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IDavid and I that summer cut trails on the Survey,All week in the valley for wages, in air that was steepedIn the wail of mosquitoes, but over the sunalive weekendsWe climbed, to get from the ruck of the camp, the surly

Poker, the wrangling, the snoring under the fetidTents, and because we had joy in our lengthening coltishMuscles, and mountains for David were made to see over,Stairs from the valleys and steps to the sun's retreats.

Our first was Mount Gleam. We hiked in the long afternoonTo a curling lake and lost the lure of the facetedCone in the swell of its sprawling shoulders. PastThe inlet we grilled our bacon, the strips festooned

On a poplar prong, in the hurrying slant of the sunset.Then the two of us rolled in the blanket while round us the coldPines thrust at the stars. The dawn was a floatingOf mists till we reached to the slopes above timber, and won

To snow like fire in the sunlight. The peak was upthrustLike a fist in a frozen ocean of rock that swirledInto valleys the moon could be rolled in. Remotely unfurlingEastward the alien prairie glittered. Down through the dusty

Skree on the west we descended, and David showed meHow to use the give of shale for giant incredibleStrides. I remember, before the larches' edge,That I jumped a long green surf of juniper flowing

Away from the wind, and landed in gentian and saxifrageSpilled on the moss. Then the darkening firsAnd the sudden whirring of water that knifed down a fern-hiddenCliff and splashed unseen into mist in the shadows.

One Sunday on Rampart's arête a rainsquall caught us,And passed, and we clung by our blueing fingers and bootnailsAn endless hour in the sun, not daring to moveTill the ice had steamed from the slate. And David taught me

How time on a knife-edge can pass with the guessing of fragmentsRemembered from poets, the naming of strata beside one,And matching of stories from schooldays. ... We crawled astrideThe peak to feast on the marching ranges flagged

By the fading shreds of the shattered stormcloud. LingeringThere it was David who spied to the south, remote,And unmapped, a sunlit spire on Sawback, an overhangCrooked like a talon. David named it the Finger.

That day we chanced on the skull and the splayed white ribsOf a mountain goat underneath a cliff-face, caught tightOn a rock. Around were the silken feathers of kites.And that was the first I knew that a goat could slip.

And then Inglismaldie. Now I remember onlyThe long ascent of the lonely valley, the livePine spirally scarred by lightning, the slicing pipeOf invisible pika, and great prints, by the lowest

Snow, of a grizzly. There it was too that DavidTaught me to read the scroll of coral in limestoneAnd the beetle-seal in the shale of ghostly trilobites,Letters delivered to man from the Cambrian waves.

On Sundance we tried from the col and the going was hard.The air howled from our feet to the smudged rocksAnd the papery lake below. At an outthrust we balkedTill David clung with his left to a dint in the scarp,

Lobbed the iceaxe over the rocky lip,Slipped from his holds and hung by the quivering pick,Twisted his long legs up into space and kickedTo the crest. Then, grinning, he reached with his freckled wrist

And drew me up after. We set a new time for that climb.That day returning we found a robin gyratingIn grass, wing-broken. I caught it to tame but DavidTook and killed it, and said, "Could you teach it to fly?"

In August, the second attempt, we ascended The Fortress,By the forks of the Spray we caught five trout and fried themOver a balsam fire. The woods were aliveWith the vaulting of mule-deer and drenched with clouds all the morning,

Till we burst at noon to the flashing and floating roundOf the peaks. Coming down we picked in our hats the brightAnd sunhot raspberries, eating them under a mightySpruce, while a marten moving like quicksilver scouted us.

But always we talked of the Finger on Sawback, unknownAnd hooked, till the first afternoon in September we sloggedThrough the musky woods, past a swamp that quivered with frog-song,And camped by a bottle-green lake. But under the cold

Breath of the glacier sleep would not come, the moon-lightEtching the Finger. We rose and trod past the featheryLarch, while the stars went out, and the quiet heatherFlushed, and the skyline pulsed with the surging bloom

Of incredible dawn in the Rockies. David spottedBighorns across the moraine and sent them leapingWith yodels the ramparts redoubled and rolled to the peaks,And the peaks to the sun. The ice in the morning thaw

Was a gurgling world of crystal and cold blue chasms,And seracs that shone like frozen saltgreen waves.At the base of the Finger we tried once and failed. Then DavidEdged to the west and discovered the chimney; the last

Hundred feet we fought the rock and shouldered and kneedOur way for an hour and made it. Unroping we formedA cairn on the rotting tip. Then I turned to look northAt the glistening wedge of giant Assiniboine, heedless

Of handhold. And one foot gave. I swayed and shouted.David turned sharp and reached out his arm and steadied meTurning again with a grin and his lips readyTo jest. But the strain crumbled his foothold. Without

A gasp he was gone. I froze to the sound of gratingEdge-nails and fingers, the slither of stones, the loneSecond of silence, the nightmare thud. Then onlyThe wind and the muted beat of unknowing cascades.

Somehow I worked down the fifty impossible feetTo the ledge, calling and getting no answer but echoesReleased in the cirque, and trying not to reflectWhat an answer would mean. He lay still, with his lean

Young face upturned and strangely unmarred, but his legsSplayed beneath him, beside the final drop,Six hundred feet sheer to the ice. My throat stoppedWhen I reached him, for he was alive. He opened his grey

Straight eyes and brokenly murmured, "Over ... over."And I, feeling beneath him a cruel fangOf the ledge thrust in his back, but not understanding,Mumbled stupidly, "Best not to move," and spoke

Of his pain. But he said, "I can't move. ... If only I feltSome pain." Then my shame stung the tears to my eyesAs I crouched, and I cursed myself, but he cried,Louder, "No, Bobbie! Don't ever blame yourself.

I didn't test my foothold." He shut the lidsOf his eyes to the stare of the sky, while I moistened his lipsFrom our water flask and tearing my shirt into stripsI swabbed the shredded hands. But the blood slid

From his side and stained the stone and the thirsting lichens,And yet I dared not lift him up from the goreOf the rock. Then he whispered, "Bob, I want to go over!"This time I knew what he meant and I grasped for a lie

And said, "I'll be back here by midnight with ropesAnd men from the camp and we'll cradle you out." But I knewThat the day and the night must pass and the cold dewsOf another morning before such men unknowing

The ways of mountains could win to the chimney's top.And then, how long? And he knew ... and the hell of hoursAfter that, if he lived till we came, roping him out.But I curled beside him and whispered, "The bleeding will stop.

You can last. " He said only, "Perhaps ... For what? A wheelchair,Bob?" His eyes brightening with fever upbraided me.I could not look at him more and said, "Then I'll stayWith you." But he did not speak, for the clouding fever.

I lay dazed and stared at the long valley,The glistening hair of a creek on the rug stretchedBy the firs, while the sun leaned round and flooded the ledge,The moss, and David still as a broken doll.

I hunched to my knees to leave, but he called and his voiceNow was sharpened with fear. "For Christ's sake push me over!If I could move ... Or die. ..." The sweat ran from his forehead,But only his hair moved. A kite was buoying

Blackly its wings over the wrinkled ice.The purr of a waterfall rose and sank with the wind.Above us climbed the last joint of the FingerBeckoning bleakly the wide indifferent sky.

Even then in the sun it grew cold lying there. ... And I knewHe had tested his holds. It was I who had not. ... I lookedAt the blood on the ledge, and the far valley. I lookedAt last in his eyes. He breathed, "I'd do it for you, Bob."

I will not remember how nor why I could twistUp the wind-devilled peak, and down through the chimney's emptyHorror, and over the traverse alone. I rememberOnly the pounding fear I would stumble on It

When I came to the grave-cold maw of the bergschrund ... reelingOver the sun-cankered snowbridge, shying the cavesIn the nêvé ... the fear, and the need to make sure It was thereOn the ice, the running and falling and running, leaping

Of gaping greenthroated crevasses, alone and pursuedBy the Finger's lengthening shadow. At last through the fangedAnd blinding seracs I slid to the milky wranglingFalls at the glacier's snout, through the rocks piled huge

On the humped moraine, and into the spectral larches,Alone. By the glooming lake I sank and chilledMy mouth but I could not rest and stumbled stillTo the valley, losing my way in the ragged marsh.

I was glad of the mire that covered the stains, on my rippedBoots, of his blood, but panic was on me, the reekOf the bog, the purple glimmer of toadstools obsceneIn the twilight. I staggered clear to a firewaste, tripped

And fell with a shriek on my shoulder. It somehow easedMy heart to know I was hurt, but I did not faintAnd I could not stop while over me hung the rangeOf the Sawback. In blackness I searched for the trail by the creek

And found it. ... My feet squelched a slug and horrorRose again in my nostrils. I hurled myselfDown the path. In the woods behind some animal yelped.Then I saw the glimmer of tents and babbled my story.

I said that he fell straight to the ice where they found him,And none but the sun and incurious clouds have lingeredAround the marks of that day on the ledge of the Finger,That day, the last of my youth, on the last of our mountains.

© Earle Birney