Prologue and Chapter 1
We are the only life here. There are no trees or shrubs, no grasses or sedges. No pretty wildflowers. There are no lichens, no animals or insects. Only granite and ice. The Mendel Glacier sits in a cirque at about 12,000 feet, a coliseum of rock in the Sierra Nevada with cracked walls rising nearly another 2,000 feet. At our boots is a section of airplane engine—twisted, broken metal, oil bleeding into ice.
From the engine wreckage, my climbing partner Michele works her way down the steep slope of the glacier. She has to be careful; the surface is slick. One slip would hurt, though she wouldn't slide far. Large rocks jut out everywhere. I kick at one but it's embedded in the glacier and doesn't budge. Meltwater creates model luge courses in the expanse of ice.
Two years ago, in 2005, climbers discovered a body melting out of this glacier and I'm certain the remains are linked to the aircraft wreckage Michele and I have discovered. I want to stand on the spot where this Frozen Airman was found and think about the person who died here on November 18, 1942. Holding my GPS unit like a divining rod, I traverse west. I'm not paying close attention to anything except where to put my feet. Raising my eyes to check my bearing, I'm surprised to see a short tree, bent over and blackened, killed by the frost. Something shines in the sun: a ring hanging on a tiny branch. I stop to think about that. It couldn't be a tree. There are no trees up here. It is a man.
He is hunched over a rock, his left arm curled under him as if hugging something tightly to his chest or favoring a sore shoulder. His body is desiccated, the skin dark and rough. Shreds of a rough-woven wool, olive-drab sweater are wrapped around him. He has blond, wavy hair. Beside him is an undeployed parachute, the cotton canvas pack long ago rotted away. The parachute shrouds appear new and are still tightly arranged.
A Body in the Glacier
It is first light, October 15, 2005. Michael Nozel and Mark Postle labor across Mendel Glacier. Step, stop, rest. Hearts pound blood. Lungs struggle for air. Muscles strain to carry heavy loads. All they see is ice, rock, and sky. All human sounds across the desolate landscape are held master by the wind.
Pack straps chafe shoulders accustomed to this hard work. The two men move robotically. Step, stop, rest. Step, stop, rest. At 12,600 feet above sea level, the climbers are nearing a point where half the earth's atmosphere is below them. Do this one thing perfectly—one foot and then the other, upward to the objective—that is all that matters. Proper conditioning is critical, but even conditioning may fail at this elevation, making the simplest task an exercise in agony.
Linear travel is challenging. The ice underfoot is hard, like city sidewalks, but carved by tiny rivers of meltwater. Sharp granite, rocks and boulders, poke out of the frozen water. A long summer of sun has melted deep divots into the ice called "sun cups." It's like walking across overlapping potholes. Nothing grows here but time. The sky is blue, an amazing shade of blue.
The two men are here to attempt a widely known ice climb. Above the glacier, there it is—a narrow gully filled with ice and rock, rising nearly vertically in front of them. They have hiked miles over trail and cross-country into the bright sun and frozen, canine wind to this point thousands of vertical feet up in the southern Sierra Nevada.
"My body was fully engaged," Nozel says of that day, "and my mind was fully functioning. But it was idling." At these elevations, with not enough oxygen to carry on the important business of life, the body is easily fatigued and the brain becomes weak and confused. That may be why it took so long for Nozel to understand what he saw. "Far up the glacier, a brief flicker interrupted my mantra. It was almost a subconscious awareness—a fleeting thought—momentarily there, then gone. Another dozen steps ahead, and I noticed it again"—an object fluttering in the wind, like Tibetan prayer flags. Odd. Prayer flags in a national park on a glacier that rarely sees a visitor?
Nozel takes a few more steps upward. "There it is again," he says to the wind. "I am absolutely not imagining that!" His breathing is rapid, almost panting—not from altitude and lack of oxygen, but from involuntary hyperventilation, as if Nozel had narrowly avoided a head-on collision with a cement truck.
Nozel finds his voice as his eyes wake up his mind. "Holy … " and the wind cuts off his voice. He sees nylon cords, wound tightly in long streamers. A canvas container. Silk, yellowed with age, flapping in the wind. Emotion washes over Nozel as he contemplates the scene. "Good Lord. His parachute never deployed."
* * *
"Mark!" Nozel yells, raising his voice over the wind. "Mark! You have to see this!"
The frozen man looks like a swimmer emerging from water, though he's nearly completely buried in ice. A portion of torso, a head, a shoulder, an arm. Fair hair. An olive-drab sweater in tatters. A canvas pack of nylon cord. Here is a man trying to wrest himself from the cold glacier's sting. Set me free.
But what would a body be doing in a glacier in Southern California?
Lost in his own reverie of wind and cold, sun and lack of oxygen, Mark Postle at first doesn't lift his head. But something in the urgency of his friend's voice makes him stop and look around. "What is it?"
"You need to see this for yourself!"
The two friends examine the parachute. The thing blends into the surrounding granite with only flowing motion differentiating silk from ground. Nozel can't believe he spotted it; Postle had passed right by—maybe fifteen feet away—without a glance because his peripheral vision was blocked by his parka hood. Right place, right time. How many other climbers have passed this point?
Wordlessly they move their attention from the parachute to the man. His right arm extends straight out from the shoulder, and at the elbow the forearm plunges downward into the ice. The left arm also extends straight out from the shoulder but without as acute a bend at the elbow before disappearing. Only a portion of the man's chest and his head are exposed. There are no facial features. There is blond hair on the skull and blond hair frozen into the ground. A D-ring for the parachute ripcord lies detached and adjacent to the body.
The wind is relentless, but neither Nozel nor Postle are aware of it. Each is trying to understand what may have brought this man here. Independently they have decided this could only be someone from the military. Sweater, parachute … it's a feeling.
Neither of them know it, but there are still 88,000 American soldiers missing from past wars—90 percent of them from World War II. Even had they known these statistics, the climbers would not have been sure if this person was one of those lost soldiers.
Nozel and Postle aren't ready to accept that there are human remains in the ice beside them. Climbers, through life and experience, are logical, thoughtful beings. They read. They study. They learn. But this is outside their experience. "Could it have been that the military did some testing of parachutes with animals?" one asks.
"Perhaps. But why the ripcord? Wouldn't they use static line deployments then?" the other answers.
"Yeah. More than likely." A static line is employed when a team of paratroopers jumps over a site and deploys their parachutes automatically. It would also be used when dropping equipment or animals unable to pull a ripcord.
"Maybe there was some jump testing done with mannequins?"
"But why would they have bothered to clothe a mannequin?"
"Right. Good point."
What Nozel an