It is a molar-rattler of a wind that bursts through the tent canvas. It is a wind that makes a person’s eyes run and their cheeks burn, a wind that pulls and shrieks and buffets and tugs and moans. Nevertheless, even the relentless howling commands only the tiniest flicker of attention from my senses. What I hear cannot compete with what I see.
We hear the words ‘breath-taking’ a lot in our cosseted western lives. Doesn’t she look breath-taking in that dress. What a breath-taking sporting achievement that is. These things rarely truly take our breath though, do they? The phrase has become banal; it has been sucked into the vernacular.
They are words reborn for me in this place.
Time is short, but I can spare a few seconds to look. To just look. In the darkness, I can make out a boulder-strewn foreground shot through with patches of snow. Tents are snuggled into the moraine. A few have soft lights shining from within, sombre and contemplative of what lies above them. Overhead, the jet stream reaches capriciously out over the Karakora, nudging clouds to smother the stars spattered over the sky. This tableau is interrupted only by the first smudge of dawn on the horizon and, of course, the mountain.
Even silhouetted I can still make out the landmarks, black against navy. There is the Abruzzi Spur, curved like a spine over the east of the mountain. The Magic Line, threading its way over the snowfields and between the lonely granite outposts that make up the northern face. The Shoulder just above camp three, a brief respite from the relentless incline, and of course the Bottleneck. Sheer, cramped, and overhung by the huge and ponderous serac, many a climber has heard their demise thundering towards them on that most dangerous passage of all.
It is easy to get lost in the romanticism and the drama of the mountain, and just as dangerous to allow oneself to do so. Sunlight is safety on the upper slopes, and even this early in the morning time is slipping away. A climber should be aiming to summit no later than 4pm for a safe descent. Already the sun is threatening to spill over the horizon. From the tents around me I can hear grunts as climbers pull on their boots and adjust their oxygen cylinders for the hundredth time. There is the occasional flash of a headlamp as it swings upwards towards the summit and to glory.
My own preparations for the day are no less fraught with nerves. I rub my hands together furiously as I step out of the tent. Easel, canvas, and paints are set up. No stool, though. It is too cold to sit. Like the climbers, I too have waited weeks for my weather window; now I must strike whilst the sky is propitious. Dawn’s light should spill out over the Abruzzi Spur, reaching across the still-cold stone before flooding base camp in peaches and pinks. Picture perfect.
A couple of sniggers reach me as the first of the climbers set out for the day. Don’t let your fingers get too cold, they joke as they walk past, crampons crunching on gravel. Make sure you are roped to that easel.
I pay no attention as they clank off into the darkness, thinking themselves vanquishers of the world whilst I dally with my paints. Mine is the greater task; they must only conquer the mountain. I must capture it.
*Thanks for reading, folks. Images courtesy of Wikipedia*
Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, and Shooter magazine. He is an absentee member of the Glasgow Writers Group, a PhD student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.
Not necessarily in that order