“The pieces of snow that filled the air around him as he fell were very thin …”
The sky was almost entirely clear, and he was able to see, even if not comfortably. At summer’s end, rivers of melted snow had cut new crevasses into the glacier, sometimes receding just before the cut would have opened to the sky. A perfectly flat stretch of snow only a few centimeters thick might delicately span a chasm twenty storeys deep. Alessandro had never liked walking on glaciers, even in a roped party of three or four: it was too much like walking over a minefield. Now he had no rope, no companions, no light, not even a worn path to trust more than a featureless plain.
At first he went around even the smallest crevasses. Then he began to jump them, and those he was willing to jump increased in number and width until, by the time the moon rose and lit the white expanse in which he was lost, he was running to get his starts and sailing over deep crevasses that at their narrowest convergence were more than a meter in width.
He landed on cornices and projections that sometimes lasted only long enough to take his last step and would then drop away. The cool light of the moon had not prevailed against the darkness of the crevasses, which looked like rivers of black oil.
Soon his fast progress took hold of him entirely. The risk and exertion elated him. He felt ennobled and invulnerable. As graceful as a gazelle, he flew over crevasses, and, when he hit the other side, he ran because he felt too strong not to run.
Long before first light, he took a small crevasse no more than the width of a newspaper. Four or five meters beyond it was a wide canyon for which he needed momentum, so he lengthened his stride and jumped far and high, landing hard on a flat and flawless section of snow. The pieces of snow that filled the air around him as he fell were very thin: he would have gone through even had he tried to tiptoe across.
He felt neither fear nor disappointment, and time stood still. He had a sense of great and overwhelming joy. As he was falling, snow and ice crystals blew past his face, and for a long moment he was purged entirely of regret, guilt, sorrow, expectation, and ambition.
Something wrenched him from fearless perfection and limitless joy to sorrow and determination, and he turned the long ice ace until it was perpendicular to the narrowing walls of the crevasse and both tip and head began to bounce off the ice and scrape channels into it deeper and deeper. Holding on to the shaft of the axe was like being at the end of a rope playing off a pulley and gradually slowing.
He fell slowly enough to hope that he would not be crushed on a jagged floor of ice, but when he hit he discovered that the bottom of the crevasse was soft snow. He landed on one knee, with the other leg bent and the ice axe across it. He was amazed to be entirely intact, unhurt, and happy.
Just before a January dawn at the top of Europe, kilometers from the nearest light, in a snowfield on a glacier as vast as a great city, Alessandro Giuliani knelt in the snow inside a forty-meter crevasse, in absolute and total darkness. With his blood ringing in his ears and his heart pounding, he began to laugh – because he had instantly assumed the exact pose of Sir Walter Raleigh, someone of whom he had not thought for even a tenth of a second since he was nine years old.