He woke up the next morning just as the sun was beginning to lighten the eastern sky. Squirming out from under Lorelei’s head on his shoulder he sat up to look around. Aside from several more inches of snow deposited during the night, they seemed to come through unscathed. I guess Ralt’s magic protected us after all, he thought in wonder. He filed it away for future reference.
His movements woke up the rest of them.
Within a few minutes, they had a pot of tea brewing on the tiny stove, lit by a tiny spell Ralt referred to as a cantrip. Watching how quickly and easily the fire was lit Storm felt a moments envy at the ease of it. If he learned to do just that one spell, it wouldn’t make him a real wizard, would it? He filed the thought away for future reference as well.
After a quick breakfast of hard tact, jerky, and cheese, Ralt took down his wards so they could attend the call of nature. When they were reassembled Storm started breaking out the mountaineering equipment.
“We stay roped together,” he began without preamble. “Everyone wears a climbing belt around their waist with a snap link.” He handed out six-inch wide belts to each of them. The belts were made of sturdy leather with metal rings fastened every few inches around them. The snap links were D-shaped metal rings with a spring-loaded closing gate on them. “You put a loop of rope through the snap link,” he said, demonstrating for them. “If you slip, or feel yourself starting to fall, you can yank the back end of the rope around your waist. The rope clamps down on the snap link and you stop.”
He bent to retrieve more objects from their packs. “These are called crampons,” he said. He held up a dangling assortment of spikes and straps. He began fastening them around his boots and calves from memory. After some adjustments, he stood up. The straps fastened around the tops of his boots and the meaty part of his calf. The inch long metal spikes protruded out from either side of his legs and underneath his soles. “Every time you step up, make sure these spikes are set hard on the cliff before you make your next move. On a cliff like this ‘thank God’ holds are few and far between, so don’t take any chances. Make sure your spikes are set good and tight.”
“Excuse me, Professor Storm,” Ralt interrupted him. “What are ‘thank God’ holds?”
He ignored the sarcasm. “It’s the kind of hold you get when you slip; you reach out blindly and get lucky enough to grab on to something that keeps you from falling a thousand cubits to smash your skull on the rocks. You collapse and go, ‘Whew! Thank God!’ Got it?”
“Uh, sure,” Ralt muttered uncomfortably.
“Good. Well? What are you waiting for? Put them on.” The more time they had for questions the more nervous they would get. Lorelei was already white as a sheet. He was deliberately rushing them to prevent their fear from taking over.
Everyone bent down to put on their crampons. Storm circled them, making sure the straps were tightened properly and the spikes adjusted to his satisfaction. Little details from his long-ago experiences at mountain climbing began coming back to him. “We don’t wear regular gloves either,” he announced when they were done. He held up a pair. “They’ve got roughened patches on the palms and fingers for a better grip.” They put them on gingerly, grimaces changing to grins when they realized the gloves were warmly lined with fleece.
After laying out the ropes and pitons he made sure their packs were tightly fastened and their weapons were tied into their sheaths. He put the loops of rope around one shoulder. “I’ll go first. I’ll hammer in each piton with this.” He held up a long-handled axe with a hammer opposite the jagged blade. He tied the dangling strap at the end around his wrist. The rest followed his lead, tying their axes around their own wrists. “If we’re climbing over ice you can slam the axe blade into the ice and pull yourself up. The bottom side has these teeth in them to hold it in place. Then you pull it up and out when you’re ready to go on.”
He gave them a few more preliminary instructions then led them over to the cliff, scanning it for the best place to begin their ascent. Finding a place that looked good he hammered the first piton into a small crack in the rock at knee level. He took a hundred foot length of rope and tied the end securely to his belt. Next, he passed it through a snap ring on the end of the piton. He tied the rest of it to each of them at twenty-foot intervals with a complex double knot that could be unfastened with a single pull, freeing them at once if necessary. Then he hammered in several more pitons until the last one was as high as his head. He pulled the rope up, slipping it through the snap link on the end of each of them.
“OK. We’re ready to go. Remember, just move slow and careful and everything will be fine.” So saying, he stepped up on the first piton and their climb began.
It was slow, nerve-wracking work. At each step, he had to scan the cliff above for the best route to take, the most likely spots where he could hammer in another piton. He also couldn’t afford to get one of them jammed in too tightly or Durin, at the end of the line, would never be able to get them out again. Their heavy weight prevented him from carrying more than fifty and they could ill-afford to lose many of them. On the other hand, if he hammered one into crumbling or loose rock it would come out under their weight. He had nightmare visions of one of them falling and pulling the rest down like peas on a string popping out of a bottle.
He tested each new piton carefully before trusting his full weight to it. Once he was sure it would hold he pulled the rope up, secured it through the snap link then stepped up to hammer in the next. A short length of rope with a snap link tied on each end tethered him to each piton in succession, at chest level, in addition to the main rope linking them all together. It enabled him to lean back and work with both hands while he hammered in the pitons.
When Durin stepped on the second piton he bent down below his feet to use the hooked end of the ice axe to pull the lower piton out then string it to one of the loops dangling from his climbing belt. Each piton had to be pulled out the same way. Like Storm, he too had a short rope he secured to a piton to allow him to use both hands in collecting them. The farther up they climbed the more of them he gathered. Periodically they were forced to stop to pass the retrieved pitons up the line to Storm one at a time.
Lorelei and Ralt had the easiest time of it. All they had to do was climb. As each piton reached waist level on them they had to disengage it from the safety rope above their climbing belts and re-secure it below their belts. Even though it was a one-handed operation Storm insisted they use additional ropes like he and Durin were doing to anchor them in case they lost their grip on the cliff.
Their path was not simply straight up the cliff. Often there were no suitable sites to set the pitons and Storm had to climb sideways until he once more reached someplace where he could climb upwards again. Going sideways across the cliff face was in some ways even more hair-raising than going up was. He had to lean far out, sometimes nearly horizontal to hammer in the next piton for them to stand on. Every time he had to remember to keep the pitons close enough together so Durin, with his shorter reach, would be able to pull them out safely.
At one stop to pass the pitons up the line Storm leaned out to gauge their progress and saw with dismay they had come less than two hundred feet. Looking up he estimated they had three times as far to go and it was already late morning.
Ralt saw his expression. “This is your idea of saving time?” he puffed from his position below Lorelei. “Wouldn’t it have been faster just to go around?”
Storm shook his head. “It would have taken us weeks instead of only a day or two.”
“A day or two!” Lorelei yelped. “You can’t be serious! I’m not climbing this thing at night! You’re crazy!”
He grinned down at her, anticipating her reaction to his next words. “Of course not. When it gets dark we’ll sling our sleeping bags between some pitons and go to sleep.” She didn’t disappoint him. The air virtually crackled and turned blue around her as she spat venomous bile at him. He listened appreciatively, admiring her command of language. Some of the curses she hurled were new even to him. She finally wound down, muttering something about men. He glanced over her shoulder and saw Ralt and Durin grinning widely at him. He slipped them a wink then resumed his climb.
They paused at noon to eat.
It was a delicate task. He had to hammer in extra pitons for each of them to fasten their belts to so they could lean back over the drop under them while they unslung their packs to retrieve their food. He took advantage of the break to once again gauge their progress. After some thought he concluded glumly they would still be less than halfway to the top when the sun went down. Despite his earlier words to Lorelei, he had never done it himself; he’d only listened when the guides talked about doing it.
He kept his thoughts to himself as they put their packs back on and started up again. Whenever he had a chance he ran his eyes over where he thought they would be when they were forced to stop, looking for anything that might make their nighttime stay on the cliff easier; an overhang, a cut-in, anything. As the afternoon progressed he found himself trying to hurry as he realized there was nothing, absolutely no shelter of any kind to be had.