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Die Another Day

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.

In the spring of 2009, I returned to Nyambo Konka with three partners: Jackson Hole Mountain Guide Kenny Gasch and two New Zealanders, Lydia Bradey and Penny Goddard. Both Kiwis had cut their teeth on hard routes in the Southern Alps. Lydia, a smart, tough climbing guide, was the first woman to climb Everest without oxygen and had led mountaineering expeditions around the globe. Penny, a beautiful avalanche forecaster, had also climbed Everest, as well as many other mountains.

The goal was once again the east face. Lydia and I were to make the first summit attempt, Kenny and Penny the second. Lydia and I left camp by headlamp, ascending steep couloirs for the first 2,000 feet (just as I had with Ross Lynn). We roped up to cross a delicate snow bridge connecting two gendarmes, then simul-climbed with the occasional ice screw between us.

By mid-afternoon, we were only one long pitch below the heavily corniced summit ridge. To surmount the cornice required tunneling up inside a precarious 40-foot shaft of ice. Popping out on top, I found myself on a knife-edge with a drop of thousands of feet on both sides. It was like hanging out of an airplane by the teeth of my ice tools. I was so scared I was queasy.

Looking up, I saw that the summit ridge was cut with crevasses and impossible to ascend or descend without a half dozen ice screws and several ropes, which we didn’t have. After delicately downclimbing from the brink and showing the digital photos to Lydia, she shook her head knowingly and stabbed her finger downward.

We had only dropped 800 feet when a storm pounced. We managed to chop out a ledge, erect our tent, and cook dinner. We initially talked cavalierly about our chances of surviving, but by midnight, we were actually worried. Our tent was being buried in new snow. “We’re in a bit of a pickle,” Lydia said.

If we stayed put and the snowstorm continued, we’d be washed away by avalanches. On the other hand, if we tried descending—in the dark, when we were already exhausted—we risked falling off the face.

Trying to make light of the situation, I sang a line from The Clash’s well-known ode to indecision. “Should we stay or should we go-oh?”

Lydia smiled grimly. “We go.”

Shoving our feet back into frozen boots, we stepped from the tent into the tempest. The cones of our headlamps were clotted with flying snow. The frozen tent was solid as an igloo, so we abandoned it. Eight treacherous inches of snow lay in the couloirs we had ascended 20 hours earlier.

We roped up and began carefully downclimbing, weaving between rock outcrops, hoping that if one of us slipped or was swept off the face by a slough, the rope would catch on something. The harder it snowed, the more I expected a misplaced posthole to start an avalanche and sweep us both to our deaths. For the first hour anxiety was ripping me apart, then Lydia said something that calmed me down:

“Mark, we have no choice. There’s nothing else we can do.”

This somehow created in me what could be called a sense of optimistic fatalism—I stopped sweating death, stopped worrying if we’d actually turned around too late, and just focused on downclimbing, one careful move at a time.

As in many other outdoor predicaments, mountaineering rarely presents a binary dilemma. Usually there are a host of options—you simply have to remain calm enough to think them through. If you’re cold, for example, should you simply move faster? Or should you put on more clothes, or build a fire, or change into dry clothes, or stop and take shelter, or put up your tent and get in your sleeping bag? There are often a dozen different places to ford a stream. Which is safest? Before giving up, and without panicking, you owe it to yourself to carefully work through each option.

The greatest difficulty arises when one person wants to turn around and another doesn’t. This is precisely when rational thinking must override emotion. But you have to understand whose emotions are at work, and why. Perhaps the objective dangers of continuing forward are minimal, but someone is freaking out. Then again, perhaps it’s the opposite and someone is driven more by pride than common sense. The cool head should always prevail.

Lydia and I reached camp below the east face an hour after dawn, where we rendezvoused with Kenny and Penny. Lydia ate a little, napped a little, and then miraculously carried on down to basecamp with Kenny. He had been studying the face, and decided it was a no-go. I holed up with Penny, hoping the next day would be sunny, the mountain would brush itself off, and we could give it another try in a day or two.

But it started snowing hard again that afternoon. We got in the tent. Penny made dinner while I cued up John Prine songs, plugging my earbuds underneath her blond pigtails. For a few hours it was fun, almost serene. But the snow kept falling. We lay listening to the muffled pounding of the flakes. By midnight, two feet had fallen.

“Avalanches are going to bury this tent,” Penny said.

Once again, we had no choice. Penny and I struck camp in the dark and began postholing off the mountain in a maelstrom. Once again I was terrified that the slopes we were plowing across might avalanche. We descended all night. It was only through using a GPS that we located Camp 1. The tents we had left there were flattened, buried beneath three feet of concrete-like snow. It didn’t matter. We were alive. We dug into one mess of broken poles, raised the nylon off of our faces with a ski pole, and passed out.

Thus ended my second expedition to Nyambo Konka.

Three weeks later, on a peak just a few miles away, renowned alpinists Micah Dash and Jonny Copp and photographer Wade Johnson all died in a massive avalanche.

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