Climbing on... Mars !

"Listen; there's a hell of a good universe next door: let's go."    — E. E. Cummings (1894—1962), US poet.

Obviously, this is a fiction... Written after several other rec.climbers posted climbing fiction stories. This story was entirely imagined while hiking up Mt Elbert with Jenny, carrying skis for a very rocky descent...

Getting organized

It had been a bit tricky to setup, but I finally managed to get assigned for a week with Petruso, our Ukrainian geologist. My own experiments had been running smoothly, everything installed long ago, all the weather data being beamed back to Earth without a hitch. Our nine month mission, the second only on the planet, was nearing its end (at long last) and Petruso needed help organizing his samples and bringing them back to base. At least that's what he said. Well before we left Earth we had talked about climbing something on Mars. As far as I knew he was the only other climber on the team and we had had to set up our plans carefully.

Aerial view of Valles Marineris (© 1997 Robert Hurt, used with permission).

Right: Aerial view of Valles Marineris (© 1997 Robert Hurt, used with permission).

For him it was easy, he was always outside collecting samples, exploring valleys and canyons and it surprised no one when he spent a day near the base of a cliff. But being usually alone he wasn't willing to take risks. And as he stated it: "I'm no good climber. I have climbed with Russians, they crazy !". For me it was different, after several months in front of my computer inside the tin cans of Station Central (central to what ? It's the only one) I was really feeling restless and willing to risk it. Petruso had told me months ago about a side canyon he had found inside Valles Marineris, with a line that apparently had some ice in it. And also plenty of good bouldering at the bottom. He had been there for a month and sent me plenty of pictures. I was itching.

When commander Roswell gave me the go-ahead it took me only a few minutes to pack: all the climbing gear I had been able to bring on my meager 10kg personal allotment plus all the additional gear I had managed to build in the station's machine shop. The 100 year old bottle of port had come in handy when I asked Eirich, the precision mechanic, to manufacture a bunch of ice screws and stoppers from scrap titanium. I didn't want to risk it with the more delicate cams, so I had brought them all from Earth. I was still a little nervous about this issue: I had decided not to bring the standard AutoCams. I was afraid that their tiny batteries would freeze too quickly in the intense Martian cold, or their tiny motors would clog with the omnipresent super fine dust. And also taking old cams saved a little bit of weight: no engine for automatic adjustment of the placement. On the other hand it made me feel very unsafe to climb on things that could just move out of the crack if not placed properly. I had had to special order them to the only company that still made them for a few hard-core traditionalists whose motto was: "no power sources on any climb"; crazies. I first thought about using my great-grandparents cams, but although I suspect all their stories of huge falls and such were greatly exaggerated I really didn't feel like climbing on 100 year old gear.

A recon drone flying above Valles Marineris - © 1999 Walter Myers.

So, I have the cams, the screws, the ice tools and crampons; Petruso have the ropes and our suits have integrated harnesses. I settle into the rover and pass the 2-day automated drive by looking at satellite pictures of the valleys and the many pictures Petruso took from the bottom. And also doing plenty of pull-ups.

Left: A recon drone flying above Valles Marineris - © 1999 Walter Myers.

When I dock into his little compound he welcomes me warmly: synthesized Vodka and salty pancakes with some fish smelling goo on top that he insists on calling caviar. He hasn't seen another human in a month, since setting up his camp here, so he keeps me awake most of the night explaining all the stuff to be found in the area: fields of red sand dunes with boulders in the gaps between the dunes, canyon walls 7km high (yes, an incredible 7 times higher than Yosemite), a few sandstone cliffs with cracks in them that would not seem out of place in Utah, plenty of mud walls and, he swore, the holly grail of Mars, pure water ice at the end of a steep canyon. I have to say that after 5 vodkas I wasn't following his theories of where the best rock was anymore.

We had only a week to reconnoiter the area, choose a line, climb it, come down and... yes, also pack up all his samples spread over a huge area and mothball the outpost. In the morning he took me in his Fontainebleau (it took me a while to figure out that's what he meant with his accent), an area strewn with bus size boulders over fine dust. It wasn't my first climbing on Mars: on my first weeks here I'd traveled quite a bit to install monitoring stations and found a few boulders worth playing with; unfortunately the monitoring stations all had to be installed in wide open areas and except for a few nice looking summits with easy drives up I hadn't seen much variety.

Trying to pull off a boulder move in spacesuit is no easy task...

Training grounds

This is different. We are in the center of the canyon, with the gigantic walls of Valles Marineris all around not as oppressive as I'd thought they'd be; maybe because the valley is a hundred km wide at that place. As we drive on an open buggy from boulder to boulder, retrieving rocks he has piled up and precisely labeled, also retrieving equipment he has not so precisely left all around, I drool at all those boulders: if only it was earth... OK, let's make the best of it, our first attempt is on a large tilted stone. Now is the time to see if the custom equipment is adequate. Our normal issue gloves have rubber fingertips, fairly thin with heat resistors embedded, quite adequate. But the normal boots wouldn't work too well as they are way too similar to bunny boots; so I've shaped some low-temp rubber for the tip and we try them up. Well, not too conclusive: although the gravity one third that of Earth is on our side, the cumbersome walksuit hinders the moves, the heavy life-support pack keeps us off balance, the chest computer keeps scraping against the rock and worst of all, we can't feel a thing through our big boots. Yet we manage to pull a few good moves. The rock is a fairly fragile looking sandstone, but it holds pretty good. And (unfortunately for biologists) no lichen to worry about here. A fun day but we have bigger plans.

Right: Trying to pull off a boulder move in spacesuit is no easy task...

On the next day we drive to the base of the canyon walls, in a heavily layered area. The base is a 45° slope of rocks and pebbles but there are several vertical cliff bands above that. As we walk up the slope I'm sweating in my walksuit, never mind the -45°C temperature outside. The scale is deceptive: we have to gain a full vertical km of elevation before arriving at the first cliff band, but, woah, it's worth it: about 30 meters high and a pure smooth sandstone wall. Every 50 meters or so there's a crack, slit or chimney, smooth and straight up. After finding a way around it we setup a few top ropes. The terrain above is the usual dust, but hard packed, so we drill a few bolts with Petruso's equipment. No one has climbed on Mars yet and already there are bolts: I'm ashamed of myself but Petruso does not seem to care. He has the first try, a fist crack that seems to go very well with the size of the gloves and boots. The friction on this rock is as good as it gets, maybe too much: we have to tape our gloves, forearms and feet by fear that we will thread through the fabric.

After a few routes in the same vein I gather my guts for a trad lead on the easiest of all. After I've placed a few cams I begin to relax: after all it's just like Earth: jam your hands up, jam you feet, push up with your feet, place a cam, clip the rope, keep going... Familiar moves come back to me after too much inactivity: 3 months weightless in a tin can on the trip is not really good for muscle strength; neither the next 8 and a half months in reduced gravity living in a station barely bigger than a bus.

We are having so much fun that we have to hurry to pack up Petruso's samples before it gets dark. We walk down and drive back to the outpost late at night.

The following day we want to try our ice gear but there's no ice in sight. Oh, there's plenty of ice on Mars, but it's mixed up with the dust and forms slopes of frozen mud. We try one of those, a 100m gash in the otherwise gentle slope. It's not very steep, only 50~60° but it feels weird climbing on this red stuff. I'm terrorized at the idea of gashing a hole in my suit with my crampons... They are made of extremely resistant fabrics, theoretically bullet proof, but thanks to a lack of guns on Mars we haven't been able to try this out. They also have self-sealing capabilities but it doesn't make me feel much safer. Those videos of explosive decompressions they showed us at training camp must be in it for something... Although diamond layered, the ice picks seem to wear out pretty fast: after only one rope length I can already tell the difference; this dust is really abrasive. Some climbing that has nothing to get too excited about.

The next few days we leave the climbing aside while we collect the last samples, slice them up, sort them out, label them, package them in vacuum boxes, gather all the equipment and get ready for our little expedition. On thursday comes word from Station Central that a strike is planned for the week-end ! Started by the two French members of the expedition who complained that we hadn't had a rest day since we landed. It's true that people had been quite tired and nerves had been tense lately. Last week there was even a fist fight in the mess room. What I found funny was to see Commander Roswell, usually very strict military, run to throw his napkin over the ever present wall camera... Anyway this strike was perfect for us: 2 days we wouldn't have to justify on our activity sheet. We even opened out walksuits to disable the location beacons, to better keep this little outing quiet. The strike wouldn't have a big impact anyway: the experiments which hadn't been done yet wouldn't get done anyway.

On friday morning we drive to the deep end of the canyon to collect the last batch of samples and to have a good look at the line Petruso discovered. It lies at the very end of a very narrow side canyon. We drive between increasingly narrower walls to the point where the two walls merge. This is the line. Its sheer height is just too much to fathom. We don't know what to think about something 5 times the size of El Capitan, so we just gape. The base is low-angle, but soon it's more than 60° on this dreadful frozen mud, then there are some bands of rock, and yes, in the binoculars we can see a narrow line of ice in the middle part of the route. Real white ice. But steep real ice... The decision is taken.

Looking for interesting moves on that boulder.

Left: Looking for interesting moves on that boulder.

As we drive back to camp we suffer the usual bout of thrill, excitement, worry, self-emulating "yes, we'll do it", fear of the unknown, fear of being caught... When we arrive in sight of the camp, my heart sinks: there's another rover parked up front. Someone's here, dammit, all our plans are down the drain. When we open the airlock, it's even worse than I thought, it's Shain, the Chinese psychologist, calmly sipping on a cup of tea. In all honesty, she's more than a psychologist, a full fledged doctor and surgeon. But there was so little medical trouble on the expedition that she spent the time doing psychology experiments with us. How I hated those weekly sessions, and particularly the fact that I could never understand a word she said ! I'm about to blow up in anger when she calmly said in perfectly accented English: "you thought you could pull this off without me knowing ?" I'm also confused by the pair of axes and crampons she has on the table in front of her and the first thing that comes to my mouth is a stupid: "But you speak English !?!"

In the meanwhile Petruso hasn't said a word and is avoiding us both by filling a cup of tea in the corner. She takes her time to answer something about psychology being much easier when you can stay apart from the subjects and what route are we going to climb anyway ? I'm as confused as a baby in a topless bar but Petruso has a big smile. Sounds like it's going to be a party of 3.

The Decision

At 22:00 we pile up in the rover and catch up a nervous sleep while the autopilot takes us to the base. At midnight we are there and we check our supplies, get into our suits and start hiking up the slope unroped. Two hours later we hit the first rock band and we rope up. It's immediately quite technical: a crack very similar to our training ground. Except than here I'm leading by headlamp on unknown territory. But it's only one fairly short pitch and we resume our hike up the frozen mud, only difference is that we now use crampons and occasional axes. Four hours later, after two other short rock bands, the sun lighten up the sky with a purple glow. It will be a while before we see it deep inside this hole... We've made up good time and we are already 2 vertical km above the canyon floor; gravity does help. The serious business is just about to begin. We start doing pitches on 60° mud, taking turns. We don't protect much, just ice screws for belays. I cringe when I plant them in this red muck, feeling the vibrations through my hand as I place them. After a short while like this my calves are burning, I see the others also try to climb sideways so they can rest them. The rover is now a tiny dot at the bottom.

By 10 we arrive in an area where both canyon walls merge at a sharp angle, forming a chimney. The rock is not good at all, more like vertical mud on both sides. I lead that stemming my crampons on both sides, something I had never done before. So far I haven't left the lead to anyone else on the technical sections. Petruso is happy to follow and I don't know anything about Shain's ability. She's only said that she spent 15 years in California, which could mean anything. We use 100m double ropes so the pitches are quite long, but with this low gravity there's not so much rope drag. After a few very similar pitches the chimney narrows to a deep crack but the rock does not get any better. The good thing is that it's not very steep, something like 70°. I never know whether to protect it with cams or with ice screws, so I use a mix of both.

And then I see it: deep inside the crack there is some ice, real pure white ice. A couple more pitches and I can touch it if I put my arm deep inside the crack. I begin to understand the origin of this ice: it's mid-day and the sun right above reflects between the walls of the canyon; I check the suit's thermometer and it's -4°C outside, way hot for Mars. I'm sweating inside my suit, a little bit more and there would be water running down. Or would it, with this low pressure ? I ponder this question as I belay my partners up. When I start climbing on this ice I quickly switch the picks on my axes to a narrower kind.

Above there's a very serious pitch: a layer of good sandstone, slightly overhanging. I don't pay attention to Petruso's jokes about needing to invent a new grading system as I start the pitch. I place an ice screw in the mud below the good rock and start on the hand-crack that promise to be quite long. I order my suit's computer to increase the oxygen level. Whether it's ethical or not, I can't care less, I'll let virtual climbers ponder the question. Having left most of my supplies to my partner I feel pretty light and send the crack with ecstatic moves; I'm no longer afraid of those old fashioned mechanical cams and place them without a second thought.

Then as I pass the bulge I have a shock: there's a horizontal ice band sticking a good meter off the rock, forming an insane roof. I've never seen anything like that before. As I get right underneath it looks out of place, its color is blue-green. BLUE-GREEN ?!? I scream in the microphone as I describe my find. Although I can't see many details besides some threads, I'm sure I've found it: life on Mars. Xenobiologists had plenty of leads but eventually hadn't found anything except "maybe some fossil traces", and here, right under my tools here's some green stuff... I'm so thrilled that I forget to protect the overhang. The ice layer is only 2 meters thick but protrudes out of the rock by about a meter. It's funny to describe, like the ice is being squeezed between two rock layers. I'm trying to exit the vertical section but now my body is telling me that it's pumped. The discovery has been bouncing back and forth between my brain lobes, but it comes to an end suddenly as my forgotten arms let go of the ice tools. It comes as a complete surprise. I fly off the lip of ice in a slow arc. I don't remember much, but the suit's recording is quite explicit (I saved it): "AAAaaahhh... (deep breath) AAAaaahhh... 'Bang' Argh, I've broken my helmet !"

My partners lower me quickly to the belay while I'm holding frantically my helmet with both hands, screaming. There's a triple crack in it, a white star right between my eyes. I feel a needle pierce my shoulder, probably the suit's computer deciding that I need a tranquilizer. My partners have to coerce me to remove my hands; the plastic is cracked but the integrity of the helmet has not been breached thanks to heavy duty polymers. While I'm shaking at the belay Shain takes the gear and finishes the lead. She confirms my find and she also confirms that it was a hard pitch; something I can figure out by myself as I do it again on second after Petruso hands me back my axes. We haven't taken any sample collecting equipment so we use the ice screws to get samples and we empty them in our outside pockets, hoping they won't get too contaminated.

Shain takes the next leads as well. She flies on the narrow ice filled crack, to the point of seeming graceful in her bulky walksuit. I slowly recover my wits while squinting past the helmet cracks. I've put some sealing tape in the middle, just in case, which forces me to turn my head sideways so I can look straight...

A view of Valles Marineris from the rim of the canyon - © 1999 Walter Myers.

Right: A view of Valles Marineris from the rim of the canyon - © 1999 Walter Myers.

We pass another similar ice band squeezed between two large rock bands, sticking out the same way. Just as hard. The ice is greener, darker and we collect more samples, wrapping them in plastic bags. We are still less than halfway up and have a long way to go but decide to stop on the top of a rock band where a small platform is available. The sun has just disappeared and it's getting dark fast. We have brought an emergency inflatable shelter, another word for an airtight tent, but we just fall asleep in our suits, something I had never done before, not even in training. It's very uncomfortable, I hate not being able to get my arms close to my body; and judging by the kicks I get it must be the same for the others. At 23:00 Petruso asks us if we want to keep going; we are all awake anyway.

After a 10 seconds breakfast of warm high-glucid concentrate flushed down by recycled urine, we continue following the ice vein, switching leads between Shain and I. Petruso declines the leads, saying he's faster behind and he's now carrying most of our supplies. There is some frost on the walls, but it doesn't make much difference in the climbing. The first 10 hours are pretty similar: the vein of ice is increasingly reddened by the dust and surrounded by frozen mud that gets more brittle and dusty the higher we go, but it's not very steep and pretty fast going. In the middle of the morning we hit another succession of rock bands where the ice gradually fades out and by mid afternoon we can see a continuous frozen mud slope to the summit, an impression confirmed by the satellite pictures we just downloaded. We send an order to the rover to come wait for us on the summit but we still have 2 vertical km to go on this steep stuff. It's boring and endless. The sunset is amazing, all purple sky above the crimson valley; we unrope and continue on 45° terrain and by 2:00 we are staggering over the rim of the canyon after a final short pitch on steep rock where we have to rope up again. Half a km away we can see the blinking beacon of the rover. Petruso gets there a good half hour before us, still carrying most of the gear like an ox. I can hardly walk anymore, the suit having exposed all kind of sore spots on my body.

When we remove our suits the stench is like a chemical attack, our overalls sticking to our body with the sweat. We still had about 30 hours of power and oxygen filter left in our suits but we sure as hell didn't have any energy left in us. But first we fight for access to the rover's microscope. Yes, there are some blue-green cells in the ice we collected and we can even see them moving slowly. Plenty of high fives, hugs, high energy food and hysterical laughs. Our eyes are sore from the red grit that always finds its way past the tightest seals, we can also feel it on our teeth. We collapse in the cramped bunks while the rover drives us back to the compound; and even Petruso's snores as he digests his vodka won't keep me awake. The next day is spent looking in the microscope, beaming stupidly and packing the crates of rock samples on the trailers. We mothball the compound and leave in the evening.

Two days later we dock with Station Central late in the evening and when the airlock opens there's commander Roswell behind the door with an angry look on his normally bland face: "I want to see all 3 of you in my office at 7:00 sharp !" He turns away and leaves.

We are a bit embarrassed as we walk into the mess hall: it looks like everyone knew. After cheering with the other expedition members, eating the chef's welcome back cake and telling of our ascent, I skip to the xenolab where I find the biologist playing a virtuagame, looking bored behind his helmet. When he sees the shit eating grin on my face as I tell him to go look in the freezer of the rover he goes through a whole range of expressions before finally saying: "Are you sure ?" I expected better.

At 7am, I'm not very awake as I stand outside of commander Roswell's door with an obviously hungover Petruso and a back to her quiet self Shain. The door opens brutally with a: "Get in !" Commander Roswell always had a very strict attitude in public, but in private he's actually a lot more mellow, quite a nice guy actually. I didn't really know what to expect that morning, so I'm surprised when he just says: "Never do that again. And you, Shain, I expected better of you. Dismissed."

We feel much lighter as we're having breakfast on fresh rolls in the mess hall. I'm just as happy as the day I received the selection letter from the Mars committee. One hour later commander Roswell bursts though the door: "All 3 of you, back into my office immediately !" Jones, the xenobio, is there all disheveled, obviously he hasn't closed an eye of the night. "Jones just told me about your find, which places us in a delicate situation. I was about to cancel those two days off your logs, but now how do we justify your finding ? So you put me in a situation where I'm forced to retroactively issue a command to explore the cliffs. I hope you understand the implications".

Oh yeah baby, it means headlines like: "Climbers find life on Mars", "Little green climbing cells"... My head is spinning as I walk out of his office. I don't even pay attention to Jones babbling about no DNA, some common amino-acids and can we please do another trip there ? With departure scheduled in 5 days I seriously doubt it, but then, I'm sure there will be plenty more climbers on the next expedition...