Peak 41 North Face Attempt. Day 2. A sense of wonder.
Morning came and and with it my feet, numb after being pushed against the tent wall, came back to life. The morning was stunning. Spirits were high, bodies were tired, but the elation of being in such a wondrous place, with such a good friend, energised my legs and made me eager to tackle what lay ahead.
With a smile on my face I set off from the bivvy, well more accurately, I let Rob set off from the bivvy and do what Rob does best – go first.
We moved together, crossing a snow bowl and reaching a further gully leading to a ridge that would hopefully take us to the summit. The snow was poor and Rob wallowed in deep powder, occasionally hammering joke pegs in to the rotten gully walls. We ploughed on.
The steepness of the gully increased just before the crest of the ridge, and this section took trail-breaker Greenwood some time to swim up. I followed, thankful for the track he had made, although as the snow collapsed so much, it wasn’t of much use. We’d left the sun of the bivvy and once again entered the world of Himalayan north face climbing. It was of course cold, and the stress of keeping fingers and toes warm was a constant companion.
After a sustained lung-bursting effort, Rob flopped on to the ridge. It looked bad; he was kicking with his legs, squirming with his body, a technique I can only assume he uses more regularly on gritstone top-outs than Himalayan faces. He thrashed around like a fish on a hook, and eventually, when he had balanced himself seesaw-like atop the crest, head in the sun, feet in the shade, he caught his breath and shouted down to me; “the ridge is a no go”.
The ridge was unclimbable it seemed. We’d climbed ourselves in to a cul de sac.
Whilst Rob’s world was literally collapsing around him, I was losing feeling in my feet, having been stood in deep snow in the shade without moving for around an hour.
“I’ll try and rig something to abseil from” he shouted.
“I’m going to untie from the rope and solo back down” I replied. The 60m of rope between us was clipped at mid-height to a peg pushed in to some terrible shale. I figured that having no one on the end of the rope was less dangerous for Rob than having a partner with frozen feet.
Rob didn’t really answer coherently, although he did acknowledge the plan, but he was busy wrestling with snow and shale, and I quietly untied myself and started to down-climb to the ledge we had cut. I couldn’t help Rob, so I concentrated on my climbing, passing a steep rocky section that was dusted in useless snow, axes scraping blindly, crampons catching, and heart leaping.
Back on the ledge, I sat on my pack, wrapped myself in everything thing I had, and hoped Rob was going to be okay. Time passed and what looked like an abseil anchor seemed to have been built. I was later to find out that the only belay Rob could build was by using a Bulldog as a sort of James Bond style grappling hook over the ridge, which explained his tentative approach to abseiling.
Back at the ledge, we briefly discussed options, but really both of us knew we had been defeated by the mountain and were ready to turn around. Rob, keen as ever, was itching to start the long abolokov journey ahead, and was sorting his gear. I looked around me at the vista; Everest in the distance, with its continuous wind-plume drifting like smoke from a factory chimney. The long, empty valley beneath me. Peaks all around, not a breath of wind on our mountain, and blue sky above. The hugeness of the place engulfed me, and I felt my insignificance.
I pulled out a bag of jelly babies and asked Rob if he would mind if I just sat for half an hour. I told him that this might be the only time I am halfway up an unclimbed Himalayan face with a view of Everest. He looked around, smiled and agreed. I gave him a jelly baby.
A mixture of emotions welled up. All that time, energy and focus and we had ‘failed’. And yet here we were, in this place, two friends, a view that really my words can not do justice to, an experience that I will never forget; a moment in time, that without this ‘failure’, I would never have experienced. Suddenly we weren’t in a rush, and the stress of the summit had been taken away.
I slowly pulled the head off another jelly baby, and gazed out across the valley. I sat quietly, knowing that this moment, right now, this was it. This was my life. Never before had I experienced such a sense of being in the moment. When technical climbing, when you are in the zone, concentrating without thinking, arms and legs moving fluidly and the mind focused but quiet, it’s a special feeling and one that comes all too rarely.
But this was something completely different. A slower sensation, a more contemplative experience. A sense of wonder.
There is a question which every boy has to ask himself sooner or later. It is a very simple and a very searching question. “Shall I make my life, which after all, I can only live once, a matter of a safe job? Or shall I put it boldly to the hazard? Shall I make it a matter of adventure? Shall I give it, as far as I can, the bright colours of romance?” Prose or poetry; the safe job or the spirit of adventure – that is the question, and that is the choice.
- Sir Ernest Barker (Introduction to the book ‘The Spirit of Wonder’)
>>> I wonder if I was hypothermic. Or perhaps it was the lack of oxygen.