Die Climbing


There was once a wise King who loved a lass so true he chose to make her his Queen. Alas! Soon after they were married, the Queen was bitten by a snake. She became terribly sick and fell into a coma. From all his royal physicians and advisors, the King was heartbroken to hear she had little chance of survival.

Never one to give up, the King disguised himself as a fish monger and went into the village. He wanted to hear what people were saying in the streets. Being wise, he knew that street smarts were often more valuable than book smarts.

“Fresh fish!” he called, walking a fish cart through the village. “Get your fresh fish!”

As villagers approached his cart, asking about the catch of the day and how best to prepare it, the disguised King would engage them in conversation. “What news of the Queen?” he would ask. And “What do you think the King should do?”

All morning, throughout the afternoon, and late into the evening, the King pushed his fish cart through the streets looking to find an answer. Finally, with only one fish left, a woman old as dirt walked up to his cart. “Sir” she said, “though I have but a penny, I could surely use a pound of fish. What say you?”

The King, done with all pretences replied, “Keep your penny, woman, for I am King.” He handed her the fish. “I have only been peddling fish today to find a cure for the Queen. She was poisoned by a serpent.”

The old woman looked at him in surprise. “There is a cure!” she exclaimed. “An antidote for snake bites! It comes from the nectar of a rare and beautiful flower.”

“Where! Where is this flower!?” The King asked urgently.

“It can only be found on the other side of a high and distant mountain. A mountain so perilous very few have scaled it. I can give you the directions, but if you go, it is unlikely you will return. Even getting to the mountain can be dangerous.”

“Draw me a map.” the King said. “And tell me everything you know about the path.”

The woman did as she was bid. For her help, the King gave her ten gold pieces. He then walked home thinking about his plight. He knew if he stayed the Queen might never wake up. But if he left, he might never come back. “Only two options” he thought. “Two options is not a choice. It’s a dilemma. What could be a third?” He decided to sleep on it.

The next morning, walking in the royal garden – the same garden where the snake had bit the Queen, he saw two men tending to the cala lilies. Both appeared to know their flowers. And both were already under his employ. The King had found another option.

“Men.” he said. “I have a job for anyone brave and strong enough to take it on. Both the risk and the reward is great.”

The King told the men about the Queen. He showed the men the map. He shared everything the old woman had told him, and he emphasized the danger of the mission. “To have us risk our lives,” the first man asked, “how much will you pay?”

“Bring me back this flower. Even if it doesn’t work, even if the flower doesn’t save the Queen, then I will pay a hundred gold pieces."

“And what if it does work? What if it does save the Queen?” the second man asked.

“Then bring with you a wheelbarrow. For 3 days, you can take from my treasury as many loads of gold as you can wheel away. More than enough to set you and your families up for life.”

The two men thought about it. The first man, the one who had first asked about the pay, said “Before I can agree, I must discuss it with my wife. Can I give you my answer tomorrow?”

The King replied “Of course. What is your name?”

“Jon Atticus.” The first man replied.

“And I am John Ried” said the second man. “I am also married. Plus, we have 7 children. But I’ll tell you right now. All that gold? I’m in. No matter what my wife says.”

Each of the two men went home to tell their families what the King had offered. Their wives both turned out to be supportive, though the second man’s wife was angry he hadn’t spoken to her before committing. Early the next morning, both men approached the King saying they were ready. Along with a detailed map and the old woman’s instructions to find the flower, the King equipped them with the very best of everything they would need to protect and provide for themselves on their journey. Including his two fastest horses to carry them to the foot of the mountain. The two men saddled up the horses, loaded their supplies, and set out on their quest.

No sooner had they begun than the skies darkened and a fierce storm blew in. Arctic winds like wolves began to howl and chew the horses’ flanks. Freezing rain like fangs bit into the men’s faces. But man and beast alike were still fresh and full of fire. “This is nothing.” John Reid shouted above the icy wind. “I have farted bigger storms!”

“Ha!” Jon Atticus laughed and shouted back. “Nothing but a summer breeze! Maybe I will take off my shirt and get a tan!”

Deaf to the men’s bravado, the weather was unrelenting. But the horses were magnificent. As much as nature pounded them, they pounded the ground right back. Finally, the storm let up. The rain stopped, the sun came out, and at last the road ahead was clear. The rider’s picked up their pace.

But then, tragedy. Running full out to make up time, Jon’s horse tripped in an ice fissure. It fell sideways and went down with a shriek of pain, snapping a leg beyond repair. Fortunately, the rider was unharmed. But the horse, whimpering now in agony, would have to be put out of its misery.

Jon pulled out his shotgun. Bending low to lay his hand on the horse’s head, he thanked the noble steed for all its strength and service. Then he stood, fired, and put the beast to rest.

“Fuck.” said John, still sitting high upon his horse. “Just my luck. Now I suppose you’ll want to ride with me.”

The first man looked up and quietly regarded the second. A moment past where each took full measure of the other. Calmly, though in a voice not easily dismissed, Jon said, “Your choice.”

Another moment passed while John thought more carefully about his options. “Ok, ok.” he sighed dramatically. “Let’s repack the gear and be on our way.”

Through out the night and for half another day the men rode on, only stopping every few hours to eat and rest the horse. The King had said it was a long hard road even to the foot of the mountain and that was certainly the case. After the terrible storm, and after they’d lost a horse, the two men had to slowly pick their way through dense forest and thick underbrush, always wary of their mount, always fearful of wasting time or getting lost. By the time they arrived safely at the foot of the mountain, both were too tired to even setup their tents or build a fire. Instead, cold as the night air was, they each opened their bedroll and slept underneath the stars.

In the morning both men woke up feeling saddle-sore but refreshed. They ate breakfast then turned to regard the mountain. Daylight revealed a stark contrast between the grassy, wooded knoll where they had slept, and the barren, icy rock that lay ahead. The incline was still relatively slight, but the ice was going to be a problem.

Jon said “We’re going to have to make a decision about the horse.”

“Yes.” agreed John. “We obviously can’t take her any further.”

“Well, we can either tie her to a tree or set her free. She’s your horse. What do you want to do”?

John looked around at the harsh and barren landscape. He stared up at the angrily pregnant clouds. Wanting to turn back but not wanting to admit it, John asked “How long do you figure it will take to climb the mountain?”

Jon replied “It is not only the first ascent we must consider. It is also the descent, then finding the flower, then ascending and descending once again. Could take us days to come back. If we come back at all. It is best we set her free.”

“I think you’re right” sighed John. “It’s a long way home on foot, but I’d hate to leave her tied indefinitely. Besides, judging by the look of the sky, I think another storm is brewing. With a good head start maybe she can stay ahead of it. Maybe even find her way home.”

“Good call.” said Jon. “Let’s make haste. More bad weather is surely on its way.”

John Reid removed his saddle and with a solemn slap on the horse’s rump, sent her back in the direction they had come. He watched her go until she was out of sight. Slowly he shook his head, and reluctantly picked up his pack. “Ok” he said. “Let’s go.”

But seeing his horse leave greatly affected the man’s mood. Especially when it began to rain again. After less than an hour on foot, he began complaining. “We sent the horse back too soon. The ground here is rocky but not steep. We could have ridden her further.”

Jon Atticus didn’t say anything. He just kept on walking. After another hour had passed, John said “My pack is getting heavy. I think I need to rest.”

Again, Jon did not respond. He just kept up his same, steady pace. By the time the third hour passed, the rain had stopped but John had fallen far behind. Feeling concerned though undeterred, Jon set down his pack and waited. About 10 minutes later, John caught up with him and said, “I have a stone in my boot. Hang on a minute while I get it out.”

John put down his pack beside the other. But instead of taking off his boot, he took off his mitts, opened up his pack and took out a sandwich. And his thermos. “God I’m starving!” he exclaimed. “Thirsty, too.”

Patiently, the first man waited for the second to have his snack. “Thanks” John said. “Should’ve had more breakfast.”

After eating, he adjusted a few things in his pack and hoisted it on his back. “Ok” he said. “I’m ready.”

“What about the pebble in your shoe?”

“Oh. Yeah. Hang on a sec.”

He removed his pack again, set it down, and then made a show of removing his boot, as well. He held the boot upside down and shook it. Nothing came out.“That’s weird.” he said. “I could’ve sworn there was a rock in there or something. But it sure feels good to take my boot off. Whaddaya say we stop here and set up camp? Get a fire going?”

“Do what you want.” said Jon. “There is a long way to go and plenty of daylight left. I am going to walk until nightfall.”

“Ok” John sighed. “Wait up while I retie my boot.”

For the rest of the day, the two men walked the cold and barren rock in silence. They covered a lot of ground, but by the time the sun was setting, John was clearly feeling down. He sat slumped against his backpack, staring at the ground. Jon, meanwhile, tired but satisfied with their progress, built a roaring fire. Then he went in search of dinner.

About an hour later, when Jon came back with a couple of hares to cook, the other John had already pitched his tent and fallen sound asleep. Jon threw another log on the fire then skinned and spit-roast the rabbits. He ate half of one and stored the rest in a leather storage satchel. Then he, too, pitched his tent and was soon asleep.

The next day was bright and sunny. Good thing, too, because just ahead the incline started getting steep. Soon they would need to use their ice picks and crampons. Before the real climbing started, they would also need to put on harnesses and tie themselves together. Jon woke up early and started getting the equipment ready.

“What are you doing” asked John, arising some time later. “Do we really need all that rope?”

“Better too much than not enough.” Jon replied. “How did you sleep?”

“Not good. Even with the fire I was freezing. Got into my sleeping bag and slept for a little while, but then I had to piss and was too cold to get out. Finally pissed in my thermos. But then I couldn’t get back to sleep. Kept on thinking how hard that climb is gonna be. How hard everything has been already.”

“Well, it’s a new day” Jon said cheerfully. “Here. Have some rabbit. I cooked it up last night.”

The second man took the rabbit. He ate the whole thing, but it didn’t cheer him up. It seemed to do the opposite. “What if we starve up there?” he said. “Or fall off the side? Or into a crevasse? Or freeze to death?”

Jon smiled and quipped “Tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone. As for me, I could die with today in my eyes.”

John glared. He didn’t care for such cavalier optimism. Given their circumstances, he felt it was totally inappropriate. He sat and stared at the dying embers of the fire. After awhile, he looked back with longing the way the horse had gone. Then he looked up at the steep and foreboding mountain. He shook his head.

“I can’t do it.” John said. “I just can’t do it. This journey has turned out to be so much harder than I expected. And thinking about what comes next, climbing all the way up there with nothing but ropes and picks…impossible! There is no way I can do it!”

Jon was quiet for awhile. He too, looked up at the sheer, icy mountain face. Cold and scary as anything he had ever seen. He looked back in the direction they had come. Warm and comfortable as, admittedly, most of his life had been. He gazed neutrally into the fire. It only took a moment to assess his options and rekindle his resolve. With a nod to the other man, he turned away and began to climb the mountain.


With his right hand, Jon swung one of his ice axes into the frozen mountain side. Kachunk.

“Journey of a thousand miles…” he thought to himself. Then, kicking the mountain with the toe of his left boot, took a single step. With his left hand, he swung the other axe. Kachunk. Then he took another step. His crampons bit hungrily into the ice. Solid. Reliable. He pulled the first axe out and planted it a little higher. Kachunk. Took another step…

At first, every step was tentative. Then about 20 feet up, he began using ice screws to anchor in a safety line. Putting in this protection every few feet would considerably slow his progress, but he knew it was essential for his peace of mind. From this point forward, even a small mistake could be fatal.

With his safety line in place, knowing he was now as secure as he was ever going to feel making the ascent, he got into a rhythm. Kachunk. Step. Check. Kachunk. Step. Check. Kachunk. Step. Check. Tie off. Repeat.

At about 200 feet, the intrepid climber found a small ledge where he was able to stand and rest a moment. His calves were already starting to burn. He knew he had a long way to go, so he wasn’t going to miss any opportunity to keep himself mentally and physically fresh. After taking a short rest and a swig of water, he continued on his way. Kachunk. Step. Check. Kachunk. Step. Check. Kachunk. Step. Check. Tie off. Repeat.

Fortunately, the weather was on his side. Although bitterly cold, at least there wasn’t any wind or rain. And even without the sun, the constant physical exertion was keeping his body warm. Indeed, after a couple hours climbing, the man found a larger knoll where he was able to sit and even open up his jacket for awhile. He stopped there briefly to rest, drink some water, and eat half a PB&J. Then, countering his own mental resistance with an even greater measure of resolve, he got back to the task at hand.

Well into the night and high above the clouds Jon continued climbing. Although often the way got so cold and difficult he wondered if he would make it, by the time he reached the summit, he was feeling truly grateful. Not only was he blessed to see a gorgeous sunrise, here above the clouds the skies were crisp and clear. As there was plenty of room to rest before beginning his descent, he decided to lay out his bedroll. As the sun continued rising, warming up the air, he fell sound asleep.

About three hours later Jon awoke refreshed. His muscles were still quite sore and tired, but mentally he felt great. Eager to be on his way. He relieved himself, drank some more water and had another bite to eat. Then, surveying the terrain for a good place to set his first rappelling anchor, he got ready for the descent.

Going down was much faster than going up, but he still had to be cautious. He knew most climbing accidents happened while descending, so he didn’t take any unnecessary risks. For each drop he would carefully prepare, reset his lines and anchors, rappel a few hundred feet, rest a moment, then repeat. Luckily, on this side of the mountain the temperature was much warmer. Even at the higher altitude there wasn’t a lot of snow. And by the time he reached the bottom, he saw grass and flowers everywhere. But of course, not the flower that he had come for. That would be too easy.

“You must walk about ten miles south, always keeping your back toward the mountain” the King had said, passing on the old woman’s instructions. “There you will find a village. The first person that you see just ask where to find the healing flowers and no doubt they will guide you.”

Sure enough, after coming to the village, Jon asked the first person that he saw. A little girl, no more than 7 or 8 years old. He knelt and smiled, “Excuse me, do you know where I can find the healing flowers?”

The girl grinned but shook her head and ran away. Jon laughed. “So much for asking the first person.” he said to himself. But a moment later the girl returned, and with her was a boy. A little older, probably her brother.

The boy said, “You want the healing flower?”

“Yes!” said Jon emphatically. “I need it to save the Queen. Do you know where it is?”

The boy whistled and started looking around, as if Jon hadn’t even spoken. “Ah.” said Jon. “Of course.” He gave the boy a dollar. “Where can I find the flower?”

The boy pointed vaguely and said “It’s over there. Do you want me to show you?”

“Yes. Please. I need to find that flower!” Again, the boy just whistled and looked around nonchalantly.

“Ok! Ok!” Jon said. “How much to take me there?” The boy whispered to his sister. The sister whispered back. They both looked at each other and laughed.

“Twenty dollars.” declared the boy. “Ten dollars each. And you have to piggy-back my sister.”

Now it was Jon’s turn to laugh. “Done.” he said, reaching down to throw the little girl up onto his shoulders. “Lead the way.”

The boy led the man through the woods, over some hills, across a meadow and down toward a river. For a moment, the man had an odd feeling of déjà vu. But it went away when the girl on his shoulders said “Giddyup!” and playfully smacked his head. At that they all laughed and started trotting alongside the river.

Soon they came to a warm, sunny clearing. At last, there he saw the flowers. They were even more beautiful than the King had described. The children helped him pick a few of the most fragrant, informing him at which stage the flower’s nectar was a deadly poison, and at which stage it could cure all ailments. They also told the man what to look for at the different stages. “You gotta be sure.” warned the boy. “If you get it wrong, game over.”

Jon hugged and thanked the children. He gave them each twenty dollars and they took off laughing in delight. He then turned back towards the mountain and began the long trek home. “Fortune favours the brave.” he said aloud to himself, feeling grateful. "And what a difference on this side of the mountain. Here it is warm and sunny. I’m not looking forward to all that climbing in the cold again. Maybe I should stop and rest awhile?”

Hearing again the voice of his own resistance – that pesky, negative, self-defeating part of his mind that so often seemed to rebuke his best intentions, Jon half-smiled and picked up his pace. Stoking his own resolve.


Soon Jon was back upon the mountain. Now the climbing was much easier. He was in better spirits, he was certain of the route, the weather was warmer, and he was able to use many of the same anchors he had placed during his rappels. But once on the other side, climbing down was a completely different story.

Here, on the northern side of the summit the weather was the biggest problem. He checked the temperature. Minus 28 degrees. Mid-day. He looked up at the sky. It was black, ominous. Massive clouds colliding like some billowing mosh pit of destruction. In the distance, there was already rain. Thunder. Lightning. And once again the winds were picking up.

Jon knew he had to get off the mountain. Fast. Under these conditions, it was unlikely he would survive the night. To make matters worse, though it presently wasn’t snowing, he could see it must have just let it up, for the terrain had completely changed. The route he had previously taken to ascend was no longer even visible, let alone viable to go back down. Jon grimaced. He chose a place to start and began to race the rolling sky down the rocky mountain side.

About seventeen hours later, after one of the coldest, loneliest, most frightening nights of his life, a night where he wasn’t even sure he would ever see the morning, Jon was once again standing safely at the foot of the mountain. Back where the two men had made camp before going their separate ways.

Much to his surprise, looking around the campsite he saw the second man’s tent was still there. Or at least part of the tent - he could only see a corner flap. The rest of it was buried under a heap of snow. Not a good sign. He approached the tent. Clearing away the snow, he looked inside. The second man was laying there. Dead. Apparently frozen to death. Or perhaps smothered by an avalanche. No matter what had happened, the surviving climber knew in life there are some questions that only the dead can answer. And he simply had no interest in those questions. It was time to head home.

A few hours later, having put as much distance as he could between himself and his travails, once again fortune favoured the brave. There, standing in a grassy pasture just beyond the snow line, was the second man’s horse. Jon grinned a grin that went around his head two times. He remembered something his father had once quoted from a man named William Murray. Another mountain climber…

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred…”

Sure enough, when the man nickered and held up a sprig of grass, the horse whinnied back and walked right over to him. After an affectionate and mutually grateful nuzzle, both man and horse were back on the road together. Within a few hours, they made it back to the castle without any further incident.

As completing his mission was paramount, Jon went directly to the King to deliver the healing flowers. But he didn’t linger. He knew his wife and kids would be worried. He was eager to get back home and to let them know everything was ok. Relaying everything the boy had said about the flowers, Jon told the King “The effects will be immediate…and we have no time to waste. You must tend to your beloved. I must tend to mine.”

Gratefully, the King received the flowers. “Whether the Queen lives or dies,” said the King, “You have done everything you can do. Come back tomorrow to collect your payment. And let’s be optimistic. Bring your wheelbarrow.”

After an emotional reunion with his family, the next day Jon returned to the palace. Much to his delight, on her throne beside the King, there sat the Queen. Alive and well. The antidote had worked.

“Hero!” the King stood up and shouted. “Your courage has saved the Queen! Step forward and tell us all the tale!”

Humbly, Jon recounted the whole adventure. He told of the storms, the horses, the mountain, the climb, the children, of finally finding the flowers, and lastly of his good fortune finding the horse on his way back to the castle.

“And what of the other climber?” asked the King. “What became of him?”

Jon looked at the King and said “Sadly, he chose not to climb the mountain. He decided to stay at base camp while I continued on my own.”

The King cocked an eyebrow. “Really?”

“Yes. After that last freezing night on the mountain - the night where it took all of my resolve and every ounce of strength just to keep on moving, the next morning I found him in his tent. Dead. I think he froze to death.”

Jon and the King looked at each other. Then they both burst into laughter!

Horrified, the Queen asked her husband “Why? Why are you laughing at the man who died?”

The King responded, “If he was going to die anyway, better to have died climbing the mountain.”

Michael Highstead

Grayton Beach, Florida


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