July 16th 1989
“The moment is as fleeting and brilliant as that of a falling star ripping through a midnight sky. For a splintered second the beleaguered mountaineer has conquered nature. His raised fist is a lightning rod. A surge of adrenaline travels through the fleshy conduit and explodes in a guttural wail. His battle cry roars down from the peak, gaining momentum as it travels. The earth shudders on its axis and even the busiest inhabitant pauses and nods in his direction. Real or imagined makes no difference; for one luxurious moment he stands exalted, his boot weighing heavy on the throat of every obstacle that failed to turn him back.”
It sounded like something Jack London would have written, and I told him so at the time. While the ink was still wet on the page Thomas Penny read what he had written. He shared all of his journal entries with me during our journey up the mountain, but I suppose this one spoke to me more than most.
Thomas laughed when he heard his words aloud. “Doesn’t sound much like a factory worker with an eighth grade education, does it?”
I considered my reply—thinking harder than I had ever thought about words before.
“I suspect there is something profound about touching the sky—that it will change a man forever.”
I knew Thomas Penny was different the moment I met him. He passed through the swinging stainless doors to the plant like all the others, but he had a swagger to his step, like he already knew he was going bigger places someday. I liked him plenty when he flipped off the boss behind his back. On the walk over to my machine Clarence grabbed the collar of the young man’s shirt and dragged him onto the safe side of the yellow line. The equipment wasn’t even powered up and Thomas’ boot fell only inches over the line.
Thomas told me later that he was pissed that Clarence stretched the collar of his AC/DC tee. We both laughed as the shirt had undeniably seen better days. I suspected it had more to do with Thomas’ opposition to being treated like a three-year old being yanked away from a cookie jar. Nobody liked Clarence, mostly because of nepotism. He was one of the big-wig’s sons, never worked a day on the floor, and fell comfortably into a management position. We were all just factory workers, but you have to know that sort of thing is bound to cause some bent crank-shafts.
By first break—that’s when you can tell whether you landed a keeper or not. You were supposed to give the boss the high-sign if they’re weren’t trainable and he would pay them for a couple hours, hand them a ball cap with the company logo stamped on the front, and tell them to have a nice life. I felt rotten when that happened, but it didn’t bother Clarence. Only once did he override my recommendation and it didn’t sit well with me at all. I called him into the break room and he stuttered and stammered mostly. His only defense was a tired reminder that he wore the white hard-hat and mine was yellow. For a minute I thought we would come to blows over the disagreement, but I was smart enough to know when to cut my losses. I tugged at his bow-tie and suggested that the polka dots on one side outnumbered the other and the torque of the imbalance might be what was cutting off oxygen to his over-sized melon. The remark cost me a write-up, but some things are simply worth the price of admission. Clarence hated people touching him or his clothes—had some kind of germ phobia he claimed. That might have been at the top of his list, but in my opinion Clarence had a lot more problems than that.
Thomas didn’t talk too much or too little; seemed capable of doing the work but not overly qualified or too highly motivated. That was important, because no one wanted to be the fool that trained his replacement. Over time I learned that you didn’t have to worry about Thomas trying to outthink or one-up you. I liked a man that would face up and punch you square in the left eye before he’d slip around the back and stick a shank in your kidney.
We both worked the graveyard shift; Thomas because he was a newbie, and me because I had a general dislike of people. I’d been there five years and managed to stay mostly to myself. I communicated when the job called for it, but never socialized outside of work. But Thomas played electric guitar and I banged on the drums a little, so from time to time we got together in my garage. There were no illusions of grandeur. We wouldn’t put the symphony orchestra out of business, but after a twelve-pack of Natty we did do justice to some Metallica and Queensryche.
Thomas was wound tighter on the inside—more of a risk taker and an adrenaline junkie. I suppose he was naturally smarter than me too because he already knew that about himself. Thomas said he wanted to go out with a busted rib-cage, a gash across his forehead, and a few teeth missin’ instead of laying down quietly somewhere and rotting from the inside out. I guess watching the machines all those years kind of lulled my insides to sleep and Thomas Penny was the nitrous that turned this daily-driver Cavalier into a tubbed-out, Nova SS that lived to eat up pavement in quarter mile chunks.
Nobody at the factory took us seriously, said we were just two thirty-some-odds looking to re-write a chapter of decades past. It was more a recognition that life is slippery and those that sleep will wake one day staring at the tail end of days slipped past. You have to be intentional about occasionally grabbing the tail, pulling it back, and sinking your teeth into the meat of it.
Not that I was looking for one, but Thomas was as close to a best friend as I ever had, and it was easier to step out of a corner knowing someone had your back. Within a year I trusted him completely—enough to follow him up the face of a mountain.
I don’t know exactly where the words came from; they just seemed to fit right in my mouth. The first time a man touches the sky really does change him forever. A successful climb lit a fire in both of our bellies. Over the course of a few years we completed two more challenges, upping the ante with respect to difficulty and duration.
I suppose if you’re gifted with numbers, odds can be assigned to anything. It doesn’t take a statistician to realize the numbers for a mountaineer come out in favor of the mountain, but that’s part of the reason the agony is bearable and the victories are so sweet.
In my mind’s eye I was prepared to battle against fatigue and the elements, anticipated the full frontal assault of oxygen deprivation, and was determined nothing would prevent me from placing one foot in front of the other until I reached the apex. Although it had taken fifty percent more in the tank than we had to give, if someone had been there to witness it, they would have told about two heads bobbing among the clouds.
Five days into our descent was when the wheels fell off. We should have reached a low enough elevation that the heaviest snow was behind us, but a freak squall caught us off guard. We hunkered down early and took turns throughout the night knocking the snow from the tent to prevent collapse. Despite using the rock face to our advantage the winds continued to swirl and howl like a seasoned wolf, lapping against the tent as though he could already taste our frigid flesh through the fabric. To make matters worse Thomas had aggravated an old knee injury and after days of being pinned down the joint was stiffening and swelling significantly. Once the storm passed I had my doubts about whether the knee would hold out until we reached base camp.
It is truly amazing how quickly a fatigued mind begins to unravel. Last night I woke to an awful sound I could never fully identify, but I am terribly afraid that I heard Thomas Penny’s spirit snapping in two. By morning my suspicion was all but confirmed by a notable change in his demeanor. He grumbled and moaned more often about his knee and the ugly predicament we were in. I didn’t have the heart to mention that our food supply was running low and that we had only two bottles of propane left for the heater. I was trying to conserve fuel and ration food without setting off alarms in his head, but this existence could barely be considered living. I was doing my damndest to keep the preverbal wolves at bay, but he’d already let them in.
He cursed me for even trying to open the journal, but he needed to hear the inspirational words he’d written on that first trip—we both did. I tried for more than an hour, but my fingers were frozen nubs and over and over again refused to obey commands. You never imagine that bit by bit, piece by piece your body will betray you.
I tossed the journal aside and fell apart for a moment. I welcomed the fleeting warmth of a single tear as it left the corner of my eye. It sickened me to look at Thomas—he had lain down quietly and was rotting from the inside out.
Thomas was already asleep so it made it easier to eat his last portion of food. I placed the final bottle of propane, drew in a deep steady breath, and made preparations for our escape from this nightmarish and brutal land.
A group of young men struggled, plodding forward up the incline.
“Looks like the remnants of an old tent ahead.”
“And look in the overhang directly above it—lodged up there between the two rocks. There’s a corner sticking out—looks like a beat up journal. Grab it and let’s check it out. We’re due for a five minute break anyhow.”
The five climbers gathered in a circle to inspect the discovery.
“This is kinda creepy, reading someone’s journal.”
The one next to him punched his arm. “They obviously left it where someone could find it.”
“Looks like a pretty detailed account of two climbing buddies that started in 1989.”
“What are you waiting on—read the last entry, will ya?”
“OK…OK, hang on a second, let me find it.”
May 15 1994
Things did not go as planned, but a mountain makes no guarantees, implied or otherwise, and she will swallow you whole if you let her. The blizzard has not let up, we are out of food and propane, but we will not leave on her terms. Please take a moment and read the entry from July 16, 1989 and marvel at my friend’s profound words.
In a few minutes I will load my friend, Thomas Penny, onto my back because I have watched him fall lower than any friend should ever witness. I will make my way to the nearest outcropping and in a final burst of energy will leap over the edge, and we will both reach out our arms and touch the sky one last time. Touching the sky will change a man forever.”
“Woah…that’s intense. From this point forward, touching the sky is our theme, fellas. Into the belly of the beast we go!”