Magazine article USA TODAY

Ain't No Mountain High Enough

Magazine article USA TODAY

Ain't No Mountain High Enough

Article excerpt

IN THE MORNING, Eric got off first. He had slept all night breathing his supplementary oxygen, and now he loaded his pack with two fresh bottles weighing a total of 36 pounds. Because he had all that weight, he asked me to carry our 500 feet of fixed rope and a few pitons and carabiners. That really did not seem fair--since I was climbing without bottled oxygen, I wanted to go as light as possible--but, as is my penchant, I did not protest. I just said, "Yeah, okay." I got moving about 15 minutes behind Eric. It still was dark out, but it looked as though a good day was in the offing.

A bit later, Craig got ready to leave. As we found out later, he took one look at the color stretching above Camp IV and decided against going for the top. Like Jim Wickwire in 1984, Craig lacked the heart for the final push. The ground leading up to the Yellow Band, which had no ropes fixed on it, looked to him too steep and intimidating. Instead, he spent the day carefully descending all the way to Camp II. Each of us has to make his own decision about acceptable risk. For Craig, I think, going down was the right call.

Because Eric was climbing with his oxygen tank cranked to about two liters a minute, while I was going without oxygen, he was faster and stayed a little ahead of me through the early hours and the morning. Climbing alone, I felt that I was moving in some isolated capsule. Un-roped, we had to focus all of our concentration as we zigzagged our way upward within the steep confines of the couloir. Then something odd happened: both my left foot and my left hand kept falling asleep. I could not figure out why, but it seemed alarming. I knew it was not frostbite, but I wondered if I might be experiencing a minor stroke, induced by altitude. It was worrisome enough that I seriously contemplated turning around and going down. I thought about John Roskelley in 1984, struggling to stay warm without supplemental oxygen, and finally deciding to call it quits. After a while, though, the tingling sensation wore off, so I continued upward.

Then something else odd happened. Out of nowhere, one of the Swedish climbers, Lasse Cronlund, came bombing up on my heels. He apparently had traversed from high on his northeast ridge route and entered the Great Couloir very near our highest camp. It was a last desperate attempt by the Swede to salvage his fizzling expedition. He must have rationalized that he could benefit from our fixed ropes and our support on his way to the summit. He was climbing so much faster than I was that I figured he must have his own oxygen set cranked to the max, about four liters a minute. I let him pass me. Then we met up at the foot of the Yellow Band, where Eric was wailing.

We needed to relead the pitch on which Greg Wilson had pulled loose the fixed rope in his 40-foot fall on May 16. Croulund offered to go first. It was a mistake. As I later wrote in my diary, "He was clumsy and flailed around, wasted time.... At one point he was directly above me, looked as if he was going to fall over backwards and take me along for the ride!"

At last, with a desperate scramble, Cronlund got to the top of the pitch, where he lay gasping for air. Eric and I came up on the rope, then Eric took the lead. By now we had reached the bottom of the ropes fixed by Greg and George, so all we had to do was clip our jumars to the lines and half-climb, half-pull on the jumar as we ascended--but now I discovered that Cronlund did not have an ascender of any kind. Even worse, he did not know how to tie a prusik knot--the simple substitute for a mechanical ascender, named after the Austrian climber Karl Prusik who invented it way back in the 1930s. I had to tie Cronlund's prusik for him.

As we climbed on, the Swede started to slow down. It looked as though Cronlund was trying to crank his oxygen set even higher, but he obviously had used up his supply. Then, almost without pausing to give it a serious thought, he turned around and started descending. …

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