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Outside magazine, November 1997
A man. A mountain. A mock adventure in 1:100 scale.
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,
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Contributing editor Tad Friend is currently whitewater-rafting Venice.
Photograph by Craig Cameron Olsen