The climbing magazines would have us believe there is a god called 5.14 to whom we must all pay homage. Regardless of the personal value of our efforts, we are often judged, and we judge ourselves, by the numbers attached to the climbs we do. But in the larger context of life outside the gymnastic prime, the quality and content of the climbing experience become more important than the grade. In particular, being alone on a hard new route in the high mountains can add new excitement to a mundane existence.
For two years 1 had been chained to my desk, writing business plans for my old climbing-gear company, Latok Mountain Gear, negotiating with bankers, lis-loosely translated: tening to employee problems, with scarcely the time to dream about the mountains, let alone get out in them. I was in terrible shape, my mental and spiritual balance askew. For more than twenty years I had climbed or skied at least a hun-You'n Not Winning dred days annually,- now it was "once in a blue moon."
So in June of 1985, four of us made a quick trip to Peru on the assumption that If You're Not three weeks were better than none, for we were all feeling similarly overworked and deprived. Immersion in a less hectic culture slowed our pace, and association Having Fitn with the hill people calmed us down. In spite of recent deadly harassment of locals by members of the Marxist S«tifm> Lummoso (Shining Path), and in spite of tales of trekkers being shot and robbed by bandilos. we felt the peace of walking in a special place, circumnavigating a compact range of fantastic snowy peaks.
None of the others were climbers, but at our starting point in Chiquian, I had loaded one of our burros down with climbing gear. After seven perfect days, we arrived at a 15,000-foot campsite below the striking South Face of 18,500-foot Trapecio, Though I hardly felt strong, I had regained my equilibrium for the moment and succumbed to the lure of a fine-looking ice route. Seldom had I seen a mountain wall at once so attractive and difficult looking.
Two hours of rhythmic and varied snow and ice so riveted my concentration that I literally bumped into the crux. A wall of reddish rock rose 500 feet in vertical angles and steep corners, its center draped in a veil of green, blue, and white ice. It was this icy lacework that had first attracted me to the line. Now that I was face-to-face with the shimmering headwall, I stomped a small platform in the snow and turned outward to squander a moment taking in the view.
A frosly morning in the CorMnra Huayhvash
A frosly morning in the CorMnra Huayhvash
Immediately the claustrophobic intensity of climbing was transformed into the unbounded exhilaration of looking out onto an expansive vista. Threads of cirrus clouds torn from snowy summits looked like Tibetan prayer flags in an otherwise electric-blue Andean sky. Following the sweep of fluted ice faces, rock walls, and corniced ridges down from their tops, my eyes encountered a succession of snowfields, cracked glaciers, and dark, jumbled moraines. Three thousand feet below and a mile away was the meadow where my friends were taking a day off. As I gazed out over our campsite—a tiny blue speck—in my imagination 1 could smell a second pot of coffee brewing, watch Janie feeding breakfast scraps to Armando's burros, and hear the soft splashing of Rosa and Luke washing by the little stream,
1 felt totally at one with my surroundings, Though wind-borne ice crystals stung my cheeks and the nearest humans were visible only in my mind, I was not lonely, and the slight discomfort only increased the depth of my contentment, I felt like a space traveler who has been stranded on a planet that is better than paradise, for here it was not only possible to fill the soul with beauty, but also to find a worthy challenge. Shivering slightly, I started up the wall, and for the next twenty minutes, the warming joy of easy movement on 70° ice was mine.
At first the ice rose up a deep corner in frothy white bulges. An unhurried rhythm, balanced over my feet, felt less like fighting gravity and more like walking in place. The ice moved down in front of me, an illusion that was strengthened by thin streams of spindrift falling all around. I would take five or six crunching steps, splaying one foot sideways and frontpointing with the other, then switch the position of my feet, taking an extra breath at each transition. In this way, each calf muscle was alternately tensed and stretched, eliminating fatigue. Holding the head of my axe in one hand and the bottom of the shaft in the other, I lightly shoved the pick into the ice in front of my face at every other step. Soon, however, the ice thinned to less than two inches, and the angle increased to vertical. 1 placed and tied off two Snargs, hung my pack, and set up a self-belay. The easy going had come to an end.
Above, both walls of the corner steepened to overhanging. At the same time the ice became very thin, like a crust of frozen foam that had spilled over the side of the mountain, opaque enough to hide any cracks in the rock but offering almost no resistance to down ward-si icing metal points. I paid out forty feet of slack to allow me to reach easier-angled terrain. It was clear from the large loop of extra rope left dangling from my waist that I could not count on the flimsy purchase of the tied-off ice pitons to hold a fall. This forced me to mentally shift gears from high-speed cruise to four-wheel low. I switched into that place in my consciousness that is acutely aware of the seriousness of the situation. The entire universe reduced itself to an area perhaps ten feet square. Anything beyond that perimeter was out of reach and therefore extraneous to existence.
My first attempt to move up the corner was rushed and awkward. Gently 1 stepped back down to the highest resting place, feeling balance return to the center of my gut like a baseball to a catcher's mitt. A few deep breaths forced the tension from my body, and 1 resurveyed the situation. The problem was that the right wall leaned severely leftward, forcing me to stem onto the smooth, undercut left wall where there was no ice. Another attempt at my original solution would obviously yield the same results as before, and at first there seemed to be no alternative. Yet I knew there must be another way, and as I continued to breathe and relax, an image began to form in my mind. I saw myself from a detached perspective, twenty feet in space behind me. Although my tactile senses remained centered in the icy corner, this overview allowed me to visualize a single move executed on the right wall, followed by stabilizing movements back into the corner.
Reaching to the right, 1 swung my axe at an icy hollow where 1 knew it would stick securely. As I twisted my body to face the right wall directly, I shivered with a current of déjà vu: the moves felt as comfortable as a well-rehearsed series of dance steps. Thunk, thunk. Step, step. Stem left back into the corner, a couple of moves laybacking olf the picks, and i found myself on good, thick, 80° ice.
I untied the knot in the rope at my waist, freeing the entire length, and climbed to its end up the steep, massive flow. The wind picked up and spindrift instantly filled the hole 1 chopped for a screw. As I rappelled the line to retrieve my pack, I could look off to either side of the icefall and see clouds from the north pouring over the edges of the lace and churning in the turbulence. The swirling snow softened the sharp dark angles of the containing buttresses, but behind me to the southwest the rock peaks of the Puscanturpa group still rose clearly out of the glaciers. This storm was merely a localized disturbance, but one that would make the climbing to come even more of a challenge. After shouldering my pack and removing the anchors with disconcerting ease, 1 jumared back up the rope to survey the situation above,
From my top anchors the icefall steepened for a final rope-length into a dead vertical filigree of insubstantial gray ice fifteen feet wide. Although the climbing appeared difficult and dangerous, I thought I could see several places where the ice was thick enough to allow the placement of secure screws. Without much more thought I started up, the full rope hanging down between the belay and myself,
I climbed along the right edge of the ice, hooking rock holds with my right axe and crampon points and getting some wobbly placements in the ice with my left. After fifty feet, the rock holds petered out, and the ice curtain became even less substantial. The only protection I could manage was a poor knifeblade in a shallow crack, and I had trouble ascertaining the security of this arrangement through the constant rush of spindrift draining from the upper bowl down the central line of the face—my route. Part of me was revolted by the idea of launching onto the ice in such horrific conditions with such a questionable backup, but another part, the adventurous part, was exhilarated.
My first attempt to get out onto the ice resulted in a sheet ten feet square falling out from underneath my crampons, leaving me dangling from my tools, stuck in the aerated ice above the fracture line. Painful, nearly overwhelming spurts of adrenaline shot through my limbs, but years of climbing had taught me how to absorb it almost as quickly as it had shocked me. In a few seconds panic subsided. Very gingerly i found crampon holds in the bare rock and pulled gently over the fractured edge of ice. 1 was totally committed now. Backing off was unthinkable-
Above, the ice was a gossamer shroud of crusty, poorly bonded snow crystals over rock. The darker, solid-looking sections had appeared far more substantial from below than they were in reality. 1 half-chuckled, half-moaned. I had wanted a difficult climb, but this was diabolical.
Sweat and spindrift soon formed a bubbly crust on my glasses. There was nearly a hundred feet of this vertical maelstrom to endure. At first I was on the verge of despair as, with each new axe placement, the blade would slice downward several inches before catching,- but slowly a feeling of control returned as I
Traptdo't Sovtfa Fdc», thiaugh the doudi
(Photo; Jeff Lowe]
discovered that each placement was consistent, however insecure. I gradually lost the fear that there might be one hold that simply could not be made to stick. Soon my arms were starting to burn with fatigue. 1 forced myself to conserve energy by using the lightest grip on my tools that 1 dared and by hanging straight-armed as much as possible. I settled into a complicated rhythm that felt right: three deep breaths hanging straight-armed with the feet high, one breath straightening up, replacing one tool higher, then immediately hanging straight-armed from the new placement,- two more breaths removing the lower tool, placing it higher, and hanging straight-armed from both; then a rest breath before carefully walking my feet up into position to repeat the sequence.
My concentration on correctly performing the cadence of movements allowed me to ignore the hot coals in my forearms and to forget the potential horrendous fall, At one point I even felt a shiver of thanks for this challenge that was more than 1 had bargained for. Seldom had the edge felt so close, yet still been within my abilities, Even so, the dangerous urge to lunge past the final few feet of the icefall onto the summit snow slope was almost overwhelming I resisted the temptation and pulled over the top on the shafts of my tools.
The relief was intense. My entire body slumped down of its own accord and, as I sank into the soft snow, my mind also seemed to slump in its cranium. The summit was still 500 feet higher, but I had no stomach for the slog. My whole being was revolted by the idea of being exposed to any more hazard, I didn't care that ! was depriving myself of the first ascent of the entire face. 1 had gotten alt Í needed from the climb.
After three long, spectacular rappels, a careful face-in gallop down snow to the top of the lower ice pitches, more demanding down-climbing, and one final rappel, I reached the foot of the wall. Dragging my rope, I plunged down the lower snow slope to the edge of the moraine at the base of the face. It was four o'clock.
At the base of the face there was scarcely a breath of wind. I dropped my pack on a low boulder sticking out of the snow and paused a moment to enjoy the lightness in my shoulders. After coiling the rope with a series of expansive movements like a man pumping an accordion, I sat down and pulled out an orange. Biting into the skin, I was startled by the pungent explosion that filled my mouth and nose. The only smell in this mineral world of rock and ice had been my own sweat. The pleasure of returning to valley life washed over me in a wave of joy.
A sound close behind shook me from my reverie. Turning, I saw it was Armando, clattering up the steep moraine in sandals. Crinning widely, he puffed up and clasped my shoulders with both hands, "Jeffe," he greeted me. "Muy bueno, Jeffe! Trapecio es muy difícil en la cara sud,"
"Gracias, amigo. Si, la cara sud es un escalade grande."
Leaving the snow and raising dust clouds as we glissaded down the steep moraine, we returned to camp, janie met us in the meadow, giving me the king of hugs and the queen of kisses, I was happy and content and would have liked to live forever. T
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