THE MOUNTAIN DISASTER
SEPTEMBER 30, 2012
So anyway the weather looks to be heading for that last season burst of warm temps and sunny skies that is meant to console people from SoCal around here.
Mrs. Almeida harvested the last bumper crop of pole beans off the trellis, and Wally next door has been fussing about the green budding promises of late squash.
All the squirrels have been going at it like mad under the shadows of newly mustered squadrons of Canadian Geese.
Every year those big fellows come wheeling through here to drop off a few garrisons to hold the fortress and bother the greenskeepers of the Mif Albright golf course with their barrages of goosepoop.
It has been like that in California down through the ages as one army after another stomped on through here with every intention of victorious returns to the homeland, but always leaving behind a few stragglers to deal with Nature's bounty of earthquakes, raging wildfires, multi-year droughts, ill-tempered neighbors, xenophobia, annoying tourists, onerous taxes, preposterous money-making schemes that wreck the countryside, and the grandiose scenery which was the main reason for staying in the first place.
In the Old Same Place Bar those sons and daughters descended from those same stragglers and illegal immigrants who entered the Mexican department of Alta California without visas or passports long ago sat discussing the usual subjects of scandal, news and politics.
Papoon, of the liberal party, has revived his campaign slogan of "Not Insane" to rally his supporters against the reviled Grossly Orotund Party represented by the conservative Babar, who, as a potentate of a formerly French colony, holds the primary qualifications desired: aristocratic presumptions, a disdain for the hoi polloi, and money. In addition, the very image of his corpus exemplifies the traditional symbol of his party.
Naturally, as in every Presidential election, there are minor lights contending as representatives of this or that faction, each claiming to be the real voice of the People, and if not the vox poplum, then of The Way Things Ought to Be.
Eugenia Stench of the Pee Tardy Party pushes a gargantuan standing Army, no taxes on anyone earning more than $80,000 per year, and a return to Augustan discipline featuring public flogging in the schools and in the workplace, oil drills in everyone's backyard, the re-institution of HUAC in Congress, and the elimination of all entitlements, such as Military death benefits, the National Weather Service and all public toilets.
As the evening advanced toward that inevitable Last Call, the talk turned from politics to social issues and the notable absence of certain regulars there.
And what happened at the disastrous Island-Life.net Mountain Sabbatical.
The Editor puffed his cigar, quite against the new civic law against smoking indoors, outdoors, or under a gazebo. His good left hand behind his back, his right arm in a sling, he contemplated the desolate normally neat newsroom, which now featured opened tubes of anticeptic cremes, boxes of gauze, rolls of paper tape and steri-strips, sagging reusable cold packs, pill bottles with names like dilaudid, hydrocodone, hydromorphone 7, percoset, cyclobenzaprine and the ever favorite ibuprofen 600.
With irritation he threw a bundle of gauze soiled with nasty colors of yellow, green and rust into a bin and turned to stare out the window, remembering again that day and its aftermath.
They were all strung out on the line, each connected by way of carabiner, the entire staff traversing the treacherous glacial cirque of the formidible Abuelta de Diablo. The wind was sharp with gusts bitterly loaded with fine-grained crystal needles of ice that stung any exposed skin. Each step a laborious effort through snowpack in air above 12,800 feet. Above them the needle-sharp pinnacles of the ridge. Below them, the steep slope of the cirque which dropped off in a sheer drop at the bergschrund crevice, followed by the 500 foot cliff to the granite-tumbled moraine and an aqua-tinted tarn below.
The Editor led with his cigar glowing through the rime-encrusted halo of his parka, his ice-ax steadily chopping ahead, his breath coming out in miniature cumulus clouds.
Behind him Jose, Javier, Denby, Chad, Tammy, and all the rest of the Staff strung out into the swirling clouds of snow lifted by the wind. At the tail end, Mr. Howitzer II stumped along steadily as the pure Conservative he was, with his blackthorn cane.
The Editor had very nearly reached the talus chute that marked the far side when he heard a shrill cry.
He looked back down the line to see Denby fall over sideways and go scudding down towards the precipice.
Each tethered to the line cried out, each according this or her respective character as one by one each was yanked from solid footing. "Heyyy!" said Tammy. "Eff!" said Sharon. "Ah mi dios!" cried Jose as he abruptly arced through space to face plant into the glacier. "O shit," went Chad before the line jerked his feet from under him.
Each called out as the line went taut to either end, pulling all of them towards the brink of death and yanking the Editor clear of his feet, his round body going airborne like a volleyball that splashed a spray of snow powder before sliding downward.
"Ah madre de dios!" called out Javier as he went next, flailing without use at the slick glacier ice.
Mr. Howitzer, last in line, called out "There go your entitlements!" before neatly cutting the line with his bowie knife. "Ha ha! The strongest survive always!" He took a step, intending to use the path of the steps taken by the others, but a Sooty Ptarmigan tumbling in the wind by his head so distracted him he flailed at the clumsy bird with his staff. Which caused him to slip loose and go glissading on his back past all the others, soon reaching terminal velocity of 70 mph before sailing out over the edge into the grey nothingness of the bergschrund below.
"Excelsiorrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr . . . !"
As they all slid to the same fate, the Editor turned onto his belly and drove down the point of his ice ax, which held, the leather cord rapped around his wrist, but neatly dislocating his rotator cuff at the same time with a searing wrench. And so there he hung in terrible agony by the thin stretch of leather strap.
It was Sharon who saved them all, driving down her ice ax to anchor the arrest with the rope wrapped around her waist. There they all hung until first Tammy, then Jose, followed by Javier, plunged their ice axes into the glacier to hold the line fast. There they all panted for a moment, hearts returning to proper pace, the wind whipping the snow crystals over them. The Editor pulled himself up, set his crampons and slowly, laboriously inched over to the talus, his right arm going numb and useless. He could hear Javier chopping steadily behind him but he did not look back until he could wind a loop of the cord around a solid granite point.
One by one each of the staff clambered and fell onto the relative safety of the talus pile until Sharon and chad passed over the ominous Vee made by the two strands that disappeared over the edge of the precipice. Chad threw himself onto a flat slab of granite and looked back.
"Denby! Are you alright!"
"Noooooooo!" came back the distinct response.
"Very well, lets haul him up," said the Editor.
So they all pitched in until the dark huddle of Denby appeared at the edge, where he was able to grab hold and haul himself with his ice ax, still strapped around his wrist. From that edge with them hauling and him scrabbling down there with his ice ax the upward movement proceeded with the glacial timing of legislative action. At moments the heavy living load barely budged on the tether and then the Editor would shout, "Try harder! God dammit try harder!"
With the staff hauling in the bitter wind and Denby using his ax, inch by painful inch, they got him up half way. It appeared he could not use his right leg at all.
During a breather he thought to lose his backpack and after that the hauling got easier.
Almost at the talus, the Editor called down, "What's wrong with your leg?"
"Broken," Denby said before passing out. Which of course meant they had to haul him by rope with no help at all.
As for that miserable night spent up on the slopes of Abuelta de Diablo we shall not speak. Denby's knee was out of joint. The Editor's right arm was dislocated. Jose's face was a mask of blood from when he had landed on the glacier. Everyone would suffere frostbite before it was over.
Inside the wind-battered tent fly which had been erected among the boulders Javier queried the Editor.
"Tell me, please, Senor just why we do this thing every year."
The Editor looked up from his jury-rigged PLB hooked to a cell phone."It's to create character," he said.
"Right now this character would really like some caldo de pollo."
The following morning the helicopter answered the Editor's linked beacon and, one by one, the staffers were airlifted out of that place to CRMC in Fresno where a self-appointed gateway nurse behind the appointed triage asked each one the most important question, the correct answer to which each one of you must know if you plan on having a medical emergency in Fresno:
"Were you born in California?"
Each one of the staff had been prepped and coached by the Editor while still on the mountain.
"Yes of course."
When several days and several surguries later, all of them had returned to the Island, each began to catch up on news and events which had transpired during their week-long escapade.
Standing in the Offices in relative safety at the start of a late season heat wave, the Editor wondered to himself just how he was going to wind this thing up.
"Thinking about something?" Javier asked.
"I am just wondering what I am to say to Mrs. Howitzer," the Editor responded.
"Well, it seems to me the Senor, um, died pretty much like a true Conservative. Not giving an inch, I mean," Javier said.
"That's the ticket!" responded the Editor.
Meanwhile, as the clock ticked into the new day, Pedro listened sadly to the latest broadcast from his favorite Media Preacher on This Lutheran Hour. True to his modest roots, the Lutheran Hour recently provided only 45 minutes so as not to demand too much time of the faithful.
"My friends we switch to a shorter format so as not to take any more time from you, you who are the salt of the earth, the hard-working folk who get barely 48 hours of rest before mounting that tractor, sliding behind that desk, opening that garage door for another week of labor.
I cannot take more time from you, for All is Time in the face of the Infinity yawning before each one of us like a precipice beyond which no one shall return. My words -- I have only words in the end -- are only a slim tether and I do not know if any of what I do matters. Are any of you listening at all . . . "?
What good was it to say that in the end words are all we have to hold us by a slim tether to life. For some this tether is to Life Everlasting, but in any case words are all we have. Who here has not stood beside the stricken widow in the aftermath of personal tragedy, searching in front of a vast, overwhelming tsunami of grief for "the right words to say?"
If Pedro could find some way to broadcast from his tiny fishing boat in the Pacific his message, it would be "Do not be like the man who would hide his flashlight under a basket of turtles amid the darkness." Or something like that, even though he was only a fisherman, unskilled in parables and poorer for all that in words.
Or simply, when the massive tonnage of imbecility that presses down upon all of us in these times overwhelms the strength, "Try harder. Just try harder."
The long howl of the throughpassing train ululated from far across the blue water, over the waves of the estuary and the Buena Vista flats as the locomotive glided past the dark and shuttered doors of the Jack London Waterfront, headed off on its journey beneath the shadow of mountains to parts unknown.
That's the way it is on the Island. Have a great week.
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