Senile musings of an ascent of the Harding Route on Mt. Conness
I think I’m having a heart attack.
It feels like an elephant is sitting on my chest. I can’t catch my breath. There’s a shooting pain in my left arm and shoulder. The gloomy talus field around me darkens at the edges, until I’m peering down a long dark mist-filled tunnel, the opening of which swims and wavers in my vision.
Pat disappeared into the growing whiteout (Darkout is what it seems to me in my fading consciousness) about a half an hour of an eternity ago. I turn and swim toward the light at the end of the tunnel, and as I do, the daylight solidifies back into a more substantial reality.
Somewhere a huge bellows huffs and chugs like a medieval forge, but rather than the “Ting!” of the blacksmith’s hammer on the anvil, I instead hear a thudding sound, like huge flour sacks quickly being tossed out the back of a truck by a team of overcaffeinated trolls, hitting the ground hard enough to shake my teeth. I puzzle over these sounds, muddle-headed.
As I finally emerge from my tunnel into full daylight, the world swims into focus. I’m laying face-down on a boulder, pack still on my back. The bellows is my own breathing, and the flour sack thuds of my heartbeat a frantic earthquake thumping the world.
I stagger upright, and plod onward into the growing twilight.
Darkness. Pat and I burrow into bivy bags on the flat shoulder of the mountain as the gusting winds shred the clouds against the sharp teeth of a nearby ridge. I pull out some beer from a well-stocked but horribly heavy pack as the clouds battle the stars for the possession of the night sky.
Where are we? Harding, the author of this huge climb on Mt. Conness, had a remarkable resemblance to Satan. "They shall be cast into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth." The rime ice on the nearby boulders is a ghostly phosphorescence seen only at vision’s periphery, hiding when I look straight at it, its eerie magic a dim premonition that we are camped at the gates of a freezing hell.
Dawn after a night of dark dreams.
Base of the wall.
My first pitch is a waterfall. Retching, I teeter up 5.10 verglassed slime. Water sears a scar of ice into my wrists, down my upraised arms, into my armpits. I want to scream.
Pitches fly by in a blur after that first rude wake-up call. I don’t experience the climb as a flow of time but rather as a series of terrifying instants. Pat solves the riddle of the crux pitch with a bold mantle/traverse, then cracks the obstacle of the dirty 5.10c overhang, his jams grinding into the filth of the crack at the desperate edge of flight. People have died here. My blown-out shoes pop off at the start of a 5.8 pitch… totally unexpected, we are both surprised by the ensuing 15-foot fall.
Pushing, we dance on the edge of sanity, beyond the vertical. The steps we follow were choreographed by a lunatic named Harding.
A couple 165+ foot pitches puts us at the next hard section (although I recall a desperate thrutch in an overhanging offwidth in the interim).
I’m standing on the first big ledge for a thousand feet. Above, the crack system we have been following shoots up through distant dripping overhangs. Instead of following this insane line, Pat scuttles to the right, and stops when he reaches a blank vertical section that blocks our exit. The face, covered with a half inch of ice, is marked by a bolt, confirming that this is the path of preference.
Clouds, un-noticed until now, eat the daylight, backing up against the top of the face which, far above, vanishes into the mist.
Stymied. Gotta move. Our bodies clench in on themselves with barely-controlled angst, able only to deal with the developing situation by climbing the next few feet before our faces as quickly as possible. repeat ad infinitum.
Pat grabs the bolt, tensions across the ice-clad 5.10 move, and runs the rope out up 5.10 finger crack and 5.8 chimney plugging few cams as I move across the ledge to the base of the ice-locked crux simul climbing things are starting to fall apart no belay ledge in sight yet as Pat’s distant shouts are garbled by the rising wind but suddenly the rope stops and a faint “off belay” between gusts brings a respite.
I follow this wild pitch shamelessly leapfrogging cams up slick crack after my vein-bursting fist jams slide easily out of crack, pigs on greased playground slide wetness and ice soaking and numbing my nerveless clubs to the elbows scraped knuckles too cold to bleed I pull onto the belay shivering almost as soon as I stop, breathing in short panic-gasps Pat wide-eyed hands over what is left of the rack and I race up my lead as it begins to snow.
Three pitches left, all 5.9, vertical cracks disappearing up the misty rock into the storm-swept, snow-filled sky. Us with nothing but garbage bags for rain gear.