Tim Greenler shares an unanticipated achievement in the Bolivian mountains… As I sat on top of the mountain, a sense of triumph and accomplishment grew inside of me, but it was different than any other emotion I had ever felt. It was powerful and intense. It was also strange because I had achieved something that I didn’t even know I wanted to do until the day before. But what really made my sense of pride different was that as it swelled it collided with the reality that I had to go back down. It was tainted; overshadowed by the terrifying work that lay ahead of me. I walked around the summit and took pictures as the sun exploded through the blanket of clouds below into a glorious dawn. The stark cold beauty of the peak was irradiated with orange light that warmed the air and danced on the snow. The world changed. It was breathtaking but it could not fully distract my mind from the awful task that awaited me only a few hundred metres away.
An hour before reaching the summit our guide had warned us: “it gets harder from here.” My oxygen deprived body was already approaching its limits and I wondered how it could get any harder, but when I saw it his words made sense. Its perfection shocked my tired brain. It was colder and harsher than the sub-freezing air that attacked my skin because what I saw attacked my brain. It was something the sinister part of my mind would conjure in a brutal nightmare. But unlike in a dream it was just there. It did not change or twist, there were no monsters waiting to pull me into the abyss, my legs and balance did not fail me. All I could think was, oh okay I am going to do this.
It was a spire of ice stairs less than a metre wide that climbed the spine of the mountain. It was the only way to the summit. On the left side was a 100 metre tumble over sharp rocks. I would not let myself think about what was to the right but I could feel the vast emptiness there. I instinctively knew that it was an extremely long way down. I thought to myself, if I have to fall, go left, there is a slim chance I could survive a fall to the left. If I go right they will never find my body. I looked up the icy stairs into the pale grey sky and before my mind had a chance to betray me I scrambled up on all fours. It was over in a few seconds. I reached the relative safety of a narrow ice path that would take us the last few hundred metres to the summit. Normally the thin path would have been terrifying but after the ice stairs it was a glorious safe haven.
On the path we took a break and the guide began to tell us that the drop to the right was over 1000 meters and that it was incredibly hard and dangerous to climb up that side. I did not look over but I knew that there were clouds between us and the ground. I wanted to tell him to shut up. I wanted to shout “I get it, this is totally dangerous, I can tell by the fact that I can’t even see the ground because there are clouds below us”. I didn’t say anything, I just politely ignored what he was saying. After all, I still needed him to get me down.
During that last break before pushing on to the summit my tired mind drifted and I marveled at the strange series of events that had led me to a narrow ice path not far from the top of a mountain. A few days before I had returned to La Paz from the jungle and I was not sure what to do with my last couple of days in Bolivia. I thought that the jungle was the final thing that I wanted to do. I was ready to head to Argentina but decided that I would just listen to ‘The Universe’ and see what it wanted me to do. A day later someone mentioned that it was possible to climb one of the snow-capped mountains visible in the distance from La Paz. I thought about it for a second and realized that Bolivia would be the last place on this trip where I would be able to climb a mountain and then it dawned on me; why is it that I have never climbed a mountain? I had made up my mind. I asked around and did some research but I had been set in motion; I was going to climb that mountain before I left Bolivia.
On the first day we hiked up the lower part of the mountain to the base camp where we ate dinner and went to bed early. After three hours of sleep we got up at midnight and had breakfast. When I walked out of the simple wood building to begin the ascent I was greeted by a full moon and a layer of clouds in the valley far below that glowed a heavenly white. The serenity of the scene gave me a little extra fortitude as I listened to one last song on my iPod.
My three-man team strapped steel spikes (crampons) to our boots, roped our harnesses together, turned on our head lamps and left the base camp at one thirty in the morning. We were roped together for safety. In reality it meant that if one of us fell the others would probably follow. We were the last group to leave and a few hundred meters up the glacier I accidentally slashed the strap on my right crampon with the spikes from my left. It popped off and the guide had to help me put it back on. This is not a good start I thought; maybe I should have taken the three-day trip so that I could have practiced using the crampons and ice axe before beginning the ascent. I really had no idea how to use the gear and therefore had no confidence in it. Every step I took was unsure. I could never tell if the crampons had a good grip. In some areas I could see rocks and gravel under the ice. Those parts made me extremely nervous. Even with no experience I knew that steel spikes slide on rocks.
Our guide led the way and set a blistering pace. He seemed to be taking my declaration the night before that I wanted to be the first to the top seriously. We soon passed the other teams that started before us. The team that had been in the lead seemed to know what they were doing and were moving at a good pace. When we passed them I thought that we would stay just ahead of them until the summit but their head lights quickly faded into the dark below us.
As we moved higher I could feel my mind becoming lazy. My attention slipped bit by bit. I screamed at myself to focus. I told myself that paying attention could be the difference between getting to the summit or sliding a few hundred metres into the blackness, but I could not get my brain to function. The altitude, cold, exhaustion and lack of sleep weighed down my mind. I was becoming less capable. The only solution was to stop and rest. The second we stopped I began to freeze. The sweat in my jacket and on my head immediately turned against me. As soon as I sat in the snow I realized that the pants the guide had given me were not waterproof. My ass immediately became wet and cold. I watched my guide ramp the butt of his ice axe into the snow and then sit on the top. I tried this only to find that it kept my ass relatively warm but was painfully uncomfortable.
For hours that was how we went. When we moved I was exhausted and my mind became complacent. When we stopped I was cold and miserable. There was very little happiness. Occasionally we would walk over a crevasse. We always went to the narrowest part and jumped the half metre wide gap. But just knowing that there was hundreds of meters of empty space below me sent a surge of fear through my body that exhausted me more than the altitude ever could. Nothing is more draining than a legitimate fear of death. As we got closer to the summit I could sense the black presence of the mountain looming above me. I strained to make it out in the darkness. It seemed to get impossibly steep near the top. It was a menacing rock tsunami. It was hideous gnarled giant. It was beautiful.
When our guide told us it was time to leave the summit and head back down I was ready to get to work. I was not ready when he told me that on the way down I had to go first. On the way up he had led our three-man team and I had been last. I hoped for a second that he was joking but when I realised he wasn’t I asked that he give me some direction along the way. As I set off down the narrow ice path I felt alone even though there were two other men roped to me. At one point the path got narrower and the long drop, which was now on my left became extremely close. I veered a little to the right towards some rocks that gave me something to hold onto. The guide asked me if I was afraid of falling. I wanted to say “hell yes, shouldn’t I be”? At that point every step forward that did not result in a fall to my death was a victory. Victory by victory I moved towards the real challenge, the ice steps.
When we arrived I looked down at the thin ice-covered ridge. Somehow it had gotten narrower while we were at the summit. I tried to focus my vision on the stairs but my eyes betrayed me and moved to the left. There was nothing to see for thousands of metres and then pretty white clouds that gently lay on the mountains below. I leaned up against a brown boulder and looked back at the guide. I don’t think I said anything; the look on my face was enough. He stomped his left crampon and then his right and then slammed the sharp butt of his ice ax into the snow and said “Left, right, axe, one, two, three.” It was not a revelation. It was not magic. It was common sense; always have two points of support before you move the third. But more importantly it was enough to make my barely functioning mind believe that there was a proven technique that could get me safely to the ledge below. I didn’t hesitate or ask for more details. I had enough. My vision narrowed and the viscous drops disappeared. All that existed was that first step. I slammed my left crampon into the top ice step with all the strength the massive adrenaline surge had given me. Bits of ice shattered into the air as the steel spikes bit deep into the step. I said out loud “Left.” Then I slammed my right crampon into the same step and said with a grunt “Right.” The axe followed. I was on the top step. ”Left, right, axe” I nearly shouted. I was on the second step. Step after step. I smashed my equipment into the ice and grunted my ditty.
Half way down the steps I had a moment of clarity. For a second I felt pretty good about still being alive and then I thought how terrible it would be to fall off then. To have come that far and then fail. It wasn’t even about living at that point it was about failure. My focus was broken. My tunnel vision lifted and I saw the infinite drop to my left. I looked to my right. It was steep but I was passed most of the sharp rocks. It was so much more inviting than the abyss. Maybe if I just slide off here I could stop myself a few hundred meters below before I got really hurt. It was a moronic and nearly suicidal idea. I forced it from my mind and went back to what had gotten me that far. ”Left, right, axe.” I shouted. I could hear the fear, exhaustion but also determination in my own voice. Again and again, “Left, right, axe.”
I reached the safety of the ledge. I took a few steps away from the abyss and leaned up against a large boulder. I will never be that exhausted again. The rough surface of the boulder supported me as the adrenaline abandoned my body. After a minute I remembered I was not the only person on the mountain. I turned to see how my partner was doing. He moved carefully down the steps with slightly more grace than me. He joined me on the ledge by the boulder. We exchanged smiles of relief and then watched the guide make his way down. Even he moved with painstaking care and at a methodically slow speed.
Once we were all on the ledge we knew the hardest part was over. We set off with a renewed confidence and energy. There were still many steep and icy faces ahead of us but they would seem easy. As we tramped down the mountain the temperature rose. I took off layer after layer of clothing until I was in a t-shirt with no hat or gloves. The warm sun light sparkled on the snow and ice around us. The world was warm and yellow and white. When we took breaks I comfortably relaxed and marveled at the stunning surroundings.
The steep downhill movement battered our knee. The snow and ice melted in the sun making the footing more treacherous but as we moved lower the angles became less severe. We passed several crevasses that I had only vaguely realized were there in the darkness on the way up. In the bright sunlight they were beautiful blue tombs. Yawning and patiently waiting for careless climbers to make then an eternal home.
When we finally made it to the bottom I took off my crampons and scrambled over the last few boulders back to the building at base camp. Inside the other climbers who did not make it to the top waited. Only half of the climbers that attempt Huayna Potosi make it to the summit. They asked us if we made it and what it was like. I excitedly told them about the sun rise and the ice stairs. I sat on a wooden bench; the most comfortable wooden bench in the world and waited for the exhaustion to overtake me. It never came. The realization of what I had just done solidified inside of me and left no room for fatigue.
As I sat there, I remembered one of the guides telling us about the woman who had died the year before climbing the mountain. She had made it to the top and was almost to the bottom when she lost focus or slipped or a rock shifted. She tumbled a hundred meters over sharp rocks. How horrible I thought, to be that close to finishing and then die. It reminded me of the flawed sense of accomplishment that I felt at the top. I realized that the summit is not the goal. At best it’s the half-way point. The goal is home. Tim Greenler