I finally found a little time to write this afternoon. This came out, inspired by a show I saw recently about mountain climbing. Got me thinking…what if you were an adrenaline junkie, a life-long rock climbing purist, but living on Mars?
Consequence cliff is rust-colored, steep, appearing much higher than four hundred feet. It doesn’t just rise, it looms. Its precipice looks like it could be scraping the atmosphere, yet compared to the rest of Olympus Mons, it’s as insignificant as a speck of sand.
The record is twelve minutes.
I’m going to do it in ten.
I have no anchors, no pitons or pins, no chalk. A true free-climber needs nothing. Nothing but instinct and power of will.
Plus, you can’t chalk your hands in a space suit.
My right hand slips into the first crevice and plumes dust like dandelion spores. My left hand opens the access panel on my sternum, shuts down my suits primary systems.
A true-free climber needs nothing. Not even oxygen. Besides, my suit contains twelve minutes worth, and I’m going to make the climb in ten.
In the swirling, red-tinged darkness of Mars midnight, I begin.
My pedometer blinks in my peripherals. It’s distracting. I find my balance, reach over, and rip it off my wrist. It drifts away like smoke. I reacquire my grip. A bead of sweat tracks down my nose, warm as bath water. My forearms are burning. I should have shed my liquid cooling layer. My suit is just over nineteen kilograms. On Mars at least. On Earth, it weighs a hundred kilos easy, and strapped inside, I wouldn’t be able to climb a flight of stairs. I take a deep breath. It rasps like static inside my helmet. Straining skyward, I find my next hold.
Martian wind whips across the cliff face, spraying my visor with quartz-sparkling slit. Instinctively, I close my eyes. For an instant, I’m back on Earth, a ten year old boy, laughing with my dad, carving my initials into the Kilimanjaro summit with an ice axe. My cramping quadriceps call me back to reality. My eyes open. Above me, an overhang waits, dares me, pointing accusingly at the dark Martian sky. I flex my fingers, first on my right hand, then on my left. The muffled pop of cracking knuckles sounds like rain on a rooftop. The canned air I’m breathing tastes medicinal, chemical. It’s growing thin. I will moisture into my dry mouth, blink stars from my eyes. I reach. I clamp. For a moment, only my fingertips suspend me. I relish it, dangling over the void. Smiling, I swing my legs up and go horizontal.
How long have I been climbing? My bones feel like smothered winter branches, poised to snap from the pressure. My muscles seize one moment, feel completely absent the next. I ignore my failing body, retreat inward. I lose myself in the smooth, static movements, the contours of the alien rock, the rhythmic pounding of my heartbeat. Somewhere along the way I inadvertently bit my lip. I taste sticky, warm copper with every breath, and now the inside of my helmet smells like death. Reaching up with a hand that feels like it’s no longer mine, I find a hold in what looks like the mountains jagged smile. I smile back.
The mountain doesn’t want to be conquered. A rock fall peppers me with dusty red slate and stones like hammer fists. My polycarbonate plastic shell protects me. Mostly. I hug the cliff face, cursing, grunting at the white hot pain emanating from my chest. My collarbone is broken. I know without even consulting my life support systems. I consider reengaging them, but only for an instant. A true-free climber needs nothing. The zenith awaits.
I crest the craggy summit with limbs that feel simultaneously on fire and packed in ice. My collarbone screams at me, begs me, demanding painkillers. I ignore it. I won’t let it spoil my moment. I draw in a shallow, hitching breath and climb to my feet. Below and beyond, the rocky Martian landscape extends infinitely. The red beacon light of the colony winks at me, a glowing pin prick ten miles South and about a thousand feet down. In the sky above it, Venus, Phobos, and Earth beckon like fireflies. The wind buffets me, reminding me to take a step back from the unforgiving ledge. My vision is blurring at the edges. I’m smothering in carbon dioxide. With a pang of reluctance, I open the access panel on my sternum and re-engage my life support. The tranquility of the moment is immediately spoiled by bleating readouts and warning klaxons. As my temperature regulates, and my air begins to purify, I sit down on a boulder to review my time.
Twelve minutes and fourteen seconds.
A new personal best.
But not the record.
Gingerly, I massage my collarbone. According to my life support display, it’s not broken after all. Only bruised. In spite of the pain, I smile.
A true free climber needs nothing.
The record is twelve minutes.
Tomorrow, I’m going to climb it in ten.