their own mistakes, it was now a matter of surviving the elements. Because of
the darkness and wind it was impossible to carve out a solid bivouac on the
ledge, to clear away enough space so they could crawl into their sleeping bags.
Their fingers were too numb to light the stove or, worse, to loosen their
bootlaces; and with tight boots the circulation in their feet would be cut off,
probably resulting in frostbite. "Every time we took our mittens off to try
to undo the laces our hands froze," Connor says. "I stuck my feet in
Chuck's crotch and he stuck his in mine, and still we couldn't work our boots
loose. We knew that if we didn't get those boots undone we were going to lose
our toes. We worked at it maybe half an hour, but finally we just said, 'Screw
it. Let 'em freeze.' That's pretty remarkable. We're not people of low
willpower, and to just sit there and say, 'Well, I guess I'm going to give up
my toes because I'm too tired to get my boots off,' is hard to imagine. But
when you're at that stage of exhaustion and your thinking processes are dulled
from lack of oxygen and your fingers are frozen, there isn't anything you can
do about it."
retreating never seriously entered the climbers' minds. They felt that trying
to rappel down such a difficult face in a weakened condition, with nothing but
loose rock and snow against which to anchor their ropes, would have been
suicide. Their only choice was to wait until morning and try the rock
So they sat
hunched up on the tiny ledge at 20,500 feet, legs intertwined and sleeping bags
draped over their bodies in a futile attempt to ward off El Viento Blanco. For
more than 12 hours they huddled, too numb to sleep or talk, until daylight of
the sixth day.
that really startles me is how we were able to get up and climb the next
day." says Connor. "I think you just realize you have no choice. You
can't stop there and you can't go down. In a way, it's even kind of a mental
relief for everything to be immaterial but one goal. You have to climb, and you
have to do it yourself. You have to get to the top, and you have to keep from
The French Rib is
proving to be a bit of a bitch! After the hard rock pitch, we brewed up some
hot liquid and I led up a 65°-75° [pitch of] loose snow over questionable rock.
It just seemed the whole face could easily shed any moment. I move left, right,
anywhere to find a stance on this sugar arête. It turns to a knife edge & I
forget any thoughts of protection. It is simply not possible. A boulder
protrudes from the arête & blocks views of the route above. I clear tons of
snow from the rock to get on ' top & find a perfect saddle seat to belay
for the others. Boys came up looking a bit weary so I took the next lead also,
up over more endless, unprotectable knife edge until blocked by a large rock
outcrop. (Still can't get off this bloody French Rib.)
This was the last
diary entry. They bivouacked below the rock outcrop that night and the next
morning Connor led the climb over it. After one more pitch they topped the
French Rib and stood on a plateau that led to the summit. The technical
climbing was finished. They had scaled the South Face. All they had to do now
was hike and hold out.
Because of the
ridges that crossed the plateau, however, they couldn't see the summit and were
unsure of how far above it was. For four hours they trekked, hopes soaring as
they crested each ridge and sinking when the view from that ridge presented,
not the summit, but yet another ridge.
They reached a
snow arête about two feet wide, with slopes on each side falling away for
thousands of feet. El Viento Blanco was building again. They had no ropes,
having discarded them after the French Rib when the technical climbing was
completed. They would have to wait it out.
"Guy and I
more or less made the decision," says Connor. "Chuck was kind of
sitting off on a rock howling about his feet being numb and not feeling them
too well. So Guy and I discussed it, and as I recall, my exact words were, 'We
can't take him over right now.' We had considered the possibility of forcing
our way over in the wind, but we didn't know whether this ridge was going to
take us five minutes or an hour. And an hour out in that wind would have been
fatal for all of us."