When El Viento
Blanco hadn't ceased by dusk, they bivouacked for the night. It was their
second-worst night on the mountain, and again the wind was too heavy for them
to cook. In the morning. El Viento Blanco was still raging. Connor was the
strongest—his size, 6'2", 180 pounds, and his maturity seemed to sustain
him—so he retreated to look for better shelter while Andrews and Bludworth
waited. When he found a spot he waved them down, but the two younger men left
their packs behind, hypoxia and dehydration having affected their thinking.
Connor went back up alone to retrieve the packs. He carried both of the packs
down and they bivouacked in preparation for spending their eighth night on the
"The guys had
done a magnificent climb." says Connor. "They had finished the climb
the day before. They were off the face. It was just bad timing we hit on the
summit plateau. Nobody should be up there for nearly two days after they've
done a six-day, 10,000-foot face and gone through what we went through. Nobody
should have to put up with that. Nobody should have survived it."
When they rose
the ninth morning the weather was good but Bludworth's condition was not. The
effects of altitude were outweighing any benefit he was getting from rest and
liquid. This was the day they had to reach the summit and head down the north
side. They were virtually out of food. They were out of strength.
thinking strictly of survival at this point." says Connor. "We
abandoned all our gear, cut our loads down to a bare minimum: just sleeping
bags, a bivouac sack and a couple of candy bars each. Didn't even carry the ice
axes. Every ounce you attached to your body stacked the odds against you. We
didn't need much because we knew that the north route had huts on the way down
and a lot of people on it. It was just a matter of getting over the top.
were able to get up and pack their bags. They were able to get themselves
dressed. They were able to eat. I got about three quarts of liquid down all of
us. If altitude sickness has gotten to a man, usually there will be a sign,
like he will sit down and start babbling about something. Neither of these guys
had those signs. They were still functioning. They were answering my questions.
They were contributing to the discussion. I told them how to pace themselves on
this kind of walk. Because it's nontechnical, you might have a tendency to try
and race. And especially being young and inexperienced and impatient, that's
what you've got to guard against doing. So I told them to take five steps at a
time. No more, no less. No matter what kind of terrain, if it flattened out a
little bit, stay with your five-step pace. Take five steps and rest, five steps
and rest. If you take more, I said, the danger is you might sit down, go to
sleep, lose a couple hours. Maybe the weather will close in on you.
'O.K., I'm going ahead and break the trail, and you guys follow me.' I told
them if they fell behind me, I would wait a while at the summit, and if I
didn't see them there, I would meet them at the first hut on the trail back
down. They understood and acknowledged those instructions. 'Fine,' they
As Connor left
the bivouac site, he looked over his shoulder. Bludworth was standing next to
Andrews, tying his boots. Connor gave Andrews the thumbs-up sign, and Andrews
returned it. It would be the last time Connor would see either one.
With his line of
sight obscured by the ridges on the plateau, Connor was not alarmed when he
failed to spot his companions as he walked on. He assumed they were back there,
following his footsteps in the snow, perhaps behind that last ridge. After 40
minutes Connor was back at the edge of the arête, which in the absence of wind
presented little problem, and in 15 more minutes he reached the summit. For
nearly a day all three of them had been only 15 minutes from the summit, and
they hadn't known it.
Connor waited for
his partners at the summit for another 15 minutes. He was too spent to go back
down and look for them, and besides, he was not worried. With the exhilaration
at reaching the summit already leaving him, he started searching for the trail
down the north side. He could see a hut on the trail nearly 1,500 feet below,
but when he headed straight for it, he came to a slope too steep to descend. He
worked his way around to the western edge of the summit, where the trail
actually began. With four discarded aluminum tent poles he found there he made
an arrow pointing to the trail and then headed down.
In his weakened
state, Connor kept falling, so he began crawling down the trail on his hands
and knees and sliding on his buttocks until the ground became level enough to
walk. It took three hours to reach the hut, a 12-foot-long shelter whose roof
had blown off long ago. There he collapsed in his sleeping bag, still expecting
Andrews and Bludworth to arrive within the hour. Three hours passed; it got
dark. It was then that Connor knew they would never come; another exposed night
would kill them.