Opening your eyes in the morning is like making it to Base Camp. There’s been a long, cold trek through the night just to get here. You turn off your alarm and lay there in the darkness, testing your emotions like a bruise. No extraordinary pain; just the usual gray morning sludge. Maybe today won’t be so bad.
The jeans on the floor aren’t too badly wrinkled. They might even be clean; you can’t remember. You tug them on and pull your hair into a bun, feeling the weight of consciousness settle across your shoulders like a pack. You’re beginning to acclimatize to the waking world once again.
Maybe this will be a morning when you toast five pieces of bread, shoving them into your mouth as rapidly as you can, a tablespoon of butter on each slice. Making sure the grease doesn’t reach your elbow gives you no time to think. Or maybe it will be one of those mornings when you grab a single tangerine; revulsion sweating out of your soul like the oils that bead up as your nails dig into the jarring orange skin.
A car pulls up outside, and you run out to meet it; cramming in as your friends slide along the seat and move school bags to make room. Clip in; you wouldn’t want to go flying through the window if anything happened. No, you wouldn’t want that.
This should be the best part of your day. But “should” is a word fraught with tension, guilt, and regret. Really, this is Icefall. You join in the early morning banter and gossip, but it doesn’t drown out the distant rumble of an avalanche, or the snapping of an ice pinnacle just a few yards behind you. The snow could slide out from under you at any moment.
“Did you see so-and-so’s arms yesterday?”
“Yeah. If he was actually genuine he’d wear long sleeves. He’s, like, flaunting it. Like it’s status.”
“Ew, that’s so depressing. Why are we talking about him?”
Don’t let yourself think. Kick your feet into the ice and brace yourself on your own two legs. Leaning on the ropes won’t save you.
You get to your first class, where last week’s papers are arranged in neat columns across the instructor’s desk, carefully folded to hide the scores. Your gut roils and clenches as you find yours and head back to your seat, looking for the red number with a broad diagonal slash underneath. If it’s over ninety, you’ll consider it acceptable. If it’s under, you’ll make it through the class with unfocused eyes and then lock yourself in a bathroom stall, wishing you could vomit. Wishing you could purge all the ugliness, all the waste of your existence.
Ninety-three. You re-fold the sheets of paper and slide it into your binder. You’ve earned your spot on this planet for another day.
Now you’re in the Valley of Silence. The vast, white expanse where you can be quiet and rest, let other voices pour their thoughts into your head. Where there’s nothing to do but listen. But far below, you can still hear the cracking. You never know when the ice will open and send you down into some frozen abyss. If you survived the fall, would anyone hear you call?
By mid-afternoon your head is pounding; your mind blurring the edges of all your thoughts. All you can feel is tired. Maybe once you’re home you will sleep.
But this is the Deathzone. The land of the spirits. The place where the air is sparse and the sky is a deep, glowing blue, like a police car’s light. The time when you climb past the grim reminders of others who went before you.
You lie with your head hanging off the side of your bed and stare at your upside-down dresser, your upside-down bookshelf and desk, and you think of them.
You think of your friend’s mother. Of your fifteen-year-old rage. How could she be so selfish? Her daughter was your age. Her son was eight. How could she leave them all alone?
You think of that boy you met one summer. Of his big smile and wry humor. You could have loved him, if your heart hadn’t already been foolishly occupied. You think of how you learned. Of the social media posts:
“He was a good guy.”
“He was always the brightest part of my day.”
“He will be missed.”
You think of the message you got one morning from the friend who is more like a sister. Her brother was too much older to be a real friend, but he was always someone who was there. The last time you’d heard of him, he was doing better. You couldn’t find words to reply. You sat in a church pew and looked around at five hundred other people dressed in black. You thought, “We should have gathered around him like this when he was alive.”
You think of them, and of all the others whose lives never touched yours close enough that you could know their names or their stories. You think of them, and it’s like you’re running out of oxygen. You think of them until the blood building up in your skull reminds you that you are still alive, and you claw your way upright once more.
This is the Knife Ridge; this time when you prepare for another long, silent climb through the night. Here, you have only your headlamp and maybe, if you’re lucky, the moon rising from somewhere beneath you to light your way. You are exhausted and weak. You begin to wonder what the point of it all is; if anything could possibly be worth all this struggle. Now is the time when people give up and turn back.
You might lose your grip. The snow may slide from under your feet. You will fall for a moment or two, but you will let your ropes catch you. And you will dig in with crampons and axe; with nails and teeth. And you will start to climb again. You will hang on to the hope that the sun will rise and some day you will reach the summit.