January 6, 2012
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The first thing I noticed was the cold. Not a chilly breeze that nips at neither my nose, nor the happy snow that falls around Christmas time. This was the type of cold that seeped into my very bones, which clung there and held on despite my best effort to shake it off. This was the snowflakes that remained glued to my exposed red cheekbones for longer than usual, which resisted whatever meager warmth remained within my flesh.

The second thing I noticed was the sheer height of Mount Denali. I’d experienced minor vertigo before while at the top of a building or an airplane high above the clouds. But I was now realizing, halfway up the highest mountain in the United States, that there is a stark difference between that height and this. On a plane, you have a sense of security. You are buckled in tightly, walls surrounding you, and the air is thick enough to breathe. The only comparison I could make, as I hung from a wall of ice with two axes, was the moment when you are standing right at the edge of a building. You start to lean over a bit, and your heart catches. But the difference, the painfully obvious difference, is that you can step back. You can move away from the edge, take a deep breath, and return to reality. There is no danger when you are in control. Or so I thought. I was beginning to realize that sometimes, a sense of control is the most dangerous thing of all.

My mother’s voice rang in my ear. “Alex, you can’t do it,” she laughed, “you can’t make it up the highest mountain in America! You can’t even clean your room!” Dad chimed in too, “You certainly can’t be a Commended Scholar either.” They both set off in hysterics, slapping their thighs at their son’s lack of accomplishments. What a funny joke! What a silly thought, that Alex McGregor could ever do anything of value! They laughed and laughed, but I knew I had to do it. High school was over, and the future looked bleak for me if I couldn’t do the simplest of tasks to make my parents proud. So that’s when I made the bet. If I could climb Mount Denali, they’d send me to the best college they could afford. And mind you, we were fairly well off, so it would be a great school. Maybe I could learn how to climb professionally, make a living out of it. That would really show them.

Man, did they ever laugh at that. They were probably still laughing, sitting in their lawn chairs on perfectly manicured grass, in front of our sprawling mansion with a stuffy housekeeper and furniture too expensive to sit on. I could picture them throwing back martinis, toasting to the son they could mock away from the public eye, taught by their hired tutor to save them from the embarrassment of sending me out into public.

But I was eighteen now, and there wasn’t a da** thing they could do. I was going to climb that mountain, and that was that.

I was shaken out of my reverie by a sharp gust of wind. Glancing over my shoulder across the ice-covered meadow spread out along the base of the mountain, I saw snow starting to fall. The ominous clouds that had shrouded the sun since this morning were becoming angrier. Then all at once, the sky dumped its freezing contents upon me. Shivering, I reached up and struck the ice axe in my left hand into the wall of ice above, stepping off of the small ledge I was standing on.

The snow almost knocked me off my balance, and I had to pause for a moment to regain my bearings. The snow’s effect was thickening, and the summit of the mountain was becoming harder and harder to see. I kept pushing on, falling into a steady rhythm. Swing, thwack, breathe. Swing, thwack, breathe. Swing, thwack, breathe. I didn’t let myself look down; I knew I couldn’t do that.

I’d already made it so far, and I knew that. My temper had been pretty awful at the start of my climb. I’d been so angry at my parents and myself, and every effort I’d made seemed futile. It hadn’t been this cold, either. I’d been on this expedition for seventeen days now, and it had barely snowed. It had gotten painfully cold at night, but I’d been prepared for it. But it had never snowed this hard while I was climbing. Never had my breath felt so frozen in my lungs, my heart so frozen in my chest, my tears so frozen to my cheeks. The pain I was pushing myself through was unbearable. Though I was in the best shape possible, my arms were beginning to tire from their constant, strenuous routine.

I struck my axe again after about two hours of climbing, and I could feel that something was wrong. Instead of the satisfying thud of an axe hitting a solid wall of ice and sticking there, I heard a sickening twang. I knew then that I had hit a layer of rock. I desperately searched to my left and right, seeking a ledge where I could stand and rest to survey my options. But the snow was so thick that I could barely see in front of me. Blindly, I struck again with my right hand. Twang. The only thud I could feel was my heart against my ribcage.

I was now hanging on with my left arm, my right arm searching for ice around me. After what felt like an hour, I struck ice. I inched along sideways around the face, never feeling absolutely sure of where I was. Though I could feel sweat and pain in my muscles, my mind was eerily clear. All I could feel was the mountain. It was the only thing I could focus on, I knew, or I would certainly fail.

I was aware that it was becoming harder and harder to see. But it was not my vision that I could depend on anymore. I’d fallen into my routine again, and I needed discover a resting place. The pain had faded away, pushed to the back of my mind, and now I was forced to focus on my immediate goal. I finally found a ledge wide enough to sit on and collapsed into the powdery snow.

I rubbed my cheeks furiously, trying to restore some sense of feeling to them. I knew that I was becoming hopeless. A sense of dread and demise was creeping into my stomach, planting itself there like a parasite. And then, I did the most awful thing a climber can do.

I looked down.

The dread spread from my stomach to my lungs, and my breath came out in short gasps. My head was screaming with pain, protesting the dizziness that overcame me in sudden flashes. My vision tunneled to find the ground, thousands of feet below, one small slip from tumbling to my demise. I’d never felt such vertigo. I had to move.

Scrambling to my feet, my shaking hands fumbled with the ice axes once more. But I could not feel them in my hands. I was vaguely aware that I was holding something, but my aching muscles could barely handle their weight. I took a step, but my frozen ankle twisted against its proper movement. I felt a shot of pain and cried out, but my frozen jaws could barely open. What was I doing? I couldn’t stop, I couldn’t! I had to go to college; I had to feel my parent’s arms around me in a warm embrace. I had to hear their cries of praise for the first time I could remember. Against the ache I gasped for breath and swung my axe, and swung, and swung again.

Soon I found myself in my rhythm again. I could see my endpoint above me now; the sun was trying to peek out from behind the clouds. The snow was still pouring down, but not at the same thickness. Nothing seemed real anymore and the pain dulled against my growing smile. My chapped lips cracked as I began to breathe more steadily. I could barely feel the ache in my muscles anymore. All I could see was my parent’s smiles next to my own, our arms around each other.

I swung my axe for the last time and scrambled over the lip of a ledge with my good leg. I could finally sit. Yes, I know I couldn’t stand as I had pictured, but I could sit, da**it! I had made it! I looked down into the soft snow and saw drops of blood. Wiping my face gently, I discovered my lips had cracked severely. My leg was throbbing beyond comprehension, but I didn’t care. I’d done it.

I slowly shrugged off my pack and tended to my wounds as well as possible. By wrapping my ankle in a bandage, the pain did not seem as striking. I could even stand by leaning my weight on one of the poles of my tent. I painstakingly removed my digital camera from one of the pockets of my pack. Grinning as well as my lips would allow, I snapped a photo of myself with the valley behind me, the landscape washed in the orange light of the sunset. “I’m the king of the world!” I screamed. My voice was lost in the wind, and it came out as more of a whisper than the yell I felt inside. Warmth spread up from my toes to the very tip of my head, and the cold faded away.

My parents still have that photo. They got it blown up and framed, and it now hangs in the dining room, where they hold their most prestigious dinner parties. They always brag about their son, the skilled climber. My mother loves to look at that picture. “Look at his eyes,” she says to my father, “have you ever seen more of a smile in them?” “No,” he says, “that’s about the happiest we’ll ever see him.” And I do have to admit that whenever I look at that photo, the background dulls against the passion in my eyes. The joy there is no match for the sun setting over the valley, lighting the fields below on fire.

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