Posted on: June 1, 2008
[Illustration] Andreas Schmidt
THE FRACTURE RIPPED OUT like a rifle shot, cutting a perfect, horizontal line through the snow at Jim Donini’s feet. As the massive slab released, its vertical plane tore twelve inches to our right, roared past us and disappeared 4,000 feet down the black abyss of Mt. Wake’s north face.
For a moment we stood at our anchor, stunned. Then I looked up through the clouds: the corniced, fluted summit ridge lay hidden in the slate-gray mist of the Alaska Range, a mere 600 feet away. Only an hour of dead-easy snow climbing remained to the top of our new route.
“We should have kept climbing yesterday,” I thought.
The day before, we’d managed 3,400 feet of the unclimbed northeast ridge in twenty hours of continuous effort before the appearance of an easy bivouac tempted us to rest. Overnight the snow continued to press down the thin walls of our tent, but I was too tired to care: It was just kicking steps from here, right?
I looked over at Jim; he had the same thousand-yard stare that I assumed was on my face.
“Maybe we should go down?” I said.
Jim’s gaze was as dark as the clouds. He gave a half nod. The next question, unfortunately, was how.
THERE'S AN ART TO GOING DOWN in the alpine world. At ages forty-three and thirty-three, respectively, Jim and I had already developed our appreciation for it in a number of interesting situations.
In 1978, on the unclimbed north ridge of Latok I, only some 600 feet of moderate climbing separated Jim, Michael Kennedy and George and Jeff Lowe from the summit, when Jeff became dangerously ill. Five nights stormbound in a snow cave at 23,000 feet with food and fuel running low, eighty-some rappels and an open bivy on a tiny, spindrift-pummeled ledge had taught Jim that “you could come back from the dead.” In 1979, during my first attempt on what would become Denali’s Isis Face, my partner, Ken Currens, took a 250-foot leader fall and broke his femur. Since his weight was pinning us both to the wall, he was forced to cut the rope—an act that dropped him twenty feet into a crevasse below. I rappelled to him, but I couldn’t lower him because of his injuries, so I down climbed 400 feet to our snow cave with Ken sitting on my forearms. Once I had him stabilized, I descended the remaining 1,600 feet to the glacier and skied out, unroped, ten miles before making contact with our pilot Cliff Hudson. Mugs Stump and Jim Logan joined me in Talkeetna, and we flew back in, climbed up to Ken, chopped him out of the cave, put him in the litter and then lowered him all night to the glacier. Now Jim and I were once again faced with a less-than-optimal descent—but at least we’d both had plenty of practice.
Descending the way we’d come up was out of the question; the ascent had required a number of rappels down irreversible snow gendarmes, and all the new-fallen snow would make the complex ridge even more unstable. Was there another way, unfamiliar but perhaps safer, to go down?
Today, as I reflect on the decision that followed, I recall a comment Ad Carter made thirty years ago. “Good judgment, Jack,” Ad had said with stoic New England intonation, “is mostly a result of having survived bad judgment.”
Then, we resolved ourselves to the task: the steep, rocky, unknown north face would be our way home.
WE HAD A LIGHT ALPINE rack of snow, ice and rock pro; two pickets; limited slings and webbing; conduit from the base of Polar Circus that I’d pilfered on the drive to Alaska; and our plastic shovel. It would have to be single anchors and creative placements the whole way down.
I fashioned the shovel into a deadman, rigged a piece of webbing through the T-shaped handle for the ropes and bounce-tested the hell out of it, with Jim and a picket as my backup. The shovel held. Still, as I dropped onto the Half Dome-sized wall below, Jim cast me a look of utter doubt. In a way the dense clouds made it easier: I couldn’t see anything below the next 100 feet.
At first the rock cooperated. As we followed an obvious weakness in the rotten Ruth Glacier stone, two separate, hand-crack-sized holes yielded two consecutive tied-off picket anchors. I beat the conduit into shallow fissures for three or four more. Then the cracks became incipient, and the wall steepened to slightly overhanging. Soon there was no hope of reversing our rappels.
“I don’t know who has it worse, Jim,” I said at one particularly esoteric anchor. “Me going first on my civil-engineering quest, or you pulling the backup gear and trusting the piece-of-shit anchor.”
He laughed, and the smile that spread across his rugged face glowed like hope.
There was another point that neither of us brought up. Swift and violent if the piece pulled, or slow and alone if stranded on the wall: Which was the better way to die?
[Illustration] Andreas Schmidt
I RATIONED THE ANCHORS like a starving man dividing his last meal into smaller and smaller portions. The more tired I became, the more frustrated I grew. Finally, the face became so blank and steep I could no longer stay near the rock as I rappelled.
Jim peered down through the storm. “I’d bet it’s only two more rope lengths to the snow.”
“I’d bet both of our houses that it’s a walkoff from there,” I replied. (Our ex-wives got them later anyway.)
The wager made, I welded in a tied-off bugaboo and knotted both ropes together to see if they would touch the snow. They did! Down I went, my twenty-five-pound pack leaving me partly inverted.
Thirty feet out from the wall and a few feet from the knot, my poor judgment sank in: I had no remaining prussiks, and no normal way to unweight the rope and pass the knot. Exhausted, I hung sideways, staring at it. My only option was somehow to get the rope below the knot reclipped into my Figure 8. “Well, Javaman,” I muttered to myself under my breath—not that Jim, 150 feet above, could hear me. “You’re completely fucked now.”
If I didn’t get us out of here, Jim and I would remain on the face forever. Both of our lives were in my spent and frozen hands.
The enormity of that thought jolted through me with a surge of energy. I hauled myself two or three feet back up the rope and wrapped it around my right arm. With my left hand, I pulled the rope up from below until I was past the knot, gripped it in my teeth, and wrapped the slack around my right arm and the knot around my left thigh. Once the rope was free from tension, I unclipped. My arms were now burning.
One hundred fifty feet off the deck, I struggled to reclip the rope with one hand as I hung on with the other. The pain in my cramping fingers radiated through my entire body.
My mother would have bummed.
Slowly I brought the slack up from under the knot. I clipped the rope back into my Figure-8. By now my brake hand was useless; the moment I clipped into the locker, I let go, screamed down the rope and, nearly at the end of it, crashed into the snow.
But I was down. Sixty-degree snow never looked so flat.
Once my breathing returned to normal, I yelled back up to Jim to make sure he had something—a sling or a prussik—to pass the knot. I didn’t want him to endure the same stupidity I had.
“That was bad,” I said when at last he got to me. We embraced in relief.
But it wasn’t over yet. What had appeared to be flat from above was actually steep down climbing. With no gear left, we used the remains of our severed rope to make occasional twenty-foot raps off horns. At last, nineteen hours after we started down, we stumbled off the mountain, hungry, dehydrated, alive.
Back in our tent in the Gorge, I stared blankly at the rip-stop ceiling. We hadn’t even talked about the trip’s primary objective—a route on Mt. Barille that we would later name the Cobra Pillar.
“How many times does this sort of thing have to happen?” I said.
“I don’t know,” Jim replied, “but this helps.”
He handed me the Scotch.