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Chris Kalman Pens Mountain Fiction About the Climbing Life, Loss and Patagonia

Excerpt from Chris Kalman's upcoming novella shows Patagonian scene.

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Chris Kalman is a climber and writer living with his girlfriend and their dog in Fort Collins, Colorado. His work has appeared in Rock and Ice and Ascent, and he is an associate editor for the American Alpine Journal. The below is an excerpt from his novella As Above, So Below, a project supported by the Banff Mountain Wilderness Writing Workshop.

Kalman writes in an email to Rock and Ice:

“I started writing this in the winter of 2014/15, while I was living in Maryland. I had lost a few different friends that year to climbing accidents, as well as my partner’s father to cancer. It all put me in a really difficult head space, and I would get out of bed at night unable to sleep, and walk downstairs and start writing.

“This book just kind of came out of me, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I wanted to use fiction as a way to talk about these subjects a little more deeply and vividly.”

The author on top of a new route in Sequoia National Park. Miranda Oakley on left. Photo: DREW SMITH

From As Above, So Below:

The town of El Chalten had been bustling when they arrived. Dave hardly recognized it for the ramshackle collection of dilapidated houses and forlorn dirt roads he had visited decades ago. There were street lamps now. The road was paved. Painted signs and placards advertised all manner of goods and services: La Vinería, Domo Blanco, Supermercado la Tostadora Moderna, Hotel Laguna Torre, Walk Patagonia, Mountaineering Patagonia. Patagonia? This place had grocery stores, icecream shops, sightseeing tours, internet cafes, refugios, campgrounds, restauranteshospedajes, and ferreterias. This wasn’t the Patagonia Dave recalled – this was a veritable metropolis.

“It’s changed a lot,” people told him. But he hadn’t imagined this.

Still, modernization has its advantages. Their arrival to the bustling town coincided with a week of bad weather. High winds and driving ice pummeled the serrated range. “In my day” Dave told Aidan between bites of cheese and meat-filled empanadas, “you just sat in an ice cave and waited for the wind to stop.” The boy very nearly yawned, having heard this spiel before. “We could always just go bouldering,” Aidan suggested, “I heard the bouldering is really good.” Yuck, Dave thought. Bouldering.

Dave and Aidan interspersed grocery shopping, jogs, and bouldering sessions with long vigils in front of the computer. For hours they sat glued to the screen, refreshing weather forecasts at dial up speeds, plotting out their objective. If the temperature was cold, they should try a couloir; if warm, a sunny rock face. Other climbers—from modern day Messners to anonymous dreamers—deliberated in dark corners over mugs of coffee or glasses of beer. This pair or that would look up briefly to discuss some nuance of the forecast—say, the drop in wind speed from 3-6PM on Saturday—then back down to their illumined screens. From all over the world, climbers travelled here, apparently, to talk about the wind. Their faces poked out of down coats, perpetually cast in a bluish haze.

On Wednesday, the forecast began to hint at a break. An array of windsocks and numbers showed a temporary abatement of the storm winds that had buffeted the range for weeks. Much to Aidan’s elation, it had been far too warm for ice to form up stably. That meant they would attempt a rock objective. The window of good weather was short, but adequate for a smash and grab attempt. After two days of clear skies and low winds a snowstorm would blow through, and the weather would turn south again. By then, though, they would be back in town celebrating.

Of course all the other climbers saw the same forecast and the small town came alive with the buzz of commerce and preparations. Strange looking men and women rushed around from store to store, emptying the shelves of pasta, bread, tea, tobacco and anything resembling an energy bar. They spoke in Spanish and German, in Japanese and Korean, in English accents that neither Dave nor Aidan could decipher, though it was their native tongue. The store clerks loaded bag after bag, and in the guest houses and hostels names like ExocetCerro Torre and Fitzroy hung in the rafters like a haze of cigarette smoke.

By nightfall, most of the climbers were gone, and the town was eerily quiet. Here and there, pairs of headlamps dotted the hillside, ascending towards the mountains like constellations in the night sky. As Dave and Aidan walked through thick forests of beech and pine, the clamor and cacophony of the busy afternoon faded into somber birdsongs, gurgling streams, and rustling leaves.

“Why don’t we try the Cassarotto like the Germans?” Aidan asked, when they paused to drink and briefly rest.

“Because, Aidan, think of the weather. It’s been so warm, and windy. The mountains will be falling apart. It would be foolish to climb beneath other parties – stones that have been there for thousands of years will be coming down the next few days.”

“Don’t you think the Germans probably know that already? It’s not stopping them.”

“Sure, the Germans know it. But the Germans are relying on luck. Or at least on being first. I wouldn’t rely on either.”

They walked to the end of the forest, and then continued another two kilometers up a dusty and stone-strewn moraine. At a large cairn, they cut up a steep and talus-covered hillside, their calves and quads burning under the weight of their gear. An hour later, they passed a handful of tents in a flat and rocky meadow. They did not stop to inquire about the plans or identities of the occupants, but carried on undeterred. At the edge of a snowfield, they put on crampons, and took out their ice axes. They crunched across the hardened snow, up to a pass strewn with rocky escarpments, found a break in the ridge, and descended the snow covered slope on the other side to a massive glacier which stretched out beneath them like the wrinkled and corrugated belly of a great white whale.

When they reached the great glacier, they glanced up at enormous dark towers, which jutted like black fangs into the starlight-milky sky. The lights from El Chalten were long gone and out of sight behind them now. They carried on up the flat expanse of the glacier’s tongue for another hour, until they reached a plateau where the slope steepened toward one of those dark sabers. They pitched a tent, drank water, and slept.