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"Some of us enjoyed it," the young man said again. "I lost over $700 at your silly game."
SIX NIGHTS ON THE NEEDLE
The great peak of Mont Blanc looms in its cold white grandeur above uncounted bristling granite spires, among them the aiguilles (needles) of Chamonix. There are scores of routes to the summit of Mont Blanc, just as there is an "easy" way to the peak of Aiguille du Dru (sharp needle), but the wall face of the Dru is the sheerest in the Alps. Until a couple of weeks ago it never had been climbed.
Walter Bonatti, a blue-eyed Alpine guide who last year was the youngest member (24) of the Italian expedition that conquered K-2 in the Western Himalayas (SI, Aug. 16, 1954), set out to climb it alone. He made it, at the cost of skinless hands and nights of enshrouding fear.
"On Dru," he said, "I knew fear as I have never known it before. There were many moments in which the whole of the thoughts which filled my brain cried to me, 'Go back, go down, go back!' It was fear of the mountains' solitude as much as of physical difficulties. But at night sleep mercifully came."
Sleep meant sitting for most of the six nights in a loop of rope to which he lashed himself to hang in a sleeping bag over black void. One night he was lucky. He found a ledge he could sit on, legs dangling over a precipice.
"The first night," he went on, "I bivouacked at the foot of the direttissima (the most direct route).
"Next morning at dawn, I threw up a loop to a projection and it caught hold. Without resting I was then able to lift myself 150 meters up the wall's face. Then night came. I regretted my earlier decision to leave my small transmitting radio behind so as to lighten my load. Silence and solitude suddenly loomed immense. They were broken only by the deep voice of the glacier beneath me and the whistling wind. Some stones every now and then dropped from the wall face down into the pit below. They frightened me, too. But then dawn came.
"But day also brought me trouble: a sort of chimney covered with ice into which I couldn't get the point of a nail. Therefore I could make no use of the rope. I embraced that chimney with all my strength—it projected outward over a precipice—and I pressed against it with all I had, including my nose, and gradually edged up. When I reached the top of the chimney I realized with terror that I would never be able to climb down it. Once I started sliding down I would inevitably slither into the abyss. I was beyond the point of no return, and though the actual amount of the face I had climbed was short, night was upon me. But then, after another night, I saw the sun.
"And so it was on the following days. On the last day, the whole of the skin on my hands had gone, left on the wall face or on the rope. I grew terribly thirsty. Below I had quenched my thirst with snow; but there was no snow on the wall's smooth face now.