Harold trudged down the winding path that led to the inn from his cabin tucked in the woods. Rays from the late-winter sunrise filtered through the trees arousing the birds who had returned from the south recently and they greeted him with a serenade.
Harold was a middle-aged man with a grizzly beard and the build of a lumberjack. He’d been running the Climber’s Haven Inn on the outskirts of Denali National Park for ten years after inheriting it from his father, making him the third generation of innkeepers in the family.
Harold had a love-hate relationship with the inn. During peak climbing season, late spring through early fall, the inn was alive with camaraderie and tales of adventure. But during the annual winter shutdown, when Harold was the sole occupant and caretaker, it felt like the loneliest place on earth. He decided long ago that he could never subject a family to that lifestyle, so he never married or had children. During those solitary winter months, he would often yearn for a different life, one in which he didn’t feel obligated to maintain his family’s legacy.
He paused taking a sip of steaming coffee from his thermos and soaking in the view of the inn’s main entrance. If only he could revive the sense of majesty he felt standing in this exact spot as a child. Now, instead of a glorious mountain retreat, he simply saw a burden that was solely his to carry. The inn, built from local rough-sawn timber, touted thirty rooms, a full-service bar with a limited menu of hearty food, and a sauna where mountaineers could recover from their expeditions.
Just a couple more weeks and the place will be humming again, Harold thought as he entered the front door.
Around mid-morning, he was sitting in his office reviewing his inventory of supplies when he heard a faint ringing sound. Ding. Just when he thought he must have been imagining things he heard the sound again. Ding, ding.
That sounds like the bell at the front desk…but why in the world would anyone be here now? Harold thought as he got up from his desk chair.
He opened his office door which was located directly behind the inn’s front desk in the lobby. Sure enough, there was a young man standing there waiting. He had an athletic build, an adventurous look in his eyes, and appeared to be in his twenties. He was loaded down like a pack mule with mountain climbing equipment and a suitcase was parked beside him.
“Good morning. I’m not expecting any guests for a couple more weeks…” Harold said, sizing up the stranger. “What brings you in?”
“Ethan, Ethan Wilson.” The young man said, extending his brawny arm for a firm handshake.
“Nice to meet you, Ethan. I’m Harold Brooks, the innkeeper here. So, how can I help you?”
“Well, I have a proposition which I’m hoping would be beneficial for both of us.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“I just graduated from college, Colorado State University. You’d think after spending four years earning a business degree that I’d know what to do with my life…but I don’t. There are only two things I know for sure: I have thousands of dollars in student loan debt and I love mountain climbing. So, I thought I’d lose myself in a mountain range for a while in order to find myself. Maybe the high-altitude air will give me a sense of clarity.”
“I could’ve sworn you said your name was Ethan Wilson, but you sure do sound like John Muir. ‘The mountains are calling, and I must go.’ So, what does this quest of yours have to do with me?”
“I’ve climbed all over the Rockies, including the fourteener, Longs Peak. I’m looking for a bigger challenge and I have my heart set on Denali. But I’ll need to do a lot of training climbs in the area first. I’m guessing I can learn a lot from the climbers you’ll be hosting here during peak season. Maybe I can even find an expedition team to join. I’d be willing to work here at the inn for you in exchange for room and board. Whatever needs to be done around here, I’m your man. So, what do you think? Do we have a deal?”
There’s no shortage of work to be done here, that’s for sure, Harold thought. And let’s face it, I’m not getting any younger so it would be helpful to delegate some of the manual labor to this whippersnapper. It would be nice to have some company too but…I don’t even know this kid.
“I’ll tell you what. How about if we do a trial run? You’ll work here for me in exchange for room and board for one month. During that time you can squeeze in two climbs per week as long as you’re getting your work done here. At the end of the month, we’ll see how it’s going and decide if we want to continue the arrangement or say sayonara.” Harold said.
“It’s a deal,” Ethan said, going for another handshake. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am. You won’t regret this, Mr. Brooks.”
“Please, call me Harold. You can stay in room number fifteen. It’s next up on the list for annual repairs. It needs new carpet, a new showerhead, and there’s something wrong with the commode. So, it’ll be a good test to see how handy and motivated you are.”
“Bring it on,” Ethan said, throwing his hands and a chuckle up in the air.
The repairs in room fifteen were completed in record time and passed Harold’s inspection with flying colors. During Ethan’s first month at the inn, he proved to be as valuable as a climber’s rope. From cleaning gutters to chopping firewood, there were countless tasks that he tackled with efficiency and precision. He also conquered seven training climbs throughout the month.
During his first week at the inn, Ethan had visited the Denali National Park ranger station to snag a map of the mountaineering routes.
“Make sure there’s someone who knows which route you’re taking, the date of your climb, and how long you expect to be gone. If you go missing, that will be critical information to pass along to the search and rescue team.” Ranger Sheridan had advised Ethan.
So, the night before each climbing day, Ethan and Harold would gather in the inn’s lobby and hunker over the large map. They would highlight the route Ethan was planning to take, write the date of the climb next to it, and he would tell Harold when to expect his return. Harold, who had served as the route keeper for many climbers over the years, took this role very seriously.
On climbing days, Ethan would hit the slopes before sunrise and spend the next ten hours navigating North America’s most gnarly terrain with his 70-lb backpack in tow. Upon his return, Harold would join him in the inn’s sauna where he would recount his adventures and thaw his muscles. He was getting the full experience of the temperamental weather Ranger Sheridan warned him about. Harold was on the verge of reporting him missing when he returned several hours late from the second climb after being engulfed in a disorienting whiteout.
“I was suddenly transported to a different planet, completely devoid of color and dimension. Just white…as far as the eye could see. I lost all sense of direction…north, south, east, west…sky, ground…it all looked exactly the same. Time stood still…but also seemed to fly by like the snow that was relentlessly pelting me in the face. I was trapped there for an eternity wrestling with the fear that I might not escape and literally be trapped there…for eternity.” Ethan said with his eyes wide and unfocused and a white-knuckled grasp on the edge of the sauna bench like crampons digging into ice. “What am I doing here? I’m not cut out for this.” He said, shifting a panic-stricken face to Harold.
Harold placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder and said, “It doesn’t matter if you’re an amateur or a veteran climber, Denali does not discriminate. Even the most elite mountaineering guides would’ve struggled in that whiteout. All that matters is you survived to tell the tale and climb another day. Don’t give up on your dream quite yet.”
By the end of that first month, with several more training climbs under his belt, Ethan had regained his confidence, and his desire to conquer Denali was stronger than ever.
He and Harold were taking a break from inspecting the inn’s industrial kitchen equipment one afternoon. If an outsider stumbled upon them at that moment, chatting over pints of beer at the inn’s bar, they would assume that they were long-time friends.
“Well, Mr. Brooks, can you believe I’ve been here for a month already? Are you ready to send me packing or do I get to hang around for a while?” Ethan said, lowering his pint of walnut-colored beer onto the wood bar top.
“Ethan, the truth is…I can’t imagine not having you here. So, as far as I’m concerned, you can stay as long as you’d like.” While he spoke, Harold’s mind embraced a vision of himself, long in the tooth, sitting on this very bar stool while an older Ethan served him a beer from behind the bar. He’d make a fine innkeeper someday, Harold thought.
Days turned into weeks and before they knew it, the inn was at full capacity and peak climbing season was well underway. Harold was manning the front desk one morning in mid-May when Ranger Sheridan and the local sheriff walked into the lobby.
“Ranger Sheridan, Sheriff Brown. To what do I owe the honor?” Harold asked.
Sheriff Brown pulled a photograph from his jacket pocket and laid it on the front desk.
“Morning, Harold. Do you know this young man?” Sheriff Brown asked, pointing to the man in the photograph who was wearing a graduation cap and gown.
“Yeah, of course. That’s my right-hand man here at the inn, Ethan Wilson.” Harold said, glancing at both of them trying to read their expressions.
“When did you see him last?” Sheriff Brown asked.
“Well, as a matter of fact, you just missed him. He left here a few hours ago to go on a training climb.” Harold said.
The sheriff and the ranger exchanged perplexed glances. Harold’s internal organs started doing acrobatics, alerting him that something seemed wrong.
“Well, that’s strange. His mother reported him missing weeks ago. It took us a while to retrace his steps but Ranger Sheridan recalled that he was staying at the inn.” Sheriff Brown said.
“His mother? He never mentioned her…” Harold said.
“Apparently he called to let her know that he arrived safely in Alaska and promised to keep in touch but she never heard from him again. She said he was often forgetful about calling so she wasn’t too concerned at first. But after a few weeks, she tried calling his cell repeatedly and got worried when he didn’t answer or return her calls.” Sheriff Brown said.
“Well, I don’t condone him avoiding his mother, but fortunately I think this is just a big misunderstanding. Ethan is here on a mission to ‘find himself’ and perhaps he just needed a little space to do that.” Harold said.
The sheriff gave Harold a scrutinizing stare and said, “I hope you’re right. When do you expect Ethan to return?”
“Sometime this evening,” Harold said.
“Do me a favor, call me to confirm that he made it back safe and sound. And tell him to call his mother for God’s sake.” Sheriff Brown said.
A mountaineering guide named Sam Edwards, who was staying at the inn for his twelfth consecutive climbing season, was sitting in an armchair in the lobby reading the newspaper during the conversation between the three men. He followed the sheriff and the ranger outside.
“Sheriff Brown, can I have a word?” Sam said. “I overheard your conversation with Harold and…well, to be honest, I’m very suspicious about the situation. I’ve known Harold for a long time and I think he’s gone delusional.”
“Can you elaborate?” Sheriff Brown said.
“Harold has been going on and on about this Ethan character since I arrived a month ago. But the strange thing is, I’ve never seen Ethan, not once. I’ve asked around and none of the other guests have seen him either. Whenever the topic comes up, Harold says that Ethan is out for a training climb or running an errand. But one thing a lot of us have observed is Harold talking as if he’s having a conversation with someone…but nobody’s there. So now I’m starting to wonder if Ethan is missing, dead, or doesn’t even exist.”
“Well, we know that Ethan exists because his mother reported him missing and sent us this photograph. And we know that Harold has interacted with him because he identified him from the photo. So, that leaves us with two possibilities: missing or dead.” Sheriff Brown said.
“Ethan visited the ranger station when he arrived in mid-March and I gave him a route map. What are the chances that it’s still here at the inn somewhere?” Ranger Sheridan said.
They went back into the lobby to share Sam’s observations and concerns with Harold who became defensive.
“I already told you, Ethan is out for a training climb. If you don’t believe me I can show you his route map.” Harold snarled.
He jerked the large route map out from behind the front desk and unrolled it for them to see. There were numerous routes highlighted, too many to count at a glance, and they had written a date beside each one spanning from March 21st until the present day.
Despite Harold’s outrage and outright denial of being delusional, Sheriff Brown said, “Listen, Harold, right now it’s your word against the dozens of guests that are staying here. If Ethan’s life is at risk we can’t waste any more time. So I’m going to take this route map and start organizing a search. I’ll contact the search and rescue teams. Ranger Sheridan, close all of the park routes to the public. Sam, see if you can round up any volunteers here at the inn. I want to kick this off bright and early tomorrow morning.”
Later that night when it was well beyond the time Ethan should’ve returned from his climb, Harold frantically searched the inn for him. There was no sign of him in the lobby, office, bar, or sauna. As a last resort, Harold raised a trembling fist to knock on the door of room fifteen hoping to find Ethan there. To his shock, the room was now occupied by a female climber who insisted she’d been there for weeks. After finding no signs of Ethan anywhere Harold secluded himself in his cabin, terrified to face reality.
Before sunrise the next morning, a team the size of a small army began the search for Ethan along his first training route highlighted on the map, dated March 21st. After several days of searching that route extensively and finding nothing, they moved on to Ethan’s second training route, dated March 25th.
Late one night, nearly two weeks after the search began, Harold had fallen asleep on the couch in his cabin when he was startled awake by a persistent knock at the door. He stumbled across the room to answer the door where Sheriff Brown was waiting, looking rather worse for wear.
“I’m sorry to wake you Harold, but I have an update on the search. Would you mind if I come in?” Sheriff Brown said.
They sat next to each other on Harold’s tweed couch and the tension in the atmosphere was as thick as a blizzard.
“Harold…there’s no easy way for me to say this. We found Ethan’s body at the bottom of a crevasse along his second route, the one he attempted on March 25th during his second week here.”
Harold jerked involuntarily as if he’d been jolted by an electric shock. “No, that’s impossible.” He shouted. “I sat in the sauna with Ethan that night after he returned from that climb. I remember our conversation vividly…he told me about the whiteout that he narrowly escaped on that route.” He said, his voice now taking on a tone of desperation.
The sheriff silently pulled a photograph from his inner jacket pocket and tenderly showed it to Harold — Ethan’s lifeless body was sprawled at the bottom of the crevasse, frozen and pale, almost blending in with the icy tomb.
Harold shuddered and his face froze in a horrified stare, his expression paralyzed even after the sheriff slipped the photograph back into his pocket. Life seemed to have vanished from his wide staring eyes despite the silent tears that began rolling down his beard. His subconscious mind was vaguely aware of the sheriff saying something about a memorial service and promising to come back and check on him soon. Then, just as suddenly as he’d arrived, the sheriff left and Harold spiraled down into the dark crevasses of his tortured mind.
Ethan was the closest thing Harold ever had to a son and he never recovered from his loss. He became a recluse and the inn went into foreclosure, ending the family’s legacy. Sheriff Brown kept his promise, visiting Harold often and bringing him supplies. Many times the sheriff would glance inside the window as he approached the front door and see Harold sitting on the couch having a conversation but no one was there, or sitting at the kitchen table playing a game of chess and teasing a non-existent opponent. Sometimes survival relies on fabricating a false reality when one’s true reality is too painful to bear.