The climb was familiar as we retraced our steps to Camp 2. With so far to go today, I increased my pace, which made me gasp in the thin air. In two quick hours, we reached our cache below the Yellow Tower and picked up the remaining gear. Our loads doubled, forcing our pace to slow. My mind was at odds with my body. The first--tense, watching the clock--demanded speed, the latter--pushing against gravity, lacking oxygen--pleaded leniency. Climbing the Yellow Tower was not pretty, nor aesthetic. Nor fun. When I hung on the fixed line for a breather, the weight of my pack pulled me over backwards. I hoped fervently that the frayed ropes would hold. Each of the steep pitches on this route had several choices of fixed line - one ratty, one rattier, and the final frayed in so many places it could hardly be called a rope. It wasn't worth looking down the thousand feet below us to contemplate the consequences of rope failure.
Above the Yellow Tower the rock disappeared under layers of snow, so we clamped on our crampons and continued upwards. The ridge here is stunning. Balancing along its knife-edge, we were extraordinarily exposed, watched by a horizon full of mountains and by our team below. In Camp 1 we could see Charlie's red fleece jacket, a speck parked beside our tent. And even further below us, we could see the dots of tents in Base Camp.
Perched along the ridge, Camp 2 defied reason... a narrow shelf, nonetheless occupied by a large, yellow dome tent.
Beyond Camp 2 stood the Gray Tower, and unfamiliar terrain. For weeks now, anxiety had hounded my stomach, wringing it like a rag, anticipating this, the hardest part of the ascent. In 1991 a combination of very little snow and a dead Canadian frozen in the ice obliged groups to climb further left, directly up the tower's face. This year a wide ribbon of snow snaked up through the Tower's flanks, a feature we called the "S couloir". A combination of snow, water ice, and rock, it was much steeper up close and personal than it seemed from a distance. The relief of finally being here, though, washed away the anxiety. The Unknown was replaced by the Visible. Now it was just a problem that needed solving, not an ephemeral gray nightmare haunting me in my most vulnerable moments. I plunged my ice tools into the snow over my head and walked my crampons' frontpoint teeth up the face. I continued up, committed. At times the snow degenerated into sugar and defied my tools and crampons. I felt like I was swimming upward into a snowy waterfall with my hands over my head. Often, when I felt like I'd finally gotten a good purchase in the chute, my feet crumbled out from underneath me and I dropped onto my tools, gasping for air. The couloir was nearly vertical and seemed to continue endlessly. The day sped towards evening, despite my best efforts to move quickly.
Charlie's voice crackled over the radio, encouraging. "You guys are doing great!" What a relief to hear a human voice.
"How much further do we have to go?"
"About an hour and a half, I figure, given your pace so far."
Expletives. That would put us in after dark. How did I get so slow? We had no choice but to continue. Andrew took the lead.
The light began to change around us. Evening light edged the sharp ridges and the fluted chutes which dropped improbably steeply from cutout two-dimensional mountains. And the incredible designs in cracked glaciers and falling ice - patterns in black and white - kaleidoscoped as white surfaces reflected the setting sun, changing from yellow to pink to orange to purple to blue. There was just enough light to find the fixed line and clip into it. As I moved up, the shadow line between evening and night moved with me, just behind me. Below the final serac, the last of the day laughed and was gone. It was officially dark. I fumbled up the serac, knowing Camp 3 was perched somewhere on top, so close that I refused to stop and get out my headlamp. When I popped my head up over the top lip of the serac, an icy blast of wind hit me full force. In one second it took my breath and my heat and flung them off into space. Suddenly I was really cold and absolutely spent. The blaze of a headlamp caught my attention and helped me locate Andrew. He had already found a tent platform, so we were spared carving out our own. I joined him and we struggled with a wildly flapping tent that wanted to fly off on its own. We finally figured out poles and fly and staked it down with 2-foot pickets. We fell, exhausted, inside.
What a relief to be out of the wind. I was shivering, not so much from cold as from the effort of nearly constant vertical movement over the last 12 hours with a heavy pack. I got into all my clothes and wrapped my sleeping bag around me. We got water going and were soon sipping soup and eating ramen. Now, inside our tent, we could have been anywhere. Slurping ramen. Cocooned in sleeping bags. Comfortable inside nylon walls. Except we weren't just anywhere. We'd made it to the last push before the summit of a 6,812m peak (22,349 foot). We would have been excited, thrilled even, but we couldn't raise energy for the smallest of enthusiasms. We sat in quiet happiness at 6,300m.
October 28, 1999