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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.

I, of course, would never act irrationally, which is why I decided to avoid the avalanche-prone east face on my third attempt of Nyambo Konka, in the autumn of 2011. My new/old goal was the south ridge, the second route Ross Lynn and I had failed to climb in 2005. My partner was Joel Charles, bicycle guru and fellow winter mountaineer. Skinny as a rail, Joel wears long johns even in the summer.

Denver, L.A., Chengdu, Luding, a taxi to the trailhead, heavy packs to the toe of the ridge. From basecamp at 10,400 feet, we spent two glorious days vertically bushwhacking, using our crampons and ice axes to claw our way up the thorn-and-spine spiked foliage.

We established Camp 1 on the ridge, at 14,600 feet, scattering herds of wide-horned Tibetan blue sheep. It was an idyllic site on a spit of grass. We spread out our foam pads and watched an ocean of clouds surge up the fjord-like valley.

The jeopardous gendarmes, which I had conveniently forgotten in the intervening six years, began just above us. For the first 2,000 feet beyond Camp 1, Joel and I—like Ross and I before—were able to thread ourselves around these threatening steeples of rubble on one side or the other. Usually it was a matter of descending until we found a notch in a side rib, trickily cutting through, then trudging back up sliding scree to regain the ridge.

It was perilous going, the rock getting worse the higher we climbed. At one point, the ridge became so ridiculously shattered and sketchy that, after downclimbing back to Camp 1, Joel and I seriously discussed ending the expedition right then. But we didn’t, of course. Undue optimism prevailed. It was too early to throw in the towel. The gendarmes would disappear, the rock would improve. We just had to get a little higher.

Measured optimism is essential if you’re going to get anywhere as a mountaineer. You can’t let minor setbacks like a bit of bad rock or bad weather scare you. As soon as you think you’re going to fail, you do. A close climbing partner of mine, John Harlin, calls this “retreating in the face of imminent victory.” Years ago on Canada’s Mt. Waddington, Harlin and I agreed to a 2 p.m. turnaround time. But when that bell tolled, we were still five pitches from the summit.

Snow was coming. Rescue wasn’t. By any objective measure, we should have retreated. But we didn’t. We summited at 5 p.m. and struggled through the night to get down to camp—where we celebrated our successful completion of the first ascent of the South Face Direct. Lesson: A pinch of courage and a pound of perseverance can take you a long way in the mountains.

Joel and I eventually reached 17,200 feet and decided to make Camp 2 right there because a storm was blossoming. While Joel began hacking out a platform with his ice axe, I continued above him to recon a possible route. The ridge had now become truly menacing.

I climbed unroped through a half-dozen exposed towers, reaching 18,200 feet, before encountering a massive, jenga-like gendarme. It was the turret of a medieval castle—steep rock with sinister blocks hanging out everywhere. I knew I should turn around, but my ego kicked in. This was my third attempt on this mountain (sunk costs); I should have the ability to climb this rock arête, no matter how rotten (illusions of control); this must be the right route because I chose it (self-justification).

Searching right and left, I found a place I thought was feasible and slid out on a snowy, window-sill-size ledge. Forcing myself to stay calm and ignore the swirling oblivion below, I removed my gloves, reached up, gripped the snow-crusted plates of rock, and, holding my breath, pulled myself up. Nothing popped out. I made another move, stretching for fingerlocks in the friable stone, then another. After a few minutes of the most delicate climbing I’ve ever done in big boots, I stood atop the gendarme…only to discover a dozen more disintegrating minarets above me.

That was it. My rational mind was finally reawakened. Even if we managed to get through some of these spires, a block from one of them would eventually pull and the crag would collapse and drag us both to our deaths. It was over. I was done with this peak for good. All I wanted at that moment was to be down. To be on flat, solid ground, in the forest.

I had been so focused on going up; now I had to get down. Concentrating with a mortal intensity that can only be summoned when the smallest mistake will result in one’s immediate demise, I lowered myself in slow motion. I willed myself to be weightless, my touch on the stone a mere whisper. Inch by inch, like a dancer’s leap slowly played backward, I downclimbed the gendarmes.

Back at Camp 2, I crumpled onto the platform Joel had chopped into the airy ridge. I felt like I was going to puke. Snow was whizzing by horizontally, the wind batting our heads like a boxer, and it was getting dark. I showed Joel photos of the ridge above. He nodded, smirked sorrowfully, and stabbed his finger downward.

During the long, chancy descent, in a moment of fatigue- and fear-induced lucidity, a quote from W.C. Fields popped into my head: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.” •

Mark Jenkins is the writer-in-residence at the University of Wyoming. He failed to reach the summit of Mont Blanc some years back, and it’s starting to bug him.

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