Thursday, March 20, 2003

Aconcagua diary, continued:

Part 3 of 7

March 20th: Robert woke me with some steaming coffee. At first I thought I was back in Santiago, but the silence soon told me we were still on Aconcagua. We start the vertical face today. It should be steady going, and we should be on top within the day.

We can see the cloud tops, and as the sun rose, we were blessed with a magnificent view, for the cloud tops caught the orange glow, and all around, as though there was a sea of fire surrounding us, wisps of flame leapt up out of the dark blue mass below. Michael must have used a lot of film, for I could hear him exclaiming each time he shot a frame.

Later: The clouds seem to be rising, and the glare is beginning to get serious. We packed the camp in, readying it for our stay here on our descent. We couldn't take all our equipment up this face. As I write, perched on a ledge, suspended by two chocks, I can see the green dots far away that are our packages, wrapped in tarps. They will get much smaller as we ascend.

This was the real part of the climb: the search for hand-holds, the jamming of the chocks, and the ring of the pitons as they wedged into the cracks in the rock. The knowledge that a slip could cause an awful scare, and the hope that your belayer was well fastened: this was all part of the challenge of the mountain.

The mountain was an inanimate object, but we insisted on giving it a personality. The frustration when we reached a dead end, and had to back-track. These all occurred during the day, but climbers can never accustom themselves to the yell "Falling!" which causes such a rush of adrenaline. Several times we slipped, but the anchors held firm, and we only suffered jolts as we were stopped in mid-air, suspended like spiders on their silk, with no idea of how far there was to fall. This was difficult - more difficult than we had anticipated, and as the day wore on, we lagged farther and farther behind our estimates. We decided to split up into teams of three. Or rather one team of three seeking a possible ascent route, and the other team seeking a parallel path. If one team came to a dead end, they crossed to the ongoing climb, and the first team again searched out a parallel path. In this way, we were able to speed our pace, but the fading light was not helping. The clouds had risen up the mountain, and a fog had again closed in, and the strong sunlight's warmth faded to a cold damp grey glare. The weather was known to be very changeable, but we continued to climb.

March 20th, continued: We have been forced to stop by a freezing rain. The rock face glistens in an eerie light, which seems to come from no particular direction, but pervades all.

Later: The weather is worsening as snow is starting to be whipped around by rising winds. We are about 200 feet below the plateau, but those 200 feet could take one hundred years in this weather. We have decided to strap in on a ledge.

Well, we aren't on the plateau. We are a few hundred feet from it. But the winds stop us from trying, as we would be lifted off the face like aerofoils, to dangle in the wind and possibly injured by swinging to and fro against the rock.

I am strapped into one of the most uncomfortable-looking beds known: a sleeping bag in a nylon cover, looking like a shoe with enormous laces as all the lines hold me onto the rock face. No matter what my nightmares, I hope to be restrained from tumbling off into the snow and darkness. My nose alone is exposed to the rarefied air, by by body heat keeps my nose from freezing solid. These are the nights one wishes sleep would come quickly. A cold nose, over-tired body, and a hyper-active mind are frustrating. I cannot sleep for the thoughts that race through my mind. Finally I slip away. Morning breaks, and there is a clarity not seen before. The sea of clouds has gone, and the Pacific Ocean itself is visible as a thin blue band, far to the West.