It’s nearly 3:00 pm when I start my descent; if you have more experience than me at this (and if you think you do – you do), you’re wildly sniggering, knowing what hell comes next. Amittai, pour yourself one right now.
The world goes monochromatic as I stride down; the early afternoon clouds close in on me, reflect on the white snow and turn it a flat, endless gray. I move fast along the glacier downhill, one foot flying over the other. There’s a little lump in my throat – what if I come across a soft spot I hadn’t seen before? – but I keep stumbling forward, hard and fast, racing the setting sun.
I hit the end of the icefall an hour before sundown, and save myself the terrifying traverse by picking my way down the unclimbable seracs at the base of the icefall. Refrozen, and on decent, they are passable. When I set foot on the shingle and peel off the gaiters, the sun is down below the nameless peaks a mile away. I brace myself for the trudge though the ablation zone, in the dark.
The solo crystallizes here. Continuous memories don’t exist; I know when I look back on this it’ll be discordant cuts from ruined roll of film, like a night of heavy drinking.
I can feel I’m tired, and commit to easing up and going slow. The first traverse of the glacier is uncomplicated, a broad sweep southwest along an organic line. Hopping from stone to stone comes more readily on descent; at least it feels so – I don’t know how long I can actually keep this up at altitude, and a dozen hours in.
There’s no need to guess – moving fast this late in the day means getting sloppy. My mind drifts back to specific, inconsequential memories back home – the way the light would wrap around the kitchen in Seattle, the way the smells of dinner and sweat would waft though the house in Ithaca, the way the door would creak when she would open it, stepping out of the bathroom first thing in the morning in DC. Even with perfect hindsight, it’s a fool’s calculus – very likely, I would have made the pivotal move anyway, for lack of a better place to put my foot – but I admit that I wasn’t paying attention when one of the boulders I step on finally wobbles an inch too far.
I fall ass over ice axe onto the rock next to it, right in the path of the moving fucker that stepped out of line in the first place.
Two thoughts, in series, occupy my mind in the space of less than a second – just enough time to pull in one sharp, asynchronous breath of dilute air. The first is inhumanly frigid and analytical: “This is interesting. This is a welcome distraction, and may provide for some suspenseful entertainment. I wonder what will happen next.” The second is a momentary naked horror at the geomorphic jaws clamping down on me and my dying slowly and alone and thirsty and hungry and delirious and cold, above the helicopter ceiling, way off trail and without a radio.
The jumble of boulders stops moving. I feel the offender closed around my pant leg, pressing on my boot from both sides. Another half inch, and I’d be locked in a vise, five and a half kilometers in the air. I exhale the same breath I pulled in a second ago, and age a decade. Then I get up and move on.
As I inch forward, stone to stone and boulder to boulder, I’m struck by my own metacognition. My senses are screaming in unholy unison: there’s blood now seeping though the wool and sweat is pooling in the polypro and the scarf is pulling sunburnt slivers off my neck. I’m out of food and the bottle is empty and camera’s a brick. The joyous periodic clanks of aluminum on rock now come off as muffled, weary complaints though deafened ears. My feet, still attached, are curiously distant and foreign – commands and feedback are sent from head to toe by Pony Express.
I retreat, for a second, to the solitary kernel of my mind absent to this hell. Down deep, between my ears at the base of my skull, nestled between hypothalamus and hippocampus, a scarred man with a grey beard and kindly eyes looks up at me from behind a large wooden desk. He puts his pen down wearily, and takes off his reading glasses. The light shimmers amongst the ridges of his face; his beard glows. He smiles knowingly at me: he’s been here before, and has come out. I know there is no choice, and I take the next step, and the next.
How many goddamn brain cells am I losing up here?
I approach a draw, to look up a blind wall of ice – near-vertical, featureless and frowning at the intrusion. While I was fucking around like an imbecile and enjoying the sunshine, the glacier shifted enough to cut off the path I used to get up. There’s a thin sliver left to move up a dozen feet; an offwidth slip-and-slide between me and Sandy Hollow.
Balanced on a boulder, one foot cammed in the crevice, I switch my grip, swing and chop steps. Flecks of ice fly into the sunset, each an ember melting alone in the encroaching dusk. Shod in inch-thick boots, I take what seem like tango steps up the icewall; the milonga ends with me on top, among the rocks.
Proper night comes soon after, and my world narrows to a bleak contrastless cone lit up by the headlamp, and whatever pleasant fiction spews out of the GPS. Unable to see more than a few meters ahead, I resort to iteratively half-killing myself hopping amongst the stones, then slumping over the axe and bellowing clouds of steam while dumbly staring at the two-inch screen: hypoxically trying to figure out if the blue – current – trace should be left or right of the pink – past – trace.
I can’t remember how many cycles of this elapse. What I can remember is that the Hemingway in my head has packed up and gone to sleep. He’s been replaced by two interdigitated hallucinations. The first is that my beloved east-European grandma has made an unsavory dinner – impossible. The second is that I’m hiking through this hell accompanied by a friend from graduate school and her husband – neither of whom have ever laced up a pair of hiking boots.
When I finally stumble across Camp Sandy Hollow, I’m too tired to feel the weight lift off my shoulders. I scribble fragmented words in my notebook while the blood freezes on my socks. I have enough sense to blow an hour fueling with lukewarm re-heated lentils, before zipping the sleeping bag around my distant, detached limbs.
It’s done. I bagged the fucker. Let me sleep in peace.
The numbers can add little, but are beacons in the dark. 23.4 kilometers in ten hours of motion; seven hours stopped, be it catching my breath bent over the ice axe or blindly staring at the GPS. I’ve climbed 1075 meters and descending 1017. I end at 5187 meters, on a frozen tarp alone under the sheltering sky.