From June 21st to 24th I took part in a classic climbing epic; one of those stories with cold and wet bivouacs, ice caves, crevasse falls, rock slides and avalanches. There was even talk of cannibalism, but only as far as deciding who was the most appetizing one. Incredibly it all happened on Mount Rainier, spitting distance from Seattle; not in a remote mountain range named after an obscure God of the Wind. The events were overwhelming for me, and I am sure were also for my fellow climbers.
I am an armchair mountaineer; I like to read about the great climbers’ adventures and achievements; the history of the first ascents on all the celebrated peaks of the world. The romantic images of these adventures, both real and constructed in my mind, have been astonishingly beautiful; I yearned to be in these alpine places. But I haven’t; for fear and lack of self confidence, I have always blamed a rarity of opportunities. Even though I have been climbing for around 25 years, I can’ call myself a rock climber. When I think of it, I have never climbed anything really remarkable. So one day something happen, something brought me out of my climbing apathy and self‑pity. It was probably a combination of mid-life crisis and financial awareness. I had a revelation: I could climb with a guide! If I didn’t have the experience and confidence to do a real alpine climb; I could buy it.
So on a boring day in front of my computer, during what is cynically called “working hours”; I started browsing the guiding websites. It was quickly evident that my only pre‑packaged and immediate option would be Mt. Rainier. And the only guided route on Rainier that was not just a walk-up, but advertised as a real alpine climb, was Liberty Ridge.
Fortunately for me all the trips were completely booked, so I abandoned the idea and went back to my life. Unfortunately for me, I decided to check again; and on May 29th found an opening with International Mountain Guides (IMG). I called George Dunn at IMG, had a brief discussion and gave them my credit card number. I decided to put my money where my mouth (or stupid idea) was. I decided to burn the bridge, without the cash payment I would have bailed out; but being down two grand, there was no refund, so no turning back.
The problem was that the trip was scheduled for June 20th; which gave me just 3 weeks to get in shape. So I trained hard, on a treadmill. I did exactly 9 trips to the gym where I would put on a 60lbs backpack and walk for 1 hour on the steepest possible incline. And given how tired I was getting, I thought that I was making progress; and there was little else I could do. Of course I could just kiss the two grand bye-bye.
The days passed, and I let them pass. This was the kind of situation were procrastination actually makes you do things. I never took the initiative to get out of my predicament; I just let it get closer and closer. The anxiety and fear grew every day; and in disbelief I boarded the plane. I was going with the flow, despite my absolute conviction that I was way over my head.
On my way to Seattle, the view from the plane was a landscape blanketed by clouds; with only one huge mountain sticking out.
In my mind I heard Police Chief Brody as he saw Jaws gliding by : “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
The IMG website describes Liberty Ridge as “a very serious, technically difficult and physically demanding ascent that is reserved for strong climbers with prior climbing experience.” Not me. Mike Gauthier describes Liberty Ridge as “an exposed ridge that challenges climbers with steep ice climbing…it is long and committing”. Not for me. It is the word “committing” that kept me awake at night: in sport climbing, if you can’t do it, you just lower off. I am not used to be stuck somewhere I cannot come off as I please. In mountaineering “committing” means a bad marriage with a father in law that owns sawed-off shotguns.
The approach to Liberty Ridge starts at the White River Campground, around 4400ft of elevation. Mt. Rainier is 14,411ft, it is a 10,000ft climb! To keep things in perspective, Everest is a 12,000ft climb. Liberty Ridge is a very long climb.
The ridge itself barely deserves the title of a ridge. It is small wrinkle on the north face of the mountain. It looks atrophied when viewed in a map next to its neighbors Curtis Ridge to the east and Ptarmigan Ridge to the west. But it is just enough; it divides the North face into the Liberty Wall and the Willis Wall. At the very top, there is Liberty Cap; a glacier that spills over the wall. And as we are going to see later, the walls are death traps, waiting for climbers with extreme denial problems or short life expectancies. The ridge stands like a prow sending falling debris and serac ice to one side or the other; like a goalkeeper that is not capable of stopping the shots, just of deflecting them. What the ridge is not is free from rock falls within itself. The ridge is in fact not much more than a huge pile of loose rock held in place by frozen mud, ice and snow.
Mountaineers talk of “weakness” of a mountain. If there is such a thing, than Liberty Ridge opens the overhanging glaciers of Liberty Cap, the last obstacle on the climb, giving us a way up. It is only and just above the ridge that the precipitous seracs give away to a mellower slope, something stable and climbable without a death wish. If the cliffs are the walls of a citadel, than Liberty Ridge is the gate that was left open: the mountain just forgot to close it and we hope to sneak through.
The climb is divided in three days, and these match with three very distinct route sections. The first day is a hike with an attitude. We start at White River Campground. We hike up Glacier Basin, cross St. Elmo Pass (minus the fire), cross the Winthrop Glacier and set camp at the lower Curtis Ridge, at 7,200ft. According to George from IMG, it is a “9 hours long day with full packs”. Second day we cross the lower Curtis Ridge, turn north, cross the Carbon Glacier and climb the first half of ridge to Thumb Rock, our high camp at 10,760ft. Again, according to George, “an easier 6 hours long day”. Third day, Summit Day, we finish the ridge over snow and ice slopes, all around 60 degrees, to the Liberty Cap. After negotiating the ice cliffs, looking for the open gate, we gain the Cap at 14,200ft. Parties usually take 12 hours to complete this section. I wish… To come down, we go over to Emmons Glacier and descend to Camp Schurman.
I arrive in Seattle and meet Ann at the airport. Ann and I have never met before, only exchanged a couple of emails before the trip, sharing our excitement about the climb ahead. We carpool down to Ashford for our gear check meeting at the IMG Headquarters. There we meet Rick, the third climber and Jeff, our lead guide.
Jeff exudes experience and cool-headiness. His casual self-confidence and cool presence are apparent from the first second we talk to him, and are so strong that I immediately acknowledge to myself that I will have no problem following him up Liberty Ridge. I liked and trusted him from the very beginning.
We review and distribute the group gear. I am in shock: after spending a couple thousand dollars buying the lightest gear possible, my pack still weighs in at 45lbs. I have a little panic attack: damn, it is too heavy, how the hell am I going to do this? I consider dumping some food; maybe leave my puff jacket behind… Jeff advises against it, I will have to just deal with it. I totally loose my self‑confidence, and go my hotel room desponded. The problem is that we have to carry everything over to the top and down the other side, the dreaded “carry over”. Irony of ironies, the pack doesn’t even get any lighter as the trip progresses, as you eat the food and lighten the load, you put it right back in the bag, in the form of shit, the infamous blue bags. And since I have shitphobia; I am bringing extra thick zip locks and latex gloves to handle the whole ordeal.
Day one – Glacier Crossing
We meet Jeff and Mark, the second guide, for breakfast at 6:00am. Mark seems to be a young and enthusiastic climber. He clearly looks up to Jeff for direction and validation. During breakfast I try to eat as much as I can, anticipating long days with a huge calorie deficit, and hoping to have as many bowel movements as possible before we get in “blue bag territory”.
We drive a couple of hours to the White River Range station where we do the necessary check-in; and soon after we start the hike.
We hit the trail at 9:30am and I go into a very introspect mode. I am dealing with my own anxieties about the physical demands of climb. The same anxieties that kept me awake for a week or so before. I am finally here and still completely unsure of my capabilities. The first few hours are difficult, my boots are new and not broken in, I feel blisters coming. My pack is heavy, my shoulders and back are not used to the weight and hurt. The trail however is easy and I push along pretending I am not worried about the climb ahead, pretending to be cool, to be casual about what is to come. I am very aware of my attempt to mask my apprehension.
We reach St. Elmo pass (no fire in sight) at 1:30pm and go down to the Winthrop Glacier. As we rope up to cross it, Jeff casually and rhetorically asks: “You all have been on glaciers before, so you know what to do, right?” Hmmm… I haven’t; but I know the theory, I read about it. Jeff looks at me in disbelief: “I need to talk to George about that”. Unfortunately for me, it is too late for him to kick me out. I can only imagine what is going through his mind.
Jeff turns south and we move way down the glacier losing elevation, to find a less fractured section for the crossing. I hate loosing elevation, if I am going up, I want to stay up. It is long enough the way it is. We turn north again and move over to Curtiss Ridge.
At around 4:00pm, a storm hits us. The usual mountain cocktail of wind and snow, with sleet as topping. We navigate through the storm and find a suitable camp location around 4:50pm. Jeff and Mark quickly prepare the platforms as Ann, Rick and I erect the tent. We get in, the wind is blowing hard and it is cold. We spend hours melting snow and cooking dinner, chatting about past experiences, motivations and, inevitably, about tomorrow. I notice that Ann and Rick are good partners; they are mellow, mindful, considerate. Life in the cluttered tent is made very tolerable because they show patience and understanding of the others necessities. I am pleased it is them that are here with me; and it is odd, since until yesterday they were total strangers.
Jeff announces our departure time for day 2: 4:00am. I tuck in my sleeping bag; take my knock-myself-out drug combination: 2 Tylenol PM, 3 Ibuprofen and 3mg of Melatonin. I try to fall asleep, I am cold and uneasy. By now I am resigned to live with my doubts, I can’t let go of it. Tomorrow is going to be a
challenging day; I have no illusions to perform; I just hope not to become a liability. I think of home, and how much easier it would have been if I had accepted my reality and stayed with my books.
Day two – Up to Thumb Rock
Day two I wake up around 3:30am. At 4:00am Mark sounds the reveille, time to get going. The weather is bit ominous, but it is not too cold. We get up, break camp and start going north, over Curtis Ridge and onto the Carbon Glacier. I rope up at the tail, Ann is in the middle and Jeff leads. Mark and Rick form the other rope team. The glacier is beautiful, white and vast. The crevasses are deep, and blue. It is easy to see how one could get caught in the beauty of the thing and walk too close to the edge. The weather clears up and I finally get the feeling of being where I wanted to be. The going is easy and I am feeling good; enjoying the hike. At 8:45am, we are starting to go up the glacier and crossing a pretty fractured zone when a huge avalanche comes down the Willis Wall, due north to where we stand. It roars like a jet engine and the white plumes shoot down the wall. We are in a safe spot, far enough from the wall. I ask Jeff if there is any danger where we stand:
Jeff: “Only if the whole cap comes down”
Me: “If it does, which direction would you run?” Jeff points to south-east. Since we are roped up I want to make sure we don’t run in opposite directions.
At around 12:00pm we reach the ridge proper and everything changes. We start climbing a mess of loose rock and frozen mud. There is a lot of exposure and rock falls. We are short-roped for most of the climb and I hate the feeling of being so closely bound to the other climbers. I feel that I have no freedom to choose my movements and to make small decisions about my climb. I cannot follow my own pace. The whole day we are climbing with crampons and there is very little ice or snow. I look forward to the patches of frozen mud, the only places where I feel confident of my footing. Jeff explains that when we are short-roping in steep terrain, only small slips can be stopped, if anyone has a full fall, it is unlikely that the team will be able to prevent the deep plunge. Not very reassuring, a few years back, while hiking up Mount Whitney, I face planted a couple of times because my crampons kept catching the cables of my gaiters. Any mishap like this in the ridge, would probably not end well.
As we go up a knife thin ridge, Ann knocks down a small rock slide; a couple of microwaves and old style TV sets happily tumble their way down towards Willis Wall; it is a reminder of the precarious condition of the route. An hour or so later; we hear Mark and Rick above us yell: “rock, rock…”. I look up and see a burst of canon balls coming down the gully straight towards us. We all look up, Jeff immediately takes the initiative, controlling our rope team, cool under fire: “Wait...wait…wait…” We all watch the rocks as they approach, faster and faster. They bounce and jump around; chaotic; until they decide where they want to go. Our brains pick up the clues at the same and right moment, Jeff yells: “left... left... left…” We move in unison, fast and together in this very precarious terrain; the rocks shoot past us exactly where we were. One of them hits Ann in the leg; she gets a bleeding knee and some bad bruises. Fucking A, yes that was close one; and off we go.
The story repeats itself a little later. A grapefruit size rock shoots down, but this time no warning. Jeff ducks it, Ann hides behind Jeff; I hide behind Ann, unapologetic. It whistles past us, this time without touching anyone.
We continue up, flat-footing on frozen mud; slipping on loose rock; bad exposure through out; I feel on the edge all the time, very iffy. This is definitely not the idyllically alpine climb I had in mind.
We reach a rock step, a section of vertical and fractured rock, probably 20ft tall. The guides spend some time looking for the best way up. Jeff tests a rock horn by hitting it with the palm of his hand; he wraps a couple of coils of his rope around it and attacks the step. I am holding my breath; all he has for a belay is the horn. If he falls he will go down 30 feet or so, and hopefully the sharp horn would not cut the rope. His crampons scratch the rock looking for purchase, I imagine sparks coming out. He struggles and struggles and concludes that he cannot do it. He then decides to down climb it. I can’t look anymore, down climbing with crampons, heavy pack, helmet, thick layers of clothing, gloves… I am convinced that he is about to eat it, but he makes it down. Jeff decides to try again without the pack. He attacks, huffs and puffs, and disappears over the top. He then tells Mark to send his pack and he hauls it up. Jeff finds a good spot for a “nut-belay” and tells Ann that it is her turn. Ann fights her way up, it is my turn.
Ok, now it is my turn, a rock step to a rock climber, this is my domain, my thing is rock climbing; I can crimp of these little suckers and pull my ass over that no problem… I start on it, but can’t keep my body close to the wall; the backpack weight pulls me off. I try to raise my foot to a good hold, but keep getting kicked away from the rock. I pull my gloves off and crimp on some tiny edges; my hands immediately go numb because of the cold. Damn, this is hard. I try to place the front points of my left crampon in a small angled crack, but wrong angle, I cannot flex my foot because of the boot, it skids off, I imagine sparks again. I try to backstep, stem with my right foot; but when I turn my head to look at it I can’t see anything because of the pack. I am getting tired; my forearms are starting to burn. I do the unthinkable; I use my knee on the edge where I was trying to place my left foot. The sharp little edges against my knee cap make me cringe in pain. This is so embarrassing, in rock climbing the only allowed use of a knee is the exotic knee bar, on a bad ass overhang for a hands free rest. This is pathetic, a shame, a 20 foot piece of rock has completely trashed me. I crawl my way to the top. I hear Russell Brice: “come on Claudio, you cannot climb this mountain on your hands and knees”. The top is a flat slab covered with ball bearings; awful for a leader. I finally get to Jeff, tired, done. I do not want to be here anymore.
After we are all over the rock step, Ann and I rope up with Mark. We are just below Thumb Rock. We start up a steep snow slope, the first good one since the glacier. Mark turns around, look at us and says: “I need a break, I need to eat, I am feeling loopy”. Loopy? I am in disbelief; it is like if Superman is flying around with Lois Lane and tells her that he is feeling loopy, he needs to land for a snack. Mark, bad ass guide, and Superman, should never get loopy. I ask him if we should wait until we get to a flatter spot. Mark decides to forego his snack, and keeps going. A minute later we finally get to our high camp on the upside of Thumb Rock. It is 3:50pm and we have been climbing for almost 10 hours. It was not a “short 6 hour day”.
I am tired, my legs are wobbly. I am hungry enough to become somewhat apathetic. I have a hard time organizing my actions to accomplish anything useful. I feel lost and overwhelmed; I look at my backpack open with tent and sleeping bag and food and stove spread all over and I don’t know where to start. I need to be shaken out of stupor. And I am, at this very moment an avalanche rips down Willis Wall, “mountain fireworks” in the words of Jeff. I snap out of my paralysis, we are all amazed and stand up to watch it. I get my camera and shoot a video; it is an awesome sight. A white river of snow and debris follow the gullies, oftentimes overflowing them, hugging the wall, just to be ejected over the edge of the cliff. At the base, a cone of gray dirty snow fans away from the wall, the consequence of countless previous avalanches. After the show, we all get moving preparing for the night.
The camp is basically a couple of tent platforms on a 45 degrees slope, beautiful and exposed; with very little room to move around. Blue-bagging will be a challenge here; but we all do our duties. We cook dinner, and I try to eat as much as I can. Little that I knew at the time, I would not have another meal in 30 hours. We settle again for the night, I am glad I am sleeping on the uphill side; Ann is in the middle and Rick just over the edge. His position does nothing to prevent him to quickly fall sleep and soundly snore throughout the short night. Thankfully I am well equipped with drugs and earplugs. Jeff announces start time for 2:00am.
Day three – Not quite so Summit Day
I wake up at 1:30am, and toss and turn until I hear Mark approaching our tent. It is 2:00am, time to get up and get going. I am in a hurry, yesterday was too demanding; I question if I will be capable of a harder day. I want to get down as fast as possible. And the quickest way down, I delude myself, is over the top and down through the Emmons Glacier.
To speed things up, I decide to not eat a hot breakfast; I grab a couple of granola bars and start packing. It takes us a couple of hours to break camp. To the East we see dawn; the horizon is a gradient of purple and orange. To the North we see the lights of Seattle. The weather is excellent and the sky is clear. The forecast is for good weather until the night, when a storm is supposed to hit the mountain.
Just before 4:00am we are going up the first snow slope. We are finally pitching up; the climb is too steep for short-roping. I like the climbing better, much better than yesterday.
Mark and Rick are ahead of us. They seem to stop and we get closer. I see Mark throwing up on the slope, he complains that he fucking hates oatmeal. Jeff packed their breakfast and that’s all they had. Great way to start the longest day of my life.
The going is slower, but I feel much safer. Jeff climbs ahead, stretches the 50m of the rope and builds an anchor, either with snow pickets and ice axes or with ice screws. He then brings Ann and me up. Pitch after pitch we climb into the morning. Throughout the day we will do 17 pitches of climb; and several sections of short-rope; all over snow and ice.
I am amazed with the patience of the guides. They could be running up here. I asked Jeff how long it takes him to climb Liberty Ridge without clients; he tells me that they do car-to-car; and they only rope up to cross the glaciers. For them to be walking at this very measured pace to keep us client in the game is a display of self control. Jeff steps seem to follow a metronome:
At times I am sure his mind is wandering:
“I need to clean the gutters at home” – step
“Can’t forget the diapers for the baby” – step
“Old McDonald has a farm” – step
“Ee i ee i o” – step
At around 12:00pm, after 8 hours of climb, we start moving on ice. I look down and I see the Carbon Glacier, 2000ft bellow us. In the short-rope sections I feel that our lives are hanging on the tips of three pairs of crampons. If anything fails, if anyone takes a flat foot step that is not so flat, if a crampon catches another, Jeff will not be able to stop us… the ice is bullet proof. I have never before put my life in the hands of people that I knew so little and in such exposed conditions. Jeff has been doing this for 20 years; I am sure that if there is a mistake is not going to come from him; but me or Ann? I feel irresponsible. But the decision to go through this was made a long time ago, when I gave IMG my credit card number; and when I didn’t take any action to stop the sequence of events. Up here, it is not the time to put it all into question.
When it gets sketchy, Jeff cuts little steps on the ice with his axe, to improve our footing and odds a bit. It is unnerving, it is relentless, and it goes on and on. We are tired, and the backpacks are heavy. This is the nature of the beast, the alpine compromise: speed is safety; so we trade. The fact that we made out of here is probably proof that the right calls were made.
We keep going and 3 hours later, now 3:00pm, we get to the bottom of the ice cliffs that surround Liberty Cap. I tell Jeff that I am exhausted; I am breathing as hard as I can; I feel that my heart rate is maxed. I keep asking for mini-breaks; the “Old MacDonald has a farm” pace is too much for me now. I hope that Jeff knows a song with a longer refrain; maybe “row, row, row your boat…”? When I see the size of the cliffs I realize that it is going to take a long time to clear it.
There is no way that we can avoid the storm that is coming. I look over my shoulder and there it is. Large clouds are coming up the mountain; we are level with them now. They are well defined, no fuzzy edges; they look like solid, consistent objects. They are beautiful, in the way that black and white pictures are beautiful, with fractal patterns and grey gradients. But this beauty betrays the load they carry in their bellies. They are coming to engulf us. It feels irrevocable; I wish someone would call them back; just go, go to wherever you came from. For us the time for decision making is long gone. What will happen will happen, not a thing can be done; the only question is how bad we are going to get it.
We spend a lot of time looking for an easy way up the cliffs. First we climb a couple of pitches going diagonally to the right; until we reach a shelf where the guides bring us all up. From there we do two pitches of pure traverse to the left, right underneath a big vertical wall. The traverse puts us on a ramp that climbs up slightly to the right, over the wall, and away from the edge of the Cap. It feels like we are finally on the summit ramp. By now the wind is picking up, and there is plenty of snow being blown around, a lot of spindrift. It took us 4 hours to negotiate the cliffs; and at 7:00pm we get to summit of Liberty Cap: 13 hours of non-stop climbing. And we plunge head first into the soup.
When we approach the summit; the storm hit way stronger than any of us expected. The wind builds up quickly; visibility is almost zero. The temperature is in the teens, and with wind chill is way below zero. Rime ice builds on us. From time to time, I can’t even see Jeff, who I know is 10 yards ahead of me. It feels like being in a train station, with an infinitely long white high speed train going 60mph right in front of my nose. Once in a while, through a window in the train, I get a glimpse of Jeff on the other side of the tracks, struggling against the wind. The image is sharp and crisp and ephemeral, it vanishes again in a fraction of a second.
Jeff tells us that we should protect our faces but my balaclava is still in the backpack. I need to take my gloves off and dig for it in the pack. I keep thinking of Russell Brice line in “Beyond the Limit”: “you loose a glove you loose a hand; you loose a glove, you loose a hand”. Jeff kneels next to me holding my gloves and my helmet as I put the balaclava on. It is a very stressful moment; I am very aware of the seriousness of the situation, I don’t have a spare glove. As soon as the balaclava is on, ice immediately starts building on it, around my mouth and nose. I have to keep peeling grape size chunks of ice from my face, from my eyebrows. My eyes are icing up; I feel the exposed flesh on my face being sandblasted. I have to pull clumps of ice from my eyes to open them. The wind sucks the air out of my lungs and I can’t stop hyperventilating, it feels like panic.
In the middle of storm, with the wind roaring around us; Jeff announces “this is Liberty Cap”. So what? Am I supposed to be happy, proud? I just want to get out of here. Jeff walks around like he is looking for something, he squints like is trying to pierce the whiteout and see beyond it; first to one side than another… he is lost. He calls Mark and tells him: “This is not right; we need to get the GPS”. Mark drops his pack and gets the GPS and the map, which has all the waypoints on it. I am watching all this in horror; they are handling this tiny little piece of paper in 60mph winds. If we lose it, how the hell are we going to get out of here?
During this whole time, I am just sitting there and watching. It is a bizarre sensation; I know that the situation is dire; but I am not cold, my feet and hands are fine. I am lucid and self-aware. I have no remorse, no self-pity. I know I am in trouble, but I don’t feel in trouble. My fear and apprehension are very rational and merited.
After fiddling with the GPS for sometime, Jeff comes to me and shouts next to my ear: “The GPS is dead, do you have batteries?” I get to my knees with the pack in front of me. My headlamp is in the top of my pack. I take my gloves off again, open the headlamp and take the batteries out. Jeff holds the GPS to me with the battery compartment open; and I place the batteries in, struggling to see the right orientation. The whole process is deliberate, every move is slow and measured; it feels like we are doing some kind of religious ritual, handling some old sacred relics.
The guides get the GPS going again, and after what seems an eternity, Mark shouts: “I get it, I have a good bead on it”; and with this, he takes off.
At this moment I look back and see Ann sitting down slightly behind me and not able to get up. To my left and somewhat ahead of me I see Rick, struggling to get out a hole he fell into; he is pinned down by the wind. That is the first time that I think we are not going to make it, we are falling apart. I sit down in frustration and realize that tonight is the night I am going to die.
The Austrian climber: You're very good. I have really enjoyed climbing with you.
Dr. Jonathan Hemlock: We'll make it.
The Austrian climber: I don't think so. But we shall continue with style.
With that I decide to get up and keep Mark on my sights, follow him no matter what, I will drag Ann if I have to. Jeff kneels next to Ann and coaxes her up, helping her stand and walk. I am ahead and try to pull her to keep her moving. It is getting late, probably 8 or 9 pm, and in normal conditions the descent to Camp Schurman, on the Emmons Glacier, takes 5 to 6 hours. I go to Jeff, and shout in his ear: “Should we dig a snow cave, should we look for a crevasse?” Jeff replies: “Not yet, not here”. He tells me to lead the rope and follow Mark. Mark goes over a ridge and starts going down the slope on the other side. I try to keep up, but in the maelstrom I stumble and fall. My second ice axe is in my harness and in the fall the pick tears into my pants and cuts my leg; the spike gets stuck in my boot. I try to free it and spend too much time doing so, I loose sight of Mark. I get really pissed. I have to put the tool in my backpack and loose more time; I don’t want to deal with it; so in frustration I toss the axe. Some lucky climber in a clearer day will walk out of Rainier with a brand new Quark.
We start going downhill, and as soon as we break from the plateau, the wind slows down; to a point where it is actually possible to do things, to be functional. This was the right slope at the right time, just enough to give me hope.
I start trying to motivate Ann, “we are getting out of here, tomorrow we will have dinner at Copper Creek and pig out, we are going to make it, we are going to make it”. I get excited, and decide that it is time for a picture. I call Jeff and Ann and tell them that “I want to take a picture”. Jeff looks at me: “you want to what?” I reply, “I want a picture, I need a picture of this, this is important, we are going to remember this”. We get together and I hold the camera out with my right arm in typical self-portrait mode. I press the button and damn, the flash doesn’t fire, shit! All this time my gloves are in my jacket, my hands are getting cold. I fiddle with the buttons to put the flash on; and tell Jeff: “I need another one”. I think he is about to kill me, his face in the picture shows how much he is not liking this. After the picture, we rush to catch up with Mark. We keep moving but it is too late: after an hour or so Jeff turns to us and say: “This is not working; we need to find a place to spend the night”.
When he says that, I have just walked by a rock outcropping. Between the rock and the snow, there is a trench, as it is typical because the spot is sheltered from the wind by the rocks, and the snow accumulation is less than in the open. At the bottom of the trench there is a hole, probably 3ft by 2ft; and dark inside. I yell at Jeff: “there is hole there, there is hole there”. Jeff checks it out and tells me: “Wait here; I will go check it out”. Jeff and Mark get together next to the hole and I hear Mark telling Jeff: “put me on belay and I will go down check it out”. They build an anchor with an ice axe, throw a rope down the hole; Mark rappels down. I am sitting down, not looking at them because of the direction of the wind. Sometime goes by, I don’t remember how long. Before I know it, they call me: “Claudio, it is your turn, set up your belay device and rappel all the way to the bottom”. I put the rappel device on and it is backwards, Mark yells: “it is ok, go”. Nope, I want it right, gloves off, redo it, gloves on, I don’t want to get sloppy. I redo it and rappel, letting myself slide into the hole. I rappel past Rick; he is standing immobile, slightly hunched forward, on shelf a bit to the side, staring at nothing. I keep going down. I pass Ann; she is on a snow ramp, kneeling against the wall, her face inches from the ice; both hands flat against the ice. I ask: “Ann, are you ok”. She looks scared and replies: “I can’t see anything”..
I keep going, all the way to the bottom. Mark later tells me that it was 100ft from the entrance. When I start going down the cave I have visions of Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal spending the night in a bottomless crevasse, and coming out without toes and fingers. I think of two slopped ice walls, a couple of feet apart. And we jammed in there, crampons on one side, our backs on the other, hanging from our harnesses, without blood flow to our legs. Tomorrow we would get out incomplete, if at all. What I find is a huge cave, with the bottom mostly flat, the ice walls reflecting a faint and serene blue, like the inside of those sleep goggles from a Skymall catalogue. The air is filled with sparkles, tiny little ice crystals floating around and shinning back at us, like a thousand Tinker-Bells going about their business. It is peaceful, it is quiet, it is warm; for me it is also salvation. How improbable to find it? How much more improbable would be to have Gollum coming out of the corner?
At the bottom of cave there is a spot flat enough for the small tent and a larger slope that with some chopping will easily accommodate our larger tent. As soon as we are all down, Jeff and Mark start preparing for our stay. They borrow my adze and attack the slope to make it flatter so the tent can be set.
My eyes keep getting worse; my right eye is so painful that I can’t open it. I ask Jeff if he has a first-aid kit, I need to tape the eye shut. Jeff tells me that the kit is on the side of his pack. I dig for it and with a lot of struggle cut a piece of gauze and tape and build myself an eye patch. The pain gets so intense that I almost pass out. I tell Mark: “I can’t see anymore, I need help”. I am hating myself for this, I want to be there with them, proactive, participating in our survival; not been led by the hand. I try to make myself small and get out of the way, feeling fucking useless.
I hear Ann throwing up, dry heaving. I hear that she is cold, shivering. I hear Mark and Jeff trying to warm her up, heating water bottles and helping her change into dry clothes. Mark asks me for my sleeping bag and pad and sets it all up in the tent. He tells me to get in the bag and get warm. I am not really cold, but I am exhausted. I get in and lay down, and I can’t move. It has been 23 hours since we started climbing. I am about to fall asleep; but relentless Mark is back: “You need to eat, give me your food and I will prepare it for you”. I am thinking, “Leave me alone, I want to sleep”. My left eye starts to hurt and I bandage it too.
Mark gives me my food, re-hydrated scrambled eggs. I eat a couple of spoonfuls and put the rest aside. I can’t eat; I am in so much pain that I am nauseated. Tomorrow he is going to yell at me for not eating enough. We are running out of gas, so Jeff places out the pots and canteens to collect the drip coming from the icicles. During the night, it is all we hear, the drips are very soothing; and it is hard to comprehend the disparity between our now peaceful surroundings and the roaring outside. Were we really out there?
Ann is lying next to me, she can’t get warm, and she can’t stop shivering. I ask her if she wants me to get in the bag with her to warm her up. I get in it and after ten minutes she stops shivering and we both fall asleep. Later in the night I wake up too hot, sweating, and tell Ann: I need to get out, I need to go to my bag. I have my neck gaiter over my eyes and my face is sweating now. With the pain I start to feel nauseated again, I start panicking. I take the gaiter out and rub some snow on my face, it cools me and I am able to fall back asleep. Next thing I know it is 8:00am, and the guides are up and about. Again I can’t bring myself to eat breakfast; I nibble on a piece of granola bar. I am fully aware that this is what makes the difference, people that can remain functional and keep taking care of themselves; these are the survivors; and I am failing.
Jeff climbs out of the cave and gets in touch with George at headquarters with the satellite phone. The storm is still going full strength and the forecast is that it will continue for a couple of days. The plan now is for a couple of guides that are halfway up the Emmons Glacier to come up to us. They will wand and GPS the route to mark the descent. There is also another guide team on Camp Muir, on the other side of the mountain, on standby, just in case.
Day four – Rescue
The two guides, Eric and Josh, are coming up through the storm. They were coming up the Emmons Glacier with their group of clients and two other guides. When they got the call, they sent the clients down to camp, turned to face the mountain and climbed into the storm. I wonder how it felt to go in where everyone else was running from. I wonder how it feels to have the confidence to stare down the barrel of the gun and keep moving. Mark would later say that we dodged a bullet on Liberty Ridge; but Eric and Josh first got in front of it.
In the cave we are all anxiously waiting for them. I have no idea how long it would take; so I pack and I wait. I try to get myself ready to go out and face bogeyman again. I put on every layer of clothing that I have; I tape my right eye shut and use my sunglasses to protect my left eye. The glasses keep fogging up and I can barely see anything.
There is intermittent radio exchange between Jeff and Eric. I hear that Eric is having a hard time crossing the bergshrund to get on the Cap; I hear Jeff giving him the GPS coordinates of our cave. Every time they broadcast another IMG guide, Ann, who is at Camp Schurman pitches in: “We will have food for your guys down here; hang in there, you are doing well, be safe, the weather is getting better”. It was very reassuring to know there is all this care and concern about us all over the mountain.
Jeff and Mark get us in motion; they shuttle our backpacks out of the cave. We are soon done and we have to wait. I should use this time and eat and drink; but somehow I am already feeling rescued and start to get lazy and negligent. I have the feeling that I am done with this game, can you please just take me home now?
I put my crampons on by feel; I have to ask Jeff to double check if I put them correctly. If they come off on a steep slope it would be a long way down. We keep our eyes on the cave entrance; a faint blue light comes thru. As the light hits the ice it forms a beautiful gradient from light to deep blue as you look away from the entrance. We are in the dark, and the blue is our boundary.
The rope dangles down from the entrance like a fishing line from a lazy fisherman. We sit down, stare at the bobber, drink beer and wait for a guide to bite.
Around 10:00am I hear Eric’s voice in Jeff’s radio, he is screaming with excitement: “We see the backpacks, we have found you”. I look at the rope and it starts to move: a fish is nibbling at the bait. The rope does this little dance, small moves up and down, up and down. I see someone rappelling down the rope: he is covered in rime ice, but his equipment looks tight, everything is in place. It is Eric, and he yells: “Dude, this cave is awesome”. Josh follows him and soon all the four guides are excitedly exchanging stories, how hard it was to cross the bergshrund, how lucky we were to find the cave, how bad it is out there. We climbers are sitting to the side, staring at this display of excitement. For us, it is a struggle, for them it is just another day in the mountains, almost enjoyable.
The guides decide how we are going to rope up and we start climbing out of the cave. It is the most technical climb that we do in the whole trip, vertical ice styrofoam snow, with two axes; this could actually have been a lot of fun.
As soon as my head pops out, I am back in the washing machine. The wind is as strong as ever; the light is diffuse white, I cannot tell where land separates from sky. I imagine that this is how it feels to be in a glass of milk with someone furiously stirring it; now I know and I am sure one day this analogy will be useful.
We all line up outside, and parade like, get started, one rope at a time, to the right, march. I am now single minded, I know I can walk downhill; I can’t do anything else. But as soon as we start we go uphill: I yell “betrayal, I’ve been cheated…what the fuck? We were supposed to go downhill, down not up, the camp is down there, I don’t want to go the summit, I want to go home, and home is at sea level; way down there…stupid guides, they are trying to go to the summit.” They are not; we have to go up the saddle to wrap around and down the other side.
I am roped up with Josh and Mark. Erik is navigating with his compass and GPS, we all follow. There is absolutely nothing visible, we and the ropes are the only non-white things around. I focus on the rope ahead of me. I try to guess if I am stepping up or down by watching the rope. I have no contrast perception, and can’t see any of the terrain features literally under my nose. Josh at one time seems to stop and point to the ground. He keeps going and I follow. When I get to where he was, I look down trying to see what he was pointing at. Obviously it was a crevasse, and obviously I fall in it. I hear someone yells: “We got one in the hole”. I feel my legs dangling in the space, without touching anything. I am stuck at the mouth of the ogre, looking down the throat of the beast. I imagine that I fell in my Hollow Man and he will soon come out of the ice and pull me all the way down. I am jammed, my chest and my backpack prevent me from falling deeper. I struggle and inch my way out; crawling on my belly and using my ice axe to gain leverage. I lift my head and look up to see Josh attentive, tensioning the rope. The effort is debilitating for my depleted body. As I come out, I am in all four, panting and discouraged. When is this going to be over?
After one hour or so Eric’s GPS dies out. This is GPS number 3 going down. The guides huddle up; I am right next to them. I hear all the discussion and am impressed: they are so confident; the discussion is direct and to the point: guide A: we passed this, guide B: so we need to turn left in 200 ft; guide C: yeah, I saw that… It was bad ass through out. Jeff says: “Ok, good job, well done, than let’s go”.
We get to the bergshrund and Erik says: “it is too steep; this is not the way we came”. Jeff goes look for a way down. We all sit around, I am slightly behind Ann and she is motionless, hunched forward. She has her hands in front of her, like she is trying to form a ball. I know she is dealing with her own demons; I have been completely enclosed, I have forgotten that there are others here also trying to make it down. I wish I had the strength to go to her and put an arm around her.
Jeff finds a way down, they set a rappel and one by one we go down the bergshrund. Mark is the gatekeeper, he stands at the anchor in a platform dug above the cliff. He tells me to go to him and prepare to rappel. He asks me if I know how to tie a Munster Hitch. I don’t think I can hold the rope with my frozen gloves, frozen grip. My hands are fine, but my gloves got wet and froze. I tell Mark this but am not sure if he hears it. I tie the knot and hesitantly lower myself down. It all works; and soon I am down.
I am the last one besides Mark and I wait for him to go down. Mark coils the rope but doesn’t like the way it turns out; so re re-coils it, again and again. All the time, I am just there on the slope looking up and waiting for him to come down. When Mark is done, I rope up with him and Eric.
We soon catch and pass the others. From now on we are going ahead and will only see them in basecamp. Erik is leading because he placed the wands, the wands that are going to guide us down through the crazy maze of crevasses. Watching Erik at work is mesmerizing. It is a total whiteout; he is totally silent and inexpressive, just walking. He walks one way, and all of sudden, without any visible landmarks he just turns in another. It makes me think of a bumper car in an amusement park. I start trying to guess when he is going to turn next. What triggers it? What does he see? Does he really know where he is going? And there, in the middle on the fog, a faint dark line, like someone just scratched the white canvas. It looks out of place; a thin black stalk slowly moving in the wind, like an improbable flower coming through concrete and just teasing the elements: “I can be here”.
Erik walks by the wand without acknowledging it, like it has always been there and was never a question of finding it. For me it is the first sign of the basecamp, my Milk way that will take me home, my bread crumb, my first connection with the getting out of here. I have to touch it, so as I pass by I stretch my frozen hand and with a caress test its flimsiness.
Now with every step down the weather is a little clear, the wind a little less. The terrain is quite easy, just heel plunges on a névé of perfect texture. But the way is long and I am tired. I still have all my layers on, and as the wind dies I get too hot. I have no water, and haven’t had any since we left the cave. I need to stop. Erik keeps pushing, we are almost down. At one point, I just stop and refuse to move, I tell Erik that I need five, I need layers off. Do you have any food? Do you have any water?
Finally, sneaking on us, the sun shines, and the views open up. I think it is all behind me, I am out of here. Erik: “Do you see the camp? We are almost there”; “no I don’t see the camp, I don’t see shit”… After another eternity of stumbles, of rolling my heavy boots and crampons down the hill, I notice a minute assembly of objects arranged in neat little rows. They are at the edge of the glacier, by some rock structure. I realize that’s camp, I realize that I had the wrong perception of the size of the landscape around me. The tents look so small and tucked away, hidden in a little corner, like they don’t want to be perceived, they want to stay out of trouble. It takes us a good hundred stumbles from the moment that I see camp until I finally collapse in it. It is 7:00pm; I am sitting down looking at my boots, my elbows on my knees, my hands holding my head. Jamie comes to me with a bottle of water, sits next to me and put her arm around my shoulders. I look at her, have never seen her before. Who is this angel? She is pretty, the reassuring look of a strong woman. She smiles with her eyes, the sweet smile of kindness: “We were worried about you guys”. Three days of exposure, cold, anxiety, fear, anguish, and it all ends with the sweetest stranger consoling me? Am I dreaming? Could it get any better than that? I break down and start crying. My tears come out like a torrent. I try to hide it, I held it together up to now, a little pride should take me a little further. Jamie helps me into the cook tent and gives me a bowl of noodles, the best in my life. Josh (another Josh) is in the tent and wants to take a look at my eye, he puts drops in it and bandages it. I am been taken care of, I feel warm and accomplished.
Jamie is an IMG client with the group that was going up the Emmons Glacier; Josh is one of the guides with the same group. I feel the eyes of everyone on us; the Liberty Ridge climbers that spent the night on the summit, in the midst of the storm that sent them packing down the mountain. I have had my romantic adventure; I have gotten into one of my books. I have the cynical realization that I just had my own little epic. It may be insignificant in the wide mountaineering world but it shook my own small world. The only remorse now is the self-doubt that afflicted me throughout the climb. How preposterous can one be?
I ask Jeff to borrow his satellite phone and call Kim, my wife. She is still totally unaware of what happened to us. I struggle to tell her that we are fine. She doesn’t understand it, of course you are fine. I tell her that it was not pretty, but we are down and safe; I will tell her everything when I get home. I can’t hold the conversation any longer.
After a while everyone starts turning in for the night. I walk around camp by myself. The light is beautiful; there is quietness and a bizarre lack of movement. It is all so clear, so lit, so still, so easy. I go to our tent and Rick and Ann are already asleep. I keep replaying in my head all the events and have a long tortured night.
Day five – Going home
The next day we are light beings, giddy with excitement, glissading down the glacier, having fun; like kids playing by a backyard swimming pool, the sun is strong and grass leaves floats in the water. We talk a lot, we joke, we are casual about it all. But it doesn’t feel right to me, we have just extricated ourselves from an awful predicament; shouldn’t we show more reverence? It feels like we are betraying the gravity of our yesterday, of our survival and existence.
Twenty four hours after leaving basecamp I land in San Jose, to my wife’s welcome at the airport. I am surprised again by her new short and dark hair; even though she had had it for two weeks now. I am home and realize once again how smooth and warm my dog’s coat is; and how much it makes home so welcoming and cozy. I walk out of this world and this reality disappears, becomes an uncertain memory; a collections of did-it-really-happen moments.
I am sitting in front of my computer; I am starving, ravenous; I am really really sleepy. I am now near-sighted on my right eye; my left eye is not affected. My toes and the tip of my fingers are sore and numb. I have nightmares, for a couple of weeks. This is the balance of our epic. It is surprising how little damage we suffered. I wonder what would have happened if we had not found the cave. On June 18th 2008 three people got hit by a similar storm near Camp Muir. They dug a trench and spent the night in it. The next day one was dead and the other two were rescued with severe frostbite and hypothermia. That could have been us. I imagine that we would have dug a hole and crawled into. It would have taken time; I doubt that the Ann, Rick and I would have been much help. We would have probably stayed to the side while Mark and Jeff prepared a snow wall or a cave. We would have gotten cold and apathetic. What would have happened? Up to this day, every time Ann and I talk about it, I feel my stomach churn; I feel that I took a gamble and was irresponsible. The incredible improbability of finding the cave saved us.
When I was checking out of the hotel in Ashland, Ethel, the owner, is surprised to hear our story; they didn’t get any storm down here:
“She does her own thing, doesn’t she?”