Confessions of a Solo Climber

A partner drops out, one thing leads to another, and suddenly our hero finds that peer pressure has him fighting for his life

Feb 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
I pinched my watch and the alarm stopped. I dressed by headlamp. I had been dreaming about the climb: Two men were ascending the side of a mountain in a swirling snowstorm, shouting at each other. They were identical twins, but one was young, the other much older.

"If it gets too bad, you can just turn around!" the young man yelled with anger in his voice.

The old man, his face darkly sunburned, stopped, shaking his head. "No, you can't always just turn around," he said.

"But you gotta at least try!" the young climber replied.

"You don't know the route," the old man cautioned.

"So what?" the young man said dismissively. "You never know the route until you do it."

I replayed the debate as I sat packing my small rucksack by rote. Down coat, spare mittens, water bottle, sardines, cashews, jackknife.

"Ask the Czechs if you can climb with them," the old man had advised.

"They're already a team," the youth had objected, kicking in his crampons and stepping up.

I downed a liter of water and a bar of chocolate, and their argument began to fade. It was all academic. I was almost packed. My actions were speaking louder than their words. The decision had already been made. Beware anyone beautiful who winks at you after you've told a self-serving lie—you'll feel obliged to live up to your big mouth.

I had to decide about gear. Rope or no rope. Pro or no pro. Rope and protection go together; it's either all or nothing. I made a pile—harness, 'biners, screws, slings, nuts, cams, rope. Way too heavy. Forget it.

I crawled out of the tent, fastened two ice tools and my crampons to the pack, and started up the talus in the moonlight. I'd gone a hundred yards when I stopped, turned around, and walked back to camp. Second thoughts.

It's never all or nothing. I cut the pile in half. A handful of slings, three ice screws, three nuts, and a 200-foot length of five-millimeter Kevlar rope.

Even with the new snow, I could see a faint trail zigzagging up the ridge. I moved fast, feeling strong, bounding from one boulder to the next. There were glaciers on either side of the ridge, twisted and sharp, like rivers of broken glass. I stayed on the arête, reaching its top by daybreak. The mountain was before me, bathed in pink. It made the walls of snow and ice appear inviting, benign. I popped on my crampons and set off up the glacier.

The sheer angle of the sun was perfect. I could detect the slightest dip in the snow. To the right and left were open crevasses. I traced each avulsion until it squeezed shut, then followed the faint trough to where it intersected my line of ascent. Climbing with one tool in each hand, I made tigerlike leaps every time I thought I was at the edge of a trap. The snow was so stiff and clean my crampons barely left tracks. Everything seemed to be going smoothly. Whenever I looked up I could see my route: across the glacier, S-curves around two icefalls, straight up the headwall, onto the unseen summit.

I was moving around the second icefall when I had the eerie feeling that I was being watched, instinctively looked over my shoulder, and gasped. Clouds. Not just clouds, but a dense cloudbank. The front must have crept up from the Amazon, stealthy and quiet as an assassin. I had been so focused on getting to the summit that I hadn't even noticed.

I quickened my pace, jumping crevasses almost recklessly. The cloudbank unnerved me. In 20 minutes its ominous shadow began to obscure the light I needed to detect the hidden crevasses. The atmosphere of the climb had changed. Roped to a partner it would have been no big deal. Solo, I started to get scared. But I was less than 2,000 feet from the summit—maybe two hours away.

When I got to the headwall there was a gaping bergshrund. This was the place to turn around. I could be back in camp for breakfast with the Czechs. Two big cups of coffee sans the coffee and tell the whole bloody truth at lunch. But I was on autopilot. My ego had taken over the controls.

I walked along the jaw of ice to where it attached to the wall, chose my spot, and leapt, slamming picks and front points into the wall. The ice was ideal—soft as wood. I skittered up the face like a frightened spider, calves and forearms aching. When I gained the ridge, the summit was still almost visible. I could even discern the swooping lines of buried crevasses. I was climbing as fast as I could. I thought only about the summit. Twice I stood on the lower lip of an open-mouthed steep-slope crevasse, leaned out, sank both tools in the upper lip, and cranked over the beckoning blue hole.


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