Mountaineering personality and risk
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Mountaineering personality and risk book
The granite friction on the sloping belly of the Paron Towers was good, deceptively good. With my brother Grigota, we were climbing 2,000 m above the serpentine road that wound its way into the Paron Valley of the Cordillera Blanca, in Peru. With a dominant ‘El Niño’ weather pattern it had been a difﬁcult climbing season; it was hot and humid with mosquitoes buzzing above 5,000 m, and heavy rainstorms by mid-afternoon. Grigota belayed from a scoop on the enormous slab face. Over the years constant rain had polished the granite wall featureless. The only protection we could ﬁnd, in a shallow crack by the belay station was useless, but the climbing was straightforward. Grigota kept paying the rope out . . . and the friction holding me to the wall was good . . . so I kept moving. As I climbed there were no cracks or ﬁssures on the rock, so no protection, but the friction was, oh . . . so good. With feet spaced well apart, maximizing the contact of the rubber soles with the granite wall and ﬂat hands pushing up the slope, I kept moving. Twenty metres out of the belay station, there was still no protection. The gentle angle had become deceptively steep. ‘Any pro, bro?’ Hmm, nothing, so I stopped moving to have a good look around. When I stopped, the balance no longer felt so good. Above me I spotted a thin hairline crack, a subtle wrinkle on the youthful rock. To reach that crack I would have to step high and rock over a mantle. I hesitated for a moment; this was an irreversible move. The simplicity of stepping over something that cannot be reversed embodies the spirit of adventure and exploration. By making that single move we would cross a threshold where success on the pitch was measured against certain death. The ﬁner the balance between difﬁculty and ability, the better the adventure and the sweeter the taste of the summit. I took the step and crossed the threshold where great adventure and tragedy lies in wait! I reached up to the crack; it was the thinnest of lines and choked up with dirt, but there was nothing else. With hands and feet spread apart and pushing into the wall, the balance was still OK. But I needed to free my hands to clean the crack. I pushed down hard on to the balls of my feet, rested
my elbows on the rock and with one free hand started cleaning the crack – it wasn’t much of a crack. From my harness I unclipped a piton and scraped away, revealing a margin so thin it was almost useless. The tension through my ﬂexed ankles caused increasing calf strain. I leaned into the slab and shifted the weight on to my elbows. I shook each foot, one at a time, trying to ease the strain, but the pain increased. I cleaned some more. I repeated the motion through my feet, but each time the recovery was less effective. Despite the urgent cleaning it looked like the crack would be too thin to take the piton. I looked down past my brother, past the 100 m of climbing we had just completed, and straight down the 600 m ravine we had climbed the day before. The Paron River water foamed into a cavalcade of white caps, I was stuck and this was serious! The aching and cramping in my legs disproportionally intensiﬁed with the realization of the situation. Trying to steady myself I again leaned on to the rock, rested my left elbow and with my left hand held the thin piton to the crack. I hammered gently and the piton danced refusing to bite. Mosquitoes swarmed my arms and face. The sweat of fear and exhaustion burned my eyes and dripped steadily on to the rock. I persevered with gentle hammer blows until ﬁnally the piton held. With each blow it crept in deeper. Then in desperation I gave a solid blow. The piton jumped out of the crack, bounced and disappeared down the precipice. The fear of falling intensiﬁed with waves of calf cramp and panic. The belay had no chance of holding a fall and so I yelled to Grigota to take himself off the rope. He could still down climb to safety. Shaking his head he emphatically refused. I insisted, but he would have none of it – ‘work it out, I am with you bro . . .’ My legs shook uncontrollably. I was ﬁghting for both our lives. I unclipped the last (knife-blade) piton from my harness, placed it in the crack and again gingerly hammered. It held. The thin blade slid in a couple of centimetres. As it crept in some more the hammering sounds became reassuringly duller. The pain through my legs was excruciating. I hit harder and then again the piton jumped out, somersaulting and bouncing, heading straight for Grigota. As the piton bounced away the passage of time froze – we were doomed! The only piton that had a chance of biting into the crack was falling away. Everything stopped, the image in my mind frozen in a still-life frame. It was trance-like. The spell was ﬁnally broken when Grigota reached out and caught the ﬂying piton! ‘This time, use a sling and secure the piton to the rope, bro.’ The third attempt succeeded and the piton slid far enough into the crack to clip the rope and rest. As I hung the pent-up pressure just drained away allowing me to recover. I could then climb on and eventually reach a safe balcony of rock. Not realizing that behind us a thick chariot of clouds was moving up the valley we committed further up the face, swapping leads. Undeterred Grigota ran out the next pitch over poorly protected ground. Absorbed, we just kept moving, driven for the summit. Then in an instant the valley fell asleep, the mosquitoes disappeared and the sky blackened. The ﬂaming ﬁlaments of lightning heralded the ﬁrst roar of thunder. There were no abseil points or escape routes, and so as the ﬁrst drops of rain built to streams of water we began down-climbing. When there are no
choices, decisions are quite simple – we descended. The tropical rain didn’t dampen the feverish pitch. The water gushed down and we pushed hard into the rock. The friction was gone and blindly we groped. The water seemed possessed, committed to washing us away. It ran up my arms, into my face, punched my chest and bounced off my shoes. I remembered what a Spanish philosopher once said summarizing the human condition, ‘The best a man can do is hope’, and against all odds that is all we did – hoped. And that was enough to keep us moving. Lower down Grigota managed to secure himself sufﬁciently to protect me over the difﬁcult, ﬁnal descent to the balcony. Then in a surreal display of controlled desperation, he free-climbed to my side. We ﬁxed the rope and retreated back to high camp.