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I was driving out to the desert. The panorama of distant rock, endless sand, and occasional cactus slowly blurring in my peripheral vision. Sparse cloud cover traversed the sky overhead, providing brief interludes of shade over deceptively large patches of the arid wasteland. I found my exit, an unremarkable dirt path most motorists would overlook. It led seemingly to nowhere, out into the emptiness devoid of civilization. To those in the know, however, it was a familiar avenue. The indicators were clear to me as I passed them. First the wooden signs with crude pictures of mountains carved on them, then an outcropping of small boulders with a giant arrow pointing East painted onto it. I turned my four-wheel drive on and took a sharp left past my silent navigators. As I penetrated deeper into the wilderness, my radio began to cut out, its signal fading to static.
In my trunk were the necessities: water, rope, carabiner hooks, chalk, and harness. I had everything I needed to make it up the sheer rock face. After about ten miles, I arrived at the base of the towering mesa. It loomed over me and the surrounding terrain. At almost three thousand feet high, it dominated most of the adjacent landscape, its beckoning cliffs and peaks threatening to swallow everything that approached. Even the clouds struggled to graze the roof of my imposing adversary.
All that remained was to locate the starting point of the climbing route. Hundreds, maybe thousands of climbers before me had attempted to conquer Black Mountain. Some were victorious, most gave it an admirable effort. It wasn’t the most difficult climb in the world, but the heat made for a formidable obstacle. Lucky for me, clouds were gathering above, shedding precious shade as I inched closer to the base of the mesa. I spotted the stone circle and stopped my car, stepping out into the elements from my air conditioned haven. A slight breeze carried the dry, stale air over me as I walked to the trunk and equipped my physical burdens. With a loud clank I closed the hatch and ensured my car was locked properly. It was unlikely I would be robbed out here, but safety is key in the desert. As my feet shuffled to the small stone circle, the clinking of my gear echoed slightly against the rock face, reflecting the emptiness of my situation.
I’m glad no one’s here, I thought to myself. I peered down at the circle of rocks, taking in their fake petroglyphs left by previous climbers. Written in chalk, paint, or who knows what, some left them as a simple guide post to the start of the climb, others as a “I was here” type of graffiti. This sort of childish obsession never interested me, but it was interesting to see what images were left. There were even some new ones I hadn’t noticed before. Maybe this route was getting more popular than I expected.
Moving on from the new-age vandalism, I proceeded to the cliff face. In front of me was a large crag, ideal for shimmying up with just my hands. It was a kind start to the climb, and I had a long way to go. For the first leg I hadn’t needed any clips to secure my fall, my hands finding the holds from muscle memory. Eventually, however, after a brief rest on a small cliff, the real climb began. Most beginners stopped here, calling it quits and discarding unnecessary gear. It was frowned upon by most of the community, but there wasn’t much you could do to stop it. I felt a strange pang of anger and resentment against whomever littered this place. This example of nature’s terrible cataclysm was something to be shared and respected, not used as a dumping ground. Up here, far above the cities and streets, the people and traffic, the work and responsibilities, I gazed out to the horizon. Up here, away from all the business of my mother’s estate, I sought peace. Up here, I wouldn’t have to deal with the fallout from breaking up with Joel. No friends to harangue or “comfort” me. Just the wild air sweeping across the desert, and some asshole had to ruin it with their garbage.
Fuck it, I said in my head. “FUCK YOU!!!” I screamed to the vast expanse before me. Clouds covered the mesa again, as if cooling me and my temper, the wind cooing against my face. I closed my eyes and tried to breathe.
I was suddenly startled by a sharp noise behind me. I quickly turned around to see small rocks falling from above the next leg of the climb. I scanned the area for signs of life, or worse, disintegration. I’ve known climbers to be attacked by mountain goats, coyotes, stray bee hives, even mountain lions, but the number one killer is unstable rock formations. Time wears away at everything, even the monolith I was perched upon. One loose hold and you plummet to your death with little to no warning. Determined to conquer the route, I pressed on. I’m not going to die like that, I promised in my head.
I saw no trace of animal life nearby, so I pressed on. The climb was slow compared to my start. Fewer obvious places for me to make a safe grip meant for more and more clips to be driven into the rock face. Thankfully, there were well-established directions evidenced from previous climbers. After an hour of strenuous ascending, I could tell I was reaching the next flat portion and rest stop. My hands, calloused and chalky, dug into the harsh rock, and with my weakening strength I lifted myself ever upward. Finally, as the sun began to creep back out from the clouds, I found the cliff edge. Then, I found bones.
Bleached from the sun but in sickly arrangement, a grotesque mixture of human and animal skeletons were splayed out in front of me. Bile began to rise in my throat. Determined to refrain from further dehydrating myself, I held the vomit down. I’m no forensic technician, but I could identify human, mountain lion, and coyote skulls. Sinew still hung from some of the bones, nearby tracks indicated it was all dragged from some other location on the mesa. Whatever did this had killed recently, and had gathered it all together in a macabre spectacle, a trophy to its ability, a warning to the world.
I looked up the trail to the next ascent, the last leg of the climb until my journey was over. I looked to the left to an old goat trail that curves along the face of the mesa, where the dirt tracks had come from. For anyone finishing the climb, it was a simple descent back the way you came to get down. It was impossible to climb three thousand feet and make it back down in time to return home the same day. This may be my last time, but I can make sure others don’t perish here in the future, I decided. I downed more water, held a moment of silence for the slaughtered, and began travelling along the goat path.
Mountain goats can walk incredible edges. We humans have to make do with shuffling carefully and placing fail-safes so we don’t fall to our deaths. I did what any experienced tracker would do, I followed the signs of life. To my dismay, they were mostly omens of death; more bones discarded here or there, droppings, tufts of fur and horn, teeth from human and beast alike. I made my way horizontally across the mesa for a grueling amount of time, until suddenly my hand met with too little friction. The fingers slipped abruptly from the hold, hanging uselessly on my side and bringing my body swinging. All at once an entire half of my body was dangling in the hot air, my view forced to gaze at the treacherous depths below. Dust, dirt, and rocks fell before me in a slow tumble, bouncing and shattering off the cliffs. I had trained for this and reminded myself, This is not how I die. Gaining my second wind, I swung back to face the wall and found a stronger hold. I glanced at my hand, finding a black substance coating my fingers. Resolved to make it to a rest stop and study the peculiar pigment, I continued on. Within fifteen minutes, I had found what I was searching for. A short drop into a flat patch of rock would be my salvation. I steadied myself again, slowly and carefully moving into position to properly descend. First I set my legs, pointing my heels back to the wide world. I set my right hand in a good crag. Finally, I curled by left hand onto a hold. I counted down in my head and swung slightly out with each number, Three….two…one-. My hand slips again.
The fall is quick and the injury quicker. My right ankle meets the ground at an unsafe angle, twisting and fracturing, breaking the bones and cutting deep into my body. I gasp for the air that had been forced out of my lungs from the impact. Grabbing for my wounded foot, I feel something on my hand. To my rage I see more black substance. Furious, I scream in frustration and pain. The scream echoes into the nearby cave.
A cave? The goats, it’s here! My mind races as I peer over at the foreboding cave leading into the bowels of the mesa. I quickly take out what little I brought with me. I wash off the blood, bandage up what I can with the basic climbers tape I had, and begin limping towards the cavern. My flashlight provides a scant amount of light, but it illuminates at least one mystery.
Coal. The black substance is coal. Native Americans used the coal centuries ago. Mining operations almost began here but they were shut down for being environmentally unstable. I limped further into the body of the mesa, my grunts and footsteps echoing to the otherwise silent tunnel. As I progressed, I began to make out drawings. In a larger chamber where the outside light had completely faded, I was alone with the glyphs of someone unknown entity. Harsh black outlines in coal were everywhere. On every surface save the ground were depictions of animals, humans, and monsters; of disgusting scenes of violence and murder. I began to tremble, What have I found? What could do this and not get caught? I began to feel faint, and sat down. I expected to meet with more horrible skeletal remains, but felt only the cool rock on my skin. Whatever lived here was long gone. There was no fire pit, no remains, no droppings, nothing. My vision began to blur, I was bleeding from my wound profusely. The tape was meant to bandage hands, not fix broken bones. I reminded myself why I had come up here. I recalled why I had packed so little. I never wanted to come back down.
Was it the mesa scolding me? Chiding me for planning to end my life on its sacred person? I doubt it cared. Nothing in life seemed to care anymore. After drinking the last of my water, I threw the canteen into the darkness ahead. It clanged and made a cacophonous sound, reverberating off the hard walls of my makeshift tomb. Resigning myself to fate, I thought on my departed mother, my friends, family, co-workers, even Joel. “Fuck me, I guess.” I stated to the cave. I slumped further down the wall, feeling the pain numb from lack of blood. I closed my eyes and waited for the end.
Seconds later, I jolted awake from the sound of the clanging of my canteen. Accompanying it was the howl, or growl of some unseen force. I was too weak to grab my flashlight, too weak to cry out. I whimpered ever so softly, straining to see in the pitch black darkness. I heard it draw closer, cold air sweeping over my body. Oh how I wish I was out in the sun again. Otherworldly footsteps echoed in the chamber, gathering speed as it gained distance on my hapless body. As I felt it stand above me, it roared in what sounded like three voices at once.
It grabbed my injured ankle, once numbed pain resurfacing and tearing through my body. I sobbed with what little strength I had left as it started dragging me towards the outside. As the last vestiges of adrenaline faded from my system, I began to drift off once more, each ping of pain less than the last. My dying thoughts filled with regret and remorse as my assailant ferried me to the horrible death pit where it left the other pitiful skeletons. I knew I would die before I saw light again. As I left from this world I could only muster, I didn’t want to die this way.
Written by Abysmii