Glitter And Despair, Raw

This is the original version, maybe even before it was edited at Climbing Magazine. A rewritten version appears in Kiss Or Kill but I don't recall immediately how much I had to clean up. In any case, I usually prefer the raw draft of anything because I believe it closer to what the author truly means and not what he thinks he needs to say in order to sell.


I hear the pitter patter of tiny claws on my stairway and shiver with the fever. I stare across vacant rooftops into the fluorescent high-rise windows; television screens that look down upon the ooze of the city. The waste is atrocious, garbage piled in the alley-ways gags the stoutest throats. I can see the migration of crippled homeless people as the winter forces them south. I pretend to empathize.

 The rats are everywhere. I used to fight them, I used to care a bit. Today I retreat, I hide. In the the pulsing streets I watch the battles both inevitable and lost. I sleep wrapped in the cynical strength of my arms, peace interupted by thoughts of my discarded past. The bones show through my smooth hard skin - they are not broken yet. I am starved of emotional nourishment, denied respite, refused satisfaction. I accept this punishment for overstepping my limitations. I failed as miserably as is possible. Every poisoned breath I share with this city is penance for being unable to overcome.

 The nights are filled with lips that don't move and cynicism that kills my pen. I wake up wearing a  necklace of unfulfilled dreams. Last summer I overflowed with the wild hope of youth. I was a young man and faithful to my goals. I was concentrated, fierce and alert; a mercenary fighting an epidemic of the lame and the weak. Today as I reach for my death-stick cigarettes I can only laugh at my deficiencies. I'm not disappointed with myself any more. I used to hide my tears because tomorrow is another day, now I let them flow for much the same reason.

I was strong. I could have done anything. I seethed with desire, believing in my own self-importance, stroking and blessing my ego. Ambition was so precious; I worshipped it and stole for it. I rationalized every evil thing I ever did by weighing it against my ambition. I wanted to be a God without enduring the boredom of sainthood.

I trained. I punished myself. I thought that if I could make myself suffer on a day-to-day basis it would prepare me for climbing hard at high altitude. I slept on the floor. I carried ice in my bare hands and I beat them against the concrete, just to see if I could handle it. I never missed an opportunity to train. I ran stairs until I vomited, then ran more.

I ruined relationships to get used to the feeling of failure and incredible loss (it was actually easier than holding on). I trained in the gym on an empty diet to find out how far I could push myself without food or water. I imitated and plagiarized the heroes that lived and died before me, speaking only strong words and ignoring weakness at every turn. I subdued my fears. I was opinionated and direct. I became a man either well loved or truly hated: I was ready for anything.

I went back to the South Pillar of Nuptse despite the warnings, despite my bad dreams. I knew I could handle it. I knew I'd summit even in winter, even in carnivorous winds and crippling temperatures. But our greatest technology was impotent against the winter storms. We watched in silence as piece by piece, tent by tent our base camp was destroyed. The murderer was benevolent with us by comparison to the two lives it claimed a scant ten miles away. We faced the wall awed by the storm's power, but we couldn't return to a quiet place without first watching this get a whole lot worse. I thought I knew the meaning of the word  "wind" until I went to Nepal in winter. I finally understood after hearing the howl for days and nights strung on end. The jet engine drone shook my organs. It conjured up  atavistic feelings, "I should be in a cave - underground". The pit in my stomach came from the wind. I wanted a bunker, not a nylon bag. Three days later we packed our gear. The two of us were incredibly small in the vast clarity of himalayan winter. We approached the pillar knowing we were doomed and knowing that we were beautiful for hoping our ideals would triumph over the heaviness of fear.

On Christmas day I searched for perfection, for God under an ultraviolet sky rather than beneath a crucifix. Haloes from deep breaths wreathed our heads, distressed and furious. I watched nightfall without moonrise. The sun had gone down on our efforts to find a bivouac cave. Blood and hope and sweat froze all at once in the dusk.

New Years Eve I lost all feeling in my feet and hands. I'd belayed Jeff for hours as he did what he does best on radical mixed terrain. The pitch would have been ED+ in the Alps. We were at nearly 23,000' .

When he climbed I loved to watch his hands. He placed his tools with a caress, without shattering the rarified ice. I was seeing applied perfection - years of practice - but doubt beat its way in with more determination each hour. I wondered whether our efforts were going to be sufficient. By questioning at all I began to fail.

The storm arrived while we slept. In the morning it whipped this way and that, freezing eyelids, nostrils and eventually words in our throats. I screamed at Jeff to hurry-up (I was more worried about losing my fingers than my life). He never heard me. I dropped a jumar. I dropped my belay plate. I carelessly lost some of the keys to success. Tears froze on my cheeks before they could disappear into the snow.

That night I shivered. I couldn't force my body to obey me. Into the air of our one man bivy tent dripped the smell of ten days' effort; the ammonia odor of the body burning muscle tissue in order to survive. I was overcome with the sickening and sweet taste of defeat. There was the respite from tortured struggle combined with the relief of knowing that there was absolutely no hope for success. By morning I'd succumbed to an attack of amoebic dysentery. I shat in my altitude suit, unable to get it off fast enough. After the first time I cut my underwear out, but after the third time all I could do was leave the shit where it was. Without conversation Jeff and I agreed to go down.

Wind and darkness surged across the frozen wastes, our shattered bodies moved restlessly. We could not feed them enough. As dusk approached we crept across the ghetto of boulders, our headlamps sometimes erie, then like rockets in the fog. The hours wore on. The moraine wore us down. Total darkness ambushed us short of our destination, our fearful eyes were riveted to the rising scythe of a moon. At the last moment I figured out what was killing me. It wasn't the quick blow of an axe, but the slow torment of the rack: each day I was weaker, each hour a little more sick, with every night that passed I danced a bit nearer to death. I began making life and death decisions like I was choosing between two brands of beer. In the end, I knew it was time to give up and consider escape the only success. I gave way to fear, trading my dreams for the bland taste of survival. I turned my back and crawled away.

I sold all of my gear in Kathmandu. After I got I home I threw away all of the elitist books in my apartment. Eventually I tore down the pictures of summits and dream climbs from around the world. I promised that I would never ever go back to the mountains. I vowed that I would not climb again.

The bed embraces me warmly. I accept the solace it offers. I went to the edge, I thought it was important, I thought the view would be crystal clear.  Now I don't care. I give in. I give up. I just want to be ordinary; to have meager needs and mediocre ambitions. I want each day to be enough on its own - without the risk or fear or the pressure to succeed. I wish that I was like everybody else. I squeeze the plump face in my hands and its bland eyes ask me for encouragement. A frail voice distracts me, hoping to find consolation in my company. But my shoulder's not for comfort, my hand not for support. I cannot give anymore. Time bleeds away with every heartbeat and I carefully inspect my lean bitterness of purpose. The weight of it forces me to the bed, sprawled face down. I sleep through my nightmares now (because I've seen how bad it can get), because I'm not afraid of them anymore.


But the threat still lingers like a steel sprung trap

Though obsession rests

I know it will attack without warning

Possession will come back and disrupt the quiet

I know that sharp and dripping teeth

Wait calmly behind seductive lips

Wait to crush

Wait to tear

With vicious violent and hungry breath

I know that sensitive eyes

Rest quietly behind fiercely made-up lashes

Behind a calculated mask

Capable of opening without consent

They are neither placid nor menacing

I bow my head once more

And while ambition sleeps inside of me

I content myself with memories of

Glitter and despair

Mark Twight
Mark Twight