This story is dedicated to my rope companion whom I let down, and yet despite all taught me something I had never paid attention to before: “stop focusing on your walking pace and look at the stars”.
I made the call. It was my call. I wasn’t ashamed of it nor was I mad about it. I simply had to make that call.
At 5850 meters we had to turn back and fall short of the summit by 238 meters.
There are tough decisions to make in life and this was probably one of the toughest for me thus far. I was here for that summit. I hadn’t come to Bolivia to hit the classic touristy spots. I was here to climb my first 6000 meter peak, and of all the tall Bolivian summits I had chosen the easiest one. A summit that could potentially see up to 12 climbers a day during the high season.
Yet, there I was, denying myself of that ascension.
At 5700 meter mountain sickness had suddenly started to hit me hard when just a few minutes before I was still able to tell our guide I was feeling perfectly fine. While I was still able to walk however, what preoccupied me the most was seeing my rope companion stumbling and falling.
It’s always easy looking back, to tell yourself you could have done it, that you should have tried harder, or that you could have pushed others. Now that you are back on hard ground and your brain doesn’t want to burst out of your skull, you wished you had kept going further and you despise yourself for not having done so.
Be that as it may, it’s a lot harder once you’re dead to tell yourself that maybe you shouldn’t have pushed so far.
How many people fell within the gaze of the Medusian summits only to end up being frozen like a stone?
The names of Maurice and Liliane Barrard or of Michel Parmentier might come to mind.
The Barrard couple had, in 1982, been the first ones to reach an 8000 meter summit literally “hand in hand”, and decided in 1986 to do the same thing by conquering the top of the K2.
And conquer it they did.
On June 23rd of 1986 they reached the summit of the second highest mountain in the world all while holding each other’s hand. Regrettably, living apart in their own success bubble, they had dismissed the day before their guide’s advice not to go any further due to impending bad weather and their exhaustion from hypoxia.
Starting as low as 2000 meters above sea level, what is called “hypoxia” -for Low Oxygen- will slowly hit you, becoming more and more dangerous as you climb up. The higher up one goes, the less oxygen is present; at 5000 meters the density of oxygen is only half of what it is at sea level. Unfortunately the lack of oxygen not only forces you to slow your movements down in order not to have to catch your breath every second, it also generates a modification in your metabolism leading to two major issues: an over-elimination of Co2 preventing your kidney to properly function, and a clear acceleration of dehydration -whereas the body can lose around 2.5 liters of water a day at sea level, it will lose up to 5 liters when above 5000 meters. To make it clear, hypoxia has a different more striking name: slow high altitude death.
On that day, conquering the summit the Barrards did, but conquering the mountain and themselves by coming back down alive they did not. Exhausted and delirious from the lack of water and oxygen, caught up in a storm, the Barrards died in the night of June 24th, unable to move, frozen by the cold.
Michel Parmentier’s fate was exactly the same on a September day of 1988 on the Everest’s slopes. Ecstatic by the idea of reaching the summit, now only a mere 150 meter away, he did not listen to his friends asking him to turn around. His frozen body was discovered a few days after, laying just a few feet away from his tent. Ironically enough, Michel was none other than the guide who asked Maurice and Liliane Barrard not to go further on the K2.
Though the night had started off on the wrong foot it hadn’t been enough to have any actual critical impact on my hike.
Protected from the wind in a little stone cabin at 5130 meters, I had only slept 20 minutes in one of the wooden bunk beds, desperately looking to rest but unable to do so. My pillow was hard as a rock and my head couldn’t handle any position for more than 4 minutes. It didn’t matter how I turned inside my sleeping bag, all sides were hurtful. Finally, at midnight we got up, I being thrilled to release myself from this nightmare I had just endured. We all slowly dressed ourselves with the necessary gear in order to hike a few hundred meter on the rock followed by 900 meter on the ice. The crampons were fine, the double layering of socks fit the shoes, the technical pants kept me warm, and my headlight gave up after 2 minutes. What a disgrace. I had checked it in La Paz and the green color indicator meant the batteries were still up, running and good for another few hours. Having that blow up even before putting on my crampons was a painful reminder that things easily go wrong at 5000 meter above sea level and there’s no way to fix it.
Walking without a light on a glacier might not be something I would recommend, and had I been alone I definitely wouldn’t have even tried it. I spent the next 5 hours walking in the dark, following the only thing I could see: the rope that was tying me to my companions ahead of me, hoping I wouldn’t miss a step or fall down the slope.
I had met Johanna at my hostel in La Paz and she had expressed interest in climbing the Huayna Potosi. It was a perfect opportunity for me as I was looking for a summit partner, mostly to make the hiring of a local guide a cheaper option.
Although the Huayna Potosi stands at 6088 meter, it remains a “highway” summit: a summit reached by roughly 10 roped parties every day and without true difficulty, thus being rated only PD on the international mountaineering grades.
There are roughly as many climbing ratings as there are countries, but one of the most used for standardization purposes is the International French Adjectival System. The IFAS consists of 7 levels -with sub-levels after the 4th one- where length, altitude, exposure, and commitment, are all taken into account in a more verbal than mathematical grade. The level PD, for Peu Difficile or “Not Very Hard” is the second level from the bottom, meaning the route might be at a high altitude with slopes going up to 45°. And that’s about all the difficulty there is. The complexity starts at the 4th level with + or – signs to indicate additional hazards, as well as UIAA, Union International des Associations d’Alpinisme – yet another French standard, rock climbing grades going from roman numerical I to XII.
Because mountaineering involves various activities such as ice climbing or rock climbing in addition to glacier hiking slopes and engagement -translate it as “point of no-return”- a detailed grading systems can become quite complex and you could easily venture onto a 7000m A2 M4 60°. The IFAS was adopted as the international norm thanks to the descriptive and easiness of its reading.
For the Huayna Potosi, such a low grade combined with the easy accessibility of the 4800 meter base camp makes the summit being promoted as just another Theme-Park roller-Coaster adventure.
Though it did leave a bitter taste to see a mountain being advertised as akin to a DisneyWorld attraction, it also led me to a high level self-confidence and I never felt any apprehension about the climb. “Anyone could reach the top” I thought “Even someone who was at beach level just 4 days ago.”
It all made the decision even harder, and I wasn’t even a famous Conrad Ankar or Raymond Lambert, pulling out just a few hundred meter below an unclimbed difficult route. I was just Ben, turning my back to an easily accessible dome of snow thousands of people set their foot on every year.
A huge sensation of failing took over the little physical strength I had left. Of all the people who wouldn’t reach such an easy summit, I was one of them.
238 meters. That’s roughly the same distance I had run up just a few days prior in Rio de Janeiro in 11 minutes.
Here, looking at the steep climb that was still ahead of us, I had to intervene.
For the past hour I had seen my companion in front of me stumbling and missing steps. Now, hit by altitude sickness myself, ready to throw up and break my skull at the same time, willing to simply drop my body right here and sleep instantly, I looked at the slope in front of us and realized it couldn’t be risked in that physical state.
Climbing it up might be a thing, but the way down, after a total of 8 hours of slow walk, would be even harder. There’s a reason 70% of deaths in the mountains happen on the way down.
Conrad Ankar knew it as well when he turned away from the Meru’s central peak, a tough unclimbed peak in the Himalayas through the shark’s fin route. Though Maurice and Liliane perished on their way down, Conrad wasn’t willing to meet the same fate.
Considered as one of the hardest climb in the world, the shark’s fin route reaching the 6310 meter summit of the Meru is made of almost nothing but ice on a straight vertical face from start to finish, including 500m of soft granite which crumbles as easily as a rice cracker.
Conrad knew his peak, he wanted that summit, he had dreamed about it for the past 20 years. Alone he might have gone for it and gamble his life; but not the lives of his companions Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk..
They were on their 20th day on the mountain, had been delayed by 5 days of snow storm -which they had spent in their 3x2m tent anchored to the mountain only by a few carabineers- were running out of food, and Renan, an incredible professional climber, was struck by altitude sickness. Reaching the summit was definitely doable, it was right there, maybe one or two leads away, but time was running out and the weather was starting to go bad. Conrad knew that if they went for it, the way down would turn deadly. The probability they’d get caught yet in another snow storm -without any food left- was too high. And Renan had to go down now. They had to go down. They had to abandon the idea of being the first ones to climb Meru’s shark fin.
I dropped my ego, cleared my head, filled it with pragmatism, and opened my mouth.
“This is not happening, we have to turn around” I tensely told both our guide and my companion.
“Maybe… Maybe… we… can… try… a bit more” replied Johanna, catching her breath after each word.
“Yes, let’s keep pushing” said the guide not understanding what was happening, for he had been leading all the way without looking behind to check on our conditions.
No, it wasn’t negotiable.
Yes, by myself I could have tried to push further and maybe reach the summit, but then what? Collapse at the top and being unable to climb down? Risk a cerebral edema? Some kid had just died trying to climb the Colombian’s Santa Isabel because he went too fast for it. With his brain lacking oxygen, he had lost consciousness leading him to slowly pass away in the night. And that had happened only at 4500 meter.
That kind of risk wasn’t part of my scenario.
The wind wasn’t helping and had become stronger and stronger as we were hiking upwards -reaching speeds up to 65 km/h- making the act of breathing even more complicated. Talking, which already required a lot of energy, was hard to do and we had to turn the volume up to be heard.
“Johanna” I said loudly but slowly, closing my eyes in sadness and despair. “Johanna you’re stumbling, you keep zigzagging left and right trying to find your balance. Johanna I’m sorry but we have to turn around. It isn’t safe anymore.”
As I looked into her eyes, I could feel her pain and and sorrow. She knew.
Had she hoped for me to say something sooner, or was she positive she could have surely kept walking?
“Johanna, I’m sorry, I know it meant a lot for you to reach that summit, I know you wanted to step foot on it as your very first mountaineering climb, but you have to trust me. I can’t keep going on either. This is becoming dangerous. There’s a sharp edge waiting in front of us and that is no place to stumble.”
“Do you guys want to try to walk for another 50 meters to see?” Asked the guide without me paying attention to such a stubborn comment.
“Johanna” I paused “Johanna this is not your call, this is mine. I’m the one who can’t keep going on. If I were alone I would have probably turned back 15 minutes ago already. There is nothing to be ashamed off. I mean, look around! We’re at 5850 meters! How many people get to say that?”
There were no words yet no silence. Just the heavy wind blowing against our stuffed hoods, under a black sky filled with stars.
I can only assume it was a similar stiff windy silence that Lambert and Tensing felt in May 1952 when they missed the Everest summit by 238 meter, the same distance that we were missing ours!
This might be something few people know, but in May of 1952, a year before the top of the Chomolungma got stepped on by Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay, a Swiss expedition attempted the climb. Raymond Lambert, 37 at the time, born in Geneva and completely toe-less from severe frostbite endured in 1938, and the same Tensing that would later assist Edmund, ran out of breathable air at 8610 meters following a malfunction of their oxygen set.
After almost 2 months of efforts they had to turn around just 238 meter shy of the summit and abandon the idea of being the first ones to reach the top of the Everest, all that simply because their oxygen valve couldn’t handle the cold.
A real “breath of fresh air” for the British teams who were stressfully following the Swiss progression. Nepal being a previous English colony, her Majesty subjects had been given exclusive access to the area for the past 31 years. They ended up almost seeing all their attempts and with it their pioneer climbing dreams wiped out by the first non-angloamerican team to try it out.
Yet that miss turned out to be exactly what the Brits needed. Lambert, his Swiss friends and their Sherpas had achieved what no one had ever managed to do: open a clear route to the Everest’s summit through the West Cwm and the South Pass. With their climbing methods and their fresh vision the Swiss had burst the unbreakable bubble that the British had set themselves into since 1921 by forcing the climb up the North Face, and with that new route freshly sketched, all they needed now was functional oxygen sets.
Lambert knew that.
In spite of that and despite all the competition and honors at stake, despite the fame, despite the personal interior glory any person can get when landing on a previously undone achievement, his thoughts were calm and poised.
“No, this is not possible anymore. It’s over. It took us 5 hours to cross 200 meter.” He thought to himself before turning towards Tensing who, without a word having to be said, understood. He and his friend were not going to reach the summit.
Although a single look was enough between these 2 to say “We’re being hit by the lack of oxygen and must turn around”, the rope bounding in my crew wasn’t strong enough for such a delicate conversation .
The wind kept whistling through our ears as she nodded.
Yes, it was a difficult, tough decision.
It was the right one nonetheless.
Still, I could not prevent tears from freezing out of my eyes as we were hiking back down.
There is no doubt in my mind that it must have been an even harder defeat for her than for me. I’ve had my share of success and failure in the mountains, but that was her first. The local propaganda making it seem like any mountain can be climbed just like standing on an escalator surely didn’t help.
A few days later, I decided to go for a lower altitude, but a bit harder, climb, successfully reaching the beautiful top of the 5410 meter Pequeño Alpamayo.
Two days after that, despite the fear of failing again, I was back on the Huyana Potosi slopes, easily making the climb this time and being the first one to step on the summit for the day.
Conrad Ankor, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk all made it to the top the Meru a few years after their first attempt. They were the first ones to ever make it via the Shark’s fin.
Tensing and his dear friend Lambert re-attempted the summit during the fall of the same year, but got caught in freezing winter storms and fell short again. As the world now knows, Tensing reached the top of the Chomolungma less than a year after that, along a soon-to-be-famous New-Zelander, Sir Edmund Hillary.
Tragédies au K2, Paul Molga – éditions Arthaud
Meru, Jimmy Chin – Meru Films LLC
Avant-Premières à l’Everest. Gabrielle Chevalley – éditions Arthaud
Semana.com Luto en las montanas: la muerte de Julian Saenz.