Waiting out a storm high in the mountains is the side of mountaineering that is not thrilling, exciting, or flashy. They don’t make movies about it, magazines don’t write about it, but we have all had done it numerous times. Waiting, sometimes for hours and sometimes for days, means a lot of time in a tent with someone that you (hopefully) like. Your time is spent trying to find ways to beat down the boredom of listening to the wind pound on the tent and peering through the vestibule to see if the skies are clearing, only to find less visibility and more snow than the last time you looked outside.
Waiting, eating, talking, waiting, reading, listening to your iPod, going outside to pee, waiting, playing solitaire, eating, sleeping, waiting, reading, listening to the same songs again on your IPod – the cycle becomes endless. Small details that were not important a few days ago start permeating your thoughts as you battle the boredom. Who still has chocolate? How many pages do I have left to read in my book? Do we still have toilet paper? How much power is left in the Goal Zero: if it runs out of power, no more solitaire or music. Not to mention, being stuck in a tent for an extended period of time can really let you know when you need a shower. This is exactly what happened to me during this last trip to Peru. After 3 days of climbing, there we were, stuck high up on Alpamayo, just waiting for the weather to clear.
But finally, after 36 hours of heavy wind, no visibility and heavy snow, I was relieved and energized to finally be freed of the tent prison. Feeling the sun warm my face and the fresh clean air I felt alive again. The feeling of moving, walking, climbing, feeling the muscles in my body working was invigorating, even as my lungs searched for oxygen in the thin air at 18,000 feet. This was so much better than the past two days of lying in the tent, talking about how to solve the U.S. debt crisis, mastering solitaire and discussing why our girlfriends don’t want to spend their vacations with us enjoying the big mountains. Being able to do what we came here to do – climb – felt great.
As we descended from 18,000 feet in the deep snow, zigzagging through the minefield of crevasses, one of my climbing partners walking ahead lost his footing. One of his crampons slid in the 14 inches of fresh, powdery snow causing him to fall onto his side. He then began to slide down a 40 degree snow slope, picking up speed as he went. My eyes immediately fixed on him, but as I saw him roll to his stomach, I expected him to self arrest and stop his slide. But, as I watched, I saw him struggling as his ice axe failed to bite into the ice covered by the deep powdery snow.
He continued his slide toward a large crevasse that spanned some 25 feet wide and at-least 100 feet deep. These types of crevasses are a combination of beauty and concern but at the moment, only concern as I watched the rope between us rapidly going out. I immediately dug into the deep powder looking for the hard ice hiding beneath. I plunged my ice axe and crampons into the ice and positioned myself for the force that was going to come from the momentum of my partner.
Soon enough – fractions of a second actually – I felt the pressure on my harness and my partner’s weight pulled on me and my ice axe. The ice axe slid a few inches and the ice cracked in my ears as I kept my weight positioned to secure the axe. To my relief I was able to stop the fall about 10 feet before my partner reached the crevasse that we later affectionately named “Manhattan.” My partner yelled, “Do you have me”, in his tough cool voice, but I knew that inside he was just as relieved as me. I told him I had him and he began the short climb back up to my location. He gave me a high five and we began to laugh and joke about the events that happened so fast, but seemed to play out in slow motion. It always amazes and amuses me that mountaineers, after avoiding tragedy, usually laugh and joke, and later tell animated stories about the adventure. I can see why a non-climber may find this a little crazy, especially when we recognize these are circumstances that can take our lives. I think it’s a way not only to relieve stress but also to serve as good (and important) reminders as to just how vulnerable and fragile we really are and that in mere moments, things can drastically change – for better or worse. We are free when we are climbing, master of our own domain, or so we think. In reality maybe we are just fragile specs of dust passing through time.