In the Chillest Land

"A terrific new author. His work is fresh and different."—John R. Little, author of Miranda, The Memory Tree, and Soul Mates

Please feel encouraged to pick up a copy of the fine anthology this tale originally appeared in: Ill-Considered Expeditions, from April Moon Books. You can also hear my reading of "In the Chillest Land" in episode 25 of The Bare Knuckle Podcast, along with a couple of fine stories from Paul M. Feeney and Matthew Barron.


He stood up, sat down, stood again. His joints popped with each movement. At least it was less frigid down here, out of the swirling wind. And at least his fall hadn’t wedged him in the crevasse. He’d been lucky enough to follow the meandering tunnel of blue ice to a hole that dropped him into the den in which he was now trapped. From the hole to the floor of the compartment had been a drop of about twelve feet, but he was fit enough to endure that. He’d made it up this goddamn mountain, after all. He’d been training all his life for a crack at McKinley. Now this.
“Denali,” his climbing partner, Ejaz, had corrected him a thousand times on the way up.
“You say Denali, I say McKinley,” Jackson would respond without fail. Ejaz would shake his head and smile.
It was mostly a matter of keeping fear from taking over. He had some food in his pack, which fortunately hadn’t torn away from his body during the rapid descent. He even had a small butane stove for warming food and melting snow. Ejaz knew where Jackson was, roughly, so there was hope for a happy ending to all of this. It was morning, and as the day advanced, light would come in through the hole. Not much, perhaps, but enough to keep him sane. Night would come eventually, but by then he’d be found.
It had probably been a mistake to backtrack to the Kahiltna Glacier on his own. No, it had been. He could admit that to himself now, for all the good it did him. He’d roused Ejaz in the wee hours to tell him he intended to do a solo scout of the West Rib, which was much trickier than the heavily trodden West Buttress route they were pursuing together. To his astonishment, Ejaz hadn’t put up much resistance to the idea.
As he’d plodded across the glacier’s Northeast Fork, the clutching wind dusting his balaclava with icy grit and howling in his ears, he remembered reading about the Japanese explorer Naomi Uemura, who scaled glaciers all by himself—except for his dogs—with bamboo poles rigged onto his shoulders, to prevent a nasty fall if he stumbled into a hidden crevasse. It had always seemed like overkill to Jackson. Not anymore.
And now Ejaz will have a hell of a time finding you…
He guessed the den to be roughly twelve feet in diameter, but so far this was sheer speculation. He walked a straight line, one arm outstretched, the other gripping his pack. When his gloved hand met with the wall, he dropped the pack and began edging his way along the perimeter of the ice chamber. He felt a little like the character in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and for the first time since dropping into the blind crack of ice dozens of feet above, he felt a twinge of relief. Even if starvation and cold battled over the rights to his mortal coil, it was very unlikely he would end up in straits as dire as those of Poe’s hapless hero.
Then he heard a noise.
A soft fsht, fsht from across the chamber. He froze. Just enough daylight was seeping in from above to give him a vague nimbus of visibility. His mind raced for possible explanations for the sound, which obstinately refused to repeat itself. Animal life was all he could think of, but it staggered the mind. What could possibly dwell in such conditions? It would have to be avian at this altitude. But what?
fsshhht, fsshhht
Something shuffling across the ice to him. He wouldn’t be in suspense much longer. His heart slammed into his chest wall like a jackhammer, faster and faster. The sound of lips parting. He squeezed his eyes shut and began to shake. Silence. He let his face relax but kept his eyes closed. What was that smell? Wet dog?
He couldn’t take it anymore. Not knowing was worse than any reality he could imagine. His eyes fluttered open and before him was the slack face of something vulpine, hatred and curiosity aflame in the recesses of its eyes. The thing’s protruding jaw hung wide, grinding slowly from side to side. A wave of stinking air issued from its mouth, and Jackson had to fight back vomit.
Tink
He swiveled his head to the left.
Tink
Now to the right. It had hooked its claws into the ice wall behind him, barring his escape. Hope was gone. Surely he had lost his mind. He slid down the wall to a sitting posture and noticed that the creature was enormous and covered with alternating patches of thick fur and ugly sores where no hair could grow. He pressed his eyes closed, opened them. Not a hallucination, still there. It had tilted its head down at him and was snickering, or so it seemed. Then it pushed away from the wall, taking a couple of steps back, on hind legs only.
“Who…” It was useless. He had no voice, and there were no words anyway. The thing turned and ran to the center of the room, directly beneath the opening Jackson had fallen through. It was even larger than he’d realized. As insane as it seemed, it had been stooped over to make eye contact with him, but fully extended it must have cleared eight feet. Reddish hair straggled from its scalp in sparse clumps. It paused to look at him, but it was still too dark to read its expression from that distance.
Reaching up casually with one almost human arm, it grasped the edge of the hole, and hauled itself out of sight. A banshee wail, and the tink, tink, tink of nails in the ice, trailed away, and Jackson was left waiting for its inevitable return, though thankful to be alive.
His eyes refused to pull away from the gaping hole, almost perfectly round. But his mind reverted to studying his regrets, for it was in no condition to take in what he had just witnessed. Why had he left his battery-powered lamp with Ejaz, who had dropped his the day before and cracked open the bulb? Extra batteries they had packed. Extra bulbs they had not. He figured the ice cave was about as illuminated as it was going to get by the sunlight that trickled in, and it wasn’t enough. If ever in his life he’d needed a flashlight it was now. Not that what it showed him would be so great—especially if the strange animal kept scraps of whatever it ate in this cave—but a little light could do wonders for the faculties.
He left his pack, so he’d know when he’d made a complete circuit, and resumed his groping assessment of the perimeter, every now and then glancing at the opening, half expecting to see the thing’s leering face at the hole, hands gripping the edge like a demonic Kilroy. But it didn’t return. He wondered what it was doing. Hunting? What could it possibly…
“Oh, god. Ejaz,” he muttered. “Help!” he cried suddenly. “Ejaz, get away! Help!”
Here I go, he thought. Carrying on like a madman. And even though he recognized the futility of his screams, he continued the agitated yelling as he proceeded along the wall, until his foot struck something that stopped him cold.
Even through his cleat-soled boots and woolen socks Jackson could tell what he’d kicked, partly by the slight resistance of the object and partly by the sound it made as it skittered across the icy floor. And now the horror of his situation began to sink in. His defenses were depleted, and he sank once again to the floor. He had kicked a bone. Human, he easily imagined. Possibly a femur. Something good sized, at any rate.
He tugged off his crusted-over balaclava and goggles, and his climbing gloves, and he cried a little. There was so much he didn’t understand about the world. More than he’d ever thought possible, apparently. And it wasn’t the ice-dwelling monster that troubled him the most, he was surprised to discover. It was Jenna. Jenna, who’d asked for confirmation of his love a thousand times, and he had stubbornly refused. Some macho part of him insisted that to tell her he loved her would be to give her a level of control in their relationship that could never be won back. Of course he’d had it all wrong. What could never be undone was the simple fact that he loved her more than the moon and stars. And she loved him. And the only thing standing in the way of their lasting happiness was three unutterable words.
“I love you,” he managed through tears. Of course he did. How clearly he felt it now. How strongly he loved life, the world, his friends and family. How deeply he yearned for a second chance to prove he was guided by the will to help others and rise through life by the toil of his own two hands.
She’d called him a selfish brute for going on this expedition. He wasn’t sure she’d have him back if he did make it out alive. But he was determined to find out. If he not only got free of this stinking den but managed to evade capture at the hands of whatever thing called this mountain home, he would spend his life in service of his feelings for Jenna and those most dear to him.
Ejaz, he thought ruefully. And his sorrow gave way to exhaustion.

*****

“Sonofabitch,” Ejaz mumbled into his balaclava as he planted the crampon of his left boot firmly into the incline of ice he found himself on. “Leaves me with a glorified flashlight and goes on his merry way. As if one little act of generosity will make up for his thoughtlessness. Prick.”
He didn’t mean a word of it, but it felt good to let anger have the moment. The longer he could put off worrying himself sick about his friend and climbing partner the better. Still, it was not an ideal way to start the day, waking to find that your partner had given you the slip in order to pursue whatever selfish agenda had claimed his fevered mind. Ejaz had seen the daredevil spirit in climbers before, the unending drive to outdo all those who had gone before, to take the more dangerous course. Not only to summit the mountain, but to do it on the edge of a razor. Jackson had never hinted that he would try something this stupid, but Ejaz guessed it right away upon waking. The constant barrage of questions on the way up, about how many climbers had tackled the West Rib and which ones had made the ascent without oxygen. It didn’t take a detective to figure that he’d gone off to do some exploring on his own, probably by way of the Kahiltna Glacier.
And sure enough. Thanks to a sudden downturn in the wind’s ferocity, Ejaz was able to pick up Jackson’s trail just before reaching the glacier’s Northeast Fork. The trail had led him to the steep rise he now climbed. The eastern sky was a wide flame of morning’s pinks and yellows and oranges, but Ejaz had little time to enjoy the spectacular sight if he was to find his missing partner.
Soon, as the grade of his climb diminished, he could see a good distance across a gentler slope of ice and snow. Something caught his eye as he looked in that direction. Just a glimpse of movement, and then it was gone. It couldn’t have been Jackson. Surely he’d made it much farther than this by now, unless he was delirious and traveling in circles. Ejaz waited for a moment, still as a stalk, to see if he’d spot the movement again, but there was nothing. He didn’t look up from the business of climbing again until he’d reached more level snowpack. He was rewarded with another sighting and still didn’t know what to make of it. It was human in shape but considerably larger as it loped along the horizon in the fashion of an animal. Its head appeared to turn in his direction, and his blood turned as icy cold as his vast white surroundings. The thing dove between two large rock outcroppings and was gone.
What had he just seen? There was no good answer to the question, no explanation that he could think of for the existence of any living thing up here, besides Jackson and himself. He felt his skin shrink up on his bones as fear began to spread outward from his belly.
He was relieved to see that Jackson’s boot prints resumed on the straightaway and meandered in the opposite direction of the opening where the being had disappeared. He pressed ahead. A half hour, at least, passed without a sign of any kind of life. He glanced back at the outcroppings periodically and nothing appeared to be tailing him.
But a touch on the shoulder sent him spinning, almost sprawling. The damn thing had caught up with him. There it was, not three feet away from his face. It let out a shrill keen and stood itself up to full height. He was beyond the ability to flee and wondered absently if the thing, which had the snout of of a wild dog or hyena, would be disappointed that he was such easy prey. The look in its eyes and the foaming saliva that dripped from razor-like canines gave the impression that it didn’t much care, which was his last observation before being thumped on the head with one of its heavy paws and dropping from consciousness.

*****

His vision was still gone as other senses awakened. He sensed motion, being dragged on his back. Did someone have him by the collar? Yes, he could hear his parka scratching along on the ice. Then he remembered the misshapen dog thing and pressed his heels into the ice as hard as he could, but his progress went unimpeded. Why couldn’t he see? The last thing he needed was to panic, but if it had blinded him…
No, it wasn’t that. His balaclava had turned. He breathed more easily, but he was still in a hell of a lot of danger, even without the added complication of permanent blindness.
Please don’t be dead, Jackson, he hoped, almost prayed.
The motion stopped. The creature released his collar and his head hit the ice, giving him stars for a moment. He quickly freed his head of the balaclava and sat up to get his bearings. It stood several yards away, eyeing him with amused curiosity. The hind legs were bent slightly at the knees and the upper body leaned in at him. Still it looked enormous, its coat long and flowing reddish brown in the cold wind, despite numerous ugly patches of bare skin all over it. The effect was both repulsive and extraodrinary. What the hell was this thing?
It seemed proud, and he wondered what it had to be so goddamn proud of. He meant to lean back on his hands, maybe even ask it a question or two, but his hands didn’t touch ice behind him, just kept going down. He almost fell but caught himself in time. Looking back he saw that he’d been dropped at the edge of a wicked crevasse. He scurried away from its yawning blueness, deeply scared of the reckless creature now. He shot to his feet and spun to challenge it before he lost his nerve. But he never had a chance. It was on him in an instant, growling in his face, filling his nostrils with stink and raking its claws at his shoulders and chest. His shock and terror left him unequal to the task of resistance, so when it gave him a push he was little more than dead weight.
Down he slid into the crevasse for what seemed like forever. He ended up feet first and had no way of gauging what obstacles might be approaching him. But eventually his fall came to an end, and not the brutal end he’d expected. He wasn’t impaled on an ice spire or wedged inextricably in a stone pocket. He’d simply fallen through a hole and landed on a floor of ice.
“All right, you bastard,” he heard someone say in a crazed voice. “Let’s settle things right now.”
“Jackson?” Ejaz whispered.
“Ejaz?” It was a dry, husky response.
Jackson approached from the shadows, and Ejaz could hardly believe it was the same man he’d begun this expedition with. His usually explosive blond hair was matted down close to his scalp and he looked weak, as though he were on the verge of collapse. Still, it was a happy reunion for two men with so much yet to work out if they planned on living to see another day. They embraced heartily.
“I wondered if I’d see you again,” Jackson said.
“The question had crossed my mind as well.”
“How did you find me?”
“I didn’t exactly find you. I mean, I was tracking you, but… I trust you’re familiar with the giant dog-creature roaming around up there?”Jackson did his best to smile. “Yeah,” Ejaz went on, “well, it tossed me in here with you. God only knows what its plans are.”
“They’re not good, I’m afraid. It has a nest in here, littered with bones. Human bones.”
“Jesus Christ.”
“It’s given me an idea, though. Come, let’s sit and talk, away from the hole.”
Jackson’s aversion to conversing near the opening bordered on superstitious in Ejaz’s view, considering how far down they were from the surface. Besides, did Jackson really think the creature was capable of comprehending their words? It was possible, but the thing seemed far more animal than human. At any rate, he kept his thoughts to himself.
“Here, sit,” Jackson said. “I’ll be right back.” In less than a minute he returned with a strange contraption in his arms. He joined Ejaz on the ice floor. “I figured, why let all these bones go to waste? People have died here, man, but it doesn’t have to be in vain.”
Ejaz saw that the apparatus was fashioned from bones tied together, almost in the shape of a large kite.
“I used my rappelling rope to connect everything. It’s nice and tight, see?”
“I get it. The knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone—”
“You’re not making light of this. Tell me you’re not.”
“Settle down, I’m just trying to make the best of a really crap situation, all right? What’s the thing for?”
“That’s what I’m getting to. I figure we can heave it up through the opening in the ceiling. You know, the long way. And once it’s through, if we get it just right, it will act as a grapple.”
“Christ.” Ejaz leaned against the wall in disbelief. “That thing’s supposed to hold our weight?”
“Well, mine, sure. I’ll run the rope through pitons in the ice for you once I’m up.”
“What were you thinking, Jackson? You’re damn lucky I even thought to look for you on the Northeast Fork. We both are.”
“Lucky? What are you talking about? I told you I was… Oh, shit. You must have been answering me in your sleep. I was wondering why you were so goddamn agreeable. Well let’s put it behind us for now. McKinley hasn’t defeated us yet, but we need to move.”
“Denali,” Ejaz said.
“What?”
“The mountain. It’s called Denali.”
This time Jackson smiled more easily. “You say Denali, I say McKinley.”
“White people,” Ejaz said, shaking his head jokingly from side to side.
“You’re Pakistani. What do you care if it’s called by its Inuit name or its English name?”
They smiled weakly at each other before digging into the task at hand. In no time, Jackson was ready to give his invention an initial toss.
“Might make some noise and echo up to the top,” Ejaz said.
“Well, then I’ll have to throw as accurately as possible the first time.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s the truth. I hope to hell this works.”
Jackson let the kite of bones fly. It sailed through the hole but came right back down to him.
“William Tell, you want me to give it a whirl?”
“Ha, ha. Let me have another go.”
He held the rope in his left hand and underhanded the bone kite through the opening once again. This time one of the longer bones caught the edge on the way through, which caused the whole thing to wobble and rotate. It landed beside the hole, out of sight.
“Yes!” Jackson cheered, and they exchanged a high five.
“Can you get it to span the hole?”
“If I can’t we’re sunk.”
“Fair enough. Easy does it.”
Jackson pulled very gently on the rope, hand over hand, striving to keep up a fluid motion. Then, when almost half of the tied bones could be seen overhead, he yanked the rope across his chest, turning into the rapid tug with all his weight. Ejaz thought he resembled the American soldier anchoring the flag pole into the ground in the famous Iwo Jima photograph.
“It worked!” Jackson whispered enthusiastically.
“Now you’re surprised. Before, you were so sure it would work.”
“Well, you never know until you try. But by god, we’re going to make it out of here.”
Jackson took the rope in both hands and Ejaz watched closely as he climbed toward the opening. The bone rigging flattened some with his weight, but it seemed incredibly sturdy. Jackson had always been the one you wanted on your side when something needed a knot. This sure as hell reinforced his reputation.
In what seemed like less than a minute, Jackson was topside, peering down with a triumphant look that Ejaz thought was maybe a little premature.
“Send up the backpacks, man. Let’s keep moving.”Ejaz did as he was told and Jackson drew up the rope. “Now step back a bit.” Ejaz did as he was told.
As if showing off, Jackson pulled one strand of rope from the knot work of the grapple and the whole thing folded in and came apart. Bones clattered to the floor of the cavern. He went about hammering the pitons into the ice and running the rope through before dropping one end back down to Ejaz, who quickly made the climb and joined Jackson above the den.
They smiled at each other but reserved any further celebration. It was still a good haul up the funnel-like crevasse. They would need their ice hammers, crampons, and every ounce of failing strength they could muster if they were to rope themselves to the surface. And then there was the long hike back to camp, not to mention the threat posed by the beast. Their troubles were far from over.
 Ejaz was thankful that if he had to be in this rotten situation, at least he was in it with Jackson, who constantly astounded him with his presence of mind. What could have possessed such a level-headed climber to go off on this solitary trek in the first place?
 He shook his head and followed Jackson up the dizzying universe of varicolored ice.

*****

It was a tiring ascent but eventually they emerged from the crack. Jackson rested on his knees and surveyed their surroundings, while Ejaz fell onto his back, utterly spent.
Jackson could see the enemy creeping and slouching in the distance. There was no time to waste.

*****

“I don’t like how open it is between here and the drop to base camp,” Jackson said.
Ejaz cupped his gloved hands over his nose and mouth and expelled air to warm his face. He’d hoped his balaclava would be waiting for him when he reached the lip of the crevasse, but it wasn’t. This was all he could do to stay warm.
 Something hit him from the side. He looked down and saw Jackson’s balaclava lying in the snow at his feet.
“We’ll trade off wearing it,” Jackson said.
Ejaz nodded his appreciation as he pulled the mask over his head and tucked the neck piece into the shoulders of his jacket. It was brutally cold, but the wind was still down, merely dusting the snowpack with an occasional devil.
“I think we should separate a bit,” Jackson continued. “If it does come for us, why give it a two-for-one special? If we stay apart and it comes for one of us, the other one might be able to step in and do some good. If not, at least he’ll have a shot at securing his own safety.”
Might. The word echoed in Ejaz’s mind. He didn’t want to put distance between them. He wanted closeness. He felt like a scared child.
“How are we going to share the mask?” he said, hoping it didn’t sound desperate.
“Keep it. Just till the drop. We’re so out in the open up here. From the glacier’s edge to base camp we should be home free. Why don’t I stick to the ridge up here. You veer around the basin. I’ll keep an eye on you as we go. Sound good?”
“No, it sounds exactly like shit. But you’re right.”
Jackson patted him on the arm. “Of course I’m right.” And he walked ahead.
Ejaz wished it hadn’t felt so much like goodbye. This was no place for goodbyes.

*****

Not five minutes after their parting, Jackson sensed movement at the corner of his eye and knew the end game was upon them. His muscles tensed but he didn’t want to give away his awareness—to the creature or to Ejaz. He turned slowly and called out to his friend, but he was gone. Movement came again, so fast across the snowy glacier that it was nearly a blur. Jackson screamed as he realized the thing had chosen him over Ejaz. Even as he turned away he saw the futility of fleeing. There was no hope of outpacing the abomination.
 Try! his brain screamed. And he pressed forward as fast as his fatigued limbs and the deep snow would allow.
A noise behind him, like someone getting the wind knocked out of him, followed by a maddened howl. He looked over his shoulder and stopped. Ejaz must have seen the attack coming. He was on top of the creature, trying desperately not to allow the situation to reverse itself. Now Jackson started toward them, but his progress was painfully slow. They rolled away from him as they struggled, down the backside of the ridge. They gathered speed and were soon out of sight.
“No!” Jackson yelled. But by the time he got as far down the other side of the ridge as he dared, he could see them tumbling over a beetling lip of mountain and freefalling into a bank of cloud cover.
He fell onto one knee, took a clump of hair in each hand and screamed out across the Alaska Range. The screams turned to sobs, and the sobs turned inward. Soon he was weeping into his gloves. He felt sure that no murderer had ever felt so low and disgusted with himself. He’d wanted a solo experience on this mountain. Now he had one. He had a long descent to base camp and beyond to think through his guilt, to find ways to punish himself. Everything meaningful in his life he’d either discarded or mistreated. There’d been a moment, as he and Ejaz cleared the brim of the crevasse, when he thought maybe life had offered him a turning point. He’d started to see this whole nightmare as a second chance. But there were no more second chances. Not for him.
He considered following Ejaz and the creature into eternity. It had a certain lazy appeal to it. All it would take was a relaxing of the muscles and a few somersaults down the ridge, and gravity would take care of the rest. It would be an end to the life of self-loathing he faced, and the long hours of guilt that surely awaited him in the weeks and months to come.
But there was Jenna to consider. He’d used up a lot of second chances with her over the years, too, but maybe she’d find another one for him somewhere near the bottom of her heart. It wasn’t much to go on, especially considering the state of their relationship. But as long as there was hope, no matter how dim, there was reason to press on.
Besides, if he blinked out of existence, the mystery of the Denali Monster would die with him. Someone had to find out what the hell the thing was, and whether there were more of its kind roaming the mountain tops. Maybe he’d be able to get a party together and venture back up here to explore the den. Perhaps even search for the remains of the creature, though it would mean risking the possibility of stumbling across Ejaz’s preserved corpse. It was a chance he’d be willing to take if it meant learning something about the monster’s origins or saving the lives of future climbers—anything to help alleviate his guilty conscience.
But first, home.


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