When Clay Dilham left the tent to get a sled-load of fire-wood, he expected to be back in half an hour. So he told Swanson, who was cooking the dinner. Swanson and he belonged to different outfits, located about twenty miles apart on the Stuart River; but they had become traveling partners on a trip down the Yukon to Dawson to get the mail.
Swanson had laughed when Clay said he would be back in half an hour. It stood to reason, Swanson said, that good, dry fire-wood could not be found so close to Dawson; that whatever fire-wood there was originally had long since been gathered in; that fire-wood would not be selling at forty dollars a cord if any man could go out and get a sled-load and be back in the time Clay expected to make it.
Then it was Clay’s turn to laugh as he sprang on the sled and mushed the dogs onto the river-trail. For, coming up from the Siwash village the previous day, he had noticed a small dead pine in an out-of-the-way place which had defied discovery by eyes less sharp than his. And his eyes were both young and sharp, for his seventeenth birthday was just cleared.
A swift ten minutes over the ice brought him to the place, and figuring ten minutes to get the tree and ten minutes to return made him certain that Swanson’s dinner would not wait.
Just below Dawson, and rising out of the Yukon itself, towered the great Moosehide Mountain, so named by Lieutenant Schwatka long ere the Klondike became famous. On the river side the mountain was scarred and gullied and gored; and it was up one of these gores or gullies that Clay had seen the tree.
Halting his dogs beneath, on the river ice, he looked up, and after some searching rediscovered it. Being dead, its weather-beaten gray so blended with the gray of rock that a thousand men could pass by and never notice it. Taking root in a cranny, it had grown up, exhausted its bit of soil, and perished. Beneath it the wall fell sheer away for a hundred feet to the river. All one had to do was to sink an ax into the dry trunk a dozen times and it would fall to the ice, and most probably smash conveniently to pieces. This Clay had figured on when confidently limiting the trip to half an hour.
He studied the cliff thoroughly before attempting it. So far as he was concerned, the longest way round was the shortest way to the tree. Twenty feet of nearly perpendicular climbing would bring him to where a slide sloped more gently in. By making a long zigzag across the face of this slide and back again, he would arrive at the pine.
Fastening his ax across his shoulders so that it would not interfere with his movements, he clawed up the broken rock, hand and foot, like a cat, till the twenty feet were cleared, and he could draw breath on the edge of the slide.
The slide was steep and its snow-covered surface slippery. Further, the heel-less, walrus-hide soles of his muclucs were polished by much ice travel, and by his second step he realized how little he could depend upon them for clinging purposes. A slip at that point meant a plunge over the edge and a twenty-foot fall to the ice. A hundred feet farther along, and a slip would mean a fifty-foot fall.
He thrust his mittened hand through the snow to the earth to steady himself, and went on. But he was forced to exercise such care that the first zigzag consumed five minutes. Then, returning across the face of the slide toward the pine, he met with a new difficulty. The slope steepened considerably, so that little snow collected, while bent flat beneath this thin covering were long, dry last-year’s grasses.
The surface they presented was glassy as that of his muclucs, and when both surfaces came together his feet shot out and he fell on his face, sliding downward, and convulsively clutching for something to stay himself.
This he succeeded in doing, though he lay quiet for a couple of minutes to get back his nerve. He would have taken off his muclucs and gone at it in his socks, only the cold was thirty below zero, and at such temperature his feet would quickly freeze. So he went on, and after ten minutes of risky work made the safe and solid rock where stood the pine.
A few strokes of the ax felled it into the chasm, and peeping over the edge, he indulged in a laugh at the startled dogs. They were on the verge of bolting when he called aloud to them, soothingly, and they were reassured.
Then he turned about for the back trip. Going down, he knew, was even more dangerous than coming up, but how dangerous he did not realize till he had slipped half a dozen times, and each time saved himself by what appeared to him a miracle, Time and again he ventured upon the slide, and time and again he was balked when he came to the grasses.
He sat down and looked at the treacherous snow-covered slope. It was manifestly impossible for him to make it with a whole body, and he did not wish to arrive at the bottom shattered like the pine-tree.
But while he sat inactive the frost was stealing in on him, and the quick chilling of his body warned him that he could not delay. He must be doing something to keep his blood circulating. If he could not get down by going down, there only remained to him to get down by going up. It was a Herculean task, but it was the only way out of the predicament.
From where he was he could not see the top of the cliff, but he reasoned that the gully in which lay the slide must give inward more and more as it approached the top. From what little he could see, the gully displayed this tendency; and he noticed, also, that the slide extended for many hundreds of feet upward, and that where it ended the rock was well broken up and favorable for climbing. Here and there, at several wide intervals, small masses of rock projected through the snow of the slide itself, giving sufficient stability to the enterprise to encourage him.
So, instead of taking the zigzag which led downward, he made a new one leading upward and crossing the slide at an angle of thirty degrees. The grasses gave him much trouble, and made him long for soft-tanned moosehide moccasins which could make his feet cling like a second pair of hands.
He soon found that thrusting his mittened hands through the snow and clutching the grass-roots was uncertain and unsafe. His mittens were too thick for him to be sure of his grip, so he took them off. But this brought with it new trouble. When he held on to a bunch of roots the snow, coming in contact with his bare warm hand, was melted, so that his hands and the wristbands of his woolen shirt were dripping with water. This the frost was quick to attack, and his fingers were numbed and made worthless.
Then he was forced to seek good footing where he could stand erect unsupported, to put on his mittens, and to thrash his hands against his sides until the heat came back into them.
This constant numbing of his fingers made his progress very slow; but the zigzag came to an end, finally, where the side of the slide was buttressed by perpendicular rock, and he turned back and upward again. As he climbed higher and higher, he found that the slide was wedge-shaped, its rocky buttresses pinching it away as it neared its upper end. Each step increased the depth which seemed to yawn for him.
While beating his hands against his sides he turned and looked down the long slippery slope, and figured, in case he slipped, that he would be flying with the speed of an express-train ere he took the final plunge into the icy bed of the Yukon.
He passed the first outcropping rock, and the second, and at the end of an hour found himself above the third and fully five hundred feet above the river. And here, with the end nearly two hundred feet above him, the pitch of the slide was increasing.
Each step became more difficult and perilous, and he was faint from exertion and from lack of Swanson’s dinner. Three or four times he slipped slightly and recovered himself; but, growing careless from exhaustion and the long tension on his nerves, he tried to continue with too great haste, and was rewarded by a double slip of each foot, which tore loose and started him down the slope.
On account of the steepness there was little snow; but what little there was, was displaced by his body, so that he became the nucleus of a young avalanche. He clawed desparately with his hands, but there was little to cling to, and he sped downward faster and faster.
The first and second outcroppings were below him, but he knew that the first was almost out of line, and pinned his hope on the second. Yet the first was just enough in line to catch one of his feet and to whirl him over and head downward on his back.
The shock of this was severe in itself, and the fine snow enveloped him in a blinding, maddening cloud; but he was thinking quickly and clearly of what would happen if he brought up head first against the second outcropping. He twisted himself over on his stomach, thrust both hands out to one side, and pressed them heavily against the flying surface.
This had the effect of a brake, drawing his head and shoulders to the side. In this position he rolled over and over a couple of times, and then, with a quick jerk at the right moment, he got his body the rest of the way round.
And none too soon, for the next moment his feet drove into the outcropping, his legs doubled up, and the wind was driven from his stomach with the abruptness of the stop.
There was much snow down his neck and up his sleeves. At once and with unconcern he shook this out, only to discoverm when he looked up to where he must climb again, that he had lost his nerve. He was shaking as if with a palsy, and sick and faint from a frightful nausea.
Fully ten minutes passed by ere he could master these sensations and summon sufficient strength for the weary climb. His legs hurt him and he was limping, and he was conscious of a sore place in his back, where he had fallen on the ax.
In an hour he had regained the point of his tumble, and was contemplating the slide, which so suddenly steepened. It was plain to him that he could not go up with hands and feet alone, and he was beginning to lose his nerve again when he remembered the ax.
Reaching upward the distance of a step, he brushed away the snow, and in the frozen gravel and crumbled rock of the slide chopped a shallow resting-place for his foot. Then he came up a step, reached forward, and repeated the manoever, And so, step by step, foot-hole by foot-hole, a tiny speck of toiling life poised like a fly on the mighty face of Moosehide Mountain, he fought his upward way.
Twilight was beginning to fall when he gained the ehad of the slide and drew himself into the rocky bottom of the gully. At this point the shoulder of the mountain began to bend back toward the crest, and in addition to its being less steep, the rocks afforded better hand-hold and foot-hold. The worst was over, and the best yet to come!
The gully opened out into a miniature basin, in which a floor of soil had been deposited, out of which, in turn, a tiny grove of pines had sprung. The trees were all dead, dry and seasoned, having long since exhausted the thin skin of earth.
Clay ran his experienced eye over the timber, and estimated that it would chop up into fifty cords at least. Beyond, the gully closed in and became barren rock again. On every hand was barren rock, so the wonder was small that the trees had escaped the eyes of men. They were only to be discovered as he had discovered them—by climbimg after them.
He continued the ascent, and the white moon greeted him when he came out upon the crest of Moosehide Mountain. At his feet, a thousand feet below, sparkled the lights of Dawson.
But the descent on that side was precipitate and dangerous in the uncertain moonshine, and he elected to go down the mountain by its gentler northern flank. In a couple of hours he reached the Yukon at the Siwash village, and took the river-trail back to where he had left the dogs. There he found Swanson, with a fire going, waiting for him to come down.
And though Swanson had a hearty laugh at his expense, nevertheless, a week or so later, in Dawson, there were fifty cords of wood sold at forty dollars a cord, and it was he and Swanson who sold them.
Up The Slide by Jack London