With a filthy hand I placed a lemon drop onto my wooden tongue. The arid environ of 21,500 on Nepal’s 23,390′ Baruntse had sucked the moisture from me like an alcoholic swills booze, incessantly. Slowly the sweet flavor of the hard candy drop began to coat my dry throat,tickling the back of it, trickling calories to my shrinking stomach. Then the sour citric acid fired the receptors of my gums between my two front teeth, a lasting sensation, soothing and burning. It was day eight of an epic mountain effort stalled by a screaming squall, a storming banshee of stalwart intent. An unending tide of Himalayan happenstance.
On this Wednesday, the wind howled outside our tent, the cold lumps of ice we had chopped 3 days earlier and spread to create our ledge now formed bucket seats where the three of us sat up against a frigid wall. Our platform was surrounded by enormous exposure on three sides-over 2000′ feet. The first night had been the most fearful, high winds carried the storms approach as Josh and I leaned into the tents buckling north wall. At daybreak, like a last shallow breath, I slipped into unconsciousness; the fight to stay upright was arduous and I gave up my stance with one last vision of orange nylon streaming at high speed above me. I didn’t care anymore, we would resume the fight when my body would let me. I was tired.
Our position had been gained quickly. Climbing on the Northeast face of Baruntse, we were on top of a steep and technical rib on the mountain. Our climb to this point had been climbed in one continous upward push in four days and had covered ground that not only we had never seen but had never been climbed by anyone. The climbing was spectacular, on par with the technical difficulties of one of North America’s classic alpine test pieces -the Cassin ridge of Denali-except here we sat, 1500′ higher than North Americas highest summit. A modern three member first ascent party…with skis.
This was an incredible place to be, we could taste the snow streaming from the summit.
The day we climbed into this position had offerred remarkable vantages into the heart of the high Himalaya, steep terrain, high exposure and slowly breaking pockets of vision into relentless mountain weather colliding with massive scale. The sense of being there in person…undeniably insignificant, we were like fleas on the shoulder of an elephant. Only we would care how fun the climbing was, only we would know how difficult it would be to reverse. Our plan was to go up and over and then ski technical but easier ground back to our basecamp on the Barun glacier morraine. But on this wednesday…
For the first time in 3 days we would get out of the tent during a brief clearing. There had been no going to the bathroom, we had no vestibules on the tent, there was barely enough room for the three of us to sleep in fetal position. Comfort had been reduced to melting snow on the stove inside the tent and resting during the day, recovering from the whipping winds sleepless nights. The day before we had began to worry about Jon. Today we would actually get to leave the tent for a few moments. Slowly he readied himself, putting on boots, then crampons, tying himself in and getting a belay as he traversed to a granite ledge 15′ away. It was like watching an infants first steps, his legs held little accuracy in them. Mortified in the tent we gave Jon his privacy while he safely deficated on the ledge. Jon had come down with Acute Mountain Sickness, as we sat still in the tent we knew something was wrong,he coughed, he vomitted and now in plain sight it was evident, he could barely move. Josh and I planned how we would safely get Jon off the mountain when the weather broke. Acute Mountain Sickness, (AMS) is a challenging burden when it strikes. It will not, in this case, cause lasting damage to Jon. The symptoms are like a flu: coughing, nausea and general malaise that leads to loss of motor skills and mental faculties. We had been rationing our 6 days of food and stretching it to 10, but after a day each time we attempted to feed Jon…it came back up, multiple times. We were slowly defeating the team trying to sustain Jon. He has a great and hearty spirit so we did not worry, but we dropped our consumption to less than a quart of water and 600 calories a day and prompted him at every opportunity to eat and drink.. With only worsening results by the third day and the evidence of a serious loss of motor skills, we had to do what we thought was improbable…descend our route with meager protection through a storm.
We were a long and technical process from the ground.
Thursday morning at 4 AM we awoke and began readying for a descent. Water, oatmeal and layer upon layer of clothing for our dehydrated bodies. Looking up, we no longer had to convince ourselves that up was easier…it was, painfully in our hearts doable. Safety for the team was going to be down, we could not consciously risk failing up and endangering Jon to the summit altitude. Down is the first step in any high altitude medicine.
When we had packed our things Jon and I roped up and moved to the ledge. Sitting among feces and urine I pointed out all the beauty that surrounded us to Jon while Josh took down the tent. We looked at Makalu, Lhotse and beautiful white peaks as far as we could see. The Himalaya after a great storm.
An hour later and two hundred feet down I waited for Jon to lower to me…he couldn’t. I didn’t understand why, the rope was long enough and the anchors were safe. Then the conversation with Josh took place. It was at this point that with even a little movement we stirred Jon into a zombie. His right hand had gone numb and the right side of his face. He was somewhere in his body, but incapable of directing himself. We had just started down.
In complete survival mode we had lucked out. The sun was shining, Josh and I systematically used our gear and our experience to downclimb, rappel, pendulum and guide Jon to total safety down a variation to our ascent line. He was dry, he was warm and he was our priority. I come to the mountains with partners like Josh and Jon because I know we can get down anything we get up. Luckily a rescue of this magnitude of a partner of mine has avoided me until now and this is the tale.
By the time we had angled to the climbers left of our route, we had managed an escape route. One that with constant movement might let us go from the initial technical difficulties but had only a ten foot margin of error. We had entered a runout gully for an enormous hanging glacier. If we stayed to it’s right side we would be ok, on the several occassions we had to stray toward it’s middle it was russian roullette. Seconds lasted an eternity and it was only minutes at a time we were exposed. Like a dirty rotten scoundrel in a Thai brothel I kept telling myself ” I am a married man, what the hell am I doing in here?” and I would look up to see a figure moving like a rusty tin man staggerring through my deep footsteps in the passing storms deep fresh snow. We were rescueing our friend, we owed him our best and this was it. By God,I would get this man off this mountain.
As we plunged downslope and out of the gully we were suddenly safer from hazard overhead and now engaged in steep waist deep snow slopes on our traverse to our original camp one. A dark storm was once again spiraling down on us and snatching away our visbility. Gaining some mental aptitude with each step downward Jon was still exhausted and I was trashed from the deep snow. I gazed forward while whispy white mare tails lapped at the fractured granite outcrops we traversed under. I had to give Josh the lead, after all that downclimbing my strength was less than my will. Josh took the lead and in three hours time we were able to wallow across settling slopes to our camp cloaked in twilight. Day one was over.
Rewarming my feet, light and superficial blisters appeared on my second toe Thousands of feet of climbing and downclimbing steep snow and ice had taken their toll,dehydration and a caloric defecit were threatening frostbite We had gotten Jon and ourselves safely here, in the morning we would rappel a dubious 1200′ gully to the glacial morraine where we would begin the final and nontechnical journey to 17,500′ basecamp and recovery. The fear had subsided, Jon was getting better.
As we rappelled down the next morning Jon had his head and his wits back to him. He is simply a fantastic person, bar none, this guy is top notch and entirely not to be judged or blamed for the condition that he was in, altitude does not discrminate. Extremely exhausted he made conversation as we rappelled until we could begin walking on lower angle terrain, then he would lean his weakened body into the slope and rest. The storm’s precipitation levels had been absolutely remarkable, loose rock, ball bearing covered sandy slopes and gaping holes in talus were filled. It was deep and slow, but far more secure. We made progress slow and steadily until we were on uneven but low angle ground.
Then we heard something. Then we heard it again.
Shewong, a member of our cook staff came bounding toward us. We hadn’t seen him in 10 days. With stories circulating of great winds and snow on nearby Makalu our cook staff of Dorje, Gelu and Shewong thought maybe we hadn’t made it. Many people were scared on that mountain which has permanent camps and ropes from top to bottom. The chances that a small team with less resources and all alone could make it seemed improbable to them. They knew what we had in our packs and knew that we would be stretching it. I smiled and chuckled, mostly thrilled to see another human being. Damn, I thought to myself, we had done an interview with CNN the night before and remained in contact with our loved ones through e-mail and here in this very real and vibrant context these men thought we might not be back. The energy and connection of our bond to them had truly crossed a dimension that technology will never.
Once again as soft snow fell upon our bodies Jon threw up, we shouldered our packs and we began the trek back through the now snow filled morraine to basecamp. Even here, at 17,500′ there are several inches of new snow. The storm was epic, our experience of it something I will never forget. The smiles of Gelu, Dorje and Shewong something I will cherish forever.
Josh and I are planning to go back up and climb the East fork of the glacier running up to the Southeast ridge and then ski down as planned. We’ll likely start Monday morning and think it will take us 3 days round trip.
Jon is doing great. His deep cough is gone, he is no longer nauseas and he whipped Josh pretty good in Go Fish. He’s eating everything too. He’ll stay in basecamp while we finish the climb. We’re very proud of him, he would have done the same for either of us.
Live the dream, Ben Clark
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