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Posted on: April 1, 2010
Memory and Desire
A CLIMBER PASSES A BAG OF FOOD to his partner as the evening sun highlights a dragon's back of granite and ice. The path of ascent sharpens against a dusty glacier. Beyond the photo, the summit appears finely etched against a blue-black sky, the clearest they've seen in weeks. The top should be only two days away.
George Lowe belays Michael Kennedy just above the final bivy on the North Ridge of Latok I, during one of the few aid pitches on their attempt. [Photo] Jim Donini
It's a simple image—the picture on the cover—but it's layered with meaning for me. I took it in July 1978, eighteen days into what Jeff Lowe calls his "most magnificent failure," the North Ridge of Latok I in the Karakoram. Jeff and Jim Donini, the climbers in the photo, were preparing a bivouac at 6700 meters, while George Lowe and I returned from fixing our two lead ropes. A day later, an unexpected storm enveloped the peak in spindrift and mist, and Jeff grew dangerously ill. We turned back 200 meters below the summit. When at last we reached the Choktoi Glacier after twenty-six days on the climb, we all "kissed the dirty ice," glad to be alive.
TWO YEARS BEFORE OUR ATTEMPT, I was looking at Eric Shipton's grainy black-and-white photo of the Latok peaks in Mountain 49. The Choktoi Glacier lay flat and sunlit at the base of dark-shadowed spires. A singular ridgeline crackled with an electric glow. "Like a giant Walker Spur," Malcolm Howells had written next to the image. A classic Alpine adventure, yet over twice as long—we had to try it!
All mountain landscapes hold stories: the ones we read, the ones we dream, and the ones we create. In this issue, Conrad Anker finds that Latok's climbing history is more than just a record of many attempts and few ascents. It's also a collection of encounters with an internal wilderness—the one that we all experience each time we cross a glacier or move up a wall. "Many of us fantasize about summit revelations," says Conrad. "We'll be different when we get to the top, we tell ourselves. We'll be closer to the person we envision."
In the summer of 2008, in a stormsocked tent on the Choktoi, Maxime Turgeon fantasized about Hermann Buhl's 1952 ascent of the Piz Badile. Buhl had biked through the night from Austria to climb the Northeast Face with just a slender rope and a handful of gear. As Maxime tried to relive that experience, he enchained over a thousand kilometers of biking, hiking and soloing. And in the process, he created his own continuous and simple line—a range of the imagination.
Some climbs seem to get passed on for decades in this way: told and re-told, they transform into new ascents and new stories, picking up the materials of each landscape and the changes in weather and light—a grain of bright crystal from a glacier-churned moraine, a needle from a sun-warmed pine. With the nuances of each added voice, they echo into fresh sounds. "Drawn south" by his mother's long-recounted memories, Jeremy Collins went to Patagonia in search of rich hues that might saturate his art. Perhaps his sketchbook, published here, will filter into your dreams and spark your own journeys.
Even today the Latok photo floods my mind with memories of sun and spindrift: the unfolding mysteries of what lay above the next bulge; the vision of Jim nursing Jeff in our high snow cave; the weight of George's head on my shoulder as he fell asleep during a storm-lashed bivy. An infinity of experience and emotion compressed into those few weeks in the middle of nowhere.
Maybe, as Peter Beal says, such memories are "like signals pulsing from a star in a faraway galaxy, [radiating] a message from a time now lost [and] overlaying the actual moment with the tracings of heroic dreams and the veneer of artistic creation." And yet at the instant of that photo, there were no layers of significance, real or imagined. There was no story. We were just four ordinary people out climbing. Jeff and Jim were simply sharing a bag of food, without any awareness of what that gesture might come to mean for them (or for other viewers) over time.
But from that harmony of light and shadow, movement and touch, arose an awareness of joy. It remains in a realm beyond any moment on that climb—or on any other. Like Tami Knight remembering her best climbing day on Pigeon Spire, I feel as though "I'm perpetually on a journey to re-create [those days] in mind and metaphor." Not just retreating into old stories, I'm using them as a map to new and unpredictable experiences—to the edges of that innermost wild, where "Unexplored" is all that is yet written.
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