The train ran on shaky wooden tracks, marching across the snowy mountainside like a caterpillar. The black-iron locomotive led the way, its brass valves hissing steam, and a line of six painted wooden passenger cars trundled merrily behind it. Every car but the engine was painted like a gypsy caravan, festooned with muted blues and explosive reds, exuberant yellows, and moody oranges.
Above the train loomed Kachungjunga, the mountain of calm. Calm for now. Massive slabs of frosted ice clung to precarious ledges. Banks of snow loomed like sumo wrestlers, ready to fall upon the little caravan at the slightest provocation. Occasionally, a dark spire of rock rose from the snow like a shark fin, indicating that a much greater beast was lurking.
Inside the near-empty train cars, there were fifteen boys between the ages of nine and twelve, and all fifteen of them were huddled in the car immediately behind the engine. Some were squeezed together in the rough wooden bench seats, forming little bundles of fur-lined cloaks and tightly buttoned jackets. Some stared wide-eyed out the windows, watching the sleeping giant lording over them with the same mixture of awe and respect one might afford a foreign monarch or a wild beast. Kachungjunga had a reputation.
Among the gapers pressed against the window was a smallish boy of about ten named Peter Kneld. He watched the mountain with paramount focus. It was at once the most impressive and most dangerous thing he had ever seen, and he was quite afraid of it.
But, like many dangerous things, the might of Kachungjunga did not repel but attract.
“I bet I could climb that,” one tweed-jacketed little chub said.
“I could do it twice as fast, and not even get cold,” bragged a blue-eyed boy who was shaped like a pencil.
“I bet I wouldn't even feel the cold,” lisped a snotty, nasal toned fellow.
And so it went, on and on again, until Peter finally pulled his face away from the glass with a pop and said, “I bet you’d all die before you got ten feet. See that yellowish crust on the snow? That’s rime ice. It’s super slick and brittle. One step and you’d find yourself at the bottom of the valley in no time at all.” Peter tilted his head thoughtfully to the side and added, “And if you survived the fall, you’d slowly die from hypothermia over the next six or seven hours. If the Windlings didn’t get you.”
All the gapers collectively pulled back from the windows and faced forwards again.
But one of the little boys—the runny-nosed one making inane statements—surprised the rest of them by saying, “I would still try to climb it!”
“I would still try to climb it because it is better to try than to not,” the sniffly kid finished.
And then all of the gawkers went back to their previous positions, admiring the powerful shoulders and glistening flanks of Kachungjunga, spouting the occasional statement about how they, too, could “climb that''.
Peter shook his head a little and laughed, but could not pretend he wasn't allured in the same manner. More than any of the other great mountains in the range—Ayoh-Kha, Girnani, Pisk—Kachungjunga possessed strange attraction.
Strange attraction that Peter had no wish to embrace. He was just fine and dandy inside the train car, thank you very much.
But not for much longer, Peter thought. Dad’s sending me to Nijunga for… His thoughts faded.
Peter’s father was a mountaineer. He’d always wanted his son to follow in his footsteps, but Peter showed far more love for the bookish side of life. Until the day Mr. Kneld decided it was time for his scrawny owlish son to become a man. There was no place in the mountains of Orukt for bookkeepers.
So here Peter was, on a rickety train headed for Nijunga School of Mountaineering, which was perched high on the shoulders of Kachungjunga. He sighed.
A massive jolt shook the train, and an intense grinding filled the air. The train slowed rapidly, sending all the boys flying to the front of the car as if launched from cannons. The entire caravan crunched to a halt.
Chaos erupted. The boys started to scream, spewing fear and pain as they tried to disentangle themselves from the dogpile at the front of the car.
Peter was near the bottom of the pile. His breathing was fast and shallow, his pupils contracted, despite the darkness of his sweaty confinement.
That crunch had sounded bad. Very bad.
He tried to mentally calculate how far they were from any help, but couldn’t.
The darkness lifted in bits and pieces as the boys on top of Peter pulled themselves out of the confused heap.
Peter stood up into the cacophony.
“What’s wrong with the train?!” Snot-Nose yelled.
“We’re dead.” This was Tweed Jacket, his cheeks pale and eyes haunted.
“It’ll be okay,” one little guy wearing a flat cap reassured himself. “They’ll get the train running again. They’ll come back and find us.” He finished with a sharp nod.
But the injection of hope drained away within a minute.
“No, they’re not coming,” Peter said, his heart beating fast. “We need to start figuring out how to escape this mess. Can we open the car door?”
They tried the doors on both ends of the passenger car. The rear one opened, the fore one did not.
Peter pulled his cloak tight and stepped out onto the small ledge at the back of the car, a gap of a few feet filled the space between this car and the one behind it.
Tendrils of lethal chill wormed their way into him, quiet and gentle, but lethal. The few droplets of sweat on his upper lip froze instantly. Kachungjunga towered to his left, even larger now that nothing but thin air separated Peter from its glacial majesty. To his right, he could see down through the temporary wooden track work. A perilous slide awaited any who fell, careening over boulders and protruding fangs of ice until reaching the bottom several miles lower in altitude.
As if trying to escape the fall that lurked just a few inches away, his heart jumped up into his throat. Peter swallowed it back down with an audible gulp, making the boys behind him cringe.
He grasped the right side of the door with his gloved hands and leaned out over the edge. He could see what had happened.
The weak planks forming the train tracks had rotted, and under the massive weight of the train, crumpled. The black-iron locomotive pitched precariously forwards, threatening at any moment to take a nosedive down the side of Kachungjunga.
From within the wreckage of the smushed cab, a lifeless arm reached.
The engineer’s dead, Peter thought, his face growing numb from both cold and shock. We’re on our own.
And then the train lurched beneath his feet. His grip slipped, and Peter would’ve fallen to oblivion if Snot-Nose hadn’t reached out and grasped his wrist. The other boy pulled him back in as Peter shouted, “We need to get off this train! It’s gonna fall!”
The locomotive slipped farther, held on the track by the very last pair wheels.
“How are we gonna get off?!” Flat-Cap shrieked, pointing at the steep mountain slope next to them. “You said it yourself—we can’t step on that ice!”
“We can step onto the tracks at the back of the train,” Tweed-Jacket said. The chubby boy jumped the gap to the next car in line, and all the boys began to follow as the train inched closer and closer to the abyss. Peter barely cleared the gap. Adrenaline pumped for those few inches by which he was alive.
They hustled through the cars with a speed their parents would’ve never believed. One poor fellow tripped, falling face down into the gap between the benches. Peter tried to fight backward against the flow to help him, but the stream of terrified children carried him along with as much strength as any raging river. For was fear not as strong as any flooded river? As mighty as any avalanche?
Then Peter ran right into a solid wall—the pencil kid. “Why are we stopped?” He shouted.
“The tracks are slick!” came the stressed reply over the tops of the boys' heads. They’d reached the last car.
Peter shoved his fingertips in his mouth, then pulled them out. And then they were moving again. But sweet relief turned to acid in his veins as the train lurched again, and then started sliding in earnest.
“Move faster!” the boys in the back screamed.
Death was on their heels like a rabid dog.
Peter reached the edge. It was his turn to jump to the tracks. He did not hesitate, turning around as he landed to plant his feet squarely on one of the wooden railroad ties.
The train receded faster and faster as the weight of the engine was augmented by more and more cars. Another boy—Snot-Nose—managed to make the transition, but the ice was his undoing. He slipped, hanging onto one frozen rail with all his strength. Peter tried to move forwards to help but his feet gave way beneath him. He crouched low, desperately trying to avoid falling himself.
Then the entire train went off the tracks, gravity’s effect on the prior cars causing the last one to fling into the air. And then the whole thing crashed down the mountain, breaking into pieces as it gained speed and boulders struck.
Peter watched, a cold hand gripping his heart, as it hit the bottom with nine boys still inside. Snot-Nose’s crumpled body lay a few hundred yards below the tracks, bent in such an unnatural way that Peter knew he could not live.
Who had survived? The other boys—Tweed Jacket, Pencil, Flat Cap, and one other—were about ten yards back up the tracks, huddled together for balance.
“What do we do now?” Said Pencil.
Peter had no trouble hearing. “The first step is to get together.” He removed his grip on the iced-over tracks and pulled his jacket tighter around himself. “I-I’ll come to you.”
He carefully spidered his way over to the group of boys, and stood up with the help of Tweed Jacket. “Now the next step is to get off these rails.”
“What do you mean get off them?” The other boy whined shrilly, “More trains will come, and they’ll pick us up. We can’t leave the tracks.”
Pencil licked his lips, "My father organizes the supply routes out of Orukt. I've seen the schedule; they're not coming to Nijunga for another week."
“What if we hiked down the tracks?” Flat Cap blinked nervously as he talked.
Peter shook his head. “We could never hike the miles fast enough. In three hours we’ll be nearly dead from the cold, even in all of this.” He gestured at the thick, padded jackets, warm pants, and boots they all wore.
They all went silent.
Whiner spoke up. “I’m scared. I don’t want to die on this mountain! I want my parents! I even want my dumb little sister.” He seemed on the verge of tears, which Peter knew would only cause Whiner’s eyeballs to freeze over.
“No,” Peter said. “there’s another option.”
“We’re going to climb Kachungjunga.”
“You’re raving mad.” Tweed Jacket said, his eyes flicking to where Snot-Nose’s broken corpse lay.
“Am I?” Blood rushed to Peter’s head and his extremities tingled, “Then watch this.” The boy placed his hands on the steep slope of the mountain. Then he twisted his right foot and jumped up, kicking with his left. Instead of slipping off and sending him to his doom, his foot broke through a thin shell of brittle ice and sunk into the snow. Amid gasps from the other boys, he drew back and anchored his right foot the same way. He laughed aloud.
“This could work…” Pencil wondered.
“Not could, does,” said Peter. “We need to get moving.” His fingers trembled and his jaw twitched, but Peter began to climb Kachungjunga, kicking one foot then the other through the rime.
“What are we waiting for?” Tweed Jacket said, frowning at the other boys. And together they began to climb as well, scaling the mountain as if it were a mere snowbank. Pencil ascended the slope with ease, aided by his lithe physique; Tweed Jacket was not far behind, using his greater weight to kick deeper into the snow; Flat cap scrambled like a manic monkey. Even Whiner climbed, though he did so with unsteady feet and shaking body.
Peter led the way, advancing up the deadly incline like snails up a wall. Directly above them, the slope increased in angle, forming into a small ridge beyond which the summit loomed. If they could reach that ridge, then maybe they could see where the school lay.
They all soon became drenched in sweat as the angle increased from tricky to treacherous. Whiner fell behind, losing the battle to the cold and exhaustion faster than the rest.
“Rest a bit,” Peter wheezed through chapped lips. They all panted for breath, each breath searing their raw windpipes with fresh agony. But they had to keep going. Death was in every step—the chance that when they tried to kick through the rime, they would slip. And the inevitable timer of the elements loomed over everything like a thunderstorm. By the growing sluggish fatigue he felt, Peter estimated they had an hour-and-a-half left—maybe less—in their fight against the chill.
Time to get moving. He willed his legs to move again, and the little group continued on. But something was wrong. Peter peered back over his shoulder.
Whiner wasn’t moving. His palms were flat against the mountainside. His breath came in heaving gasps. Fat drops of sour yellow sweat dripped from his nose, staining the ice.
“You can do it man. Come on,” Peter whispered.
The others took up their own murmured chants of encouragement, and after a long moment Whiner started up, moving like he was waist-deep in cold molasses.
Peter finally crested the small ridge, Pencil, Tweed Jacket, and Flat cap right behind him.
He looked up…and there was the school! It was composed of one large, pagoda-type keep, surrounded by smaller outbuildings and massive metal fins to break up and divert avalanches.
Hope surged, but then Peter’s eyes traveled downwards. Just below the school was one more slope blocking their path. It was several hundred feet high, and very steep, but no worse than what they had just surmounted.
He pointed at it, arm shaking a little. “We climb that, we make it. We’re safe.”
Whiner made it to the ridge after a minute longer, and they began the tenuous slide down to the ice wall.
Peter put a hand against the sheer slope, and his heart almost broke in two. The ice crust was slick and solid. There would be no kicking through. They would have to scale it like real mountaineers. He closed his eyes and shivered.
Pencil wiped his hand across the wall. “It’s slick!” He exclaimed with a pained expression, “Polished like silver.”
“I can’t climb it.” Tweed Jacket said. “It’s too high.”
“Can’t we go around?” Flat Cap wailed, “The train can’t climb this. How does the train get in?”
Pencil pointed to their left, “The train makes a huge detour that way to approach from the other side. It would take days to hike around.”
“We’re gonna die. We should’ve stayed on the tracks.”
Peter rounded on the skinny little kid, “We’re gonna die? We are not going to die! We’re going to climb this last wall.” He paused, placing his palms against the ice, remembering the last words of the runny-nosed kid from back on the train. “We’re gonna climb because it’s better to try than to not.”
It was decided. Peter ran his hands over the smooth face until he found a tiny flaw. He dug his fingers in and pulled himself up. His boots pressed to the ice, creating a smidge of friction. It was enough. He repeated the process.
The others followed suit, each painstakingly making their way up the insurmountable obstacle that lay before them.
Peter could feel his body shutting down as the cold became too much. He felt immensely tired, then sleepy. But he would not give up. He pulled himself up, searched for a handhold. Again. Every time it was just enough.
Just enough strength.
Just enough friction.
Just enough willpower for them to keep on going.
But then an anguished voice called out from behind him. “I’m gonna fall, I’m gonna fall!”
And as Peter craned his neck, Tweed Jacket fell from the wall, clawing and grasping for anything to hold onto. He fell right past Pencil and slammed into Whiner.
Peter turned away. His heart stopped beating.
Their screams cut short a few seconds later. Replaced by a thud.
“We have to keep moving!” Peter whispered with the intensity of a full-throated scream. “We have to try!”
As he forced himself to move with the last shreds of willpower, hot tears froze upon his cheeks.
And Peter clawed his way up and over the last ice wall. His heart began to beat again. He turned around immediately, reached for Pencil, and helped him up. And then came Flat cap.
They were alive and too cold to do anything but nod about it.
Like a bunch of tattered zombies, they shuffled through the maze of avalanche fins and around to a side door.
Peter managed one knock.
The doors opened as he fell unconscious, safe and alive.