Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Climb

It was 7pm and trying to get sleep before 11pm felt like trying to take a nap in Yankee stadium during a homerun hit. The group from Colorado were yelling back and forth across camp. "HEY do you have water?! YEAH! I have water! Anybody want food?!" and then there were the deeper bathroom conversations "My parents never believed I would become a mountaineer and these guys I use to date..." Tonya and I tried to cover our heads with clothes and our sleeping bags to drown out the sounds. I put myself into meditative thinking. I kept reciting the feeling of laying on a quiet sun soaked beach in Rio where the ocean rhythmically hits the shore. At about 9pm I believe I finally fell asleep.

The alarm on my watch never went off, but Tonya was awake at 11pm and getting ready. We changed into our clothes (I was already half dressed as I thought it would be quicker to sleep in most of my climbing clothes). We weren't hungry, instead of cooking oatmeal, I took a few bites of my almond coconut energy bar. I used the out house, brushed my teeth, double checked our packs (Tonya was carrying additional water and the camp stove, I had the sleeping bag and shovel and we both had additional clothes such as various types of gloves or mits, hand warmers we could break and put inside our gloves, balaklava's, hats, warm jackets). Our packs were about 20lbs, a blessing in comparrison to our 60lb packs. My mom would carry an extra sleeping pad, wands (way finding poles with flags that beared her initials "KB". These would be placed along our path should the weather turn and we got caught in a white out), anchor (metal rod that could be stuck into the ice to help anchor us should we need to pull someone out of a crevasse). At about 11:45 we hiked up to my mom's tent. She wasn't awake yet, this was a surprise. She is more anal than I am about time. Her alarm also did not go off. As we waited for her to get ready the extremely calm night was picking up wind. There were very few and still clouds in the sky, but soon they would awake and rapidly begin a race towards their destination. As we stood at high camp we could see the lights of a city that most likely resided at sea level. Above us we witnessed ant sized amber lights slowly move towards the summit, the climbers left a few hours before us. By the time we got our waist and chest harnesses on and were hooked up to the ropes it was 12:45am. I was getting pretty cold. The tips of my fingers were beginning to feel like half frozen meat, but I figured everything would begin to cook once we began climbing.

It was dark, we could only see what our headlamps allowed us to see. Generally there is a solid line of steps going up a mountain from the previous days of climbers. Unfortunately, the steps had all been destroyed by the climbers who came down yesterday. What we had to work with were hundreds of iced over bumps and divets that didn't allow for a single solid step. It was more of a danger than a help so we stepped off to the side to kick our campons in. Initially I was walking duck footed and counting 1.. 2... dig the ice axe. 1.. 2.. dig the ice axe. After a few hours of climbing duck footed my calves were fatigued. I shifted my climbing strategy to side ways steps. I kept thinking to myself, kick one foot in front of the other and I again began my 1 & 2 count. I didn't want to miss a beat with placing that ice axe, it could be my saving grace should I slip (every step felt like it could be that exact disaster) and I didn't want to trip over my crampons, because that could cause an ankle break. Pace was also a struggle, my mom set the pace and Tonya and I had to follow. The climb was constant communication to let the person ahead know if they should slow down. If you slow down and the person in front doesn't you could jerk the person in front off their feet and if they are going too fast, they will drag you, both of which are dangerous situations. After an hour we passed 4 out of 6 climbers from Canada who were on their way down. We conversed with them for a second to make sure the conditions were okay. They told us they had altitude sickness. Their two other friends continued on.

After a few hours of climbing my mom suddenly stopped. The wind had picked up and it was snowing. Each step she took was instantly covered by a breeze of white dust. I followed the direction of her rope. It was the only way I could tell where she was headed. I asked what was wrong. She said, "I have no idea where we are supposed to go. Do you see the steps anywhere? I know there are very large crevasse's right around here." Tonya, my mom and I immediately shined our head lamps towards the snow. We walked slowly to the left, to the right and there was absolutely no sign human life once passed through there. After 20 minutes, my mom said, "this is it. We need to go this way." Later I would find out her only clue to direction was a faint circular indentation in the snow. She figured with her 20 years of climbing experience it must be the remnants of an ice axe. As we forged ahead my mom placed wands. When Tonya passed the last wand my mom placed she would yell, "WAND!" and my mom would place another. When we got to a crevasse my mom crossed two wands forming an "x", a symbol of danger. We took very few breaks the longest being 10 minutes, just enough time to put handwarmers in, put on a balaklava and quickly eat an energy bar. After passing the crevasse (around 12,000 feet) I could feel the oxygen thin. My breathing got heavy. My steps got slower and I felt like I was going to throw up. A team of about six were coming down, they said they didn't like the conditions. We continued.

At 13,000 feet I wasn't sure if I could continue. Everytime I needed to yell to my mom to slow down or hold on I felt as though I was hyperventilating. Tears rolled down my face under the balaklava as I couldn't catch my breath long enough to feel like I was getting air. I hoped nobody could tell I was crying under my breath as I tried to yell/explain to my mom that I couldn't breathe. I was slightly panicked and frustrated. My mom asked, "do you know how to pressure breathe?" I responded, with an exasperated, "no". She yelled back, "take a deep breath in and a deep breath out." Her advice helped calm me down so I could catch a breath and get back into a breathing pattern. I felt like a major wuss, but I knew I wasn't one. I knew I could do the climb. I was strong, but I felt incredibly vulnerable. I couldn't seem to control my emotions. My mood was turning for the worst and I was getting bitter with each step mainly, because I couldn't breathe and we had hit six inches of fresh powder; I couldn't sink my crampons into the ice and all I could think of was falling and that was it, I was pulling the whole team down with me. Tonya kept giving me words of encouragement. "You are doing great Fawn. Just keep it up." At 13,300 feet (6 hours of climbing. We were making extremely good time), the clouds were quickly rolling in. My mom asked if I wanted to continue. I could see the summit. It was right above us and I swear if my arms were a couple hundred feet longer I could touch it. I pointed to a turn in the path that was 500 feet ahead. I said, "lets get to that turn and assess the weather and how I feel. We are so close." My mom agreed and just as quick as she agreed she said, "I think we should turn around. We are headed into a white out. The clouds headed this way are both white out and 100 mph winds."

Steps we encountered. There should only be two trails of steps. One for up and one for down (photo taken on rest day.
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