Almost there. You can smell the screaming, tortured metal cogwheel train tracks surrendering their essence to the damp walls of the steep tunnel.
Rain presses her forehead against the window and cups her hands around her face to block out the light from the train’s interior. Before her eyes can focus beyond the glass on the dimly-lit walls of the tunnel, she sees her own reflection at the end of her nose and almost jerks her head back in horror.
Unsettled, she remembers the creepy face peering at her through the Spa’s glass hallway as the cable car pulled her and the other passengers away from the safety of solid ground, shuttling them to the train station.
The train screeches into the station, its bright lights dispelling her uneasiness. They’re here! Jungfraujoch, the Top of Europe, and the highest train station in the world. This is a day of firsts, but every day is a day of firsts when your consciousness gets to travel around the world in a new, steaming hot body. Before she “arrived” at the Spa this morning, she had no idea that a place called “Jungfraujoch” even existed nor that Europe had a top to it, and now, here she is!
“Come on, Graciela! Let’s go make some snow angels!” Rain takes Graciela’s hand and pulls her towards the opening doors, while the two giggle like teenage girls. Rain leads her through the slow-moving crowd on the platform, running up the stairs and out into the light. The frigid air and bright sunlight evaporate the residual torpor that had settled upon them during the train’s long, arduous climb up to the Top of Europe.
They storm past tour guides whose eager, huddled charges wait obediently for the “show” to begin. Rain and Graciela almost knock them over, laughing like drunken frat boys in a cow-tipping contest. The little throngs of tourists bristle at their exuberant energy, and out of spite, they pretend to ignore the commotion created by these two beautiful women as they run into a snow-covered meadow, each one stopping only long enough to make a snowball and lob it at the other. They fall backwards into the snow, laughing. They make windshield-wiper movements with their arms and legs, creating one snow angel after another, pulling each other up and starting the process all over again to create even more.
A young man from the Spa approaches them, respectfully waiting until their raucous laughter subsides. “Well, ladies,” he says, as if reminding them to comport themselves in a more dignified manner, “Some of us will be hiking from here, Jungfraujoch, to the Mönchsjoch Hut. At most, it’s one hour each way. Are you up for it? Looks like you’re dressed for it, at any rate.”
He grabs Morgana’s hands to pull her out of her last snow angel, and noticing the perfect circle of snow angels, he smiles with approval. “That’s quite an artwork you two have created.”
“Thanks! We had so much fun doing it!” says Graciela as he grabs her hands, too.
Brushing the snow off her coat, Rain asks, “If we go on the hike, will we still have time to walk through the blue glacier?”
“Yes—well, that is if you don’t dawdle. Sometimes, we have people who slow the whole group down by stopping to photograph every snowflake, but generally, we have time.
“Well,” adds Graciela, “That won’t be us because we don’t have cameras or phones.”
The young man looks at her warily as if he suspects that the two of them could be trouble, camera or no camera.
“What’s at the…Hut?” asks Rain.
“The Mönchsjoch Hut is actually a lodge, the highest occupied lodge in Switzerland. Some tourists stay overnight, but during the day, it’s open to hikers and sightseers. There’s a restaurant which offers hot and cold snacks and drinks. We’re planning to have a light lunch there—cheese toast and ‘Hut Soup.’ It’s a really nice place—and the only place—to relax for a bit before hitting the trail again to return to the train station.”
“Hut Soup? I’ll bet they serve it with House Wine!” snorts Graciela, as she looks over to Rain for her reaction, which is rendered with a guffaw, not something Rain associates with her new demure demeanor.
“Or maybe, they serve the Hut Soup with ‘Culd’ Wine!” laughs Rain, keeping this silly repartee going with another volley.
The young man from the Spa attempts to tone down their giddiness with a simpering smile. Message received, Graciela and Rain look at each other and burst out laughing. Holding his head high, he maintains a pleasant expression, nods to them, turns, and then skids a little on the ice. Frantically waving his arms to maintain his equilibrium to avoid falling, he cuts a comic figure and once again, Rain and Graciela convulse with boisterous laughter. Firmly planted back on his feet, he turns around to face them with an intense stare and almost imperceptibly shakes his head “no.” With great decorum and self-restraint, he walks over to the group of people from the Spa who are ready to begin their hike to the Mönchsjoch Hut.
Laughed out and somewhat chastened, Graciela and Rain follow him towards the group.
“Phew! Wasn’t that fun, Rain? I didn’t know these tenems of ours could laugh like that!”
“Me neither! Laughing is one of those things that you don’t realize you miss until you’re laughing again.”
“Maybe we’d better not do anything else to piss this guy off any more than we already have. We wouldn’t want him to abandon us out in the middle of the trail, you know? We might need to stay on his good side, at least until we get back to the Spa.”
“Yeah, Graciela! I think you’re right about that!”
Catching up with the rest of the group, they hear the young man from the Spa introducing himself to the other Spa guests.
“As you may know, my name is Grégoire, and I’ll be leading the hike you’ve chosen to take from here to Mönchsjoch Hut. Once we get there, we’ll have about 45 minutes for lunch and relaxation, and then we’ll resume our hike back to the train station. Once we return to the train station, we will tour the Ice Palace. The ‘Eispalast’ is the highest-altitude ice palace in the world and is also the longest lasting, having been carved from the Aletsch Glacier, and measuring more than 23 kilometers, it is Europe’s longest glacier. It covers ab0ut 80 square kilometers. That’s a lot of ice, but unfortunately, we do not expect it to last into the next century due to global warming.”
“Enough of this global warming bullshit! I wanna hear about the Ice Palace!”
Everyone turns to gawk at the beefy blond American guy wearing ski goggles who is now noisily gulping water from a two-liter plastic bottle. After a loud belch emitted for the edification of his new audience, he bellows, “So why is the glacier blue?”
Grégoire, apparently used to boorish behavior, gloats inwardly at having an answer that he knows will probably go over the Beefy Belcher’s water-logged head.
“Excellent question, Sir, and one posed by anyone not intimately familiar with the physics of glaciation.”
Grégoire’s erudition is acknowledged by the Beefy Belcher who emits an even louder eructation which is heard by all, eliciting a ripple of titters from the crowd.
“But yes,” continues the unflappable Grégoire, “it is blue. Why blue? Because blue is the only color of the spectrum that is not absorbed by the extremely dense ice of the glacier, so it’s the only color for us left to see! The light scattering of its short wave length is the same phenomenon which makes us perceive the sky as being blue.”
“Oh, that makes sense!” whispers Rain to Graciela, who, trying not to laugh, erupts with a loud snort. The whole group turns to look at her, but Rain and Graciela only see the simpering smile of Grégoire.
Grégoire recoups the crowd’s attention by continuing his explanation:
“Of course, no one will remember why glaciers are blue, but once you have experienced walking inside a real glacier, you will never forget that glaciers are blue, so without any further ado, let us begin our hike. And, please, always keep to the marked path—stay in the middle and don’t get close to the edge.
Rain and Graciela follow the crowd along the wide path of snow.
Along the way, Grégoire turns to face the crowd from time to time to share interesting information and to point out distant peaks and the directions in which the different glaciers are “flowing.”
“That is a funny word to use since the flow of a glacier is very slow—the highest speed is 30 meters a day, the lowest is a half a meter a year, but the average is one meter a day.”
Here, Grégoire interrupts himself to look around. Seeing that the Beefy Belcher has separated himself from the group to light a cigarette—happily out of earshot—he continues to address the crowd.
“Due to global warming, the world’s glaciers are retreating at an alarming rate, which has dire consequences for the entire planet. For hikers and skiers, though, the threat is even more immediate since warming intensifies the movements of glaciers and avalanche activity. The greater the melt water, the greater the instability of everything you see around us.
“Most tourists to this site do not realize how amazing it is to experience hiking in the Alps without all kinds of ropes, safety equipment, and meticulous preparation, and we can only take this hike today because this trail has been specially prepared. Even so, crevasse danger is real and the last thing you want to do is fall into one. We’re not talking about sinking into the snow a few feet—these cracks, which vary in size, never get smaller, only bigger.”
One of the hikers adds, “I once saw a movie called ‘Touching the Void,’* about these two guys who were climbing a huge, snow-covered rock face in the Andes, and one of them falls into a crevasse—and survived. It was painful to watch!”
“Yes, I can only imagine,” agrees Grégoire, grateful for some positive interaction. “It would be nice if crevasses would do us the favor of revealing themselves to us before we fall into them but unfortunately, they don’t. Sometimes, there is a tell-tale trench or some ice spikes, but unless you’ve got an expertly-trained eye, you would easily miss it. You really can never be sure that you’re not walking or skiing right over a crevasse. If you’re lucky, it’s just a small one and you can climb or dig your way out, but all too many are really, really deep, like 45 meters or more, and should you fall in, you’d just keep falling and falling until you hit the bottom. Of course, you’d hit lots of protruding ice and break some ice bridges along the way. If you were lucky, or unlucky, enough to survive, then you’d have to worry about being rescued, but at that depth and at that temperature, your chances are pretty slim.”
The hike was starting to get a little more difficult. Many people stopped under the pretext of applying sunscreen or looking through their backpacks for their water bottles. The Beefy Belcher stopped often to unwrap a granola bar, his bulging jaw muscles clenching in a jittery frenzy to conquer and ingest the gooey confection as the wrapper was whipped away by the winds that grew stronger and colder with the increasing altitude.
“Rain, it’s really easy to tell who is a tenem and who is not. Can you tell?”
Rain looks quizzically at Graciela. “I thought we all were!”
“Oh, wow! OK, Rain, the air is getting thinner. How do you feel?”
“I feel just fine—why do you ask?”
“OK, look around at everyone. What are some of the people doing that we aren’t?
“They’re putting on sunscreen, eating energy bars, drinking water, wearing sunglasses or goggles, taking pictures, looking at their phones, huffing and puffing, complaining about the lack of bathrooms on the hike, and, oh yeah, smoking and chewing gum like that jerk who’s been giving Grégoire an even harder time than we were.”
Graciela nods knowingly. “Uh, huh! Now you know who isn’t a tenem!”
Rain looks around with new eyes. “Oh….”
Grégoire stops and turns to the group, many of whom seem to be struggling against the elements. “Don’t be surprised if you need to rest often. As I mentioned while we were still in the train station, we’re already up pretty high and as we climb, many of you may be affected by the high altitude. Up at the Mönchsjoch Hut, we will reach an altitude of 3,454 meters, where the oxygen level is even lower than it is here.”
“When are we going to get there?” someone whines.
The wind has begun to carry a lot of fine, dry snow for some time now and visibility has dwindled to slightly better than none.
“You could almost see the Mönchsjoch Hut from right here were it not for the wind blowing the snow around, but we’re very close now,” says Grégoire in an attempt to soothe the cold, uncomfortable crowd. He knows that this is the point at which the majesty of nature could easily be bartered away for a $20 cup of really mediocre soup with an under taste of dishwater.
A shriek cuts through their collective misery as all eyes are trained on Graciela standing at the edge of the trail.
“Rain! Come back! It’s dangerous over there! Didn’t you hear the warnings?” pleads Graciela. “Rain! What are you doing?!!!”
As if deaf to Graciela’s entreaties, Rain continues to walk on the thick crust of ice beyond the edge of the path. Distracted by one of Morgana’s repressed memories, she hears Morgana screaming, still holding the baby blanket she is crocheting for Gerri, as yet unborn, seeing her little boy, Travis, chasing a ball into the busy street at the edge of the park.
The words and the screams echo in her head but all she can do is walk to where her feet are taking her until she hears the crevasse open up. In slow motion, she feels herself plummet through a narrow slit that swallows her up. Shards of ice scrape her face and shoot up into her nostrils.
From far away, she can hear the commotion of panic as people who have watched her disappear into the ice shout and scream in horror and disbelief.
Wedged tightly in an envelope of space deep in the ice, the cold begins to fracture Rain’s thoughts, revealing glimmers of secrets of Rain’s “life” in the Spa.
Morgana wakes up thinking of a fake melting ice cube that she kept in her treasure box for years and wonders where it is now. Everyone thought it was funny, but it was actually quite horrible. The clear plastic featured an entombed fly caught unaware of its impending doom of false immortality. Every once in a while, she’d slip it into a friend’s drink as a joke, but more often than not, it would go unnoticed and then she’d have to dig it out of the drink’s dregs, and explain the failed joke to her friends. The joke barely worked back then, but it would never work now. For one thing, ice cubes were not the same shape at all anymore—ice was now chunked, crushed or slushed. Ah, the good old days! It isn’t so easy to trick people these days.
Or is it?
“Oh,” says Morgana out loud, “it’s Saturday morning!”
She gets out of bed with a bounce, not noticing that her nose is numb with cold, happily anticipating meeting Percival at the Cleveland Cascade.
To Be Continued in Chapter 26
Photo Credit: http://www.jungfrau.ch (The Sphinx Observatory)
*Touching the Void is a 2003 docudrama survival film about Joe Simpson’s and Simon Yates’ disastrous and near-fatal climb of Siula Grande in the Cordillera Huayhuash in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. It is based on Simpson’s 1988 book of the same name. (Wikipedia.org)
Video Credit: 50 feet down in a crevasse after fall, Chamonix
Brandon Kampschuur (youtube.com)