I sat on the raw wood bench outside the hut. The sun had yet to show from behind the rugged peaks, and the whole big mass of Mount Cevedale towered over me. Jagged peaks and crevices carved themselves into the twilight, ridges and gorges cut through the rock with surgical precision. The glacier’s soft fur draped itself over these shapes, white amidst the black and grey. I had an urge to reach out with my hand, perhaps to feel the texture of the icy coat.
A creak of tired wood. Good morning Bear Grylls, said Mattia. He was holding two steaming Styrofoam cups. What counsel are the mountains bringing today?
I smiled. They look so close. You feel like you could touch them.
The only feeling I have is I wanna get back in bed, Mattia said.
It’ll shake off as soon as we get going. I took a swig of coffee.
We sat for a while, our breath rising in plumes over our heads and into the crisp air. The only sound was the roar of the many streams coming down from the ices, passing on their way to the green valley below.
You’d think we’ve fallen into a postcard, if not for this racket, said Mattia.
It’s part of actually being here, and not in the postcard.
Mattia lifted his arms and stretched. I don’t know. It unsettles me.
I went inside and packed the jackets and the emergency thermal coat and the water flask in my bag. I thanked the German maid and walked out. Mattia was sat on the bench, wiggling his leg as he scrolled through his phone. It says there’s loads of minerals in this region, he said.
Nice. I shouldered my backpack, my eyes on the Cevedale. You ready?
Let’s go. I clipped the strap across my chest and we set off.
We trundled up the dusty path, stepping over rocks and down narrow slopes and twisting into the face of the mountain. Our boots thumped on the hard soil like the beating of drums, and this gave us pace and drove us on. Our breaths clung in the cold air like daggers, and they rose over the rumble of the gorges. My heavy and deep breaths, Mattia’s fast and quiet ones, like a constant whisper.
Mattia stopped. One moment, he said. This right here. This is agate.
I looked back. Are you sure?
Mattia was turning a hand-sized stone an inch from his eyes. He squinted at it. Nah, probably not, he said finally.
OK. We have to keep moving.
Mattia chucked the pseudo-agate and it rattled off the slope.
You know not to throw stones downhill, I said. The rattling stopped.
Especially precious stones.
I looked at him. Come on, we have a while still.
I think that’s the peak right there, Mattia said.
Could be. Maybe it’s the one behind it. Let’s go.
It can’t be that much further. We’ve been going on for a while now. The maid said two and a half hours.
I sighed. I unslung my bag and put it on a boulder. I took my flask from the side pocket. Water?
We drank and set off again. Stretches of trail appeared in front of us past bends and boulders. My calves screamed with each step, but I relished the pain. Sweat dripped crimson on the red stone and crawled into my eyes. We talked. We felt the textures of each other’s lives. The sweat and the tightness of the path drew our souls out for scrutiny, as if teased by the limpid air. We sensed where they converged and where they differed, but they wound together nonetheless against the hard mountain.
Surely it is that peak there, Mattia said.
We’d flanked a valley up to an escarpment from where a murky gorge scarred its way down. The path zigzagged up the valley’s left wall.
Dull thuds as he caught up. We walked. The peak wasn’t this one, and it wasn’t the next one on, either. We crossed that same gorge further upstream, jumping from stone to stone over the rushing water. I held my bag tightly against my body. Mattia eyed the gaps between the rocks with suspicion before taking each leap.
They didn’t think to build a bridge, did they?
Why don’t you build one?
We made our way through a murky flatland of melted ices encased in red stone, a swamp piled with afterthoughts of the land. Here the water’s grumble subsided, but a cold wind swept down from the glacier as if screaming at the two intruders.
I think we gotta cross this.
What? Mattia took the opportunity to stop.
The glacier. The maid said we gotta cross it.
We’d climbed a shelf over the flatland and could now see a great white tongue of ice licking down from the left. Beyond it many peaks chiselled bits from the sky. They were trimmed in white by the recent snow.
I put my bag down and took out Mattia’s jacket. Want it?
Mattia looked ahead. Yeah, sure.
I gave him the jacket and took mine and zipped it to my chin.
Fucking glacier, he said.
I looked ahead, squinting at the sunlight that reflected off the ice.
I pointed at the highest peak in the crest. That must be Cima Rossa di Saent, over there.
Mattia grunted. And that the pass. He squatted to look at a pile of stones.
Damn bloggers find minerals everywhere. Don’t know where they find them, he said. Let’s go?
I lifted a hand to my eyes. I’m still trying to figure out how we’re gonna cross.
How about right through the middle.
I looked at Mattia. What?
Right there, grey line through the middle. Thin air working on your brain? Mattia patted me on the back and started walking forwards.
Shit, you’re right. I slung the bag onto my shoulders and started after him.
We set off across the ice, which was crumpled into small gleaming clusters. It crunched, but our soles left no imprint. We crunched on, and the wind swept across the alien landscape. The going was choppy and the distances ephemeral. We were trapped in this maze of white and the pass loomed above us.
Mattia stopped. Man, it looks like we aren’t making any progress.
We’ll get there. Look behind you.
Mattia turned back. The grey trail cut through the ice straight and true, a downhill reflection of the way forwards. He put his hands on his knees.
This ice just gets me out of the mood.
I lifted my gaze to the Cevedale, peeking out from behind the red rock.
What, said Mattia. What’s that face?
I don’t know, I like this place.
Me too. We could build a nice igloo and come live here. What do you think?
I smiled. Come on, let’s go.
We set off once again. Step by step, we crossed the vastness and soon the rubble wall beneath the pass was upon us.
Last few steps, I said.
We stepped onto the muddy rock and our mountain shoes gripped the soil as if grateful to be out of the ice.
Whew. Mattia was looking the way we’d come. It wasn’t even that far, after all, he said.
Imagine skiing down. You’d be at the bottom in like a minute.
Sure you would.
Thirty metres separated us from the top of the rise. We walked halfway up, to where a landslide had torn away a horizontal section of path. The rocky soil was muddy from the ice and when I put my foot forward, a hand-sized stone dislodged and tumbled down.
Careful here, I said. The soil gives way.
Mattia chuckled. I can see that.
I grabbed the side of a large rock which jutted out of the muddy wall and used it to keep my balance. I moved sideways, as if negotiating my way through a thin crevice. There was a small lump of soil sticking out from the steep rubble drop, and I put one and then both feet on it. It sagged under my weight but seemed to hold. I looked at the path ahead.
Falling rubble. I turned and Mattia was crouching low and leaning against the muddy slope. One foot was firmly planted in a depression in the earth, the other was swinging limply in the air. A shower of stones tumbled down the slide, onto the ice twenty metres below.
I crouched and leaned forward. I put my right hand on the stone I’d used to aid my passage and reached out with the other.
Here. Give me a hand, I said.
No. I’m good, man. Don’t worry.
I looked at Mattia’s eyes, two dark spots in his taut face.
Seriously, I got you.
I said don’t worry.
I pushed back and got my balance again. I turned around and scrambled on. My feet sunk at every step and the soil threatened to give way. I flicked a glance ahead and took a last leap to where the path emerged from the rubble, but my hands gripped a rock which came loose and fell past my face. I lost my balance and flew backwards.
Whoaaa. I tore into the muddy side of the cliff with both hands, digging deep with my nails. At last, I came to a halt. I pulled myself back up.
Fucking hell, I said. I was panting. I looked at the stones racketing down.
That could have been you, man.
Mattia was right behind me. He dug his left foot into the side of the cliff and tested the hold, then stepped easily onto the path.
That’s right, I said. That could have been me. I wiped my muddy hands on my trousers and looked at the drop.
We walked up the last stretch in silence. At the pass a wooden pole had been dug into the ground and set firm with a circle of rocks at its base. The sign read Bocca di Saent sud – 3121m. On the other side of the pole, an arrowed sign pointed back the way we had come and read Rifugio Cevedale. Beyond, the path walked into nothing, and under that nothing were the vast floodplains a thousand feet below, where wild grass grew and a stream, pregnant with glacier water, cut through the green.
Finally, Mattia said. He collapsed at the base of the sign.
I set the bag down and looked around.
On either side, the jagged line of the crest carried on and rose and fell like the spine of some prehistoric creature. It curved inwards, enclosing the sea of white out of which we had come. Mount Cevedale towered proudly above it all, gleaming in the dazzling light. Everything else in the sky-blue day was red rock.
What a place, I said.
Sure. Can I have some water?
There isn’t any. I grinned.
Very funny. Give it, fast.
I raised my eyebrows. I reached down and pulled the red flask out of my bag.
Mattia took the flask and started tipping it over his open mouth.
I’ll be damned –
Mattia stopped. He looked at me.
I’ll be damned if you don’t let water fall out that way.
Mattia tipped the flask once again. He kept his gaze on me as he let the water trickle into his mouth, drip by drip, then he puffed his cheeks and gulped it down.
Here you go, he said. I figure you earned it more than me.
Oh yeah? I took the flask.
You got damn close to not drinking any more water in your life.
I shrugged, then took a swig. You know I’m going up to Cima Rossa.
Mattia studied the pile of rocks at the base of the sign. He picked up a small one and frowned at it. You sure that’s a good idea?
I took a long swig. Positive.
Alright then. Mattia chucked the stone. Well, don’t ask.
I’m not asking.
To the left of the path, the jagged rock crest rose and then dropped out of view and then rose up again to Cima Rossa. White patches of snow winked on its surface.
You want the last of the water? I said.
You’re gonna need it more than me.
I screwed the cap back on. Thanks.
We sat for a while. Wind gushed through the pass, as if trying to drive its two ridges further apart. I stood up.
So here we split, Mattia said.
We lingered for a moment in front of each other, then I turned and slung my bag over my shoulders. I faced the crest, then turned to look at Mattia.
So I’ll see you in a couple hours.
Yes. See ya.
I clipped the strap on my bag shut.
So how am I meant to get down from here?
What do you think?
Well, you’re the one who brought me here, so.
Just follow the path.
He sighed. Alright.
I started walking off.
Hey man, Mattia said.
Be careful. Your mum already hates me.
The hell she does. I pulled on the straps and looked at the ground. Don’t worry.
I began climbing the layers of red rock which laddered their way up to the first rise. I turned. Mattia was trotting down the path right before it bent out of view.
The tiny white face looked up.
If I’m not at the hut in a couple hours, tell them where I was headed.
My voice rolled across the rocks. Mattia raised a hand and was gone.
I made easy progress to the first rise. The crest was several metres wide, and it curved down gently on both sides. There was no path, so I could walk wherever I wanted. My breath coated the silence and I trod across thin patches of snow. They were flaky under my feet, and wet. I looked ahead, and the many fragments of red rock gleamed like shards of glass in the sunlight. Sahara waves were coming off them. I opened my jacket, but no wind blew through it now and I lifted a hand to my forehead. It came off wet, too.
I followed the crest, negotiating my way past jagged rocks. The sharp edges left imprints on the insides of my hands. I scrambled up a shelf which jutted out diagonally, struggling to find grip on its flat, rugged surface. I looked behind me but there was no trace of my passage along the crest. Pink Floyd played over and over in my head, Nick Mason juggling with my heartbeat.
Is there anybody in there?
Leather fibre, slithering on rock. I recoiled and lost my footing. I set my left foot behind me, and the stones ground into each other under the sudden weight. I waited, my ears a shower of falling stones. My foot held.
Just nod if you can hear me.
I looked at the steep dyke to my left, fifty metres down to the glacier. Stones were toppling down and Nick crashed on the drums. A rock twinkled in its fall. Perhaps a mineral.
My eyes darted from surface to surface, and every crevice and depression held a hissing menace in its shadows. Tentative steps brought me forwards as I reached out with trembling hands. The mountain. The hard mountain where you are alone. I scrambled on. I passed a small depression in the crest, and then the final climb to the top lay in front of me. Down to the right, the floodplains lay like a dream, and what had to be Rifugio Dorigoni was a tiny black speck in their middle. I pulled myself up onto a large boulder, and a few metres away was the cross, jutting out with a general defiance to the outdoors, its wooden poles held together by a rusted metal wire. I wavered forward like walking barefoot on gravel. I reached. I touched the cross and banged against the faded wood, then I just leaned on it with closed eyes. The summit was only a metre wide, with a sheer drop in every direction. I took a few steps pawing at the ground and reached a tiny pile of rocks. I collapsed with my bag to the side, putting an arm around it for fear that my sole companion would topple down.
In every direction, layers of mountains stretched out under the sky’s blue vault. A narrow, steep gulley cut downwards to the sea of ice. The flatland we had crossed lay beyond, and further still, the land dropped into unseen valleys and rose again to the grey and white forms of the Paganella. Mount Cevedale scrambled out from behind the red ridges which encased the glacier, as crisp as ever under the sun’s slow rays. A gleam on the white summit, perhaps the metal cross. To be there would mean to tower over all.
Compelled by a sudden urge, I started grabbing hand-sized bits of red rock and piling them into a small tower next to where I sat. This barren land would bear witness to my passage. I shoved stone over stone.
A far cry. I leaned to look below. A tiny black dash was cutting through the ice, racing across with uncanny speed. It quivered, adjusting its wings, then dove out of view. I looked from the half-finished pile of rocks, to my palms. A trickle of blood was snaking down the side of my hand. I licked the cut.
The wind had stopped now, and for a while I just sat there, my irises reflecting the dazzling colours. Then I looked down at the whole big mass of the glacier stretching out below like spilt milk. My mouth was parched so I took out the flask and raised a shaking hand. I took a long swig, but the water tasted metallic like betrayal.
My phone buzzed. I marvelled that the connection would work up here. I pulled it out and opened the last of four new messages. A picture of a stone split in half flashed back at me. Inside it, a maze of soothing patterns of violet and purple velvet.
I found an agate! the message read.