He felt as if his lungs were going to crystallize, the ragged, frozen air scraping over the long-dried membranes like trying to breathe an aerosol brillo pad. He swung back, waving a moment before burying the pick into the sheer ice wall with a muffled oath of anger and victory. In the end, the climber knew it was his own fault. Refusing to take the easy, known route, wanting to explore the more remote parts of the range…which was all well and good until he'd run in to the sheer, glossy-smooth edge of a glacier.
He cursed, setting another pin and stretching up for another foothold in the sheer ice. The snow had closed in shortly after he'd started the climb, and now he was in a bubble of fog and pouring snow. He'd guessed the cliff face had been about two, maybe three hundred feet tall from the ground, but it felt like that distance had passed hours ago. Glaring up through frost-rimed goggles, he kept climbing, pushing up, and up…always higher, always more cliff face to go.
He'd tried to circle around, but found more of the same, a set of icy cliffs set in staggered sequence, with snow-choked valleys between, long since rendered impassable. Beyond them was a massive valley, with a set of peaks and rises the climber had never seen before, or even heard mentioned. He grinned, teeth gritted behind the ice-stiffed scarf, at how the others would be spitting blood, knowing that he'd been the first, for once. First to find, first to climb…hell, it was rather remote, maybe he could even get a peak named after him.
Lost in imagined vengeance, he swung his pick through open air and nearly lost his footing, having abruptly reached the top of the cliff. He stared out across a wide, perfectly flat plane, watching in a mute daze as his brain tried to process the sight, before releasing a ragged woop and scrambling up over the edge to stand on the cliff top. As if finally capitulating to his dogged ambition, the storm started to clear, and he was able to peer down the dizzying, sheer wall of the cliff he'd scaled. From here, it did look more like four hundred feet at least, as sheer and empty as a painted-over mirror. He spun back, hollering out his victory to the open air. The cries died slowly on his lips as the clouds lifted more, and his current position became more clear.
He stood at the top of a massive pillar, at least four hundred feet in height, ending in a sloping plateau less then fifty feet in width. The wind had long since torn the snow from this high peak, and left it a bare, ribbed mass of ice. He peered around more, confused, wondering what strange twist of nature to raise such a peak on the edge of a glacier. More puzzling, it didn't appear to be a one-time fluke. Three other, nearly identical shards of ice jutted up in a neat row, the sloped tops quickly dropping into another sheer, if not so glossy-smooth, set of cliff faces. The climber's eye followed the cliffs…the snowy roll of hills…the oddly humped-up masses of peaks and valleys in the base of this massive geologic dish. He stared, then looked again, following the lines…then suddenly shouted, instantly cramming his hands over his mouth, before starting a nearly suicidal decent down the cliff, ending in a forced march back to town that cost four toes, a finger, and partial use of one of his lungs.
He never climbed again, retiring from the sport without a word. He became a phantom, a cautionary tale of a man broken by the mountain. He spoke to few, and even fewer about what happened on that last climb. Only one man ever got more than monosyllables or a frozen stare from the broken climber. He was young, and fascinated by the tales of the old mountaineers, of the Sherpa's frightened whispers of gods dwelling in the high peaks. He plied the old, broken climber with drink, until finally he related the story of the frozen cliff. His eyes grew wide, speaking of the odd, massive caves he'd seen…the sudden, roaring crash as a massive rift opened on an isolated hill, growing wider and wider, swallowing a small mountain of snow. He gripped the young man, hissing his revulsion as he'd been forced to flee, forced to climb back down that vile cliff once more, never to return.
“Not a drop of ice, not a bit of it. Too soft, by half. Too yielding to the pick, boy…”
“It was a fingernail.”