Yellow knee high rubber boots. What do you think when you see them? I used to think they were cute, forgotten style…until I saw over 200 pairs of them marching on our return trek toward the airport town of Tumlingtar. Funny choice of footwear for carrying a 100lb. load I thought.
So directed to were my thoughts on the descent, constantly sidestepping, sliding and plunging through mud thicker and stickier than brownie batter. Feet were on my mind, losing them meter by meter…gaining them inch by inch And then my mind was on my feet, drying them, clearing clay from their soles and propping them up at the end of the day. On some days Jon, Josh and I would traverse more than 20 miles, others we would only make it in slightly less. What ground took us 15 days to cover on our way in we floated on the way out through mud filled gullies and streaming water in 5 days. These mountains are mysterious, but no longer are the yellow knee high boots What contrast to our experiences up high, what an epic journey through miles of country.
The landscape at 23,390′ Baruntse was sterile, sandy and dry. Brown and White. Merciless cold lived there. The forests and jungle are lush and alive, thriving like a giant oxygen churning organism. To taste this landscape after the deprivation of remoteness at altitude is like sipping water but tasting a milkshake.
Sometime it’s overwhelming too. I think these experiences can certainly always be compartmentalized, but usually they just distill to a couple of personal moments to me. When I think back on this expedition, there will only be two moments which really stand out. The first was on the icy rib on the Northeast face of Baruntse. It was around 3:30 in the afternoon, loose sugary snow spun in violent twirling gusts all along the smooth sculpted spine to my right and I was deep into climbing through it. This felt like scaling just along the inside of a snow and ice covered sharks fin…800′ tall, and with an altitude of over 20,700′ the thin air impacted climbing as if we were drifting against a fast moving current. The sun was falling to the west and I climbed to narrow edge of it and peaked over. I saw what I needed to see.
It was likes watching clouds play with fire on mountain walls so grand even up close a body would be smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. There are no storms like storms in these mountains, this is the last land between us and outer space, that is visually clear at times. Having followed that up with a rescue of my teammate after 4 days pinned in the biggest storm this season, I know not many living people have seen that.
The second moment was more endearing. As we trekked out from basecamp and on the 2nd day reached the area above Kongma, I couldn’t walk. I mean…I COULD NOT WALK. The landscape was suddenly that stunning, instantly I was overcome and frozen by it’s contrast. We had spent nearly three days in thick fog, hiking right into it with visibility so poor in the end it was hard enough just keeping your eyes on the trail. It started with some drizzle, progressed to rain and then finally…a brief clearing just before sunset. From a rocky knob like the Chimney tops in the Smoky Mountains I could see a 360° view. Clouds were layered like cheesecloth stratifying environmetal zones from jungle to craggy snow covered peak. The sun just squeezed through a tiny letter box and illuminated the bushy densely vegetated mountainsides miles right of the trail. And I longed to be there with my wife and our dog. It was a nice moment to be thankful for this wonderful life. It was the first time I had taken my mind off of the mountains after the climb, the one that would continue to steer my sore feet through miles of trail and days of dampness. The monsoon is here, finally I got to see it too. A little deeper every year we go, Josh Butson, Jon Miller and I. This year will total 51 days. 47 before a shower, 15 to basecamp, 4 too high. All of them worth it. With the greatest partners in the world.
But then what?
We’re coming back to finish the climb. Baruntse 2010. This route is incredible and something we’re comitted to working toward and completing. Climbing this route and dropping a ski descent is what we will do, still with safety and in a lightweight environmetally alpine style. I haven’t returned to a mountain in a while, this is the one to come back to…and the time in Nepali history is incredible.
Of course, just as we were marooned on the steep slopes of Baruntse we have been caught here in Kathmandu for a lengthy spell too waiting for a flight And Kathmandu is crazy. Actually, I have to rephrase that, Thamel is crazy. Hotelling it in the hard selling heart of the retail district is like being in Vegas with no car. The revolution that is occuring here is like the new 60’s, shopowners say. Just hold on to your wallet until you walk out the door.
Thin western people with bright red faces and raccoon eyed sunglass tans are on laptops in one restaurant. Out in the streets Everest climbers and other high altitude trekkers greet and congratulate each other, large groups of them. There are the expatriates, the tiger balm and “smoke hashish”salesman at every corner, or every 60 feet, whichever is first…the flute salesman, the beggars. But no robbers. No pickickets and no problems. The locals are nice. The selling can be annoying, but for a city that goes on strike tomorrow to demand more from the government, the safety is incredible. Something I will always appreciate about Nepal. Civility.
As we had dinner last night next to a Nepali percussion, brass and dancing ensemble the true sound of westernization lightly drew our attention away from dinner and then hammered us like an iron fist. It was rock and roll. Really good Rock and Roll from the time when Josh and Jon and I were discovering it. Pearl Jam, Candlebox, Dire Straits, Guns and Roses…and the mother of all encores. We paid the bill and walked upstairs two flights to this bar. Here was a slamming good band covering deep cuts of more contemporary rock and roll in front of an audience of two hundred Nepalis, three brits…and us. Western music but totally local bar. We sat down for an hour, I couldn’t believe how great this show was. They knew Pink Floyd, They knew terrible power ballads…the singer had serious pipes and then as two girls got up and danced on the table the crowd got going and they ended the show with AC DC’s Highway to Hell. Wow, blew us away. Our twenty something pop culture has replicated here.
Time to go home.
Nepal has changed. Climbing, travelling, mountaineering…that’s part of it, but oh this incredible culture. Seeing it yearly is amazing and if nothing else entertaining. Seeing the mountains, even wilder. Join us next year at www.skithehimalayas.com
Live the dream,
If you read the most recent dispatch and wanted to dig a little deeper,CNN’s Melissa Long did just that. The link is below.
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,
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
An epic and long e-mail will be coming soon. We are back in basecamp after 10 days on the mountain. We turned back short of the summit and with an amazing tale. A brief summation during an interview with CNN is below.
We will be resting for a couple of days in basecamp before going back up the mountain and doing the second ascent of the East fork of the East face where it gains the South East ridge and then skiing it,our original descent plan, for it’s first ever ski descent. We are so excited.
Man the NE face was steep and fun,but after being trapped in a storm for a many days well…you’ll read about it in the next dispatch. EPIC.
Live the dream,
This is what a Himalayan dog house looks like! Trapped by weather in this site for what is now our 5th day, a brief lull in the storm cycle permitted us to go outside. This was my first time in 4 days. On the first clear day we will pull out of here and up to the summit.
Jon and Josh arriving to the top of the long technical block led by Ben. A very exposed stance,after three hours of chopping ice, the team made this ledge at 21,500 into camp three.
Just after the rock pitch the team climbed another 800′ of ice on an arete. The climbing was complicated by very limited visibility due to high winds and increasing precipitation. In this photo Jon Miller is taking a healthy dose of spendthrift (loose snow)
Jon Miller belays Josh Butson up the rock section of the rib on the NE facevthe team is climbing. Ben Clark led the firstvacent pitch of fractured and unprotectable granite. It goes at about 5.8X.
Jon Miller belays Josh Butson above the rock climbing section. Ben Clark led the 5.8ish pitch with no protection through fractured and chossy granite