Tears that Freeze – Nicole Fougère
Tears that Freeze
I AM CROUCHING BY A RIDGE. Knees curled up. Back to stone. I don’t want to go over the ridge because the wind frightens me. It folds me like paper. It’s dark. So dark: I can’t see what’s beyond the ridge. Only a small pile of stones that lets me know I am still somewhere on the path. Somewhere. Way down I can see the orange scar of a town. It’s really far down. I am as high as an airplane.
IT’S 5:30AM. I started walking over three hours ago. I think Jeff and Farzim started out about an hour or so after me. I have more than ten hours of trekking to go to make the summit and get back down to camp. I know I have to keep going, but I can’t, I can’t bring myself to go farther. Not just yet.
Jeff’s headlamp bobs into view. “You made it!” he says.
“Oh I have? That’s encouraging.” This is the crossroads, he explains, the choice point where the path splits. I can turn right for the short mountain or I can keep going left for the tall mountain. I choose the tall mountain of course, even though I’m scared. Jeff doesn’t need to ask.
But the tall mountain is not the one I’d originally wanted to climb. I’d coveted an even taller one. “Too tall, too expensive, too dangerous, too cold,” said the man in the park office. Jeff and Farzim had wanted to climb that other mountain too. We three are refugees of that dream, scrounging around to prove ourselves on this new terrain. The park office man sent us here, to El Plata, The Silver, a summit of 6000 metres. Not the tallest, but still very tall. Hardly anyone has heard of El Plata. There are just the three of us up here. If something happens, there’s no base camp doctors, no satellite phones, no helicopter rescue. We are on our own.
“My fingers…” I hold up my hands. They are covered in my extra pair of woolen socks. I wore those socks for several days of hiking. They are stained with the dust of the path. I wear them anyway cause I have lost feeling in the end of my fingers. I ball my hands into hard fists because the pain is more reassuring than the numbness. I don’t explain how the expensive gloves I bought last week were not enough. Really not enough.
“Here take mine,” Jeff says and gives me the gloves off his hands. ¨I have mittens too.” I put his gloves right over the socks. I do not push my fingers through, but keep my hands awkwardly curled inside.
“My water froze.” In fact the water in the straw from my water pouch froze almost immediately after leaving the tent this morning. And I’ve climbed a chunk of altitude since then. It’s even colder up here. How cold is it I wonder?
“That happens,” Jeff says and pulls out his water bottle, smartly wrapped in insulation. He passes it to me and I drink what I can, but the cold water slices down my insides and makes me shiver.
“Drink more,” he insists and I do as I am bid.
I stand and together we cross the top of the ridge. The wind strikes me with a shocking violence. I stumble backwards.
“There’s no clear path here so I’m just going to head towards the top of the glacier. Follow my light, ok?”
“Ok,” I say, but I can’t see the glacier. And suddenly he’s gone. Not a man but a speck of light in the distance. I do my best to follow.
Walking, walking, walking…
FARZIM’S LIGHT COMES INTO VIEW from over the ridge behind me. He catches up quickly.
“I need your help.” I must put on an extra layer of clothing but there are things my hands can’t do right now like open the plastic snaps on my pack or pull zippers. “My water froze,” I repeat. I don’t know why but this still astonishes and annoys me.
“Mine froze too,” he says.
Farzim is careful and patient. Off with my raincoat. Off with my down jacket. On with my hoodie. On again the down jacket and raincoat. I am shaking badly by the end of this operation but grateful for the extra layer and the help.
“You know there is no shame in going down if you are cold,” Farzim says. “It’s not worth losing a finger.”
I hadn’t yet considered that it could be possible to lose a finger.
And then he pushes ahead too. For a while I have the comfort of both little lights, kind eyes looking back at me. But one by one they go over the next hill. Blink, blink and gone. Now it’s just me and the glacier.
I’M CLOSE ENOUGH TO SEE IT, iridescent purple in the starlight. A huge unruly beast. Still, but alive. The glacier looks soft against the sharp shale under my feet. I walk towards it. With each step I tug in cold air. Empty air. At more than 5000 meters there is half the oxygen than at sea level. That stale wind blows in the space between my hood and neck. It prods me and examines my corners. It yanks at my feet as I walk like the current of a river. I hate it. I hate that wind. My lungs are starved, my mind shriveled. Is that glacier getting bigger? I’ll never get around it. I’m so tired. I should rest. If only I could rest, just for a little, in that glacier say, then maybe I would sleep until the sun comes and the wind goes away. Yes sleep. Sleep is what is needed. I want to sleep, now. Sleep now. That glacier looks cozy. I could sleep there. Please let me sleep.
And I remember suddenly my Grade Eleven English Course where we studied old Canadian short stories. We nicknamed the class, “Snow, Death and the Promised Land.” Characters were often falling asleep in snow banks. It wasn’t good. It didn’t help.
I force my feet forward.
Walking, walking, walking…
BEYOND THE GLACIER THE PATH IS CLEAR, a licorice strip against the dark chocolate mountain. Why can I see the path now when I couldn’t before? I spin and look to the east behind me. The first cherry stain is seeping into the fabric of the sky. Dawn! The night will end and it will be ok! I will be ok. I turn back and for the first time I see where I am. Mountains and mountains and mountains. So many. Waves of rock with a froth of snow. A small laugh floats from my throat. I’m already higher than most of them. Except one. I see her then for the first time. Aconcagua, the beautiful mountain that called me here. A head taller than even the mountain I’m on now. Aconcagua, the one I wanted to climb. She is graceful and proud dressed in morning pinks.
Then something hits me hard. Harder than that wind that makes me hunch. Harder than the pain in my hands. A year ago I put a photo of Aconcagua on my computer desktop. I see now that this photo was taken exactly from here in dawn light. I was called here to this view, not to that other mountain. I was always meant to be here.
I weep. But just a little, because I am afraid the tears will freeze to my face.
The first sunray is caramelizing the crest of the hill ahead. I must get there. I will be warmer there. I must walk to the light. To the light.
Walking, walking, walking…
Nicole Fougère is a mountain-climbing, truth-dancing, language-lover who believes creativity can transform lives.