We arrived at the base of Pierson’s Dome a little before noon in a nice bit of perfect timing. It took us thirty minutes to dock and unload the boat, and by the time we were gearing up the sun was just starting to peek over the dome itself, warming us up after a full morning's boat ride in the cool Pacific shadow. It was the first time that day we could really see the dome in full detail.
I had never seen the dome like this before. We’d been studying pictures and models for a while now, but when you're actually standing at the base? That’s an entirely different matter. I’m not ashamed to tell you that I had a moment of pretty serious self-doubt docking that boat and watching the Pacific face of the dome slowly reveal itself in the blooming sunlight.
Right up next to it, Pierson’s doesn’t look like a lopsided hemisphere at all. It’s a wall that goes forever in every direction. Stand at the base of that beast and look up, and if you don’t get dizzy or nauseated then you are a stronger person than I. Your mind just can’t quite accept the sheer size of it. Eliot lived in a small town south of Calgary for a few years, so he’s seen it up close before, but most of us were stunned first-timers.
Eliot rubbed his hand over the surface, grinning. “Whoa,” he laughed. “This is a little bit crazy, isn’t it? What do you say, Clifford? We crazy?”
I laughed in what I hope was a macho and dismissive sort of way. “I thought we were crazy long before we actually got here, El.” Eliot laughed in response, a bit louder than was necessary.
The material felt to me more like hard plastic than anything else, not the stone I was expecting and certainly not the off-white eggshell it resembles. It was hard, shiny and smooth yet not slick, with enough hold to offer some decent friction for climbing. Sort of like very dense rubber.
We were docked near a seam where two of the massive plates joined and formed a vertical chimney a little less than a meter wide and narrowing to nothing about ten meters towards the inside of the dome. A lot of the seam at this height was filled with scummy greenish brown biomass below the dock. Brightly colored fish darted around in the sunlight, nibbling at bits of the algae.
Heller and his wife, Kalinda, loaded each other up with supplies. Kalinda was wearing a skin tight outfit that showed off her, um, climbing equipment nicely. Typical. They’ve been married for twelve years, and I still see Heller checking her out whenever she’s not looking. Lucky bastard.
Heller has always been the manly one of the group. It was his idea to start from the Pacific face since it’s the steepest climb. Celina was already ready and eager to go right away in usual fashion. She’s a small woman, barely a meter and half tall and probably no more than 40 kilos. I’ve known Celina since we were both teenagers, and I had a serious crush on her. I was the one she always talked to about her boyfriends, as I kept waiting for her to realize I was the one she should be with. You know the old story.
“What do you reckon, Cliffy? How long is this going to take?” Celina punched me in the arm and jogged to the plates without waiting for an answer. She’s strong for such a small woman. I resisted the urge to rub my shoulder where her punch landed and put my phone into the leave-behind bag that would wait for our return. Also Heller’s idea, based on the practice of some climbing expeditions we researched early in the process. Only our climb leader would have an emergency phone. The emergency phone itself went against the spirit of the whole endeavor in Heller’s mind. It was one thing on which the rest of us wouldn’t budge, though.
The plates are perfect squares, 204 meters to a side. Each is gently concave, dipping in about twenty meters at the center. The edges are raised borders that stuck out enough to allow a bivouac in relative comfort. One such horizontal seam, which Kalinda insisted was called a “zipper” by professional dome climbers and was backed up by absolutely no evidence on that fact, was right at the level of the dock. Our starting point.
I met Ravi, Tariq, and Qamar for the first time in person on the boat ride over. They were three friends that answered our posting six months prior, along with Hoshi and Sorano, a private couple that had thus far politely ignored all our attempts at conversation. Tariq and Qamar were brothers, both as solid and squarely built as those dome plates. In sharp contrast, Ravi was tall and lean and probably the only one in our group that looked like an actual climber. Even Cyrus, our climb leader, was short and just this side of pudgy. He stood on the dock with his arms crossed, glaring at all of us while we prepared, looking like a disapproving father.
Cyrus was the organizer of the whole thing, the one we hired to help us train and prepare. We started talking about ascending the dome two years prior with varying degrees of seriousness. Mostly very low degrees, I had thought at the time. When Eliot hired Cyrus eighteen months ago, I was caught off guard but we all started training right away and somehow no one thought to talk him out of it. There had been previous excursions for our intrepid little group. Nothing to this extreme, though. Week-long hike in Peru, a motorcycle trip across part of Mongolia for Elliot’s 30th birthday, that sort of thing. This one would be hard to top.
The climb officially started at 12:38 PM Pacific Time, Cyrus leading the way. He climbed up the first vertical chimney and began laying out lines for the rest of us as we finished organizing below him. Cyrus claims he completed the Bahaman ascent seven years prior in thirty-one days. That's in the top two percent of all recognized times. Whether it’s true or not, and I do still have my doubts, he definitely shot up that seam like he had done it a thousand times before. Eliot was next in line, always quick to jump in, followed by Heller and Kalinda, then Celina, then myself, with Ravi, Tariq, Qamar, Sorano and finally Hoshi bringing up the rear.
It was painfully slow going at first. Cyrus had been warning us since our first training day that we shouldn’t be expecting much of a pace when the climbing party consisted of ten amateurs with different levels of climbing experience, and we always responded with agreement while giving each other knowing glances. Cyrus pretended not to notice those smug looks back then, and we in turn chose to ignore his grin as he watched us struggle to keep up now.
With the climb underway, everyone was too focused to do much beyond climbing. It was maybe the first time our group of old friends was silent together. We stuck entirely to the plate seams for the initial degrees of ascent over the first week. The first day we traversed only two plates, three the next, after getting familiar with the feel of it all. Sorano struggled a bit by the end of the second day, but that was about it. Eliot and Heller had the most trouble with our gradual speed, muttering to themselves whenever we were waiting for Hoshi and Sorano to catch up. Once I got used to our rate of progress, I personally started to feel pretty good about it. It certainly could have been a lot worse, anyway. There had been lots of climbers before us, so there were plenty of existing spring holds still firmly bridging the gaps and Cyrus proved adept at keeping us organized and focused.
The surface was covered with graffiti and garbage everywhere we looked. Not damaged, though. I mean, I guess whatever material the dome is made out of has to be pretty sturdy to be effective in the first place, but it was weirdly impressive to see all that trash and vandalism on top of a pristine surface. You could scratch off the paint with a piece of metal and the dome material would be perfectly smooth and clean underneath.
We slept in the horizontal seams for seven hours every night, single file, head to foot. Everyone was exhausted after a full day of work, and tended to go right to sleep despite the ridiculous drop a short span from our position, on the other side of a flimsy looking net that held us in place. Even at night there wasn’t much talking at all for the first week or so other than the occasional quiet sound of Hoshi and Sorano whispering to each other.
Heller had a player with a million songs and videos loaded on it, which we tried to use to alleviate some of the monotony. Trouble was, we couldn’t even agree on a type of music, much less an actual song or two. We all tried to take turns and put up with whatever was up next in the rotation, until the complaining became non-stop and Heller shut it off and told us we were all ingrates.
By the second week we had fallen into a steady routine. By that time we were all chatting to fill the silence, and not just for the few minutes it would take to reorganize at each horizontal seam. It slowed our pace and distracted us somewhat, and the conversations were brief and halting, but it kept us sane. You can only take so much unbroken beige horizon without some kind of distraction. Tariq and Qamar had traveled the world, it seemed. Name a city, Tariq could relate a story about a meal he enjoyed there, usually in a crowded café with some local version of coffee that he invariably found too weak. I enjoyed Heller's re-telling of his first date with Kalinda even though I've heard it a hundred times. I eagerly listened to stories about Celina’s new dogs for an hour at a time. Anything was better than more silence.
“I think we should move away from the seams for the first half of each plate,” Cyrus said at the start of day eight. The angle of the dome’s surface was noticeably lower at our altitude. “The concavity of the plates means we can climb up the face without too much difficulty at this point. We’ll still most likely have to chimney the seam for the top half for now, but—”
“Let’s do it!” Celina shouted. There were cheers. They say it’s not the work or the physical skill required that beats most of the teams that don’t make it up the dome, it’s the tedious repetition. At that point I could believe it.
From then on it was closer to a steep hike with guidelines than a climb on the faces and didn’t take nearly as much concentration. The conversation increased. Eliot was the loudest, of course, telling the same jokes I’d been hearing for years. Ravi and I talked quite a bit, about our jobs, childhood, women, whatever. Both of us agreed that it was a shame we could no longer hear Kalinda’s grunting sighs of effort over all the new noise. Ravi told me about ascents he had been part of in South America, Antarctica and all over Asia. Painter by day, hiker by night. Or vice versa, maybe. He never came right out and said it, but I get the impression he’s quite successful. I still intend to look up some of his work one of these days. Cyrus actually started joining in some of the conversations when he wasn’t up ahead, debating Ravi on various routes up the Andes, arguing whether speed, difficulty or a scenic view was the more interesting factor in a climb.
Tariq and Qamar spoke less and less as we went, even though Tariq was constantly smiling and roared with laughter at Eliot’s dirty jokes, while Hoshi and Sorano continued to only talk quietly between themselves. Sorano was limping, and it was getting worse during each hiking phase. Hoshi watched her, looking progressively worried. Their goal was 2,000 meters vertical, the most modest of the group. I was a little surprised they even made it this far.
The higher we climbed, the less frequent the graffiti became. By the time we were 1,700 meters up we might go two or three plates in a row without seeing any evidence of previous climbers. Still plenty of garbage, though. There were bird droppings everywhere. Just everywhere. Ravi found a disposable diaper snagged on an old camming unit and for some reason Eliot and I thought the idea of a diaper up this high was about the funniest thing we had ever seen.
On day twelve, Sorano reached her limit. I woke up just after daybreak to find she and Hoshi were gone. Heller and Cyrus were the only others up, sitting on the edge of the seam, slurping down some caloric gel.
“What happened?” I asked Heller.
“Bad ankle. Sorano was crying last night, it got so bad.” He stood and stretched, looking much thinner than usual. “You didn’t hear any of that?”
I’ve always been a sound sleeper. I make no apologies.
“Is she going to make it down OK?” I asked.
“Oh yeah. It’s really more a matter of sliding down than walking. Hoshi said she’s had problems before and been fine. She was mostly upset that she was holding all of us back so they turned back about an hour ago before everyone was up.” We were less than two full days from the 2,000 meter line.
Eliot was elated by the news. He’d been saying for days how we would probably be making better time if Sorano wasn’t holding us back. I’m sure that only encouraged her to turn back early. Eliot isn’t one to worry about being overheard.
He was wrong, though, it didn’t make a bit of difference in our rate. All it did was to give Eliot one less excuse.
The next day we came across our first lake. The degree of climb had dropped enough so that we were walking the first half of each slightly concave plate without any lines and didn’t have to chimney up the seams at all. Water gathered in the low points. That first one was really more of a puddle than anything. We cheered all the same. It was a milestone and, more importantly, we were able to run the water through our filters and properly wash ourselves for the first time in two weeks.
Eliot actually stripped down naked and splashed into the shin-deep muck, sat down and invited Kalinda and Celina to join him. He lasted perhaps 10 seconds before jumping back out, red and shivering. I laughed so hard I nearly hurt myself.
The climbing was significantly easier by that time. Physically, at least. We were able to make four, sometimes five plates a day. The constant landscape really started getting to some of us, though. Ravi had all kinds of observational equipment, which helped. Eliot kept using Ravi’s high power binocs to check out Canada while Celina used them to search the stars every night before going to sleep.
Heller had a copy of the old United States, from right before they started building Pierson’s Dome, downloaded into a micro projector. He and Kalinda spent a lot of time comparing the projected map to his GPS and figuring out where we were on the image.
Apparently we were more than halfway to the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the third week, a high elevation point in the old U.S., a fact Heller and Kal found fascinating. Personally I had my doubts as to whether the map was the least bit accurate any more.
On day 29, Tariq and Qamar stopped suddenly as we were making our way around a lake. Somewhere, there exists a semi-official list of lake names for all the plates with year-round water. We just thought of this one as Lake 47.
“Excuse me?” Tariq announced. “My brother and I have been discussing, and we wish to depart. We would like to separate, please do not be offended.”
“Why would we be offended?” asked Kalinda. “You can go back any time you like.”
Tariq smiled uncomfortably and glanced at Qamar. “Yes, thank you. We would like to go ahead now, we feel we could go much more rapidly.”
Cyrus shook his head. “Be careful mates, this is quite common. It does seem like a glacial pace, but that’s mostly due to the huge landscape. It’s harder than it looks to climb much more rapidly without sufficient training.”
The two brothers conferred quietly for a moment. “Thank you,” said Tariq. “We will go now.” The two trotted off. I must say, regardless of how they looked with their squat limbs and wide builds, they moved fast and kept on moving until they were out of sight. We were all surprised, even Cyrus. Judging by the look on his face, he was also more than a little irritated.
That same day, two plates later, Heller stopped and pointed at the right corner ahead of us. “Does anyone else see that?”
Kalinda said she did. “It’s a black spot.”
Cyrus said, “It looks like damage.”
Ravi had his binocs out in a flash. “It is damage!” he said. It felt strange to run after so much slow-and-steady walking. Ravi’s long legs got him there just ahead of me.
There was indeed damage to the dome’s surface. A hole about five centimeters deep in the shape of a crescent maybe two meters long. I’m embarrassed now to admit how frightened it made me to see it.
“I’ve seen this before,” Cyrus said.
“Bullshit,” Eliot said. He was on his hands and knees, feeling the rough surface. There was some kind of hardened black gunk along the edges.
“No, I have. It’s never very serious, but some people have spent a lot of time and money trying to break through into the dome.” Cyrus knelt and squinted at the blank gunk. “Explosives, mostly.”
Celina touched the edge of the damage and wiped her hands on her pants. “I thought it was unbreakable.”
“Nothing’s completely unbreakable,” Heller said.
Cyrus nodded. “True enough. But look at the fact that whoever did this used some obviously serious explosives and barely made a dent. No one knows how thick these plates are, and this is just a scratch.”
We moved on and up from there. Not much else to do, really.
The wind howled constantly at that height, blowing at our backs from the north. It was maddening for no good reason at all.
Three days later we reached 5,000 meters, and Celina stopped at the bottom of a seam. She closed her eyes, took off her supplemental oxygen mask and sighed. “That’s it for me, boys.”
“Aw, come on,” Eliot said. He threw his arm around her shoulders. “You don’t want to actually stop, do you? You could keep going for a while yet.” She could, too. Celina was the only one of us who looked as though she still had any enthusiasm. She was every bit as energetic as always, seemingly unaffected by the climb.
“I was aiming for 5,000 and made it.” She looked at me, not saying out loud that we both had agreed to go 5,000. I don’t know why, I just wasn’t ready to turn around yet. There was a time not all that long ago when I would have jumped at the chance to spend all kinds of time with Celina, just the two of us climbing back down. That day she went back down on her own.
Heller turned back the day after. He said it felt like we weren’t actually moving anymore. Every day it was the same damn thing, every plate looked just like the previous one, the view to the right and left and ahead and behind was nothing but those gray squares stretching on and on. There was nothing to tell your eyes you made any progress at all. As he turned back he told us to keep going, we were almost to the peak of Mt. Whitney. It didn’t mean a thing to the rest of us, but he thought it was important. He left his map with Kalinda, who gave it to Eliot when she gave up two days later. It was just Cyrus, Eliot, Ravi and myself from there on out.
One night, sitting at the edge of a lake, we were setting up camp when Eliot spoke up suddenly. “Does anyone else hear that?” His voice was cracked and weak. I don’t think any of us had spoken in days.
No one else heard anything other than the wind but he wouldn’t drop it, insisting he heard some kind of new noise he couldn’t properly describe. The next day, as we were crossing a seam, Cyrus grabbed Eliot’s arm. “I hear it, now,” he said. Eliot grinned like a crazy person. Probably relieved he wasn’t crazy.
“What is it?” asked Ravi, straining to hear. By this time I was hearing it, too.
“It’s a low hum,” Eliot said, pointing south. “Coming from over there, I think.”
Cyrus shook his head. “It sounds stronger straight ahead.”
Because we were going that way anyway, we kept going straight up. After a few more plates we could all hear it, and we all agreed it was coming from ahead and slightly north of us. Right into that infuriating continuous wind.
I was ready to go back at that time and had been for a couple days. I hated those big plates that just never stopped, and I thought I might have to attack them and no doubt hurt myself in the process. Seems pretty silly after the fact.
“I think we should go see what it is,” I said.
Ravi agreed immediately. Eliot didn’t say much, and Cyrus was angry. He said, “That’s going to waste our time, and we have no idea how far away it is. Whatever it is.”
For some reason it just seemed important to me. And since I was either going to turn back or go see what was making that sound, I didn’t care much anymore about not going ahead. So we argued like six-year olds for a while, and Cyrus eventually gave in.
It took a matter of days to get going in the right direction. We would climb for a whole day going up then right, decide it was more right then up, adjust our trajectory, climb for another day and far too often end up backtracking. Eventually that hum was loud enough to make it was clear which direction it was coming from, and we made pretty quick progress after that.
On that last day, we crossed the seam and saw half the plate ahead of us fractured. The wind was humming across the largest pit like an open bottle. That rip terrified me. Terrified all of us, I think. Not because we were standing 5,500-plus meters above sea level on material we could see was not failsafe, I think, so much as because The Dome is just supposed to be constant, you know? It was like finding a crack in the sky itself.
Eliot led the way down to the edge of the hole. The entire plate, even what was left, was gouged and torn. All eight plates bordering were undamaged, as far as we could tell. Something ripped only this one apart. There were massive chunks sitting loose on the remaining surface like they’d been blown outward.
The terrain was rough and uneven and slow going especially after we were all so used to smooth, unbroken surfaces. Even so we preceded a lot slower than necessary. We were all impatient to see that hole up close, at the same time not sure we really wanted to.
We got there, though, eventually. We got right up to the edge and looked down into the huge crater scooped out of the dome’s surface. “Man, these things are thick.” Eliot squinted into the crater, watching Cyrus climbing down and trying to see the bottom. It was a giant bowl, going down at least a thousand meters. Ravi’s binocs could make out the detail even in the darkest shadows; it just didn’t help much there. “I think it goes all the way through,” Ravi said uncertainly. “Or maybe it’s just the angle. I can’t tell from here.”
It was a difficult descent, despite the presence of so many holds in the broken surface. Ravi did OK, and Cyrus practically flew down, while Eliot and I struggled gracelessly not to kill ourselves. We weren’t rock climbers. We trained specifically for the external surface of the dome plates and this required an entirely different skill that we did not possess. By the time I made it to the bottom Cyrus had already been there searching around for close to an hour. He nodded with his headlamp to the far side. “You are going to want to see this.”
You could barely hear the wind at all down there. After days of non-stop howling the silence was a pressure in my ears. I could hear my breath rasping inside my mask. As we approached the spot where Ravi was hunched down, I thought I could feel a warm breeze blowing past me that smelled like death, although that could very well have just been my nerves.
Ravi was at the edge of another hole, smaller, about 15 meters wide, going down a couple meters before opening up to the inside of Pierson’s Dome. He handed his binocs to me without taking his eyes off the hole.
From what I could see, a supporting pillar had burst through the surface, from the pillar surging up or the dome dropping down, or maybe something else. The top of the pillar was less than a meter from the hole. It would have been a simple matter to tie in and swing under to the rungs attached to the pillar.
Not even the binocs’ highest setting could see the bottom of the pillar, or the ground below. Eliot had projected the old map onto the side of the hole. He pointed to a red dot towards the western edge. “Las Vegas,” he said. “It was a big city. A bright city. We should be able to see it from here.”
We couldn’t see anything. If there was a city down there, it was invisible to us. Cyrus stood and backed away from the hole. “We’ve gone too far out of our way,” he said. “I don’t think we have enough supplies to make it much further before we have to turn around.”
The hole felt like it was trying to suck me in. I followed Cyrus out of the crater and watched the sun starting to set on the western seam of the plate. No one else said a thing; we just started back down the dome’s face.
Down only took a few days. We talked a lot about whether we should tell anyone, who we would tell, what good it would do, and on and on, the entire duration of our descent. Eliot joked that all he was going to do was lie that we made it to the top. “Good story for the ladies, if nothing else,” he said.
You know, it’s funny. As much as we talked on our way down, it wasn’t until our boat was docking at Vancouver and the dome was no longer impossible but merely enormous that I realized no one ever even mentioned actually going into that hole.