With about half
an hour's digging we had carved a platform for the tent. In another few minutes
we were inside and trying to make things comfortable. Instead of air mattresses
we had brought light insulating pads made out of Ensolite, and we put these on
the floor of the tent. With the Ensolite and our body heat, the tent was warm
enough for us to unzip our jackets. Dave and Gary flopped on their sleeping
bags, exhausted. I was starving and, with a sort of clumsy determination, began
terrible things. At 19,000 feet, when it is windy and your fingers won't work
right, they are impossible. Dinner turned out to be a lukewarm hoosh made of
dried soup, tinned beef and bouillon, with some cheese, nuts and chocolate for
dessert. I wolfed down mine and then got Gary and Dave to eat theirs. The food
brought all of us around a bit, and we went outside to secure the tent in the
face of rising winds. We put the equipment boxes against the tent and poured
water on the snow around the tent pegs to freeze the pegs into the snow.
I looked south to
the peak. It looked like a sleeping giant, peaceful and yet a little
unpredictable. It was dark now, and the cold wind soon drove me back inside. We
talked for a little while about "our peak." We agreed to get an early
start and then see how far we could go. There wasn't much talk about making a
summit attempt out of it, because we had no idea how long it would take us to
cross the long snowfields and pick our way up its steep upper slopes. We would
see when we got there.
Night was easy,
as nights go at that altitude. The tent held, and the cold wasn't unbearable.
We began to experience the first overt manifestations of high altitude,
however. Several times I woke up gasping for breath. Each time I had to take
several slow breaths, not too long and not too deep—a little like breathing
from an aqualung—and this put me back to sleep.
We moved slowly
in the morning. After tea and some cereal we got out of the tent and put on all
our high-altitude gear. Then we started the climb up the mountain. We moved
with studied slowness: a step and then a breath, a step and then a breath. For
hours we moved across the lower snowfields in a slow steady rhythm. It was
warm, and there wasn't much wind. The climb was tiring, but we were encouraged.
We were making good progress, and the crevasses on the upper ice fields didn't
look impassable as we got closer.
As the mountain
got steeper, we roped up and became more cautious. Gary led, with David second.
The first several crevasses were easy. Sometimes we had to work our way back
and forth looking for a good spot to cross, but the solid ice and snow made it
relatively safe. As the mountain got steeper still, we had to climb the upper
side of each crevasse. It was more difficult now. The altitude made what was an
enjoyable stunt on a lower glacier a difficult and dangerous effort here. We
changed leads, leaving David second, with Gary and me switching. The ice walls
were 8-to-10-feet high by now, and there were several of them we had to climb.
After each we had to stop and breathe deeply for a long time. We were climbing
rapidly, and the altitude and wind were getting to us. We had to zip up our
jackets and keep our backs to the wind as much as possible.
We could see a
place where the mountain disappeared above us. The sun was on it. It looked
like a summit. The wind was coming up, and it was getting late. This was when
we had to decide. We were very tired, but we figured that everyone is very
tired at that altitude, especially without oxygen. We were well over 21,000
feet, and we estimated the summit to be about 22,000 feet.
We looked at each
other, and Gary made an upward motion with his thumb. Dave and I followed suit.
It was for real now. We had stopped pretending that we were just out for a
walk, and each of us was psychologically committed to getting to the top of the
mountain. This commitment means a lot. A climber, after years of struggling up
peaks, learns to run on nerves the last few hundred feet of any mountain. He
will take incredible punishment and hurl himself against impossible odds simply
because he has decided to climb to the top.
Up we went,
slowly: step, breath, step, breath. The crevasses ended, and the mountain
narrowed to a sharp snow ridge. The snow was solid, and we could get a good
foothold with our crampons. The ridge was exposed, though, and the wind
threatened to blow us off. It stung our faces and sucked the heat out of our
bodies. I took a picture, and my fingers stuck to the metal on my camera.
The wind made it
difficult to stay on our feet. The ridge got narrow and steep. We walked bent
over, with our hands on the snow. The last few hundred feet we climbed on all
fours. We crossed a small flat spot and then crawled the final few feet to the
summit, completely exhausted.