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That night El Viento Blanco returned. It blew 90 to 100 mph all night long. "I don't think I've ever had a worse night mentally," says Connor. "I couldn't sleep, a result of a combination of exhaustion and depression. There wasn't a damned thing I could do but sit there and listen to the wind howl. I had to sit there and just live with myself."
The next afternoon Connor descended to another hut, where he found three Venezuelan climbers. He told them the story, and one of them ran down to get a rescue party while the other two assisted Connor to the bottom. But because of bad weather it would be four days before a rescue party could reach the summit. The rescue party found no one, though it did discover that one of the two ice axes—Andrews'—had been taken. They also found the bivouac site as it had been left the final morning, abandoned gear strewn in the snow, including Andrews' boots, which he had finally been unable to get over his swollen feet—he had put on Connor's tennis shoes that last day—and a talisman that Andrews' mother had given him for the climb.
Connor feels certain Andrews took the axe. But he doesn't know where his partners might have gone from there. They might have been blown off the final arête, though Connor thinks that highly unlikely. His best guess is that they reached the summit, failed to see the aluminum arrow pointing to the downward trail, headed directly toward the hut over the steep northern edge and either slipped over that slope or simply got lost in the rocks below. Connor expects their bodies will eventually be found by future climbers.
Connor has lost all his toes to frostbite, as well as the tips of two fingers. He stays at home in Palm Springs with his 18-year-old daughter, who has temporarily moved in to help him with daily chores. He deals with the tragedy one day at a time.
Some days he tries to forget it entirely while planning his next expedition, an Alpine ascent of a Himalayan mountain in 1982, but his missing toes are a constant and gruesome reminder.
Some days he confronts the question of his responsibility. He concedes that he might have been able to prevent the death of his partners by not walking ahead of them that final morning, by moving at their pace rather than his own, so that he could have urged them on if they faltered. After all, it was Connor himself who said, "Sometimes you have to slap a guy and say, 'Hey, if you don't move from there, you're gonna die!' "
Other days he admits that his judgment may have been more affected by the altitude than he realized, that if Andrews and Bludworth really were on their last legs, he failed to recognize it only because his perceptions were dulled, too. Still, he tells himself, his partners were coherent that final morning, with no signs of serious altitude illness. Besides, Guy was such a super climber—and hadn't he given Connor the thumbs-up sign?
Connor will not allow himself to feel guilt. Maybe some responsibility, but no guilt. It's a paradox, but it's Connor's paradox and his alone to solve.
"No, I can't tell myself if I'd stayed behind they'd be alive today," he says. "That would be a good way to torment myself for the rest of my life."
One man who might understand Connor's paradox is Reinhold Messner. In 1970 he was on a Nanga Parbat expedition that included his younger brother, Günter. It was the first 8,000-meter peak for both of them. They embraced on the summit. But Günter was suffering from exhaustion and acute mountain sickness. As they climbed down he lagged behind Reinhold. An avalanche struck, and Günter was buried. It was three more days before Reinhold made it all the way down, on frostbitten feet. Messner's return to Nanga Parbat in 1978 and his successful solo there—considered a suicidal climb by some—may have been an attempt to settle things with the mountain and/or himself.