There was good money to be made in the coal mine. It was a means to an end as he had never intended to spend his life underground. His passion and his dream were to climb mountains. The dream of whiteness sustained him in the dark and the filth. Every time his pickaxe hit the wall, he saw ice and practiced putting his weight on it. The cold was good practice, the headlamp was good practice. Any unforeseen event made him sharpen his reflexes and think back on mistakes he could have avoided.
The day that part of the mine collapsed, he was trapped with his co-workers. As the others were panicking and getting desperate, he found ways to calm them. What would you do in an avalanche? Signal your presence. He got the slimmest of them to bring a red kerchief wrapped around a message to the farthest reaches of the fault. It was to be their message in a bottle, containing their names and the location where they had been working. The slim man was brave – he wedged himself amongst the unstable rocks, extending his arm as far as he could, all the while fearing it would get crushed. Two men were holding his legs, ready to pull him out quickly if he said so. They did not have to. A lamp threw enough light to show the bit of red that held their hope, like a beating heart in the rubble.
He advised them to catch some sleep and they got organized. They set up rotations of two men who kept watch. The men were exhausted despite their dire circumstances. They slept soundly. Two men stayed awake in the dark. They were tough men used to tough lives. He had advised them to take their minds off the slide and pay attention to minute sounds. He took the second watch with Colin, a man who was not well liked. They did not need to chat – indeed it was better if they refrained to conserve oxygen.
Part of his mind was straining to hear sounds of a rescue team, but the best part of him was busy planning his climbing expedition. He imagined his dream team, based on the best qualities his fellow miners exhibited. He found it exhilarating to have the chance to sample flaws in character in a matter of life and death. He felt fortunate at having gotten trapped to have material to work with. He was too young not to be optimistic. He fully believed the cavalry was coming.
Thus he slept soundly after his turn was up. He slept so soundly that even the yells of the others calling out to the rescue team did not wake him. The rescuers were progressing slowly. They had spotted the red flag, retrieved it, told the anxious people on top the names of the survivors in that cell. They managed to pump fresh oxygen, water and hope. The men still used their lamps sparingly.
However, the men were not ones to rejoice before they had been pulled back up and were safely into a beloved’s arms. Yet hope filled their hearts, and their cramped quarters now felt cozy. He had at last woken up and was observing everything closely. He was interested in people’s reactions. Had he read them properly? Were the chosen ones made of the right cloth?
At last, they were brought up. He put himself last in line. He wanted to experience it all. He saw the accident in slow motion – the frayed rope giving way, the cabin falling. Of course, he was daydreaming this. They were all safe and sound, heroes every one of them. He noticed after the ordeal that Colin was now accepted and integrated. He had proven his worth. They had lived through fear and bonded.
To him, the event marked a turning point. Shortly after, he settled his accounts and headed for the mountains. He wanted to feel the sun on his skin, the cold in his bones, the camaraderie of the rope.
Every climb taught him something. He was a methodical student and progressed quickly. He felt little fear, which made him a liability in his companions’ eyes. Yet he was cautious and neither caused nor suffered any serious accident. Slowly, he was accepted and invited to join more experienced climbers. He was as strong as an ox and unbeatable with a pickaxe. He noticed everything and took detailed notes which he read and reread. A few years after the mine incident, he heard of an explosion there. At the time of the explosion, he had been climbing a very tricky wall with two other mountaineers. He swore after that he had felt the blast in his body, bursts of wind pushing him against the mountain wall. He was breathing hard, feeling the clean air in his lungs, thinking of his old life and its dangers. It felt like light-years away. His spikes gripped the slippery wall as he serenely continued pegging his way, a song in his heart, his dream team clipped to the rope, like those prayer flags in the Himalayas.