Before the Storm

A Short Story

In the close confines of the tent, her father rolling onto his back pushed Teresa’s cheek against the thin, cold surface of the side panel. She tilted her head away and forced a puff of her mummy bag next to her face. It would warm her soon enough.

On his back, her father took up more than half of the width of the tent. But she knew he wouldn’t lie that way for long.

Neither of them had been able to sleep well at this altitude.

He sighed. “What do they call it when the baby won’t come out on its own?”

Teresa turned toward him. In the darkness, he was invisible.

“That’s random,” she said. When he didn’t respond, she said, “Caesarian.”

“No, that’s when they cut the baby out. Not that. They give some drugs. Infuse…”

“Induce. Induce labor.”

“Right. Induce labor. That’s what they had to do when you were born.”

Teresa tried to see his outline, but nothing at all came to her eyes. Even in the absence of a moon, if there had been starlight, she would have been able to see him. The cloud cover must have come in while they’d been lying here trying to sleep.

But being unable to see her father wasn’t what was strange about this. He’d never begun their reminiscing game. Since she’d been a child, Teresa always initiated the storytelling when she wanted it, her father resisting half-heartedly, really wanting to tell it again but his resistance part of the game. That he’d begun this made it feel different, gave it an undercurrent that brought back her dread over what had brought them out here together.

“April fifteenth,” he said. Her birthday. “Tax day.”

Next would come some joke about how the expense of raising her was the heftiest of taxes. She’d heard one or another version of it hundreds of times over the years. Part of her yearned for it. Part of her wanted him silent, as if this time, what passed between them was more than reminiscence.

His words hung in the silence, wanting a response. She knew he wouldn’t go on unless she encouraged him.

She said, “The Teresa tax.”

“Expensive.” In his voice, Teresa thought she heard a hint of relief that she’d prompted him on. “But she’s worth it.”

The compliment made her recoil inwardly. He was supposed to sprinkle the story with jibes, with cynical remarks about fatherhood.

He continued. “Your mom wanted to go natural. No drugs. That didn’t last long.”

“Can’t blame her.”

“No. Blaming her was the last thing I wanted to do that day.”

Cold air seeped into Teresa’s mummy bag. She’d shifted without realizing it, and the movement let air in. She hugged the bag more closely around her neck. “I was beautiful when I came out.”

He snorted. “Yeah. Beautiful like a prune.”

“Well, later then.”

“That’s true. After a few days.” He quieted, seemed to be considering his next words. “And ever since.”

This wasn’t part of the game. He’d changed it entirely.

Her sense of dread took root. Teresa peered through the darkness but could see nothing of him. “Dad—”

“Do you remember the first time I took you climbing?”

The memory might ease some of what she felt. All she could recall of that early childhood day was brute impressions. The coolness of the rock in the morning against her fingertips. Thin mountain air plucking at the pores on her bare arms. Her tiny hands gripping a plum-sized handhold. The sense that the base action of toe-holding and levering yourself, of grabbing and hauling, was so fundamental and freeing that she was born for no other purpose.

But he’d never brought it up before.

“Just a little,” she said.

“You were a natural. You know that, right?”

“Dad, what—”

“Let me tell it.” A rumbling cough gurgled up from his chest and took on momentum. After the fit was over, she listened to the sound of his breathing until he continued.

“You always saw the routes,” he said. “It was like the lines just appeared for you. I was proud of you, how easy it was for you to solve the problems. When you got boxed in, you always seemed to find a way up.” He cleared his throat, and a grunt escaped. “But I resented it, Terry. I resented it. That’s the truth. I resented the talent of my own daughter. Pretty twisted, huh?”

Teresa’s mouth hung open. She closed it and tried to think of what she might say to him. “You’re probably not the first dad to feel that…”

Her words didn’t seem enough for the moment.

“That first day,” he said, “I started pointing out the route to you but you weren’t listening. You just stared at the face, tracing the path.”

“You led the pitch.”

“Of course I led the pitch. You were five.” He laughed, succeeded in stifling another coughing fit. “But you didn’t follow my lead. You took off to the right. Do you remember that?”

Now that he said it, she did remember. The moment returned to her when the progression to the right emerged—the line of holds taking on definition above her as if someone drew each of them into focus. Even at that age she knew that the route to the right would be better than the one chosen by her father.

For the twenty years since then, she’d always been looking for better ways than her father’s.

“Now I do,” she said.

“Five years old,” he said.

Teresa waited. The memory hovered there, sweet and safe in the sturdy past, on belay her father, strong as the mountain itself. And as immortal.

“Remember your first fall?” he asked.

“I thought I could reach the hold.”

“But it was too far.”

“Only by an inch. I touched it. I just couldn’t get a grip on it.”

“You were always willing to commit—” He surrendered to a fit of coughs. Something deep in his chest wanted out, but couldn’t get there.

When he’d finished coughing, the barrenness outside seemed to filter in to chill the air inside the tent.

In the quiet that followed, Teresa could now make out the familiar sounds she loved, distant and deep. She heard no breeze, but the forces making mountains lived and breathed in the thin air, and her senses tuned in to them.

She visualized the folds of the land as she’d seen them before crawling into the tent for the night. She could have named each of the mountains by the dark outlines of their shapes against the sky that had glowed in starlight before the clouds came in. Yerupajá—The Butcher to locals—was their destination, the tallest peak in the whole Amazon River watershed. Here at their high camp at fifty-five hundred meters, they were so close now that the knife edge of The Butcher’s peak had looked dull when Teresa saw it hours ago.

No one moved anywhere up there. No other climbers were within miles. It was as if everyone else had dissolved into the thinness of the air.

But it was not the air that chilled her. It was a truth.

In the tiny space that Teresa and her father occupied in this tent, the truth hovered that they were out here together for the last time, and that truth wanted exposure as if the bitterly cold air at this altitude could erode away all their evasions.

“Dad—” she began, but was interrupted by another coughing fit of her father’s.

When it subsided, he rolled over, turning his back to her, and said nothing more.

*  *  *

Dawn still hadn’t come when they geared up and headed for their summit push. Thirty minutes later, as they approached the base of the wall they would have to climb, a gradual lightening of the terrain around them told Teresa that daylight would illuminate their route before long. Direct sunlight, even if the clouds broke, wouldn’t be a problem on this face until the afternoon.

When they’d scouted it yesterday, the cornices and seracs on the left and right sides made it clear to them that to reduce the possibility of climbing into an avalanche, a direct ascent was the best approach. They hadn’t needed to discuss it.

Her father got to work setting up a belay system, and Teresa stood staring at what she could see of the wall. With the route of the first pitch settled in her mind, she picked up the end of the rope her father had stacked on the snow at their feet, and knotted it into her harness.

It signaled to her father that she intended to lead. Part of her expected him to object despite everything.

He didn’t.

As she rechecked the adjustments of her harness and the knot, she felt herself centering, all her concentration coming to a point as sharp as the tips of her ice axes.

When she was ready and fully focused, she turned to her father.

The belay device at the belt of his harness, the rope perfectly flaked away from his feet to feed through the device as she climbed, he said, “On belay.”

“Ready to climb.”

“Climb on.”

“Climbing,” she said, and with a relaxed hold on the axe whipped it high at the slope, felt the bite of the tip, tested it, and found it stable. She pulled her hips away to see where she kicked, and felt the secondary points of her crampons grip the ice. She watched her other foot strike well, and then stood tall with hips in and pulled a shoulder back to take a swing with her other axe.

The angle here was around seventy degrees, and once Teresa was twenty feet up she extracted an ice screw from her gear belt and at hip level stabbed it into a nice, blue section of ice that looked strong. When it bit, she began screwing it in, finding the resistance consistent and the cylinder of ice coming through the hollow tube without gaps telling her the screw reached no air pockets to weaken its grip. When the end of the screw was flush to the ice, she secured herself onto it with an alpine quickdraw and climbed on.

She completed the pitch easily enough and made a secure system with two anchors in good ice for a top-rope belay of her father. Looking down at him, she called that she was on belay. He began his ascent, removing the ice screws she’d set as he came and clearing them of ice and securing them into ice clippers on his harness. She kept minimal slack in the rope as he ascended.

He came not as smoothly as he used to. She wanted to distance herself from the way it made her feel. She needed to remain focused if they were going to get anywhere near the sixty-six-hundred-meter summit. But his climb was paused twice by coughing fits.

When he finally arrived, his chest heaved.

She knew how he would react if she questioned his ability to continue. So Teresa said nothing, simply focused herself on the mechanics of preparing for the next pitch.

After she completed the second pitch, the wait for her father seemed interminable. When at last he stood at her side, he looked over at her and with a disbelieving smile on his face, shook his head.

This fight in him, she thought, was what she’d always admired about him the most.

Had she idolized it? His will and determination had driven him to the highest peaks and some of the toughest routes on every continent. And it had driven her too.

It made his surrender to his illness after only a few months of treatment that much harder for her to understand. In the living room of her parents’ home, she’d argued with him for an hour over it. She hadn’t been able to accept it until he took her hands in his and looked into her eyes and told her that he could not, would not, live what remained of his life like a science project, or sedated in some room.

She watched him now, how determined he still was, still fighting, despite the horror of the declining death that waited for him.

Letting him see her cry wouldn’t help.

She swiped away her tears and cleared her throat to make sure he wouldn’t hear in her voice how she felt. “You ready to swing leads?” she said.

He brought his eyes up to her. She did her best to keep her face impassive.

He gave her a grin. “Sure,” he said, and began to reset the rope so he could go ahead.

She transferred the rope onto a belay device on her harness. When they were both prepared, she said, “On belay.”

He climbed past her up the wall.

The angle shifted closer to ninety degrees with every step. He moved deliberately, but had to stop when he began to cough.

A wind kicked up, scouring over the face to pinch at the exposed skin around Teresa’s eyes where her balaclava didn’t reach.

It had to be her imagination that the wind tried to pull her father off the mountain.

She looked up. Her father hadn’t let the wind affect him.

In another twenty minutes, she called up to him that he’d come within a meter of the end of the rope. He set another anchor and when he had his gear settled to belay her, she removed the ice screws next to her, pounded the ice out of the hollow centers and blew through them, slotted the screws onto her gear belt and climbed up after him. The exertion was a welcome change after the way the wind and cold had seeped through her layers while she stood still.

She reached her father and let her breathing catch up with her. Her weight rested on the tips of her crampons, the ice nearly vertical now. She flexed her arms one at a time and shook each one out while holding onto a set axe with the other, trying to keep the blood loose in her veins.

She looked over at her father. He gave a nod upward and said, “Your problem.”

Lifting her head, she took in the challenge above her. She would have to solve a pitch over an overhanging section. In the dim light and vaporous air, she hadn’t been able to see it when she surveyed the climb from below. But now that it was closer, with improved light, it loomed like a frozen ocean swell.

“Sure,” she said, “let me lead the easy part.”

“Ladies first.”

“Always a gentleman. Just ask Mom.”

He gave a short laugh and said, “We could downclimb. Look for another way.”

A quick glance at him told her that he wasn’t pushing for it or against it. He would let her decide. With the image in her mind of the overhang, Teresa looked around. They’d climbed into a concave section with good ice. The rest of the areas they’d passed had been cauliflowered with snow. She didn’t like the alternatives.

“I’m up for it if you are,” she said.

Her father gave a nod and they adjusted the rope system to swing leads.

Teresa stretched her shoulders and neck, drew her weight onto each foot in turn to stretch the other leg and then began.

Strike. Kick. Kick. Strike. She focused on the rhythm of it, the swing of her hips back to see her kicks and forward to come up to stand, keeping her wrists loose to whip the axes, avoiding the ice shards that flew with each strike, checking the quality of every grip of the axe points, the security of each placement of her crampons.

When she thought she was halfway to the overhang, she stopped with the intention of placing an anchor. She released a planted axe to free a hand so she could insert an ice screw when above her, a sound caught her attention. A drum roll coming toward her. Careening down the ice.

She knew better than to look up and expose her face to it. She felt for the handle of her second axe but didn’t find it. Trying to flatten herself against the wall, she wished she could pull her helmet all the way down into her shoulders.

“Look out!” she yelled at her father.

Something punched the edge of her helmet and her head snapped to the right.

The action forced a wrench of the only ice axe she held onto. It shifted.

Her other arm wheeled behind her.

She heard the rapid percussion of another thick piece of ice tumbling in her direction. She flinched away from the sound and her planted ice axe shifted again, threatened to break free. She gasped. Every muscle clenched.

The second big piece of ice whistled past her ear and caught her shoulder. It threw her off balance again. She groped for the other axe against the momentum pulling her away but couldn’t reach it.

She hung suspended by a quarter inch of the tip of the ice axe in her right hand. Her feet held, but all her weight teetered backward.

Pebbles of ice showered her helmet and the face of the wall. But she didn’t hear any more deep thuds coming.

Not wanting to strain the tips of her crampons or axe with anything sudden, she slowly drew closer to the wall.

At last, her free hand found the other axe.

When the ice shower ended, she risked lifting her head.

All she saw was the impassive face of white and blue ridges, and the overhang.

“You okay?” her father called.

Her breath on the ice came back chilled against her cheek. “Yeah,” she said, too softly. “Yeah,” she yelled.

“Wait for me, will you?”

With her right hand she removed the ice axe that had kept her on the face. The ease of its break drove home to her how close she’d been to peeling off the wall. She reached up and swung the axe. Too light. Afraid of starting an avalanche. She tried again, and this time she found a solid spot.

She heard her father’s ice axes driving below, his crampons kicking.

She took another breath. Getting an ice screw in was all she needed to be thinking about. Everything else could wait. Her fingertips trembled against the gear loop.

“Just relax,” she told herself.

Her voice bouncing off the ice two inches from her cheek sounded like a frightened child’s.

She tried again, this time shooting for a grown-up voice. “Relax. Just get the screw in.” Better.

Through the padded glove, she got a grip on the screw, and to get it through the gate of the biner she focused on the angle of it. The screw came free, and she jammed its tip into the ice. She put all the weight she could behind it, and gave it a good first twist. It didn’t grip well. She repositioned her palm against it, meaning to try again. But it snapped sideways against the ice. It flipped out and away, into the air.

It clattered down the ice.

“Look out!” she called down to her father.

The screw flipped down the slope, its tinny ting bouncing away and disappearing.

Now the wind reasserted itself. It shot along the icy face in a frozen blast.

She turned away from the wind, groping at the gear loop as if she’d be able to select the right piece by feel when she could feel nothing through her glove. She had the absurd image of sides of beef skewered on hooks in a walk-in freezer, and she was one of them.

It broke her tension. A nervous giggle bubbled up from her belly. The wind faded, as if the release of her fear took its power away.

She turned her head, the helmet scraping along the ice, and angled her face so she could see the gear hanging from her harness. Here was a good ice screw. Brand new. Shining silver, the teeth at the business end eager to bite into the ice. She unclipped it and stuffed it against the hole. One twist with her hip leaned into it, and she heard the reassuring crunch of its bite at the ice. She turned it again. It held. After a dozen cycles, it became too difficult to turn, so she angled the tip of her free ice axe into the hole at the end of the screw, and cranked it the rest of the way in. Three shoves at it proved that it was well placed.

She clipped in.

“There, Terry,” she said to herself. “Isn’t that better?” She listened for fear in her voice but heard none.

Below, her father moved up the ice.

Teresa’s right calf needed stretching, and on her left leg she felt her tibialis growing fatigued. She adjusted her hips so she could straighten her legs and put all her weight on her skeleton, resting the muscles. But she needed to move soon. The cold now took root in her, having seeped through her layers in the wind when she was occupied with fighting the icefall and bolting into the wall. It made sense to wait for her father, for a shorter belay. They would both be more secure. But if she stood here perched on this ice much longer she felt she might become frozen to it forever.

She looked back down at him. He’d climbed within fifty feet of her. His right arm didn’t reach as high as it used to because of a fall he’d taken three months ago. But it would take more than a shoulder injury to stop Joe Dyson.

Teresa flexed her fingers. She felt nothing. Her hands might as well have been made of plastic. Any longer here and she wouldn’t be able to hold the ice axes at all.

“I have to get moving,” she called.

Her father turned his face up to her. “Just give me a minute.” He tapped the ice with his crampons, the front claws catching and holding as he moved higher.

She shifted her weight from one leg to another. Her hip and knee could have been rusted metal hinges. With both ice axes secure, she risked flexing her right leg to loosen the muscles, drawing her foot well away from the ice. It was then that she noticed for the first time the woody sensation of her freezing toes.

Teresa’s father reached her.

“I have to get moving,” Teresa said. She gripped the ice axe handles, kicked, and rose.

“You okay?”

The overhang was thirty feet away now.

“Just cold.” She struck at the ice, kicked. “Have to keep moving.”

“Let me set a second anchor,” he said.

He was right. They needed to have at least two in for a decent belay.

“I’ll be quick,” he said.

It only took a minute, another two to get the straps set properly between the anchors and their backup rope established in his belay device. Since he’d climbed up after her without a top-rope belay, he’d left the screws in below, and the rope attached to them. They would have to leave their first rope here.

She knotted in and began climbing without saying a word as soon as he looked up at her. With the motion, soon her joints started to loosen, and her limbs seemed to liquefy from a frozen state. But when she stopped at the butt of the overhang she still had no sensation in her fingers and toes.

She looked over the shelf of ice to find where a piece had broken off to nearly take her out. It was a foot to her left.

An ice screw. Working at that would give her a chance to gather herself. She chipped out a starter hole and the insensate nubs of her fingers picked out a screw from the gear hanging from her belt. She managed to set it. The motion of cranking it in seemed to pump more life into her bicep and forearm. But still nothing in her fingers.

She set a biner in the screw and roped in. The overhang loomed above her, waiting for her to try it.

Her hands had all their strength. She just had no feeling in her fingers. Maybe she could do it. This wasn’t piano playing. She carved out a firmer step and called down to her father, “My fingers are numb.”

His lips tightened into a line. He looked on either side of her.

“I don’t see a way around it,” he called.

“No.” She’d already considered this. The overhang stretched the width of this section of the wall. A vertical crack bisected it, and that gave them a spot to wedge in a foot.

She held onto the ice axes. Flexed her fingers against the handles. She kicked some short steps to the side to adjust her approach of the crack while sticking with her axes, testing each strike as she moved closer to the crack. The gap looked more meager as she drew nearer to it and the reality of her reliance on it settled in.

But when she had her left foot jammed into the crack, she felt stable enough to lean into the ice wall and allow herself the luxury of letting her right arm dangle at her side while the other kept a grip on an axe. She shook her hanging arm gently, gravity helping her blood flow.

The wind swirled up. She switched hands to shake out the left and looked up to check the sky. It was purpling to the east. If the sun shone anywhere, it hid behind a thickening band of clouds that had grown and shifted while she’d been occupied with the climb.

A storm was coming.

With an axe, she tested the ice at her hip. It looked good. She found a screw and jammed it in, twisted, and when it got purchase she began screwing it in, watching for gaps in the cylinder flowing out of the hollow screw, glad for consistent resistance all the way in. She added a carabiner to it and looped her rope through.

Both ice axes in hand, she read the contours above her. The crack was going to help, but after a few moves, most of the work would be with her arms and hands.

“This is why you do all those pull-ups,” she said to herself, and flexing her fingers, feeling more sensation in them now, she looked down. Her father’s belay system looked perfect, the second anchor set at a slim offset angle, the rope secured to the sling between them. Knowing her thought, he gave them a pull to prove it for her and said, “On belay.”

“Ready to climb.”

A second passed, and she felt the moment sharpen into a razor of focus within her before her father responded and she took it in as if he were whispering in her ear, “Climb on, girl.”

She looked at him and couldn’t help but smile. “Climbing.”

The simplicity of what was ahead freed her from every other concern, every distraction that might take her concentration from it. She loved this immediacy, this urgency where the entirety of existence distilled into the balance of pick and crampon, the shift of weight, the reach and kick that would inch her upward until the overhang would be behind her and the ice might level.

With successive strikes, she brought her axes closer to vertical over the foot wedged into the crack, brought an axe clear and lunged high off that foot. The strike was strong and she found a good stick with her other foot and cleared upward for the next strike, higher and more overhanging. The crack gave her one more foothold and she let each arm dangle for a few moments, and then got serious.

She brought a hand high on an axe handle, put the handle of the other axe in her teeth, and with both hands holding the stuck axe, she found the crack with her right foot and kicked up with her left, grabbed the axe from her mouth and struck high, testing the axe hold. One more alternating move like that and she reached the route she wanted. She would have to leave the security of the crack behind.

Her left foot was solid. She leveraged up on it and stretched high to stick the left axe in a slight horizontal ridge in the ice, tested the hold, and brought her weight onto it. Both feet now came up to crouch under that axe, gripping the overhanging ice. She hung there for a moment, assessing. Then she mouthed her right axe handle, switched hands on the stuck axe, grabbed the other one with her left, leaned in that direction and arched her back for a high strike.

Twenty feet from her last anchor, there was no way to set one now.

She tested the hold of the left axe. It felt very good. It would have to be.

To reach the next strike, she had to leverage that left axe with a figure four.

She put the handle of one axe in her teeth and held the other axe with both hands and brought her left leg over her arms to raise her center of gravity higher. Pulling her weight up onto that raised left leg, she freed her left hand, and with her left leg still resting on her right forearm, grabbed the axe from her teeth and struck high with her left hand. Bringing the right axe out, both legs dangled for a moment until she kicked up to find some support.

A whoop from her father far below barely registered.

She visualized the next move. She hadn’t done it before but could see how sequential figure fours would flow, all her weight on one hand and then the other.

The wind passed over her, stroking the clothes against her skin, a caress from the mountain.

One axe in her mouth, Teresa brought her left leg over her arms again, freed the right this time and leaned into the high leg as she drew the axe from her mouth and struck out and upward. Solid. Now with both legs high, she swung her left leg around off her left wrist and over her right. Her weight on her right arm now, she wrenched the left axe out and flung upward with it. She rose, a grunt escaping her chest.

Her father shouted. “Look at Terry go!”

She found a hold for her crampons. It gave her no purchase against gravity’s draw, but it could propel her farther out onto the overhang’s lip. This was the last big move. She would jack herself out and had to set the axe with the first strike. For a moment she closed her eyes. She visualized it, the way in one motion she would jerk the ice axe free and immediately push out with her left leg and swing the ice axe out and behind and upward with all her force.

Her eyes opened. The darkness of the sky surprised her and softened her focus for an instant. But no. She drew her concentration back within herself.


She wrenched the ice axe away and kicked herself up and out into space and she flung the ice axe back, upward, all the torque she could find from every muscle in her body focused into one in-line swing. A cry echoed off the ice—a wild woman’s voice.

The tip of the axe plunged into the ice.

One foot slid out.

She hung by her hands. Her left ice axe was farthest ahead, her right lower on the ice. She looked up and back. The lip of the overhang was within reach. Beyond it the purpling sky cut a clean line. One more strike and she would be back to vertical, or maybe something less than ninety degrees.

She kicked upward and a crampon scratched at the ice. Another kick and a claw found it. Then the other. They weren’t bearing weight, just pushing out toward the axes.

A yank with her right hand dropped all her weight onto her left. With her right, she struck out and up, shoving with her feet. The axe bit into the ice. But it didn’t feel right. She took a breath, and readied herself to rely on her left grip again. A wrench with her right wrist and the axe came loose easily, and she struck again. Better. She pushed toward it with the tips of her crampons.

Another axe strike and a push with her feet and she crested the overhang.

One more and the ice leveled into something less than vertical, so she could rest. Her father shouted her name, but the angle of the overhang below her dimmed his voice too much to make out what he said. She brought her left knee up to her chest and jammed that foot into the ice, and looked up.

A sixty-degree angle topped the overhang, and fifteen feet beyond it lay an even more level spot. There, she could gather herself and the gear and prepare to belay her father.

She carved a firmer step and her chest heaved. Somehow a smile found its way onto her face.

An ice screw came into her gloved hand, and she made it bite the ice and screw into it. When she’d clipped in, she called over her shoulder, “Give me a few minutes.”

Her father called back that he would wait.

At the more level spot, she positioned the belay in both an upward- and downward-pulling direction since her father outweighed her by at least fifty pounds. When she was confident in all the anchors, she clipped herself into it and looked down at the rope against the lip of the overhang.

“On belay,” she called.

Her father’s voice, echoing from below, answered back, “Ready to climb.”

“Climb on.”

“Climbing,” he said.

Teresa watched the rope, and listened. Her father had been climbing for ten years before she was born, but with age he’d had to work twice as hard to maintain his strength and balance. His daily regimen of pull-ups, pushups, sit-ups—all the ups in the world couldn’t be enough to prepare him for this climb with a fatal illness at his age. And his right arm was still weakened from that fall three months ago. He would have to favor his left.

A fit of his coughs swirled in the air with the whistling hiss of the wind. Teresa felt the retreat of the sun behind thicker clouds in the dropping temperature, lower each instant, inhabiting the air with searing cold. She pressed her face to the brittle shoulder of her coat, trying to shield herself from the wind. But it did no good against this cold.

She brought slack out of the rope and made fresh kicks with the heels of her crampons.

Teresa listened to his heaving breaths and grunting but couldn’t see him. The only way to measure his progress was by her ability to draw more rope toward her. He should be close to the area where she’d done the double figure four. She didn’t think he was limber enough for those moves, not anymore. He would have to rely on that injured right arm. There was no avoiding it.

Her father shouted.

The rope flexed and stretched into a thin, quivering line. It yanked her forward.

But her belay system did its job. It stopped her from being pulled to the precipice.

“Are you okay?” she called.

From the other end of the rope, her father shouted, “Yeah.”

The rope, thin as a pinky finger, stretched over the ice and nearly disappeared into the layer of snow covering the crest. Her father would be hanging from it out in space, at least three or four feet away from the slope.

She could never haul him up. She didn’t even try.

Against the edge, the motion of the rope told her what he was doing. Below her view, he hung out over space, a thousand empty feet below him drawing him into a fall. He would be trying to get a shot at the overhanging angle of the wall with an ice axe. If he’d had the foresight to keep a loop of rope handy, he could tie a prusik knot to haul himself up the rope itself. She was about to call down to him with the suggestion when she heard a chink in the ice below. He grunted. Another strike. The rope held steady. It thickened, his weight off it for the moment. She took an inch of slack through the belay device and heard him growl.

Teresa whispered, “Come on, Dad.”

He still had the strength. She knew it. She’d seen him dangle by his hands a thousand times, chinning up on his bar or wherever he could find a hold wide enough to grip if only with his muscled fingertips. And he had the skill.

The rope stretched taut again. It yanked at her pelvis.

Her father’s frustrated wail echoed against the darkening sky.

The nearest ice screw in her anchor system crunched against the ice. A crust of ground snow appeared at the bottom of it. She could see a tiny gap of black at the top, where their combined weight had yanked it down twice now.

She wanted to get another ice screw in to back up the weakening one. But that meant letting go of the rope. No good.

She heard him strike the ice. Again. The rope thickened. The gap at the top of the ice screw vanished. It was loose.



She struggled for the right words. “It would be better if you didn’t fall again.”

The wind answered, ringing in her ear, swirling, pelting her with sandy pieces of snow. She heard nothing else.

And then a terrible thought occurred to her.

If her father wanted to end things here and now, with her, in an assault on one of the tallest peaks in South America, this was how he could go out. With one stroke of a knife against this rope, he would have no more doctor visits, no more needles, no hospital, no pain, no drawn-out, miserable, suffering death.

“Daddy,” she whispered, “please,” and her hands seized the rope as if it tied his will to hers.

She fought the tears. They might freeze her balaclava to her face.

With a grunt from below the overhang came a slam of an axe in the ice.

“Come on, Daddy,” she quietly prayed.

Then she heard the irregular rhythm she longed for, the chink of his axes, the bite of his crampons. She kept the slack out of the rope, watching the loose ice screw as if she could fix it by staring at it.

She saw something out of the corner of her eye and turned.

An axe flashed beyond the overhang. Its tip pierced the ice.

He shouted out and the other axe cycled up and plunged in.

Then her father’s helmet, his face, and finally his shoulders, drew into view.

Their eyes met.

He gave her a wink.

Teresa shook her head at him and laughed. “I hate you,” she said.

He pulled himself higher and Teresa brought in the slack. “Liar,” he said.

Her father would come to her then, and they would have time for a short rest. They would sit together and reassess in light of the weather change. They would take stock of their condition and supplies. They would consider whether to turn back or continue higher.

But now, with those moments still before her, Teresa simply watched the familiar movements of her father as he rose to his full height on top of the overhang and stepped up the steep ice toward her. She listened to the sounds of his exerted breathing against the counterpoint of the crunch of his crampons on ice and the way the wind peppered her helmet with snow it tossed at her from the slope to the east.

He would ask her why she’d set a double anchor, question if she didn’t believe in him. And he would ask her why she didn’t have a cup of hot tea ready for him.

She could script it.