Outside magazine, November 1997
I hung from a cluster of steel pitons like A Marionette jerked by the fickle strings of fate, swaying a full seven feet above the ground. Spitting a tonsil into my oxygen regulator, I probed the next crack with my quivering fingers, which by now resembled a lobster's claws after a fat man had sucked out the meat. Yes, the mountain was killing me, piece by piece; all I had left was my huge cojones (or rather, after an initial clumsy traverse, one cojn, but no matter). Huge cojones and a manly dream.
Others have scaled Everest and K2, have fly-walked up the World Trade Center and crashed into the Snake River Canyon in underpowered rocket cars, but for ten years I had been chasing a challenge of a different order, a test not just of skill but of soul. Sure, I was trying to conquer the most suicidal 147 feet in mountaineering: Disneyland's Matterhorn. But there was more up there than a mere summit. The peak was a metaphor for the juicy plum of life's mystery that all fortyish men, awakening to hair on the pillow and an inner emptiness as vast as the Matterhorn itself, must pursue. It was the Moby Dick to my Ahab, the Valjean to my Javert, the Tweety Bird to my Sylvester.
Walt's dark and brooding Matterhorn: Many climbers had tried it — all had died. The yodeling sound track looping from the bowels of the mountain sounded like the ghostly wailing of all who'd come to grief on this pitiless stairway to hell. The bodies of Goofy and Pluto lay in a nearby crevasse, their floppy ears forever stilled — a grim reminder of how this fiendish scale model treats animals with rubber feet. And not three weeks ago the Pirates of the Caribbean, who'd naively roped their peg legs together with sailor's knots, tumbled downhill in a fatal heap, crying "Aargh, me hearties! Aargh!" as they fell.
Ah, death. She was calling me, like an AT&T operator with a special discount offer. I knew I'd be dead myself if I didn't start moving again. The Anaheim sky was deceptively clear, but painful past experience had taught me that fast-moving banks of smog could roll in at any time, slightly obscuring the peak and impeding respiration among asthmatics and the elderly. Quickening the ascent, I began to pull myself hand over hand through the fiberglass pine trees. The countless tossed-aside spools of cotton candy made the slope nicely sticky, but it still took 90 seconds of brute effort, of sweating and clawing like a terrified rat, to bring me to timberline, 70 feet up. Needing to rehydrate, I tried thawing an Italian shaved ice treat in my mittens, but it seemed to be frozen solid. Unfortunate, as my dry lungs were gasping and gurgling like a dry Texas well and my heart was stuttering like a Kalashnikov in a war of ethnic self-determination.
In the thin air I was in danger of lapsing into cyanotic anoxia, the delirium that follows when the brain isn't getting enough oxia. This concert of symptoms was doubly terrifying since it was so unexpected, because I'd been training for weeks, trimming 25 pounds, or 5 percent of my body weight, in a killing regimen. I'd prepared for vertigo and altitude sickness by eating all my meals in revolving restaurants and toughened my spirit to prisoner-of-war fortitude by watching G.I. Jane 13 straight times. In retrospect, however, trying to achieve peak cardiovascular fitness solely by shinnying up It's a Small World may have been unwise.
These thoughts were interrupted by a loud chug-a-chug from nearby, and I saw a roller coaster filled with revelers vanish into the mountain's Glacier Grotto. There followed tinny screams at the advent of the Abominable Snowman, a slow-moving hologram who never seemed to catch them, curse it. This was another in the interminable group of international travelers who had none of the training and skill necessary for a true ascent, just enough cash to purchase the expertise of the lederhosen-wearing guides who buckled them into a mechanical bobsled. These joyriders would tell their friends about "doing" the Matterhorn, a cheap cocktail party anecdote for dilettantes with credit cards where their guts should have been. Admittedly, I was still a little sore about my altercation at the ride's You-Must-Be-Taller-Than-This Clown. But to me the mountain wasn't supposed to be fun; it was supposed to be climb or die, like a rat — a different rat than before — stuck in a drainpipe.
Rat thoughts always gave me courage, and now I had enough in the tank to attempt the last 20 yards — the so-called Death Zone. I thought of teammates who had not made it this far, comrades all: Timmy, who had become carsick during the long approach and abandoned his campaign; Adam, who'd seemed the most capable of any of us and who'd tearfully given up his dream only hours ago after meeting his demons on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. But they were with me now in spirit, and I owed them my best effort, whatever the cost. I spat out my last two teeth, bound my bleeding leg ulcers, and flung myself against the razor-sharp pinnacle like a hunk of fresh mozzarella impaling itself on a cheese grater. Pulling my aching body over the final edge, I rose to my feet in the glorious sunshine — only to see the grinning face of Captain Hook. He'd beaten me to the top by using his mechanical hook as a grappling iron, the bastard.
We faced each other: I, sweating, bleeding, pissing blood and spewing vomit; he, the picture of mustachioed suavity, his lace ruffles waving in the breeze. "It seems you are too late, my one-testicled friend," he gloated.
"What's that ticking sound?" I countered. "Some sort of crocodile-cum- alarm clock?" Hook whirled frantically, too frantically, and lost his footing. With a desperate cry he fell over the edge, windmilling his hand and claw until he belly flopped into the Alpine Splashdown.
In command at the summit, I should have been reveling in glory. Yet my mouth was filled with bitter bile. I was alone at the top — but I was alone. I suddenly realized that my blinkered devotion to this climb had driven away even my staunchest friends (sorry, Grumpy, Bashful). I had reached my goal, yet somewhere in the incredible ordeal of the last 11 minutes I had lost my way. Trying to grab for life's juicy plum, I had bitten off more than I could chew and ended up dropping it like a hot potato. The irony pierced me like a sharpened piton, stuck not into the mountain but into my own heart. In the end it was not I, but the Matterhorn, that had won.
Contributing editor Tad Friend is currently whitewater-rafting Venice.
Photograph by Craig Cameron Olsen