The sunburned faces of the Scots seem a paradoxical contrast to the
three feet of newly fallen snow. They tell a tale of storms and fear, of
chest-deep snow and rain deluge. They'll fly out tomorrow. The
avalanches from the surrounding peaks present a constant roar, like a
Em the Avalanche Poodle tucks her tail between her legs, backs into the
tent and hides under a sleeping bag. We see nothing of her but a pink
wet nose for the next week, as we wait for the avalanches to abate.
Finally Poodle emerges, blinking in the bright sunlight. Whether she's
gone deaf to the constant roar of the avalanches, or whether the
sweltering temperature in the tent, plus lack of water, finally drove
her out, we're not sure. But the Poodle is ready to climb, at last.
Camp One: 8,100 feet. The cirque is a blast furnace. Snow conditions are
abominable, the crust deteriorating into bottomless unconsolidated sugar
sometimes as early as 9 am. We've spent the last eight hours chopping a
tent platform into the only avalanche-safe real estate within one day's
travel. As if to add insult to injury and exhaustion, this evening it
starts to snow.
Bail, bail, we all turn tail.
The storm continues for another 36 hours, first dropping snow, then
rain, as we hunker in base camp.
Camp One, again. Carry a load up through the Bravo Icefall into the
Cauldron, where we roast for the remainder of the day, as below us
avalanches and seracfall strafe the path back to camp One.
Finally sunset brings freezing temperatures to the icefall, and Em and I
make quick work of the descent back to camp.
The Cauldron: back we are, with packs bursting. The plan is to get
everything up the headwall in one carry.
The Headwall: Snow plastered to a rock wall that would itself present a
challenging 5th class climb. Three pitches and we finally pull over the
top, to collapse in the bottomless unconsolidated snow of the upper
Bravo Glacier. After ten steps through the crotch-deep slush, we stop.
This will be Camp Two. It's 11 am.
"Bruce, I can't do this."
Em stands poised at the brink of a chasm. The obvious move is a jump
across the crevasse with her 80-pound pack, while swinging the axe for
purchase on the far side. I carefully explain the move to her: "Yes,
you can. Count of three: One, Two, THREE!" I punctuate the last word
with a huge encouraging tug on the rope.
She's across, the last difficulty before Spearman Saddle is behind. By
10 am, we're probing for crevasses, chopping snow blocks for Camp Three.
Above, the summit of Mystery Mountain gleams from between the clouds.
1 am. Watch alarm. soft roar of the stove. muffled, efficient
conversation focused on the business at hand. Summit day.
Less than 200 feet away, across an inconceivable void, the Tooth shoots
into the sky like a Patagonian spire. Impossible gargoyles of rime leer
from the vertical rock. Up broken blocks I scamper to the base of an
ice-choked chimney. Shreds of rope from once-desperate struggles wander
up and across the rock, into the clouds. Eyeing the ice in the throat
of the chimney, I remove my right crampon and heft my ice hammer. Then,
in true alpine fashion, grab a strand of rope which disappears under the
ice after a few feet. Stem, scrabble, scrape. left frontpoint shattering
verglas, right boot vibram smearing on smooth rock, running out of fixed
rope the hammer swings into the ice-filled cracks numb knuckles smashing
on ice pack is caught under an overhang as my right boot shoots off the
rock sliding over unseen ice swing hammer again desperate pulling over
the lip of the chockstone to see the "fixed" rope dissolve into a tangle
of shredded core strands choking feet flailing in air grab a rock in the
gully desperately seeking handholds the rock pries out of the ice with
me still attached flop on my belly breathing like a sprinter at the
finish line finally over the crux near blacking out...
The relics of past epics festoon this nightmare tower... faded slings
and carabiners hang forlornly from fixed gear out on the vertical walls
to the right and left.
Off comes my other crampon as I tiptoe up dry rock, bypassing another
It starts to snow, very lightly. Finally belay, crux of the Southeast
Em joins me. We spend a few precious moments sipping water, glopping
more sunscreen, munching a lemon drop. Then back to the vertical race.
Upward, following a line of fixed knifeblade pitons through the
strenuous Direct finish. Scamper across ice-slick slabs to the base of a
steep snow gully. Weave through the cliff bands and gargoyles, back into
crampons, fantastic ice-sculptures of solidified cloud plastered to the
rock in gravity-defying lattices.
Summit. We perch, one at a time, balancing on the highest point. The
hoped-for views are but a fantasy, the summit enclosed in a cold gray
cell of lenticular madness.
Rappelling down through cloud. Pitons tugged out by hand at rap
stations... Descent down the fantastic ice gully of "Wadd Hose"
rebuilding each rap station as we go... rappelling off the ends of the
rope just over the bergschrund... 50m and rope stretch puts us back in
hip deep snow on the sloshing, plowing descent back to Spearman Saddle
where we collapse in camp at 7:30 p.m. completely happy, completely
exhausted, knowing that a long and intricate descent still lies ahead in
the coming days.
Far above, the last light of day baptizes the burnished summit of
Mystery Mountain with the crimson hues of blood.
"As an adolescent I aspired to lasting fame, I craved factual certainty, and I thirsted for a meaningful vision of human life - so I became a scientist. This is like becoming an archbishop so you can meet girls."