Posted on: March 1, 2006
Barry Blanchard in the Sea of Tranquility Bar, Tlachichuca, Mexico, 1991. [Photo] Barry Blanchard
"Why do you call each other 'chug'?" asked the enchanting Italian makeup artist. It was 1992 and Perry Beckham and I were rigging on the film Cliffhanger in the Italian Dolomites.
"It's Canadian slang for half-breed," I said. "You know, half Indian, half white."
"You are half Indian?" she asked. Excitement tinkled in her voice.
"Only the good half," I said.
"Did you experience any Indian rituals growing up?" The pupils of her deep brown eyes flashed wider.
"Domestic violence and alcoholism," snorted Perry. I joined in his laughter: we both knew those rituals well. Judging by the deflated look in her beautiful face, she did not.
I grew up in poverty hard against the railway tracks in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, in the 1960s, the eldest of five half-breed kids. As it did for a lot of the guys I ran with, crime seemed a more viable career option for me than medicine or law. I now see that futurelessness as liberating: juvenile delinquency meant no expectations. With it came a freedom to dream. I fantasized about becoming something absolutely exotic—a mountain climber. The first hints of a vocation came through words: when I was ten years old, riding the Greyhound by myself after a visit to my grandmother, a woman read aloud to me from The White Spider.
Thank God for climbing writing: I'd probably be illiterate without it. I went on to read all the mountaineering books in my high-school library, and the heroism of alpinism—particularly the words of Harrer, Bonatti, Terray and Messner—resonated with something inside me. The basement rafters of our house served as the venue for my first aid climbs. I learned to rappel from our second-story window, my brother adding his weight to the anchor, my bed.
During my last year in high school, my buddy Phil attended a basic rock course, and the next weekend he took me out climbing. For the first time the coarse gray limestone of the Rockies passed through my hands. Phil and I soon dreamed of doing a route on the great stone, where the big guns like Brian Greenwood and Urs Kallen and John Lauchlin climbed: the south face of Mt. Yamnuska.
Mt. Yamnuska always looked like a castle to me. Coppered in the early morning light, it seems to present the whole earth's invitation to human challenge. Phil came out a couple of times, but Ron Humble, a year older than I and far more disciplined, became my first dedicated climbing partner. My half of our partnership was to lead the hard stuff; Ron's was to make sure we got there in the first place. Witness the morning he tapped on the door at 6 a.m. and, receiving no answer, came up the stairs, past my mother's room, past my brothers', past my sisters', to throw open my door and shake me awake in my bed. "Blanchard, you're drunk!" he shouted. And indeed I was, having staggered in from a party an hour earlier.
He grabbed my pack and harassed me into dressing, then manhandled me down the stairs and into his car. Two hours of driving and approaching saw me sober at the base of the Redshirt Route on Mt. Yamnuska. I remember traversing out on the last pitch, past the bit made famous by the black-and-white guidebook photo of Hans Gmoser, to gain what the book described as an "outside corner (exposed)." Eight hundred feet of air hauled on my Levis-bound ass while the lugs of my Vasque Ascenders quaked on small edges.
I lost it there, screamed, "All right, guys! Where are all the fucking fixed pitons!"
The rope tensed up, Ron sharing in my concern. "Take it easy man," he said from the belay. "You can't fall there." Breathing helped, as always. I found the handhold and the hidden piton, and Ron and I soon pulled over the top to finish the greatest climb of our young lives. We'd cracked the 5.6 barrier at last.
"Chamonix Mt. Blanc! Chamonix Mt. Blanc!" the conductor's baritone jarred the walls of the train. It was early June 1980 when I stepped onto the wet black pavement. I was twenty-one. The rain had just stopped and small arcs of mist steamed up from the road. A window opened through the clouds; the black spires of the aiguilles pierced the sky. I felt like a mouse staring up at the ramparts of the Potala.
Kevin Doyle and I had quit our jobs and come to the Alps intent on climbing until our money ran out. We camped illegally under 100-foot evergreens on the edge of Chamonix; I suspect that the French left us alone because of our proximity to the cemetery. When it rained, we would traverse the stone foundation of the railway bridge until our fingers failed, then squish off to the Brasserie Nationale to nurse "une grand biere" and talk trash with the Brits.
When the weather was good, we climbed as much as our bodies would allow. The golden granite of Bonatti's Pillar passed through my hands, and the blue, blue ice on the north side of the Aiguille Verte beneath my crampons. We climbed routes that had felt the passage of Gabriele Boccalatte and Gaston Rebuffat. As I climbed, and read, I gradually began to understand the culture of alpinism. Each time I went into the mountains, I felt as though I were pushing at the door of a dangerous, radiant cathedral.
By the end of August, Kev and I had tallied eleven alpine climbs between us and talked ourselves into attempting one of the top ten routes in Rebuffat's grail, The Mont Blanc Massif: The 100 Finest Routes. We'd settled on the ninety-ninth route, the second-most difficult, hard enough to be considered a grande course alpine climb by the French: the North Face of Les Droites.
Intimidation and fear piled up on me like spindrift. I didn't sleep much, spending a lot of time instead wondering whom I was kidding. I was a city boy from Southern Alberta who climbed in cotton painter's pants, two wool sweaters and a blue nylon shell crunched into its kangaroo pocket and clipped to my belt. Three years ago I knew more about steer riding than about climbing. Les Droites overwhelmed me; I couldn't break it down into pieces that fit in my mind. Kev and I fled to the south of France to climb rock and get our heads together.
John Lauchlan, my hometown hero, cracked the riddle for me. I ran into him in the Alpenrose Bar one night. John was five years older than I, and the first native Calgarian to have pushed his alpinism to a world-class level. When I confessed that Kev and I were thinking about the North Face of Les Droites, John locked on to me with his intense blue eyes.
"Do it. It's perfect for you guys."
"Oh, man, I don't know if we're up to it yet."
"No. No way. You guys can do it. My partner and I did the Waterfall Route on it in July. It's right for you." His gaze dropped to his hands, and he swept them up as if they were surfing a wave. "The lower face is just like doing the North Face of Athabasca, and you guys have done that. Then you do Takakkaw Falls"—his hands mimed swinging tools—"then you top it off with Cascade Falls." He opened his palms into a so what? gesture. "It's just three pieces of Canada on loan to France!"
When we returned to Cham in early September, the route unfolded as John had said it would: ropelengths of alpine ice, cruxes of waterfall ice, immaculate granite. His body trembling, Kevin fought through the hardest part, a transparent WI5 curtain, before finding a piton behind the fragile gray ice.
One ropelength from the top, I took an ice chunk in the face. The crunch of breaking bone accompanied the splatter of blood across my nylon shell. I screamed and swore and sheltered my face in the fold of my arm. Once I figured out that just my nose was broken, I worried about being scarred ugly. "Oh, man, that doesn't look so good, Blanch," was all the condolence I got out of Kev.
Sixteen hours after crossing the 'schrund we topped out. My arms hung at my sides as if I'd just bench-pressed twice my bodyweight a hundred times. By midnight we were bedding down in the old Couvercle Hut.
The next day we tramped into our illegal campsite. My nose was swollen and bandaged, but otherwise fine. I sat for a long time looking into the grass and up to the trees and at the backs of my hands. Kevin and I made a pact to climb in Yosemite the next year.
1981: The Nose and the Salathe, white cotton pants, half-gallon chalk bags, red bandanas. I bought my first Friends and danced to the Clash by the full moon in a meadow with thirty others of my tribe. Back in the Rockies, Kevin and I did the Grand Central Couloir on Mt. Kitchener in a twenty-four-hour push, then traveled north and climbed the Cassin Ridge on Denali in six hard days of storm.
On our return to Calgary, in the words of the old cowhands, "When I hit the streets of Cowtown I was bust." I got myself hired on as a rock-climbing and mountaineering instructor with the Yamnuska Mountain School. The job did little to resolve my poverty: I made fifty bucks Canadian a day and lived in a closet that used to hold cleaning products. But more importantly, my door opened onto the magnificent gray wall of the Rockies. I now lived in the mountains.
"It will look better in the morning, Blanch," David Cheesmond observed from his end of the snow cave. It was 1983, and my first time climbing with the "Big Cheese." He and I and Tim "TP" Friesen were wormed into a tunnel that David had excavated in a van-sized snow mushroom halfway up the north face of Mt. Andromeda. For two and a half hours I had quivered my way up seventy feet of the Andromeda Strain's unsolved crux. My mind felt like burned toast. David's encouragement and hot soup helped.
The climbing did feel better the next day, and we topped out in bright sunshine. All around were beautiful, beautiful mountains. I felt a wave rising inside me, one that would crest four months later on the North Face of Mt. Alberta when Gregg Cronn and I completed the third ascent of George Lowe and Jock Glidden's incredible route. Like George, I took the lead up most of the sheer black headwall.
The crux of the Strain and the Alberta headwall demanded everything that I had learned during my 700 days' climbing. In those intense moments when I—the half-breed ne'er-do-well from the tough part of Calgary—balanced my feet on the razor's edge, I danced.
I tried to connect with her in Mexico City, but missed; she'd already taken off for the beaches.* I was guiding the Mexican volcanoes for the second time and she had been studying Spanish for the last two months. We were taking a break from being girlfriend/boyfriend, a relationship that we'd circled around since high school. It had become astonishingly clear that I loved her. A year later, February 1985, we married and moved into a Canmore trailer park.
The north flank of Rakaposhi is truly gargantuan: in the seven and a half miles from the Hunza River to the 25,500-foot summit lies 19,500 feet of relief. The north ridge looks like the leading edge of a triangular sail when the wind bellies out the cloth.
For forty days through June and July of 1984, David Cheesmond, Kevin Doyle, Gregg Cronn, TP Friesen, Steve Langley and I worked our way up the 12,000-foot ridge in 2,000-foot capsule-style chunks. Two weeks of storm stuffed our summit attempt at 24,800 feet, and we retreated down to the Hunza River, where we prepared to leave. I had failed on my first trip to the Karakoram.
A week later David and I huddled around an outcrop at 25,300 feet while the wind hauled angry black clouds though the sky. Five days of alpine-style climbing had brought us there, and as David and I waited for Kevin to climb up, we agreed that the weather had now defeated us again.
Kevin pleaded to continue. He was sick with giardia, and electrical jolts slapped us to our knees every time we rose higher than the ridgeline, but none of that meant diddley squat against Kevin's will. Ninety minutes later we were cowering and giggling five feet below the buzzing summit.
Two days later we crumpled into our base camp. I'd lost thirty pounds, and after descending 11,000 feet the last day, we were all depleted. Physically I felt as though I should be in an intensive care unit, yet when I looked at the broken slate below my feet, I felt no separation. I understood the mountain; I was at home there. Another of the old cowhands' words came to me: in mountaineering I had found my "calling."
July 30, 1985: the Big Cheese and I crossed onto the north face of North Twin. It was like landing on the beach at Dieppe in 1942: head-sized rock missiles exploded in the snow, and we sprinted between steep bands like infantrymen diving into trenches. Gaining the vertical ground of our unclimbed pillar was a massive relief: the rockfall roared down far out from the face.
That night David engineered a catchment for the dispersed drips of water using a plastic bag and a Dairy Queen straw. "Look, free water, man!" he said an hour later, holding up the first liter.
The next day—and I can still hear the snap! of the tendon in my wedding-ring finger—the foothold I had been standing on broke. All of my weight jerked onto my hands, popping the tendon and pitching me off for a ten-footer. Worse yet was watching that softball-sized hold twist off and nail David in the thigh fifty feet below.
The bloated finger put me out of most of the leading. David continued with genius, opening thousands of feet of black limestone and finding, on our third night, a cave just big enough for two, with ice on the floor to melt for water and a portal looking out onto overhanging stone. Outside, lightning discharged, thunderclaps exploded, and hail slashed sideways from the dark. Two days later David pulled the hardest free moves of the route to gain the summit slopes. A lightness suffused my life for the next month: Really, how important could anything else be?
"This is where it's at," George Lowe said to me from his side of the snow cave. Carl Tobin lay between us. It was February 1984 and we'd been lying there, halfway up the northeast face of Mt. Chephren, for twenty-eight hours, waiting out the storm and the avalanches on our hoped-for new route. George would have kept waiting were it not for the impending meeting of the Everest trip I was slated to join. I should have listened to George.
Our thirteen-member team went to Tibet in the spring of 1986. I worked my ass off on the West Ridge to help put Dwayne Congdon and Sharon Wood on top, then got screwed out of my own summit attempt because of ... well, politics; there may be no way around them on a heavy, corporate-sponsored, nationalistic siege. I wept about it then and laugh about it now. Hell, I'm grateful for being told to come down; that moment defined my climbing. Never ever again would I be part of a big team.
Nine months later, in February 1987, Ward Robinson, Peter Arbic and I succeeded on Mt. Cephren where Carl, George and I had backed off. It was my fifth attempt on what we would name The Wild Thing. On the summit, I lay looking at the stars. I had dedicated fifteen days of my life to that route, and I knew now that I was a competent alpinist. I'd created something.
The honey-colored granite of Taulliraju's east pillar rose above me. I could see the line: a blue column of ice led like the slender stem of a wine glass to the stilted rime summit. The mountain was silhouetted against a cloudless Peruvian sky—but I could not will myself to make the next move. An oppressive dread had settled over me.
I rapped to my partner, James Blench.
"I don't feel good about this," he said. "I think we should get out of here."
Back in base camp we learned that three of our friends had been hit by a serac on Kitiraju and that Rob Rohn, the worst injured, lay on the mountain with a broken back and fractured leg. It took a dozen of us five days to stretcher Rob over a col and down to a helicopter.
As I walked out of the Quebrada Santa Cruz afterward, I heard that my dear friend, David Cheesmond, and his climbing partner, Catherine Freer, had been killed by a collapsing cornice while attempting Mt. Logan's Hummingbird Ridge. Two other alpine brothers, Dan Guthrie and Ian Bolt, had been lost in an avalanche on Foraker.
Alpinists have to come to terms with death early; too many of us die violently, and too many of us die young. I didn't climb for much of my twenty-eighth year. Instead I spent a lot of time contemplating what I got out of alpinism against what it cost.
David Cheesmond logged thousands of days climbing, yet never climbed enough. Alex Lowe used to say that David was "gettin' after it"—this at a time when Alex, because of career and family, wasn't. Both men died. Not a week goes by that I don't think about them, nor a season that I don't feel them in the mountains.
I have been intense about climbing, yet never as trenchant as David or Alex. I just didn't do it as much. I always needed breaks from it; they "got after it," as often as their busy lives would allow. I believe their spirits knew they weren't going to have as much time as the rest of us.
At one point I was stalled, sitting at my desk, trying to write about David. All the external noise and light waned until there was only me and the page and the pen... and then there was David.
His words sang in my head as they had when our days seemed endless and we'd run out of food. It was his favorite song: Jackson Browne's "Running on Empty," belting out of the radio that I'd forgotten I'd turned on. I laughed out loud, shouted David's name, then sat down and wrote him a letter.
When I was done, I knew I still wanted to climb, more than anything in this world.
1988: the hot, dry winter sun of Mexico, and a new waterfall ice route on the west face of Orizaba. Back in Canada a month later, I climbed Polar Circus alone. In early March, Ward Robinson and I managed the north face of Edith Cavell. Six days afterward I watched Ward fall through space and snap onto the rope, all clanking metal and thuds of flesh.
We were on the second day of a new route on Howse Peak's north face; Ward had just fallen thirty feet over a roof at dusk. He shook off the fall, went back up and sent the A3 crux. We topped out two days later. Two months after that we traveled to Pakistan.
Kevin Doyle and Mark Twight were there with us to try Nanga Parbat's Rupal Face. The Rupal Face, 15,000 feet high, is the largest escarpment on earth—think El Cap stacked on top of itself five times. Mark, Ward, Kevin and I wanted to climb it alpine style.
Mark (spelling it "Marc," French-like, then, because he was living in Chamonix) was twenty-seven, Kevin and I were twenty-nine, and Ward was thirty-one. To this day I can't imagine being there with a stronger team. At the time alpinism had reached the core of our lives; we believed in it unconditionally. The four of us hadn't accepted the cultures we'd been born into; we'd rebelled against them by seeing how far we could descend into the void. The mountains provided a way back. We were recreating ourselves as alpinists. With any luck we wouldn't die in the process.
On our glory shot we climbed from 14,000 to 19,000 feet in one day, all but 700 feet of it ropeless. The next day we climbed to 21,500 feet, then to 22,500 the next. Early on the fourth day we climbed into the Merkyl Gully. In our craziest dreams we never foresaw several body lengths of vertical, brown waterice at 25,200 feet. Climbing it scorched our lungs. One ropelength higher an electrical storm smacked us, lightning exploded and its spontaneous thunderclaps shook us. Blasted by snow, we lost the option of going up and began the fight for survival down.
I rapped the vertical pitch first, pounded in a Snarg, then girth-hitched a 9/16-inch piece of bar-tacked Supertape through the eye. All four of us were clipped into it when the first avalanche bowled our feet out from beneath us, snapping us tight to the sling. For the next twenty-seven minutes avalanches rolled over us. When they finally subsided, we shook uncontrollably from cold. Over the next six hours we dodged more of them until we escaped the Merkyl Gully.
In the cold gray light of the new day, we realized that Kevin and I had miscommunicated. We had dropped our ropes in the maelstrom. I thrashed desperately at the snow, trying to find them, gutted and sick with despair. Then I screamed and swore at the top of my lungs.
"Man, you Canadians are like caged gorillas," Mark said.
We agreed that we would down climb through the storm until we got to the old waterski rope that we'd seen fixed a thousand feet below. When we reached it, Ward cut into a duffel bag anchored to the wall. It contained thirty pitons, fifteen screws, carabiners, food and two brand-new ropes. They were even the same brand as our sponsorship!
In 1985 a Japanese team had watched four of their members climb into the Merkyl Gully. A storm hit; the four were never seen again. Their partners had clipped the duffel to the end of their fixed lines in case the lost men needed it on the descent. Mark, Ward, Kevin and I staggered into our base camp late the next day. We were matted, soaked and shattered, yet we all felt that we now carried traces of other men's souls.
My strongest bonds with other men were forged in the mountains in the late 1980s, the same time that I was unraveling the bond I shared with my first wife.
Back then Mark Twight was, by far, my favorite partner in agony. We had the ability to bring out the best in each other—and the worst. Mark lived and climbed in Chamonix; I did the same in the Rockies. Often we'd end up raving to each other about love and alpinism for hours over the phone when everyone else was asleep. On one such call I pissed into a pot rather than go to the john because the phone was in the kitchen and I didn't want to break the thread.
"Bubba, what if we had climbed that last 1,000 feet up the Rupal? We'd have shaving commercials and cars and chicks and shit."
"We can't be those kind of whores... can we?"
"More ducats could mean more time in the mountains. Think about it."
Wind lashes Aconcagua. It drives lines into your face and sand into the creases of your flesh. Everyone looks older on that mountain. I spent the last two days of January 1991 camping alone in my little yellow tent at Plaza Frances below the 10,000-foot south face—a face I planned to solo. I wanted the act to purge me of my infidelity.
At 3:30 a.m., February 1, I strode onto the broken rock and dirty ice of the glacier. One mile above, Aconcagua's seracs formed a perfect scythe, and I stopped to capture my fear on a small recorder. I planned to use it to market myself when I returned to Canada.
The climbing disgusted me. Four thousand feet of vertical kitty litter and loose rock reached a hundred feet shy of the first ice field, separated from it by a slab. The rock had the consistency of rotting plaster. I broke off two flakes in the first seventy feet by pulling out too hard. At 3 p.m. gray clouds tumbled through the air, embracing me, abandoning me. An hour later the sky was cannon black and snow drove from the rise of my left cheek to the lee of my right ear. I struggled to breathe. My eyes began to freeze shut behind my glacier glasses. When I touched the second rockband, a sheet of ice calved to my right, then slowly rotated into the storm like an asteroid drifting off into space.
The bulging rock was too steep to climb in this weather, and I was unable to retreat, so I hacked out a ledge in the ice. Five hundred feet above me a serac crept toward the glacier. When the first clap of thunder exploded, I thought it was the serac. My muscles clamped down and my eyes clenched shut against impacts that never came. I lay there for twelve hours.
By 4 a.m. the storm had passed, leaving the soft glow of moonlight on a foot of fresh snow. I clunked fragments of snow into the pot and punched them apart against the warming aluminum. I envisioned my wife back in Canada, saw her rising reluctantly, groggy-eyed, imagined her wild, sleep-matted hair—and felt the weight of the lie between us. Should we both be free?
I brewed four liters, drank it all and began my descent.
Back on the glacier I lifted a rock, affixed the other woman's name to it, then heaved it at an ice-covered tarn. I wanted the rock to shatter the ice and sink to the bottom with the lie. Instead, it rasped across the surface, leaving five jagged scratches like the caricature of a human hand.
It was too poetically comic, even for me. I laughed at myself, then erased all the sound bites from my recorder and continued down the glacier. Behind me the tracks of my retreat had already blown away.
One month later my wife and I flew to Nepal, where I had arranged to meet two of my clients for back-to-back climbing trips in the Khumbu. I wanted this to be the trip that brought her and me together again. Didn't happen.
With its pleatings of snow, the steep north face of Kusum Kanguru looks oddly Peruvian. A mile-long gully drops plumb from the Middle Summit; I'd been catching glimpses of it over my six weeks in the Khumbu. My clients had left and my wife was trekking the Annapurna Sanctuary with a girlfriend. I dreamed of climbing the gully direct to the summit—something that had been omitted on the first ascent of the face.
Tensing, my sirdar, and I headed up the pristine Kusum Khola valley while throngs trekked to Everest's base camp far below. In a meadow below the face, I told Tensing to expect me in two days, then wrote out my first will. It wasn't much: I had about $1,000 Canadian in a mix of rupees, Canadian dollars and greenbacks. I left everything to my wife, save for one piece of gear for each of the half-dozen men who had been my climbing partners. That act freed me emotionally to address my question: Did the universe want me in it?
That night I thought hard about how my life had led up to this beautiful line high in the Himalaya. I needed to see how close to perfection I could come in my alpinism. Yet I'd also married young because I wanted to be a father, one who was there for a child, something I had absolutely hungered for as a little half-breed. One hand held my wedding ring; the other gripped my ice axe. It felt as though my two hands were tearing me apart.
I walked away from my bivy at midnight with seven pitons, two Stoppers, three screws, four slings and fifty meters of seven-mil rope. I swallowed my last cough suppressant to fight the wrenching hack that had plagued me for a month, then eased over the bergschrund as delicately as I could, a black hole below me.
Two hours later I tapped my way up a seventy-foot, verglas-streaked wall by headlamp. Each time the ice would take a pick in only one place hidden in a weave of tin-colored braidings. I found these spots by intuition. I climbed as if I belonged there.
Twenty-five hundred feet up the face, the cough suppressant quit and I began to cough, then hack, and finally to expulse knots of green- and mustard-colored phlegm. As the climb wore on, my lungs began to give out. So did my mind. I started anchoring my pack to a screw, leading to the end of my fifty-meter rope, top-anchoring to two screws, rappelling to retrieve the pack, then prusiking back up.
Four thousand feet up I leaned my head against the mountain and stared down at my frontpoints. They looked like rounded teeth in an old dog's mouth. I coughed and gasped and spit out a chord of mucous.
"You have to stop, Blanchard," I wheezed aloud. "This is killing you."
Thirty feet to my right a deep fluting of chaotic snow bordered the green ice. Within that swirling structure I recognized the universe's repeating spiral: the arms of a galaxy, the fronds of a fiddlehead fern, the decreasing chambers of a snail's shell. Below one such spiral there looked to be a hollow.
I protected myself at the entrance with a screw, then wrestled my way in. It was cramped, but with some work I had a cave. I was safe.
The burner's constant hiss became the sole background sound to my coughing fits. I missed my climbing partners, longed for one of them, if only to compare my mind to his. I needed help.
I wasn't dead when dawn came, and 1,000 feet up sounded a hell of a lot better than 4,000 feet of rappelling with a fifty-meter rope. But sections of the climbing were horrifyingly insecure—wet sugar balanced on the edge of collapse by diaphanous crusts. At one point the structure I was on failed, and I scratched down a meter, my body clenched against the terror of tumbling backward before the frontpoints that I'd filed that morning caught.
Good God, Blanchard, I thought. Why aren't you up here with a partner?
By midday I was spitting blood onto the summit. Clouds streamed between the cornices, harbingers of the afternoon storm. I felt exposed, anxious. I needed to get as low as possible before the storm.
As the day darkened to a driving gray, I gouged a coffin-sized cave from a ridge of sculpted snow, sealed off the door with my pack and quartered my last chunk of sausage into a hobo's stew. Threads of blood spider-webbed the green shit gurgling from my lungs, but I was beyond caring. I knew I would see the next day. "You won't beat me, you microscopic motherfuckers," I screamed at the mottled walls of the cave. "I am getting up tomorrow and going down!"
The relief I felt as I rapped from the last of my screws and reached flat ground was Milan Kundera's "unbearable lightness of being": as if this event, and all others, happened just one time and life had no weight or meaning. The engagement was over and even though I hadn't performed perfectly, I'd performed well. Several hours of weaving my way down into richer, thicker, luscious air brought me to Tensing. He was burning juniper on a small stone altar he'd built. I was a day late, and he was praying for me.
I sat down on my pack and wept.
She said that she wasn't getting back onto the motorcycle until I told her the other woman's name. Our marriage came apart. In July 1991, I exiled myself to a minute cabin in a defunct motel, off the grid, end of the road, Shady Lawn Motel #6, Deadman's Flats, Alberta. A place I called "The Cell."
1991 was the nadir: Mark and I got drunk at the Yeti Bar in the shadow of the Grand Dru in late July. We raved about the shortcomings of our fathers, then drove over a foot-high granite parking block and flattened a row of construction pylons because we were drunk and arguing. I kicked the heel of my cowboy boot through the windshield to emphasize a point.
In the autumn, a storm mugged my client and me at the Death Bivouac on the north face of the Eiger. My client bailed.
"A cold front's coming in after this storm," Mark said over the phone. "Things may get really cool around here. You should be here."
The Argentiere basin crawls with climbers in summer, but the Grandes Montets cable car had shut down October 1. Five days later Mark and I walked up from the valley floor and occupied that white, glittering basin at dusk, the sole humans. When we crunched away from the Argentiere Hut before dawn, I caught an echo of myself and Kevin eleven years and twenty-one days earlier in our Peter Storm sweaters on the same slopes.
The thin strand of pewter-colored ice Mark had spotted on the northwest face of Les Droites poured down the granite like quicksilver. The crux was one foot wide, several inches thick and vertical. I snapped both of my picks leading it and finished by hauling up each of Mark's tools. At the belay I replaced one of my picks with a spare, then filed the other into something usable.
"How come your picks didn't break in that shit?"
"Grivel made them for me. They're Mark-proof." He looked at me, then looked at the route. "I think it doglegs right here. Give me the small blades."
"You've got everything."
"No, the small blades are on your right, at the back."
"Well, dropkick me in the butt—so they are, buddy, so they are."
In that small exchange lay the difference between Mark and me. Mark never relaxed. It wasn't because he couldn't; it was because he willed himself not to. It's war all the time up there, yet he still found beauty, though the kind only warriors see.
I was different. By then, I'd spent so much time climbing that my relationship with the mountains had evolved into something almost spousal. Much of the time I was jovial, then something would go wrong and I'd get pissy. Every so often, as on Kusum Kanguru, I'd see clearly the deeper weave of the universe and feel euphoric.
I ran out of ice at dusk and anchored. Overhanging granite thrust out above me as night approached. I brought up Mark. "I get this?" was all he said. "OK. Give me the rack."
He powered over the granite bulge, blue sparks grating from his crampons. His breathing deepened. "Watch me," he said, then pressed up and blew out and was gone.
I seconded by headlamp. Mark's partial-victory smile appeared at the ridge crest. I manteled ove