Peak 41 North Face Attempt. Day 2 Part 2. Retreat.
Eventually the time came for us to move. Although sitting drinking in the view was sublime, we needed to start the descent to avoid another night on the face. After anchoring the ropes to a rock buried in the snow, we hopped over the ridge in to the couloir, from the sun to the shade, like two men vaulting over the handrail of a ship. My mind now focused on descent, I was once again back in the physical world of snow and ice. The ropes hung 60m straight down the couloir, yet they hardly entered this huge icy snake. This retreat was going to take some time.
We made steady progress down the ice, a system developed naturally; the ice anchors were built, backed-up and stripped out in a factory like process. Little was said between Rob and I, just occasional phrases, the familiar shouts of ‘Rope free’ and other climbing calls were all that punctured the soft silence of the gully, and we inched our way down the face, like ants on a house wall.
When the angle lessened we decided to pack away the ropes and down-solo to increase speed. One of the things that I enjoy about climbing with Rob is the ease of decision making. We seem to make the same decisions at the same time, meaning conflict is kept to a minimum and much of this decision making goes unspoken. This I think is the sign of a good climbing partnership.
A ledge was stomped, we traded a few words, coiled ropes and then once again started our silent descent. After a few hundred metres, I stopped to take some photographs, and Rob continued down the couloir, reaching a steep ice-bulge. Not wanting to down-solo this steeper section, he reached for his rope and cut a snow bollard anchor. The snow was in general quite poor, and we had been taking care throughout the day.
I reached the bollard just as Rob was weighting the ropes for his 30m abseil. We knew the anchor was mediocre, and Rob eased his weight on to the rope. It held.
Part way down the bulge Rob must have jiggled slightly on the rope and, like a wire through soft cheese, it cut halfway through the bollard in a second. SHIT. I shouted at Rob to get his weight off the rope, and he teetered forward on to the front points of his crampons. He down-climbed the rest of the section.
If the rope had cut through the whole way, the most likely outcome would have been that Rob would have fallen around 700m down the face, although perhaps he would have come to a stop in the snow gully. Either way, I was glad we didn’t have to find out. The strength of a few snow crystals, the weight of Rob’s pack, the friction on the rope, just these little things had, in that split second, added up and altered the course of both Rob and I’s lives forever. Rob smiled and suggested I climb down the ice instead of abseiling. I did.
Had we become complacent? We were around halfway down the face, with only easy ground below us, and yet this slight mishap could have been terminal. I shook my head and reminded myself just how dangerous a game it is that I play.
Endless but uneventful down-climbing brought us to the base of the mountain, and the weather had taken a turn for the worse. Peak 41 reared up above us, shrouded in mist and snow, and the wind picked up. We could no longer see the huge couloir that we had just descended. I pulled the zip of my jacket up tight against my face and turned, pressing on toward base-camp, feeling lucky that we weren’t stuck on that upper ridge.
The slog across the moraine to reach the comfort of our tents was long and painfully slow, yet I was glad to be stumbling over the rocks, and panting my way up the hillside. The short but unforgettable journey on this Himalayan face had taught me a lot. It had taught me about the levels of fitness required for this kind of endeavour, the strength of mind needed for multiple days out on a mountain like this, and of course I had experienced a range of emotions; dread, elation, terror, relief, wonder, connectedness, disappointment, joy, and more, all distilled to within a period of 48 hours. But more than anything else, I think this trip taught me the meaning of being in the moment and it opened my eyes even further to what a wondrous world we live in.
I was exhausted, hungry and cold, but despite these hardships, by the time I reached base-camp I had pieced together a plan. Though this adventure was not yet finished, the next one was already in the offing.
“Rob…” I said. He looked up, and I continued; “I have seen a picture of a cliff on the internet…”