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Light Before Wisdom: The East Face of Cerro Kishtwar

This story first appeared in Alpinist 54–Summer 2016.

Hayden Kennedy, Marko Prezelj and Manu Pellissier descend into shadows after the first ascent of Light Before Wisdom. [Photo] Urban Novak

Hayden Kennedy, Marko Prezelj and Manu Pellissier descend into shadows after the first ascent of Light Before Wisdom (ED+ 5.11 WI6 M6 A2, 1200m) on the east face of Cerro Kishtwar (6173m), in the Kishtwar Himalaya, India, with Urban Novak. [Photo] Urban Novak

I SLAMMED MY AXES INTO THE ICE, and I leaned back, hoping to find a staircase to the summit. The features of the mountain faded into a flat light of white snow, black rock and grey mystery. Thin cracks in the granite appeared and vanished into spindrift. Have I led us into a no-man’s-land? Does this route even go? I looked back at my tools, which seemed to have grown into the mountain.

Ahead, a layer of powder snow flowed over rolling slabs. Now I started to dig in search of anything–a hairline crack in the rock, a cluster of ice–that would help me feel connected to the mountain again. Uncertainties accumulated like heavy drifts, weighing me down, until I couldn’t seem to move up anymore. There was no physical weariness or limitation stopping me–merely a clouded mind. I set two cams and slumped into my harness. Marko Prezelj and Urban Novak followed the pitch, while Manu Pellissier waited at the previous belay. In the mountains, there’s no way to hide your emotions. When Marko reached the anchor, I knew he could sense my fear.

“I’m sorry I led us this way. I’m not sure it goes,” I said. He smirked at me and then laughed into the icy wind. “Jebi Se!” (which, Marko had explained, means “fuck you” or “thank you” in Slovenian depending on the context.) “You must believe!” He took the rack and careened off into the unknown. Manu arrived at the stance, weary-eyed, with a thin layer of frost on his beard. “Let’s see what this old fart can do,” he said.

As Marko climbed out of sight, a trail of spindrift was all that we could see. No words or sounds emerged from the mist above–only a snowy path was left behind as we waited with our imaginations.

Prezelj crosses the bergschrund on the first morning of the Cerro Kishtwar climb. [Photo] Urban Novak

Prezelj crosses the bergschrund on the first morning of the Cerro Kishtwar climb. [Photo] Urban Novak

FOUR YEARS AGO, during an expedition to the Charakusa Valley in Pakistan, Kyle Dempster and I visited a Slovenian camp to talk about mountains, but mostly to bum some of the Slovenians’ chocolate and rolling tobacco. One of the climbers was Urban Novak. When we showed him a photo of the elusive East Face of K7, he leaned forward, mesmerized. He was too polite to ask if he could join us, so we invited him. On our first attempt, we turned back in heavy snow. By then, however, we felt as if our desires for the peak had fused. A year later, the three of us returned. After we’d climbed nonstop for nearly thirty hours, a storm gathered strength around us. Kyle and I would have bailed if it weren’t for Urban’s words, “This is what we came here for, and we knew this wasn’t going to be easy.” Urban took over and broke trail through waist-deep drifts to the summit. When climbing partners connect so well in the mountains, they become like musicians: there are no words spoken, just the acts of several people communicating through riffs; the sharp hit on the snare drum, the pulse of the bass; the single sound moving forward.

The more time I spend in the mountains, the more I find that climbing is only a small part of what alpinism actually is. I grew up in western Colorado, training on the polished, blocky limestone of Rifle. As I left the crags for the mountains, my ignorance and inexperience led to some of the wildest adventures of my life. But I also saw a side of myself I didn’t like: bit by bit, I began to worry too much about what other people thought of my expeditions. I created an image of success in my mind that I couldn’t live up to, a trap that didn’t allow for failure or growth. In the autumn of 2012, I returned home from first ascents on the East Face of K7 and the South Face of the Ogre I to a whirl of media hype. My head became crowded with thoughts of ambition and praise.

Then one wintry day, while bouldering in a local gym, I tore both my ACL and lateral meniscus. I had to spend seven months recovering. For weeks, the question burned: Who am I without climbing? Gradually, I forgot the summits that I’d reached and I remembered the friendships that I’d made. I recalled the jolt of energy after a hard lead, the exhilaration of navigating seas of untraveled granite, of finding the rhythm with your partner in which each person plays to the other’s strengths. I remembered dropping stoves and gear and still climbing with a smile; smoking joints and singing CCR lyrics into the cold nights of open bivies; taking sponge baths in a sun-drenched meadow; eating kilos of ice cream after adventures that exhausted us so much we could no longer see straight; experiencing the comfort of a clean cotton shirt after two months on a glacier; and most of all, the shared laughter.

Kennedy contemplates Kishtwar Kailash (6451m) from advanced base camp. [Photo] Urban Novak

Kennedy contemplates Kishtwar Kailash (6451m) from advanced base camp. [Photo] Urban Novak

IN 2013, A YEAR AFTER MY KNEE SURGERY, I was road-tripping around the Western US, happy to be moving again. Every day, I climbed with new and old partners, and we pushed each other to find that perfect rhythm on a wall. With a childish enthusiasm, I’d agreed to join Kyle and Urban on an expedition to the Karakoram that summer. But as time passed, I felt uneasy. These are two of my best friends in the world, I thought. Why am I not chomping at the bit for this trip? One evening, around a fire, I let the silence take over. I wanted to feel that sense of foreboding and not push it away.

In my mind, there is “fear” and “real fear.” We encounter normal fear in every facet of our lives, whether it’s the anxiety of talking to someone attractive at a bar, feeling overwhelmed at a new job or climbing fifteen feet above a small cam in sandstone. This ordinary emotion can keep us alert to danger; it can also present a challenge to overcome. “Real fear,” on the other hand, is an experience that I’ve only had a few times. It’s like a deep pit that emerges for no reason, always when you least expect. I have no idea what its true nature is, but I know I have to listen. That night, the real fear swelled around me in the dark. I couldn’t shake it.

Instead of going to the Karakoram, I stayed home. For the next couple of years, I rarely held an ice tool or even thought about my alpine dreams. I worked at odd jobs–painting, rigging, hanging Christmas lights–and I rock climbed as much as possible until the money ran out. I was following what I liked to call my “no plan” plan: a mixture of general disorganization, a network of like-minded hooligans, a thirst for cheap beer and a sense of having nothing better to do with life. At times, as if by magic, a pure adventure would arise: a phone call, a strong foot on the peddle, and I could be in hiking through the thick forests of the North Cascades or lost in the red canyons of Zion. Whenever I touched stone, I forgot everything except the task at hand. The “real fear” vanished as the miles flew by.

The road to the Kishtwar Valley. [Photo] Urban Novak

The road to the Kishtwar Valley. [Photo] Urban Novak

In early April 2015, Urban sent me a note about another expedition in the autumn. By then, I felt ready to return to alpine climbing. I’m not sure why. I just had the right feeling this time. Urban proposed the Kashmir region of India. He’d be our trip leader and plan most of the expedition. Thank God, I thought. He does have his PhD in chemical-bio-who-the-heck-knows. Another Slovenian alpinist, Marko Prezelj, joined the team. I felt both excited and intimidated: Marko had gone on nearly thirty expeditions, including some of the most significant ascents in the past decades; he also had a reputation for a strong personality. Marko suggested inviting his longtime friend Manu Pellissier, a French climber. I’d be the lone American in the group. What if they just make fun of me the whole time?

At the Delhi international airport, Marko handed me a beer and hurried me into a cargo van full of duffel bags for an eighteen-hour drive to the village of Manali. Small talk, or as Marko put it, “tasty talking,” kept us busy for hours. As the van twirled up winding mountain roads, we drank beer and relaxed into our seats. Manu and I had the same love for 1970s blues and rock music, and we could talk about it endlessly. “Just because my passport says I am French, this doesn’t mean that I am necessarily French,” he said. We all laughed. Onward through the fog, I thought. Two more days of driving, four days of ferrying gear with the help of local villagers and their horses, and we arrived in base camp.

Kalidahar Spire (5600m), from base camp. In 1988 Conrad Anker and Kevin Green climbed its north ridge. [Photo] Marko Prezelj

Kalidahar Spire (5600m), from base camp. In 1988 Conrad Anker and Kevin Green climbed its north ridge. In the Alpine Journal, Indian explorer Harish Kapadia wrote of their rock ascent as “a most welcome trend away from the queues for the 8000ers.” [Photo] Marko Prezelj

Just west of Tibet, Kashmir is a landscape of lush valleys, birch forests and wild rivers. In the last few decades, because of an ongoing border conflict with Pakistan, the Indian government has limited foreign expeditions to this area and only intermittently re-opened it. During short windows of time, a few mountaineers have gotten permission to climb here. In 1991 British alpinists Andy Perkins and Brendan Murphy made a bold attempt on the North Face of Cerro Kishtwar, following a steep ice line that cuts right up the shadowy center of the spire. They endured sixteen frigid nights hanging in their harness. Between ice smears, they climbed up nebulous pathways of dry rock with crampons and gloves. Spindrift avalanches pummeled them, and their food ran out. They were only a stone’s throw from the summit when they retreated. In 1993 another team of Brits, Mick Fowler and Stephen Sustad, completed the first ascent of the peak. Fowler’s American Alpine Journal report contained terse details–a ridge too steep to pitch a tent, snow-layered slabs that reared back to overhanging stone, a pick that broke off an axe–hinting at bigger adventures between the lines.

In the last few years, grades and status have started to mean less to me: I’ve realized that numbers can be a pointless game with no end. Climbing history transcends the movement and the difficulties, evoking a respect for the style and commitment of previous generations. As I read the stories of alpinists before me, new spaces opened up in my imagination: longings not just for unclimbed routes, but for undefined dreams. I started to wonder what I might have to contribute. I could write some standard trip report and present the facts as they unfolded. I could describe the events in ornate detail, creating an elaborate tale. Either way, the words will never represent the experience. As Marko would say, The essence of the climb is lost just as soon as the storytelling begins.

Prezelj at advanced base camp. [Photo] Urban Novak

Prezelj at advanced base camp. [Photo] Urban Novak

“HAYDEN, STOP! STOP!” Marko screamed as we continued toward our advanced base camp. Most the time, I had my headphones in and couldn’t hear his shouts. Then I noticed him running through the talus, “Jebi Se!” he yelled. “You motherfucker with your headphones. You are not in nature with that shit in your ears. I want to take a picture. The light is ideal.” Marko grabbed his camera and gestured for me to move a few steps back.

“You aren’t in nature with that stupid camera lashed to your chest and eyes all day either,” I responded, and I put my headphones back in. But as I kept walking, I could see Marko smile out of the corner of my eye. Sharp angles of sun and shadow appeared across the glacier, casting silhouettes that looked almost like die-cut paper. I understood why this moment meant so much to Marko: in an instant, the light would change again, and the sudden clarity of each line and edge would dim.

We stopped to bivy at a relatively flat spot at the start of the glacier. There, we brewed tea and ate onions with cheese and salami from Urban’s family farm. Manu patted my back. “Marko has been hassling me with his camera for years,” he said. “I guess it’s the price we must pay when the light is good and we are the perfect models.” We both laugh. “What! What are you saying?” Marko yelled from inside the tent, and we laughed even harder. Our differences had begun to weave together like contrasting motifs in a piece of music–four very different characters from different backgrounds. I knew that we were lucky to get along so well: we’d keep the rhythm lighthearted, and take nothing too seriously.

All too quickly, morning arrived, and I was following Urban’s footsteps up the glacier. Our intended route went straight up the central gut of the east face, connecting faint corners and ice chimneys like a dotted line, and eventually following a diagonal ramp to the upper part of the face. As the wall grew over our heads, Manu, Urban and I started to whisper about feeling pulled toward the left skyline ridge–a possibly easier way. “Fuck this! We have a plan, and we should stick with it and try the central line,” Marko said. He pointed to the face with his ice axe. Without much tasty talking, we followed. Soon the blazing light created its own discordant music. The sun beat down on the east face, detaching loose rocks and ice. The initial blunt buttress jutted out from the wall just enough to keep us out of their path. As I looked back, I saw our tracks had vanished under a pile of debris. I shuddered, remembering how quickly conditions can change.

Novak on Cerro Kishtwar. [Photo] Marko Prezelj

Novak on Cerro Kishtwar. [Photo] Marko Prezelj

WATER STREAKS GLIMMERED down steep rock, turning from trickles to cascades. The air grew warm enough to climb without gloves. Not much was said. The sounds from the mountain were enough: the calm murmur of streams running over stone, interrupted by the piercing crash of ice and then silence. Leading, I chose our speed and tempo the way a drummer does. I wove between rectangular blocks, sometimes climbing with one tool and one bare hand–anything went as long as the momentum was upward. Small snow mushrooms filled a corner of muddy, decomposing rock. I slammed my hand into the filth as I brushed them off, sending down chunks of ice. I swung into an overhanging seam and pounded in knifeblades. As I eased onto each aid placement, I tried not to think about what would happen if they ripped.

The sun vanished around the wall, and a chill seemed to reach into my bones. Marko led through bulges of steep ice and bare stone. At times, his axes rattled in thin cracks or sunk into blue flows. But he never fought the mountain. With each movement, he seemed to be embracing its topography, even playing with it. Whenever he reached a good stance, he’d stop and look around for a while. You can miss a lot of the beauty of the place, I realized, when all you look at is your feet or ice tools.

By late afternoon, we’d arrived at one of the two hanging snowfields on the bottom half of the face. Burnished walls loomed above us with few passages. The options for sleeping were limited: when we chopped into the snow, we’d hit rock instead of ice. As a team of four, however, we could distribute the heavy workloads between us. Urban and Manu managed to excavate a faint, improbable bivy ledge, while Marko and I fixed ropes 150 meters higher. Close up, the stone became furrowed with perfect cracks. The memory of the morning’s falling debris vanished.

Kishtwar Kailash from the bivy on the third morning of the Cerro Kishtwar ascent. [Photo] Marko Prezelj

Kishtwar Kailash from the bivy on the third morning of the Cerro Kishtwar ascent. [Photo] Marko Prezelj

“PART TWO OF THIS COOKING SERIES begins with Urban’s famous starter course of mystery meat, cheese and garlic cloves and will be followed by the gut-wrenching beef barley dehydrated meal,” I announced in our tent while Urban boiled water.

We chuckled and then fell into a peaceful silence. Marko and Manu hunkered down nearby. After a hot meal, I felt as though I were in a 5-star hotel–but as soon Urban got into our shared sleeping bag, I realized just how crowded our accommodations would be: Let the man-spooning begin.

Breakfast consisted of coffee and cold energy bars, and then frosty boots and more steep rock. We followed the same pattern: climb; pull ropes; haul bags; find the right pace for your legs and your lungs. Manu led up ice flows that disappeared as we followed him. His arms swung into slush, making a noise similar to that of an object dropping into water–a thick and low PLUMP!

Novak, Kennedy and Pellissier at the second bivy. [Photo] Marko Prezelj

Novak, Kennedy and Pellissier at the second bivy. [Photo] Marko Prezelj

Pellissier on one of the increasingly slushy ice flows during the second day. Before Cerro Kishtwar, Prezelj, Kennedy and Novak had acclimatized by making the first ascent of the south ridge (D+, 1400m) of Chomochior (6278m). [Photo] Marko Prezelj

Pellissier on one of the increasingly slushy ice flows during the second day. Before Cerro Kishtwar, Prezelj, Kennedy and Novak had acclimatized by making the first ascent of the south ridge (D+, 1400m) of Chomochior (6278m). [Photo] Marko Prezelj

At last, we reached that ramp we’d seen so clearly from the base. It was, indeed, low angle: a good break from our struggles below. A gash in the left wall presented a path toward the upper northeast face. Steady and silent as usual, Urban headed into ice chimneys as the day started to become night.

The afternoon glow soothed my mind–nothing too harsh or blown out, just a mild temperature of fading colors. Then the hours passed into late evening, and the last hues of twilight dimmed from blue to black. There were no flat places to bivy. I began to feel as if I were dreaming. As the night sky unfolded, we became lost in the climbing. Each movement was slow, cold and draining. Marko led pitch after pitch of calf-burning ice slopes. Our headlamps cast only small, spotlit circles in the dark.

The rope came tight and woke me from a brief, freezing sleep–swinging, more kicking, more focusing and then more belaying. A wave of exhaustion and nausea rolled over me. My body shook, and my head pounded.

“I’m not sure what’s happening?” I said to Urban and Manu. My words blurred into a hoarse, unfamiliar groan.

“You are bonking,” Urban replied. His quiet voice sounded stern. The rope came tight again, and I felt as though I were climbing at the rate of a drifting continent. We finally stopped to chop out a bivy from the icy slope. Marko snapped more photos. Maybe I will throw his camera off the mountain tonight, I thought; then I concluded he might actually kill me.

Lying crumpled in an awkward ball on a slanting ice ledge wasn’t the best way to recover. Any form of stillness, however, felt like a reprieve.

The east face of Cerro Kishtwar gleams in the first morning rays, Day 1. [Photo] Urban Novak

The east face of Cerro Kishtwar gleams in the first morning rays, Day 1. [Photo] Urban Novak

ONCE MORE, THE SUN crested the horizon: pink haze in thin clouds. Manu played “Gimme Shelter” on his iPod as we brewed coffee. If music, good food, a bit of scotch or an extra pair of socks makes the experience better, I thought, maybe “heavy and fast” should be the new way instead of “light and fast?” I took the lead, feeling the need to prove myself after the previous night. My body moved better than I expected. My mind relaxed, and I concentrated on staying safe and continuing up. With each corner we turned, the mountain remained unrelenting. High clouds drifted across the sky. The sun disappeared. A deep cold set in. More climbing, more belaying, more route finding and more question marks.

Often, when you look at a painting, your gaze is automatically drawn to a single place: a bright figure on the edge of a dark landscape, a shaft of golden light against a wall of shadows. When I think back to our climb on Cerro Kishtwar, my mind’s eye goes straight to that moment when Marko took over the lead from me, and we all watched him climb across the snow-covered slabs and fade into the mist without any hesitation or doubt, only a steady, flowing grace. All the demanding pitches we’d climbed to get to this point had no visible effect on him. He appeared entirely confident, trusting the choices we’d made as a team. I admired his ability simply to get the rope up, here and now. I realized, again, how much I still had to learn. I hadn’t been able to climb in the present moment because I’d become too attached to my anxious thoughts about the uncertainties. Marko showed all of us what it means to accept the unknown and just move–without a goal, a summit or an expectation.

BUT I’D BE LYING if I said that reaching the top meant nothing. A summit represents closure in some ways, even though mostly it’s the point when you start the arduous process of rappelling. We stood on the apex of Cerro Kishtwar at midnight under a clear and windless sky. It made sense just to stop and sleep there: after all the days of climbing, we’d given everything we had.

As rays of morning light heated our tents, the frost turned to glistening drops of water. We weren’t in a rush, so we drank our coffee with sugar and powdered milk in the warmth of the sun. It felt good to exist, for a time, in slow motion. In every direction, all we could see were high peaks and deep valleys. Then the daylight strengthened like a rising scale; notes of dark rock and white snow deepened. And for a second, I found exactly what I need out of climbing, something honest within myself.

Novak, after a calm, clear night on the summit, makes a salutation to the sun. The team descended by the south face and east couloir. This April, the ascent received a Piolet d'Or. [Photo] Marko Prezelj

Novak, after a calm, clear night on the summit, makes a salutation to the sun. The team descended by the south face and east couloir. This April, the ascent received a Piolet d’Or. [Photo] Marko Prezelj

I don’t see the point of thinking that climbing mountains is important, because it’s not. I don’t think I’m doing anything groundbreaking, because I’m not. I now believe that alpinism consists of 20 percent skill, 40 percent motivation and 40 percent luck. We got away with the East Face of Cerro Kishtwar because of the weather window that we had: it was only by chance that conditions were conducive to both rock and ice climbing. The bravado and the media hype of today are complete bullshit: alpine style hasn’t improved since the 1970s and 1980s when climbers such as Voytek Kurtyka, Francek Knez and George Lowe showed us what it really means.

These days, “modern alpinism” seems to be about posting your pictures to gain credibility and taking less-committing routes in search of “guaranteed summits”–instead of pursuing more-demanding lines that have a greater possibility of failure. I, too, have sometimes been guilty of this approach. But what is failure? It might be the relinquishment of something more elusive than a summit. The climbs that truly push us to our limits become the most significant ones because of the intensity of the experiences. Alpine style is more of a mentality than a physical act.

The art of storytelling can get lost in the obsession with self-promotion, the endless babblings about successes, the longings for approval that fill social media feeds and clutter our brains. Yet as Marko would say, “When seeing and experiencing become one, the window to true sight is open.” At such instances, just as conscious thoughts fall away, there’s the chance we might glimpse something beyond words or images: a fragment of pure existence, an echo of the mountain’s own chords. I remembered paying attention to my sense of foreboding two years ago; perhaps the “real fear” is only one of many sensations that you notice as you become more open to quietness and the mystery. Maybe the most genuine parts of any tale are the sputterings and the silences, the acknowledgments of failure, the glimmerings in the dark. Maybe one reason to try to tell our tales at all is to bring some of that vision back to our everyday lives.

More rappelling, more stuck ropes, more bad anchors, more rockfall, more route finding–and then finally no more of anything. In a blink, we were back at advanced base camp with stashed food, rolling tobacco and beers. The alcohol went straight to our heads, and we buzzed with energy. The climb didn’t seem to matter anymore; nothing really seemed to matter, except to breathe and feel the power of the mountains that surrounded us. The moments we experienced on Cerro Kishtwar remained for us and only us at that time.

Marko took an enormous swig of beer, and he started into what we all thought was going to be a statement of dazzling brilliance, when his attention was seized, instead, by an array of sunlit mountains. “Aw, wait, this is perfect! The light is fucking perfect!” Marko yelled. He scrambled to find his camera in the chaos of our camp. I looked at the orange and red sky that flowed over the peaks, and I thought, Light before wisdom.

This story first appeared in Alpinist 54–Summer 2016.