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Chacraraju the day after the night before
Scott_M@c, Nov 2010
© Scott Mac, Mike, Mark or Jo. As we gain height the drop between our legs, gradually lit by a gently rising moon, becomes more obvious. Over the last couple of hours the slope has changed from snow to ice making us work hard for foot placements. As I kick something doesn't feel right.
It feels slippy and insecure and bloody hurts my toes. Glancing down with horror I see my crampon hanging by the strap on the bottom of my boot. Suddenly the drop feels very big and very real.
Precariously balancing on one crampon and one ice axe I place a poor ice screw, tie it off then back it up with another. Mark catches me up, "that looked interesting, I told you those crampons are crap" he says. He has a point. They've just fallen off and I can't help but laugh!
Swing the tool, step up, swing the other tool, step up, breathe. Repeat.
That's how we carry on until we've been on the go 15 hours. Gradually, a thin curtain of cloud drifts across our position high on the mountain wall of the Jaeger route. Roughly a hundred metres separate us from completing the route or leaving with nothing – depending on your opinion.
I'm cleaning ice screws from the second to last pitch whilst above Mike is completing the final pitch. Mark and Jo hang from the anchor in-between, belaying the pair of us independently. Everyone is in their own place, that place to which your mind retreats when your senses are overloaded. Their conversation drifts in and out of earshot masked by occasional gusts of wind.
The time is now a little before 3pm.
Hours, or what felt like days earlier, I'd rolled over in my sleeping bag listening to Mike's alarm. My legs were cold – all the down having fallen to the bottom. Cursing myself I got up.
I rubbed my legs to get a bit of warmth back into them as lights came on followed by groans of realisation. It was 11.30pm and time to get up. Two hours later we were soloing up the first four hundred metres of 50 degree snow and ice. With the moon still hidden we each climbed solely in the pool of light of our headtorches.
As a kid almost every climbing book I read was about 'epic ascents' of Everest. A common feature in each was climbers leaving for the top of the world and being alone for hours in a little circle of light. It's an image that stuck in my mind – a seed planted at an early age. It's not about Everest but it is about following your own circle of light, high and remote on your own mountain. With a wandering mind I continued upwards.
The route slanted left to right, with an easy start for several hundred metres, followed by an increasingly difficult upper section. The crux was two pitches from the top. As we soloed higher I wondered if I was really up to it.
For another two hours we continued mostly without the ropes, belaying only once to clear a short 70 degree bulge. Mike and Mark roped together for this section as did Jo and I, each pair on separate ropes. I was thinking things were rather easy for a route like this.
We continued up the leftward slanting runnel for a couple more pitches, each more committing than the last in terms of poor gear and thinner and thinner ice on steep slabs. None of us could quite believe as we climbed each successive pitch that the route was first climbed solo by French climber, Nicholas Jaeger in 1975.
As the sun hit the glacier hundreds of metres beneath our feet, I had started to lead a pitch Mike and Mark had just dispatched. It moved gradually up and left, before skirting right past a wobbly block and up a steep ice wall, over a lip and gratefully into the belay above. I moved up left on very thin ice, balanced as ever on rock slabs. You could clear the ice with your adze, which made for some sketchy climbing.
The advantage of leading after Mike and Mark was Jo and I were clipping the gear they placed on lead, then collecting and sorting it at the belay above. It was the fastest way to move as a four, with each pair staying reasonably independent. The disadvantage was there wasn't much ice left for Jo and I to climb on.
I moved up finding reasonable placements as initially the ice was thick enough but within no time I was hitting rock and unable to see anything to hook or lean off. Desperately I eyed the first runner Mark had placed about three metres above.
I found myself committed on some broken ice. This was it. I was stuck, moulded to my position, pump creeping up my forearms, my face against the thin ice, eyes searched, fear taking hold. I desperately needed something.
My tools and crampons felt bad. I wondered if I could hook the gear Mike placed with my tool, but it would be an all or nothing lunge. If I missed I'd be taking serious air onto the belay. It was a ridiculous thought. I searched and scratched leaning on one tool barely taking all the weight. Finally, I swapped hands and moved onto a dreadful placement more balanced on the hole between "ice" and rock, than in anything significant.
Grind. Crack. The tool cut an inch gash into the hole as I moved onto it. I almost puked clipping the gear and moved on without looking at it.
Passing the wobbly block, with Jo directly beneath it was tortuous. All the time I was in desperate fear of knocking it onto him. With full leg-cramp, pumped arms, and tools scratching I made it past committing to a long reach on a tool placement which felt as if it were in a bag of Tate and Lyle sugar.
To my astonishment at the belay Mark laughed and said the first bit of gear I'd been struggling to "was shocking". Thank God I'd not looked at it. Then Jo said he'd actually stood on the wobbly block on the way up. It was bomber.
Much later reaching the belay under the crux, I was greeted by Mark, smiling looking up at Mike getting stuck into the crux. It looked horrendously out of condition. It was thin and broken, never bomber and mixed with snow on top of rock slabs all the way across. Occasionally thick enough for a spaced, tied off runner at best. Jeager must have used some big wall tactics back in 1975 to haul his balls up after him.
For two hours we hung on the belay watching Mike in and out of cloud leading the crux. Cramp came and went, minds drifted and hungry mouths ate Twix bars.
Great sheets of ice had come down as Mike swung his tools and chopped with his adze. On the belay we didn't know if it would even go, but Mike was more positive shouting down that despite its state he'd laced it with good gear. The worst that could happen was he'd take a huge, but safe fall. Fair enough, we thought, the man is committed.
Mike spent a long time psyching himself up for the lead, but when he set off it was phenomenal. Sometimes the ice collapsed around him as he came down, other times he broke it off trying to go up. He screamed hidden in cloud as he made the final moves through the crux and pulled onto the easier 75 degree slope above.
All three of us seconded experiencing the conditions for ourselves. Mike suggested Scottish 6 – out of condition at 6,000 metres.
After experiencing that we knew we were going to make it. Two pitches remained to the ridge and the summit. Mike and Mark completed the first one quickly, with Jo leading it shortly afterwards. I seconded Jo. Mike was leading the final pitch above.
Swing the tool, step up, swing the other tool, step up, breathe.
The time is now a little before 3pm.
With the shock of a bomb my green rope snaps like a whip and the force loads the system catching everyone off guard. My weight shoots up the 8mm rope like a powerful electrical current. The power cord slams into the ice screw belay above, hitting Jo's belay plate hard and fast. The two ice screws hold and despite the confusion Jo takes my weight. The friction of the rope digs into the cold metal of his belay plate, heating up and arresting my fall.
In a single moment, everything has changed.
Five metres below Jo's belay my limp body slides numbly onto the steep slope. It feels like I've been hit in the back by a silent express train.
No one saw the ice tumbling end over end, gathering speed the further it fell. No one saw the crunching impact. Not even me. But shit I know about it now.
"Fuck. Jesus Christ. Fuck me! My god." is the next thing I hear. With horror I realise it's me screaming. I'm not even conscious of the thought process. I'm screaming. Screaming from deep within - unconsciously like an animal. It's a primal scream of a panicking man, lost and limp on my 8mm life line. The curtains are threatening to close and maybe it's time to exit this grand stage.
Something else inside my head is calling the shots. I have no control of the language that keeps coming. My mind is rebooting and every other part of my body has completely shutdown and I mean completely. "Fuck, fuck I can't... I can't fucking move!".
We're at six thousand metres – on the final pitch on the Jaeger route, on Chacraraju and I am paralysed. I can't register what's happening. The first thing in my mind is - you're fucked. Not just for now, but you're paralysed for the rest of your life. You're totally fucked.
My mind is in a thousand pieces.
Time is meaningless.
But then there's this tingling. My body starts tingling all over, first my legs, then my arms. I can move my toes. Time passes. My knees work. I can move my hips. Shit I can move. My body is rebooting and very gently my limbs come back.
In the space of a minute I've gone from thinking I am paralysed for the rest of my life to actually I can move. It's indescribable. My arms come back next and with a fractured mind I carry on upwards with a sense of mortality I've never felt before. On the edge of shock I reach the belay. Everyone is staring, confused, open mouthed.
We abandon the summit. Mike is adamant the ridge is in a shit state and impassable. I certainly don't intend arguing. The descent takes 14 abseils most from V threads and snow stakes, many set heroically by Mike. We abseil in a river of spin-drift flowing from the upper part of the mountain as the weather deteriorates.
Placing V threads is ridiculous as the anchor pits instantly fill with snow, burying everything, ropes, rucksacks, never mind two tiny holes needing 5mm cord threading through. Eventually we make it, collapsing into the tent.
The following day we packed up and hiked out under a searing sun; plastic boots bouncing off rocks as we wind back along the trail to Pisco base camp. Finally, I arrive at the road head looking and feeling absolutely exhausted. I catch the eye of a well dressed European climber waiting for a collectivo taxi.
"Pisco eh?" he says, smiling in a knowing way. I stammer, "No, Chacraraju".
His smile drops and he reads me verses one, two and three from the bible of excuses why he is here to climb the much easier Pisco. I just don't care though. His summit, my summit, no summit. We didn't reach the top of Chacraraju but I know more than anyone that we aren't leaving with nothing.
Daniel Johnson is a freelance journalist, editor and gritstone addict.
Scott Mackenzie is an alpine climber currently based in Chamonix. Scott has been alpine climbing for 7 years and has visited 6 different continents climbing a wide variety of mountains and rock routes.
In March 2011 he is visiting Iran on the British Mt Damavand (5670m) Ski Mountaineering Expedition, followed by a trip to Broad Peak (8047m) in Pakistan in June.