The proper supply pack was located and the nylon produced, one thousand feet of it coiled inside a canvas bag as it had come from the makers. It had very little more diameter than a clothes line but its wire core made it immensely strong and every yard of it had been fully tested to its rated breaking strain—its actual breaking strain was much higher—before leaving the factory. Smith tied a hammer to one end, and with two of the men holding him securely, paid it out over the edge, counting his arm spans as he let it go. Several times the hammer snagged on some unseen obstruction but each time Smith managed to swing it free. Finally the rope went completely slack and, despite all Smith's efforts, it remained that way.
“Well.” Smith moved back from the edge. “That seems to be about it.”
“And if it isn't, hey?” Christiansen asked. “If it's caught on a teensy-weensy ledge a thousand feet above damn all?”
“I'll let you know,” Smith said shortly.
“You measured it off,” Carraciola said. “How deep?”
“Two hundred feet.”
“Eight hundred feet left, eh?” Thomas grinned. “We'll need it all to tie up the garrison of the Schloss Adler.”
No one was amused. Smith said: “I'll need a piton and two walkie-talkies.”
Fifteen feet back from the edge of the cliff they cleared away the snow and hammered an angled piton securely into the bare rock. Smith made a double bowline at one end of the nylon, slipped his legs through the loops, unclasped his belt then fastened it tightly round both himself and the rope and slipped a walkie-talkie over his shoulder. The rope was then passed round the piton and three men, backs to the cliff, wrapped it round their hands and prepared to take the weight. Schaffer stood by with the other walkie-talkie.
Smith checked that there were no sharp or abrasive edges on the cliff-top, wriggled cautiously over and gave the signal to be lowered. The descent itself was simple. As Thomas had said, it was a vertical drop and all he had to do was to fend himself off from the face as the men above paid out the rope. Once only, passing an overhang, he spun wildly in space, but within ten seconds regained contact with the rock face again. Mountaineering made easy, Smith thought. Or it seemed easy: perhaps, he thought wryly, it was as well that he couldn't see what stretched beneath him.
His feet passed through eighteen inches of snow and rested on solid ground. He flashed his torch in a semi-circle, from cliff wall to cliff wall. If it was a ledge, it was a very big one for, as far as his eye and torch could reach, it appeared to be a smooth plateau sloping gently outwards from the cliff!. The cliff wall itself was smooth, unbroken, except for one shallow fissure, a few feet wide, close by to where he stood. He climbed out of the double bowline and made the switch on the walkie-talkie.
“O.K. so far. Haul up the rope. Supplies first, then yourselves.”
The rope snaked upwards into the darkness. Within five minutes all the equipment had been lowered in two separate loads. Christiansen appeared soon afterwards.
“What's all the fuss about this Alpine stuff, then?” he asked cheerfully. “My grandmother could do it.”
“Maybe we should have brought your grandmother along instead,” Smith said sourly. “We're not down yet. Take your torch and find out how big this ledge is and the best way down and for God's sake don't go falling over any precipices.”
Christiansen grinned and moved off. Life was for the living and Christiansen gave the impression of a man thoroughly enjoying himself. While he was away reconnoitring, all the others came down in turn until only Schaffer was left. His plaintive voice came over the walkie-talkie.
“And how am I supposed to get down? Hand over hand for two hundred feet? Frozen hand over frozen hand for two hundred feet on a rope this size? You'd better stand clear. Somebody should have thought of this.”
“Somebody did,” Smith said patiently. “Make sure the rope is still round the piton then kick the other eight hundred feet over the edge.”
“There's always an answer.” Schaffer sounded relieved.
They had just lowered him to the ground when Christiansen returned.
“It's not so bad,” he reported. “There's another cliff ahead of us, maybe fifty yards away, curving around to the east. At least I think it's a cliff. I didn't try to find out how deep or how steep. I'm married. But the plateau falls away gently to the west there. Seems it might go on a fair way. Trees, too. I followed the line of them for two hundred yards.”
“Trees?. At this altitude?”
“Well, no masts for a tall ship. Scrub pine. They'll give shelter, hiding.”
“Fair enough,” Smith nodded. “We'll bivouac there.”
“So close?” The surprised tone in Schaffer's voice showed that he didn't think much of the idea. “Shouldn't we get as far down this mountain as possible tonight, Major?”
“No need. If we start at first light we'll be well below the main tree line by dawn.”
“I agree with Schaffer,” Carraciola said reasonably. “Let's get as much as we can behind us. What do you think, Olaf ?” This to Christiansen.
“It doesn't matter what Christiansen thinks.” Smith's voice was quiet but cold as the mountain air itself. “Nor you, Carraciola. This isn't a round-table seminar, it's a military operation. Military operations have leaders. Like it or not, Admiral Rolland put me in charge. We stay here tonight. Get the stuff across.”
The five men looked speculatively at one another, then stooped to lift the supplies. There was no longer any question as to who was in charge.
“We pitch the tents right away, boss?” Schaffer asked.
“Yes.” In Schaffer's book, Smith reflected, “boss” was probably a higher mark of respect than either “Major” or “sir”. “Then hot food, hot coffee and a try for London on the radio. Haul that rope down, Christiansen. Come the dawn, we don't want to start giving heart attacks to any binocular-toting characters in the Schloss Adler.”
Christiansen nodded, began to haul on the rope. As the free end rose into the air, Smith gave a shout, jumped towards Christiansen and caught his arm. Christiansen, startled, stopped pulling and looked round.
“Jesus!” Smith drew the back of his hand across his forehead. “That was a dose one.”
“What's up?” Shaffer asked quickly.
“Two of you. Hoist me up. Quickly! Before that damn rope disappears.”
Two of them hoisted him into the air. Smith reached up and caught the dangling end of the rope, dropped to earth, taking the rope with him and then very carefully, very securely, tied it to the other end of the rope.
“Now that you've quite finished—” Torrance-Smythe said politely.
“The radio.” Smith let out a long sigh of relief. “There's only one list of frequencies, call signs and code. Security. And that one list is inside Sergeant Hatred's tunic.”
“Mind if I mop my brow, too, boss?” Schaffer enquired.
“I'll go get it for you if you like,” Christiansen volunteered.
“Thanks. But it's my fault and I'll get it. Besides, I'm the only person here who's done any climbing—or so I believe from Colonel Wyatt-Turner—and I think you'd find that cliff rather more awkward to climb than descend. No hurry. Let's bivouac and eat first.”
“If you can't do better than this, Smithy,” Schaffer said to Torrance-Smythe, “you can have a week's notice. Starting from a week ago.” He scraped the bottom of his metal plate and shuddered. “I was brought up in a Christian home, so I won't tell you what this reminds me of.”
“It's not my fault,” Torrance-Smythe complained. “They packed the wrong size tin-openers.” He stirred the indeterminate-looking goulash in the pot on top of the butane stove and looked hopefully at the men seated in a rough semi-circle in the dimly-lit tent. “Anyone for any more?”
“That's not funny,” Schaffer said severely,
“Wait till you try his coffee,” Smith advised, “and you'll be wondering what you were complaining about.” He rose, poked his head through the door to take a look at the weather, looked inside again. “May take me an hour. But if it's been drifting up there ...”
The seated men, suddenly serious, nodded. If it had been drifting up there it might take Smith a very long time indeed to locate Sergeant Harrod.
“It's a bad night,” Schaffer said. “I'll come and give you a hand.”
“Thanks. No need. I'll haul myself up and lower myself down. A rope round a piton is no elevator, but it'll get me there and back and two are no better than one for that job. But I'll tell you what you can do.” He moved, out and reappeared shortly afterwards carrying the radio which he placed in front of Schaffer. “I don't want to go all the way up there to get the code-book just to find that some hobnailed idiot has fallen over this and given it a heart attack. Guard it with your life, Lieutenant Schaffer.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” Schaffer said solemnly.
With a hammer and a couple of spare pitons hanging from his waist, Smith secured himself to the rope, with double bowline and belt as before, grabbed the free end of the rope and began to haul himself up. Smith's statement to the others that this was a job for a mountaineer seemed hardly accurate for the amount of mountaineering skill required was minimal. It was gruelling physical labour, no more. Most of the time, with his legs almost at right angles to his body, he walked up the vertical cliff face: on the stretch of the overhang, with no assistance for his arms, he twice had to take a turn of the free end of the rope and rest until the strength came back to aching shoulder and forearm muscles: and by the time he finally dragged himself, gasping painfully and sweating like a man in a sauna bath, over the edge of the cliff, exhaustion was very dose indeed. He had overlooked the crippling effect of altitude to a man unaccustomed to it.