Peak 41 North Face Attempt. Day 1. Scared.
I lay awake wrapped in two sleeping bags, waiting for my 3:45am alarm, hoping it would never come. At around 3:30 I heard movement from the other side of the base camp, and I knew Rob was up and packing his gear, well before his alarm had gone off.
I crept my fingers out of the tent, pulling the frozen zip just enough for one eye to glance out in to the night. It was cold and still. I was hoping for a storm, a snowfall, an excuse, but there was nothing but a huge Himalayan face eerily lit by the moonlight. I ignored the face and I ignored my half-packed rucksack and I went back to being terrified. Then, like a bomb in a school, the alarm went off.
Breakfast of tea and porridge passed quickly, and I passed my porridge to Rob, a man who can eat in the face of adversity. I was in a state of near psychosis, but I hoped Rob wouldn’t notice. I found out later that he had.
Back at the tent, my headtorch died, which was odd, as the batteries were brand new. Another omen. I forced on my frozen boots, at the last second opting to wear a slightly thicker pair of liner socks than normal. The boots felt too tight. Argh. Rob was waiting, hopping from one foot to another in the -10°C gloom. First the torch, now the boots. I was flustered, angry and not thinking straight. Not good. Not good.
Rob waited patiently as his ridiculous climbing partner wasted more valuable time stripping off boots and socks. And then, no more excuses, we were off.
I was behind by some margin as we hit the snow-dusted approach slopes, making tedious progress over loose rock and moraine. The distant head-light bobbed along, almost gayly (was he actually singing to himself?), the gap between us too large for conversation, not that I had any. My nose ran, my face froze and I concentrated on not turning an ankle in the collapsing boulder field.
We reached the huge snow couloir at the foot of the north face of Peak 41, took our axes and began to climb.
With each kick, with each swing of the axe, my mind became absorbed and quiet. The fear, so strong just moments before, dropped away like the ground beneath me. I was just climbing, nothing more, nothing less. We climbed on as day quietly broke around us, shadows dancing and playing on the deep walls of the gully. The hugeness of the face became apparent as features that were hidden by darkness showed their true size.
We were concentrating hard. The snow was dangerous; endless windslab over bottomless sugar-snow. Boards of slab the size of kitchen tables broke away and skidded down to oblivion. We kept to the side of the gully and pretended everything was ok. Occasional ice bulges guarded progress, not technical as such, perhaps grade 3, but enough to give stopping points, rests, a mental break from the continuous avalanche slopes.
The thin ice gully we had hoped to access was tantalisingly close, but was guarded by an 80m ice smear, just 2 inches thick. It was hard and steep, but climbable, it teased us. A fall from this ice smear would be fatal, it would take no gear for at least 50 metres. We decided that this was not the place for deadly gambles, but the mountain gave us another option, a steep ice and snow couloir that was hidden from view until the last second. The couloir skirted left-wards and joined the ridge we were aiming for. We smiled and ploughed on.
The terrain steepened and for the first time we roped up. A sheet of good ice was covered in 8 inches of rime, which made for slow but safe progress, as ice screws could be dug out whenever nerve began to waver. The top of the icesheet steepened even more, and pushed us rightwards against the rockwall. This was our first experience of the rock on Peak 41 and it wasn’t good. Frost shattered shale that would take no weight, no gear, and no prisoners. Finally we popped out on to the ridge, tired, surprised at how little progress we seemed to have made, but happy with a safe bivvy spot, that would get morning sun.
“You call that flat Greenwood?” I shouted over as Rob was trying to cut a ledge.
He looked up briefly, almost bent double with exertion, breathing heavily.
“You’ll never make a plasterer.” I said.
He gave me the fingers, smiled, and sat down, tired.
We watched nightfall over Everest and settled in to our tiny bivvy tent, waiting for the sunrise.