The Tooth of Time
By Lucas Nieman
Montgomery Blair High School
“There’s no right turn on the map,” I told our ranger, Allen, over my shoulder. Our crew gazed up at the Tooth of Time, its peak looming over the wide plains of New Mexico. The sheer thousand foot cliff face and its uncanny resemblance to a tooth sent shivers through my body. I knew we would have to climb it eventually. To our right rose a four hundred foot rock slide with boulders of all sizes.
“That’s the kind of mountain we don’t climb up, guys!” my dad yelled from the back of the line as he pointed towards the rock slide. I glanced at the map, then back at the winding trail in front of me. We had come to a split in the trail that wasn’t marked on the map, and there were no post markings to tell us which way was safe. No sign, no sticks pointing the right way, no cairn, no “death by falling rock” warning, and a useless map.
“What’s the call, crew leader?” asked Mr. Parker, our adult advisor.
I checked my watch out of nervous habit. 7:02 a.m. I began to sweat and it was hard to look at my crewmates. This is my decision, I thought to myself, and I could either take us the right way, or endanger everyone. No big deal.
“The left trail looks covered in shrubs and that’s a boulder blocking it.” I pointed to what looks like a large rock. “The right trail is going away from the Tooth of Time, but it’s not blocked. I guess we’re going right,” I said to the crew.
I kept checking my map and compass nervously. As we climbed higher I looked left down the valley to see a small trail heading away from us, towards Tooth of Time. 7:13 a.m.
Beep beep beep.
The sounds of my watch alarm broke into my much needed sleep. I rose from my quarter-dome tent at the usual, bright and early, 5:15. The sun hadn’t risen yet and a faint, blue-ish glow illuminated the campsite where we had spent the night.
“Rise and shine, sleepy heads! It’s Day 4 of 12!” I called to my crewmates. I walked around camp in the same underwear and hoodie I had worn the last three days. “Today we’re climbing the Tooth and we’re gonna need a good start if we want to make it to the summit by lunch.” I was always the first one up and the last one to bed.
Don’t stress, you’re just the designated leader of eight boys, four adults and your own father, backpacking in New Mexico. No big deal, I thought to myself as I walked from tent to tent kicking the ground.
We trudged towards the looming mountain in the distance with bags under our eyes and heavy packs. I checked my watch from time to time as we made progress towards the base. 6:15, 6:32, 6:48.
“Can we take a break before we start the ascent?” asked Mr. Crayton.
He always asked these questions that were supposed to test me to see if I knew what I was doing. It was a sarcastic way of him telling me what I actually should be doing.
“Yes, Mr. Crayton, we can,” I replied equally as sarcastic. Several crew mates sat down on rocks off the side of the trail while I gave the crew a pep talk.
“I know everyone’s tired and we just woke up. We’ll just take it slow and steady up the trail and if anyone needs a break, just let me know. Ok?”
“Ok,” said the boys in unison, their expressions solemn and their postures weary. My long time friend, Justin, and I made eye contact. His face looked drained as he looked up at me.
I gave him a reassuring look and smiled slightly.
I checked my watch. 7:31 a.m. “We’ve been climbing this trail for almost 15 minutes, and it doesn’t seem to be going towards Tooth,” I yelled down the mountain to Allen. No answer. I looked up the mountain, it got steeper and the rocks scattering the surface looked impassable. “What do you think we should do, dad?” I called, “I need to talk to someone else before I make a decision.”
“It’s way too dangerous to go back down. It’s too steep,” he warned me, “Just make sure we let people take breaks if they need it.”
I imagined trying to climb back down, the rocks sliding out, and the fall that would certainly crush us instantly.
“Yeah, I don’t think that’s happening,” I told him. “We just need to climb higher until we get to the top. We’ll be able to see better and make a decision from there.
“What does it look like up there, guys?!” I yelled to Nate, Thomas, and Marcus, who were 100 feet above us.
“It gets better, trust me!” Marcus yelled back down.
“He says it gets better!” I repeated for the crew to hear. My voice reverberated through the valley, scaring birds perched in the pines. If we got stuck up here, would someone be able to hear us from the trail? Would they send a helicopter? Does Allen have a walkie talkie? No big deal.
We climbed higher as the sun began to rise. Light illuminated the tops of the mesas in the west. The sun had yet to come over our mountain. I strained my neck as I looked straight up towards the peak. Why is it so goddamn steep? As I turned back to check on the crew a shout came from above me.
I glanced up just in time to see Thomas knock loose a rock the size of a person. It came hurtling down at the rest of the crew.
“DUCK!” I yelled at the top of my lungs to the crew below me.
Mr. Parker and I pinned ourselves under a ledge just in time for the rock to come flying over us. The rock bounced twice, its path headed right at my dad.
“Dad! Move now!”
Thoughts rushed through my head. Why is he not moving? He needs to do something! Is my dad going to die?
The rock took a final bounce as it hurtled towards my dad.
My ears rang as the rock exploded into a million pieces, hitting a boulder seconds before colliding with my dad. The rock sprayed thousands of little chunks.
“That’s all you’ve got?!” dad yelled up the mountain.
“Shut up, you idiot,” I half laughed, half cried.
The climb went on for hours, mounting rock after rock, slowly making progress towards the top.
“It gets better, trust me,” Marcus kept saying from the front.
My calves burned with a fire I had never felt before. The searing pain kept crawling up my legs and at points I was unable to walk from the cramps. Every once in a while, one of us would groan in pain as a rock scraped their leg. Cuts and bruises began appearing all over my body. My knees turned purple from crawling over boulders and my elbows bled. My head started to throb from severe dehydration, but I knew I had to save my precious water for the trek ahead of us. If all that wasn’t enough, the higher we climbed, the less air I could pull into my aching lungs. I don’t know if we’ll make it to the top, I thought to myself between gasps for air.
Justin had been climbing near me since the rock incident. “I can’t do this anymore, dude,” he looked at me with tears running down his cheeks. I hadn’t noticed him crying before.
“Hey, look at me. What’s wrong?” I said, trying to grab his attention.
He looked over and I saw a fear I had never seen before in my friend’s eyes. His voice cracked, “We’re g–going to die, dude. We’re on the side of a fifty degree rock slide and we’re not even near the top.”
“We can do it,” I reassured him. “They say it’s getting better ahead. Make sure you take breaks if you need it, you’re not going to slow anyone down. Plus, we’re almost there. No one’s going to die. Not while I’m here. It’ll be a piece of cake, man, no big deal.”
He continued to choke out words through his tears. “The last thing I told my mom before I left was, ‘I know mom, I know!’ She was just trying to make sure I had everything I needed. I don’t want those to be the last words to my mom, man. I love her.”
I reached over and patted his back, “Let’s take a little break here. Try not to look down.”
The two of us sat on a wide, flat rock and I looked over at him. “We’re going to make it up, Justin, I promise. You’re making it home to your mom. You’re going to tell her ‘I love you’ again. On my word.”
At that moment the sun broke over the top of the mountain. The soft glow lit up our faces as we looked upwards.
“Just follow me,” I told him.
He managed a smile, “Alright, crew leader.”
The rocks began to get bigger and more stable. I was able to fully stand up on one, to get a good look at the rest of the crew below as well as the valley. We were making steady progress as the sun rose over us. The top came into view and Marcus blasted ahead, jumping from rock to rock, testing them for the crew.
“We made it, boys!!” his voice echoed down. “This is the top!”
The sun was shining directly into our faces as I squinted towards where his voice had come from. I could barely make out his silhouette standing on a large rock pile.
“Well, we’re not at the Tooth, I can tell you that. We’ll have to bushwhack that way,” Marcus said pointing to my left, over where the mountain seemed to flatten and change into a dense pine forest.
“Let’s worry about getting to the top first,” I yelled back up.
The last few members of the crew, including Justin, were just making it to the top now. I guided Justin step by step, telling him the best way to summit.
“See that one to your left, yeah go there. Now you just hop onto that one and you’re home free,” I said as I reached down to grab his hand and pull him over the last rock. We locked wrists and he looked up at me with a smile on his face.
We raced towards Marcus, who was standing triumphant above a giant rock pile.
He waved us over, “Come check this out!”
We scrambled over and the view was unbelievably stunning. We could see for hundreds of miles around us. Storm clouds rumbled over the plains far off in the distance and a warm breeze brushed against us as it blew up the mountain. All of us had made it to the top and now stood there taking in the view. As the realization of what just happened slowly registered, an overwhelming sense of awe came over me. I put my arm around Justin’s shoulder, then pointed at the Tooth and chuckled.
“That’s going to be a piece of cake now, am I right?”