At midnight the alarm went off in the tent. We crawled out of our warm sleeping bags and into the subzero darkness, fumbling into harnesses and hard hats. We were getting ready to wander around a glacier at night.
In four days of ice climbing school, this was not the dumbest thing we did. For some reason, when I began to tell people I was going to the Andes to learn to scale frozen walls of water, the universal response was: Be careful.
The capital of Andean ice climbing is Huaraz, a pleasant town in northern Peru, perched at 10,000 feet with fantastic views of the Cordillera Blanca mountains rising in the background, including the twin peaks of Vallunaraju, one of the smaller mountains hereabouts, jutting up to a mere 18,655 feet.
The peak climbing period falls during the dry season of the equatorial winter, June to August, when gringos in Gore-tex and fleece overrun the town and every second store on the main street seems to be some sort of outdoor adventure agency.
I signed up on a group leaving for a four-day course. The others were Gideon, a 23 year old former paratrooper from Israel, Thomas, a 38 year old Outward Bound instructor from Seattle who has taught rock climbing, and Jonathan, 33, a gyml climbing enthusiast from Britain. I was the least experienced person in the group.
The next morning we drove north of town for two hours; then we piled enough gear on ourselves to bow a pack mule and spent another couple of hours hiking up a steep cliff side trail to a camp site above the snow line.
On day two we climbed up to a glacier and practiced self--arresting: throwing yourself over the edge and pushing the pick of your axe into the snow to stop your slide. We learned to place ice screws, bolts longer than a man’s finger that you twist into the ice and clip your rope to with a carabiner so that if you fall the screw will keep you from tumbling off the mountain. We climbed up the side of a glacier by kicking the front points of our spiky crampons into the ice and swinging an axe in each hand overhead.
On the third day we rose at midnight, roped up and made for the summit at 2 a.m. The sky was alight with constellations as bright as fireworks. The beams from our headlights lit up ice crystals in the snow that sparkled like stars beneath our feet.
We spent hours trudging up a 45 degree slope. My feet and fingers were numb, my mouth and throat parched. We paused frequently to drink water, which kept freezing in the bottle, and catch our breathe, panting like overheated dogs.
After four hours dawn flooded the sky with light and we could finally see the mountain looming above and the danger underfoot. We crossed snow bridges over blue crevasses and walked around indentations in the powder that hide black abysses. We passed ledges hung with forests of icicles as big as my arm. Crazy, wind-whipped ice sculptures glinted in the bright sunlight. We jumped a three-foot wide fissure that seemed to split the mountain in half.
At the col between the mountain’s twin peaks, the snow grew waist deep. Adrian, our instructor, assumed the laborious task of shoveling a path with his ice axe and we measured our progress in single footsteps. An hour later we were climbing the final knife edge of gravity-defying snow to the mountain’s crest. My crampons sent snow discs rolling down the steep slope carving arching trails before skittering off into space. “This,” Tom said behind me, “is the craziest thing I’ve ever done.”
Then we were standing on the summit, range after range of barren, glacier-topped mountains stretching away to the horizon. It was 8 a.m.
Our last day of school promised to be anticlimactic. It turned out to be one of the hardest days of my life.
We hiked to an ice wall almost 100 feet high. Gideon and Tom led the first, easy climb. Adrian told Jon and myself to led the second climb. Then he pointed to a steeper and higher section of the wall. I whacked my axes and kicked the front points of my crampons into the ice, stopping to place the first screw about 20 feet off the ground. Another 20 feet and I stopped again. Letting go of the axe in my right hand, I unclipped a screw from my belt and started to twist it into the glacier. The ice slushed away. It was like trying to hammer a nail into a snow cone.
I tried a different patch of ice. It was just as bad. I grabbed the axe and climbed higher, looking for firmer ice. Below Adrian was shouting instructions in Spanish. I could only make out “careful” and “slowly.” My arms were beginning to cramp. I wasn’t even halfway up yet.
Fumbling with the screw with one hand in a bulky glove grew frustrating. I pulled off my gloves with my teeth. Finally, I got the screw into the ice. I groped to clip my rope in and the carabiner slipped off the screw and slid down the line out of sight. I didn’t have any extra carabiners, except for one attached to a screw that was supposed to be the backup anchor for my partner when I reached the top of the wall. I used that one.
The axes grew heavier with every swing. My sunglasses filmed over with snow. I yanked them off. Ice exploded in my face with each blow. I could barely lift my arms above my head when I reached the rim. I swung with such little force now that the picks glanced off the ice without taking hold.
Two good blows. The axes held and I pulled myself over the edge onto a slope like a high pitched roof. I planted the axes in as hard as I could and just hung there. The glacier flattened out a few feet higher but I couldn’t move. I gulped air like I had just burst to the surface of the ocean.
After several minutes I looked down at my hands gripping the axe handles. My glove liners were in shreds. So were my knuckles. There was blood on the snow.
I crawled to the top of the slope, fixed an anchor and yelled for Gideon to start climbing as I pulled up the slack in the rope. Jon lumbered over the ridge next to me. He said that his axes had sheared out of the ice while he was placing a screw, dropping him until another screw 15 feet below caught him. He spun around wildly on the rope, smashing his leg hard against the ice and coming to rest with his back against the wall.
The rope in my hands jerked taut. Gideon had slipped. I held tight until his weight came off the line and he resumed his ascent. He clambered over the edge, followed by Tom.
It started to snow. We walked off the mountain. Jon was limping. Gideon mumbled curses about falling. Tom had to take it slow, fighting altitude sickness. My knuckles were raw and swollen, the watch my sister had given me left somewhere on the glacier.