A Vertical Odyssey of Extraordinary Peril
When novice climbers Trevor and Gaspar attempt Mount Silenus they discover that inspiration from a famous book makes a poor substitute for experience. Accuracy is important on mountains, especially one darkened by legends of a prehistoric sloth — the Abominable Unau — and the indigenous people who make sacrifices to it. As the text bears less and less resemblance to the terrain, squabbles over its interpretation become a battle of faith vs. reason. Those are best fought on flat surfaces.
Why does a man climb a mountain? To taste the distilled essence of life, to glimpse the clandestine maneuvers of his soul, and because he believes everything he reads. For two high school teachers who skipped their climbing classes, a masterpiece advocating spontaneity over skill proves irresistible. Unknown to them, the reclusive author honed his technique scaling barstools and brooding over the unjust fame of Nietzsche. He ignored eyewitness accounts of the Abominable Unau for stylistic reasons. Stories about wrathful apparitions infesting a labyrinth of caves didn’t make the cut either.
During a quixotic journey in the general direction of the summit, Trevor and Gaspar join a scientist investigating paranormal activity on one of the plateaus. The book fails to warn about traps set by the mountain people to protect the sacred site from desecration. When they fall into icy catacombs they must confront the source of the legends to survive.
“Driving, page-turning force” Publishers Weekly
Inspired by a disastrous attempt on Denali, Mount Silenus began as therapy for Post-Traumatic Mountaineering Disorder (PTMD). Some events never recede on the horizon of Time. Dismissing them as the past is wishful thinking. That they occurred before other things is a trivial property, incidental and irrelevant to the sovereignty they wield.
The DSM is considering the addition of PTMD. Maybe now they’ll find a treatment. Journal Therapy makes things worse. Developed by Aloysius Schwankmeyer in the 1940s, it uses second person POV to give the sufferer an Objective distance from the trauma experienced. Jablonski filled hard drives with descriptions & analyses of what happened to him, then projected it into the eyes of characters spanning centuries. Calling it a “novel” is a form of denial.
They squeeze between amber stalagmites and squat beside a man whose patience abandoned him before his spirit. An ice axe remains frozen in his hands, its tip slathered with the red lacquer coating his face. The holes in his forehead could be mistaken for spider eyes.
“What was the hurry?” says Trevor. “I heard death by hypothermia is painless.”
“How does anyone know that?” says Gaspar. “Were volunteers assigned different ways to die and asked to rate them?”
Their breath expands and dissipates in the cave, joining frenzied thoughts long ago freed from the ice man’s skull. The flashlight summons forms from the void like a wand brandished by sorcerers. A mushroom of ice towers over them, its oak-thick stem withering below a luminescent rotunda. The shapes on the ground are not rock formations. Not yet.
“Look what some of them are wearing,” says Trevor. “I’ve only seen gear like this in old pictures.”
“They didn’t fall in at the same time. Look what else they have. Does that book look familiar?”
“What an interesting coincidence.”
“I see the beginning of a pattern,” says Gaspar. “I’d say this warrants skepticism of the remaining chapters.”
“What else would they have been reading, a book on beekeeping?”
“They should have. It’s an interesting hobby with few casualties.”
“How could waiting to die be the lesser evil?”
“No accounting for taste. Maybe they came back after going down there.”
The passage descends toward a purple light surging beneath chandeliers of fused crystals and aborted supernovas. Calcite nubs protrude from the path like hands reaching for their ankles.
“Let’s wait for help,” says Trevor.
“My survival instinct says we should be a bit more proactive. Patience hasn’t been an effective strategy here. I’ve heard of waiting rooms but this is ridiculous.”
“Dr. Zardeen was next to us when the crevasse opened. There’s no sign of him.”
“What’s the bad news?” says Gaspar.
“Gentlemen,” calls a distant voice.
“Doctor, did you notice a group of climbers in the passage back here?” shouts Trevor.
“They might need first aid,” says Gaspar, “but take your time.”
“They are quite dead. They were probably too frightened by what’s over here. Hurry, gentlemen. This is what I have been looking for.”
Strange light caricatures Gaspar’s and Trevor’s silhouettes as they approach, as if in mockery, making them appear no less fantastic and alien as the indigenous formations. In darkness the ice men continue their vigil, rebels holed up against the army of time, saved by an intercessor no less ruthless.
The fossilized tidal wave doesn’t dominate the horizon. It is the horizon. In its midst, as though some deluded pharaoh ordered the construction of pyramids and his servants made no attempt to point out the difficulties, angular chunks bulge, their icy patterns akin to webs spun by drugged spiders. Staring too long invites visitors. Faces like rough drafts by Edvard Munch cascade down the gnarled slabs, warning those who would approach, morphing, fading, always reappearing, a waterfall of tortured specters. Which is worse, that these are properties of the mountain or projections from your mind?
Snowflakes clack against the window. You trace and retrace an outline of Mount Silenus like a man gazing into a crystal ball who’s trying to alter its revelations. Emerging from darkness like a shard of the moon, this avatar of human insignificance evokes something worse than disillusion, something less definable than dread. Its permanence assaults you with the reminder that regardless of any Pyrrhic victories you will lose the Big Game, the waiting game. What hatched from this shattered egg, some famished devourer of man’s esteem?
Buck up. Your company is exemplary. From Simeon Stylites to Thoreau, Emerson, Dillard, and Kaczynski, visionaries have sought clarity from Nature. Join them. From this perspective you’ll regard city life as more revolting than a knot of vipers slithering under a rock for warmth. Instead of spending your mornings shaving in the rearview mirror and screaming at kamikaze drivers while a vein throbs on your forehead, meditate with the ultimate elder, the mountain. One morning with this master will teach you more than any book, more than any degree. In the way physics theorems can’t convey the spectacular finale of an imploding star, the immediacy of experience eludes all translators and transcriptions.
Listen. It sounds as though Nature herself has summoned you, knocking with the imminence of Beethoven’s Fifth, removing a barrier between two realms to call her lost child home after his sojourn in the abyss. Perhaps her ways are only inscrutable to those who ignore them. Hear her sweet voice. Why is she speaking Spanish?
It’s just the maid. You’ll have to leave the room, if not for a hike outside at least to the observatory. The bar? Very well. Begin your journey back to Eden by discussing it with your fellow visionaries in a smoky gin mill. The disparity between Paradise and the inferno devised by man will seem even greater. Our bloodlust to destroy as much of Nature as possible will be exposed for what it is: the jealous rage of failed artists bent on destroying the one standard against which their tinkerings will always seem derivative, tawdry, laughable, as nothing at all.
Another drink? Don’t second-guess your sensitive nerves. If that’s what it takes to keep those dark thoughts on a short leash, so be it. Soon you will exhaust your demons on frozen hills and exult as they die of exposure.
Don’t stare at the disheveled man two stools away. As if you’ve never engaged in a Socratic dialogue with yourself. He may be on the cusp of a vital conclusion and you scorn him for overstepping a mindless social norm. No small part of your quest for the Truth in Nature should involve a scathing critique of society and its discontents.
“It’s like they’ve all agreed not to talk about it, so anyone who does is crazy,” he says, chewing a fingernail that shouldn’t be harvested for at least two weeks. Eyes as pink as raw salmon protrude from dark puffy lids.
He’d be having this conversation even if I wasn’t here, you realize, feeling as though you’ve wandered onto a stage with an animatronic creation going through its preprogrammed routine. But that stage includes you. What programmed it, and why?
“Is insanity determined by consensus or biology?” he says. “It’s nothing but a label, a curse they cast on folks who call attention to unpleasant truths, a blood libel against nonconformists.”
There but for the grace of God.
Don’t tell yourself that. He chose this path. You’re not even tempted to argue with yourself in a crowded bar. (Right?)
“And people have seen it,” he says. “That’s what I don’t understand.”
No, the only thing that needs “a good bath” is your harsh judgment. Do you think John Muir bathed everyday? Why should vain concerns of the flesh take precedence over the imperatives of the heart? Isn’t this the mindset you’re hoping to realign? The boy has left the city. Now the city, that defiler of the soul, must leave the boy.
“Seen what?” you say.
“The Abominable Unau. Are you pretending you haven’t heard about it?”
“I just checked in. My boss made me take some time off. I came here to relax.” So I don’t wind up like you.
For shame. Why has lashing out become your primary instinct? Has confinement to a cubicle turned you into a desperate predator with no prey except those you relegate to the status of losers? And this is what they mean by civilization.
“The Abominable Unau lives in a cave on the Introspection Plateau,” he says, “about a third of the way up the east side.”
Feeling the flame that burns inside each man, all of which come from the great fire started by the Primeval Arsonist, you warm to the tragic character. “Why do you call him the abominable eunuch?” I suppose I’d be abominable too if deprived of the sole reason not to discharge a .357 into my mouth. Wouldn’t life in a cave compound the misery? Jake Barnes took up fishing.
“Unua! Abominable Unau. You just want to laugh at me like all the rest of them.”
“I’m sorry. I misunderstood. You mean it’s a Megatherium, a prehistoric ground sloth?”
“One and the same.”
“How can it be abominable if it’s a sloth?” Does it smell like you?
Callow, cruel, and demonstrative. In the way flippers once became feet, our lust to slaughter those different from us survives as a need to ostracize them. Hopefully the crimson tint of your soul will be cleansed by the mountain snow.
“It’s the size of three elephants,” he says. “It came after me.”
“The mountain folklore is full of legends about troubled spirits.”
“This was a giant sloth.”
“Maybe it was the ghost of one. We hunted them to extinction. It was on the Discovery Channel.”
“There’ve been other witnesses.”
“They probably saw an obese hiker in a fur coat. Go take a look in the lobby. There’s ten potential Megatheriums checking in right now.”
“Smartass, just like the rest,” he says.
“How can there be only one? Does it split in two every few years? A single representative of a species can’t survive. There has to be a group. That’s why talk about the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot is silly.”
The bartender gives you an approving once-over. That might be the most intelligent thing she’s heard all year. Pray she doesn’t ask for an explanation. In the funhouse mirror of a stranger’s eyes you can appear as a scholar or hero, but not for long. Soon a brood of miscreants will appear, cavorting in obscene parody of your carefully sorted assessments. Is there an accurate reflection, a Real You? Wouldn’t you have seen him by now?
“Gravity is the least of your worries on Mount Silenus,” says the man. “It’s up there, watching.”
“The abominable eyebrow — I mean unau?”
He glowers at you, then hunches over his drink like a mangy squirrel holding a nut.
“In the morning I’m going to climb the mountain,” you tell the mirror, as if the presence of a witness forces the future to sign a treaty of unconditional surrender. Lie on the bed and close your eyes. Enter the interstellar craft that transports you from the dying galaxy of Today to that next distant star system, Tomorrow. Has it always existed, awaiting your arrival? Ponder this well, little spaceman.
Zeripaldi said that Tomorrow does not create itself from nothing any more than you did. It is the descendant of all prior days, cursed and blessed with their DNA, existing in design long before birth, its parameters already decreed, part of a vast causal nexus of which nothing stands independent. Look at your fingerprints. The minutest details of Tomorrow are no less predetermined, which means somewhere out there you have already summited or fallen. Whether you stand atop Silenus or die of exposure with bones protruding from your thighs is already writ into the fabric of things.
“Remind me why I give two shits what Zeripaldi said.”
In the darkness Mount Silenus inches closer. Ask a geologist. If you wait long enough it will come to you, to what’s left of you, to crush your bones into dust. Consider a room on the other side. The shuffleboard court and pool will postpone this for a century or three.
“I’m not hiding. It’s a big chunk of rock. I’m going to climb the damn thing when I wake up.”
Loosen your robe. Relax. Watch TV. Three Nurses Gone Wild leap from the screen and prance through the soundstage in your mind. The special effects team of your imagination transforms the rolls of pasty flesh under your chest into a washboard. Like a million spam promises incarnate, your “penus becomes enormus” without the use of “dangorus exercises.”
But why are you trying to impress imaginary women with radical metamorphoses? Why not create them innately desirous of your current proportions? You, architect and artisan, hold the power to unchain the sun from this parallel world. Are its parameters good because you made them or did you make them because they’re good? Resolve this dilemma or stand mute with sullen bafflement if one of the nurses asks.
“Jablonski’s fiction could be called existential horror, where you experience the primal strangeness of all things — including you.” Cudahy Post
“I’m thinking way too much. Need to relax. No one questions the metaphysical foundation of his fantasies. Be reasonable. It’s the stress. Dr. Schlotski said it took years to get this bad and won’t disappear overnight. … Hello, room service? Could you send up another shrimp cocktail? And another bottle of that fizzy wine. Make it two bottles. And check if there’s any vacancies on the opposite side, something without a mountain view.”
Reasonable? That’s the problem. You’ve put your faith in a fickle ally. Reason slaved to earn you a nineteen on the ACT. It blows a fuse filling out tax forms. Relying on it for the Big Questions requires more than wishful thinking.
“But Reason finds the truth. Dr. Schlotski said it’s almost as important as meds for maintaining a stress-free life. There’s a framed picture of Mr. Spock in her office.”
Ask Zeno what it found. Should you trust something that can disprove the possibility of motion? Ask Sextus Empiricus and the rest of the ancient skeptics. They devoted their lives to it and became so bewildered and exhausted they resorted to following the example of brutes just to avoid the misery of making judgments: “Reason can prove anything, so we live according to custom.” Ask David Hume. No one had more access to it than he: “Reason is the slave of the passions.” It can’t even prove the sun will rise in the east. Avoid Martin Luther for now, unless you want a longer list of indictments against the “Devil’s whore.” Never mind. You’re a well-endowed patient with three nurses fawning over you. It’s only stress. Be reasonable.
In the morning you approach the shattered jug on the horizon. Ice gleams on its black rock like grease in a skittle. “The mountain is nothing more than an extra hilly hill. I was letting a word freak me out. If you don’t tame their power they control you.”
Positive thinking is a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of hubris and stupidity. Try taming cyanide. The perils inherent to things exist independent of our descriptions and attitudes. Wolverines for instance. And Oxycodone. And mountains.
You walk on. Silenus grows faster than you’d expect given your cautious pace, as if clawing at you. An abstraction flickers to life: 15% of climbers take up permanent residence here, which means hundreds of breathing, eating, fucking, farting, laughing, beer-drinking, poker-playing men DIED here. They forever ceased and desisted from breathing, eating, fucking, farting, laughing, drinking beer, and playing poker courtesy of what you’re about to commence. These were not suicides. They were trying every inch of the way to avoid this irreversible and often unpleasant transformation. Then what happens? Welcome to the concrete reality of this question.
The clouds expand and diminish and the sky sheds a grimy exoskeleton to reveal an orange heart pulsing within a vast creature of which you are a mere cell. The sun pools on the snow like orange juice.
The sun, what is it?
In all your meanderings and voyages you’ve never stopped and gawked at the bone-chilling peculiarity of this. Is the existence of Existence humdrum and self-explanatory or do these questions open empty chambers no free samples from Dr. Schlotski can fill? And you, what are you, and where? That mysterious theatre behind your eyes and between your ears, what perpetuates its dynamism?
“I’ll tackle it tomorrow when the weather’s nicer. I need to get an earlier start. Timing is of the essence.”
In a world where no consensus exists on its creation, who can say with certainty that guzzling champagne in the bath is not the greatest accomplishment in life? Return to your kingdom. Silenus will wait.