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 am ashamed to report that I successfully summited Huaina Potosí. On top it was snowing so hard I couldn't see 50 feet. And yet I had a perfect view of my own conceit: It was inexcusable to have kept going, and now getting down was going to be mortally dangerous.

Off the summit pyramid I jumped the crevasses with a combination of dread and determination. I used up all the slings setting V-thread rappels to escape down the headwall. I used up all the ice screws and nuts doing desperate self-belays across the minefield of crevasses. Every rappel, every belay, was made off just one anchor. The entire descent, even more than the ascent, was unjustifiably risky.

When I finally stepped off the glacier onto the rock ridge—safe—my legs gave out from under me and I crumpled into the talus.

Surviving by the skin of your teeth is the stuff of legend. These are the war stories we boast of, as if survival were vindication. But it's not. Just because I summited and got down alive doesn't mean I did the right thing. I'd been a fool. I'd made bad decisions since the day I stepped onto the plane. Surviving after a series of stupid moves is nothing more than the Goddess of Good Fortune taking pity on you. (Don't ask her to do it more than once.) It's nothing to be proud of.

When I could walk again I started picking my way down the ridge, stopping a lot, staying on the trail. I was talking out loud to myself. I swore, over and over, I'd never do something like this again. "Are you listening, Mark?" I'd yell, and then I'd clap myself on the side of the head.

I promised myself that when I got back to camp I wouldn't say a word to the Czechs. If they asked I'd say I'd gone out for a hike, a little recon, something like that. I'd tell them I'd changed my mind about a solo climb, that it was too dangerous. I wouldn't turn what I'd done into some kind of guy-alone-on-the-summit-thrusting-arms-in-the-air hero story. I wouldn't.

Petar was standing outside his tent when I trudged into camp.

"Marco! You did it, didn't you!"

I held my tongue but I was already grinning. I wouldn't. I swore I wouldn't.   

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