“The Edge… there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.
– H.S. Thompson
My life is bounded by high mountains, falling and rising on single steps. It begins with college friend Dave pulling himself over a five-foot knob of ice that I’ve just cleared near the summit of Orizaba. My best friend, Jerry, waits below, third on our rope.
We started in darkness, headlights winking like pale reflections of the millions of stars above. Now, it is 6 a.m., and the sky is incandescent. The mountain glows. There is no wind, but the thin air bites with cold. I glance up at Orizaba’s ice-sheathed rim. A few hundred feet, and we’ll stand on the highest place in Mexico.
One hell of a way to start a college semester.
A tequila-soaked train trip from Nogales, Arizona, to Mexico City. Jerry grinning, bulletproof, as he flung away the cap on the biggest bottle of Sauza I’d ever seen. The sweat and funk of a third-world country. The volcano rising 18,800 feet, white and dreamlike.
Higher than I’ve ever been, I think.
This – this is it.
Suddenly, there is downward motion. Dave somehow tips cresting the bluish-white lip of ice. His crampons skitter as he struggles for balance.
“Falling!’’ he yells.
I drop and twist face-first toward the 45-degree slope to drive my ice axe in. I’d fallen before and often tested catching myself with a self-arrest. Butt first. Then roll your belly downward. Dig in the pick of your axe. Stop the fall.
Before I get traction, I am airborne, jerked downward by the force of Dave’s fall on our climbing rope.
My head slams into something. My next clear sight is of hurtling past Jerry as he plants his body into the ice to brake our fall. A loop of climbing rope hangs limp from his harness.
A thought flashes: Surely he can hold us. That is how it’s supposed to work.
But Dave and I have tumbled 60 feet – far enough to be falling 40 miles an hour and accelerating fast.
Another thought flies. This is going to be tough.
The rope tightens and tugs Jerry off the slope. Suddenly, he, too, is weightless. We careen downward. I realize I’ve never fallen long enough to have time to think about what is happening to me.
This is going on too long. We are going way too fast. We have to stop.
I twist onto my stomach and kick. Nothing. The ice is too hard for my crampons.
My head is screaming: Gary, you have to stop.
Another hard twist and I somehow swing my ice axe toward the frozen slope. It bounces off, smacking me hard over my right eye.
Adrenalin becomes rage
Metal shredding the ice sounds like shrieking.
The pick of my axe finally catches. I slam to a stop. I kick, and the front points of my crampons bite. I look up.
Jerry and Dave rocket downward, out of control.
I have to hold on.
Our shared rope rips at my waist harness.
This is like a slingshot.
My body leaves the ice too fast for my brain to register that the tether of my ice axe is around my left wrist. The ice axe stays put, holding my arm, until my friends’ freefall rips my hand free with a final jolt.
I come to in an awful whirl of light and speed. My eyes half focus on boulders just below.
Too damned fast.
No choice now. We will stop.
I am dead.