Authors: Ted Bell
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Spies & Politics, #Espionage, #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary Fiction, #Thrillers
The Swiss Alps
t is often said that our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness. Lieutenant Christian Hartz, Tenth Mountain Division, Swiss Army, was about to learn firsthand the terrible truth of that dusty old bit of wisdom. The lesson would be taught to this young fellow by a mountain. Der Nadel, an infamous Swiss Alp, was known to climbers around the world by its nickname, “White Death.” And for very good reason.
Christian toe-pointed the spiked crampons strapped to his boots into the vertical wall of sheer ice. He was able to kick the steel spikes at the toes of his boots a good two inches in. His lower body secure, he then secured his upper torso, swinging his ice ax into the wall above his head, and then a second ax to lock him in. Firmly wed to the mountain, he leaned back and looked straight up.
The towering vertical slab of ice and rock soared high into the clouds above him, finally disappearing into swirling grey mists that haunted the peak almost daily. He started moving again.
At this point, the summit of the mountain was 15,330 feet above his head. Roughly three miles straight up. The summit of Der Nadel was at 25,430 feet above sea level. It was called “The Needle” because of the thin, twisted spire that scratched the sky at the summit. Attempting to scale that spire had killed more climbers than any other mountain in Switzerland.
So far, the lieutenant’s moves had not been technically difficult. Still, the climbing was causing him continuous insecurity due to the
swirling about him as he went higher. A
is a downslope wind that occurs in the lee, or downwind, side of a high mountain range, like the moist winds off the Mediterranean Sea that sweep up over the Alps.
Recent weather from the north had brought winds of eighty-plus miles per hour, subzero temperatures, ice, and the relentless blinding snow. Still, Hartz had made good progress.
The wide ledge on which he now stood, very secure for the moment, was known as “Das Boot
” The mammoth rock formation looked as if some giant battleship’s entire bow section had suddenly blasted through the rock and now protruded from the mountain at ten thousand feet. A good place for tea. The lieutenant fired up his little stove and melted some snow in his pot. Earl Grey had never tasted so good.
The good-looking soldier had been sent up the hill to find, and bring safely down, a lone climber, a young Italian woman who’d spent the night on a fingernail of rock, suffering in the ninety-plus-mile-per-hour winds and ice. For a long time, this climber had been the focus of the ranger station’s high-powered optics.
When dawn broke she was gone. She’d either fallen, pitched forward into a hidden crevasse, or descended safely to a spot now hidden from sight. Lieutenant Hartz’s job was to find out which one was true and bring her down. Due to weather, the chances that she was still alive and fighting for her survival were slim. But there was a chance.
Christian reached up, stretching his body to the limit so his fingers could feel along the smooth face. He was looking for the next place where he could sink a pick or a cam so he could haul himself up the next pitch. He felt strong, but he’d been climbing since first light and it had been painfully slow going, mostly due to the increasing winds and dropping temperatures as he gained altitude.
Five long hours later, his lats, biceps, and triceps were screaming in unison, and he hadn’t even reached the hard part yet. But he knew it was coming. The hard part was next. The hard part was the north face of Der Nadel, otherwise known as the “Murder Wall.”
The infamous vertical face had long been called that, and for good reason. It was the last big hurdle one had to overcome before attacking the imposing summit. Of all those who’d risked their lives to conquer this final ascent, many had served, but few had been chosen.
Lieutenant Hartz, now just twenty-seven years old, had been acclaimed the highest-ranking alpinist in his entire army division. He was proud of that. When he’d told his mum about it, she’d cried. He was number one out of some ten thousand Swiss soldiers, all of whom, like him, had been born on skis with axes in their hands—highly skilled young men, fiercely determined, in peak condition for physical and mental strength, extreme high-altitude climbing, and, most important of all, supreme confidence. That was your ticket up the hill.
is timing couldn’t have been worse. One of the most violent storms to rip through the canton in nearly a decade had arrived as if on cue. And he was on a time crunch. The lost climber’s rescue clock had started ticking long before the first swing of his ice ax at dawn to begin his ascent.
The woman could no longer be seen. She’d been on a narrow ledge, high on the Murder Wall. She was now out of sight and out of communication range. Aerial searches by helicopters had not been successful, and the weather had finally grounded them. The young woman’s last transmission had indicated she’d been gravely injured but was determined to survive. “I’ll hold on,” she had promised, “but please come soon!”
Christian’s division commander had espoused a theory that the woman might well have found one of the old wooden escape doors built into the side of the mountain. Behind these doors were safety tunnels bored into the mountain over the centuries. The problem was that there were countless numbers of these doors up there, invisible flyspecks spread across the massive north face.
Classic needle in a haystack,
Christian thought. His
Baron Wolfgang von Stuka, known behind his back as “Wolfie,” had summoned Christian to his office just after midnight, given him the brief, and said, “Lieutenant, please get your ass up there
, and find that young woman
And here he was.
Darkness was closing in. It was now past five o’clock on that brutally cold grey afternoon in December. Lieutenant Hartz, trying to reach the same narrow ledge where the climber had last been seen, was struggling a bit. He was currently in the midst of an upward traverse across the lower sections of that sheer wall so smooth that it appeared almost polished. This part, the hard part, was challenging to the world’s very best climbers. And he was only best in his Swiss Army division.
“Imagine climbing a couple of miles up a slightly cracked mirror looking for invisible cracks,” was how his Tenth Mountain Division instructors had explained it to the new cadets. That message had sunk in with many of them, but many had not listened. Tales of the Tenth Division versus the Murder Wall were legend. The number of cadets who’d died up there was a closely guarded secret.
One that no one wanted to know.
n the 1930s, sporting climbers from all over the world began flocking to Switzerland as word of the impossible face spread. They came in droves, determined to conquer the needlelike summit. Topping out at 25,430 feet, Der Nadel ranked with Everest and K2 as one of the deadliest mountains in the world. In a storm like this, it was
deadliest. Since the first climbers had attempted to conquer the north face in 1933, over seventy-five men had died up there. Countless had been severely injured. And almost everyone lucky enough to survive had never gone anywhere near Der Nadel again.
By the time Lieutenant Hartz had climbed one thousand feet, insecurity had given way to the first hints of panic.
Hartz paused to hammer in another titanium tube into the coat of ice. He missed the target and his hammer careened off the rock. He felt himself starting to shake. The hardened steel trap that was the young soldier’s mind was beginning to crack under the strain. Cracks just wide enough to admit slivers of fear.
Determined to fulfill his mission, Hartz kept climbing, his fingers searching for purchase as new layers of thin ice coating made it ever more difficult. He swung his ice ax again and again, looking for another pick. His normally icy nerves continued to unravel with each swing of the ax.
e realized he was now sweating profusely despite the subzero temperatures at that altitude, something he’d never done before. His bowels were dangerously close to the boiling point. He knew why. It was because he was now passing by certain early but prominent landmarks of Der Nadel. Crumbling outcroppings, ragged formations, rotten ice, all had given him nightmares as a young boy thumbing through his alpine picture books, dreaming of climbing and the Swiss Army.
Crabbing gingerly across the broad slab of ice, he found that the wall steepened, the snow cover thinned, and his ice ax ricocheted off solid rock a few inches beneath the crust. With the advent of rotten ice at the higher elevations, Christian now felt a nauseous anxiety that shook him to the core.
He felt the only thing preventing him cartwheeling off into space was a pair of two thin titanium bolts sunk half an inch into rotten ice. Ice that looked like the inside of his freezer when it badly needed defrosting. Then came the first truly stupid mistake of the day.
Lieutenant Hartz looked down.
He saw the ground spinning more than nine thousand feet below. And suddenly felt woozy, even dizzy, as if he was about to faint. He wrestled mightily for control of his once stalwart mind and took a dozen deep breaths before he could resume climbing. Normally, his steely confidence made short work of encroaching panic, crowding it out. It had been his greatest strength. Now he wondered if it would soon become his downfall.
This time, to his mounting horror, everything was different.
It had taken him six tortured hours to climb a mere forty-eight hundred feet up the face. Hartz figured he had maybe three more hours of reasonable daylight to reach the roughly calculated area he’d been assigned to scout for a survivor.
The weather was deteriorating so rapidly that he was at the point where it looked as if he might soon be needing that rescue door himself.
He paused to check his altimeter, and a new kind of fear crept into his reeling mind on silent tiptoes. Based on his current rate of ascent, he knew that only two scenarios were now even possible. One, best case, he’d actually find the door, and the climber behind it would be alive. He’d take shelter inside the mountain with her for the night. Ride out the storm and get her down next morning. But it was a night that promised nothing good. It was already shaping up to be wretched from any perspective.
heavy snowfall, and high winds were increasing the chance of avalanches and thundering rock slides by a factor of ten. Worst case? He might never even reach the altitude where he might
that door, much less rescue anybody.
If worst did prove to be the case, it meant he’d have to stop climbing and soon. He’d need somewhere, anywhere, to spend the night; perched on some craggy overhang, some random narrow ledge where he could huddle against the rock, totally unprotected from the raging elements.
An even worse scenario? There would be no ledge at all. He would be forced to hang suspended from two anchors embedded perhaps one-quarter of an inch into crumbly rock and ice. Hanging in space and twisting in a violent, icy wind. An entire night of darkness, dangling at ten thousand feet in the middle of a Category 4 hurricane.
He shook his head and tried to clear his trembling mind.
e had little choice but to continue moving up the face. Duty dictated that decision. But the longer he climbed, and the wearier and more unsure he grew, the more he began to question the wisdom of his decision to keep on going. He was moving at a snail’s pace, doing a long end run around yet another wide ledge protruding from the rock just above him.
He felt dizzy, like he might faint. He had to take a few minutes’ rest before he could resume climbing. When he resumed, he tried to regain his focus by thinking of something else, anything else, as he moved upward across the face. After half an hour, he came within sight of a familiar landmark above.
His platoon called that imposing strip awning of rock “der Flughafen.” In English, that meant “the airport.” The departure lounge to the Eternal Kingdom. God’s waiting room. If it was a joke, as some people said, he didn’t get it. There was nothing remotely amusing about getting under that damn overhang before you even had a shot at climbing on top of it!
The crumbling rock wall here was coated with two inches of ice. Thin though the layer was, it was still enough to hold his ice ax in place if he swung it slowly. He kept moving, praying for any change in his luck. He was certainly due one. And that’s when he saw an old, frayed rope someone had left behind. A line that emerged intermittently from the glazing and continued upward across the face.
Some long-ago climber he’d never know had left him a lifeline.
Nearly paralyzed with fear and desperate for anything at all that might subdue his mounting panic, Christian was shamelessly, and very dangerously, grabbing at bits of old rope whenever they were visible. Any slip now would send him plummeting to the bottom of the wall, eight thousand feet of free fall with no chute and no God to save him.
He went higher, foolishly holding his breath to calm a deepening anxiety he’d never known before. Now he started thinking that his much-vaunted confidence had put him up here. And now that that same cocksure attitude that had been his lifelong cornerstone was going to send him to his death, he could almost feel his confidence seeping out through his pores.
Still, he climbed higher toward his objective, looking for each new shred of frayed rope, literally grasping at straws as he scaled the Murder Wall.