The South Face is
magnificent. 1½ times the face of the Eiger, 4 times Half Dome, with ice &
altitude thrown in, 2½ times El Cap. The scale is astonishing. There stands
10,000 feet of steep ice & rock & no American has climbed it!
stayed 12 days at their base camp (elevation approximately 13,000 feet) to
acclimate themselves to the altitude. Mornings were spent checking gear and
their physical condition; Connor, who has a keen interest in physiology,
monitored blood pressure, pulse rate and lung capacity. In the afternoons they
made short climbs to test equipment and to get the feel of the face. They were
all itching to begin the climb; the excellent weather they were having wouldn't
last much longer, and they felt strong. Bludworth had had dysentery earlier but
was better after taking the Lomotil and Tetracycline Connor had given him.
Connor himself had suffered headaches, but he knew they were simply a result of
his body adjusting to the altitude. On Dec. 28 they decided it was time to go
and two nights later they bivouacked at the foot of the mountain. At 4:30 a.m.
on New Year's Eve, they crawled out of their sleeping bags into the cold, dark
Andean air, cooked breakfast and began what would be the greatest challenge of
"There was an
element of unpredictability about the climb," says Connor. "We knew we
were sticking our necks out farther than we ever had before. It intrigued us
and gave us spirit to think that we could do the climb while realizing there
was a possibility we couldn't. That's exactly where you want to be on a climb.
If you were so certain of success, the spirit of adventure would be removed and
you probably wouldn't even go to the effort."
Each man carried
a 50-pound pack containing enough food for six days. Messner had written that
the South Face could be climbed—using expedition tactics—in two days, though no
one ever had. The climbers considered this and carried four days' worth of
extra supplies to allow for unforeseen occurrences. Connor had written in his
diary on Dec. 28:
I feel more
confident than ever we can do it with only one bivouac.
An early morning
start was necessary because the lower part of the mountain is avalanche-prone,
and the climbers wanted to be through that area before the sun softened the
snow. "There was a tremendous amount of snow and ice on the face,"
Connor says, "and that whole side avalanched constantly. All of those
overhanging glaciers avalanche daily. After you've spent a day or a night
wondering if millions of tons of ice are going to come tumbling down and crush
you, you know how that can take the fun out of it."
The partners made
good progress that first day, climbing 2,300 vertical feet to the bottom of a
section known as the Broken Towers. But the closer they got, the more ominous
the Broken Towers appeared. From Connor's diary:
We are on a knife
edge at 6:15 pm with no good bivouac ledges in sight. So we decide to push into
the Towers, hoping to find a better place to sleep. Chuck did a magnificent
lead [climbed first to establish the route] to get to the bivvy [but] we lose!
No ledge & no place to cook or lay flat. We bivvy in an ice-filled chimney
of rotten rock hanging in harnesses, unable to cook or sleep. The price we pay
in loss of energy is at least a day.
The worst effect
of spending the night hanging upright in a two-foot-wide chimney was not so
much the discomfort as the inability to cook. It is vital that climbers take
food and liquid to prevent dehydration and to combat the effects of altitude,
especially thickening of the blood. They had not only missed a night's sleep
but had also missed two meals. The next morning they continued to climb the
Broken Towers. "Struggling fearsomely," according to Connor, it took
four hours to reach the top, where they stopped to cook and rest.
did the Towers release their hold on us. The last 20 feet we had to tiptoe on a
knife-edged arête [narrow ridge] with packs on and no belay. I just swallowed
my apple, waiting for a death fall. My greatest fear now is that someone will
make a tired mistake and we will have an accident.