Posthole. Posthole. Crust.
Er Ge floats before me, his beam receeding into the darkness above. Crust. Posthole. Posthole. Crust Crust. Posthole. Crust. It is beyond logic, beyond rhythm, it is just climbing. One tedious step after another.
We are at 4,837 m, somewhere and nowhere in the black night luminescent by the Northern Summer Sky, lights of Cyrus and Vega and Lyra, Triangulum and the Big Dipper, descending into the proximate dawn. Crampons, sharpened to wolves teeth nightly, and long axe, somewhere above the glacier and somewhere en route to Peak 5128, our destination.
This is our eigth day here on the glacier, and the gods have been merciful in the weather. Tuomingmengke, a glacier five hours drive from Dunhuang, a major outpost on the Silk Road, Bhuddist sanctuary, and a crossroads of Chinese, Uhigur, and Tibetian culture, has been our base. Our team of ten, eight Han Chinese, one Tibetian (Er Ge in Chinese and Rodo in Tibetian), and myself, an American, have spent leisurely days ice climbing sercas, perfecting our shortroping technique, and fixing lines and routesetting in anticipation of what we believe to be a first ascent of Peak 5128.
5128 is neither the tallest nor most imposing pinnacle above Mengke, but the 700m white sheet of 30 degree snow promises an intruiging and feasible line. This is climbing in Western China. Unexplored, undiluted, and unknown. As I move through the laborious steps upwards, a voice in my mind reminds me that I am lucky to be an explorer in a world of known feats and visible records. This, to me, is the essence of mountaineering and is ultimately why I climb.
Yesterday brought the storms of fortune. The morning at base camp, 4,200 m in an arid lifeless brown plain destitute even to Yaks, was clear. In Base Camp, who could not be reminded of the ethereal discordance of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir, or of the ubiquitous hymns plucked from Tibetian and Uhigur folk songs to melody Mandarin songs of homeland, grassland, high mountains, beautiful girls, and heartbroken romance. The music is born of the landscape and is such unescapable.
Yesterday, then, as we prepared to climb and cross the glacier to Camp One, was besieged by hail. Our mess tent sagged under the strain, and we had to flick off the ice every few minutes. After a lengthy snowball war and a moment of doubt, we decided to proceed into the fog and snow.
The path up the glacier was soild ice, but the newfallen snow presented new challenges. After crossing the initial seracs and a weather station at 4,700 m, we proceeded onto a huge field of small but disguised crevasses. Ankle breaking the reality, when in doubt jump and hope for solidity on the other side. At 4:30 pm, after circumventing a massive alpine lake, we found the serrated scheiss again and set up our Camp One at 4,623 m. The skies cleared and the seracs became resplendent in the alpenglow, and despite our petty differences and treacheries we were a team once more.
Sleep and dreams of Mark Twight and Yvon Choinard and the dead forms of Micah Dash, Johnny Copp, and Wade Johnson—people I have never met but are friends of friends, such is our community. At 3 AM I bolt upright, more eager than I have been in a long time for something tangible, something which I consider to be real.
5128. Posthole. Posthole. Crust. Crust. Crust. Crust. Posthole. It goes on as the sun brings an amazing lumi nescense upon the landscape, and all of us—seasoned or otherwise—stop in awe of God.
We skirt up to the top, and in a small dihedral of stones, a temple not fashioned by man, I give thanks.
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