At 2 o’clock in the morning, at this altitude, at this time of year, it should be below freezing. Well below freezing. It’s the whole reason we are up this early. The colder temperatures at night increase the safety margin. The cold is the glue that keeps loose rocks and chunks of ice frozen to the mountain and not falling on us. Cold snow is more stable and less likely to avalanche. It is firm and makes for easier travel.
I’m down to a light shirt. Even before we started moving, before we started burning calories and warming from exertion, we were dressed lightly. This is bizarre. We slept in to give the temperatures time to drop. They refused.
There is evidence of recent avalanche activity all around us. Looking forward, there is an obvious new slide that we’ll have to cross right in front of. I pick up the pace. My partner, younger and fitter, has no difficulties matching my pace. I bring experience to the table. Which he soaks up. He offers strong legs and enthusiasm. A certain type will whistle and have a laugh in the face of adversity. I suspected he was one of those rare unicorns. I’m being proven correct.
“Chris! Hang on a sec” my partner calls to me. His voice is calm, cooler than the ambient temperatures. Casually, I turn around to see what is happening. We are roped together and moving slowly. “I think I just punched through a snow bridge.” He might as well be telling me he needs to tie his shoe. It takes some time to learn a new partner. The snow is at his waist. One leg has gone through a snow bridge into an unseen crevasse. I bring my ice axe to my chest. If the rest of him goes through the bridge, I’ll have to drop to the snow and dig my axe into the snow to try and arrest the fall. I’ll be responsible for keeping both of us out of that unseen hole in the Earth. He wiggles and pushes himself out of this most precarious position. We forge ahead.
Once across the glacier, creeping up in elevation, the travel remains brutal. For every three steps, there is a slide back. “Goddamnfuckcomeonman.” I mutter to myself, although I’m pretty sure he can hear me. Without any wind, it’s quiet. Another step sinks to mid-shin. The entire morning to this point has been like this. What should have taken forty-five minutes is now into the second full hour. This is demoralizing. Post-holing saps the will to continue. A leg will sink into the snow to the waist. The other leg, searching for solid snow, will do the same. The worst steps are the ones that feel like they will be solid, only to give way once fully weighted. It’s a two-part step. The first part sinks a few inches, only to be followed by sinking to knee or waist deep.
There is an obvious boot track ahead of us. We are definitely not the first ones to do this route this weekend. We are, however, the sole travelers today. “Let’s keep going and see if it gets better. It’s gotta get colder higher up.” Pushing up the mountain, spurred on by that bitch, hope. Hope that the travel will improve with altitude. Hope proves her true nature and offers us nothing.
10,000ft above sea level, I’m still in a light shirt, still sinking to mid-shin. At these temperatures, we do not want to be in the gulley we are aiming for much later. The sun will be up soon and the rocks and ice held to the mountain by the marginal temperatures will start coming down. If we are in that gulley, we’ll meet them first hand.
“My gut says we should turn around. Which it usually doesn’t.” He’s learning to put all the pieces together. But ultimately, it’s my call.
“Well, this sucks. I’m still post-holing. There’s slide activity everywhere. The sun’ll be up soon and then it’ll really get warm. Fuck it. Let’s get out of here.” We turn around. Near to where he punched through a snow bridge, I send a leg through a separate one. That’s the first time I’ve ever broken through a snow bridge. We had gone over what to do in the event of a crevasse fall the day before, but I’d rather not rely on him, or anyone, to pull me out of gaping hole in a glacier. With some effort, I get myself up and moving again.
This is the second time I’ve been bested on this route. But turning back is a part of mountaineering and can be the hardest lesson to learn. I define success as coming home with all my fingers and toes. I don’t climb with the “summit at all cost” type. My partner is too rational to get gripped by summit fever. We’ll climb again. We already have plans for the next week.
And we stick to them.
“The boot pack definitely goes right into this rock band. It’s a damn highway. But it could be so big because people get here and turn around, so it’s got twice the traffic. What do you think?”
“I can’t really see it. You’re call.”
“Let’s go full value, brosef. Up the rocks.” There is no mention of climbing through a rock band in any of the trip reports. But, I think I can see a weakness in the rock that will allow us passage through. We start up. Crampons screech across the rock, seeking purchase. It only takes a small ledge, maybe half an inch, to get secure footing. If the rock holds, the steel of my crampon points surely will as well. I can feel the cold of the rock through my gloves. I get up through the first section to a flat spot. We have no rock protection, so we move very cautiously. Once my partner gets up to my ledge, we take our crampons off. This type of rock will be much more easily navigated without them. Quickly, we realize that our ledge is loose mud on top of sloping rock. Every foot movement is calculated. But we both feel confident in this arena. Once crampons are stowed in packs, I start up the second stretch of the rock band. It begins to crumble underneath me. Hollow rock breaks off in my hand. Fifteen feet into the second rock section, the weakness closes me out. What looked entirely reasonable from a few feet below becomes far too risky once seen face-to-face.
“Nope. This shit ain’t happening.” I slowly downclimb back to our perch. To get to this perch on the ascent, we had to squirm over a lip of rock. There’s no going back down it. I usually keep a few pieces of rock protection for just this situation, in case I need to protect a retreat. But there isn’t supposed to be any rock on this route. So I left them at home. “There’s a horn over there we can sling” I offer.
“I’m not super excited about you traversing that rock without any pro.” He’s concerned because there is no obvious way to protect me on the way to a large rock horn that we hope to rappel off. I spy a smaller horn, but one that looks solid. And that I won’t have to traverse into the nether to reach. I punch it. Kick it. No movement. Rap on it with my knuckles. Each rap produces barely any sound, exactly what I’m hoping for. It should hold. I loop a sling over it. I bought this sling yesterday. It has a breaking strength of just under 5,000 pounds. If the rock holds, the sling will. A carabiner clips to the sling to our rope. We toss the rope over the edge.
“Who goes first?” I say aloud. There are two sides to being first.
“If it holds, the second can make sure it doesn’t slip. I think it’s good. I’ll go.” I run through scenarios in my head. How do I minimize the risk to my young cousin? Which is the greater risk: the rock giving out or the sling slipping off it? I think slippage is the greater risk. The lesser risk is going first.
“Ok man. I’ll keep an eye on the sling. Keep it low.” If he keeps low, the downward pull should keep the sling in place. He clips in to rappel, gives himself a quick safety check, checks with me and goes over the edge.
“Chris! I’m at the bottom!” On the whole, things stayed where we put them. I clip in, safety check myself, and head over the edge. The last step before going into free air and I notice he is directly below me while my left foot pins a dinner plate sized loose rock to the wall.
“Dude! Fucking move!”
“Oh shit. Yeah.” He scampers away. My pinned rock is loosed and falls to near where he just was. I continue downward to the snow. Our impromptu anchor holds. I feel the familiar crunch of snow under foot. We retrieve our rope and continue a few minutes before coming to an impassable crevasse.
“We need to head back and see if we can get around this thing. Turn around.” I had been in the lead. Turning around would put him in the lead.
“Why don’t you lead this section.” We are in a crevasse field. Experience dictates who goes in front. I walk passed him and search for a way through the crevasse field. I start downclimbing a reasonable looking snow slope. The steep snow is firm and ideal for kicking steps: soft enough to kick into, but firm enough to hold body weight. Ten feet below me, there is a subtle change in color. In the middle of an enormous glacier, with dense fog all around us, subtle color changes are often the only indication of a change.
“Hey! Come down to me.” He downclimbs to me. “I don’t think we can down climb that. I think it goes vertical. I belay him towards the edge, allowing for safe travel, to take a closer look. “Yeah, it looks bad.”
I place an aluminum stake into the snow and clip the rope into it. It gets backed up with another one. I know this snow. This is sturdy. Once the anchor is built, I tell my partner he’s up. The risk is on the second climber. If the first climber goes over and the first picket holds, the second climber pulls the second stake and hopes the first stays put. I send him over. He calls up once on the deck: “yeah, there’s no way to down climb that!” I pull the second stake, weight the first and watch for any sign of movement, see none, and then head down. Fifteen feet later, I’m sliding down the rope in free air. It was more than vertical, it was over-hung. As smoothly as I can, I rappel off my stake to the awaiting snow.
“Man, it’s up to you. We can turn around anytime.”
“Fuck that. I’m not going 0 for 2.” We got shut down last week. Turning around would be a reasonable option, given how delayed we are now. But the snow is good. The temperatures are just right. No one is in danger of losing any fingers. But we’ve just come through an unexpected trial and are now two hours behind schedule. We don’t want to be on the ice gulley on the upper mountain when it starts getting warm.
After a quick drink and snack, we head back up the hill. It brings us back to the highway that lead to the rock band. We go the opposite direction. Pristine snow conditions make for quick travel. The snow is steep. The two front points of my crampons and the two lower front points, like a sharp, steel “V”, bite into the snow. Each placement sinks perfectly on the first placement. An ice tool in each hand provides a second set of attachment points to the snow. After another thousand vertical feet of this, I’m moving a little slower and I can feel it in my calves. I managed to not sleep the night before and as late night creeps into early morning, I’m feeling it. He’s whistling. He slept. My pace slows. Five steps, stop, breathe, start up again. Finally, we get the sexy portion of the climb: the Ice Wall. We have three options in front of us. To the left, is the largest of the groups in front of us. It’s a steep ramp of snow and maybe some ice. The middle is still in shade, so should still be frozen. It looks to be the fastest, but likely vertical and more technically difficult than the left. The right is farther away, has no one on it and looks unappealing. After a brief meeting of minds, we decide to take the middle. It’s right above us, should be the most fun and the fastest. We are trying to make up time. Despite our two hour detour, we are catching up to the groups in front of us.
We ascend straight up to the middle section. There is a little catwalk leading to a steep gulley. At the end of the catwalk, before heading up into the gulley, someone has chopped out a little platform. It’s a lovely spot to stop. We take a breather and re-arrange gear. I take all the ice screws and our sole remaining snow picket. We make sure the rope has no tangles. I take a deep breath, look out, and leave the platform. At the edge of the gulley, I place an ice screw and clip the rope into it. If I fall from here, the screw will keep me attached to the mountain. The moves are not particularly difficult, but are high consequence. A fall here, if the screw failed to hold, would be entirely unpleasant. There is a lot of exposure below me. My first axe swing shatters the ice. No purchase. Not ideal. I swing again and more ice explodes. This has my attention now. The third swing sinks. I kick my left crampon points into the blue ice on the far end of the gulley entrance. Perfect. My left tool swings into the far wall and sinks on the first swing. My right foot has no problems finding placement. My right tool just managed to find a patch of bad ice. After that, the climbing is pure pleasure. Every ice tool swing feels good. Each placement feels strong and safe. Every kick of my crampons finds a home. This is what we came here for. The sun is peaking into the gulley. We’ll be out of it well before it warms up enough to become problematic. Every movement is joy. Another twenty feet and I clear away some snow to find deep blue, solid alpine ice. My screw takes two turns and the whole patch of ice groans. This section sounds like it wants to be freed from its mountainous constraints. I back it out and move up another five feet. I clear away more snow and place a screw that just feels solid. The process is repeated for another couple screws. After, I top out of the gulley. There is a platform where the group in front of us excavated the snow to expose the underlying ice. I’m not impressed with how close they placed their two anchor screws. After quickly clearing some snow a little farther away, I place a second screw in the distant ice. From here, I belay my cousin up to me. Being comfortable on this type of terrain, and roped from above, so without risk of a fall, and much fitter than me, he climbs up the gulley in no time.
The snow above is not difficult, but the consequence of a fall would be lethal, so we stay roped up. The slope angle eases off. We stand upright. The crest of the summit is just ahead of us. I get that familiar feeling in my chest when I summit a mountain. Joy and contentment born of trial and suffering. We took this route not because it was the easy way up, but because it was difficult. The feeling won’t last much passed starting down. But the memory of it will. And that will motivate for the next adventure.