The Weight of Thin Air

Posted on: November 27, 2006

Miha Habjan on the first ascent of an unnamed 6000-meter peak in the Nepal Himalaya, October 2005. (The north face of 7710-meter Jannu is visible on the right.) Habjan and Andrej Stremfelj used the ascent to prepare for their attempt on Janak (7070m), which was thwarted by storm. Stremfelj returned the following spring to make the first ascent of the mountain with Rok Zalokar. [Photo] Andrej Stremfelj

Mt. Everest, 8700 meters, 1979. Nejc Zaplotnik and I were alone at the base of the Gray Step on the virgin West Ridge. Above us lay unknown terrain to the summit. All we knew was that we couldn't descend the way we had come up: we didn't have enough gear. The only way down was via the Hornbein Couloir, and the only way to the Hornbein was up. I was twenty-two years old. Nejc was twenty-five.

We roped up without speaking. Oxygen masks covered our faces, but conversation would have been useless anyway: the wind was growing stronger, and a dark cloudcap already covered the upper reaches of the mountain. Nejc, ordinarily a lighthearted man, had turned serious.

He took the first lead, edging on the fractured schist in crampons and double-leather boots. His frame pack, its orange canvas bulging with the fifteen-kilo oxygen tank, made a bulky, wobbly rectangle against the rock. Suddenly, he was falling, a broken piece of the mountain soaring through the air beside him. He landed with a small whoomp in the snow. Our anchor was one bad piton. I looked at him, then at the Western Cwm some 2300 meters below. The tops of Lhotse and Nuptse were now lost in storm. A fear proportionate to the exposure began to build in me.

Without speaking, Nejc took off his Dachstein gloves, brushed the snow from his wool pants and began climbing again. Two meters, three meters, five: he methodically continued up, feeling out the 5.7 moves with his bare fingers as he alternated between aid and free. I looked at my watch: it was almost 3 p.m. It would be dark at 6.

It took Nejc an hour to finish the pitch.

"Do you think we're too late?" I gasped when I reached him. Through the hiss of the oxygen mask, I was certain he could hear the fear in my voice. The anchor I had jumared from consisted of one bottomed-out piton.

He pulled his mask from his face, and his blue eyes pierced me. "No," was all he said. I didn't ask further.

The author and Nejc Zaplotnik in Slovenia's Julian Alps during the 1973-1974 winter. Stremfelj was seventeen at the time of the photo, Zaplotnik twenty. Three years later the men would climb the Southwest Ridge on 8068-meter Hidden Peak as part of a Yugoslavian expedition, going alpine style from 6850 meters. It was Stremfelj's first 8000-meter peak; in the twenty-nine years since, he has climbed 8000ers eight more times, including new routes on Everest, Dhaulagiri, Shishapangma and Kangchenjunga. Zaplotnik was one of his most important mentors. [Photo] Andrej Stremfelj

The next pitch was mine. Carried on by our momentum, I was soon at the top of the Step, building the anchor. When I looked again at my watch, I realized that earlier I'd confused the hands: it was only half past one.

Nejc jumared up to me, and I held up my wrist to show him the time. He, too, was overjoyed. We had just climbed the crux of the route; we could reach the top that day. The West Ridge of Everest was ours.

I have been fortunate in my career to have strong mentors. Of them all, Nejc was the strongest. Already famous at the time of the Everest expedition, he lived for climbing. In 1975 he had been part of a successful Yugoslavian expedition to Makalu; in 1977 he and I had climbed a new route on Hidden Peak, my first 8000er. With his long hair—unusual for communist Yugoslavia—and carefree demeanor in the local bars, he could seem like a bohemian, but he was the best climber in the country, and he was a god to me. I wanted a life like his.

Technically, Nejc and I were equals. But technical skill is not the problem at altitude; decision-making is. On Hidden Peak, Nejc and I had climbed alpine style from Camp IV at 6850 meters to the summit. At the time, I didn't know a thing about altitude—I hadn't even climbed Mont Blanc. Nejc didn't know how I would perform at altitude either, but in alpinism, sometimes you have to go with your intuition. Nejc thought I could do it, I trusted him completely, and indeed he was right.

For young climbers in the Himalaya, the burden of the decisions is often too great to bear alone. On both Everest and Hidden Peak, Nejc carried the weight of the heaviest decisions. If he'd said we were too late on Everest, I would have turned back. He was the engine of our team; without him, I wouldn't have made it up either mountain.

After Everest, Nejc set out to climb all fourteen 8000ers. I was as ambitious as he was at the time, and we were both good—so good, in fact, that we felt that alpinism wasn't dangerous for us. When he died in an avalanche on Manaslu in 1983, it was as if the world had broken. I continued to climb, but for the first time I began to think about risk, and whether I got enough from alpinism to justify the dangers involved.

My reasons for climbing are not complicated. Although my parents never climbed, the views of the Kamniske Alps I admired on the way to school in Kranj, Slovenia, awoke a great curiosity in me: What do the mountains look like close up? Does the top of Grintavec really seem like a point when you're on it? An incessant wish to explore the unknown lured me to the heights. And as I would quickly discover, the higher you climb, the better the view becomes.

In the mountains west of Kanchenjunga there are plenty of possibilities for exploration. In 2000 I led an expedition of ten young alpinists from the Planinska zveza Slovenije (PZS, or Mountaineering Association of Slovenia) to the region with the goal of making alpine-style climbs on reasonably demanding faces. I wanted to share my experiences with young climbers, just as Nejc had done with me. But the expedition ended early when one of the climbers, Andrej Markovic, fell to his death on Jongsang Peak.

Every death is a wound to the soul, and everyone recovers in his or her own way. The rest of the team wanted only to go home, but the easiest way for me to heal is to be in the mountains. A part of my home—my wife, Marija, and my daughter, Katarina—was already on its way to base camp. Besides, I would never miss an opportunity to discover another hidden part of the Himalaya.

I made my way through a narrow gorge at dawn. Being in the mountains always lightens my spirits, and this beautiful autumn day was no different. The sun illuminated the frozen stream beside the trail. The mountains floated like white ships against the Himalayan sky. A side moraine led past two pale, icy lakes, and at its end, early in the afternoon, all that was left before me was a short, simple glacial plateau and above that the south face of Janak Chuli.

The peak had been our original objective, but permit issues had forced us to shift our attention to Jongsang instead. Now, I couldn't take my gaze from it. Framed by golden foothills, Janak's snows gave off a stark radiance. I shielded my eyes, absorbing its lines and contours. A logical route presented itself: both elegant and direct, the southwest pillar led straight to the top.

In my memory, nothing is ever lost. When I turned back, I kept the idea of climbing Janak in my mind, waiting for an opportunity to arise.

The south face of 7070-meter Janak (with Habjan in the foreground), showing 1) the 2005 Habjan-Stremfelj attempt. 2) The Southwest Pillar (VI 5.6 70 degrees, 1150m). [Photo] Andrej Stremfelj

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