In 1969, Washington State geology student René Thompson pursues an independent study program that will set him on a path to climb the world’s highest peaks. Having lost his father to the war in Vietnam, and estranged from his religious mother, René visits his grandfather to borrow the money needed to join a British expedition to summit Mount McKinley in Alaska (North America’s highest peak).
Before his journey, his grandfather gives him an heirloom that has been in the family for generations: an amulet that provides glimpses of future events from the bearer’s perspective. René uses its prescience to avoid several otherwise fatal mishaps, but the disturbing visions of the upcoming climb on Mount McKinley (Denali) are too fuzzy to reconcile.
As the expedition assembles in Alaska, René meets a teammate: Rhiannon Bannerman — a devout Catholic, skilled climber and ICU nurse. Their relationship challenges his worldview of fate, faith, and free will.
The higher the climbers ascend on the multi-week summit attempt, the more they are under threat from crevasses, team conflict, avalanches, and storms. If René is to survive, he must make sense of the amulet’s visions, as well as look within, because what he discovers on the mountain is beyond anything he imagined.
Excerpt From Verglas, Chapter 3
“You’re twenty — it’s your choice to make,” said Tom, setting down three shot glasses and a bottle of Tennessee whiskey. He poured a splash into each, and raised his glass. “To John. May he always find blue skies.”
René raised his glass. “Blue skies,” he said and toasted his father’s memory with the time-honored valediction to airmen. He wiped at the moisture forming at the corner of his eye as he glanced at the untouched third glass.
Tom poured another round. “So, tell me about the route and…” He picked up the letter and frowned. “Who the hell are Mountain Nirvana Expeditions in London?” He looked up. “Why don’t you climb with an American outfit? There’s that new climbing group out of Rainier run by one of the Whitaker brothers. I know you got contacts there. Have you checked with them or the Mountaineers in Seattle?”
“Dead ends,” said René and thought about all the rejections he’d received. “Trust me, I’ve sent out dozens of letters to all the mountaineering groups I could think of. Mountain Nirvana are among the hottest climbing gigs in Europe right now. I’ve done my homework. They’ve done expeditions in the Himalayas and some first ascents on 24,000-foot peaks. The big names in climbing — the Whitakers, Willi Unsoeld, Wanda Rutkiewicz, and Arlene Blum — have been on the same expeditions as some of their members.”
“The letter don’t say who you’re climbing with,” said Tom. “But some of those names you listed are women. Are you climbing with women?”
“The team list will be sent to me when I accept. I only know the names of the leaders, Uther and Nigel,” said René and let out a slow breath. He needed to be patient with the old man. “Grandpa, a lot’s changed. Women are bagging the big peaks now, and I’m digging it. Wanda Rutkiewicz is one bad climber on the scene right now.”
“Then you definitely don’t want to climb with her.”
René rocked his chair back onto two legs and glanced at the ceiling. Summoning more patience, he said, “It’s slang. It means she’s awesome. Look, I know you’ve done some rough ascents and women weren’t part of that, but times are changing and they’re changing fast.”
“René, that’s the only thing you’ve told me today that rings true. So what is it you want? I won’t spill the beans to your mom, if that’s it. But other than smacking some sense into you, what is it you want of me?”
“I need money, and I need to borrow some gear,” said René.
“Oh, is that all?” said Tom and rolled his eyes. “The letter says fourteen hundred dollars. That’s a lot of cash.”
“Well…and a ride to Boeing Field on the fourth of July.”
Tom stared at the floor and slowly shook his head. “Just like your father. Don’t take no for an answer. What happens if you die on that mountain?”
“Seems to me that the mountain decides that, not you,” snapped his grandfather. “Thinking with your nuts again? I’ve heard too much of that bravado crap in my time. Hell, you’re smarter than that.”
René considered his next words carefully and met his grandfather’s gaze. It was like trying to stare down a wolf in the wilds; you were never going to convince the wolf that you knew the forest better than it did.
But he pressed on, fueled by emotions and the whiskey loosening his tongue, and said, “I’ve been climbing since I was eight. You and Dad taught me well. I pushed myself hard and graduated up the rope. I’ve learned from the best. Mountain weather, technical climbing, search and rescue. I’ve got the physical skills, and I know the ropes. I’m a certified guide, for Pete’s sake. Nothing will happen to me because I know what to look for.”
“You think that’s how it works?” asked his grandfather. “That you’re wrapped in some cloak of invulnerability because you know some things? That you’re smarter than everyone else, and that’ll protect you against fate?”
“I make good decisions, and that’s what keeps me alive. I don’t believe in a predetermined outcome. My choices guide my life. That’s free will!”
“Oh, so the mortar round that landed in the foxhole ten yards from mine, killing my master sergeant and leaving me unscathed, was because of my skill and free will?”
The words were spoken softly, and René studied his grandfather’s face for emotion but detected only a glacier.
René said, “What I meant was—”
“Okay,” said his grandfather, interrupting him. “Counting up all your mountaineering trips, have you summited every time?”
“No, of course not,” said René. “No one does!”
“What stops you?” asked Tom. “You’re alive. Why do you turn around and come back down? You’ve done it quite a few times.”
“Don’t mess with me, Grandpa.”
“Why? Why turn around?”
“You know why!” said René. “Smart choices. There’s avalanche risk, weather risk, terrain risk.”
“So the mountain controls the outcome.”
“No!” said René. “I do. I decide based on what I see and what I know. My decisions drive the outcome.”
“Nonsense! You can’t predict every hazard. Rockfall, sudden storms, hidden crevasses, and suck-ass terrain are all forces beyond your control. You can’t see into the future, now, can you?”
“Of course not — no one can!” retorted René. “But I still choose. Whatever the mountain throws at me, it’s my decision to go farther, chose a new path, or turn around.” This is getting old, he thought. Tom’s lessons on life always began this way, but René wanted to get to the point, since they’d had this conversation before. He refused to yield. “It’s my free will.”
“René, I worry that some of that vinyl you listen to is stuck in the same groove,” said Tom and stood. “You don’t get to pick your fate. It’s already written.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“That’s because you haven’t seen enough of life,” said Tom. “I’ve been in two wars, and I saw people die who should’ve lived, and yet others lived who should’ve died ten times over. There’s more to fate than you understand.”
“Is this where you tell me about the hand of God or some other bullcrap?” asked René, sounding more petulant than he’d intended. Tom was getting under his skin, but he needed to keep his cool, especially since he was asking for money and a ride.
“I have something to share with you,” said Tom and poured another round. “I think it’ll open your mind. Have a seat on the porch. I’ll be right back.”
René puzzled at his grandfather’s abrupt departure and the cryptic language but picked up his glass and stepped onto the porch. The hydraulic spring hissed and closed the door behind him as he settled into one of the Adirondack chairs.
The clouds had vanished, and a clear, azure-blue sky hung above the sawtooth evergreens, cascading ochre hills, and ridges rolling to the west. The sun was two fists above the mountains on the far side of the wide valley.
A hawk wheeled high above, wings as straight and still as a glider. René’s mind drifted to the kites and balsa wood planes he’d built with his father.
“Here,” said his grandfather, nudging his elbow. He set down a cardboard box, then groaned, “Damn arthritis,” as he sat in the opposite chair. “These are your dad’s personal things from Vietnam.”
“Wait…what?” stuttered René. How is this possible?
His grandfather held out a palm-sized dark wooden box and said, “These were the things he always had with him.”
René sat bolt upright. “But Mom threw away his medals…all his military stuff,” he said. “His notebooks. It’s all gone. The military told her the crash site was an inferno.” He returned his attention to the box. “Dad came back from Vietnam in an urn. What is this?”
“This is what was on him when he was found,” said Tom. “Took me over a year to get it from the Air Force. Your mother refused to accept it, but this is too goddamn important. I hounded and hounded and then went up the chain until they sent it to me — a week ago. I saved it for when I’d see you.”
René accepted the polished oak box, which was heavier than he’d expected. He tilted it closer toward the waning afternoon light penetrating the dense canopy surrounding the cabin. There was a single silver metal clasp on one edge of the smooth, sealed cube.
René slid aside the clasp and pulled back the clamshell lid.
He caught a silver flash on black felt — his father’s captain’s bars — but there was more: a heart-shaped locket that opened to reveal a photo of his mom and dad; his father’s dog tags; a pack of cards; and a silver necklace, upon which was a dull silver elliptical amulet.
He held up the necklace, letting the amulet swing free, and inspected it. The chain was constructed from woven silver braids — or perhaps it was platinum. René supported the amulet in his palm. It was heavier than it should be for its size. He brought the it close to his face and discovered that what he had mistaken for solid was actually a very fine weave of the same metal as the chain and formed a rigid cage for a dark object within.
He was aware of his grandfather watching him. Tom’s face was unreadable as he gave René the briefest of nods.
René returned to his examination. The silvery cage of the amulet was delicate but was stronger than its thin weave suggested and resisted deformation as he pressed with his fingertips. Contained within was a shiny black trapezoid — stone or metal, he couldn’t tell — measuring less than the width of his thumb. René held it up to a ray of sunlight and squinted at the clean facets upon the shiny surface. He shook the amulet gently but could detect no motion of the object within, which appeared firmly secured within the woven cage, despite the absence of any fasteners.
He didn’t know much about jewelry, but every ring, pendant, or earring he’d seen seemed intended to show off its gem, not hide it away. His mind came back to the term cage, and he decided it was appropriate. This amulet was a container to keep something hidden away.
“What is this?” he asked. “I’ve never seen it before.”
“Something that has been with us for generations,” said Tom. “I wore it once.”
Odd that I never saw Dad wearing it, thought René.
“Touch the tip of your index finger to the stone,” said Tom.
René rotated the centerpiece, but there was no gap in the elliptical silver weave that would permit him to touch the stone. “It’s not possible. The metal mesh is too tight.”
“Push at the end.”
René shrugged. Of the two rounded ends of the amulet, he chose the one that was free of the anchoring chain and pressed the tip of his index finger onto it.
His grandfather leaned close. “Now angle the edge of your fingernail.”
Suddenly, the silver mesh parted, and his finger tip touched the object inside. The black stone or metal suddenly warmed. René leaned forward— and jerked back as an intense image of blood on snow flashed into his mind. He dropped the necklace and almost fell from his chair.
“Holy shit!” René exclaimed, then shook his head and shivered. The image, so vivid seconds ago, faded like a fleeing nightmare.
“I don’t know what it is,” said Tom, and bent over to pick up the necklace. “But it shows…visions.” He straightened up.“Visions of things that you gotta watch out for.” Tom’s voice caught. “I passed it to John when it was my time to…but here it is back again.”
“I don’t understand,” said René and wondered if the whiskey had addled his brain. “What are you talking about?”
“The future!” said Tom. “It shows glimpses of your possible future. It shows you what will happen unless you do something to avoid it.”
René’s throat went dry as his thoughts flicked to the image he’d just experienced. It didn’t seem possible. “I…don’t believe you,” he said.
“It’s best you do, because what it shows you, when it decides to, may save your life — and I know it showed you something by the way you reacted, so don’t deny its power,” said Tom, raising his voice. “That necklace has been in our family as far back as anyone can remember. I was worried that because John didn’t pass it to you, it might not work, but I saw your face…I saw your face.” He held out his arm and the amulet swung from his hand.
René accepted the necklace and said, “What I saw was—”
“Never!” interrupted Tom, startling René with the ferocity of his tone. “Never tell anyone what you see. Is that clear?”
René flinched — and his thoughts raced. What is this? “Y-yes,” he said, finally.“It’s yours now,” said Tom.
René inspected the metal cage around the stone. He placed his finger on the end and repeated the sequence to part the mesh, but he was careful not to let his finger touch the black stone. He withdrew and realized that the cage was a carefully designed mechanical puzzle. Unless one knew exactly where to press, it would remain closed.
“Put it to good use, and don’t get yourself killed,” said Tom.
The memory of the vision burned in René’s mind. Then his thoughts pivoted to his father, and he asked, “He was wearing this when he died?”
“Yes,” said Tom. “I don’t understand what went wrong.”
René shut his eyes.
Whether it was the whiskey, the words, or the amulet, his head began to spin.
“Here, let’s get you inside,” said Tom. “You can sleep on the couch tonight.”