X: The Deep End

Copyright (c) 1997 by Ronald Bourret

With an air of, "Let's get this over," Bill pulled his gear out of his pack. There was no argument that he would go first. We simply waited while he fed the dripping line through his croll, clipped an ascender onto the rope, and sawed it back and forth to take in the slack. The rope tightened and he swayed forward, like a man who has decided too late that he doesn't want to go off the high dive.

He lifted his feet and swung into the icy water. Irregular sheets of white exploded from his shoulders and thighs and he climbed raggedly, racing to reach the top before the water buried him. Moments later, he stopped and stared dumbly at his waist.

There was no reason for it. He fiddled with his harness, tugged on the rope, tried to adjust his ascender. There was nothing obviously wrong with the gear, so he tried the rope again, pulling harder this time. It was stuck and he yanked on it furiously as the frigid water pounded his body and poured into his jacket. Nothing happened. He slumped forward, gasping for breath, then reared back and kicked frantically at the air.

"Get me out of here!"

Ben and Paul dove for the rope and heaved outward. Bill emerged, drenched and coughing and choking and shaking from adrenaline and cold.

"I almost drowned!"

"What happened?"

"My croll got stuck."


"My croll got stuck!"

The five millimeter safety cord leading from his waist to his ascender had fed into his croll. When he moved the ascender up, the cord cammed and his weight fell evenly on croll and ascender, leaving him unable to move either device. He now tugged at the cord as if he expected it to pop obligingly out. It didn't budge.

Ben and Paul pulled him toward a pedestal on the right wall where he could stand and unweight the ascender. As they moved away from the waterfall, he rose gradually higher, like a weight on a pendulum. The closer he got to the pedestal, the more the physics of the situation worked against Ben and Paul, and they found themselves engaged in an odd, subterranean tug-of-war.

The three of them settled into an uneasy equilibrium just short of the pedestal, looking like a deliberately inept circus act: Paul tipped backward at forty-five degrees, the rope wrapped around his waist, while Bill half hung, half sat on Ben. Bill lowered the ascender and gave the safety cord a series of vicious jerks. Their only affect was to make Ben sag and Paul lurch forward, like a cowboy subduing a feisty calf.

"Does anyone have a knife?" Bill asked. I handed him mine. He cut the cord and crumpled onto Ben, then lowered himself to the floor, still shivering with cold. Paul removed an ancient Space Blanket from beneath his helmet and tried to open it. The Mylar stuck to itself like the pages of a rain-soaked magazine and, by the time Bill crawled underneath with Paul's carbide lamp, it was riddled with holes.

"Well. This is a lovely situation."

"What about Triple Pot?" I asked. "It's dry. Can we climb out there?"

"No," Bill replied.

"Are you sure?"


"There's no cracks or anything to aid up?"

"Look. The first and third pitches are climbable. The second pitch drops through a hole in the ceiling."


We were stuck.