The Opportunity to Fail
It’s funny – to some degree – how sometimes you wish and wish for something, the wish comes true, and you still don’t have quite what you wanted. A Poe-esque, “Monkey’s Paw” type of affair…life’s way of less-than-subtly reminding you that nothing worthwhile is ever easy, and often the path to those worthwhile summits is lined with unpredictability.
So it is here on Everest this spring. My biggest fear coming into this climb was the possibility of heavy snow on the route, leading to avalanche hazard from the West Shoulder to the summit. So, I wished…I wished for a low snow year, and that’s what we have in spades.
The great Western Cwm, the stunning glacial valley leading from the top of the Khumbu Icefall to the Lhotse Face – is usually a cathedral of white and black: black, marbled strata of rock rocketing skyward, interspersed with white fins of snow clinging to impossibly steep walls. On a normal year, only bits and pieces of the ancient, sublimated, rock-hard blue ice shines through. This year, however, the Cwm looks more like Sultan Ahmet, the “Blue Mosque” in Istanbul, Turkey: that ancient, steel blue ice is the dominant color on the Cwm’s steep walls, evidence of the extremely dry winter in this neck of the Himalaya.
And, so it was on our last foray high on the route. From Camp 2, at 21,000 feet, Dave, Charley, Brent, and I scoped out possible routes to the West Shoulder and Camp 3. Ours was a challenge of guessing which narrow runnel of white between bastions of ice might be the best choice. Our first morning on the route above Camp 2, we burned 2 precious hours investigating – and then abandoning – one possible route before committing to a thousand feet of rock-hard, glass-fragile, 35-40-degree blue ice leading to a more promising neve ramp halfway up to the Shoulder.
The going was tough: While not steep, the friable blue ice gives no security whatsoever. Even though a fall would be unlikely, it would be impossible to stop, and the climbing up and down repeatedly would be impossibly slow. So, we quickly made the decision to fix some rope on the blue-ice section.
On the second day of work on the route, Dave and I reached roughly 23,000’, fixing 200 meters of rope to the top of the ice and the beginning of the ramp leading higher. To our delight, the snow did indeed improve here, enough that we could unrope and climb a bit up the ramp to gaze at the 1,000+ feet of route above to the West Shoulder. It was a small success, but one that felt good anyway.
Our hopes of continuing the push to the Shoulder were shunted by the weather; namely, a persistent and stubborn jet stream sitting directly atop the Himalaya, bringing with it freight-train winds on the West Ridge. And, in the Himalaya, much of the game is one of attrition: he/she who is abused the least often does the best. We could have pushed into the winds, moving toward the Shoulder, but draining our strength in the process. Better, we decided, to descend to Basecamp, rest, let the winds do their thing, and return strong and ready to push higher when the wind subsides in a couple days.
So, that’s where we are: resting at Basecamp, listening to ferocious wind ravage a dry, icy mountain…the one I wished for. It is, and will continue to be, a struggle to climb this mountain by this route. No single element is guaranteed, no step will be easy. Failure is a very real possibility, thanks to the myriad of unknowns and uncontrollable variables. But, therein lies the beauty, the allure. Tom Hornbein’s words from 1963 echo in my mind: Still I marvel at the relative ease with which I decided to bypass a much greater guarantee of success [by climbing the standard, Southeast Ridge route] for a bit more challenge and gamble, a bit more opportunity for failure – and therefore a lot more feeling of accomplishment should we pull it [the West Ridge] off.