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How Chester Turned One Climber Into a Cold-Blooded Killer

This feature is part of the “Best Of” Collection from Ascent, 2011, and is republished here for free. Founded in 1967, Ascent is climbing’s premier and longest-running narrative publication, with stories by climbing’s leading authors and storytellers, including Reinhold Messner, Royal Robbins, John Long, Jeff Jackson, Tommy Caldwell and hundreds of other writers including including Andrew Bisharat, showe story is posted here. To access over 3,000 stories including those from Ascent, please support us by purchasing an Active Pass.

For more stories and essays from Ascent, go to Rockandice.com.

Sitting on my couch, I was sober as a nun, an odd state in which to find myself on Cinco de Mayo, the Mexican holiday that we Americans annexed years ago. I had just eaten a quarter pound of fish tacos when a tiny shadow darted across the floor. As quickly as It came, It vanished. It was the quickest-moving nothing of an object, and I figured my eyes were playing tricks. But they couldn’t be, because I hadn’t downed a liter of margaritas yet. Plus, my girlfriend, Jen, saw It, too.

“Oh, you have a little Chester,” she said.

“Chester?”

“Yeah, that’s your mouse’s name!” she said cheerfully.

Now, I have no sort of patience for people who give animals—especially pests—goofy names. I can kind of see naming a dog, especially if you name it after yourself, because dogs have personalities in that they look sad when you yell at them. But for the most part, only people, places and rock climbs should be given names. Not gym routes, though; gym routes aren’t real and therefore shouldn’t be named, and if you disagree with that, then you need to get your head out of your gym’s ass and go outside and do something that will actually help you become better at climbing. Like rock climb on real rocks!

Anyway. So, I had a mouse … apparently named Chester. This was heavy stuff. I stood up and went to my kitchen table, where a bottle of añejo was sitting, and I clung to it like a barnacle to a rock amid an ocean tempest. Then I poured myself two fingers and deftly tossed the liquid clarity down into my guts. Chester … dude … Chester! This was more than I could stand. I would never live with anything named Chester … ever!

But Jen had confirmed that Chester’s terrible and wretched existence was real and not just my brain’s dark figment. That night, I was restless and paranoid, straining my ears for the slightest pitter-patter and upon hearing something, jumping out of bed and wildly swinging a broom around in the darkness. The next morning I went out to buy some so-called “humane” mousetraps, a decision I made in order to be a considerate, tea-drinking, Jack-Johnson-listening, animal-rights-championing guy in the eyes of my girlfriend (who had developed a certain affinity for cute little Chester … just as long as he remained at a distance). This was the kind of guy I assumed a girl would want to continue dating.

I found the little crevice beneath my kitchen cabinet that appeared to be the portal into Chester World, and I placed the humane traps to either side of the little nook. That night I made the very difficult decision not to watch Flavor of Love 2 on the TV, and instead sat on my couch in silence, just staring at the kitchen corner and talking to myself in my head. Chester’s cone-shaped nose peeked out and then the furry little nuisance revealed itself. Finally, some action!

He scurried across the wide-open kitchen floor, as exposed and committed as an alpinist beneath a looming serac. He found a crumb, took it in his mouth and darted back toward the corner, disappearing through the impossibly small crack as if it were a black hole that vacuumed him up. He didn’t pay attention to the trap whatsoever!

To hell with being the considerate, humane guy. I would have to be the real me—the crafty, mouse-murdering jerk. I called Jen to explain to her that sometimes we get caught up in emotions and have trouble seeing the bigger picture and doing what is best for the greater good, even if that decision compromises your morals.

“It’s the foundation of all the best movie plots,” I added.

“What are you talking about?” she asked.

“Those humane traps are pieces of shit, and they don’t work, and first thing tomorrow morning I am going to get some inhumane traps, even if that means you will think less of me.” I waited for a reaction.

“OK,” she said. “Whatever.”

The next day I returned to the store and bought the kind of trap that lures the mouse with the promise of a delicious treat and even allows it to savor a nibble or two (how wonderfully cruel!) before swiftly guillotining its head.

That night, after baiting the trap with some cheese, I again dimmed the lights, and sat quietly in the darkness, sipping fine single malt, a toast to the evening’s transpiring gore. Soon poor doomed Chester—this tragic figure, this slave to his most base desires for a cheap bite of food—crept out of the nook.

“Hello, Chester,” I whispered, swirling the scotch glass. “Voulez-vous un peu de fromage?”

Curious Chester zipped across the kitchen floor, the stage of an arena, my own personal Coliseum, erratically stopping his stride, second, third, fourth guessing himself, only to be helplessly lured onward by the pungent, irresistible odor of cheese. Anticipating the ensuing brutality was thrilling, as if some primal urgency within me had awakened from its prolonged slumber.

Tentative Chester craned his neck toward the golden orb of cheddar and delicately mined out a nugget from the greater morsel. Prize in mouth, he sprinted away and dove through the eensy hole in the wall.

“Aw, goddamnit!” I said, punching my thigh. I re-set the trap with more cheese, really pressing it onto the trigger mechanism. Soon Chester was back. Yet the same scenario recurred, and Chester escaped without so much as a ruffled whisker.

Jen came over. I explained to her that this mouse was giftedly evil, and that we might need to resort to even more drastic methods of extermination. She thought I was simply too dumb to set the trap right, so she did it herself. Minutes later Hungry, Ever-Emboldened Chester strolled (yes, he was now strolling!) to the trap, nibbled away gleefully and returned to his asylum in the wall.

“Little bastard!” she said. “OK, fine. Do whatever it takes. Just get him out of here!”

I resorted to higher reasoning—a skill set not yet bequeathed to my evolutionarily inferior foe. I analyzed all variables: location of the trap, its positioning with respect to the hole in the wall, how the bait was placed on the trigger, and what bait would work best. In addition to different types of cheese, I tried honey, peanut butter, almond butter, peanut butter with honey, and almond butter with cheese.

Though frustrated because I couldn’t catch a stupid mouse, I gained a tremendous respect for Chester, watching him continue to risk his neck for the tiniest taste. I imagined that for Chester, this game was a thrill, both filling and fulfilling in a way that I, in my own way, could relate.

Climbers are often questioned about their motivations for taking risks. A wise monk once observed that if there were no such thing as water on earth, we would never feel thirsty. Likewise, I observe that if there were no mountains, we would never have the hunger to climb them. Heading up on the biggest peaks and baddest cliffs is a lot like taking cheese off a mousetrap: getting the chop becomes more likely the more often you place yourself in the danger zone. Yet climbing not only satiates us, but it is our most vital nourishment. I would argue that climbing is as necessary to our lives as food and water, and for that reason it is worth risking quite a lot.

OK, enough of that. Nothing ruins a good mouse story like allegory. Chester was amazing, a rare specimen particularly suited to braving the dangerous journey to the summit and bringing back the cheeses of the gods to his mortal mice brethren.

Soon it got late, and Jen and I were tired of thinking about Chester. I set the trap one last time, and we went to bed.

In that sinking moment as you pass from being awake to asleep, I heard the lashing snap of the metal wire, traveling at hundreds of miles per hour, and crushing Chester’s cheese-filled skull to dust. Jen squeezed my arm and cried.

“Oh, Chester,” she said.

“At least he died doing what he loved,” I said.