Descent into Darkness, by Adam Bradley
Her pen sketched lines across the page. She was sitting cross-legged on the sandy earth, feet tucked comfortably underneath her body, her back rounded and her head bent down in a picture of absorbed concentration. On her knees lay open a battered yellow-leafed diary, the open page packed with tiny handwriting and with neat little drawings adorning the margins. A few yards away from her were pitched two small tents and above her head the gnarled boughs of a thorny tree stretched out, its highest branches basking in the rusty light of the evening sun. An observer might have noted that she looked entirely alone, the makeshift campsite lost amongst the grandeur of the surroundings.
The spell was broken. A distant shout drew her gaze away from the diary – nothing sinister, just the reassuring cry of one climber to another, of another pitch finished and an anchor firmly placed. She lifted the diary up to head height, using it to shield the glare from her eyes, and scanned the rock face for a glimpse of how high her friends had climbed. The cliff was gradually turning a deep blood-red in the light of the evening sun, the warm sandstone towers now casting an infinite shadow over the sandy plain. She had lazily charted the climbers' progress over the course of the day, glancing up occasionally to see them ever pushing on up the stunning natural line. So slowly had they seemed to move from her distant vantage point, their pain, fear and sweaty determination completely obscured by their remoteness. Her silent urges for speed had gone unnoticed, unheeded. She sighed, and resumed her comfortable pose to become once-again absorbed in the pleasure of putting pen to paper.
Time passed. She stretched and looked up, placing the book on the sand beside her. She could now see the leader again; he had perched on a small ledge only a rope-length away from the rounded summit of the tower. She leaned forward and squinted, trying to distinguish which of the pair had pushed out this penultimate pitch, but he was hovering in the deep shadows, leaning back against the rock to brace against possible mishap. She could see the rope stretching down, her eye drawn by its line, carved across the featureless upper half of the pitch. Lower down, it became lost in a jumble of blocky, looser-looking rock. She knew that camouflaged somewhere in this band the second must be waiting impatiently, anxiously looking out at the deepening twilight and the lengthy descent.
Another cry echoed down to her – this time it was a leader's incitement for his second to climb, though it carried a hint of impatience, or reproach for tardiness. She scanned the rocky band again, and was rewarded this time by the sight of movement as the second appeared chameleon-like out of the distant patchwork. Now, focussed on him, she was able to follow his progress, seeing his tiny limbs spread out across the rock. He stopped, briefly, and the faint tap of metal against metal hinted that he was absorbed in freeing a well-bedded wire. He moved off again and she imagined that she could hear the distant metallic click of the carabiner's gate as it snapped shut onto his harness. The thought of the familiar sound jerked her out of her reverie of concentration.
She stood up and shivered for the first time, more from the rising tide of anxiety for the safety of her friends than from the cool of the evening. But the involuntary movement drew her away from her fears for long enough to kneel down and stoke the still-glowing ashes of the fire. The embers glowed warm now, and she threw on a couple of fresh logs from the nearby pile. Immediately they began to crackle, and a thin plume of smoke rose vertically into the still air.
The second had now reached the ledge. She could imagine the terse exchange that was taking place – the clipped, anxious words of advice, necks craned up to visualise the route, an outstretched finger pointing out a subtle feature. Dry mouths were moistened with the final brackish dregs from the shared bottle, but time was too precious now to waste – what had been a dying glow in the western sky had long ago ebbed away to a uniform navy hue, deepening as the minutes passed. For a moment she saw movement again, but now the leading climber was no more than a growing extension of the deep black of the shelf. He was moving faster as the gradient eased, a shadow flitting in and out of the creases of the upper wall, pausing rarely to recap on his surroundings or to protect his ascent.
A short scream made her blood run cold. Immediately she froze, as the human echo gave way to the chilling crash of sandstone hitting sandstone. Once, twice, three times she heard the rock smash off the upper wall, and then the shrapnel-sound of gravel as it shattered into countless pieces on the lower tier. The silence of the evening made every noise, every cadence, the sound of every tiny pebble hitting earth ring clear across the void. She desperately scanned the rock hunting again for the source of the sounds, but her shadowy figures had now disappeared for good. Another shout rang out, the same voice and this time more urgent - she braced herself, willing the other to acknowledge. Seconds passed, minutes, hours. Again he shouted – this time the weak reply echoed back up and the tension snapped suddenly and the pent-up air released itself from her lungs in an out-rush of relief.
She stood there rigid in the deepening gloom, features barely discernible in the flickering firelight, head tilted to one side, straining to decipher any of the shouted conversation, but the words seemed to be sucked into the lonely silence of the night. The cries slowly waned in volume and became further separated. In time the distant exchange became indistinguishable from the crackles of the burning logs. She longed to move away from the fire to try and catch one final noise from her friends up on the rocky peak, but the suffocating blackness of the night had finally folded in around her and she was trapped, immobile in the fire-lit circle.
Looking away from the fire she could see only the vast gulf that lay between the safe, cosy intimacy of the camp and the knife-edge on which the fate of her friends now balanced, as they descended into darkness, overwhelmed by the night.
Adam is the winner of the 2008 UKC/International Literature Festival Writing Competition. His essay was read aloud by Ian Smith at the Kendal Mountain festival, and was listened to and enjoyed by some of the top climbers and climbing writers in the world.
The two runners-up will be published on UKC soon - watch this space.
Thanks go to Stuart Littlefair for the use of his excellent photograph.