Sum Equals Zero

Posted on: July 1, 2006


Vince Anderson at dawn on Day 3 during the first ascent of the Central Pillar (VII 5.9 M5 X WI4, 13,500') of Nanga Parbat's Rupal Face. [Photo] Steve House

The light is low and the massive shadow of Nanga Parbat casts far across the valleys to the east. My crampons crunch into the summit neve; Vince follows a few paces behind. One meter below the apex, I kneel in the snow. Years of a physical and psychological journey all fold into this one moment. It seems almost sacrilegious to tread the summit.

A few moments later Vince arrives. I stand to face him. As he approaches, I step onto the top; Vince joins me in an embrace. Frozen tears fall to the snow at my feet, becoming a part of the mountain, as it became a part of me so long ago.

I remember everything about the 26,658-foot Nanga Parbat. The first time I saw its photo was in the basement meeting room of the Alpine Club Kozjak in Slovenia, 1989. In the dim light the Rupal Face appeared monolithic, mortared by ice. While we discussed plans for the 1990 expedition to the Schell Route, fear rose inside me. I saw the magnitude of the task I had set for myself: to be the best alpinist I could become, to climb the great walls and the great mountains of the world. And Nanga Parbat's Rupal Face, to me, was the greatest.

The first time I saw the mountain itself, I was sitting on the roof of a bus, traveling up the Indus River to climb it. Red and luminous in the sunrise, the jumble of rock and ice seemed too distant and too vast to be comprehended. I was nineteen; I felt unworthy of my quest.

Steve House at Camp 1 on Nanga Parbat's Schell Route in 1990, during his first attempt on the mountain. House reached 21,000 feet on this expedition, which he made with a nineteen member Slovenian team. The expedition would begin his fifteen-year journey to climb the peak that ended with his new route on the Rupal Face.

The first failure: on the Schell Route I spent a night vomiting out the tent door, hallucinating about a picnic in a meadow. A fortnight later as I descended from Camp II, I watched rockfall nearly kill one Slovenian teammate. Dysentery almost killed another. Nanga Parbat seemed beyond my limits.

I forgot about the mountain until many summits later, when I realized it might be possible. Among my peers the central Rupal Face was spoken of reverently, its photographs shared secretly. I, too, began to dream about it again.

Dreamers don't climb Nanga Parbat. I turned it into my goal, continuing my apprenticeship in Alaska, the Himalaya, the Karakoram and many smaller summits in between. Finally, in 2004, I made my first attempt on the Rupal Face.

Bruce Miller and I climbed to 24,600 feet before my altitude sickness forced us to retreat. Though we didn't summit, I learned the geography of the wall, where the safe havens are, which seracs threaten. I promised myself I wouldn't allow those lessons to go to waste.

Why Nanga Parbat? Why not Mt. Rainier? Why the Rupal Face by a direct, new route? Why not the Kinshoffer? Merely to embark on an alpine-style expedition is to act out the metaphor of simplicity, reducing everything to the minimum: food, shelter, equipment and clothing. I leave work, home and loved ones, until the climb is all that is. Spareness permits an intimacy with alpinism, allowing it to assume its full potential as a work of art.

Nanga Parbat represents and requires the best of this art. Its Rupal Face displays 13,500 vertical feet of rock walls, webbed veins of ice, fluted snow buttresses and calving icefields: the biggest wall in the world, so expansive it takes two hard days to walk its base. In thirty-five years it has only been climbed three times. It has never been climbed alpine style.

Every alpinist should stand in the meadow beneath it on a clear morning, in the predawn chill. Flex your spine back—farther than you'd think—and gaze as the first light reaches the summit. Do that and tell me that trying to climb the Rupal Face would not be the bravest thing you ever did. That climbing this wall would not be the best thing you would ever do in your life.

On just such a morning, in that same meadow, I pull on cold layers of clothing and stumble out of my tent. Fida Ali, our longtime friend and cook, serves sweet milk tea, and the lantern-lit mess tent comes into focus. Vince is here, already booted up. Colin Haley and Scott Johnston smear jam onto fresh chapattis.

The first weeks of our expedition, in order to acclimate, we travel up and down the Schell Route, which Colin and Scott hope to climb alpine style. When the storms subside, we punch up the snow slopes above us, following the shoulder of the giant peak, each time a little higher, until we climb above 23,000 feet.

From there I have the sensation of looking down on myself, on my life and on the lives of those I know and love. As I return to base camp, the vision crumbles, yet the ghost of it haunts me. The mountain disintegrates and re-forms in my mind, too illimitable to fit within my conscious thought.

In his book, Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel suggests that the surest way to reach an end is by "letting go of yourself, leaving yourself and everything yours behind you so decisively that nothing more is left of you but a purposeless tension."

The real target is our self. Arrows in flight, we exist in motion, our being created by our deeds, our deeds created by our will. Love, too, is an action directed by will.

On August 30, a month after we arrived in base camp, we telephone Jim Woodmency, a meteorologist in the US, who confidently forecasts high pressure. By the next day the sky is a pure, dark Himalayan blue. Avalanches roar down the face until the wall passes back into shadow.

"Whatcha think?" Vince asks.

The even tempo of his voice fills me with calm. He squats down in the door of my tent, his lean body folded in jagged angles. There's a harmony between us as climbing partners: we share a maniacal idealism and the robust motivation of the obsessed... even if the Norwegian death metal in Vince's iPod reminds me of small differences in taste.

I lift the pen from my notebook. "This is the weather we need. How're you feeling?"

"Ready to go. But honestly I can't imagine what it's going to be like up there. And I'm worried we've lost too much acclimatization." Vince glances up from the floor with expectant eyes.

"If the weather holds, you and I will climb it." I feel easy saying this; I believe it. "There isn't anything up there that we can't handle."

I put my notebook down and look up at the foreshortened view of the wall. I tell him that I'd like to go for the central pillar if the conditions are good enough. Just then a loud crack signals another avalanche that cleans out the right side of the face.

"We'll make good decisions up there," Vince says—half-question, half-statement—when the cloud dissipates.

"I promise we will."

Vince turns back to his tent, his steps heavy with our hopes.

On the second day of climbing, under the new moon, the darkness drapes everything around us. Layers of the past and the present merge as we climb. Bruce and I soloed these pitches last year, but the warm, wet summer has left verglas on the rock, and where Bruce and I had soloed, Vince and I now pitch it out.

Vince leads fast and steady and solid. He carries the twenty-pound pack with the five-millimeter tag line, two DAS parkas and the day's food and water. I follow with the thirty-five-pound load: food for seven days, fuel for eight, a two-pound tent, a homemade two-pound sleeping bag, cooking gear, two pairs of mittens and synthetic, insulated pants.

The warm dawn light trickles into an amphitheater of shattered stone. Two lines of waterice transcribe its weakness. The right runnel, though steeper, is the only climbable option and leads to an ice dagger that drips from a higher groove. One good screw at the base and thirty minutes later, Vince finally finds a suitably solid cam. He is distant, just below the crux moves when he calls down that he can't lead the pitch with the pack, and lowers off.

I've been dwelling on the 2004 attempt for a year. With pent-up eagerness I reclimb to the cam, and the difficulty brings everything into focus. Carefully tapping picks into the melted space between icicles and the fine-grained gneiss, stemming out wide to ice helmets frozen into broken edges, I'm poised in the brief span between past and future, memory and uncertainty. I place a solid screw behind the torso-sized pillar I'm fighting not to touch and let ambition carry me up strenuous, pick-torquing moves. When I construct a belay in the same crack I used in 2004, I remember every piece in the anchor.

As we chop our bivy ledge, the rib we're standing on darkens the slopes we climbed only yesterday. We're just below the place where Tomaz Humar was dramatically rescued a month earlier. The few hard pitches below are insignificant against the 11,000 feet of climbing that loom above.

We wake and start in darkness. Our anxieties about the day temporarily dissolve in the grandeur of the sunrise: K2, Broad Peak, the Gasherbrums, K7 are all silhouetted by a deep, red glow. We stand still for valuable minutes before resuming the climb.

From here our route deviates from the 2004 attempt: with such good weather we'll head for the central pillar. Vince leads us up a golden prow. Soon he is an atom of color receding into a vertical landscape of rock, ice and sky.

Anderson climbs a golden rock prow into ice runnels on the morning of Day 3. This pitch put Anderson and House onto the crest of the central pillar, which they followed for the rest of that day. Past this section they had trouble finding bivouacs, and House began to realize they had crossed the point of no return. [Photo] Steve House

We follow the crest of the steep pillar past the biggest—and most threatening—serac-calving icefield on the face, simulclimbing pitch after pitch. All sense of linear time unravels in our rituals: every five ropelengths we take the packs off, eat, drink and change the lead. Morning turns to afternoon. Somewhere after the thirtieth pitch of the day, we lose count. Clouds boil and the sun continues its arc behind the peak. In the shadow we climb on and on.

As night begins to fall, we belay. The ice is steeper and harder now. Our muscles are tired and our tools seem dull. I head up and right, searching for a bivouac. Mental energy drives each kick. Picks are twisted; pitons sing into shattered rock. Frontpoints screech over rough edges. I traverse past a bulging block, around into a corner and stem my way to the top. At the belay, slumped in my harness, I dry heave for five minutes.

Eighty meters of easy traversing later and we're in a protected cave formed at the juncture of the pillar and the icefield. At midnight we're cooking our daily ration of soup, dried potatoes and olive oil.

"We're well up shit creek now," Vince mumbles, stove purring away in front of him.

"Mmm-hmm. Guess we're gonna paddle."

Sunshine fills the tent with warmth; the night's frost soon drips into our faces. Our photos offer few hints about the next section. From the valley our binoculars hadn't revealed any solution either.

"Rise and shine," I announce, half to myself, when the alarm goes off.

"Do or die," Vince says in a faint, ironic voice, flat on his back and groggy from another sleepless night.

Indeed, it may now be impossible to descend the 10,000 feet below us. Our rack consists of nine pins, six nuts, five ice screws and three cams. Without a radio or support team, we have no one to ask for help.

But I have an instinct, born from the experience of a thousand smaller walls, that we'll find our way through. The sum of my past actions doesn't determine who I am, but it certainly determines who I can be. This potential self is shaped by the million decisions I've already made: what I learned, how hard I trained, when we went, how long we waited, where we chose to climb.

In need of food and water, I cut a stance in the ice. There is only one possibility left, one section of the headwall still hidden. Vince arrives, but we can't speak.

As soon as I'm able to, I shoulder my pack and traverse right. Slowly a hidden corner opens to reveal a broad, chalky flow of ice rolling upward. I holler back to Vince and start up it.

Fifty meters later I'm smoked: I've just soloed ninety-degree ice with my pack on. My enthusiasm could have killed us. Humbled, I lower the rope to my partner, who waits patiently below.

Pitches of excellent ice ensue one after the other as we race darkness, looking for a place to spend the night. Growing desperate, we decide to climb toward the pillar's crest, where there appears to be a cornice we might dig into.

I focus on not making mistakes. Fifty feet above my last ice screw, I start chopping at the cornice. "If I can just get on top of this," I think, "maybe we can find a good bivy."

Suddenly the cornice breaks and my body swings out over the dark valley two miles below. My full weight falls onto one tool. The cornice tumbles toward Vince. As I struggle to regain my feet, I hear him moan.

I step up, slam the shaft of my other tool into the newly exposed slope and pull across. Adrenaline pumping, I scurry down a few feet on the opposite side. "Are you OK?" I yell.

"I'll be fine," Vince calls, but he doesn't sound fine. What can we do? I continue along the ridge for twenty meters until I find solid rock and build an anchor by headlamp.

My head is pounding. The big piece of the cornice missed Vince, though a smaller one hit him squarely in the shoulder. He appears shaken, but insists on taking his turn at the shovel, a resigned scowl on his face.

Day 5 and we're above 23,000 feet now, climbing slowly. Our goal is to find a good bivy as early as possible so we can eat, drink and rest before the summit attempt tomorrow. At 2 p.m., around 24,250 feet, we discover a snow arete and quickly excavate a tent platform. The weather remains good. Our tension, drawn tight for so many days, releases like a relaxed bow: we know we can get to the 1970 route from here.

Dave Anderson digging bivy number four, shortly after being hit by part of a falling cornice. [Photo] Steve House

At half past midnight the alarm goes off. Summit day. Vince, not having slept, starts the stove, and we begin the wait. I stare at the flame, willing it to burn hotter, but the altitude takes its toll on the mechanical as well as on the human.

At lower altitudes we enjoy mixed climbing; here it's difficult to make even the easiest moves as we fight our cold, oxygen-starved bodies. When we reach the end of the rock, we tie the climbing rope and most of the gear to a big boulder. We take one rucksack containing food, water and clothes, and a five-mil static rope for the descent. The one without the pack breaks trail.

The couloir we're following steepens, and the snow starts to get deep and loose. Vince wallows ahead.

"Do you think it could slide?" I ask.

"Seems OK," Vince replies, but we both get quiet. Around us the field of white appears to separate into individual crystals, innumerable factors that configure our success or failure, life or death. At this altitude it's hard to know whether our perception, let alone our judgment, is reliable.

I take my turn up front, pushing the snow down with my ice tools, crushing it with my knees, then stomping it with a foot so I can raise myself up a few inches. After five minutes I step aside and Vince has his go. For more than two hours we work like this: together, yet separate, our survival deeply intertwined. Each pushing higher, so we can progress together.

The sixth clear dawn colors our rarified world in soft pink. Two and a half hours have gained us sixty meters. Impossibly slow. We keep working, driven by our accumulated actions. All the steps. All the swings. All the luck. And before that—the years and days and hours of preparation.

In the sunlight a gentle ripple of wind texture appears on the snow near the rock wall, and I move toward it. One crampon scratching for edges on the rock, and one in the snow, I start to make faster progress. Soon we've gained another sixty meters, and the snow begins to support our steps. There is unspoken relief, but no certainty.

At 25,000 feet, the sun high, I'm stripped to a shirt, gloveless, hatless and sweating. I can imagine the summit hiding just behind the crest, but it seems so improbably far my confidence is shaken. Vince leans his head against his axe.

The wall drops like an abyss behind us. Above, it breaks like a 13,000-foot wave of stone and ice. Close to joining Messner's 1970 summit route, we scratch out a place to rest.

"How...ya...doin'," I spit between breaths. Vince holds his fingers like a pistol and points it to his head. It hurts to laugh. If he still has his sense of humor, he's in good shape to climb. He shuts his eyes and looks peaceful, as though he has pushed beyond his ambitions and reached some state of grace.

Anderson below the summit: "This is how it feels at 25,000'." Although the two were worn-out by hours of postholing at high altitude, House interpreted the gesture as a sign that Anderson was still in good shape to climb.

I strip my sweat-soaked socks, attach them to the rucksack, and re-boot with bare feet. When we start again, our pace is slow and our altimeter reads only 25,262 feet. We hope it's wrong. We wanted to be on the summit by 2 p.m., and now we realize how much the deep snow set us back. But the sky is clear and free of wind. Through the foggy consciousness of altitude, I feel good.

At 2 p.m. I pause, turn and announce the time to Vince. His eyes tell me what I need to know. I keep breaking trail toward the summit.

At 3:30 we crest a false summit and see, finally, the true summit. We both sit on a big, flat rock, the first place we can rest without a belay in six days. Vince lies back and soon starts sleeping. I put my dry socks back on, shake Vince awake and follow him as he starts up the last fifty meters of our mountain.

House on top, 5:45 p.m., September 6, 2005. Summiting after fifteen years of preparation, and two prior attempts, felt "almost sacrilegious."

An hour before sunset two exhausted men descend from the summit of Nanga Parbat. It should be deeply frightening to gaze out over the Rupal Face at dusk—and it is. Nowhere on earth are you so far from life. Home and love are just imaginary flickers in the hollow darkness that has long since enveloped the valleys.

At that moment, I know that on the other edge of infinity is nothingness, that in the instant I reach my target and my self, I lose them both.

We'd thought that summiting Nanga Parbat would pare us to our most basic, essential selves, yet the next two and a half days of descent down the Rupal Face strip away what remains. Adrenaline alternates with exhaustion as we nearly lose the rope during one rappel and nearly get it stuck on another. When a rock I use for an anchor starts to shift, I quickly unclip, then slam in our last ice screw. Each incident reminds me of the tenuousness of our future.

Bit by bit the supplies that connect us to the human world diminish. We ration our energy gel and dine on lukewarm water. The lack of food makes packing simple.

As I struggle to make a V-thread in the hard ice, Vince cocks his head. "I hear drumming," he says. "I think I hear drumming."

The only drumming I hear is in my ears. I figure he is hallucinating again and tell him as much. Already we've been joking that the five bonfires in the valley are in celebration of our ascent. That the Rupal Valley inhabitants would be able to see us, dots in an infinite expanse of rock and ice, is absurd.

Midnight on the seventh day, Vince drops his headlamp. Then my batteries die. At 15,000 feet we have nothing left but stove fuel.

We bivy below a serac; the air is warm and thick, and breathing feels sensuous. Vince starts the task of making our last meal: a weak broth of bean soup. With the first bite he gags and spits.

"Ugh—sand!" he moans. He excavates clean snow for the next pot, this time for a meal of tepid water.

Noon the next day: I step off the Rupal Face and onto terra firma. I glance back up to Vince, a short 100 feet above me. He is faced in, down climbing the fifty-degree ice. Just then a volley of rocks, from golf ball- to football-sized, unexpectedly launch from the cliff above him.

"Right! Go right! Right! Right!" I scream.

But he does nothing. The final 100 feet, and he could be crushed. At the last minute he ducks his head and makes one step left. The biggest rocks fly by three feet to his right.

"That's it," I think. "I'm done. So done."

Back at tree line Vince and I each follow our own cow trails through the juniper. Four local Pakistani men run toward us, shouting and waving. I flinch, and try to hide, but they are upon me. One of them grabs me in a terrifying bear hug. I focus on the faces and try to remember other people: it's our assistant cook Ghulam and our Liaison Officer Aslam. They take our packs. We sit on the ground while they feed us cookies and ply us with spring water.

Fida Ali greets us at base camp. He embraces me. I push him back to look into his face: "Success, Fida, success." He cries on my shoulder. It is too much for me; I move to the tent to be alone and to strip off the ammonia odor of my clothes. Vince is already working his boots off in the shade of a juniper tree and asking Fida Ali for a bucket of bathwater.

Scott has left early, but Colin is still up on the Schell Route, alone. Just as we're tucking into our first real food in over a week, he bursts into the mess tent.

"Did you guys send?"

We answer his question with tin cups of scotch.

Yesterday, in the five villages scattered throughout the Rupal Valley, people were drumming, singing and dancing. The bonfires were for us.

The hike from base camp is long and hard and solitary; I stop many times to rest. At the top of the last hill before the village of Tarshing, Fida Ali, Vince and Colin wait for me.

"We go together," says Fida Ali, motioning to the village.

Below, at least a hundred people sit in lines, waiting.

"For you sir. For you to cross the Nanga Parbat."

"Cross the Nanga Parbat?" I look at Vince.

"Mmm-hmm," Vince says. Like me, he seems too tired to appreciate that the people, the speeches and the flowers are for us.

Success is the sum of zero. The choices we made, the weather we had, the mountain we climbed and descended, everything we risked: all these factors reached their culmination... and were erased. We lived the answer to every question presented. There is nothing left to ask. There is nothing left of our selves, only the ghost of what transformed us.

Since Nanga Parbat, everyone thinks we should be ecstatic. Including me. But our bodies feel old, our wills exhausted, my life directionless. In his book, Herrigel tells us that the archer who achieves his goal stares into "the Void, which is the All, is absorbed into it and from it emerges reborn." He says that all arts are a pretext for the real goal, which is spiritual. I still cling to my pretext: the mountains, the climbs. I am not finished with them, nor they with me. I was absorbed by a great mountain years ago. I am waiting to emerge.

Summary of Statistics: The Central Pillar (VII 5.9 M5 X WI4, 13,500') of Nanga Parbat (26,658'), Himalaya, Pakistan, September 1-8, 2005, Vince Anderson, Steve House, first ascent.

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