Friday, 12 September 2014

Gauri Sankar....Final Choice

Photo: The Peace Flag Project

That evening John was quiet and monosyllabic  with disappointment. It was awkward to discuss the route tactfully in front of him. We studied photographs showing how the ridge joined the West Face. There would be some difficult climbing, but it was not easy to calculate how much. However, there was not much packing to do. After some disagreement, We decided not to take sleeping bags but to take a stove and pan. We would try to be up and back within a day - if necessary completing the climb in moonlight. Tim and I would leave first, followed after two hours by Pemba and Guy.

As long as we felt our intimate way up the mountain, accidents could be averted. Yet, within, fear built up unashamedly. When controlled, fear can bring strength. But unleashed fear made us cling to the mountain in a tight panic. In some ancient cultures ‘to clutch the mountain’ was a euphemism for ‘to die’. When I reached the big cornice that I had led across two days before, the fixed rope was once again snagged around icicles. Tim had evidently been unable to release it, for he was now moving amid the snow towers higher up, having soloed across the pitch. I tried flicking it around, then pulling it - without success. ‘He could have waited, ’ I thought. ‘We might have sorted something out together; now I’ll have to solo it.’

I made two moves up the ice and stopped. An internal warning bell was ringing urgently in my head. It was as important a statement as had ever been made to me and I knew it had to be obeyed. The sun was stifling me in my down suit, and I felt hot and clumsy. The memory of the cornice was etched too deeply. I was hanging on too hard. I could not control the dread inside me sufficiently to force myself upwards; I could not summon a hard, brittle shell of will to protect me from the mountain and it threatened to overwhelm me. Death was too near for me to resign myself to the risk. It was an absolute necessity that I should survive and return. He had been prepared to solo it, but I was not. To hell with my pride and the waste of time. I yelled up to Tim for him to come down and help. A distant curse, and the figure descended. The older gunfighter had backed out of the final shoot-out.

He said nothing and I did not explain. At the end of the ropes Tim retrieved the piton I had placed the previous day, and climbed over the crest. He slipped around and beneath the cornice on the north side, turning the frozen wave by the same route a surfer would have used on its fluid, rolling counterparts in the Pacific. The rope bit a deep notch through the eaves of the cornice, and I lowered him into the gap. The ridge now rose up in a four-hundred-foot arrowhead of ice androck that leant against the wall beneath the South Summit’s ice cliffs.

Tim started working his way methodically up the lower and steepest section. His crampons and picks splintered the friable ice, and chunks clattered down into, the abyss, leaving thousands of smaller particles suspended around his rope through the air.  Pemba joined me at the gap. “Best to take cornices on the left side, like chortens, for good luck,” I said. He grinned. He was impressed with the ridge and the distance from the camp. It was the most difficult climb he had ever done, he said. Then he pointed at the South Summit. Five eagles were circling around it, their wings golden brown in the sunshine. I tried to take a picture, but the film in the camera was finished. I fumbled to insert another. But the eagles were gone.

Guy slid into the gap. We all looked up the dangling rope at the soles of Tim’s cramponed boots, a hundred feet above our heads. Tim was fixing a belay.“You could count the number of pitches with runners on this route on the fingers of one hand,” I said. “Will you follow him Guy?”
We followed Tim up the rope. Pemba was ever eager to gain height and he hung close on my heels, unnerving me, as if he were trying to read over my shoulder. The blade of the Arrowhead leant back to fifty-five-degree snow that dripped in great icicles over a thirty-foot overhang below our feet. This rock overhang blocked our view downwards of the main South Face of the South Summit. There was nothing between us and the glacier five thousand feet below. For a while our talk was bold.

“Not long to top, Sir,’ what do you think?” said Pemba. “There’s no way I’m going to spend the night on the plateau,” said Tim. After three unprotected pitches, Tim was tired and Guy took over the lead. There were no more concealed gaps, and for the first time the way was clear. A hundred-and-fifty-foot knife-edge of snow stopped abruptly in the rock and ice wall of the South Summit Plateau. The western flying buttress of Gauri Sankar sank into the mountain without trace. “I’m not stopping here,” shouted Guy when he reached the meeting point. “I’ve put an ice screw in but it’s no good. Can you tie another rope on?”

A narrow diagonal ramp of rock thinly coated in ice leant backabove him at sixty five degrees. As soon as he stepped leftwards off the ridge, Guy was balanced above the West Face, the top five hundred feet of which cut away in an overhanging wall beneath him. Guy’s long body stalked sideways across the wall with the patient stealth of a hunting spider. He devised a cunning protection bythreading thin nylon slings through linked bubbles in the ice. No one uttered the thought that he should hurry, for we all knew it was a long and difficult lead. Talk of the summit died for the day was ending. We had only tine rope left. I tried to memorise the ground above him, as he moved up a groove and attached himself and the rope to a rock spike.

High on the left was a gap in the sérac wall. Two huge, grotesque horns of ice signposted a gateway to the plateau. I tied off the rope to the ice threads as I followed him. If one of them should break, I would swing, perhaps irretrievably, like a pendulum into the darkening abyss. The thought obstructed a job to be done, and I chased it from my mind. I was heady with altitude and the exposure, and the risk was not painful. The irregularities of the earth below were lost beneath a gently undulating swell of fluffy grey-blue clouds. The last rays of sun picked out the thin white line of rope looping above the last crest of the ridge and the little red figure of Tim, clinging to the ice.

I hid my emotion behind the detached eye of my camera. Firelight glowed across rock and ice, and then faded. Soon the cold would arrive. “Looks like it’s my turn,” I said to Guy. He nodded, smiling. The effort was to be shared. I kicked my crampons into the frozen snow, climbing as quickly as possible in the twilight. I was soon panting in the thin air. Ribs of snow concealed dead ground; the ice horns were farther away than I had thought. Night was rushing in, filling me with the fresh energy and balance of urgency. The front points of my crampons skittered. I had reached the ice of the sérac wall; it was brittle and, as I turned in an ice screw, large dinner-plates flaked off. Eventually one sank in and I tied off the rope for the others to follow.

Like a blind man learning Braille, I felt my way across the ice, feeling the surface for a more forgiving texture. I smashed with my ice picks and ice tinkled away down the slope and into the darkness. It took three or four blows to clear the debris and implant the serrated edges enough for confidence. In the blackness gravity lost meaning, and angles were indecipherable. There were no guidelines for balance. Two ice-screw running belays helped me relax. I squeezed around a bulge of ice and saw the outline of the col between the two horns against the night sky. “It’s not far now!” I shouted.

Four on one rope move slowly, and it was a long, cold wait, hanging from an ice screw in the darkness. When Guy arrived he belayed Pemba. We imagined the possibility of the sérac wall toppling over and down the South Face and made facetious comments. “It would be a long ride, ” said Guy. “Might make our descent easier if it falls over whilst we’re above it, ” I said. I took advantage of the security of the anchor and extricated my head torch from my rucksack. The light flooded the ice around us, but beyond it cut a feeble stroke until it was lost in the night. As soon as some slack rope became available, I raced eighty feet to the col, scrambling over the lip on my knees.

“Hey, lads. I’m there!”

Peter Boardman: Sacred Summits.