The pressure was growing more and more uncomfortable. We had already spent over a week strategizing and carefully maneuvering our 350 lbs of gear into position. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we waited with a hunger for the chirp of our satellite messenger, signaling the arrival of our daily weather forecast from the outside world. After days of updates that left us with more questions than answers, the time had come to leave the relative comfort of our camp in the forest and move higher into the mountains. We needed to know what was really happening up there.
Little did we suspect the conditions we found. The forest in which we had resided had cast a thin, green veil over our eyes and senses. Unassumingly I laced up my approach shoes for the three hour hike. With only a mist hanging in the air, I opted for a windshell, leaving my waterproof jacket in my pack. It was only 500 meters later, after breeching the front line where the forest and mountain met, that I saw my errors. Snow clung wet and heavy to even the lowest of the peaks. On the ground, precipitation was beginning to accumulate rapidly. The towers, as if swallowed by an ocean, uttered no signs of their total imprisonment.
Two cold, damp days followed. Our tent, pitched just outside the final bivy site, required regular snow clearing in order to avoid total collapse. Our goals, to shuttle loads across the glacier and fix the first few pitches of the route, disappeared as slowly and frustratingly as the hours. By the time the weather finally broke, so had our hopes of climbing the Central Tower.
Our four days of good weather had been reduced to two. Consequently, our goals had been reduced accordingly. After an evening of contemplation followed by preparation, we were fully recovered from our earlier disappointments and committed to our new objective; attempting a new aid line up a smaller, unnamed peak. Rising before the first rays of dawn we packed silently in the crisp darkness.
Once again we had been misled by our senses. Only after nearly completing our preparations did we take notice of the haze of clouds that obscured our objective. With no visibility, nothing of consequence would occur. We returned to the familiar confines of the tent to wait for a break in the cover.
An hour later with clouds lifting, we left with the arrival of dawn. Having underestimated the weight of our packs, the hiking was slow and laborious. Contrarily, the disappointment came quick. As fast and final as a guillotine, we understood the fruitlessness of our plan after cresting the final moraine. The approach, which only then revealed itself completely, involved a long and technical mixed climb just to reach it’s base. With such harsh time constraints, we knew with totality that our climb was over before it began.
The remainder of the day, while beautiful, did little to rid the peaks of snow. Another pair of climbers joined us at the bivy site and we enjoyed the comradery and reassurance of the highly experienced team. With our climbing options dwindled down to a bare minimum, we chose the one that offered the highest chance of reward.
Needing a win, we cast out the next morning under a beautiful sunrise. Our goal was to climb a new, shorter free route on one of peaks that made up the nameless, sawtoothed ridge opposite our camp. As the peak grew closer we found a labyrinth of false ridges, scree gullies, and loose rock. With little to lose and less to go on we started up one of the gullies. Hours later, having found our path blocked by an icy couloir on one side and a cliff of snowy loose blocks other, we began our descent, having yet to climb a single meter. With the the sky a cold grey and flurries beginning to fall, we cautiously made our return to camp.
With the window closed we moved back down the hill. The forecast continued to offer nothing but discouragement. The rains, the winds, the cold managed to find us even in the Eden of the forest. The small red handle that was once barely visible in the mind’s eye grew bigger and bigger as the hopelessness became more final. Eventually we pulled the handle and self-ejected ourselves back into civilization ten days ahead of schedule. While the stereotypical overly-optimistic American in me desires badly to avoid the reality and mask the disappointment, it would be untrue. Of course, the mountains do not concern themselves with our petty needs, and I hope they will remain like that, both merciless and wonderful.