The Marmot Trap
It was our last layover before summiting Mount Whitney, which rose like a great rock pile half a mile above us. Normally, hiking the Sierra Nevada implies evergreens and wildflowers so thick you can barely cut a trail through them, but the peak is the opposite: dry, rocky, and devoid of life. It’s the bride stripped bare to reveal her bony hips and pale skin.
Already, our hike had devolved in to basic training. Three days of schlepping forty-pound packs left us knackered. But after being overrun by Boy Scouts the first night at Soldier Lake, and swarmed by mosquitos the second in Crabtree Meadow, our final campsite looked ideal. Guitar Lake—named for its hourglass figure—sat just above the tree line, too high for bugs and too small for Scout troops. It was a moonscape of grey dust and white rock, but we held squatter’s rights on a flat slab with a view. So we sat on rock stools, watched the setting sun burn the water amber, and used the time to catch up.
Up until a year before, we all lived in San Diego and met every Saturday for a ten-mile run, followed by corned beef hash at Norma’s Diner. Our conversations tended toward fishing stories from Curt and Kelly’s love lives: the tunas that sniffed the bait, but refused to bite; the minnows that wouldn’t spit the hook. But we hadn’t seen each other since Kelly moved to the Bay Area the year before, searching for a new genus of fish.
“So, you dating anyone?” I asked him.
“I was,” Kelly said. “She worked at the co-op. After her shift we’d make sushi and paella.”
“She had a persistent crush on a bag boy.”
He shook his balding head, rubbed his crooked nose, and stared toward the lake where the sun rested on the horizon and feeding fish puddled the surface.
“Anybody else?” Curt said.
“Nah. I’ve got a profile online, but all I get are phishing scams.”
“You should have a lot of girls after you.”
“I don’t have what they want.”
“You don’t realize your worth,” Curt said. “It’s the rule of an efficient market. Every commodity seeks its true value.”
In the dirt, he drew a squiggled line’s steady rise. What he failed to calculate was Kelly’s emasculating lack of confidence, which women sensed like animals do fear.
Curt’s blindness was easy to understand. He’d matured more than aged, his face finally leaned of its adolescent softness, the creases adding depth where, before, there were smooth curves. In the same way, triathlons had honed all the fat from his body. Plus, with enough money from investment banking to retire at forty, he had no trouble finding female suitors.
“What about you guys?” Kelly said. “Who’s new and exciting?”
Since I’d been married for fifteen years, I had nothing to add. Talking about my wife would have been like complaining about boot camp to soldiers who saw combat. So I said “same old, same old” and let Curt fill the time.
“Nobody good,” Curt said.
“That’s not what you told me,” I said. “What about that redhead, the realtor?”
“She had a nose job.”
“But if it looked good . . .”
“I don’t want my kids growing up with the Roman curse.”
When the wind whistled through a crevice in the rocks, I felt the chill on my cheek and raised my collar against it.
“What about the PTA president?” I said. “She was a real comer.”
“Her Cuban family scared me.”
“Because they were socialists?”
“I imagined her aging into Castro.”
I poked the fire logs back to life and watched the smoke trail into the blue-black sky. Besides the flames, our only defense against the night’s chill were flasks: me of Grey Goose, Curt some Glenlivet, and Kelly a syrupy Port.
“With those prospects, I don’t see why you’re complaining,” Kelly said.
“Because that’s not what I want,” Curt said. “I want a wife and kids, like Allen.”
He nodded to me in deference.
“None of those women are even investment grade.”
“What about that one gal?” I said. “She did something helpful like nursing.”
“I don’t know who you mean.”
“There’ve been so many, even if you could remember, he wouldn’t,” Kelly said.
“He wouldn’t forget this one. She was a great talker, compared Bob Dylan to Che Guevara.”
Kelly looked over my head toward the silhouette of the mountain ridge, where a crescent moon had appeared.
“Meredith?” he said.
“Yeah, Meredith. What about her?”
“We never dated,” Curt said.
“But she liked you. That night at my Christmas party, she wouldn’t leave your side.”
Curt’s glare told me “mind your business.”
“You went out with her?” Kelly said.
“It wasn’t a date,” Curt said. “I mentioned it, and she wanted to go.”
Curt stood, cracked his back, and shivered like a dog after a nap. From his backpack, he pulled out a blue ball the size of a fist and unfurled it into a down coat. Even in wrinkled, dirty hiking gear, he looked put together, his jacket fitting his triangular torso.
“Why her?” Kelly said.
“I told you. She asked.”
“You could have said no.”
Kelly stood and turned toward the lake, so I couldn’t read his face.
“You knew her?” I said.
“She was in the swim club.”
Besides running with me, Curt and Kelly used to swim across La Jolla Cove every Friday. Their club was a school of discontented, but desirable singles. Various members were always spawning for a night, then rethinking their “commitment.” Curt had told me plenty of stories, but none about Meredith.
“We went out for a couple months,” Kelly said, “but when she heard I was moving, she dumped me. Said she didn’t want a pen pal.”
“Maybe she changed her mind,” I said.
“Not after she tasted this guy.”
He stepped toward Curt, but stopped just out of reach.
“It was just once,” Curt said.
“Once what?” Kelly said.
He stepped so close that Curt had to face him.
Curt replied with a headshake and a frown.
Kelly’s strike was more a shove than a punch, but it was enough to knock Curt off balance. He windmilled his arms and teetered on one foot for several seconds until gravity took over. With that bulbous coat, his landing sounded like a pillow falling, but not the yell that followed. It echoed off the canyon walls like a stray bullet, ricocheting back to me as not one cry but many.
I rushed between them, but Curt wasn’t fighting back. He grabbed his right shoulder and closed his eyes against the pain.
“Back off!” I said to Kelly.
He stared at us for a few heartbeats, then walked uphill until all I could see was his silhouette in the moonlight. Meanwhile, Curt lay curled like an armadillo, knees to chest.
“Let me see,” I said.
I sat him upright, unzipped his coat, and eased it off his shoulders. Even a touch on his collarbone made him gasp. Through his fleece, I could feel the fracture.
“Criminy,” I said. “No way you can carry a pack with this.”
I pictured our topo map, its close set elevation lines describing a trail that rose two thousand feet to near the summit and, then, descended three times that far to Whitney Portal, where we’d left our car. Even this route out was ten miles, and there was no way to skirt the climb without backtracking our entire three-day trek.
I lifted Curt by his good arm and made him a sling from my snot rag. Kelly was still a dozen paces away with his back turned, but I heard beeping from his way. A moment later, his boots crunched toward us. The blade of his Swiss Army knife gleamed even in the dim light.
“Get your coat,” he said.
Even without the weapon, Kelly had me by twenty years and as many pounds, so I dug in my backpack for a raincoat, wool hat, ski gloves, and headlamp.
“Hands behind your back,” Kelly said.
In basic training, they taught us that, if we were ever captured, to comply and keep quiet, so I let Kelly bind me with nylon rope so tightly I couldn’t flex my wrists.
“Walk,” Kelly said.
“Which way?” I said.
At first, the trail rose gently, but quickly it tilted up. After a couple hundred, steps my light bleached a wood sign reading “Mt. Whitney Zone.” Below that, in felt tip, someone had scrawled “Enter at your own risk!”
After a few minutes of climbing, I looked down at the figure eight of Guitar Lake, refracting the moonlight like tin foil. With only a tumble down of boulders below, a misstep could end with a splash, so I focused my beam on the silly string of trail ahead.
“Oh Lord, I wanna go
But they won't let me go
Oh Lord, I wanna go hooome,” I sang quietly, recalling my favorite time killer from the Army.
After probably half a mile, I heard beeping behind, followed by Kelly cursing, then a guzzling louder than my dogs after a hike. He must have brought his flask, which half explained this. Booze exposed the bitterness and self-absorption he normally hid. Still, I didn’t get his plan for a high-altitude penance and decided to talk him down.
“What do you want?” I said evenly.
“The truth,” Kelly said.
“Nothing happened,” Curt said.
I counted a dozen silent steps before trying again.
“Come on, Kelly, you know Curt. If he’d hooked her, he’d brag for weeks.”
“Why were they even talking?” Kelly said.
“She was sneaky,” Curt said. “She’d call me from unlisted numbers.”
“So she was chasing you?”
“If I knew you owned an option, I would’ve killed the deal.”
Unsettled, we walked on. In the mountains, temperatures fall fast once the sun sets and, above the tree line, there’s nothing to slow the wind. The shivering started in my shoulders and radiated out, until my whole body was vibrating. When my hands numbed, I tried shaking them, but the ropes cut off the blood flow.
“What makes this gal so special?” I said.
From behind, Kelly intoned like the voice-over in a romantic movie.
“She had everything,” he said. “Looks, brains, charm.”
I waited three steps for Curt to confirm it.
“She wasn’t that fit,” Curt said.
“She ran 10Ks.”
“At ten miles an hour. Allen’s twice that fast and twice her age.”
“But she’s smart,” Kelly said.
“She went to community college,” Curt said.
“She worked in a gallery.”
“It was a photomat.”
A rock skipped down the cliff, bouncing three times before exploding into shrapnel.
“If you were so unimpressed,” Kelly said, “why’d you go out with her?”
Curt didn’t answer, and we walked on with the question binding us.
Soon, we entered the switchbacks, where the slope became too steep for a head on ascent, and the trail reversed itself dozens of times. At each about face, I studied Kelly, who walked with his shoulders hanging like he was still carrying a pack. Curt also kept his head down, ignoring my stare. When I couldn’t stand to look up any longer, I too studied my feet cutting a scar into the dust.
Then a wooden sign poked out from a mound of rocks:
2.5 miles to summit
It was the first plateau we’d seen wide enough for three people to stand in anything but a line, so we paused. Cragged peaks receded in darkening waves like breakers at the beach. In the entire panorama—probably fifty miles in every direction—there wasn’t a single artificial light. The only sound was our breathing, which slowed to a doggish pant.
Again, Kelly punched something in his palm. This time, its blue light gave it away: a cell phone. He cocked his ear toward the midnight sky as though that might help him connect.
“Dead,” he said and snapped the phone shut.
The junction linked three trails, taunting me with escape options.
“That way goes down to the parking lot,” I said and pointed downhill. “We could be there by dawn.”
I imagined a fraternal descent, all of us laughing about our hypoxic excesses.
“I saw a pay phone by the ranger station,” I said. “You could call before breakfast.”
Kelly held up a hand against my headlamp and squinted with anger. His head was bare, and his outer layer was a cotton Army coat, a thrift store find no soldier since Vietnam had worn. I wondered if he felt the cold flush in his face or if alcohol had blunted all his senses.
“Just walk,” he said and urged me uphill with his knife.
Soon everything felt vague. Lack of oxygen messes with your mind as much as your breathing. In that state, I could concentrate on only one thing, so I counted my steps up to a hundred, then started again. The gaps began on my third set. Around seventy, I started repeating myself. “Sixty-eight, sixty-nine, sixty.”
“Can we rest?” I said.
“No,” Kelly said.
The first snowdrift was head high with a channel bored through. Despite overpriced boots, my feet slipped with every step. Halfway, I heard a dull thump and a cry of pain. When I looked back, Curt was prone on the ice, clutching his bad arm. I offered a hand, but he ignored it and rolled over like a bug to regain his feet. As soon as we were past the berm, he let loose.
“She was never yours,” he yelled so loudly it echoed in the caverns below.
Even standing still, Kelly looked unstable, his eyes as unbalanced as his weight.
“How do you know?” Kelly said.
“You never closed the deal. Three months of foreplay! What’d you expect, her to seduce you?”
Kelly tried another hit of Port, but the flask was dry.
“Forget calling her; I can tell you what she’ll say. ‘Kelly who’?”
Kelly’s mouth twitched and masticated the bitter words. I thought he was going to stab either Curt or himself. Finally, he pointed the knife at our faces.
“Move,” he said.
The trail became a ledge chipped from the tumble down of rocks. There was no smell of pine or flowers or grass, just dust to clog my nostrils and scratch my eyes; there were no plateaus or false summits to rest, no reprieve from the granite staircase. With every step I felt slower, and my mind ran farther away from me.
Finally, we rounded a bend and the cragged summit loomed in silhouette. We treaded through another snow tunnel and a hundred more paces on rock, then scrambled over boulders.
When there was nowhere left to walk, Curt and I slumped onto a flat slab while Kelly stumbled around with his phone raised overhead like an offering to the gods of technology. At last, he dialed.
“Meredith? I need to know something.”
His speech was as slow and unsure as his footing.
“Why didn’t we ever . . . ?”
He stood, ear cocked, while I presume Meredith listed all the reasons she wasn’t going to answer. It ended with him throwing the phone against a rock, where it exploded into fragments, destroying any chance we had for a rescue.
I looked to Curt, who sat hunched to protect his arm.
“What now?” I said quietly.
Curt lifted his eyes toward a small shed. Years ago, the Smithsonian Institute piled a bunch of rocks into walls and enclosed them with a tin roof as shelter for hikers caught in a storm. If we could lock him inside, Kelly might regain some reason, but I hadn’t time to choreograph the steps before he stalked over.
“Take off your coat,” he said.
Curt obliged in a pained striptease.
“For Christ’s sake,” Curt said, but did.
With nothing to block it, the wind gusted so strongly it penetrated my Gore-Tex parka. In only his polypro underwear, Curt cowered, looking more skinny than muscular.
“And the long johns,” Kelly said.
“I can’t get the shirt without Allen’s help,” Curt said.
Without awaiting permission, he untied my hands, and together we worked the shirt off. I was gentle, but Curt still winced. Naked but proud, Curt stood chest out despite his lame arm.
“I want to see it,” Kelly said.
Curt and I stared, incredulous.
While Curt handled his tighty-whities, I palmed a large stone. I hadn’t pitched since Little League, but I channeled Roger Clemens glowering out from the mound.
“That’s it?” Kelly said.
“It’s cold,” Curt said.
I cocked my arm and let fly. The stone’s arc was undetectable until Kelly staggered and reached for his head. Then, Curt rushed forward and body-slammed him, so I piled on and ripped the knife from his fingers.
“Not fair,” Kelly said.
He bridged his back, and it took both us to hold him down.
“Carry him,” Curt said.
With his one good hand, and mine too numb to grasp anything, we made it only three steps before dropping Kelly, who squirmed like a worm. We had to scramble back on top just to keep him pinned, little more than sand bags.
“Won’t work,” I said, breathless.
After Kelly resumed his resistance, Curt put a knee in his ribs until the fight drained from him.
“You invested too much in Meredith,” Curt said. “Why be an owner when you can have shares?”
There was more to his finance lesson, but I focused on less quantifiable solutions. In a few hours, Kelly would sober; or we could wait for reinforcements. Mt. Whitney is a hikers’ highway, and some help had to be making its way up the endless slope.
The marmot’s whistle disrupted us both. It chirped like the ping in a submarine movie when a torpedo is closing, then waddled into view, fat and fuzzy.
That’s when I realized it wasn’t warning other rodents, it was seeking them. I could imagine its solitude and frustration, searching the highest point in the continent for a mate. Even it hadn’t accepted there were no prospects left, and that its cry was nothing but a vent of frustration.