"Hell." I said, trying for an it-ain't-no-big-thing note, "the water won't seem so cold this time. We can't get any colder."
That was the truth. The water didn't seem as cold the second time, but now fatigue was along. I thrashed around, trying to find, but not finding, a handhold on the smooth wall of the silo. I spread my arms out on the rock, resting and thinking that if we had to stay more than five minutes the boys might be in trouble. We'd all be in trouble. I swam into the crack itself, and almost immediately found an underwater ledge wide enough to support me. The relief of finding a toehold when and where you need one is one of climbing's sweeter moments.
"No problem," I called, and I told them about the toehold and not to be in too much of a hurry. "Another minute in the water isn't going to hurt. Get planted on it and start up. I'll have the rope." That's a hard thing to do, take your time, be methodical in a place like an ice-cold cave pool, where all your reflexes are urging you to be quick, to get out of there any way you can. Ky came first. He got only a piece of the ledge on the first try, started up, slipped off the side and fell back in and under. Angry, he tried a second time and fell a second time.
"You want to take the rope? Keep cool."
"Then you ought to get out. Stop playing around down there."
On the third try he got up on the rock, his face, neck and shoulders taut from the effort of self-control. Terry and Sid followed without quite as much trouble. It was an encouraging sign. They had enough mind to get back. It was just a question of strength. There was a sort of equation at work: from the total of their strength, the rate their adrenaline flowed and the quality of their self-control, deduct the distance to go and the strength required. If the remainder was more than zero, we would be out in less than an hour. Back through the crack I stayed close, talked cool, climbed as reassuringly as I could. "There is a good little tit, just below your left knee. Drop down, kneel on it, wait a second while you get your breath." They dropped down, knelt, breathed as suggested. When you are really between a rock and a hard place, not just pretending that you are, the only thing that counts is making it. However you make it is the right way, being usually the only way.
The further we went, the slower they climbed, the more frequently they slipped. When we were 50 yards or so from the end of the crack, I went ahead and tossed my pack on the wide ledge where we had stopped for a smoke on the way in. Then I went back with only the rope. Ky and Terry were close to being spent. They looked down frequently, preparing, as you tend to in such circumstances, to endure a fall. As he tried to move ahead, Ky's right leg slipped off the wall and hung down uselessly in the crack, shaking with an uncontrollable spasm. I dropped down a little below him, crossed and braced one leg under his, thinking I might hold him for a second or two across my thigh.
"I don't—I...," he gasped, looking down. I knew what he wanted to say: "I'm failing. Help me," but I hoped he wouldn't have to.
"Lean forward and push your head against the wall, push with your butt. If you drop your right leg just a little, there's a place you can put it till you stop shaking." He did it by himself, not having to ask for help, and hung there panting. After a time he tested the leg against the wall and found he could control it. He looked up and tried a grin. His long hair, which he had tucked up under his helmet when we began, hung down in wet strings. There was mud, sweat and blood on his face. He looked terrible, but sounded better, having made it past a place he had thought he could not go.