The survivor's guide to winter hiking
by bryan farrow
The snowfall came as no surprise. All week, as frost turned to fairway down at the club, Frank had predicted one last storm. The calendar still read March, after all. A month of rain and then sun. Sun and then sleet. A month when New England buckled under the booms and recessions of her climate. A sign maybe, a little blip on the major indices, and suddenly they would hit: squalls that buried SUVs and hikers without discrimination. Especially at this altitude.
“So tell me,” he shouted to his son. With his hands on his knees, Frank gazed down through his Ray-Bans at his new boots, where flake after flake pelted the stiff Kevlar laces. He’d been watching for about a minute now, stocking up on air. “How’s that gear working out?”
“The gear. How’s it feeling?”
“All right I guess.”
Frank peered up, where the waves of a granite sea rolled in from the horizon. After a deep intake of air, he stood, raised his sunglasses, and faced Hunter. What he saw matched the background for pure glory. His son stood flagged but upright before him, with one boot perched on a rock and a fist held triumphantly to his waist. It was Frank’s pose, or a passable copy, the genes unmistakable beneath a padding of L. L. Bean and Land’s End. It had been years since he and Hunter had winter hiked together, and with the equipment from those days lost or outdated, Frank had seized the chance to reinvest in their hobby. That Saturday afternoon, before picking his son up at the airport, he’d arranged their new clothing and gear in the family room like the grand prize display from a game show. Leggings of Polar fleece. Jackets of Gore-Tex. The professional’s accoutrements of ice ax, snow pole, and boot spikes. Crampons, those slip-on spikes were called, and for Frank’s money there was no guiltier pleasure than trotting the word out in front of his clients. “Just all right?” he asked.
“I mean great,” Hunter yelled. “You know, light but sturdy.”
“You can’t afford to skimp on this stuff,” Frank said as another gust swept between them. Two hundred thirty miles per hour. That was the greatest wind speed ever recorded in North America, right here atop Mount Washington in 1934. Today’s winds felt like they were making a bid for the title. Still, the situation could have been worse. Thanks to his purchases the week before, the sauna at the club couldn’t have kept Frank’s extremities any warmer. “How are your feet?” he asked his son.
“Terrific,” Hunter shouted. “I’ve got a dozen nerves firing in each toe.”
“Good,” Frank replied. He pulled his watch cap—genuine alpaca, like slippers for his ears—further down over his temples. “Good,” he said again, nodding this time. Good? It was great. Winds or no winds, he and the kid would manage the descent without a hitch. Because along with their equipment, they’d each brought to the task something no MasterCard could procure. They’d brought Hunter’s strength and stamina, fruits of an adolescence buffed to its prime in Exeter Academy’s Olympic-sized pool, and they’d brought Frank’s wits. That equipment, Hunter’s youth and his coolness, would take them down the mountain and back to their North Conway suite by nightfall. Guaranteed. “You’re digging those thermal socks now, aren’t you?” Frank said.
“Yeah,” Hunter said. “Smart.”
“Common sense, chief.”
Frank glanced up to where a shroud of white sat like another cap on Mount Washington’s peak. He could only imagine what it hid: a dervish of ice and wind that would make the conditions where they stood seem tropical by comparison. Of course, to venture this far only to turn around was worse than admitting defeat. It was refusing to battle. For a long moment, the thousand feet between Frank and the summit beckoned to him. But a twinge in his gut called in the stop-loss order. “I’ll tell you what,” he said to Hunter. “As far as your mother or anyone else knows, we made it all the way to the summit. Now what do you say we mosey down this hill?”
Without hesitating, his son pivoted toward the base.
Heat. Searing heat. It spread upward from the arch of each blistered foot and stopped at Hunter’s ankles, where the scorching cold of his calves began. At first, Hunter could almost relish the absurdity of it, his father’s precious socks only pouring oil on the flames beneath his soles. But then he felt the wind, listened to it howl like a meteoroid careening through the upper mesosphere, and the joke of it died in his stomach.
The hike had been his father’s idea, just like the camping of Hunter’s junior year break and the fishing they’d done the year before that. He supposed it was tradition now, an escalating ritual of father and son turned loose into the wild. But this time they’d defeated the whole purpose of an outing. How were they supposed to bond, or whatever it was his father wanted to do, in a mess like this, with their faces mummified and the chill ringing their bones like a set of tuning forks? His father’s posturing aside, the two of them were as helpless as newborns out here. They’d set out from the parking lot at five a.m., delivered from the heated womb of the Land Rover into the harsh, white world of the mountain’s base, and for the next eight hours they’d crawled into higher and more dangerous territory, all without a real adult’s supervision. Mercifully, his father had decided against a run for the summit fifteen minutes ago, but for all the progress they'd made toward the trail head since then, they might as well have continued up as turned around. Over their shoulders, the summit still loomed too close, taunting them. Far down below, the Lake of Clouds wafted as hazily the Crab Nebula. Where they stood now was just a torrent of cold, the air blowing from west to east like razor wire yanked through Hunter’s body.
By one-thirty, they had at last descended below the precipitation. After climbing on all fours over a pair of boulders, his father brought them to a halt. They stood at a plateau overlooking the valley, where the rise and dip of the Presidential Range sat beneath a boiling murk. A wordless minute passed. Hunter kept his gaze to the west, toward California and the misery he’d left back on that coast. But the view was obstructed, to say the least. On the horizon, a sky wrapped in lead foil rolled toward them, hauling night into the middle of day.
“I think Mom was right,” Hunter said.
“About playing it safe. Sticking with Monadnock.”
“Your mom is right about a lot of things, kiddo. How to grab life by the c0jones isn’t one of them.”
“I think the point was to keep ours intact.”
The old man laughed, but Hunter was only half-kidding. The weather threatened a slow, pale death; the terrain, a quick and bloody one. Twice in the last hour, Hunter had just barely righted himself mid-slip.
“I was thinking yesterday,” his father said, vacantly scanning the horizon.
“Is that so?”
“Yeah, about the job market for you kids finishing school,” his father said. He turned to Hunter. Even obscured by his sunglasses, the man’s eyes exuded melodrama. It was the same look he had put on for Hunter some ten years before, in the winter of ‘92, when their missing Yellow Lab finally revealed itself as a frozen corpse beneath the backyard’s gazebo. “I don’t need to tell you this,” his father continued. “Dot com is dot gone. No one’s investing. Hell, no one’s been flying these last six months. Suffice it to say there aren’t many companies bullish on hiring right now.”
Hunter stretched his facemask away from his mouth and gulped a draught of frigid air. “There’s always grad school,” he said before covering back up. He’d meant it as a joke, but just saying the words gave him the same chill as that first glimpse of Nutters lying in state behind the gazebo’s latticework. Grad school. Right. He'd rather join the army.
“I’m serious,” his father said. “If I were you, I’d track down one of those campus-based recruiters ASAP.” He lowered his sunglasses, then peered into the blur of the horizon. He murmured the next few words the way an assassin might poison a drink. “Merrill Lynch always does the college circuit.”
“Give it a rest, Dad.”
His father threw up his hands, a snow pole dangling from one wrist. “I know, I know,” the man said, as if he’d meant it. “I just can’t get that image of you as treasurer out of my head.”
Hunter lifted a boot and clubbed the spikes underneath with his own pole. Student treasurer: oh sure, he’d held the office. Ran for the post and won. But only after his father had goaded him into it with the promise of a new Celestron telescope, complete with motorized mount and a resolving power that flirted with a full arc second. How about it, Galileo? Count dollars by day, stars by night. For Hunter, the bribe was irresistible. Once a month for his last year at Exeter, he'd loped across campus to the school's endowment office, only to nod over rudimentary spreadsheets next to the administration's CPA. Inevitably, Hunter’s mind would wander. To Andromeda, or Saturn’s moons. To the school’s observatory, just a five-minute walk away. Because that’s what he’d been born to do—that’s where he’d make his mark, mapping the vault of deep space—or so he’d thought.
“If you’re really worried about it,” Hunter said, “I’m working on a major estate inheritance as we speak.”
His father responded with a barking laugh that rang in the air between them. A sled dog, Hunter thought. That’s what his father sounded like. An aging, blond alpha male huffing through the Iditarod. “I bet you are.”
High above Frank’s head, someone had cranked open the sunroof. A square of blue now shone in the vast, gray upholstery of the clouds. Not that it sent down much warmth. Since five o’clock that morning, the mountain temps had turned Frank’s cheeks into leather pouches and set his crowns to chattering. But that stretch of blue promised relief. Eventually it would widen, slowly at first, but then as quickly as a well-diversified small-cap. As if that weren’t enough, Frank was conjuring the springtime with every step toward the base. He’d checked it again just yesterday, the formula from his old copy of the Survivor’s Guide. For every thousand feet he ascended, a hiker could expect a temperature drop of four degrees Fahrenheit. It stood to reason the math worked the other way, too.
“Uh oh,” he called behind him, faced now with a steeper gradient of ice for the next twenty feet. “You ready to give those crampons a real test?”
“Show me the way,” Hunter said.
Frank’s muscles hadn’t forgotten. With measured crow hops, echoes of his shortstop days, he managed the slope in less than a minute. When he reached flat earth, the kid did what he could to imitate Frank. But Hunter was as lanky as his grandfather—Nancy’s dad, not Frank’s—and no matter how well it served him in water, the kid’s height could wreak havoc on the ground. Halfway down the slope, Hunter’s scuttle turned into a flustered, forward-facing trot. If it hadn’t been for Frank’s quick thinking, and quicker embrace, the kid would have shot right past him.
Hunter regained his footing, brushed away snow that wasn’t there. “You remember to sharpen the blades on these things?”
“They’re brand new, kiddo.”
“That it explains it. We haven’t broken them in.”
“Huh. Maybe,” Frank said. “Not sure how much give you can expect from steel, though.”
Hunter rolled his eyes. “There’s more than . . . you know what? Forget it,” he snapped, turning away from Frank. “Thanks for saving my life.”
He could do without the sarcasm, although in the two days since his son’s flight back east, it had been Hunter’s exclusive mode of communication. Apparently, the artsy types at Berkeley had taught his son just one lesson: cynicism. Now Frank had a week to re-instill the right attitude. Had he made a mistake earlier, turning them around with the peak only a few hundred feet away? He couldn’t tell. What he did know was that even as he gave Hunter the out, the desire to press onward had blazed hotly in his own chest. Hunter, on the other hand, had practically scrambled for the base. And what did that say, especially considering the kid’s baffling choices at school?
Overhead, the patch of blue had disappeared. Frank stopped at a wide crevasse between the two boulders at his feet and turned to face his son.
“What’s wrong?” Hunter asked.
“What?” Frank said. “Nothing. I just remembered, I have to book a room for your mom and me. For graduation.”
Hunter didn’t reply at first. Instead, like a child about to cross the street, he looked to the left and right. Finally, his eyes came back to Frank. “My cell phone is charged if you think it’s urgent.”
Frank’s ears sizzled beneath his cap. “Okay, forget the corporate world. You’re a comedian.”
His son laughed then, a disparaging little puff from the hole in his face mask. “What can I say? I learned from the best.”
If the Greek poets were right and the gods really did command the elements, they were going easy on Hunter and his father. The snowfall from the peak had resumed, but gently this time, as if for decoration. And while the cold hadn’t quite dissipated, the bone-cracking power of it had faded.
As far as the old man was concerned, though, they might as well have been caught in a downpour back at home. He stared a pummel of hail into Hunter. “Let’s just finish this hike, huh?” With that, his father lunged for the edge of the trail and sidestepped the two yards to safety.
Using his snow pole, Hunter took a long, springing step over the crevasse his father had avoided, landing with the grace of a hurdler despite his pack. He could have let it go at that, his youth and agility rebuke enough. But it wasn’t enough. Not after today’s abuse. “Maybe I’ll just be a Sherpa, you know? I could specialize in leading troops of washed-up old men through the Himalayas.”
His father, hands on his knees, stood up then. He remained silent for a long, frozen beat. When he finally spoke, his eyes never moved from the jagged slab of the horizon. “Washed-up old man, huh?”
Hunter felt his cheeks slacken. “Well, not that old.”
“But washed-up,” his father said.
Hunter turned downhill. “I was only joking.”
For the next hour, Hunter focused his rage on the trail, striding over it with a feeling of invincibility now. The old man—and he was old, fifty-two come April—needed to grow up. It may have taken four years and the width of the continent for Hunter to realize it, but his father wasn’t just kid at heart. He was a kid in temper, spoiled and sulking. They were climbing down a mountain, for Christ’s sake. The wind chill alone could put an end to them. Couldn’t he see that? Couldn’t he see anything?
His face flushed. He was in no position to accuse. Whatever maturity he’d cultivated at Exeter, he’d lost in just weeks as a sophomore at Berkeley. And how shamefully. That first semester, as a break from the rigors of Spectral Analysis, he’d decided to knock off a humanities requirement with one of the English department’s offerings. The Literature of Post-War America met Tuesdays and Thursdays at nine, earlier than Hunter would have preferred, but only twice a week. The first class had left him cold. The goateed instructor, somber one minute, prankish the next, as though he were leading a rally or protest, harped for ninety minutes about something called Theory. The second class restored a little hope, with everyone reciting a verse from a poem called Howl by Allen Ginsberg. The third meeting proved better still. The assigned reading, a story about three escaped prisoners and a family on vacation, could have worked as an episode of CSI. By November, Hunter had been reborn. Born for the first time, really, launched at last into that grown-up world of beauty and angst he had always sensed as intuitively as the background radiation of the cosmos. He became a regular at the International House coffee shop, hunkered down over the collected works of Cheever or Bellow, just like the would-be intellectuals Hunter had pitied back in New Hampshire. Words then had made him feel the way he had at Exeter, after every outstretched leap from the blocks: alive.
Hunter stopped. For the first time in what seemed ages, he lifted his gaze from the trail. The snow fell with a new urgency now. At the tree line below, someone had draped a rippling sheet of gauze over every bough. A mile away, a diffuse light flashed from the interior of an iron cloud. For the briefest of moments, Hunter felt the poet’s impulse for metaphor streaking from his boots to his cap. Staring at that light, he envisioned Zeus summoning his wrath, eager to punish the hubris of mortal hikers with—with what? Nothing. Or at least, nothing Hunter could think of before the ground betrayed him once more.
It came from behind Frank in a sibilant rush: the wet scrape of fabric on snow. In that first instant, before he could stop and turn, Frank could only remember. He had heard that sound years ago, pulling Hunter in an inner tube up the powdered slope between the gazebo and apples trees out back. For a split second, it made him feel nostalgic. Forgiving.
That was all, though. A split second. Because once that passed, Frank was launched off his feet. In the second that followed, with his back driven parallel to the ground, he saw only cloud cover, arched above him like a cathedral’s ceiling. There it shone, soft and billowing, marbled with a thousand gray veins. But then his body slammed down onto the bedrock of ice below, and the muted gray high above him gave way to a brilliant flash in his head. Eons passed before Hunter’s face came into focus above him, a gaping mouth and panicked eyes where his face mask and goggles had been.
Frank didn’t respond right away. Instead, he drew a long, quivering breath that made the earth beneath him shudder. His pack had taken the brunt of the fall, but in the end, his head must have whipped backwards on his neck. How else could he explain the ache and prickle in his crown?
And his tongue. Had he lost it? No. There it was. Still, by the time he could feel the impress of his teeth, he had nearly bitten through it.
What was the kid saying? Dad. That was it. Dad . . . Dad . . . Dad, over and over again. It clawed at him, that word, nagged Frank like a toddler’s whine. “What?” he shouted back.
“Oh, thank God.”
Towering above him, Hunter wore a shroud of snow. Here on the ground, Frank flexed his toes inside his boots, curled and uncurled his fingers. “I don’t suppose you could give me a hand,” he said, lifting an arm.
Hunter clasped Frank’s wrist and hoisted him to his feet. Upright, Frank rolled his neck, swiveled at the waist, and yawned into his glove. He didn’t look at his son for that first minute, but he could feel Hunter watching him, staring like a dumb, incredulous kid at a magic show.
“Are you okay?”
Frank leveled a gaze on his son. Blood thumped behind his eyes. “You’re supposed to stay twelve feet behind me.”
“You—” Hunter began, but then fell silent. When he spoke again, the fear and wonder in his voice had disappeared. “I wasn’t anywhere near you when I fell. And I’m fine, by the way.”
“Glad to hear it,” Frank said. “Now let’s move.”
At three o’clock they reached the tree-line, but the precipitation that had started an hour ago—weather at first no more menacing than a snow globe’s—had become a squall. Since the start of the hike down, they had traded a punishing cold for a crippling blindness. The wooziness in Frank’s head had abated, but it left a bigger concern in its wake. What if he had passed out back there? Stopped breathing? Foamed at the mouth? He didn’t want to think about it, this ineptitude of his own flesh and blood, but the fact was the kid had just been standing there.
Behind him, through the veil of weather, came a muffled shout of concern. “You still feeling okay?”
“I’m fine,” Frank yelled without turning.
He jabbed a crampon into the icy ground and turned toward his son, still trailing him a few yards uphill. “What was your plan if I hadn’t woken up?” he shouted.
“No, not this—” Frank jammed his snow pole into the ground. “When you crashed into me back there. You do know your first aid, right?”
“You were down for five seconds. What was I supposed to do, start bandaging your head?”
Frank squinted through the falling snow. With the winds, it looked as though his son was dematerializing before his eyes. “A check to see if I’d been breathing would’ve been nice,” he shouted.
“You’re right, okay? I froze.” Hunter reached for the trunk of a gnarled spruce and sidestepped down to Frank. “And I’m sorry. Maybe we ought to see if I can get the ranger station on my cell. Get you checked out.”
Frank stared into the red, snow-flecked face of his only heir. Gone, already at twenty-one, were the chiseled features of a prep school athlete, the confidence of a math team captain, and the pride of Exeter’s student treasurer. Hunter’s fragile blue eyes quaked in their sockets. His nose ran. His mouth still gaped. Together, they formed the face of—well, of a bookworm. “What the hell are you talking about?” Frank asked.
“What am I talking about? For Christ’s sake, dad, we need a rescue team here. We’re on the brink of hypothermia. We can barely see the trail.”
“Hypothermia,” Frank said. “Right. Just say it, you want to give up.”
Now those baby blues sent out a flicker of rage. “Give up? Who turned us around from the summit, huh? Because I wasn’t the one gasping for air.”
Hot blood surged from Frank’s chest into his cheeks. “That’s different. You could have gotten yourself killed up there. This is just snow. Like a snow globe.”
Beneath his cap, Hunter’s brow contracted in a way nothing short of womanly. It was Nancy’s look, the exasperated stare she gave Frank every time he moved a portion of their IRA balance into stocks. What’s wrong with mutual funds? was her charge. Nothing, was his reply, if you’re a layman.
“You’re out of your mind,” his son said now.
“Look, we’re already at the midpoint. You think the rangers are going to airlift us out of here? Load us into a Jeep maybe?”
But it was too late. Hunter, already out of his pack, was on his hands and knees, rummaging through a zippered pocket for his cell phone. Out it came, a top-of-the-line Nokia for which Frank still paid the bills. Naturally.
“I’ve got a few bars here,” Hunter said.
“Put it away,” Frank said. His voice was calm, level.
“I’m not fooling around,” Hunter said.
“Neither am I. Now put it away.”
He hadn’t meant to bat the thing so far, but at times his own speed and strength surprised him. In one moment, Frank had the back of one hand raised to the level of his ear. In the next, the phone was spinning for the grove of bare sumac to their right. After the phone made its silent puff of a landing, Hunter had given Frank his usual, dumbfounded stare before bounding for the trees. Now his son was pawing the ground like a feral raccoon. At last he rose and held a fist to his waist. There was no victory in the pose now. Just the opposite. “Are you going to help me find this thing or what?”
“Would you relax? It’s probably right under your nose.”
“You’re unbelievable,” Hunter said, then bent down again.
He could feel his teeth grinding. Never had Frank spoken to his father that way, never, and it wasn’t fear that had held him back, but respect. For twenty years, Hal Brennan had punched a clock at seven in the morning and punched it again at seven at night. For fifteen more years after that, he’d worried away the last of his nerves putting suppliers and union reps in their place. Why? To make damn certain he gave Frank Brennan a better life. Well, he had. That wasn’t an MBA hanging on his office wall, no, but the community college had been more than adequate. Finance was finance, and it came with almost no effort to Frank. After five years of sixty-hour workweeks at Merrill, he had struck out on his own. After that, there had been time and money for it all. Modems and telescopes. Vacations to the Yucatan. Swim team meets in every frigid burg of New England. Now here was his son, the shining beneficiary of all that sacrifice, throwing a temper tantrum in the snow. “Just who do you think—” Frank said.
“Found it,” Hunter shouted, bolting upright. He bit into his glove and ripped it from his hand. He held one of the buttons on the phone for five, ten, fifteen seconds. Then he dropped his shoulders and cursed into the air. “Do you see this? You snapped the antennae off.”
“Good. It’s time you learned a little self-sufficiency.”
Hunter wasn’t listening. He tromped back to where Frank stood and sneered at the man who had given him everything.
“Are you ready to finish this hike or what?” Frank said.
Hunter just held his gaze, defiantly, as though pressing a button that wouldn’t activate. There was nothing in his son’s eyes now but ingratitude. That alone Frank could have forgiven. He didn’t need thanks. But to think of the colossal waste Hunter had made of it all, of the gifts and privileges he’d scattered to the winds—it was more than he could bear. Frank hung his head, inhaled a long, slow breath, and closed his eyes.
But then the kid surprised him. “I’ll lead,” Hunter said.
He used his snow pole like a blind man’s cane, sweeping his way through an arctic limbo. The trail had begun its disappearing act within minutes of his father’s little conniption fit. Now it faded in and out, like the dimly lit roads along the San Francisco Bay. Here, though, the temps were eighty degrees lower, and there was no pulling over to wait it out.
Hunter stopped, panting, and turned uphill, where the ghostly form of his father trailed him by a good ten yards. Down the old man plodded, hefting one leg after another, mulling over God knows what. The scene of a few minutes ago mystified Hunter. He had seen his father in that state just once before, on a golf outing gone awry for both of them. Even then, though, his father had aimed his wrath at the clubs, not Hunter. After today’s tumble, the man’s eye roiled with weather as fatal as that coming from the sky. When he’d stared into them fifteen minutes ago, Hunter had seen only the frosted stare of the deranged.
Slowly, his father closed in on him. “Look,” Hunter said. “You and I—”
But his father cut him off. “I’m sorry,” he said with the ice of his eyes melted to puddles. Like the penitent dad straight out of a movie, he clamped a glove down on Hunter’s shoulder. “I kind of lost it back there. I’ll replace the phone.”
He searched his father’s face, with its pall of snow whirling around it, for a smirk. Replace the phone? An hour, maybe two, stood between them and the kind of drawn-out hypothermia that left no first-hand reports for posterity. Hunter didn’t need a phone. Or he did, actually, but one that worked, and right now. Short of that, he needed to find the base of this mountain. “First things first. How are you holding up?”
“Firing on all cylinders, kiddo.”
“Look,” Hunter said, “as long as we’ve got a little light, I say we keep heading down. It can’t be much further.”
“Right,” his father said.
“But if we’re still two blind mice when the sun sets, we may have to dig a trench and huddle up.”
For the next hour, Hunter led his father through a tempest of gray and white, his only signpost the downhill listing of his body. For all Hunter knew, they could have been spiraling around the mountain, marching a hundred feet to the east or west for every ten toward the base. The low, crackling hiss of the blizzard, like white noise, sounded in his ears, while the nerves in his fingers and toes sent to his brain just one signal as dead as a dial tone. And his back. Ever since he’d slid into his father, the throbbing there had pulsed stronger and stronger, experimenting with a dozen different spasms. Now, for its coup de grâce, it sent a frozen, steel rod up Hunter’s spine to lodge in the back of his skull.
“I think we want to veer east,” his father bellowed down to him.
Hunter stopped, limped to a knee-high boulder, and sat. He didn’t want to veer east. Or west. He hung his head over his lap and pictured the book waiting for him, like a lead vest, back at the rental.
His father lurched above him now. “Did you hear me?”
Hunter kept his gaze on a white birch across from him, where its ravaged trunk unleashed an endless banner of snow.
His father lowered himself to the ground and eased his back against the birch. “The parking lot. It’s east of here.”
Now Hunter had no choice but to look at his father. The old man’s mask hung uselessly around his neck. His sunglasses sat canted above his wrinkled brow. As for the face in between, Hunter had never seen it so drained of life.
“Oh yeah?” Hunter said. “Which way is east?”
“Easy. Away from the sun.”
“Well where the hell is that? Jesus, Dad, look up at the sky. We're done here. Finished.”
His father had his eyes closed now. He yawned and tilted back his head until it rested on the trunk of the birch.
“Aren’t you being a little dramatic?”
Hunter stood up then, his thighs slashed and burned and his knees worn to a gelatinous nothing. He looked downhill, into a screen of static, as the wind shrieked by his head. Dramatic? Yes, he was being dramatic. He and his father could very well die, tonight, within a mile of where they stood now. And what did he have to show for it? No grand purpose, that was for sure. Books had shown their true colors to Hunter. They were lies, just lies, written by pretentious men and aloof women with nothing better to offer the world. And critics. Pure bullshit enablers, dignifying the whole navel-gazing racket with a jargon anyone with half a brain could have seen through. Anyone but Hunter, that is. He’d been fooling himself for the last two and a half years. He’d brought a Norton edition of Jude the Obscure out of some misplaced sense of duty. He had a paper due the first of April, but all he needed to write it was a cursory skim of the text. Well, that’s exactly what he’d give it.
Provided, of course, that he made it home. Already at five-thirty, the steel dome of the weather had blocked out all but the last glimmer of light. Barring some miracle, he and his father were in for twelve hellish hours, a night more than capable of sucking the heat from their blood and shorting the circuits of their brains. With his jaw set, Hunter turned from the killing void below them to the man responsible for putting it there. Oh, his father didn’t know what dramatic was. Not yet.
But he was hardly prepared for a lesson. At the base of the tree, with his chest gently rising and falling, his father lay on his back.
Frank had been living as a corpse for a long time now, centuries maybe, perfectly at home in his shallow grave of wet Styrofoam. Someone (his father?) had buried Frank here, leaving only his face exposed. That much he could gather through the slits between his leaden eyelids. High above him floated the black portfolio of a sky, while off to his right a fire crackled and sputtered. Maybe this wasn’t his grave. Maybe this was hell. If so, the place hadn’t deserved its reputation. In the stories, demons roasted their victims on a spit and drove burning nails through their eyeballs. But Frank couldn’t complain. This place was cozy, and every so often a face that was a younger version of his own, handsome and angular even behind its welder’s mask, would bend close, as though to offer its cheek for a kiss. Frank would have been glad to give it, too, though he couldn’t fathom the reason why. This kid, the one who seemed anxious for his affection, worked with two lookalikes: one who occasionally stoked the fire, and another who roused Frank from sleep with a gentle shake now and then. Apart from a mild hunger, this crew was ministering to his every need.
Maybe this was heaven.
The thought instantly transported him. To where, Frank couldn’t tell. At first, he took it for a beach, and then for a desert, looking down on the rippled splay of sand around his shoes. The sky, now a flawless blue, refracted the light of an overhead sun in every direction. Slowly, Frank brought the edge of an open palm to his brow in a low salute. A rise of grass, meticulously mowed, took shape a dozen feet before him, and beyond that, a swatch of yellow hung from the top of a thin flagpole. In Frank’s free hand lay his wedge, its platinum head gleaming like a diamond stud.
The haloed outline of a young man’s head jutted from the horizon. Two square shoulders and a lanky frame followed. The stranger’s gate was solemn as he drew closer to the pin. He stopped when he reached the flag and clutched the pole beneath it.
“In or out?” came the stranger’s voice.
“I’m not on the green yet.”
“You don’t think you can make this?”
“The odds aren’t good.”
The young man let go of the pin. “When did that ever stop you?” he asked, turning back to the far side of the green. As he strode away, his silhouette sank back into the ground until only a head remained.
“Wait,” cried Frank.
The young man stopped. “What is it?”
“Why don’t you hit first?” Frank said.
The stranger’s head dipped out of sight and then reappeared. His arm rose. Blades of grass swirled up and away from his outstretched hand. Recognition seized Frank. It was the same kid who, back on the cold side of the earth, had nearly kissed him. “I’m just the caddy,” he said.
The flames shimmered in his eyes. Tears, hot and blinding, had come with the first whiff of urine Hunter caught from his own snowsuit. Another fire raged in his throat, which a string of curses shouted up to the sky had reduced to a raw and bleeding tube. Every muscle, every joint, burned now. Between checks on his father’s breathing, he’d staggered from tree to fire, fire to tree, keeping a few slanting flames alive in an effort to create some pocket of warmth for himself. He’d been at it for two hours or maybe two years and the only end in sight showed itself as black and final. Utterly final.
What he’d rigged up for his father was a joke. When he couldn’t wake him, not with shouts or shakes or the six hard slaps to the rubber of his cheek, Hunter had been forced to work with the dead weight of the man’s body. In a frenzy, he’d rummaged through both of their packs for the emergency thermal blankets. He found two blankets in the recesses of each pack, stuffed inside a torn L. L. Bean bag along with a box of storm matches, a bottle of iodine tablets, a travel mug imprinted with his father’s consultancy logo, and a slew of granola bars. This had been the man’s idea of a survival kit. Hunter wrapped his father in all four blankets before rolling him into the trench he’d dug, one handful at a time, out of the snow.
By eight o’clock, the darkness was total, the air a block of ice. No moon hung in the sky. Beside him, the fire hovered on the brink of death. And yet his father kept breathing: deep, untroubled breaths that inspired in Hunter a ludicrous anger. Not twenty-four hours ago, he had shown his father the list of fatalities posted on the Mount Washington website, but what had his father called them? Ghost stories. Just ghost stories. The temptation to reach out and slap his father one more time ballooned in Hunter’s chest. So what if the man was blood? He was an idiot, and he had killed them both as surely as an executioner at the switch. Hunter stood up, shuffled closer to the dying fire, and closed his eyes. He pulled a skewer of air into nose and hung his head. It was no use, blaming his father. Someone as naïve as Hunter deserved this fate, too. He opened his eyes and lifted them upward. A pinprick of solid white light zipped across the sky. In middle school, Hunter would have mistaken that light for an airplane, but the speed of its trajectory gave it away: a satellite, one of the hundreds that might have relayed a message back to civilization, had a satellite phone been handy. But all Hunter had was a terrestrial cell phone missing its antennae. He looked over at his father, still comatose. No venom rose in his throat this time. Instead, Hunter laughed and, first sitting and then reclining onto his back, took his place beside him. The fire had turned to a single flame among embers, the only solid light the glint of reflection in his father’s sunglass frames. Titanium, he could hear his father saying, the only kind I’ll wear.
Within seconds, Hunter was on his feet, rotating the frames in his hands. Titanium was a signal transducer, a metal that might, at quarter wavelength size, perform the work of an antenna. Hunter tore off a glove, shucked the phone’s battery casing and popped the battery from its slot. He brought the phone to the whisper of flame at his feet. The device specifications swam in tiny, sans serif white before his eyes. Somewhere among all that minuscule print was the frequency. It took an interminable minute, but at last he spotted it between the model number and the stamp of an FCC approval: 1900 MHz. A quick conversion put the wavelength at roughly six inches. Divide by four. One and a half inches.
Hunter snapped the battery back into its housing before turning his attention to the sunglasses. The earpiece: there was his antenna. But how would he make the cut? The problem whirled in his brain even as his hands, of their own accord, wrested the ice axe from the loop on his pack. Before Hunter knew what he was doing, or why, he touched the blade to the earpiece of his father’s Ray-Bans. This would work—it would have to—but what did one and a half inches look like? This answer too arrived as lightening inspiration. Hunter rifled through his father’s pack, extracted the man’s wallet, and removed a dollar bill. With half-frozen fingers, he somehow managed two crisp folds, reducing the bill’s length of just more than six inches to almost exactly one and a half. Back on his knees, with the ice axe in one hand and the earpiece and folded bill in the other, Hunter went to work. The numbness of his hands worked in his favor now. He felt unstoppable, making the cuts with the conviction of a man enraged. All that remained was affixing the segment of titanium to the antenna base deep inside the phone. Here Hunter’s only option was to insert the thing. That, and pray it made contact with some remnant of the original antenna.
To hell with literature. What the moment cried out for was cliché. The perfect one surged up Hunter’s throat on twin jets of giddiness and terror: here goes nothing.
His dream was already fading. A jerk of his torso had snatched it away—the grass, the sunlight, the young man at his side—leaving only blackness in its wake. All Frank registered now was a rhythmic boom in the air just above him. Soon even that would fade. And for a moment, the prospect of cashing out made Frank almost giddy.
But the moment passed. Where would he have been, never mind Nancy or the kid, without that Brennan instinct?
And what would happen to those two if that instinct failed him now? No. If the reason he’d been tossed into this hole was a mystery, the need to climb out was plain enough. To do that, Frank would need to open his eyes. But his eyes were glued shut. He tried muscling the lids apart, straining until he could feel the lashes ripping from their follicles. Nothing. Someone nearby, though, must have seen Frank struggling, because now fingers that weren’t his own gently pried his lids apart. Whoever they belonged to blasted light into one of his pupils, then the other. Seconds later, with pools of lava shifting in his vision, Frank heard a voice emerge from the thumping in the background. The tone was Nancy’s, crisp and confident, but with a hope twenty years gone now restored. “Don’t move,” the voice told him.
Frank obeyed. Without a thought, he let his limbs go slack. A gurney. He was laying on a gurney. One without much padding. “You’re all right,” the voice said. “You’re safe.” The edge of a rubber mask pressed a circle around his nose and mouth. He’d been wearing a mask before all this, hadn’t he? But that one was made of fabric. Merino wool, for the insulation. Oh Jesus.
“Look at me,” the voice implored.
At last Frank could see. Hovering above him was an expression: not a face so much as competency and concentration themselves. Here they took their natural form — a female form, Frank could see that, and if he had ever harbored illusions to the contrary, they were demolished now and forever. But where the hell was Hunter?
“Just lie still. You’ve had an accident,” the woman said.
“Hiking. I know. Where’s my son?” Frank demanded, lifting his head. He peered down the length of his body, foreshortened by his perspective to something laughable. At his feet, a pair of thick socks had sprouted up in place of his boots. Miles beyond that, wrapped in a foil blanket, sat Hunter.
“Frank? I need you to relax.”
He couldn’t make out his son’s face there in the darkness of the helicopter’s cabin. For the moment, that was a small mercy. The voice, though, the voice was clear. “Dad,” Hunter called out, hurling the syllable at him with so much tender fury that Frank felt the tingle under his scalp rear up all over again. His son leaned forward, thrusting a naked face into the light from outside. Chalk it up to the rush of surviving, but the kid’s profile was a revelation to him now. The eyebrows. The slope of the cheeks. Frank had gotten the genetics all wrong.
“Lie down, Dad.”
It’s not that he wasn’t grateful—because he was, and awestruck and maybe a little infatuated besides — but to hear their ranger Marcie tell it, you’d think his father had outsmarted his own concussion. The man’s low body temperature had probably staved off the worst effects of the brain injury. According to Marcie, hiking in the cold was the smartest thing they could have been doing.
“How exactly did he fall?” she asked.
She stood in a crouch before Hunter, who she’d buckled into an orange jump seat the moment he’d stepped onto the deck from the hoist. They were ten minutes away from the hospital in North Conway now, riding the sound of machine gun fire through the night sky.
“The ice tripped us,” Hunter replied.
"I’m sorry?” Marcie said, cocking an ear toward him.
“My father led us over—,” Hunter started to say, but he was through with stories. “I fell and slid into him from behind.”
If she flinched then, Hunter never saw it. Marcie held his gaze as she nodded. “Well,” she said, standing up now. She reached over Hunter for a little oven built into the wall behind him and extracted a compress. “They’re going to check you out, too.”
Marcie crossed to his father and slipped the compress between his jacket and chest before ducking into the cockpit. Hunter said nothing as he watched his father tilt a Thermos up to his lips. A minute came and went. There was no silence to break, not with the blades percussing overhead, but of course that didn’t stop the man from breaking it anyway.
“Want a sip?” his father asked.
“I’m all set,” Hunter replied. Marcie had thrust a canister into his hand as soon as he’d settled into the jump seat, commanding him to drink.
“I can barely hear you,” his father said. “Come over here."
“I’m buckled in.”
“So unbuckle yourself.”
It was another asinine suggestion, but his father knew that. Irony. Wasn’t that the big takeaway from Professor Kelly’s postmodernism course? Maybe. It didn’t matter. The past three years had been a waking dream, but it was over now. “I’m not pressing my luck,” Hunter said.
“Right,” his father replied. He took another sip from the Thermos before resting his head back on the gurney. “I don’t suppose you got a chance to call home.”
Outside, in the oval of Plexiglass beside him, a wash of halogen light spilled over great heaves of nothing. The wind keened. “It’s on my list,” Hunter said. He would call his mother from the hospital. Relay the whole pathetic tale. After that, he’d fly back to California, soldier through the spring, and graduate. He supposed he’d come back east then. He would need a job, not that any qualifications sprang to mind. But that was all right. If finding work meant playing a part, so be it. He could feign confidence with the best of them.
“That poor woman,” his father said.
Bryan lives and works far from Emerald City, in the cold and gray but equally magical lands just outside of Boston, Massachusetts. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the Red Sox-themed fiction anthology Final Fenway Fiction, and the academic journal Janus Head. Bryan is a co-author, along with his wife Beth, of two beloved humans-in-progress. You can contact him at bryanfarrow.com.
— william hayward