Back at the Icefields Campground, waiting for the weather to change, we geared up psychologically for a different sort of rhythm and a more classical, longer-lasting twirl through an immense mountain dance hall. Several days later the weather had improved and looked as if it might hold. We adopted new tactics. We carried minimal food, water, and bivouac gear, starting up at 6:00 P.M. We planned to climb through the night with head lamps and top out the following day. By climbing at night we hoped to be above the zone of bad rockfall by the time the morning sun hit the top of the face.
The real climbing began to the left of the lower of two bergschrunds of the small hanging glacier at the bottom of the wall. The bergschrund itself was impassable without undue exertion. Moving on ice and rotten snow over ice, we climbed unroped, each with his own thoughts, for 400 or 500 feet to about the level of the upper bergschrund. At this point the ice got very hard and Mike cried "Uncle," so we got out the rope. (1 was glad for the added security, too.) While the features of the huge amphitheater at the top of the face gradually darkened to a ragged silhouette, we moved simultaneously for six or seven rope-lengths, with two screws between us for safety. At the top of the right-hand ronton in the lower ice field we had a bite to eat and drink and prepared our head lamps for the dark hours ahead I said I thought we would bag the climb this time, but Mike cautiously reminded me that "we've barely gotten started."
From that point on we belayed each pitch. While the leader stomped slowly up with vision limited to the small circle of light projected by his head lamp, the belayer had time for reflection. To spur his thoughts, he could gaze into the infinite darkness of the valley or peer up at the starry sky, head lamp off to save on batteries. We were moving to some sort of ancient cadence, impelled by the natural music of the cosmos to perform a sort of structured waltz in the darkness. For awhile, our sloping dance floor was illuminated by the flashing Aurora Borealis, and a slow-motion riot of color, light, and sensation took place in our heads. Coming at the end of the psychedelic era, this experience drove home an absolute commitment to the superior beauty of untainted reality.
As the gully narrowed and steepened, we encountered the lowest of several polypropylene lines, remnants of an attempt the previous winter. The eastern sky began to lighten. By the time we reached the vertical narrowing of the upper couloir, it was 6:00 A.M.—full light. We were at the top of the fifteenth roped pitch.
The next pitch, my lead, looked as though it had been borrowed from a hard Scottish gully. Initially it was almost a chimney. I could bridge with my left crampon on rock and the other on ice, while using the axe to whatever advantage it could be put. This moderate going came to an end all too soon The couloir widened, forcing me to climb the thin face of ice and snow itself. With only knifeblades between frozen blocks for protection, the climbing was extremely nerve-wracking Seldom would the tools penetrate more than half an inch before meeting rock. The crux was climbing out from under an ice mushroom that was crammed into the couloir like a huge marshmallow. It took a couple of hours before I had a hanging belay from a couple of old "Wart Hog" solid ice pitons in the rock at the side of the couloir. We had no jumars or hauling rope, but even with his thirty-pound pack, after a couple of pendulums from underneath the ice mushroom, Mike pulled himself over the bulge by amazing brute strength.
Now the angle eased to a "mere" 65°. The ice was thick and held our points well,- we made quicker progress for several pitches. Then we came against the final section of the upper couloir, which had looked well iced from below but turned out to be steep, compact rock thinly veneered with snow. Luck was with us,- we found a narrow ice gully leading out to the right onto the rib that borders the couloir. Several hard leads of mixed snow and ice with one or two short but hard rock steps brought us out onto the summit ice cap, just 200 feet short of our goal. In our thirsty and fatigued condition time had moved faster than we had. With the air scratching at our throats, we climbed the last two pitches, The first was ice at a moderate angle. The second—a vertical path on rotten snow through the summit cornice—was as difficult as any, an exhausting capper to twenty-six hours of intense climbing. It was 8:00 p.m. when Mike and 1 stood side by side in the sun's horizontal rays on Kitchener's summit.
Then we turned, and with the sun a shimmering red disk at our backs, we wobbled through deep snow toward the East Ridge, our descent route. We still had several hours to go before we could rest and get a drink of much-needed water as it trickled from a snowfield in the saddle below the small peak known as K2.
For Mike and me, Bridalveil Falls had been a personal breakthrough, but the Grand Central Couloir opened our minds to unknown reservoirs of endurance, which, from that time on, have been like old friends—always there when they are needed.
Sometimes the best dances are marathons, y
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