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“On belay?” Inés shouted over the comms.
Manuel checked the belay device and relayed back, “Belay on!”
Five years of preparations culminated in the most mundane of safety checks and Inés was ready to dyno her way up the rock face. She began her ascent of Olympus Mons bounding upwards in low gravity. It felt sublime and she quickly entered a relaxed rhythm. She climbed the lowest section of the shield volcano with ease. They had already cleared the steep rockface that welcomed them to the area, so the rest of the journey felt more like a low gravity hike than a true climb. The climb was no more difficult than the easy routes they set up for when kids go through the gym with their cute little helmets and dopey smiles. Jump, land, repeat. Who even needed a route setter when anything would send you straight up the volcano? Inés was definitely going to send this volcano. She already imagined herself mantling the summit, planting a little tricolor flag.
“I’m registering you at one hundred meters of elevation. How’s the climb?” Manuel could no longer make out the shape of Inés on the rock surface.
“Nothing more strenuous than maybe a 5.5 top rope at best. It’s pretty fun in low gravity though. Hey, can you plug in some of those songs from the gym so I can stay in my element?” Inés replied as she leaned back on the rope, looping her hands around the strings attached to what would otherwise have been a chalk bag that instead held supplies and equipment.
“Wow, didn’t think it would take being on another planet for you to want to hear the sweet, sweet tunes of The Beach Boys to stay focused. No problem, but signal might get choppy while you jump. Make sure to drop the third probe once you find a nice flat surface.”
Inés held onto a large jug in the rockface and set a probe down in a small pocket of rock to collect temperature and seismic data for mission control to analyze for years to come. Halfway to the target height of one kilometer, each jump blurred into the next like a slow vertical march. Her jumps sometimes clocked in at a full meter as she kept a steady momentum listening to the familiar songs that kept her calm on even the toughest of boulder problems. Oxygen was flowing steady, and the dusty Martian sky provided an air of familiarity. Inés scrambled up a large boulder to snap a good picture of the landscape beyond the volcano. If they didn’t know better, her family waiting for news back home would think she was out climbing in Arizona.
“Might want to take a short break and drink some water, you’ve been moving pretty steady for a good half hour,” Manuel suggested.
Inés almost opened her mouth in protest but looked at the elevation data on her wristwatch and reluctantly complied, sipping water through the straw affixed to the inside of the suit for that very purpose.
“Guess I lost track of time up here. This water doesn’t taste too great, I told you not to let Leo stock the hydration bladders. Now all I’m going to remember is the faint taste of algae and not this fantastic view.”
“Just think of it as electrolyte flavoring!”
“Suppose I might. At least I can fuel back up at the hab soon. Tell Leo to put together a feast for the climbing champ.”
It was just like any other climb, always bantering with the belayer to get through the tough spots. At around eight hundred meters of elevation, the rusty red palette changed entirely. The red color became more saturated as if it were liquid, molten lava. A burning smell sent shockwaves through the suit’s warning systems and each step produced a melted footprint beneath her.
“Lava flow!” Inés choked out over the comms before pushing hard on what felt like lukewarm, vibrating ground and turning skyward. A lava flow had almost soundlessly opened beneath her, turning a gentle climb up a dormant slope into a treacherous adventure. She was a half inch from disaster. A melting suit meant a loss in structural integrity and inevitable loss of air and pressure. She gasped for air as her world spun and all she could think of was reaching a steady hand hold.
“I’m feeding a bunch of rope through the belay device. Find somewhere safe and then I’ll reel you in. Engaging safety protocol fourteen.” Thank goodness Manuel handled emergency procedures well. After her fall climbing a brutal 5.12 route, there was nobody else she would trust on the other end of her rope.
Solid ground meant a harder route. Inés dutifully stemmed a section of the volcano she typically wouldn’t traverse, pushing her hands and feet deep into the rusty wall of the volcano. She eventually gained enough elevation to get away from the active lava flow, but knew it was only luck that it hadn’t incited an avalanche or bigger seismic activity. Mission control was going to get the readings they wanted.
Finally, the descent began. In lower gravity, down climbing was almost the same as falling. Fifteen minutes later, she was on her two feet just in time to reenter the pressurized rover to drive back to the habitat.
When they finally connected their transmitters with Earth and the waiting journalists, Inés calmly and methodically described her ascent. She proclaimed that climbing a volcano was simply part of the roster of activities she would accomplish on her two-year foray to the fourth planet from the Sun. The emergency decent was, regrettably, just a reality of climbing in space. The less the journalists knew about the burnt suit, the better.
Inés stared straight into the camera transmitting video to Earth, smiling a toothy grin meant to immortalize her exploits for centuries to come. Next time, she would send Olympus Mons.
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