Featured April 24, 2021 Science Fiction female protagonist Mars

The God of All Mountains

By Jo Miles
Apr 20, 2021 · 4,695 words · 18 minutes

Ingenuity nasa large

Art by NASA/JPL-Caltech.  

From the editor:

Claudia doesn’t have the lucrative sponsorships or high-tech equipment of her competition; instead she has only secondhand astronaut gear and a love of climbing to support her bid to be the first person to summit Olympus Mons: the tallest planetary mountain in the solar system.

Author Jo Miles lives in Maryland and works with nonprofits on digital marketing and advocacy. Their work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Analog, Nature Futures, and more.


From the author: In honor of NASA's Ingenuity achieving our first helicopter flight on Mars this week, here's the story of one woman's race to make her own first on Mars: the first person to climb to the summit of Olympus Mons. But only if she can survive the mountain--and beat her obnoxious, better-funded competitor. I like to think the drones in this story are Ingenuity's intellectual descendants.


Claudia checked the straps on her crash seat a third time as the lander entered atmosphere and the turbulence ramped up. Across from her, Pete’s face turned green. Watching him unsettled Claudia’s own stomach, so instead she ran through her gear list in her head. She knew how to channel her anxiety into productivity, and this was no different than any other climb.

Well, maybe a little different.

On her own, with none of the Hermes expedition’s funding or support, she’d made it. It took three years of frantic planning, calling in every favor from her long career, begging and begging for corporate sponsors when no company wanted her. Finally, she’d cut a deal with the Chilean Space Agency, which agreed to support her for the sake of patriotic pride and arranged for her to hitch a ride on an ally’s rocket. Even then, she had to sell her soul to the banks to finance the high-tech gear she needed. But now, she was here, looking out the window to see the rusty curve of Mars looming below. Its thin atmosphere glowed like a halo, giving it a surreal feeling. She tried to identify landmarks. Olympus Mons was...

She couldn’t see it, but that was okay. Soon she’d be at its feet.

The landing boosters fired. Dust plumed around the pod, then settled. She and Pete unstrapped, triple-checking the seals on their suits. A lock of grey-streaked hair fell across her face, and her glove bumped her helmet as she reached unthinking to brush it away. Time to untrain those old habits, and fast.

The door hissed open, and her boots sank into the fine dust of another world.

The Martian desert unrolled before them, dustier and more desolately beautiful than even the Atacama below the Andean peaks where she first learned to climb. In the distance, mountains yawned up from a too-flat plain, glowing the color of perpetual sunrise. Close by, a cluster of habitat units stood out against the rusty landscape like a thick, pallid scar. If the Hermes team’s base camp was here… where was the mountain?

Oh.

There it was. Rising behind the base camp, not a rusty sky, but a cliff-wall so tall Claudia could not see its top, so broad she couldn’t find its edges. Olympus Mons, god of all mountains, three times taller than Everest, wide enough to swallow her country whole. The behemoth. If all went very, very well, in a few weeks she’d stand up there looking down.

Dozens of people swarmed about the Hermes Ascent Team’s camp, like ants: the teensy black ones that hurt so bad when they bit. A whole team of climbers, scientists, sherpas, and cooks. Sponsors. Reporters. The full circus. Even from a distance, their set-up looked first-rate.

Claudia had pennies for funding, and Pete to monitor her progress, and her own two legs.

“That’s not real climbing,” she muttered. “That’s like when tourists want to say they climbed Everest so they pay a guide to drag them up to the summit.”

A figure drew away from the Hermes circus, walking toward them. She groaned.

“You want to avoid them?” asked Pete.

“No. They’re where we need to be.”

“Well, well.” A familiar voice echoed on the external speakers of their welcomer’s suit. “Hola, Claudia.”

“Derek.”

Here was the face that NASA and the corporate goons picked to inspire a new swell of support for space exploration, the face for the magazines and glossy prints with its perfect blond hair and gleaming teeth and wrinkle-free skin. In a helmet, Derek looked just like everyone else. Even if his helmet was a lot sleeker and less bulky than hers.

“So you made it!” Derek patted her on the shoulder. “I admit, I didn’t think you’d pull it off.”

“You’ll be saying that again when I see you at the summit,” said Claudia. And under her breath: “Pendejo.

“Sure, maybe I will. A solo first ascent! On Mars. That takes some real balls to attempt.” He laughed, all confidence for his own success. Though Claudia often preferred the intimate challenge of facing a mountain alone to the camaraderie of a team, this time she wasn’t climbing solo by choice. Her funding barely got herself and Pete here. “I’m sorry they didn’t pick you for the team, but you know, the more the merrier. We’ll both set records if we make it. I’ll be the first man to summit Olympus, and you could be the first woman.”

The first person, you asshole.

They both wanted this badly, for many of the same reasons. There were no real challenges left for either of them on Earth, only new daredevil records on well-trodden routes, increasingly clogged with amateurs too green to know a carabiner from a crampon. For new firsts, they had to come out here.

As big-mountain climbing grew in popularity, guys like Derek competed for sponsorship, building their reputations through speed records on ever-more-technical routes — a race of macho oneupmanship. Claudia had tried for years to gain a foothold in that crowded race, until she realized that the press of competition made her hate her own sport. After that she climbed for herself, against herself, mostly by herself. It was hard to attract sponsors that way, but she scraped by. She set records of her own, significant ones, the first woman to do this solo or that new route, but she knew the little sniff people made when they mentioned her achievements. First woman, first Chilena, doing what the American and European men had already done.

The circus’ hangers-on had lost interest in Claudia’s arrival when they recognized the lander’s markings, but a few had followed Derek to greet her: ants circling a cookie crumb. Suits gathered around, anonymous except for the press credentials taped to their chests. A few held hand-cams. If she punched Derek in the face, that would finally get her some attention... but not the kind she wanted, no matter how satisfying it would be. They’d pay attention when she reached the summit. If she made it before Derek and his circus.

During the long years of planning this expedition, she’d sometimes fantasized that not only would she reach the summit, but she might get there first. Before Hermes. Now, standing at Olympus’ feet and facing Derek’s smugness, she set her heart on it.

First person on the summit. That’ll be me.

“I’ll see you at the top, then,” she said.

She and Pete pitched camp — if you could call it pitching when your tent was a vacuum-sealed bubble — some distance away from the circus. Olympus loomed over their camp, blocking out what little sunlight remained. Away from the mountain, to the east, the Tharsis Desert was lonely and beautiful and perfect. Ragged peaks thrust up from the plateau: so many crannies to explore, a whole planet untouched by human boots save for a couple tiny footholds. Pete snapped a few photos for back home while Claudia posed heroically in front of the scenery, then they both crawled inside.

Claudia peeled off her spacesuit, popped the lid off her dinner, and unfurled the map, snapping it flat. Its surface came to life with terrain contours and the details of her route, which she reviewed for the hundredth time while she ate.

Pete fiddled with the radio. Before Claudia finished dinner, he’d found Hermes’ frequency and unscrambled their broadcasts. They listened to the team’s evening report, their self-congratulations as they announced their plans for Derek and his team to set out at dawn.

“Don’t let him get to you,” said Pete, watching her. “You’ve got this. You’ve planned for it.”

Telling herself that didn’t help. “So here’s the problem,” she said. “I leave in the morning, they leave in the morning. We’ll leapfrog each other all the way up. They’ll be in my way.”

“You’re aiming to beat them to the top?” Pete asked. His tone told her what he thought of that. Races like that were how good climbers became dead climbers. “Well… it’s possible. You’ll be faster, traveling light.”

“And they’ll know exactly where I am. They won’t let me beat them.” She blinked as the answer hit her. “Unless they don’t know.”

“What?”

“I’m going to do the B route.” She jabbed at the map. “It’s more direct. It’ll be faster.”

It might be faster. Hermes picked their route with good reason; much of its distance was a long, easy wash, more hike than climb. Sheer ten-kilometer-high escarpments made most of Olympus’ faces insurmountable. All the best routes were on the mountain’s east face, where an ancient lava flow washed out the cliffs for a stretch dozens of miles across, offering many possibilities to a climber — not easy routes, but achievable ones. Claudia had plotted multiple routes in case of weather or obstacles. The B route was steeper but shorter, and if she made good time, she could out-climb them. If anything went wrong, she’d be further from possible help from Hermes… but she was prepared. Pete was all the backup she needed.

“That’s what I’ll do.”

Pete opened his mouth, then closed it again. “I think you’re nuts. But I’ve seen you pull off nuts before.”

The circus buzzed in the distance as Derek’s team moved out. Claudia checked the fastenings on her gear and started walking, taking it slow while she acclimated. She headed north, toward the start of her new route, away from every other human on the planet.

At no point was it easy going, but she expected that. Manipulating her heavy, awkward spacesuit was exhausting despite her training. Derek wore a newer model that fit closer, with more flexibility in the joints and more sensitivity in the gloves. He had all the newest gear, some designed just for this trek, while she relied on astronaut hand-me-downs. She pretended she was bundled up for a chilly morning on K2. Each step took extra effort, her triple-load of gear, water, and oxygen tanks more than balancing out the low gravity.

By late morning, she hit her first scramble over a rockfall. She figured out the trick of digging in with her clunky boots, and it gave her no trouble. She detoured around crevasses and huffed up steep slopes. In the afternoon, she reached the first vertical stretch and began to climb.

Climbing in an unbreathable atmosphere was somewhat like ice-climbing on Earth… but more like trying to knit wearing boxing gloves. You couldn’t trust your grip on rock or ice, so climbing became a laborious process of placing anchors, pounding in grips and moving them as she went. Her suit and gear made her bulky, the unbalanced load threatening to pull her off the rock. She moved methodically, keeping her rope taut, checking each grip before she trusted her weight to it, and definitely not thinking about how the circus was doing.

Thirty meters later, she reached the cliff top and sprawled out flat, resting her screaming muscles.

When she caught her breath, she toggled on her radio. “Checkpoint one. All good.”

“Glad to hear it,” said Pete, and she smiled. No matter how confident she felt in a climb, no matter how she loved being alone with the mountain, it was always nice to hear a human voice. Especially here. “The circus moved out a bit behind you, but chatter says they’re making good time. No rush, though, you’re right on track.”

“You just keep telling me their progress, cachái?

When she stopped for the night, she inflated her tiny bivouac. To minimize her load, the sleeping cell attached directly to her suit. Squirming out was tricky after an exhausting day, but she managed it, literally falling into her bed. She made it through dinner without falling asleep, but only just.

That was day one. With 25,000 meters of elevation gain over at least 200 kilometers, her plan would get her to the summit in a few weeks — if nothing went wrong.

Her alarm woke her each morning in the half-light before sunrise. Her legs burned, her back ached, and she smelled like stale sweat. But when she emerged from her bivouac, there was Mars all around her, Mars under her feet, Mars creeping dusty into the seams of her suit. The red planet glowed like campfire coals as the sun burst over the horizon.

Claudia grinned. God yes, this was why she started climbing in the first place. Not so she could show up kids like Derek. It was for this. Maybe she couldn’t breathe the fresh morning air, but she had mountain under her feet, and she was climbing.

“Are you seeing this?” she asked Pete.

“Looks pretty good, doesn’t it? Did you get your care package?”

“I’m on my way to it.”

Her tent perched on a broad shoulder above a ravine. A dozen meters away, she found the drone and its crate. She pried off the lid, restocked her water, and traded her used oxygen canisters for fresh ones. A button activated the drone and it lifted off again, its out-sized blades kicking against the thin atmosphere and raising a storm of dust as it headed back to Pete at base camp.

On Earth, this would be cheating. But the old rules didn’t work here; she and Derek had to make up new ones. The hardest part of climbing on Earth was dealing with altitude. The best climbers prided themselves on reaching a summit without bottled oxygen — not an option on Mars. Here, maneuvering in a spacesuit posed the biggest challenge, while breathing at 25,000 meters would be no harder than at base camp.

The second biggest challenge: logistics. There was no peak on Earth where you’d have to carry all your water and all your oxygen along with other gear. No one could carry everything they needed for a month-long trek. New tech could compress oxygen so a single canister lasted a few days, but even with recycling built into her suit, she had to carry lots of water. Hermes solved this problem by bringing a whole crew of sherpas, human and robotic, to swarm up the mountain with gear and set up camps. They’d already staged several camps before Claudia arrived. Claudia’s scraped-together expedition couldn’t afford that. Instead, they stretched their budget to bring a small fleet of drones.

The drones were the most advanced piece of tech she had, the one that might save her life. Pete deployed them to cache supplies along her route at key intervals, letting her restock as she went. In an emergency, a drone could fetch her critical supplies within a couple days… but in atmosphere this thin, they couldn’t lift her if she needed rescue. If things went badly wrong, she’d be on her own.

“Claudia!”

The radio buzzed so loud it startled her, making her trip over her own clunky boots. She hated those boots worse than any piece of gear she’d ever owned.

“What, Pete?”

“Sandstorm coming your way. International Outpost says it’s a big one.”

“How long until it hits?”

“Could be ten minutes, could be thirty.”

Claudia pursed her lips. A storm would halt both her and Hermes in their tracks. But she’d made good time today, maybe made up some ground, and didn’t want to lose her edge.

“Thanks. I’ll take shelter as it gets close.”

“It is close! Please be careful.”

The wind rose. She pressed on as clouds of dust boiled down the slopes above. Visibility shrank to nothing; soon she’d lose sight of the rocks under her feet. Claudia cut her losses and deployed her storm shield, hunkering down against a cliff and fitting the shield over her, leaving no chinks.

The storm knocked into her so hard she feared it might tear her off the cliff, the shield carrying her like a sail. That shouldn’t be possible in such a thin atmosphere, but then, she hadn’t thought Martian winds could feel this fierce. She’d survived storms before, but never felt so vulnerable, so near to the killing air of a hostile world. She curled up and whispered prayers against all the things that might go wrong, all the things that could kill her up here, in order of how quickly they could do so.

“Keep my suit safe, keep my oxygen tanks safe, keep my water supply safe, keep my food safe. Keep Pete safe down there... And, you know, keep Derek and his people safe, too. I want to see his stupid face when he finds me at the top.”

When the storm’s roar faded, Claudia crawled out from her shelter, exhausted as if she’d just scaled an ice wall. All seemed safe now, so she stowed the shield, then reached for her radio to update Pete.

The case was open. Her stomach sank.

Had she forgotten to shut it when the storm hit? Stupid, stupid rookie mistake, the kind that led to awkward funeral speeches for careless climbers. Our pobrecita Claudia was doing so well until she left her only lifeline out in a sandstorm and destroyed it…

She clawed the radio out of its case, spilling sand, and took three slow, deep breaths, the way she’d learned to do when things went sideways. Step by step.

Thumbing the power button did nothing. Okay. Might be dust in the battery connections, or maybe deeper inside. She had to take it apart.

That meant making camp early and taking it into her bivouac to clean it. Already, the slope around her lay in the late-afternoon shadow. It’d be dark before she finished. No more progress for today.

Well, nothing to do about it.

Electronics were never her forte, but three hours later, she hit the power button, and the radio buzzed to life. She danced a little, there in her tent.

“Pete?” She heard static and her own breathing. “Pete?”

“Claudia! You scared me there.”

“Me too.” Gracias a Dios. She sucked in a deep breath. Never been so glad to hear a human voice. “Storm messed up my radio. I got it working again, but I guess that’s it for today.”

“I’m glad you’re all right. You need anything from down here?”

“I’m fine. How are our friends doing?”

It might have been the connection, but she thought he hesitated. “They’re making better time than you. They pressed on after the storm passed.”

She clenched her jaw. “It’s okay. I can catch up.”

She didn’t catch up.

Each day, Claudia lost ground on Hermes. Derek had a full team helping each other lug gear and scout routes and set up camp. Claudia did everything for herself. She had the will to make the climb, and she gave the mountain everything she had. And Olympus took it all.

Each night, Pete’s updates on Hermes’ progress honed the desperate edge of her determination. If she climbed quickly and with strength, if she pushed herself, if she suffered no more setbacks, she could still catch up.

Then the mountain stopped her in her tracks.

She hit a spot that looked passable on the map, but reaching it, she found a stretch of jumbled, loose rock a kilometer across, with a sharp drop at the lower end of the field. Her instincts screamed at her. This was an avalanche waiting to happen.

The only alternative was to backtrack for kilometers, make a steep climb to a higher section above the rockfall, then snake back around to where she was supposed to be. She gritted her teeth and calculated how much time that would add to her ascent. Her oxygen could stretch an extra day or two until she reached the next cache. She could make it… but it would set her back by days. She’d never reach the summit before Derek.

Despair lumped in her throat.

But maybe, if she was careful…

She stepped out onto the slag. It shifted under her boot with a sound like evil laughter, and she recoiled.

This, or failure? Will you let this stop you? Mountains had stopped her before with foul weather or treacherous terrain, but that was Earth. Here, she only got one shot.

Holding her breath, she stepped out again. Careful, careful. Another step, yes, this would work, was working already, so long as she took it slow, placing each step before taking the next…

The rock slid under her. Kept sliding.

Her arms made desperate pinwheels. No good. Impact came hard, the pack beneath her slamming into her spine. All the rocks under her were moving, chattering, flocking together down the slope and carrying her with them, bearing her insistently toward the cliff edge.

Terror and self-recrimination froze her thoughts for too long. Closer, closer…

Her instincts kicked in. She grabbed her ice pick, and with all her strength, she slammed it into the slope above her.

It caught. She held on.

The rocks tumbled on around her, struck her bruisingly hard, but she kept her head down and held on. Even after the slope around her stilled, she could hear them, calling out to each other on their long journey below. Claudia collapsed, going limp in her suit, staring across the rockfield with unfocused gaze. From her vantage, each boulder was a mountain in itself. Her heart thudded loud in her ears.

Madre de Dios, what am I doing?

When had she turned into Derek? When had summit fever infected her so badly that she’d throw her life away for a chance at glory? No one got to be an old climber by taking macho risks, and she’d lost too many friends to situations exactly like this one. She’d always sworn that she wouldn’t be one of them.

But the summit! The record! Even now, lying amid disaster, the lure was so strong, as if desire alone could pull her up the mountain if only she wanted it enough.

She forced her shallow breaths to deepen, and with the increase in oxygen came mental clarity. Taking stock of her body, she found too many pains to distinguish the serious from the irritating. Lots of bruises, undoubtedly, but her leg hurt sharply. She prayed it wasn’t broken. A broken leg would end her climb and leave her waiting days for help.

And if she died out here by acting stupid, she wouldn’t be the first person or woman to reach the summit. With a wrench of pain like amputating a limb, she tore the wanting out of her heart. She’d leave it here on the rocks that nearly claimed her life. Leave it behind, and climb on free from competitiveness, for the joy of the climb alone.

“Pete,” she said into her radio. “Route change. I need to backtrack. And… maybe you’d better not give me updates on Hermes anymore.”

Rolling onto her belly, she began to crawl, inch by inch, back the way she’d come.

Freed from the race, Claudia climbed like she’d never climbed before. Alone with an alien mountain, she found depths of reserve she’d never known, as if she could draw strength from the stark rocky beauty of the expanse around her, from the frigid air, from the lightness of her steps and the planet itself. Every new challenge flooded her with joy.

This, this was she why came here. She lived for this. This was why she spent her afternoons hiking in the foothills of the Andes as a girl, so long ago: to see the view from the top, sure, but mostly to see if she could.

And Claudia could. She felt more sure of that with each passing meter.

The night before the summit, she collapsed into her tent and nibbled an energy brick, too exhausted to eat, too energized to sleep. She called Pete.

“I’ve got some news,” he said.

“Oh?” Good or bad? His crackling transmission gave no hint.

“You told me to stop telling you, but you’ll want to know this. You’re about seven hours out from the summit… and Hermes is camped at four.”

“Four what?”

“Four hours from summiting.”

Tired as she was, it took her a minute. “You mean… they haven’t reached it yet?”

Claudia sat up. Her map glowed tauntingly with its own illumination in the waning daylight. Maybe… Could she…

First person to summit Olympus Mons?

Yes, she could.

“I’m going to do it.”

“You’re sure?”

“I can do it. I feel good.”

She could almost hear him grinning. Of course, he knew she’d do it. Why else would he tell her? “Look, get some rest before you set out. And be careful climbing in the dark.”

“I’ll call you from the top, Pete.”

She did rest, taking a couple hours to eat and memorize her route while the sun set. By the time she set out, she felt restored. More than restored. Aflame with energy.

Martian nights were dark. Her headlamp cast sharp-edged shadows on the ground before her, obscuring contours and turning pebbles into shadowy obstacles. She took it slow, each step cautious. It would be laughably tragic if she fell off a cliff so close to the end.

If an eerie silence filled the Martian days, the nights were somehow quieter, more intense. Her universe shrank to the span of illuminated ground before her, her trek reduced to the next step, and the next, and the next.

Olympus’ highest point lay on the lip of a vast caldera. She reached the final cliff leading up to that lip as the sky began to brighten, giving her a thin grey light as she worked her way upward. This was easy, now, her body strong and willing. Adrenaline buoyed her up against the weight of her weariness, and she floated up the cliff, nearly flew up the last slope beyond that, until…

Nothing marked the summit except that there was no place left to climb. Everywhere she looked, the world sloped down and away: the ledge behind her, the caldera’s pit yawning at her feet. You could have plopped Everest into it like the cherry on a sundae.

Claudia stood on top of Olympus Mons, where no human had ever stood before.

She laughed, a long, joyful laugh, and she reveled in the sound of her own voice. “I love you,” she said to the empty air, and she turned in a slow circle, taking in every bit of it. All she could see was sky and mountain.

Eventually, still giddy, she called Pete and celebrated all over again with him. Then she settled in to wait, watching the sunrise set the world aglow.

She heard them before she saw them, the scraping of boots and muffled voices breaking the stillness. Derek’s helmet crested the ridge, and behind him filed the circus, fellow climbers and sherpas and hovering drones with cameras, ready to capture the historic moment. Claudia rose to her feet, rubbing her gloves on her legs as if she could wipe the sweat from her palms.

Derek saw her first, and stopped.

He understood at once. The other climbers stared at her, befuddled to find a person where Derek ought to be the first. “Who…?”

A babble of speculation rose. “Isn’t that the Chilean?” one asked, and they all latched onto that. Sensing an even better story than the one they came for, the reporters sent their camera-drones swarming around her, bombarding her with questions, most of all: “How ever did you manage it?”

Derek walked past her, slowly, to set foot on the summit proper. The first man to summit Olympus Mons. His helmet obscured his face, but his posture radiated astonishment and deflated pride. They’d both accomplished something phenomenal here, but history would not treat them equally. Claudia almost felt bad for him. Almost.

She gave the reporters just enough to satisfy them, then waved off the drones, promising more interviews when they returned to base camp. When the circus parted, Derek stood beside her.

“Congratulations,” he said, gracious despite everything. “You earned it.”

“You too,” Claudia said.

She could have said a lot more. Instead she smiled and patted him on the shoulder. Then she turned and started back down the mountain.

This story originally appeared in Analog.


Data?1608143979
Jo Miles

Jo Miles writes science fiction and fantasy with a big dollop of hope.