanas wrapped pirate-style. What little money they had came from misused student loans, odd jobs in the park, and the dumpsters, which yielded aluminum cans worth a nickel each at the local grocery. “They were typical mountaineers,” John Dog had blithely resurrected from a century-old paragraph. “Outcasts from society, discontented with the world, comforting themselves in the solitude of nature by the occasional bearfight.”

They were too loud that night, radiating the sort of vulgarity beatniks and hobos used to, their behavior so outrageous it set the jaws of the family men, mothers, and honeymooning couples straining to enjoy a civilized meal. Known to the park rangers as C4B’s, or Camp 4 Bums, they weren’t a gang, and many weren’t even friends. If anything, the label designated a lifestyle, a willingness to live in a tent or cave year-round, to subsist in order to climb. They put ordinary hippies to shame with their hardcore devotion to the rock, with their biceps, poverty, and voyageur ways. As tedious as they too often proved, they were, in effect, John Dog’s extended family. He sat among them, his eyes on the notebook in his lap.

Like clockwork, whenever the weather turned nasty, a glut of C4B’s could be expected to show up at the Four Seasons, in the adjacent bar, or in the lounge next door. To the few tourists who actually analyzed the source of their indigestion, the climbers’ nonchalance was galling. They were so ruthlessly, generally nonchalant, it seemed; nonchalant about their golliwog appearance, their forest odor, their machismo, their awkward, narcissistic shuffling about. They seemed indifferent to everything but their vertical outland, that frontier hugging Yosemite like Cossack steppes. They were horsemen down from the walls, Natty Bumpos slung with perlon rope and sporting a disdain for Winnebagos. About that they were proud.

At the head of the two tables sat Matthew Kresinski, self-delegated liaison between the C4B banquet and Connie, a gland-rich waitress who had worked in the Valley for years. Kresinski had arms the size of calf flanks and a nose as straight as an English war helmet, with a temper to match. Just now he was happy, temper smooth as bourbon. Each time a tray arrived heavy with beer and California wine, Kresinski praised the service and doled out a tip with ribald abandon. By evening’s end they’d be lucky to have money for half the bill, not that they were extravagant with their choices. The only menu item cheaper than a cheeseburger was a burger without cheese, and that was precisely what most had ordered. “And lots of ketchup,” trailed a shout. “And hot water.” The hot water was for the ketchup, which was for the few with no money at all. Tomato soup with free table crackers.

With each visit Connie found the climbers looser and louder. The talk was incessantly climbing talk. Kresinski she knew, and Broomis, and a few others. She’d met John Dog, with his mustang looks and white T-shirts, always brooding or buried in serious- sounding discourses. And who didn’t know Arthur, the squat, hairless Austrian infamous for his drinking binges? Tinkerbell was her favorite, though, what little she knew about him. He was everybody’s favorite, the wild child of any gathering because of his naiveté and gullibility. Thin, with wide shoulders, black home-barbered hair, and acid-green eyes, he stuttered every time she tried to talk with him. Word was that Tinkerbell had the hottest streak going in the Valley, at least this past climbing season. Word also had it he was a virgin.

At the moment, Tink was seated in the middle of the proceedings, subject of the evening’s roast, in agony while Eddy Delwood wove an exaggerated tale about him. It was a story about the day’s big climb.

“So the gumby’s up there 15 minutes now,” boomed Delwood with his foreign New Jersey accent. “He’s not movin’, just standin’ there like so. Like this.” He spread his arms high and wide, his fingers just so. “I’m standin’ on this little ledge right underneath, get it, scared to death. Hey, like he’s 60 feet out on a piece of 5.11 lichen and a foxhead, O.K.? I could just see him take a dive right on me, right?”

Across the table Tinkerbell held his saliva, afraid to swallow, far too aware he was blushing under his windburn. Nothing would grant him the dignity he yearned for, not this night, with these people, anyway. They wanted their little babe-in-the-woods Tink, their hayseed spectacle. He wanted out, but the rush of eyes held him tight and his corduroy pants felt stapled to the chair.

“So he’s up there 15 minutes, I don’t know, maybe half an hour, not a muscle movin’, on the crux, man, like he’s stuck or dead. I’m prayin’, don’t you fall, you mother. Then I see somethin’ that really put God in me.” Delwood tapped at the flaccid veins on his forearm. “Tink’s veins were turnin’ green! Green, man. The strain. We’re goners; I knew it then. I got all shaky like a big titty.” Like an ass, Tink silently appended. “I was so scared I couldn’t even yell at him. Fuckin’ Tink.” Delwood toasted Tinkerbell across the table with his glass of flat, warm beer. He’d been talking a long time.

Never, thought Tink. I’ll never climb with you again. He searched for poison, but all that would come was “jerk.” He didn’t say it aloud. With a tattered sleeve, Delwood swiped his mouth dry and launched on. “But real, real slow, Tink crawls his fingers up to this little dime hold. And zoom. It’s done. Flashed it like lightning then.

As for me, man, I was so drained from my nerves and all … ”

But nobody was listening anymore. Delwood was not popular. Indisputably the worst climber in Camp 4—some insisted in all America—Delwood was blessed with the largest, newest, and finest collection of gear, bar none. He never lacked for partners, but he rarely returned from a climb with all his gear; as long as he tolerated the petty thefts, he was tolerated. The thought had never occurred to Tink that Delwood was easy pickings. Just a jerk.

“Hot tamale, Tink,” Kresinski pricked from the head of the table. “A first ascent. A brand-new line.”

Tinkerbell shifted his gaze and nodded his head, glancing across at John Dog, who was absorbed in his notebook. I got to start writing poetry or something, he thought. Nobody bothers John. He watched the pen poise before descending to scratch out a word, add a passage.

Without glancing up from the page, John Dog picked a french fry from his plate and thoughtfully chewed at it, his eyes dodging through a fascinating footnote he’d unearthed concerning the original natives of Yosemite. For whatever reason, they had split the Valley into two territories, with the river as a border. North of the river, the tribe’s totem was the grizzly; to the south the coyote.

“What you calling it?” demanded Katie, a petite Hawaiian girl with scars lacing every knuckle.

Leave me be, thought Tink, but “Naw” was all he could manage. His blush was engaging. Dumb, he cursed himself.

“Wait a minute,” said Kresinski. “This climb doesn’t start off the Dihedral Bench, does it?”

“Yeah,” said Tink.

“And it’s got a crystal near the middle that cuts your fingers?”

“Yeah,” said Tink, looking at his lacerated index finger.

“And it curves left?”

Tink nodded.

“But I free climbed that three years ago,” Kresinski said as he stared at the boy. It was suddenly a matter of possession.

The torpedo hit hard; everyone could see Tink’s heart sinking.

“You did?” he whispered.

“You bet,” Kresinski pressed, his eyes glittering in the raccoon mask created by his ubiquitous sunglasses. He was daring to be challenged.

Dropping his head, Tink relinquished the route. If Kresinski said he’d climbed it first, he had.

“Tink?” Kresinski winked. “April fool!”

Not everyone laughed at the prank.

“Cool out, sport. Have a beer,” Kresinski ordered. But Tinkerbell was only drinking water, and Kresinski knew it. No beer, no wine, no booze or pot, not even milk or soft drinks. He was, for one thing, trying to drive his weight down to 140 in order to accomplish a severe route that he wanted to call, for no reason but the color and slickness of the rock, Black Soap. He was also teetotaling on principle, having cultivated an overblown fear about the damage alcohol visits on brain cells, liver, and muscle tissue. For a young man who carried his toothbrush in his shirt pocket, this was a perfectly reasonable concern.

“Water’s fine,” he mumbled. Shamming indignation, Kresinski sprayed a mouthful of beer across the table. John Dog looked up, finally annoyed by Kresinski’s buffoonery.

“I … I gotta go,” Tinkerbell suddenly managed. He stood up, muttering to pave his exit. He left as unobtrusively as possible, a breadball striking his head just before he reached the door. No one expected Tink back; no one remarked on his departure.

“Hey, Cochise,” Kresinski tossed downtable to John Dog. With Tink gone, he needed a fresh target. If not a mountain or rock, then one of the herd. Kresinski had well-honed instincts, and he recognized John Dog as a subtle breach in his monarchy. Kresinski never quit sniping, probing, testing for the jugular. “We need four bucks.”

John Dog glanced up again and sighed. The man was drunk or getting there, and that only made him more eager for return fire. John Dog didn’t bother to flash his wild mestizo, switchblade eyes. It wasn’t worth backing the King down every time, not even for the practice.

“I already kicked in,” he said and returned to his notes. Coyote or grizzly bear—he burrowed into the dichotomy but for the life of him couldn’t decide if there was more brain or brute in himself. He plucked another fry from his plate.

“Come on, dude,” Kresinski brayed. Others were looking now. There was an uneasy titillation; no one was quite sure if there was humor here or not. The Apache versus the King: august figures. “All for one, right? We’re group.”

Qué jodón, thought John Dog. A nuisance. He stared across at the man. Menopause, he diagnosed, and almost said it aloud. We’re getting old, he thought, but Matt’s getting old and mean. Bad enough the barbarian had been out of the country climbing when that sports journalist came looking for a barbarian, bad enough that Kresinski had lost his partner that same trip. Now menopause was on him. That was no excuse for the malice, though. He reached in his parka pocket and threw some coins toward Kresinski’s plate. “There’s a nickel,” he pointed out helpfully, as much for the congregation as for Kresinski. “And there’s a dime.”

It took an instant too long for Kresinski to make the connection, and it stole his thunder. “Hey, I get it,” he snorted. All the same he flushed, and his scalp-hunter eyes bleached bluer. A black hole gaped in the bonhomie; everyone felt it and was confused. This was group. The King was king, fools were fools; that was part of it. For a bad moment they saw how trite the construct was and how obedient they were to it. Then Cortland “Bullseye” Broomis started up, relieving the tension.

“Me,” posed Bullseye, so named for the pattern he’d painted on the crown of his ice-climbing helmet. Attention was flung toward his bankable good will. “I’m the guy. Stud, if you will. While you geeks were fighting over your Silver Surfer comic books last November, I was doing my duty. I’m the one who voted for Dick Nixon.” More righteous lampoon from trusty old Mr. SDS, self- proclaimed mastermind of the Chicago riots. “Why Dick? That’s my very point,” he netted them, leading them into safer currents. Like a Baptist preacher, he evoked the so-called “pucker factor,” that degree to which one’s anus squeezes shut on thin rock moves, and speciously demonstrated how the pucker factor had everything to do with his voting for Nixon as a means of voting against him, an act of absurdity in the face of absurdity. Jokes rained down; the bedlam resumed. John Dog returned, or tried to, to his fries and 3,000-year-old Ahwahnachee Indians.

Kresinski. A gadfly. The man shoved and bullied and baited, but in all the years they’d known one another, working the same walls, inhabiting the same campground, and sharing communal feasts like this one, he’d never shoved John Dog too far. For whatever reason—the color of his skin, the mystery of his temper, or both—John Dog knew the King was afraid of him. Maybe not afraid, he amended, but cautious, and therefore harmless. Over others, though, Kresinski had a disturbing power. For most of them, big walls and multicolored granite were the only things worth climbing on twice, and Yosemite was sort of a world capital. Kresinski confirmed that with his unfailing returns from far-flung mountains in places most people encounter only via National Geographic. Other locals, quite notably John Dog, had climbed throughout the planet’s cordilleras, but none returned so loudly or brazenly as Kresinski, nor did anyone else have his heavy-metal gift for wrapping a mountain or wall or even a 40-foot crack in such hairy-assed terms. They liked that about Kresinski because he was diplomatically generous in making them feel bold, separate, and superior too. They were mainly white, middle-class boys on the lam from white, middle- class duties: school, marriage, the draft, or jobs. But with Kresinski they could perceive themselves as more rarefied beings: electric drifters cruising the high, bare angles, navigating the brute, psychedelic canyons.

More beer was ordered. With great reverence Bullseye proposed a toast. “Fucking Nam,” he recited. “The war is over.” He seemed mournful, not happy, and no one else cared.

A half-hour passed before an empty chair next to Kresinski was pulled out and occupied by a tall, deeply tanned woman with gray eyes and thick, golden hair. She was dirty and reeked of wood smoke, damp wool, and sweat. It was Liz Jenks, who had just returned, bone weary, from her five-day trip to Ophidian Lake. Kresinski leaned over and kissed her. He whispered in her ear and she laughed. “You’re all tool, Matthew,” she chided him and kissed him back.

“Matt,” Liz crooned in her Lauren Bacall basso. “I’m beat.” That was code for sex, sleep, and affection, in whatever repeating order. They’d been lovers for two months now, stealthy and private. She seemed not to fathom that theirs was the most famous of all the local romances, the lady ranger and the King of Camp 4. Nor did she know that Kresinski himself had made it famous. Leaks, he called his little tales to the lads. Deep background. They all knew the Amazon gave great head.

“A little longer,” Kresinski coaxed.

“Then get me drunk,” she said, resigning herself to the boisterous clamor. “I want to make you a rich man.” It was her roundabout way of expressing discontent with his stubborn impoverishment. The impoverishment she could live with, but not all this passion spent—wasted—on such a useless, dead-end sport. Grow up, she was begging.

Before the hour was out she was very drunk and very certain that she was talking to her lover alone. But every ear was cocked as she detailed her trip to Ophidian Lake and described the bales of marijuana. A conspiratorial sobriety had descended at the two tables, a dead silence that was pleasant relief for the nearby tourists.

***

Tinkerbell stumbled through the darkness across the road to Camp 4, skirted a Standard gas station closed for the night, and passed a bulletin board bursting with scribbled messages: “Joe meet Henry in Site 14 until 3/8/73”; “For sale 1 pr. unused EBs size 43. $20. #6”; “Wanted, climbing partner. I lead 5.8. Jocelyn. #12.” He crunched down the ice-spackled path past the log-cabin bathrooms and at a stump stepped off the path to his tent. The stars barked down, cold and glittery. Struggling to get his pants unbuttoned, Tinkerbell winced, remembering he’d torn off a fingernail during the climb that afternoon, and that in turn reminded him of Delwood and of Kresinski’s April-fool joke. Absent- mindedly, he pulled the toothbrush from his shirt pocket for a dry brush. After a minute or so he spat, crawled into his tent, and zipped the sleeping bag snug around his shoulders. His eyes sealed shut with immediate sleep.

Hands woke him. He gave a soft yelp.

More nightmares? he wondered. Night was when he digested the risks and falls, excreting them as terrible dreams. It was very dark, he saw, which meant it was not yet midnight. After that the moon would candle the world. “What?” he grumbled, exorcising sleep, not even sure if he was talking with anyone.

“Tink,” and he was shaken again. “It’s me. Hey. Wake up, amigo.” It was John Dog; he recognized the patois.

“What?”

“Come on. There’s stuff in Ophidian Lake. You want some or not?”

“Tonight?” He was floating.

“You want some, Tink?” John Dog was a dark shape huddled in the door of his tent. A second, burly shape shifted behind John Dog. Tinkerbell caught a gleam of dull light off a bald head and guessed it was the Austrian, Arthur. Something was up. Ophidian Lake. That was eight miles in on the Illilouette Trail, guarded by 10 feet of snow up in the backcountry.

“Naw,” said Tinkerbell. “I’m training.”

“Look,” John Dog persisted, “the lake’s full of pot. A plane crashed up there. A Customs helicopter came and scooped up everything that was lying around. But the lake’s frozen over and there’s pot in there. Liz Jenks said so. The feds aren’t even going in there until spring thaw. There’s no one there.”

“Naw, I don’t really have the time.”

“Tink, here’s your grubstake for that trip to Makalu.” There was silence. John Dog knew he’d touched a nerve.

“Naw,” the boy finally muttered.

John Dog accepted the statement. Training was training. And for the others, sleep was sleep. Except for Arthur, no one else was going up either. John Dog smoked little weed himself, and he doubted there was any money in the enterprise; but there was an element of adventure, a way to count coup on the long-knives. Besides, he’d never been to Ophidian Lake. It would be a nice distraction while spring shifted into gear.

“Adios, Tink.”

Tinkerbell heard John Dog zip the tent shut, listened to the receding crunch of boots in snow, and floated off toward warm, liquid sleep.

Sleep—lots of it—was part of Tinkerbell’s training. He was called Tinkerbell in honor of his boldness, but Clint Stanley was the boy’s real name. A year and a half earlier he’d flashed Tinkerbell, the first known unroped solo of a 5.11 climb in history. He wore the title reluctantly. Barely 19 years old, Tinkerbell was wiser than in those early days. If he had to do it all over again, he wouldn’t dare repeat the solitary bravado of Tinkerbell. Not and tell others about it. But the reputation was there, and despite all his attempts to keep his climbing in a guarded perspective, Tinkerbell felt obliged to attempt nearly impossible routes in nearly impossible ways. He’d barely finished the tenth grade before rock climbing had swallowed his life. Having thrown himself into climbing with blind abandon, he was at first well served. Purpose, recognition, a place in the world. Lately, though, only three years from his first roped scramble, Tinkerbell had grown disenchanted.

It was common wisdom that Tinkerbell would be dead before he reached his next birthday. He’d heard the rumor. As it was, fewer and fewer people would do a serious route with him anymore. John Dog was an exception, a powerful exception. He was a friend. Though Tink was the darling of Camp 4, he had no other friends, really. He was a jinx; that’s how people treated him.

“Not enough protection, brothers. Shit, when he goes, he’ll take the rope, his partner, the anchor, and probably half the fucking rock with him. Not me. No thanks … ” So Tink often climbed alone these days, more often than he wanted to, which only added to his notoriety. He’d become, literally, the source of a superstition. His acts were charmed, but no one, including himself, believed in infinite luck. Someday his gifts would fail.

Death or serious injury he could handle, but not the loneliness and exaggerations. I’m quittin’, he’d sworn. Soon. According to his elaborately planned training schedule, if he continued working on his ice climbing in the winter, could manage five consecutive five-minute miles in his running, and did 400 pullups every day for the next year, he’d be ready for Makalu, his 8,000-meter peak in the Himalaya, by the next spring. Then I’m done, he promised himself, a nightly prayer. He slept.


 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

John Dog and Arthur skied four hours then crawled under a rock shelf before dawn, husbanding their invisibility. Neither of them was certain about the gauntlet they might or might not be passing through; there could conceivably be any number of federal agents lurking in unlikely places, ready to stop just such a piracy. For all they knew, they could be skiing into a complicated trap designed to snare the Mafia or a gang of drug runners. They weren’t too concerned, though; the whole enterprise involved risks, not the least of which was that, because neither of them had ever been up there, they might miss Ophidian Lake altogether.

Just before sunset, John Dog wiggled out of his sleeping bag and silently waxed both pairs of skis with a hard green klister for the April night’s snow. Arthur continued to snore under the rock shelf until John Dog poked him and handed in a lukewarm mug of chocolate. Soon the two were stealthily sliding along what they guessed to be the Illilouette Trail. Alpenglow tinged the caps of the surrounding domes, then melted into blackness. With headlamps on, they continued to gain altitude. Just after midnight the moon rose, and they packed their lamps away. At two o’clock, alive with the cold, altitude, and exertion, John Dog topped a ridge and realized they’d found Ophidian Lake. The snow ringing the frozen lake was mutilated by footprints and ski tracks. Gliding still closer, he saw torn metal glinting like tinsel in the tops of several pines. He slowed to a halt, pausing for Arthur to catch up. The Austrian’s smooth skull glistened in the moonlight. They agreed to split up at the first hint of a threat and meet each other back at Camp 4. They ghosted forward, quietly slipping through the trees, until they could determine once and for all whether there were any guards hidden or sleeping around the lake.

“What do you think?” John Dog asked.

Arthur stabbed at the snow with his poles, raised his eyebrows, and cleared his throat. “It doesn’t seem possible,” he said.

John Dog grinned. “Let’s do it, then.”

With a deep thrust of his poles he tucked low and hissed down the gradual hill, his black backpack fluttering in the draft. It was, he pictured, a melodramatic entrance—Errol Flynn looping out of the mainsail. With unnecessary speed, he crisscrossed the marks of a helicopter’s skids and didn’t stop until he was a good twenty yards out onto the ice. There was no challenge. Liz’s incredible Arabian tale was so far on the money. Arthur quickly joined the Apache on the flat, soundless lake.

Having reached the lake, they felt the impetus momentarily disappear; just getting to the site had been the reward. No landmarks indicated the plane’s underwater location. They roamed separately across the wind-packed snow that covered the lake’s ice, searching for some sign, then met and roamed some more. On a beach stampeded by bootprints, the two men doffed their packs and fished out headlamps for the second time that night. “We make it quick,” said Arthur, sliding away on his skis. Their headlamps bobbing in distinct cones across the lake, they separated once more, and immediately both of them spotted the truncated remains of the airplane’s tail section. It was sticking through the ice like a black and silver leg bone. John Dog could only surmise that the authorities had cut the very top off in order to look down inside the submerged plane. Approaching the tail, they flashed their lamp beams in, and John Dog recoiled from the black water that stank of oil and stood like clotted blood inside the plane. Dead men: not even the Jesuits had erased the old Apache bugaboo. He forced himself to look again.

“Petrol,” Arthur defined. “Now. Where to look?” He shone his lamp across the rippled snow dunes. Here was the lake. Here was the airplane. Where was the Mother Lode? “It’s not up there, sure,” the Austrian said as his light swept through the trees. “The Amazon was right. They taked it all in a helicopter. There’s only one place, huh? Inside the plane or in the water. Under the ice. Maybe if we dig a hole we can see something in the morning?”

“Sounds good.”

“O.K.,” Arthur spat, and shuffled off to the beach to collect their ice axes.

It took them all of one minute to regret not having brought heavier tools. Nevertheless, the two men kept at it, cutting into the lake’s coarse, obstinate surface, stabbing and prying away splinters and chunks. At four o’clock the Big Dipper was just beginning to flatten out on the horizon, and John Dog’s axe penetrated the bottom of the roughly circular hole. Water immediately filled their handiwork, seeping up through the puncture. From then on each axe stroke splashed water up and out. At last, arbitrarily, the hole was big enough.

They held one lamp close to the water and saw nothing but a single brilliant eye beaming back at them. Arthur sat back on his heels and began to roll off his cagoule, sweater, and shirt. “There is nothing for it except…” He flopped out onto his bare stomach and sank his arm into the hole. John Dog clenched his jaw. He knew his fear was irrational. But committing your arm to a black lake afloat with bodies and in the dark night?

“Ah,” grunted Arthur. “I am feeling something. It is against the ice … It feels like … crucifix!” He whipped up and backward from the hole. “My

Christ,” he hissed. “It moved in my hand!”

John Dog stared at the shivering Austrian in horror. Snow clung to his chest hair and blubber. “What?” he rasped.

The Austrian closed his eyes, gritted his teeth, and dropped back onto his stomach. “Ave Maria,” he intoned and pushed his arm back under the ice, groping deep underneath to pull in whatever he’d felt. “Now I got it again,” he panted. With evident strain he began muscling it closer, visibly repelled by the possibility of dragging a corpse into view. “O.K.,” he said, shaking the water from his arm. “There it is.” He knelt to the side while John Dog played his headlamp down the ragged hole. It wasn’t a dead man. John Dog bent lower and touched the rugged brown surface. Whatever it was bobbed up and down, nudging at the hole’s bottom. It was burlap. He stared up at Arthur.

“You know what this is, don’t you?”

Arthur had an open knife in his hand. “Maybe,” he answered. With a quick jab he pushed the blade hilt deep into the burlap and sawed a ragged incision. Below subcutaneous yellow plastic was a dark reddish vegetation. John Dog dipped his fingers into the cold, wet mass and withdrew a dripping handful of marijuana. The rich smell of resinated leaves broke across the ice.

“My … my … ” Arthur uttered.

John Dog picked at the saturated leaves in his hands. There were hard, red buds and thick juice. He was awed by the voluptuousness of the weed; he could smell and taste the deep crimson color just by looking at it. “What have we found?” he whispered rhetorically. He knew how to clean a lid and roll a crooked joint, but this was magnificently larger. Arthur, too, was ignorant. It was marijuana, but they couldn’t begin to fathom what value it might have.

A single, stately cloud lofted across the sky and blotted out the moon. Arthur furtively slumped to the ice; John Dog snapped out his light. Suddenly they remembered where they were again and what risks accompanied that sweet, pungent odor. John Dog pawed at his sleeve and exposed his watch.

“It’s nearly five o’clock,” he said. Arthur was shivering wildly now and pulling his clothes on as fast as he could. “Should we dig it out now? Or haul ass out of here?”

“I think,” boomed Arthur, “both.”

By five-thirty they had dragged a monstrous bale from the icy water. It must have weighed a hundred pounds, saturated as it was. With mounting paranoia now that darkness was nearly gone, John Dog and Arthur dragged the bulky monster across the crusted ice, up the snowy beach, and into the trees. The feds would be coming soon—they had to—otherwise this treasure would surely evaporate into pure fantasy. They towed their catch deeper into the trees, then darted back onto the ice to retrieve their skis and ice axes. Impulsively, Arthur dropped to his belly and thrust his arm into the water again. “Yes,” he grinned, and moments later they’d fished a second bale from the hole. Cradling the dripping behemoth in his arms, John Dog staggered toward the trees. Arthur followed with the last of their gear. Minutes later the snow turned a bright flamingo pink with the sunrise, but already the lake had returned to its innocence.


 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

The Valley’s bare furniture, its conifers and massive, upright facets, and the waterfalls that had paused blue in midflight for the winter, stood quiet. John Dog was drunk; he could see himself drunk as he angled toward Camp 4, his long strides tormented here by a waver, caught there with a stumble. Several times he stopped to scout the woods behind. No hostile rangers lurking back there. The early light was a cold aquamarine that flooded the forest. The air was still. Too still, he slyly registered. He staggered on a little further. Mysteriously, the parking lot stood empty except for Arthur’s ancient Buick. He passed the well-beaten pathway. The tents were there, but in subtle, unnerving disarray. The spines of some tents had relaxed and bowed; tent walls were limp, and some had collapsed altogether.

“What the devil … ” John Dog muttered. He and Arthur had stashed two full packloads of pot in a secret cave the Austrian had discovered some years earlier. Drunk with the knowledge that their haul must be worth thousands of dollars, they had proceeded to get drunk in fact. Now John Dog had come to announce a fabulous treasure to his sainted lost tribe, to elevate them and bring their souls back from the pit, as it was written in Job, to enlighten them with the light of the living. If only Father Michael could see him now. Jesuits, he coughed. Them and their 25-cent Thomist propaganda— the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. No wonder he’d ended up here in the Valley. Drunk and very wealthy. But in his absence the camp had turned into a ghost town, eerily depopulated. “Hey!” he yelled. Empty, he softly concluded. He veered toward Tinkerbell’s site, unzipped the boy’s tent door, and peered in. The sleeping bag was gone. So. The evacuation hadn’t been totally, relentlessly sudden; they’d had time to gather their essentials. Not overly concerned, and with all the caprice of a bird dog, he cast about, spot-checking other friends’ tents. There were no sleeping bags or ropes anywhere, no valuables: Tavini’s guitar was missing; Bill Fuller’s typewriter was gone. There was no climbing hardware anywhere. Just tents. Very strange. Confoundingly strange.

“Wait a minute,” he accused the silence, without a clue in mind. Out of nowhere he heard a sudden, fast, whistling noise. The next instant something struck him on the thigh, and he dropped to the ground, pole-axed, clutching his leg. A bullet? But why? It hurt.

“Get out!” he heard a reedy voice through his pain. “The area’s restricted.” He saw a stone the size of a golf ball by his foot. Someone had thrown a rock.

John Dog tried to locate the voice, but, before he could, a second rock kicked up pine needles by his head. “Run, go on. Get.” Through his liquored fog, John Dog was certain he recognized that voice.

“It’s me,” he yelled. His quadriceps throbbed.

“It’s me,” taunted the voice. This time John Dog caught the accent: a pronounced British Columbia bray, thin and aggressive.

“Biscuits?” he called back. There was silence.

“Yeah,” the voice finally answered. “What?”

A thin boy wearing a cast on his right leg levered himself to standing position on top of the huge practice boulder in midcamp. “Christ, Biscuits,” John Dog complained, dusting himself off.

“Jesus. I didn’t recognize you, John,” Biscuits shouted down. “Sorry. Come up, then, but quiet like.”

Despite his Bordeaux spin and bruised thigh, John Dog managed the gymnastic moves up and onto the top. Biscuits had already eased himself back and was tenderly laying out his casted leg when John Dog pulled over the edge. He was amazed to find that Biscuits, incapacitated with a broken leg—the wages of a popped bolt protecting a wet crack—had not only pitched a tent on top of the boulder; he’d also stocked an arsenal of throwing rocks and gathered together all the valuables missing from the tents: the guitar, the typewriter, several cameras, a telescope belonging to some amateur astronomer, an assortment of cooking utensils, an immense mound of ropes, and the sum total of Camp 4’s climbing gear. In all, there were several tons of equipment, valuables, and throwing rocks neatly stockpiled on top of the 30-foot-high rock.

“What’s all this?” John Dog summoned up.

Biscuits lay on his side on top of three foam pads. “Kresinski’s plan, a cardboard camp to throw off the enemy. All fluff, no stuff.” He was jovial. “You want a beer?” He pointed to three cases of beer. “I’m sentinel,” Biscuits explained. “I been pelting bears and raccoons for two days and nights now. Yesterday, three turkeys from L.A. tried to lift one of the tents. I put them to flight.”

“Where’d everybody go?” John Dog found himself copying Biscuits’s low profile and muted voice.

“You didn’t pass ’em? They all gone up to your lake. Some gone off two days ago, some yesterday, and some this mornin’. No one’s back but you.” He paused. “Not yet, but they will. How’d you not see them?”

“We came down the back trail.” John Dog was puzzled. “But why now? How’d they know to go?”

“Same way you knew. They just all got bold and went. The weather’s O.K.; so even the pansies gone up. All of ’em off to be millionaires like you and Arthur.”

“No one stayed to climb?”

“Even Tink gone off. This mornin’, last to leave. He’s up there with the rest. They went in small groups. Axes, crowbars, and picks. They mean to empty your lake, if there’s anything left. What you haul down?”

“It’s there.” John Dog tried not to smile. “A few pounds.” Biscuits understood by “a few pounds” that John Dog and Arthur had probably brought down a good seventy pounds each. Understatement was a universal pastime among climbers.

“But the feds … ” John Dog remembered.

“A risk, same as you took.” Biscuits lifted his cast and set it on another of the half-dozen pads scattered about. “You want protection?”

“Protection?” John Dog still couldn’t believe that the entire camp had taken off to the high country.

“You can leave your particulars with me. I’ll baby-sit till you come home. Going rate’s one ounce of stuff, man.”

“No. I’m not going back up there. I got what I need. The feds have to know by now.”

“Come now,” Biscuits reasoned. “All Camp 4’s up there. They can’t bust you all.”

Perhaps it was his exhaustion or the hangover or just the overload of good luck, but by the time John Dog arrived back at Ophidian Lake, he was filled with premonitions. In the full noon glare it didn’t look like the same lake from which he and Arthur had thieved two mere bales. More than 50 people were laboring at the ice with the meticulous frenzy of a cargo cult. Some were pushing and pulling bales; others were probing and digging in the ice or drying marijuana on pieces of aircraft metal pulled from trees. An audience of scavengers, all strangers to John Dog, were standing well away from the slush that now covered the ice, waiting, it turned out, for a bale to surface and then converging for a free grab of pot. John Dog started to count the number of holes that had been gouged in the ice but lost track. As he stood there, two people stumbled and almost fell into holes that were hidden in the thick, creamy slush. One bellicose longhair was toting a Remington deer rifle as he strutted about, a one-man anti-fed army.

Carpe diem,” Arthur breathed over his shoulder.

“What?”

Arthur motioned with his hand. “They have seize the day.”

“In broad daylight they seize the day,” John Dog groused. So obvious.

No sooner had John Dog reprimanded himself to mellow out than a sudden hum clamped hard on his privates, and he nearly dove for cover. Helicopters! But it was only a chain saw, which died, then kicked to life with another jerk of the starter cord. Christ, he thought, and scanned the horizon in all directions. At any moment a whole fleet of helicopters could come stabbing in from below the ridge. With luck a few people might manage to escape, but the patriarchs in uniform would be armed and ready for a massive bust. Biscuits was wrong. If they wanted to, the feds could arrest everyone. Down on the lake, Kresinski lifted the chain saw with one hand and inserted its spinning blade into the ice. An abrupt roostertail of clear water shot out the rear guard. The blade was withdrawn, then pressed down through another patch of ice. This time the roostertail showered a riot of dark red buds and chopped foliage. A bale. Five people converged on the site and began chopping furiously at the lake’s surface.

“It’s not good,” John Dog complained to Arthur. He bent and scooped up a handful of heavy snow, compressed it, and took a bite from the clean, white edge. Too many, too audacious.

“Maybe, maybe not.” The squat, bald Austrian grunted and started down toward the lake, leaving behind the smell of Wild Turkey. Let it be, thought John Dog. He followed Arthur down.

A caravan of burdened climbers skied by, preceded by a “clean” pointman, whistle in hand. Bent beneath huge, dripping packs were Tavini, Bullseye Broomis, and Bill Fuller. All were wearing dazed Mona Lisa smiles, their faces haggard but luminous. Bullseye greeted John Dog with a clenched fist, shook his hand, and trudged on.

On the lake John Dog was greeted by more Camp 4 neighbors. Carl was hanging his long neck over an opened hole in the ice. “Come see the glory train,” he invited. John Dog stepped across the slush and peered down through Carl’s window in the lake. The plane was clearly visible, only 30 feet down in the hard, sapphire water. It was tilted slightly off the vertical, its nose embedded in lake mud. Both wings were missing. One was in the trees down the trail. The other must have sunk into the rich silt at the bottom. The plane was pretty much as he’d imagined, except for its colors, a patriotic red, white, and blue striping the body from end to end. With a plane painted like Old Glory and every bale marked with a marijuana-leaf silhouette and weight number, the smugglers had not lacked style.

“Word is, there’re 50 pounds of snort down in the cockpit,” Carl confided. “We’ve got a guy from Santa Barbara bringing in his scuba gear tonight.”

John Dog moved on, scornful of the rumor but unable to shake his premonitions. The center was bound not to hold. For an hour or so he went from group to group, now and then helping wrestle a bale from the reluctant water, and everywhere chewing over the rumors: cocaine in the cockpit, a bust in two days, a green light that had shone through the ice last night. Finally, John Dog admitted that he wasn’t going to haul any more pot down from the lake. He had what he needed already.

He spied Arthur, with his thick legs spread wide over a hole in the ice, in the throes of manhandling a dripping burlap bale. His face was grim, not joyous, not young, as he grappled with the bale. John Dog didn’t bother to interrupt. He didn’t need to say good-bye. He’d see Arthur and everyone else in a day or two, back in Camp 4. With his pack as empty as it had been on the trip in, he turned from the scene and skied over and down the ridge.

Once, in the Andes, he’d come across a twisting vein of gold high on a mountain and then, just to see how it felt, had walked away and never mentioned the fortune to anyone. He felt that way now, like he was turning his back on Shangri-la. There was pain and contempt in the feeling, but also a relieved sense that if he was being honest he wasn’t a complete idiot.

The world of fairy tales was very real for John Dog. Reality should always be something you can turn your back on, he believed. He’d climbed on Everest and wandered through sandy, crumbling castles in the deserts of Afghanistan; he’d seen the inside of jails in Kathmandu and risked his neck on peaks so beautiful they turned camera film blank; and he’d outlived viruses and parasites American doctors had never heard of. He’d even traveled to Timbuktu. In short, he’d been to Shangri-la, seen its kings illiterate and guardians barefoot with polished bayonets on their polished, loaded rifles, smelled its diarrhea in the gutters, argued with its greed, and kept his mouth shut before the religions that insisted this life was not the only life. In Shangri-la, he’d learned, ideas were like the grit you picked from your rice. That was the paradise of Lowell Thomas and of Lost Horizons—bald, raw, unadorned. At its most dramatic, you took a bullet for thinking new thoughts; at its most tragic, little boys and girls starved to death far short of their first intelligent moment. If that was paradise, John Dog had decided, he wanted out. It was going to be tough as hell to leave. But by shunning gold veins and false lusters, he liked to believe some better frontier was just a valley away.

***

Tinkerbell was in the forest below.

John Dog had forgotten all about him. Then, barely a quarter of a mile from the lake, he heard someone yelling. Not calling for help or attention, just yelling. Circling a fat lump of rock and a crumpled window frame from the plane, he found Tink standing in a dark clearing, rooted to the spot and hollering in solitary bewilderment. In his hands, John Dog saw, he held a blue-and-yellow parka, its design more fashionable than functional.

“Tink?” he called, a little frightened by the boy’s lonely howling. Tinkerbell’s eyes were big. He was clutching the jacket fiercely.

“John?” He was staring straight at John Dog, bewitched.

“What you got there, Tink?” A gentle voice.

“Oh, man, John, look.” Tinkerbell extended the jacket, the fingers of one hand stretching the pocket open. “It’s my Makalu trip, just like you said.” He dropped down to his heels and plucked a thick stack of money from the pocket. John Dog squatted in front of the boy. The bills were all hundred-dollar notes. He was astounded, even after his own score and the hundreds of thousands of dollars surfacing just over the hill. “Where’d you find this?” he asked.

“In that tree,” Tinkerbell pointed. “I was just walking around and it was up there. Boy, oh boy.”

The two hunkered down with the parka between them. Tinkerbell pushed his hand into the other pockets. From the breast pocket he extracted a large wallet made of Mexican cowhide, then a small red address book.

“Look,” he whispered. A Washington driver’s license showed a thick face with a sloping bandido mustache. It was, they both realized, the dead pilot or copilot, one of the men lying at the bottom of the lake; it had to be. The jacket had survived how many destructions—and now Tinkerbell was plucking its secrets. There were other legal papers in the wallet—credit cards and licenses—so much paper and ink to identify the body and face now deceased. Then the two climbers turned to the address book, filled, naturally enough, with names, addresses, and phone numbers. The entries stretched from A to Z, common and ordinary, but in the Addenda section at the end of the small book, they came across a brief list of colors annotated with phone numbers lacking area codes: Red-547- 3407, Blue-843-3094, and so forth.

“Mafia,” Tinkerbell murmured knowingly. They turned to the very last page. There, neatly printed in pencil, was the legend “Laughing Christ: 250 M16, 350 M14, 145 Uzi. 1,000 ammo each.” Guns. It held images of an alien, killing world.

“Burn it,” snapped John Dog. “You don’t want it. The stuff in the wallet, too.” He took a plastic lighter from the top flap of his pack and handed it to Tink. “It’s trouble.” Overkill, he thought. It wasn’t that significant. Just paper. But he was filled with foreboding and wanted to wash his hands of the lake. Something was going on here, temptations, illusions. He could feel it.

“Yeah.” Tinkerbell set fire to the exposed pages and held the book by a corner until its pages were incinerated. “We never saw it, right?” He fired the papers in the wallet, then shoved the cowhide wallet and credit cards deep behind some loose tree bark. The money he tucked inside his backpack.

No more than five minutes had passed since the two had met in the grove. They put on their skis and moved out, down, and back toward the Valley. As they started off, the great mystery of it all weighed heavy on Tinkerbell. There were no words for the depth of it. Finally he had to speak, borrowing from the most recent mystery. “John,” he asked solemnly, “what’s a Laughing Christ?”


 

CHAPTER SIX

 

Never again would there be a party like this one, John Dog registered in the full-blown din. It was a rendezvous in the bygone fur-trapping tradition: no Hawkens rifles, no knives or pelts, but everything else. The frivolity and drunken recklessness was true to the spirit of that earlier forest bacchanalia. It was spring in Camp 4. There was a full moon, and the bonfire was rimmed with kegs of beer. When Grace Slick wasn’t warbling full decibel about the white rabbit in wonderland, Gloria was being spelled syllable by pornographic syllable. Every handshake measured your grip. Around midnight the real huns had begun fire jumping, first in their thongs or blown-out Adidas, then barefoot through the flames. Somebody had fallen in and been rolled out, smoking, and was feeling no pain, nor would until morning. Air moves could be seen everywhere, with hands locking onto imaginary holds and toes twisting into invisible cracks. Vicarious flight. John Dog wove through the crowd, stoned, buffeted by the language, noise, elbows, excitement.

“Yeah, man, 40 feet out on 5.10. No pro. I mean, like, runnin’ on empty.”

John Dog staggered. The voices were faceless. He moved on. “Like glass. Friction city. Then you mantle off a bashie. Cool.” “No way!” thundered another voice. “Not to trash the event, man, but he clipped and grabbed. Grabbed, that’s what I heard.”

“Who?”

“Where?”

“5.12?”

It was a broth of climbing and dreams, talk of Uli Biaho in Pakistan and Mount Logan’s Hummingbird Ridge, talk of tumbling over the roof on Psycho, talk of Kresinski’s latest or Tink’s newest, and talk of tomorrow’s climbs. The scene had the feel of immortality and would continue until the drugs or liquor put the revelers out or the sun came up, and then they would be spiders on the walls again.

What made this party different and more reckless than any other, past or future, was the sense of stupendous unreality. One week earlier they’d been paupers; tonight they were, for their own intents and purposes, millionaires. Evidence of the new wealth flowered everywhere. New ropes and shiny equipment were shown off. Pristine tents, their bright colors not yet bleached by the sun, stood erect among the trees. Climbers were brandishing freshly purchased round-trip tickets to the Andes, Alps, New Zealand, or the Himalaya. The bulk of the so-called Lodestar Lightning, nicknamed for the ill-fated plane that had borne it to them, had already been turned in San Françisco or Los Angeles; what pot remained was either stashed for a rainy day or was being smoked in copious, pungent clouds around the fire. The night emphatically belonged to these Lake millionaires, these reefer bandidos. And there was one final proof of their success: federal agents had come.

There were an even four, two from the FBI and two from the Treasury Department. They had, apparently, agreed beforehand that disguises would only make them more conspicuous among people who carried crack scars on their hands and knew one another by sight or reputation. And so, opting for a modicum of dignity, the agents had come dressed as if for a chilly barbeque, the most liberal in pressed Levi’s and a raincoat from L.L. Bean. One wore a wool scarf around his neck. Singly and in pairs, they mingled among the crowd, seeming for the most part like pleasant, bemused family men, aware of but not too discomfited by their incongruity in this lawless group. Throughout the evening they had been in attendance, chatting, even joking, but to a man declining repeated offers of beer and liquor and heroically ignoring the cigar-size reefers passing back and forth.

The agents were not the only characters strange to Camp 4. There were other new faces, most of them catalogued by John Dog as Hungry, Curious, or Awed. The climbers had scored coup, stolen a ton of pot from under the nostrils of the FBI, DEA, Park Service, and who knew what other bureaus, and they’d done it in a style Geronimo couldn’t have bettered. Inevitably, the noisy celebration had drawn groupies, tourists, and dopers too late for the Gold Rush, and for this one night they weren’t unwelcome. The xenophobia normally reserved for outsiders had been relaxed for this occasion; having an audience confirmed the tribe’s cunning. A general good will prevailed, even after Kresinski and Broomis hemmed an FBI man against a ponderosa to loudly slur the director of his agency. “We take care of our own, by God,” Kresinski boasted, flames mottling his face. “So forget your concentration camps.”

“But don’t forget Chicago,” Bullseye threw in with corrupted passion. “And don’t forget Madison, bub. Or Huey Newton. Or John Sinclair. Or Angela, or … ”

The agent remained unflustered throughout the harangue, a smiling patrician among crude outlanders who knew no better. Soon enough the two climbers realized this ox wasn’t going to be gored, and so disengaged to find the three ladies Kresinski had imported from a Carson City cathouse. Renting them had been as much for the shock value as anything else, and while the not-quite-lovely trio knew that everyone knew who and what they were, they pretended otherwise and had spent the evening so far flirting audaciously, being courted, and enjoying the vestal role of girlfriends at a sock hop. Kresinski had added to his legend and knew it; no one would ever forget the bearer of these dubious gifts—three hookers who would not hook, at least not this early in the evening. And come the next party, he would be telling in unsparing detail how he’d enjoyed each in ones, twos, and threes.

Just short of a dented aluminum keg muddy with dirt and foam, a pair of iron hands reached out from the shadows and intercepted John Dog. He jerked back, but the hands held him tight. It was Arthur, on his last sodden legs. “All the mountains,” the bald man breathed in despair, leaning close and gripping harder. “They all been climbed.”

John Dog understood what the Austrian really meant, that there was no longer any proportion worthy of this fire-lit machismo. But he disagreed. Now that all the highest mountains had been tramped on, now that the age of colonizing and brute domination had come to a close, the age of aesthetics could begin. Elegance could take over. Elegance, not sheer muscle; that would be the new ethic. Out of that would spring a million new mountains on routes and lines never before conceived, mountains that Arthur could never climb because he was too old and drunk and had just plain missed out.

“It’s O.K.,” he told the Austrian. But there was no possible way to explain to him how it was O.K. It just was. Part of his certainty that the spirit was alive and well came from his Indian ghosts. “A species of pauper,” a general had once promised to make of the American savage, and so the great warriors who weren’t killed had finished out their days growing watermelon like plantation slaves. And the enslavement had never stopped. John Dog’s father had been an oil-rig slave, and his brother had been a big, strapping buck of a Marine Corps slave. Injuns, John Dog thought with drunken precision. They’d been made into that species of pauper, and not all the reservation oil and minerals and ski resorts could revive the demonic soul that glittered in the eyes in century-old photos of Cochise and Naiche. The closest thing to that hungry, egotistical, earth- loving demon that John Dog had managed to find was right here, frolicking all around him in Camp 4. He pulled Arthur’s grip off his shoulders.

The fire was high and white, littered with broken glass, and surrounded by dancing forms. A group had joined arms and begun stomping in a tight circle, crooning a Bing Crosby song as if their salvation hinged upon it. A game of pine-cone soccer was lifting long, vigorous tunnels of dust toward the moon, and elsewhere the bacchanalia was proceeding with unabated fervor. It was here that the demon burned brightly. That was why John Dog had put in so many years here and that was why he was going to be so sad to leave.

There was Tink, for one. You could see the wild god in his eyes. And Bullseye Broomis. At times John Dog had spotted it in him, too, though only in spurts, by the season. Once the waterfalls froze and the ice shaped up, the Colorado boy seemed closer to wilderness than what passed for wilderness itself, certainly purer than this manmade amusement park called Yosemite. It wasn’t the things Broomis said so much as what he did, sticking body, soul, and testicles onto those towering ribbons of cold, brittle glass where no one, not even in a dream, would think to go. Ice was his domain, winter his soul. But for sheer, unbridled heat, no one could beat Kresinski. He burned with the spirit. Not quite side by side, not quite like brothers, and with no love lost between them, John Dog and the King had grown strong in the Valley together. They were the same age, and even though they acted like old fishwives every time they met—certain to haggle if there was a bargain to be struck, to squabble when a few simple words needed exchanging—even though he would as soon kiss the man as climb with him, John Dog admired Kresinski’s demon. Others were scared of it. Even Arthur—John Dog put an arm around the Austrian’s slumping shoulders—even this hard-driving, ugly plug was afraid of Kresinski.

“Ah, but the mountains,” Arthur repeated, swaying slightly.

“I know,” said John Dog. The older man was liquored to his nose, plainly losing out against the night. Barely two o’clock and he was in a fast fade. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d wake up in a pile of pine needles. Best that he not go pitching headfirst into the fire, thought John Dog as he steered his friend out toward the darkness.

“The walls,” intoned Arthur, screwing himself up for a good cry. “It’s just these fucking walls. They’re everything.” Typical, sloppy, drunk climber talk.

“I know,” said John Dog. “You want your tent?”

“No,” Arthur declared. “I’m going to find … ” He stopped in his tracks, and suddenly John Dog felt a catch in his throat. Arthur had nothing to find. It hit him, too. I have nothing to find here, he thought.

“Go look at the walls,” John Dog advised, snapping Arthur’s parka shut, readying him for sleep wherever he might drop.

“That’s right,” said Arthur. “The walls.”

They parted, Arthur charting a lonely, black course in search of those beloved cliffs and John Dog returning to the boisterous circle. Blinded by firelight, he stumbled several times over tree roots, then a guy line, then a fire grate. He muttered to himself, shielded his eyes with a hand, and stumbled over another tree root. It was tempting just to give up and go find his tent, but he was thirsty still and wanted to see the party through. There was more than sufficient energy pulsing around the fire to get him through until dawn. At last he reached the outskirts of the crowd and plowed inward to one of the kegs. The gathering was considerably leaner now; most of the strangers had gone. It was obvious that the feds would have departed, too, but for devotion to duty and love of country. It was getting down to tribe now. The plastic cup of beer was good and chill, making him glad he’d returned. He rocked on his heels, Jesuit-style, waiting to get his social bearings again.

“Hey, you,” he heard from the dark ring beyond. The guttural, feminine tone struck him slowly and distinctly. He peered into the surrounding shadows, looked twice, then lowered his gaze and found the owner hunched against a tree. “Liz?” he called above the noise, and approached.

“I need a beer,” she answered back.

Squatting to one side, he courteously proffered his own beer. She took it with a sullen nod. After a minute of gauging her mood he sat down beside her. They passed the cup back and forth.

“You doing all right?”

“Great,” she said. “Me and the fruitcups. Great.” He had no idea what she was talking about.

“Matthew’s three dollies. You haven’t seen them?”

“Ah. Yeah.” For a moment he wanted to be sober, then decided it would be better to be drunk.

“Well?” She was hurting, but damned if she’d beg for solace. He knew her just well enough to know that. If not for the alcohol, she wouldn’t be talking at all. He opened his mouth, then shut it.

“Come on,” she challenged. “Aren’t you going to be embarrassed for me? Cozy up and try to get into my pants?”

He chewed at his lip. No wonder she wasn’t smiling. Her boyfriend had announced his change of heart by showing up with three hookers, and tonight she’d probably heard their sex life trumpeted to all Camp 4. Normally, climbers would have taken the opportunity to console the Amazon, most of them with the best intentions. But pity was pity. Without really thinking, he reached down to take her hand and console her. Trying to keep his thoughts on track, he followed the gold stripe down the right leg of his warm-ups, then got derailed at the sight of her creased, worn cowboy boots. They pleased him.

“You going to try and fuck me, John Dog?” The question was barren of signals, one way or the other, and her hand was limp. He snuck a look at her face. The angles gleamed. She was beautiful, but then he’d thought that before. Her gaze was locked straight on the fire. Drunk, he knew. Heartbroken.

“No, ma’am,” he said and started. Ma’am? Where had that come from? There was silence, and he was glad she hadn’t been listening. Then her head twitched.

“Did you just call me ’ma’am’?” she asked. She pulled at his hand. He blushed and was further stupified by the fact that he’d blushed.

“You did, didn’t you?”

John Dog’s mouth fell open with no good excuse available. Now it was her turn to look at him. Not for long, but boldly for him, he stared back at her eyes. Salty streaks had tracked down both cheeks, and yet she was smiling now, flushed by the fire or the booze. He looked down, at last. She brought to mind the packaged condom in his wallet, two years old and untouched. The fact that he bothered to carry it at all perplexed him; was it a symbol of his optimism or one more landmark of his ugliness? Either way, what he termed his singular state was a source of speechlessness.

She squeezed his hand. “You’re O.K., John,” she said. “Timid as a mouse, just the way I thought. A nice change from … ” She searched, gestured toward the fire. At last she finished examining his face and sat back, her shoulder touching him. For a while they held hands and stared at the fire and the cavorting figures. There was enormous comfort in the palms of their hands. That’s in the nature of touch, he cautioned himself. Come morning or whenever the hangover finished with her, Liz would either have forgotten this intimacy or banished it. Sort of like the Valley itself, he thought. Eleven of the best years of my life here, but when I’m gone it will be like I was part of a dream. He liked that and wandered with it, the notion that humans might be the conjurings of the forest or river or mountains.

“I’m leaving,” she suddenly spoke. Later he would swear the firewater had him, because right then and there he’d have given a rib to have her complicating his existence. There’d been only one monumental woman in his life, a nurse he’d met in the Stockton Hospital emergency room. But she’d dumped him long since, unwilling to play widow to his matador in the mountains. Other females had streamed through, never staying for long. Something about the way Liz’s hand fit his, though, or was it the cleanness of her solitude, her ability to get beneath all this pandemonium— something about her was more than simply enticing. Maybe it’s just her cowboy boots, he allowed.

“You want … ” he offered. “I’ll walk you.” The rangers had their own complex of cabins behind the post office.

“Leaving the park, I mean.”

“No,” he reacted and startled himself. Who was he talking to? Himself or her? “It’ll blow over,” he appended. “A shithead like him,” he nodded at Kresinski, guessing. “He does it to everybody.”

“Oh, Matthew,” she sighed. “Screw him.” She lowered their hands to her thigh, resting them there. “No, I’ve thought it all through. There’re other parks. It’s a rut here. A 3,000-foot rut. I want more than that.” It had to be three o’clock, and suddenly John Dog wasn’t so sure he could last until sunrise. How much nicer just to hold this woman and sleep and dream about the mountains dreaming about him. “What about you?” she asked. “You must have plans.”

“Me?” The universe gaped at him. His plans? He’d never talked about his plans with anyone. Best to keep it finite and simple, he thought. “Well, Tink and me, we’ve got a new route planned on Half Dome. And something new up on … up higher. And, if we can ever get it together, maybe Cho Oyu or Pumori in Nepal next spring.” He trailed off. It was a fine-sounding strategy, but hollow. Just more playtime in the mountains.

“No reason you can’t get it together now,” she stated with desultory conviction. “Thanks to me, you got your expedition bought and paid for. Yours and everybody else’s.”

She wasn’t bitter, though she deserved to be. Everybody owed their fortunes to her indiscretion, and here she’d sat all night, armorless, stung by callow reminders that she was Kresinski’s sloppy seconds. He opened his hand to take her fingers deeper and wondered if the federal agents had any inkling of her complicity. For all she knew, John Dog realized, jail hung next on her agenda. And all because she’d loved a man and gotten drunk with his tribe. A fine lesson in trust; she’d ended up with the dogs and wind.

As much to open himself as to break the chain of ugly thoughts, he suddenly pronounced, “Dry land.”

“What?”

“You asked what I want. What my plans are. Dry land, that’s what I’m looking for. An end to the amphibious life. I’m tired of the gulf. Of living in the interstices.” He groped for the slippery sense of it. “I’ve become a master of finding the path of least resistance—in the cracks, between the Valley walls, halfway between the ground and the sky.” He broke off, mildly embarrassed. It was all so vague, and he’d never talked about these matters, never even recorded them in his Fingerpaintings. But lately he’d sensed that, despite all the physical honesty and power and asceticism Valley life had given him, he’d grown weaker here. “Sometimes,” he ventured, pushing himself to make an apple from the applesauce, “sometimes I think, damn, leave the Valley; go to school.”

“School?” she prodded. The way she said it made the idea feel tailor-fit.

“Grad school,” he fleshed it out. “History. I like history.”

“Where?”

“I’ve applied to Harvard.” That was a lie and came out sounding mousy and vulnerable. Well, why not vulnerable, he grumbled to himself. It was a pipe dream and precious. No need to lie, though. The Jesuits never had taught him to be brazen with a clear conscience.

“Boston,” she ruminated, almost as if it had been an invitation. “Cambridge. I’ve never been there.”

John Dog glanced up, but not over, letting his ears judge. She’s lonely, he heard, and looking for a companion. He felt a rapid longing and wanted to wind in closer with other thoughts. He’d never been to Cambridge either. Long ago Harvard had quit being an institution and a Ph.D.; it had turned into an empty plateau on which ideas galloped down arroyos and beneath high mesas, and you just rode and rode, forever wandering and wondering. He’d stopped in New York City countless times on his way to the Eiger and Russia and Asia and could easily have visited Boston. By never going there, however, he’d implicitly erased it from the map. It had become so much a mystical province now that sending off a postcard requesting application information would have been like sailing for Atlantis. He wanted to saunter through the fantasy.

One minute they were alone, eclipsed by gyrating shadows. The next moment, an unsteady, very solemn, and familiar apparition was standing in front of them. It was Tinkerbell, and John Dog started to disengage his hand. Liz held on. She slid their joined hands into the crevice between their legs.

“John,” Tink breathed with relief, “I’ve been looking for you.” He seemed excited, almost aggressive. “These guys,” he indicated Tavini and Bullseye, neither of them sober. “They won’t believe me about the … ”

“Tink,” snapped John Dog. But all too apparently, it had already been stated. Stated, argued, rebutted, and restated. The three went at it heatedly.

“Don’t be mocking Jesus Christ,” warned Tavini, barely able to stand on his feet. He was a born-again Bible thumper who garbled his scripture and had a zeal for blond hashish. John Dog normally enjoyed these martyred baitings, but the alarm bells were ringing in his head.

“Laughing Christ,” corrected Bullseye, overjoyed to have the Christian in his clutches. “It’s not mockery. It’s heresy, the oldest one in the book. And, sinner, I’ve got a memory for heresies.”

“Don’t … ” flared Tavini.

“You can’t burn us all at the stake,” Broomis lectured. He had three major passions that John Dog knew of: ice climbing, politics, and the destruction of God. College had given him birth. John Dog couldn’t help but smile and felt Liz squeeze his hand with mutual delight.

“Let me tell you about your loving shepherd,” Bullseye insisted, dressing his voice for the larger audience. “How He treats His flock. Well, once upon a time…” He was hammered, which made him quick and lively. “You remember Peter?” The fire was diminishing beyond the three figures; night was taking over, if only for the hour or so before sunrise. “Well, the Romans crucified Peter, but with a difference … they did him upside-down. And while he was dying, slowly and badly, guess who decides to put in an appearance?” A rhetorical pause. “His old buddy, the Son of God.” John Dog blinked, half remembering this story from his high-school days. Bullseye actually knew what he was talking about. “Now Peter’s dying for this guy; he’s upside-down, suffering, offering up his life. And here comes the Savior floating down from heaven. Maybe he’s got an angel or two blowing horns behind him. And poor Peter’s upside-down, watching. He knows his goose is cooked; even the Son of God can’t pull him out of this one. That’s O.K. though, because here’s his buddy all ready to welcome him up to heaven. But what does he see? His Savior opening His arms wide? Or weeping at all this pain? Nope. He sees Christ laughing. Laughing.”

Tavini was puffing his cheeks in and out, outraged or ready to pass out or be sick or all three. Bullseye hooked his thumbs in his front pockets, evidence presented, case rested. Clarence Darrow couldn’t have done it better.

“You want to dig on me, that’s fine,” Tavini burst out, bared for martyrdom. “Not Him, though.”

“Down, boy. I’m just telling you what’s written.”

“No, it’s not,” wailed Tavini. Liz reined in a giggle; John Dog heard the grunt.

“But what’s it got to do with drugs?” Tink said with stubborn awe. “And guns. Drugs and guns and Jesus Christ. What’s the deal?” He was as loud as he was mystified.

What it means, thought John Dog, is that there are smugglers in the world with an educated bent and a sense of the absurd. Laughing Christ, M16s, Uzi machine guns. And a planeload of top-quality weed. Heresy heaped on heresy. It’s none of our business, that’s what it means. Tink had promised not to expose the little address book. There was no telling who might be listening. Mafia, feds, smugglers. Luckily, no one was nearby now, but what about earlier?

Suddenly a bass yell issued from the forest, then sounds of pounding feet and breaking branches. John Dog froze, and Liz’s grip tightened hard on his hand. Busted, he registered as he leaped to his feet. The same thought hit everyone else around the fire. Figures bolted away into the darkness; one of the stereo speakers tumbled into the fire and sent up sparks. A few prone bodies resurrected themselves and stumbled away. Someone appeared from the forest, pointed backward, and kept running. “Go!” John Dog yelled to Liz, but she had already vanished. Tink and Bullseye and the martyr were gone. It was John Dog alone, then, who saw a cinnamon-colored bear and her chubby yearling come ambling out from the trees. The party was over.


 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

His white pants flecked with dried blood, sweatshirt tattered and stretched loose at every aperture, Tinkerbell balanced just beneath the summit. A thick, square roof of rock known as the Visor jutted overhead, seemingly a dead end. All the classic routes on the great face of Half Dome circumvented the Visor, passing to one side or the other. But Tinkerbell and John Dog had agreed to put an unusual finish to their unusual route.

Seven long days of strenuous ascent had taken them up the vast, fantastic landscape of Half Dome. The vertical surface was so forbidding and immense that until the pair actually traveled its full 2,000 feet, certain features of the wall had been completely unknown. Like sixteenth-century sailors they had struggled across places that could only have been found, prior to their effort, on wildly conjured maps.

On the first day all had gone normally. Difficult motions overcame gravity. The rock passed by smoothly. On the second day, with the morning shadows blue as plums, they had come upon a long tail of decayed granite. John Dog was too heavy to lead this rotten section, and even Tinkerbell’s 145 pounds had almost been too much for the loose, broken flake. John Dog inserted his hand into a fist-size hole on the third afternoon, only to be bitten by a startled foxbat. Without a second thought he did the most intelligent, cold-blooded thing possible: he dipped his hand back into the hole, grabbed the bat by one dry wing, and brained it against the wall. Then he dropped the feather-light carcass to Tinkerbell, who gingerly stuffed it into the top of their red haul bag. That night, several hundred feet higher, the two climbers had scrutinized the brown creature and tried to decide if it might have been rabid. Finally, unable to decide, John Dog tossed the body away. A butterfly that had lost its color, it sailed crookedly into the night.

On the fifth day the pair had crept vertically across a sudden border onto enamel-white stone. Since beginning they’d been dwelling on black-and-gray monzonite. Now, suddenly, the world became a region of pure whiteness, utter virginity, which gave them the feeling of climbing on Carrara marble. They discussed what it would be like to climb the dome of St. Peter’s, and that led to an anecdote about a wild Jewish-American climber who’d been shot by Israeli soldiers when he attempted a spontaneous ascent of the Wailing Wall. Tinkerbell had accepted the fiction. John Dog had accepted Tink’s acceptance.

On the sixth day, shortly after completing their breakfast of M&M’s, a stick of beef jerky each, and a pint of water between them, they had delicately ascended a harrowing 200-foot flake that was so loose in its scanty socket that an old bird’s nest was dislodged when John Dog pulled too hard doing a lieback. At the top he found a crystal of transparent quartz embedded flush with the wall.

Each night, on ledges or in hammocks, John Dog had copied down in his notebook the landmarks of their passage up the middle of the northwest face of Half Dome. The route was an invention every bit as ingenious and laborious as the creation of poems Tinkerbell talked about writing. On the seventh day John Dog ran out of ink.

Now he stood on a narrow, sandy ledge 80 feet below his partner, calmly feeding out rope as it was needed. Beside him sat the haul bag, leaner and much lighter for all their days on the rock. As an act of faith, they had eaten their last oily chunk of salami and crumbled cheese and drunk the last of their water that morning. They’d squandered their last bit of sustenance believing they would be on top before another night fell. As a result, John Dog’s lips were white with thirst. The week of short rations had dehydrated them beyond discomfort, and they were racked with pain. Unless he and Tink intercepted a hiker on the summit or on the crude cable-and-wood staircase that led down the back, it would be hours before they drank, maybe even another night. Water was not so foremost in John Dog’s mind, however, that he couldn’t appreciate Tinkerbell’s confrontation with the Visor. The boy was a sorcerer.

Tinkerbell dipped his hand into the dusty nylon bag of gymnastic chalk that dangled from his harness. Hanging by his other arm, he extracted the hand smoking with white powder. When he opened and closed his fingers, chalk dust fluttered down toward the ground 2,000 feet below, disturbed here and there by soft eddies of breeze. John Dog breathed in the height. The trees were too small to pick out individually. People, if any were down there, were invisible. Mirror Lake was no bigger than a penny. More chalk dust drifted by; Tinkerbell had exchanged hands.

A thin, straight crack extended out under the Visor’s ceiling, then turned perpendicularly up, following the 20-foot, squared-off front to where, out of John Dog’s view, the summit lay. Tinkerbell prodded the crack with his dry fingers, ferreting out a brief edge that might combine with an opposing knuckle to form a finger lock. Padding higher with his feet, he felt farther out beneath the roof. John Dog watched his calculations. He tried to guess where Tink would invent his next toehold. The boy committed himself, at last, to the ceiling. He moved his feet up and pushed his fingers into the crack by his eyes. He was dead parallel to the ground, nearly half a mile below, glued to the flat roof. John Dog fed him a foot of rope.

Tinkerbell’s sorcery continued. With taut confidence he explored the fissure, measured its possibilities, and squeezed the worn toe of his shoe into the crack. He was a pulsing, respirating fiber of muscle intent on the next moves. Not a motion, not even a glance was wasted. He reached the edge of the ceiling and locked his fingers into the new vertical crack that led up the front of the Visor. A few more moves, John Dog saw, and the boy would be on top. Then it would be his turn to try to copy Tinkerbell’s movements out under the ceiling. He sensed the impossibility of that, licked his lips, tried not to think of water. He had to at least attempt the crack. If he failed, he could jumar out. Tinkerbell eased out from beneath the ceiling and pulled himself higher toward the summit lip. When he was in a more natural position again, he paused and leered down at John Dog.

“I’m amped,” he chortled. Joy lit his green eyes. “That’s the most … decent thing … in my whole life.” It wasn’t bragging. It was a very private admission.

“We’ll celebrate,” John Dog called up. “A beer. You’ll drink a beer to this?” He wiped a hand across the rock. He had been saving something for the top, a reward for both of them. Once up, he was going to tell Tink about a secret climb he knew about in the high country.

“Yeah,” shouted Tinkerbell, utterly liberated. He arched back. “Yeah.” A slight wind lifted his exuberance across the wall.

“And some ice cream?”

“Swenson’s.”

“And more beer?”

“And more beer. Kathmandu, here I come!” Tinkerbell grinned like a lunatic chimp.

The wind slapped at the wall again, then was gone. John Dog stiffened, then relaxed. “Go plant the flag,” he shouted playfully. “Then let’s find some water.”

“Yeah.” The boy was already drunk with himself. He flowed up the remainder of the crack as fast as John Dog could pay out rope. At the top he threw a hand over the edge, kicked slightly with one toe, and disappeared onto the summit. John Dog felt the lead rope and the trail rope vibrate as Tinkerbell untied himself for the first time in a week and anchored the lines. The Apache busied himself with the haul bag, readying it for Tink to pull up. It was over. It was done.

But suddenly, horribly, Tinkerbell reappeared.

Somehow he’d slipped. He’d slipped headfirst, slightly to the left of the crack he’d just ascended. His black hair flashed downward, then shivered. Violently, superhumanly, Tinkerbell managed to twist himself around so that he was clinging to the very lip of the Visor. With a wordless chill John Dog saw that the boy had indeed untied from the ropes. The homemade harness still looped his thighs and girdled his waist, but nothing was attached to it. The ropes lay against the rock to Tinkerbell’s right, alongside the crack.

John Dog started to shout to the boy to work over to the ropes but saw, to his surprise, that Tinkerbell was talking to someone. He couldn’t hear the words, though it seemed logical Tink was trying to coax some terrified tourist to his aid. The stranger would help; John Dog knew it. In a moment the terror would be over; Tink would be up.

And then he realized that Tinkerbell was arguing, not coaxing, as he clung to the edge. The motions of his head were angry ones, and at one point John Dog detected shrill cursing, Tink’s. His horror mounted with his confusion. Tink never swore. His eyes involuntarily stabbed downward into the yawning pit of Yosemite Valley. A wild, penetrating vertigo punched him hard. He looked away, looked up, looked at the rock, but he was torn with visual echoes of the pit. His legs were buckling as he grabbed for the belay anchor.

He couldn’t breathe. He choked. His knees smashed against the granite. Get the rope. It was nothing more than a coarse hope. “The rope!” he finally shouted. But Tinkerbell couldn’t hear him. He was cursing, arguing as if with God Himself.

Something must have been communicated—or else Tinkerbell was sharing the same thought—for he suddenly scurried to the right, his hands fast and dextrous. Just as he reached the crack the haul rope began trembling like a reptile, then jerking as if it were being uprooted. Tinkerbell howled a fierce, incoherent curse. With his last syllable the rope slithered through the blank air, disembodied. It tugged at John Dog’s waist, then went still. One more rope remained, but that too came alive, threaded free, and went dead at John Dog’s anchor.

Now Tinkerbell’s only hope was to lift himself over the edge and to safety, which, in John Dog’s mind, should have been his partner’s first action. It was an easy mantle; he’d seen Tink do it just two minutes earlier.

Instead, Tinkerbell started to climb, not up, but back down the crack, back down the front of the Visor. To John Dog it was complete madness. The wind rushed at the wall again, frightening the Apache with its hard, scaly tide. It moved on.

“Go up!” he yelled. But Tinkerbell continued down, inserting his feet into the crack and plunging his fingers in. His motions were ultimately sane and controlled; it was his direction that so dumfounded John Dog. “Up!” he yelled again. Half-healed scabs on John Dog’s hands burst as he clenched at the belay anchor. A thin rivulet of blood ran across the tape on his right hand. He felt nauseated. His head was swinging narcotically, but his vision was crystal clear.

Tinkerbell was frenzied yet calm. There was a mute objectivity to his selection of holds. He descended to the corner of the Visor’s ceiling and tried, insanely, to locate a foothold underneath. It was impossible. He didn’t pause for a moment as he desperately reversed course and moved up again.

“My arms … ” John Dog heard him groan. It was a soliloquy, a measurement of pain. There was fire in his arms, lactic acid. He lodged one hand deep in the crack and shook the opposite hand below his waist to force blood through the swollen muscle tissue.

His legs were shuddering with fear and accumulated strain.

He attacked the crack again, then slowed near the top and threw a look between his arms at the lower portions of the crack and at John Dog and John Dog’s ledge 90 feet below. He seemed almost to be considering a leap for the ledge, but that was geometrically impossible. He was simply too far removed from the main wall of Half Dome to have touched, much less landed upon, the thin ledge of sand. Go up, prayed John Dog.

Finally, in surrender, Tink did go up. He peeked hesitantly over the edge of the Visor, then ducked down in a tight ball as if a terrible monster was waiting. His whole being was quivering. At last he turned his attention to John Dog.

“This motherfucker!” he shouted. The wind swamped his curse, making it feeble and useless. He’s scared, moaned John Dog. He’s scared. Please, he whispered. Please.

It was Tinkerbell’s last rite, that pathetic, banal curse. He extended himself high in resignation, threw a hand well over the top of the Visor’s summit corner, and rose almost to a complete exit. He started to disappear from John Dog’s field of view. Then, suddenly, definitely, Tinkerbell exploded backward from the Visor.

Someone had kicked him. There was no other explanation.

In animated torpor Tink grabbed for the crack—now five feet away from him—before starting his inevitable plummet to earth. His clothing rattled audibly, whipped in the descent. His hair waved upward. As he passed John Dog’s ledge, Tinkerbell stared at the last human being on earth, reached for that fraternity with open hands. And was gone.

 


This article appeared in Ascent 2017


 

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