Cover Me - By Catherine Mann
It was a cold day in hell for Tech Sergeant Wade Rocha—standard ops for a mission in Alaska.
He slammed the side of the icy crevasse on Mount McKinley. A seemingly bottomless crevasse. That made it all the more pressing to anchor his ax again ASAP. Except both of his spikes clanked against his sides while the underworld waited in an alabaster swirl of nothingness as he pinwheeled on a lone cable.
Wade scratched and clawed with his gloved hands, kicked with his spiked shoes, reaching for anything. The tiniest of toeholds on the slick surface would be good right about now. Sure he was roped to his climbing partner. But they had the added load of an injured woman strapped to a stretcher beneath them. He needed to carry his own weight.
Chunks of ice and snow pelted his helmet. The unstable gorge walls vibrated under his gloved hands.
“Breathe and relax, buddy.” His headset buzzed with reassurance from his climbing partner, Hugh “Slow Hand” Franco.
Focus narrowed, Wade tightened his grip on his rope. He’d earned his nickname, Brick, by being the most hardheaded guy in their rescue squadron. Come hell or high water, he never gave up.
Each steady breath crackled with ice shards in his lungs, but his oxygen-starved body welcomed every atom of air. Lightning fast, he grabbed the line tying them together and worked the belay device.
Whirrr, whippp. The rope zinged through. Wade slipped closer, closer still, to Franco, ten feet below.
“Oof.” He jerked to a halt.
“I got ya, Brick. I got ya,” Franco chanted through the headset. Intense. Edgy. Nothing was out of bounds. Franco would die before he let him fall. “It’s just physics that makes this thing work. Don’t overthink it.”
And it did work. Wade stabilized against the icy wall again. Relief trickled down his spine in frosty beads of sweat.
He keyed up his microphone. “All steady, Slow Hand.”
“Good. Now do you wanna stop horsing around, pal?” Franco razzed, sarcastic as ever. “I’d like to get back before sundown. My toes are cold.”
Wade let a laugh loosen the tension kinking up his gut. “Sorry I inconvenienced you by almost dying there. I’ll try not to do it again. I’ll even spring for a pedicure, if you’re worried about your delicate feet chafing from frostbite.”
“Appreciate that.” Franco’s labored breath and hoarse chuckle filled the headset.
“Hey, Franco? Thanks for saving my ass.”
“Roger that, Brick. You’ve done the same for me.”
And he had. Not that they kept score. Wade recognized the chitchat for what it really was—Franco checking to make sure he wasn’t suffering from altitude sickness due to their fifteen thousand foot perch. They worked overtime to acclimate themselves, but the lurking beast could still strike even the most seasoned climber without warning. They’d already lost one of their team members last month to HACE—high altitude cerebral edema.
He shook his head to clear it. Damn it, his mind was wandering. Not good. He eyed the ledge a mere twenty feet up. Felt like a mile. He slammed an ice ax in with his left hand, pulled, hauled, strained, then slapped the right one in a few inches higher. Crampons—ice cleats—gained traction on the sleek side of the narrow ravine as he inched his way upward.
Slow. Steady. Patient. Mountain rescue couldn’t be rushed. At least April gave them a few more daylight hours. Not that he could see much anyway, with eighty-mile-per-hour wind creating whiteout conditions. Below, his climbing partner was a barely discernible blur.
Hand over hand. Spike. Haul. Spike. Haul. He clipped his safety rope into a spike they had anchored in the rock on the way down. Scaled one step at a time. Forgot about the biting wind. The ball-numbing cold.
The ever-present risk of avalanche.
His arms bulged, the burden strapped to his harness growing heavier. Remember the mission. Bring up an unconscious female climber. Strapped to a litter. Compound fracture in her leg.
His job as a pararescueman in the United States Air Force included medic training. Land, sea, or mountain, military missions or civilian rescue. With his brothers in arms, he walked, talked, and breathed their motto, “That Others May Live.”
That people like his mother might live.
Muscles burning, he focused upward into the growl of the storm and the hovering military helicopter. A few more feet and he could hook the litter to the MH-60. Rotors chop, chop, chopped through the sheets of snow like a blender.
The crevasse was too narrow to risk lowering a swaying cable. Just one swipe against the narrow walls of ice could