In the wee still hours of daybreak on Monday the 18th, Josh Butson and I set out to climb the slopes of 23,390′ Baruntse once again, our second attempt in a week. As the inky darkness lifted we gazed upward at outlines of the jagged Himalayan giants, this time their forboding walls could not claim us. We had just come off 2 days of rest after the single biggest epic of our lives. That is what we do, we’re Himalayan explorers. Climbing, skiing and surviving this range.
Slowly the summit cap of Baruntse began to carve out of the violet morning sky, the sun set it afire, glowing like a fiery hat against the contrast of dawn. The morning was brilliant. The air still. Our lungs were all that seemed to push.
Quickly we arrived at a cache where we had left our skis and technical equipment on the descent during our rescue of our teammate Jon Miller. Jons vomit was still on the ground in front of me where I put on my crampons. This was the only reminder I needed of the strength of these high mountains and the recency of how well we had known it. Three days earlier, we had been lucky to hit bottom on the same ground where we now stood. So why go back up? We knew the limits, Josh and I have much experience alone as a two man team exploring the unknown on big mountains.
At a bathroom break moments earlier,Josh began gagging and heaving. I hadn’t seen it, I hadn’t heard it. He let me know it. We both left advanced basecamp feeling refreshed but altitude has a way of splitting an invisible line of demarcation without warning. Leveling the playing field of acclimitization by robbing fitness and health.
We inched further along the lower morraine until we reached the very toe of the glacier. In the lead, my ski boots and crampons punched awkwardly through crusty snow covering off cambered white granite rocks. After all I’d been through, this terrain felt easy, I was obliged to lead with my cold affected feet from here to the summit and back again if I had to. I love the mountains, they are what I know. The epic rescue of our friend from the days before only made me feel more aware of the mountain, as if I could truly respect it and in that humble state witness more of it safely. Typically the process of climbing allows me to exchange uncertainty for understanding, that is usually a large part of the reward for the investment in time. We stopped alongside a long lumpy feature of snow that resembled a dragon tail and roped up to begin the proper ascent. This feature would give us the access we needed to gain the initial slopes of the East face fork of the Barun glacier and lead us through steep but straightforward snow and ice climbing to the summit a vertical mile above us. While we roped up, Josh began to communicate how he felt again. Used to having good days and bad days myself, I told him not to worry; I was fully hydrated and having a great new day, I could lead as long as it took. I knew better…we function as a team.
A few steep kicks on the side of the beastly feature and we were heading up The sun was beating down on the white snow and complementing the light breeze that was reducted from the high winds now scouring the Southeast Ridge above us. It was what I had hoped for…a sunny bluebird day climbing fun moderate terrain under the East face of Baruntse with one of my best friends in the greatest mountain ranges on earth. Few hazards, relatively safe glacier and the second step to completing our objective of the trip…ahhhhh skiiing.
Then, like a whisper from the mountain, Josh utterred all he needed to say. 95′ feet away,through his dry throat he strained and exhaled: “Sorry” It reverberated through the valley and into my mind as thunderously as a cascading icefall. It had lofted upward through the thin air like a feather.
I turned around,pivoted my left foot, took a coil of rope in my left hand and descended. Like a proud dad I said “Cool Josh,let’s go home” As I approached, he was crumpled and leaning into the slope, fragile and still. The purple 8.4 mm rope slithered by him like a troop of snakes feasting on the changing gravity of the situation, plummetting downward instantly. The moistened frown of dissappointment on his face was something I will never forget. This was a first for him, 2 days, 3 days, 10 days would not be enough recovery for him from what we had spent getting Jon off the mountain. Epic, I thought…truly epic. A climbing epic is something that often ends in tragedy. An oddysey that martyrs a lifetime into an ending and those left behind transcend fond memories of the mountains into misery and mystery. Ahhh who needs that, climbing literature is full of them. Our experiences inspire us through humility and humbleness rather than sour our lives like an abusive addiction.
I’ll admit, yesterday when we came down I had a cup of coffee and then went in the tent and felt sorry for myself. I quietly laid there in my sleeping bag with no view, healthy, supple muscles able to move in the mountains yet now chained to the ground and the last man standing. For a few moments I wanted to quit climbing or brazenly go it alone in one single push to the summit. That’s silly. This was the most amazing expedition I have ever been on.
In the shadowed view of Everest which I summitted at 23, I grew up a bit over here…finally. We came here to do something that is an agent of change in the definition of modern Alpinism and ski mountaineering. Our own unique expression of technical skill and ability expressed in the mountains. Combining minimal equipment, environmental ethics, technical rock and ice climbing and skiing to a mountain route is unique and incorporates every modern facet of alpine diction. This is my third expedition to the Himalaya climbing in this way. In addition this year, we did it on a new route, maintaining the most important element of who we are and why we come to the mountains; explorers who seek remote self contained adventure. We don’t wish to improve on others style, it is solely our intrinsic motivation for newness that guides our experiences.
Environmentally, we left little more of our passage but footsteps, a picket, a locking carabiner and two nylon slings…in 4500′ of technical rock and ice. Never getting out of control, we rescued our friend and preserved a life by reversing completely new terrain than what we had climbed. And all three of us can still sit in a tent and laugh together. That’s an epic with a happy ending.
As choppers buzz outside picking up wounded climbers just making their way down from nearby 27,776′ Makalu, I know we are lucky. The storm that pinned us up high for 4 long days and five scary nights had not been merciful there either. We had nowhere near the resource and safety lines of climbers on that peak and yet we will be making the week long march back to civilization under our own power. The mountains are hard here, I don’t fault the wounded climbers for taking a chopper home.
I believe human will when left alone to combat elements is often better than all the measures of safety and infrastructure you can build on a mountain Sure, we have sufferred and yes our feet and hands sting and are numb or slightly frostbitten, but we came here as an autonomous, accountable and safe unit with no bailout option but each other. Together tomorrow we will leave that way. Healthy, Friends, partners and of course…failures with no summit!
A favorite quote of mine sums up how I feel about failure and the alpine path very well. I read it in an article in Rolling Stone written by Ethan Hawke and covering Kris Kristofferson’s life. The accomplished subject offerred up this quote from one of his inspirations, to paraphrase;
“Those who achieve great success early on in life and don’t go on to achieve greater failures are truly the spiritual middle classers”
Seeing Everest for the first time in six years really made that quote feel real. The path from that summit to this project on Baruntse has been the most spritually rewarding process other than marriage. Like 4 minute miles, learning to fly, double back flips…we are rehearsing something new and getting closer and more skilled each time and no matter what…staying in control and safe, defining our commitment through discipline. We will execute, but we must do so safely and uninjured, that is our mandatory rule…there is no middle ground. We are running with a lot of technical factors when adding separate aspects of high mountains together. If you choose to do so know about high altitude medicine, how to climb, rappel and assess snow. You are taking risks. Alpine climbing and skiing are fun to combine at altitude, doing it on new routes and for the practical purpose of leading to a traverse on a big mountain or to be able to visit any range and have fun in style…well, go for it when ready! We’re going to continue to. Baruntse would have gone, the terrain was safe, only the human condition limited our access. We had everything but the luck. Here, it is still all about the last day.
The sense of accomplishment that comes from dreaming big and taking a controlled fall has been exhilarating for us all. There were no gimmes, no bailouts. If it is this path you truly want, you won’t need them. If you do what you love, the mountains will come.
Thank you to all of the following sponsors and supporters:
Telluride Ski and Golf
Thank you to the following individuals:
Feel free to e-mail with us as we head back out and into the world. It took us 15 days to get here, sounds like 7 out. Glad we are healthy.
Live the dream,
You must be logged in to post a comment.