You won't get far in the backcountry without pushing through challenging conditions and terrain. But perseverance can be your worst enemy, and turning around the only way to succeed. Mark Jenkins explores the fine line between daring and doom.
Neither of us slept that night. Twice, avalanches nearly killed us. We just lay in our tent, listening as intently as soldiers, straining to interpret the portent of each explosion.
My partner, soft-spoken Louisiana climber Ross Lynn, and I had come to eastern Tibet to attempt unclimbed 20,000-foot Nyambo Konka. The peak was so unknown we’d left home bereft of beta: no photographs, no descriptions, no idea what the mountain even looked like—just a fuzzy photocopy of a Chinese topo. It could have been a high-altitude walk-up or a sheer-walled monster.
The mystery of this isolated peak drew us like moths to light. It had taken a week of humping loads to reach the base of the east face, during which time it was ceaselessly misty or snowing. We had only seen the mountain once.
When the sun finally sliced through the mattress of clouds, we discovered we’d hiked right up beneath a quarter-mile-long hanging glacier. After beelining across a fan of avalanche debris, we made camp in what we thought was a safe alcove beneath a prominent rock rib.
That evening, Ross was regaling me with a story of his ascent of Lurking Fear, a notorious route on Yosemite’s El Capitan, when an ominous roar drowned out his words. Suddenly, ice and snow pummeled our tent. Ross and I dove out into the darkness, clawing barehanded and sock-footed to safety. After the avalanche passed, Ross in his laconic Southern drawl said, “Perhaps we should move camp.”
We spent the next hour digging out a new tent platform by headlamp, only to have an avalanche sweep by on the opposite side the moment we were back in our bags. At the first semblance of light, Ross exited the torn tent and studied the face above us with a monocular.
“How’s it look?” I asked from the warmth of my bag.
“Couloirs are avalanche chutes and the rock is rotten,” replied Ross.
“How’s the weather?”
“It’s not storming.”
What to do? Had we had two feet of fresh powder, or high winds, or both, we could have justly turned tail. But as often happens, from our present, radically foreshortened vantage point, we couldn’t accurately determine the conditions of the mountain. We had to test them firsthand. At this stage, the reward still seemed worth the risk.
We scrambled up the first few hundred feet, then the face steepened and we were confronted with the appalling insecurity of the rock: thousands of feet of sharp, irregular blocks stacked one on top of the other, held together only by the mortar of ice.
We reluctantly moved into the couloirs. Unroped, swinging ice tools, we began climbing the face, connecting ravines of snow. Despite the shaky start, all was going relatively well. Then the weather went to crap. Soon, snow squalls threatened to knock us off the face.
“We’re moving too slow!” I shouted over the roar of the wind. Ross nodded. Yelling back and forth, we discussed our options. Continuing upward, whether we reached the summit or not, guaranteed an exposed, bagless bivouac. Hypothermia certain, frostbite likely. If it snowed too much, we would be swept off the mountain by avalanches.
I stabbed my finger downward. Ross shouted, “OK,” and we turned around.
We descended all the way back to basecamp, where we recuperated with slabs of fried pork and buckets of Chinese greens—and planned our second assault. “Let’s try the south ridge,” I suggested. “More sun, less snow.”
We went alpine style, one push. Gaining the ridge directly from the valley floor required bushwhacking up a thousand vertical feet of briar patch. Emerging onto the alpine slopes, we were so scratched and bloodied we’d be pulling thorns out of our hands for weeks.
The ridge itself, which had appeared benign from a distance, turned out to be a series of ugly gendarmes—towers of crumbling rock. For several days, we tiptoed sideways and down and around more than up.
Then, somewhere above 16,000 feet, Ross slumped to the ground. It could have been the altitude, it could have been fatigue, it could have been the mental strain of dealing with fear and uncertainty for days on end. Whatever the cause, his body simply refused to go higher. No amount of cajoling could change the situation.
It crushed me to back down. Descending through the briar patch, thorns tearing at my skin, the expedition over, Churchill’s famous inducement reverberated in my head: “Never, never, never give up.”