This story is from Alpinist Issue 30–Spring 2010. From time to time, we republish stories from our past issues to share with our readers.
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For more than nine years, a British prison guard fantasized about escaping his brutal surroundings for high peaks and undimmed night skies. After he finally quits his job, Nick Bullock begins a long odyssey that finally leads him up the labyrinthine North Face of Chang Himal–and into the shadowlands between dreams and reality, thought and act.
This is Chapter 2 of Into the Shadow. To read Chapter 1, click here.
[Photo] Nick Bullock
THE BEDROOM WAS DARK. Ten minutes, just ten more minutes. I curled the covers over my head. How do you prepare yourself? Soon I’d get up and make the daily prison commute. Ten heavy steel doors would open and close with a clunk as sharp as a cork pulled: ten inmates escorted to the gymnasium.
Whenever I supervised gym time, hours felt like days. I jumped on and off, on and off the benches, to a pounding hard-house beat. Inmates’ feet hammered the flaking varnish. Blue denim plimsoll shoes, some laced, some flapping, thumped on and off. The bench tops creaked. Blue cotton shorts, thin white legs, blue cotton vests, soft baggy drugwasted shoulders, hollow cheeks, sunken eyes rose up and down. The wind flapped snow across the room. A soft drift of powder cushioned the green pimple floor.
I tilted the angle of the running machine to up. A mountain summit twists into cloud. An unclimbed face appears through a hole in the mist. A moraine stretches and groans.
During my dinner break, I ran along the canal bank. A dealer stood in the dark beneath the ornate iron bridge. Scum and wrappers floated on the surface of stagnant water. Feet skidded in mud. Or is it ice? Shards of bottles glittered. Or are they slivers of glaciers? Crumbling red brick cotton mills, now empty, towered over the canal. My lungs were burning, my sweat stinging. Broken windows, rusty frames and graffiti dissolved into mountains. Just a few more minutes. Behind the clock hands, the arcing shadows traced their own time, ticking a silent beat. Better to stay asleep. Better to retreat. Better to dream.
From base camp I’d dreamed about the second rockband of Chang Himal. The fragile snow rattled my mind. We’d told Buddy, our cook, not to send for porters until we were above it. Buddy had a proud paunch. He’d lift his shirt and stroke it when he laughed, and we couldn’t help laughing with him. He’d been on many expeditions, mostly to large, nontechnical peaks. His only trip to a small, difficult mountain had ended with the whole team running away. Buddy told this story frequently between bouts of laughter. Houseman and I had failed twice on our warm-up peak, an easy plod opposite Chang Himal. We didn’t think Buddy had much faith in us.
“It looks OK,” Houseman says, as he climbs from the snow ledge where we spent the night. I think the rockband looks steep and difficult. After about an hour, Houseman agrees. When I follow him, the hotaches burn in my hands. “You’re obviously feeling OK, now?” I shout between screams.
Youth laughs atop the overhanging runnel. His face is ruddy with wind and health. One of his massive red mittens points. “One of three ways, I reckon?”
Three thinly iced corners invert. I don’t like the look of any of them. Eventually I take the left-hand line. It’s going to be OK. After the first thirty meters of good ice, my fingers are wooden again, my calves burn, and the voice in my head screams: You’re going to fall. It’s miles from anywhere. Write a will, mate. The angle of the face now bulges, and the ice turns thin and hollow. It creaks to me: Trust, security, friendship. I imagine it detaching in a sheet, my picks ripping out, my body bouncing, crampons catching, knee joints rupturing, pain jarring, and then a final dark thud.
I wedge into an overhanging corner and slot a large blue hex into a wide crack. Spindrift starts to pour. I swing left into a trough and tap at a greasy millimeter-thin sheen. Flakes of green ice spin, caught on the gusting wind, like plankton in a cold, vertical sea. “Watch me, Youth.” Ridiculous: a normal phrase shouted all the time across low, sunny canyons. Up here it’s the scariest phrase imaginable. Houseman, tied to the poor belay, must be willing me on. Watch me, Youth.
The weight of my pack drags. My granddad’s voice resounds in my head, and I’m sure Houseman can hear his, too: If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. I need to work hard, to make up for lost time, to climb everything free. My picks are less than a centimeter in. The bulge pushes. More than a thousand meters of air pull. The ice is a slick on the surface of the ocean, and the snow is yellow-bubbled scum. Some inmates liked to add sugar to red-hot pans of oil, to make it stick to the skin and burn more. The mountains are not violent; humans are. Neither a borrower, nor a lender be.
Screwed against tiny rock edges, my frontpoints teeter. Ice skin peels, and snow lumps rip. With each move, I expect ice to break, feet to sheer, picks to tear, body to drop. Time would slow at first, then after ten, twenty, thirty-forty-fifty feet, the speed would increase to a blur. The smell of sweat, shit, fear. With numb fingers, wide eyes and burning arms, I tap, hold my breath, and tap again. My granddad would be shocked, but proud. The angle eases. The clock hands turn.
CONFRONTATION IS UNAVOIDABLE. “What the hell have you done?” In the rafters of the cavernous prison warehouse, fluorescent tubes hung from chains. The gas glow projected shadows of railings on painted brick. It gave an eerie radiance to the white fatty fascia protruding from the length of the prisoner’s forearm. “What the hell have you done?” He smiled at my question. He appeared pleased with my shock, pleased with the attention. “I cut myself.”
Tattered with scar tissue, his flayed forearm revealed a crisscross of welts, fat, blood and congealed skin matter. He’d cut into the largest wound repeatedly, through the stitches and the veins. Prison officers walked past, too burdened with their workload, their life load, to be interested. He’d been a regular in the gym. I thought the exercise was helping his confidence.
[Photo] Andy Houseman
“The doctors can’t sew it together anymore,” he said. “The skin isn’t strong enough.” We stared into the inside of his flesh, for a moment, unable to move or speak. In streaks of red and white, a hidden universe broke free.
Six years later, in North Wales, I’d seen a line like an overhanging razor-blade welt of pebble that sliced the far wall of the zawn, cutting directly through the obvious, classic climbs. The guidebook named it the “the softest line in the world” and “the best line at Gogarth.” Only four people had ever climbed it. From the viewing promontory opposite, the salt wind and the crashing sea seemed to speak: It’s there, just there. Why don’t you climb it? It scares you. It’s uncertain. You are useless, just another dreamer.
Opening climbing magazines and books, I kept seeing one of the first ascensionists, Paul Pritchard, his thin Lycra-clad legs tucked into socks, his hair dyed blond or spiked into a black Mohawk or shaded by a giant rhubarb-leaf hat. The pictures shouted: Skin-of-the-teeth, bold, crazy, thrilling, life-on-the-cusp-of-society, an individual’s own rules, imagination, fun. The sea frothed white below him. The rock crumbled red, gray clay. Paul climbed the lines that others called “unjustifiable.”
In 1997 I met him in a pub on the outskirts of Llanberis. Three friends and I were about to travel to India to attempt the Shark’s Fin on Meru Central, a climb Paul tried in 1993 with Jonny Dawes, Noel Craine and Phillip Lloyd. Rain ran down the windows and the wind shook the privet hedge that bordered the dark lane. I’d only been climbing for four years. I was so in awe of him, I couldn’t talk.
Last summer, he returned to Llanberis, and I had the courage to say, “Tell me about Rubble, Paul.”
Paul’s suntanned face cracked into a cheeky grin. Beneath the stubble, his laugh lines grew, and his crow’s-feet deepened. His hair jutted out in all directions, bleached by the sun, feathered with blond streaks. His eyes burned bright. You could tell he was back in Wen Zawn, an amphitheater he’d lined with his routes and made his own. The rock echoed with his fall. On the boulders, the shadow of his body still seemed to lie unconscious as the sea rushed in. Just for a second, he was there.
And in that second, I was there with him, in a dark space lit by his stories. Salt stuck to my skin. The wind ripped through the zawn with the smell of seaweed. Gray seals circled beneath white and turquoise eddies. The sea crashed like rockfall. My hands touched greasy stone. My heart pulsed.
Then we were back in the packed pub, jostling and shouting, feet sticking to the carpet, in a fug of music, swaying bodies and sweat. Paul stood off-balance. A large support brace wrapped around his ankle. A sling cradled his arm. And the rain ran down the window.
“It’s HVS…except for the E7 bits!” Laughing, he limped away, his pint sloshing as he bumped and merged into the throng.
FAR AWAY IN THE DARK, a light flashes on and off, on and off, swinging yellow against a silver-green background, like the South Stack lighthouse over Gogarth’s Red Wall. Buddy is signaling us from our Chang Himal base camp, as he does now, every night. I stand still, belaying Houseman. The cold penetrates my skin. The small bright spot warms me. I imagine Buddy’s laughter ringing toward us. Youth climbs alongside me, and in the night we dig.
The wind slings spindrift. Stars glitter as the black sky slowly turns. After only a few minutes of chopping, we hit ice. A small shelf, probably one-and-a-half on the Fowler scale. “This is going to be comfy,” Houseman says. I laugh. He has tried to sound positive ever since I bickered with him. “Only another six hundred meters.”
“Two days, then?”
It’s already Day Three. Light and wind sweep across a frigid wasteland. Peruvian-style flutings curve into deep, wave-like troughs. Walls of unconsolidated snow funnel spindrift. Arabesques of exfoliating and compact granite interlace–for an instant I’m back on Rubble, tearing at the zawn’s quartzite fascia, feeling deep beneath what seemed like solid skin, through dirt and guts, pebbledash and veins, until I reach the end. I am not useless.
Midafternoon, three hundred meters below the summit of Chang Himal, we dig and worry. The flutings between us and the west ridge are convoluted monsters, layered and twisted with seams of rotten snow like driftwood grain. We’ve opted for a more direct approach. Just above our bivy, a peak of aerated snow rises ten meters. Like sand, it gives no support. I don’t fancy climbing it so far from Houseman’s belay.
But we have no clue anymore whether we can continue or not. In my mind I see us on some false summit, separated from the real by a thousand unconsolidated meters of snow, unable to cross the void. We’ve made a mistake. I know we’ve made a mistake. We’re going to fail. We’re so near and failure is going to tear my heart out. I’ve started climbing so late. How many ascents like this do I have left?
Spindrift slices into our small cave. Crystals like broken seashell gather speed, blow up my face and cut into soft exposed skin. Drohma Peak glows, a sharp red outline. I sit, holding the stove. The outside of the gas canister has frosted. The flame saws, beating blue.
All night in our small cave, while Houseman appears to sleep, I make conversation in my head: “Why did you fail?”
“We failed because of bad conditions, poor weather, dangerous climbing, sickness. Because we went the wrong way. Because the gear was stolen. Because we weren’t strong enough, hard enough, good enough. Because we are useless dreamers.”
For once, all I want is to answer the question, “Did you summit?” with a simple “Yes.”
I imagine myself on the summit, teetering, smiling.
AFTER DINNER, THE PRISON GYM WAS EMPTY, the inmates locked inside their own heads behind heavy doors. I lay on a bench. My head sweat smeared against blue plastic. I held a knurled Olympic weight bar with silver 10kg plates at arm’s length in the air. I lowered it, until the bar touched my chest. I pushed, looked at the ceiling, and dreamed. Bend, dream; push, dream; bend, dream; push, dream…. Routine is a quick existence, the odor of sweat, shit and fear.
At 8 p.m. I threw my keys down a slot. Behind thick Perspex, other prison officers waved goodnight and pushed the button that opened the electronic door. The door creaked and slid: Come again soon, dreamer. No one resigns.
Outside, a yellow sulfur glow blinded the night. I turned my face upward and imagined the stars in a slow spinning sky. The exhaust air smelled like escape.
The night wears through me. Tired from thin air and the sense of failure, I start the stove early. Gas fumes choke. The stars quiver. I shout at Houseman. He mumbles and shuffles. Neither of us is good at rising from bivies. I shout again. We’ll need all the time the day will allow. We have one day of food, but we’ll spend two or three days more if necessary.
I plunge arms and legs into and over the snow dune above our bivy. Relief: a steep runnel sidewall leads into another runnel system. The line wavers, direct as a ray of sunset across a soft-lapping sea. Straight to the summit. It’s on. It’s really on. I want to tease Youth by keeping the good news to myself. Instead, I shout, “It’s on, mate.”
We leave our packs in the snow cave. We hope the decreased load will help us levitate.
The cold sears my lungs. I try to take my mind off the pain. All I can think about is Tom’s question: What makes you want to put yourself in that position? I dig into the snow, looking for ice, for something solid, but find nothing. Two of my friends from the Shark’s Fin expedition, Jules Cartwright and Jamie Fisher, are gone. So is Phillip Lloyd from Pritchard’s attempt. In the valley, the losses make no sense. But up high, surrounded by thousands of mountains, something seems to expand briefly: minutes swell to contain hours; infinity bursts within an instant; one life holds many lives, many possible ascents; one existence races along several paths, each way leading to liberation; and nothing good or bad ever ends. In such moments, mountaineering makes every sense.
Houseman leads out of the fluting and onto a broad, dazzling crest. We meet at a snow bollard. Youth is silent. His eyes are hidden, but I know they’re shining. Home is a lifetime away. Home is here.
Taking no gear apart from what I collected on the way, I continue. The sun lights my soul. Snow crystals catch on the wind, spark with light, then blow out into the clear blue sky, never to return. I try not to stop kicking, but the gusts push me back. Between imagination and memory, I’ve been here before: battling the wind and the invisible, leaning toward the slope, driving the shaft of the axe, into the light, the emptiness, the solitude. Ice granules scour my skin like pumice. I pray for no more false summits. Kick, breathe, pray. It’s all HVS…except for the E7 bits!
Crystals fly like sea spume. The sun refracts into rainbows. Just a few more meters, and all that I had dreamed out of the shadows will take form. My axe cuts the crest. Through the slot appears Kangchenjunga’s huge serac-strewn north face and its three summits–a distant parallel universe. Jannu is a dark gravestone. I turn and shout to Houseman. He doesn’t hear. Above his stooped body, a thousand days of despair catch on the wind and dissipate like grains of salt across the vast Himalayan chain. But in an instant, the hands of the clock quicken.
During the long descent into the next evening, Houseman searches for solid anchors amid the crumbling rock. Somehow, he always finds them. I look up. In a slow-spinning sky, innumerable stars flicker. And from below, in the still night, the soft jangle of yak bells floats across the creaking moraine. Even before we reach the ground, Chang Himal has dimmed into the past. With the door about to shut, the key unlocks another image. Youth fantasizes, his new success behind him: Where do I go from here?
[Summary of statistics The North Face (ED+: m6, 1800m), Chang Himal (6802m), Kanchenjunga Himal, Nepal, October 29-November 1, 2009, Nick Bullock and Andy Houseman, first ascent.–Ed.]
[Photo] Andy Houseman
[Read Chapter 1 (of 2) here.]