17

Sometime in the 1980s, in a science fiction anthology (English language, hardback, checked out from a library), I read a short story that went along the following lines:

  1. The story is written in the third person, but with only one viewpoint character. He is a diehard mountain climber who is out to set a record. The futuristic equivalent of being the first to scale Mount Everest. He is visiting a world (I think one without a breathable atmosphere, and possibly with no atmosphere at all) which has some very impressive mountains. One in particular is supposed to be virtually impossible to climb in the conventional fashion -- as in, since humanity first discovered this planet in this star system, there has been no record that any human climber has ever made it all the way up to the relatively flat area (a plateau, or whatever it's called) at the very top. Which is not to say that a fair number of climbers haven't tried!

  2. I don't remember exactly what the rules of the game were supposed to be -- for instance, if large groups of climbers had ever tried (and failed) to go the distance as a team effort. For that matter, I'm not absolutely certain that the protagonist had been alone when he began his own climb before the story starts (although I think he wanted this to be strictly a one-man show, start to finish). It becomes clear to the reader that nobody had ever used a spaceship or other aerospace vehicle to land on top of this mountain and look around. I say this because the protagonist obviously had no detailed information about what could be found up there. (I don't remember if "don't fly up there" was simply a sacred rule, or somehow extremely dangerous due to local conditions, or what.)

  3. The protagonist thinks rather poetically about the mountain at various times in the story. (I guess the author didn't have much choice, since there was no one along for the protagonist to talk to, and the text had to be filled up with something more exciting then "he raised his right foot . . . raised his left foot . . . raised his right foot . . ." all the way up.) We get the impression that the guy regards this mountain as a proud lady to be wooed and conquered, or some such thing.

  4. He finally makes it to the top, while thinking that he is not likely to ever make it back down again. (If we don't count "a very long fall" as a way to deliberately get back down.) I don't remember what the exact problem was -- I think his airtight suit still had enough air, food, water, etc., to permit a return trip in theory (though I could be wrong), but perhaps he was just mentally and physically exhausted, and it didn't seem worth the long days of painstaking effort that would be involved in a careful descent. But that's okay, because he figures he'll be happy to just curl up and die here, now that he's been first to cross the finish line.

  5. Then the penny drops. He looks around carefully, and realizes he is not the first, nor the second, nor even the twentieth, to have successfully made the full ascent. There are lots and lots of other spacesuits scattered about the area, each with the skeletal remains of a proud mountaineer from one species or another, probably going back untold millennia before humans ever explored this system. (I say "skeletal," but that may not be accurate for some species. I don't remember how much detail, if any, we were actually given about the anatomical peculiarities of the ancient remains of various other sentients.)

  6. Our hero is shocked as he looks around at his predecessors, then suddenly gets his second wind (at least psychologically), and resolutely turns around and heads back the way he came, bound and determined to survive the return trip. (We don't know if he actually did.) The final words of the story explain his about-face in roughly the following terms: "What do you do when you discover that the great lady whom you adored has not been true to you? There is at least one thing you do not do: You do not lie with her."

I've never read that story again. I don't remember who wrote it, nor the title, nor what other stories I encountered within that same book. (I'm fairly sure it was not a collection of a single author's short stories, however.)

17

Old short story about climbing the toughest mountain in the known universe

"Goddess in Granite", a 1957 novelette by Robert F. Young; first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, September 1957, available at the Internet Archive, it was an unaccepted answer to the question Sci-fi novel: giant horizontal statue of naked woman on alien planet.

Sometime in the 1980s, in a science fiction anthology (English language, hardback)

Possibly Perilous Planets, a 1978 British hardcover anthology edited by Brian Aldiss.

The story is written in the third person, but with only one viewpoint character. He is a diehard mountain climber who is out to set a record.

When he reached the upper ridge of the forearm, Marten stopped to rest. The climb had not winded him but the chin was still miles away, and he wanted to conserve as much of his strength as possible for the final ascent to the face.

(I don't remember if "don't fly up there" was simply a sacred rule, or somehow extremely dangerous due to local conditions, or what.)

He could return the way he had come, down the arm to his inboard, and back to the isolated colony; and he could rent a flier from the hard-bitten, taciturn natives just as easily as he had rented the inboard. In less than an hour after takeoff, he could land on the face-mesa.

But that would be cheating, and he knew it. Not cheating the Virgin, but cheating himself.

We get the impression that the guy regards this mountain as a proud lady to be wooed and conquered, or some such thing.

Understandably, seeing as some ancient alien race has sculpted the landscape into a gigantic likeness of a woman, considered "one of the seven hundred wonders of the galaxy":

She lay upon her back, her blue lakes of eyes gazing eternally upward. From his vantage point on her forearm, Marten had a good view of the mountains of her breasts. He looked at them contemplatively. They towered perhaps 8,000 feet above the chest-plateau, but, since the plateau itself was a good 10,000 feet above sea level, their true height exceeded 18,000 feet. However, Marten wasn't discouraged. It wasn't the mountains that he wanted.

Presently he dropped his eyes from their snow-capped crests and resumed his trek. The granite ridge rose for a while, then slanted downward, widening gradually into the rounded reaches of the upper arm. He had an excellent view of the Virgin's head now, though he wasn't high enough to see her profile. The 11,000-foot cliff of her cheek was awesome at this range, and her hair was revealed for what it really was—a vast forest spilling riotously down to the lowlands, spreading out around her massive shoulders almost to the sea. It was green now. In autumn it would be brown, then gold; in winter, black.

He finally makes it to the top, while thinking that he is not likely to ever make it back down again.

He could never do it, he told himself. Never. It would be absurd for him even to try. It might cost him his life. And even if he could do it, even if he could climb that polished precipice all the way to the face-mesa, could he get back down again? True, his piton pistol would make the descent relatively easy, but would he have enough strength left? The atmosphere on Alpha Virginis IX thinned rapidly after 10,000 feet, and while oxygen tablets helped, they could keep you going only for a limited period of time. After that—

Then the penny drops. He looks around carefully, and realizes he is not the first, nor the second, nor even the twentieth, to have successfully made the full ascent. There are lots and lots of other spacesuits scattered about the area, each with the skeletal remains of a proud mountaineer from one species or another, probably going back untold millennia before humans ever explored this system.

He paused in the starlight, sank to his knees. Revulsion shook him. How could he have been so naïve, even when he was twenty, as to believe that he was the only one? Certainly he was the only Earthman—but the Virgin was an old, old woman, and in her youth she had had many suitors, conquering her by whatever various means they could devise, and symbolically dying in the blue deeps of her eyes.

Their very bones attested to her popularity.

The final words of the story explain his about-face in roughly the following terms: "What do you do when you discover that the great lady whom you adored has not been true to you? There is at least one thing you do not do: You do not lie with her."

What did you do when you learned that your goddess had feet of clay? What did you do when you discovered that your true love was a whore?

Marten wiped his mouth again. There was one thing that you did not do—

You did not sleep with her . . .

[. . . .]

He waited till the false morning had passed, till the first golden fingers of the sun reached out and touched his tired face. Then he started down.

  • 1
    That's got to be the one. It's funny to see that it's been so long that I'd completely forgotten the key detail that the thing he was climbing had deliberately been sculpted into the shape of a humanoid woman on a colossal scale. – Lorendiac Dec 9 '16 at 6:25
  • Thanks for posting the link to the original story! – Mike Harris Aug 25 '17 at 19:23
0

Matches well with "This Mortal Mountain" by Roger Zelazny.

  • Not a Stack Exchange answer yet, see comment here – uhoh May 11 at 0:51
  • Please be more specific. Of the many plot points mentioned in the question, which does it match and which does it not match? Is it a better match than the accepted answer? – user14111 May 11 at 1:15

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