|The next morning we were up at four, cruising the lower portions of the Italian Ridge at six, attacking the icy summit block at eight, snapping pictures on the hanging ladder at ten, standing on the summit at noon. Then, with perfect timing, the storm hit.
It was colder than the storm two days before. Winds that could have knocked us off our feet, bullets of snow, zero visibility. The mountain was instantly sheeted with ice, making it impossible to downclimb. We started to rappel, one anchor down to the next. The first rap off the summit we ran into a three-man Italian team that had also summited. The day before, one of their teammates had turned around, taking their second rope with him. Their one rope, doubled, didn't reach between the rappel anchors, so they were each rapping off the end of the rope and then soloing down to the next anchor—dangerous behavior, given the conditions.
Sometimes your own random good fortune can be another's salvation. Someone had left a climbing rope in the Carrel hut and John and I had taken it with us, just in case we needed an extra. The Italians would have hugged us if we hadn't all been clinging to the side of the mountain.
It took John and me almost five hours to make it down to the Solvay emergency hut at 13,133 feet on the Hornli Ridge. We were soaking wet and shivering. It wasn't a true emergency, but we didn't want it to become one.
"Well, John," I said, plucking the icicles from my eyebrows, "should we stay or should we go?"
"Tomorrow it could be storming even harder."
"Tomorrow the sun could come out."
"Mark, we can make it down tonight."
"If we get off-route it'll be a cold bivy."
In the end, we decided to humbly stay the night, our fourth on a mountain that is supposed to be climbed in one day. The Italians came stumbling in an hour later.
In the morning it was clear and sunny. We descended to the Hornli hut, a comfortingly huge hostel-cum-restaurant, where the Italians bought us beers, and we all sat in awe of the gleaming gothic cathedral of the Alps.
Other teams had been going up the mountain as we were coming down. A speedy Austrian team. A somber, silent German team. An American talking to his wife on a cell phone, maintaining he was doing just fine. (She was saying he was way behind schedule for the little distance he'd ascended and should turn around. She was right.) And a Japanese team. The Japanese were all bunched together except for one guy in silly nylon boots and ill-fitting clothes, climbing clumsily and unroped, apparently trying to stay ahead of his teammates.
Several hours later he died falling off the Matterhorn.