Friday, May 28, 2010

That which will not make me stronger can only kill me

Todd Skinner once warned that "there's nothing more dangerous than an easy mountain." This is presumably because an easy mountain does not demand the full attention and survival resources of the alpinist. From the beginning I knew that Kyazu Ri was within my ability to climb, and within my ability to guide, but this season the mountain gods bedeviled my path with a series of obstacles and portents, the first of which was the measles.

Upon nearing the Kyazu Ri basecamp a week after my first illness subsided, we learned of a Danish expedition which had met with an accident due to rockfall. The Sherpas down valley warned of the danger and expressed their concern for us travelers by relating in Pidgin English the heartbreaking tale of the father-son mountaineering team which had been struck by misfortune somewhere en route. The tale involved a desperate struggle for life and limb culminating in a helicopter rescue and eventually including the didactic moral of the story in it's final conclusion-- "he die. very very careful." I was picturing Aeneas in his flight from Troy carrying his father on his back as he fled the flames of his great city, wondering if I would have the strength to do the same. Recurring thoughts like this made it all that much more alarming when my father failed to show up at the appointed place when returning from Kyazu Ri basecamp.

I frantically searched for him, retracing the steps I had taken when I ditched him earlier, of course regretting having ditched him earlier. I went from tea house to tea house asking if they had seen this man, quickly pantomiming a beard and glasses, each Sherpa face communicating a concerned "no." Finally, after I had started to sort of hear what I thought were his desperate cries for help, but which was probably someone shouting at a Yak, I attracted the attention of a Sherpani woman who asked me about the situation and where I had last seen him. "Up by the monastery" I panted. "Well" she replied "I suppose we could call them." She then whipped out a cell phone from the folds of her traditional garb and had a 30 second conversation with the devout monks upon the hill who had renounced possessions of any kind except apparently for their cell phones. "Your father is safe" she announced "and he is sleeping soundly. Care for some tea?"

I would not think about the father-son Danish mountaineering team again until Peter, Carter and I made the ascent to the col on Kyazu Ri. Just before an easy 5th class rock step which one must negotiate to attain the col, the team must travel through a narrow and marginally steep gully choked with boulders. Above the gulley, a hanging glacier threatens to dislodge debris which has rested precariously atop its icy surface for centuries. It is logical then, that at certain times of day when the weather has been warm, that crossing through the gulley could pose a significant rockfall danger. Midway up the gulley, I stopped Carter. “Does that look like a backpack or something up ahead?” He agreed. This was an easy determination to make considering the fact that any contrast in the lifeless landscape would have stood out to even the colorblind among us. We approached and found a pack and some scattered clothing and equipment and what looked to be an unbelievable volume of blood. There was a sleeping bag lying among the boulders near the pack. A paperback was torn into pieces and its pages were scattered to the wind. A used auto-injector, presumably a steroid, was lying next to a small mound of brownish gauze frosted in a thin coating of ice. There was a glove coated in blood and matted with human hair. It was frozen into a contorted claw as if grappling at some invisible form of the Platonic world. My mind usually turns to comedy at a time like this and I was reminded of the place-holder text seen so often in the Onion, “America’s Favorite News Source” when there were too few words to fill a column—“passersby were amazed at the amounts of blood passersby were amazed at the amounts of blood passersby were amazed at the amounts of blood.” It was a thin consolation. I could tell by the looks on the faces of both Peter and Carter that this reminder of mortality was not strengthening their resolve, so I acted in a manner befitting a police officer at the scene of the crime and moved them on. Nothing to see here.

We moved up through the rock band to the col. Peter remained in the rocks below, having lost a crampon earlier that afternoon, giving up his bid on the summit. Carter and I stood atop the flat col, buffeted by winds, our attempts to communicate blown away in the gale.



We went lower to the rocks a hundred feet beneath the col.

“Do you think we could pitch it there?”

“Over there? No… we’d have to anchor the tent in just to avoid slipping downhill all night.”

“There? Over by those rocks?”

“Too sharp. We would shred the tent. Not to mention not sleeping.”

“At the last belay?”

It would not have occurred to me to pitch a tent there. I slung a boulder for the belay when the rope went taut at the end of 50 meters. The icy platform was barely big enough for the three of us to stand.

“It’ll have to do.”

After 20 minutes of chopping the bullet ice with blunted adzes, the three of us were spent as if we had climbed the mountain twice over, and we had barely succeeded in widening the slope enough for a tent, to say nothing of making it flat enough to sleep. Though the effort was keeping us warm, we were nearing the point of apathy that comes with exhaustion and results often in incompletely chopped tent ledges and a slanted sleep. We anchored the tent with rocks and an ice screw and settled in for the short night which would end for Carter and I at 2 am for the summit push.

I manned the stove and melted chunks of ice into the tiny pot placed gingerly on a rock inside the vestibule. I have always liked the work of manning the stove. Over the years it has become an art—knowing when to add more ice, how much can be added before the pot will overflow or the stove will lose efficiency, keeping the canister warm—these are all exercises which occupy the mind at altitude and distill the world into a safe cocoon of simplicity where the more pressing problems of one’s everyday life fade into the obscurity. I find now that I have difficulty paying bills on time, completing business with the DMV, remembering appointments, filling out paperwork. I discussed this idea once with Fabrizio Zangrilli and he expressed understanding—saying, “if it’s not a serac hanging over your head, it just doesn’t seem to matter.” I pondered this as I struggled for sleep and listened to the stove simmer.

At 9 pm I awoke when Carter sat up with a jolt, as from a skirmish in dreams, breathing heavily. He told us he couldn’t sleep because he couldn’t breathe. We told some stories and tried to relax and thought about how we would someday all laugh about this incident. I told them about my friend Will from Alabama whose stories would invariably begin with the expression “so there I was.” We postulated the beginning of the Kyazu Ri story of that year—“so there I was, stranded in a 2 person tent sandwiched between two climbing partners, trying to breathe, trying to sleep on a tiny platform, on a bed of other men.” Things are funny at altitude which wouldn’t be funny elsewhere.

I have no recollection of sleep, but I do remember sitting upright for much of the night just to be able to breathe. I started the stove and soon I was counting my own footsteps, trudging through the snow of the previous night up past the col in the cold dark of the starry Himalayan night.

We belayed at the first rock step. I pounded a few pins into incipient cracks and gave Carter a brief tutorial on their removal. As I began the belayed climbing, I moved past one of the pins I placed last year, aware that neither Abe nor Philip could remove it. With Arthurian skill, I pounded it a few times and it popped out. I placed it again, maybe even more securely this time, cognizant of the fact that someone who has never cleaned a mixed route will encounter some difficulty. I shouted down to Carter “don’t spend more than 2 minutes on any single piece of gear!” I knew that to keep moving quickly was of the utmost importance on this route.

The dawn sped toward us as Carter inched his way up the second pitch of mixed climbing which begins in a flaring chimney with ice delicately plastered to the narrow constrictions in back. I stemmed up the step ground, finding rests here and there and overcoming short cruxes by hooking my tools on tiny edges and burying them in cracks. I decided to avoid the crux ice section which had slowed the team’s progress the previous season by staying to the right of a steep serac and veering onto moderate ice.

My lungs crackled and I found it painful to breathe with what I recognized as the onset of HAPE and possibly pleurisy, no doubt brought on by my weakened immune system and measles and all familiar from previous high altitude climbing. I knew what the onset felt like and how long and how high I would be able to climb before I started coughing up gobs of viscous goo. Carter was moving quite expediently, but was solicitous as to my condition. He also had the courage to share that he was not feeling well himself, citing fatigue which increased with every pitch we climbed. I was feeling it too. There’s something about summit day which always requires me to dig deep, and I was doing it—I was finding that limit once again.

I swung my tools into the hard ice and knocked dinner plates down toward by stoic climbing partner, the two of us the last of an initial team of 5. Careful to place gear every so often in order to stave off the fatigue that could cause a fall, I used my axes in dagger position and gingerly edged upward on four tiny front-points. It is at this juncture where all thought falls away. Anxiety over the future and guilt over the past are replaced by the beating of my heart and the rhythm of breath like a compass pointing upward. Swing, swing, kick, kick. I am careful to place each belay in a sheltered enclave away from falling ice, following a map of the route I had chosen the previous year. For rhythm sake, and to avoid the temptation to hold still until I could catch my breath, I thought of a drum beat in my head which corresponded roughly with the pounding of my blood through my swelling brain. I added the words of a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, as a sort of drum-beat mantra as I stabbed by way up each icy pitch. “No, what my heart will be is a tower,/and I will be right out on its rim:/nothing else will be there, only pain/and what can’t be said, only the world..” And the beat of a drum. Every fiber of my being screamed for me to stop and rest. I told myself that I could rest at the belay. You can rest when you’re dead. Upon reaching the belay though, my drumbeat sound-track had all the energy of a tape player with low batteries, the beats fewer and farther between, the voice a low register death rattle. I coughed and coughed and hyperventilated for the several minutes it took Carter to reach our belay.

“I’m out of gas, man.”

“I think it’s just 2 pitches to the summit. Have a GU and rest for a bit while we make up our mind.”

“I can’t even think.”

“That’s what I’m here for.”

“Cleaning those pins wore me out.”

“Just sit and rest. Ok, one long running belay and one hard pitch.”

“I’m at the end of what I can do. I don’t know if I could do another hard pitch.”

“Just sit and rest and then we’ll decide.”

As I threaded the 5 mil for a v-thread, I realized I was retreating at the same point as last year. “Abe and I stared at this exact same view when we decided to retreat short of the summit.” I mentioned. Mustering the energy for a symbolic gesture, I took out the necklace I had been carrying with me to place on the summit. I wanted rid of that thing, summit or no.

We rappelled for what seemed like a long time, taking the time to place a v-thread and a backup anchor at each rappel. Upon reaching the col again at 2pm, though my body felt better, the sense of relief was tempered by a vague anti-climax. We reached the tent where Peter coked for us and I napped inside the sun-warmed tent exhausted until Peter roused me and we descended to the better air.

I woke up the next morning at our Advanced Base Camp coughing and rubbing my raw frost-nipped nose. I treated myself to a nalgene filled with hot tea and an extra package of instant oatmeal. We would have a clear day for the hike down. Peter leaned his head inside my tent, smiling. “Happy birthday” he said.