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On Belay: Unattached

This On Belay first appeared in Alpinist 57–Spring 2017.

There is nothing unusual in the feeling for wild country which has been the chief and most constant influence shaping the course of my life; though I have been exceptionally fortunate in being able to follow its inspiration. –Eric Shipton

Lungaretse (5870m). [Photo] Camilo Lopez

Lungaretse (5870m). [Photo] Camilo Lopez

Solukhumbu, Nepal, 2013

A friend had given me just a single piece of information: a map hand-drawn in black ink on a white napkin. When I unfolded the sheer material, I stared at a vague sketch of 5000-meter peaks near the village of Marlung. The Colombian climber Camilo Lopez and I had no photos and no preconceptions. We would climb anything that looked appealing, and if the route was unclimbed, even better.

As I gazed at the sinuous lines, I imagined the napkin twisting into various shapes of unseen rock and drifting snows. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by the mystery of nature, by the boundaries between one realm and the next. I grew up in rural Ohio, and as a child I ran through the cornfields, searching for the places where the land changed from rolling hills to plains, where the river deepened, where the grass altered in color or shape. At night, I slept in the yard, stared up at the stars, watched the lightning bugs sparkle in the cool black air and listened to the bullfrogs sing. I knew there were entire worlds out there to investigate, far beyond the shadows of the house lights. I knew there was so much I did not know.

At nineteen, I packed my old small silver car with my few belongings, and I drove hundreds of miles to Denver, Colorado, where I finished school and took my first job as a registered nurse. On days off, I wandered into the mountains, enthralled at ridges that seemed wilder, bigger and more enchanted than the fields of my childhood. As I gained more experience, I began saving money for trips to the Greater Ranges, seeking ever-vaster places to roam. At work, when I injected chemotherapy into the veins of patients, they asked for reassurance that the medicine would give them more years on earth. I thought of small, intense beauties: the sunlight on a grain of mica, the flight of a red-tailed hawk above the snows, all that lay outside the hospital walls. I was almost unable to look them in the eyes. All I could honestly offer was a smile and the availability to listen to their stories. “Remember to forgive, be forgiven, to love and be thankful,” a young patient told me. “Change is inevitable.”

Identifying and overcoming natural fear is one of the pleasing struggles intrinsic to climbing.–Alex Lowe

In late September 2013, my Nepali friend Mr. Damber Parajuli tried to explain to me that the Lukla runway goes uphill. He told me that the thirty-minute flight from Kathmandu would be “one of the most exhilarating” of my life. He was right: my heart pounded as the single-engine plane carved in and out of the narrow range. Once we landed, young Nepali porters, with kind smiles and sun-beaten faces, shuffled our gear to a hostel across the tarmac. From there, Camilo and I hired two porters to accompany us as we followed the napkin map.

After four days of hiking the well-traveled path through the trading center of Namche Bazaar and the village of Thame, we stumbled upon the Marlung Tea House, where Dati Sherpa welcomed us with warm chapati and steaming dal baht. She suggested we stay with her instead of setting up a base camp. Her husband Norbu Sherpa was away working on Everest, while she remained in the village to prepare the animals and the homestead for winter. That night, we slept on comfortable beds of potato sacks and straw. I dreamed vividly of dying in the mountains: my body glistened with frost, frozen like a rock to an icy platform. When I told Camilo, he laughed off my fears with a slight twinkle in his eye. “Altitude dreaming,” he said.

In the Marlung Valley, Camilo spotted the most aesthetic line: a steep couloir that wandered up the south face of Lungaretse, a 5870-meter peak. “Let’s go for it,” he said. I could hear the smile in his voice. To me, his proposed route looked like a mere ribbon of snow and ice. Rational and irrational What ifs filled my mind. What if a storm came in while we were high up on the mountain as it did on Cho Oyu? What if our ropes were chopped by rockfall as they were while we were climbing on Fitz Roy in Patagonia? What if one of us developed altitude sickness and I didn’t bring the correct medication?

On our previous expeditions, Camilo and I had always been short on funding, unable to a afford a GPS or a satellite phone. We climbed with the mentality that there would be no rescues. By now, I’d come to realize that trauma nursing and exploratory alpinism share a similar paradox: both are simple and complex at the same time. You can try to anticipate the outcome, but when the unpredictable happens you must rapidly, yet precisely, change your plans. Why would this trip be any different? I thought. But, course, it was always different; you could never get used to the unknown, and much as I still longed to explore it, memories of risks kept accumulating, and the sense of vulnerability now shook me every time.

After establishing a high camp at 4800 meters, Camilo and I attempted the couloir in one push, only to realize that we’d misjudged the scale. What appeared nearby took hours to reach and what looked small grew tenfold. After approximately 700 meters of rotting ice and crumbling grey and black-speckled rock, we retreated because we didn’t have bivy gear. Back in the Marlung Tea House, Dati Sherpa rejuvenated us with warm chai. I felt weary of clinging to precarious, cold walls so far from safety, of staring into the abyss until my eyes stung.

Anna Pfaff leads up the couloir on Lungaretse, Marlung Valley, Nepal. [Photo] Camilo Lopez

Anna Pfaff leads up the couloir on Lungaretse, Marlung Valley, Nepal. [Photo] Camilo Lopez

When Camilo suggested that we add a second high camp, I was relieved. After a short rest and a lot of tea, we returned to our first camp. Our alarm beeped at 2 a.m. My pack was heavy, but we’d split the gear evenly between us. The idea of a different strength-to-weight ratio never applied when we climbed together. “Equal loads,” Camilo said with a chuckle. All day we navigated crevasses, rockfall, and steep snow-slogging. In a glowering sunset, we set up our second camp near the base of the couloir. Morning came quickly, and we repeated our simple routine: boil water; put on clothes; eat oatmeal; put on boots; stand up and go.

As we simul-climbed, my breath quickened with fear and altitude. I heard the words I said to patients: Deep, slow breaths. Breathe with me. Inhale, 1,2,3,4. Exhale, 1,2,3,4. I tried to wiggle a numb toe inside my boot. When I told Camilo that I still couldn’t feel my toe, we decided to descend from the top of the couloir. Shivering uncontrollably, I fought with stiff hands to load the rope into my belay device. My mind wandered to humid Ohio summers when the fields seemed to melt in the thick, hot haze while I stacked bales of hay like Jenga blocks in the barn. Here, an icy whiteout enveloped us so completely I thought we’d never find our camp. At last, Camilo pointed: the bright orange tent gleamed in the distance. I felt overwhelming gratitude. We were still alive, all fingers and toes intact. Camilo grinned, and the frozen crystals stuck to his facial hair glittered. “See,” he said. “I told you we would be fine.”

On the teahouse steps again, I unfolded the napkin, now smudged and withering. Soon the massifs that surrounded me would turn into paper, maps and memories once more. We had found what we wanted here, at least for a moment: a sense of freedom to follow our own path where we envisioned.

Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.–Rebecca Solnit

Zanskar Range, India, 2015

“Hmm, the article said the peak was in the first of the five valleys toward the Pensi La off the main road,” Lisa Van Sciver said. A seasoned Wyoming mountain guide, Lisa crouched in the back of a begrimed farm tractor, gazing through a broken window. Early that morning, we’d left our camp on the bank of the Suru River. Breathless from altitude, we were walking through light rain when the tractor bounced by. The driver, Dorjay, was collecting dried yak dung for heat in the approaching winter, and he let us hitch a ride. The tractor climbed slowly up the mucky dirt road. Women and children cut handfuls of long-bladed brown grass in the fields. They waved as we passed. Thick fog covered the peaks. Specks of grey granite walls appeared through holes in dark clouds, hinting at mysteries.

Years before, a wrinkled, weather-beaten article had captured my attention. Within its pages, a small black and white image of a peak resembled a picture from a Dr. Seuss book: an irregular triangular massif with smooth linear ridges and a massive granite headwall. It seemed to wave back at me from the paper. I closed my eyes, now, as if I could intuit its direction. I felt only emptiness.

Cold rain poured down until our baselayers were soaked. The valley became even more opaque. We could see nothing of the heights. Lisa and I jumped out of the tractor, shook hands with Dorjay and plodded back down the mud toward base camp, where our climbing partner Rachel Spitzer waited. A nurse from Salt Lake City, Rachel had received the Copp-Dash Inspire Award from the American Alpine Club that year. I felt excited at the invitation to accompany her and Lisa on a journey to the southern Zanskar Range–close to the Shafat Fortress, a vast wall that Jonny Copp and Micah Dash had climbed. I’d never met Jonny, but I’d spoken with Micah in Yosemite Valley years ago. “You should go. Do something new,” he said in a confident voice. “Go to the Himalaya. More women need to do first ascents in the Greater Ranges.”

Now, Lisa, Rachel and I needed to make our own plan. The horses we’d hired would arrive at dawn. We’d only have the pack animals for a limited time since the local farmers needed them for work in the fields. The three of us had pored over maps, analyzed topography, and downloaded Google Earth images. But when we compared the maps to the actual terrain, they looked blank, as if the cartographers had forgotten the area or just left it behind. Even the Google Earth images didn’t match what we saw. On a whim, I suggested we venture into the Dalung Valley. The Dr. Seuss peak might be hiding in the dense fog.

Between words is silence, around ink whiteness, behind every map’s information is what’s left out, the unmapped and the unmappable.–Rebecca Solnit

Early orange-yellow rays of light filled the sky. With the help of six horsemen, we loaded up five horses and crossed the swift current of the Suru River. Behind the curtain of clouds, I could feel the vastness of invisible peaks and walls. About ten kilometers into the Dalung Valley, we were committed to exploring this area; there was no longer enough time to move.

Rachel Spitzer below the summit ridge of Tare Parvat (5577m), Zanskar, India. Spitzer, Lisa Van Sciver and Pfaff named their route Unattached (5.6 WI3 AI4 M4, 600m, 2015). In the 2009 Himalayan Journal, Indian explorer Harish Kapadia described how each bend in the road in Zanskar reveals another unclimbed face. Sip wine at one valley, climb and move on to the next one to open another bottle, he recommended. [Photo] Anna Pfaff

Rachel Spitzer below the summit ridge of Tare Parvat (5577m), Zanskar, India. Spitzer, Lisa Van Sciver and Pfaff named their route Unattached (5.6 WI3 AI4 M4, 600m, 2015). In the 2009 Himalayan Journal, Indian explorer Harish Kapadia described how each bend in the road in Zanskar reveals another unclimbed face. “Sip wine at one valley, climb and move on to the next one to open another bottle,” he recommended. [Photo] Anna Pfaff

We woke to crisp blue skies. Snowy peaks shone all around us. Our original objective was nowhere to be seen. It was time to let go. We could waste time looking for something we might never find or we could just climb. Rachel, Lisa and I referred to the new options as: “The Boat,” a massive snow- and ice-covered peak at the far north of the valley; “The Castle,” a towering rock pyramid to the east that resembled a heavenly chateau; and “Star Peak,” a glowing formation that rose high above the other summits to the west.

“Let’s go there,” Rachel said. She pointed lightly toward the third mountain. She spoke in a timid, yet a affirmative voice. I knew she’d had her eye on the peak since our arrival. I was up for anything. When Lisa agreed that it looked good, I knew that she was drawing on years of experience, and I felt reassured by her aura of confidence.

Over steaming rice and spicy potatoes, our cook, Dawa Sherpa, gave us the Hindi translation of Star Peak, Tare Parvat. Its white snows and silver granite glistened in the moonlight. Stars sparkled around its summit. Warm in my sleeping bag, my mind shifted: I became fully committed to the mountain and to our partnership. The cool darkness reminded me of summers at home. I thought of all that still stretched beyond me, invisible, far into the night.

Spitzer on Tare Parvat. [Photo] Anna Pfaff

Spitzer on Tare Parvat. [Photo] Anna Pfaff

Each of the senses is a way in to what the mountain has to give.–Nan Shepherd

During the next few days, Rachel, Lisa and I all fought off debilitating chest colds–never an easy feat at altitude. But as we hiked around, trying to acclimatize, we became more familiar with this place: the clouds that build in the east in the early afternoons and the breeze that blew from the south; the purple poppies that glimmered about the valley; the murmur of the river in the morning that became a roar by evening; the recent rockfall scattered across the old moraine; the small Himalayan black bear cubs that appeared high on the ridge above our base camp. Amid the perfection of nature, my mind quieted.

At last, we regained enough strength to set up a high camp at 4800 meters near the base of Tare Parvat. Above, veins of water ice and granite cracks seemed to offer enough adventure for each of us. Rachel’s interpretation seemed correct: challenging, but obtainable. On September 5, we started up the northeast ridge, laughing in vibrant sunshine as we navigated over ice-glazed slabs. Thick blue flows reflected clear skies. The massive range broadened around us, summits blazing like a roaring fire. A cold wind burned my cheeks. Moving in a fluid rhythm, we reached the northeast summit in a mere fifteen hours. Rachel let out a piercing scream: “Wahooo!” Lisa and I danced like schoolchildren. As I peered west into the Chilung Valley, the Dr. Seuss peak stared back at us, tall and proud, from afar. I reached out my hand as if I could touch its face.

How do you calculate upon the unforeseen? It seems to be an art of recognizing the role of the unforeseen, of keeping your balance amid surprises, of collaborating with chance, of recognizing that there are some essential mysteries in the world and thereby a limit to calculation, to plan, to control.–Rebecca Solnit

Andes, Bolivia, 2016

On a long plane ride to La Paz, I gazed at photos of Mururata: ice lines wrapped like glistening snakes around the south face of the peak. I’d been yearning to climb a direct line there ever since my first visit to the region years ago. Now, when I walked down the old stone streets of La Plaza Rosario, fantasies of sheer water ice danced in my head. My longtime Ecuadorian climbing partner Juliana Garcia was guiding in the Andes, and she had a few days free.

“What do you think of Mururata?” I asked Juliana as we sipped cafe con leche and ate crusted saltenas in a La Paz diner. Secretly, I was hoping she was as excited as I was about the mountain.

“Well, it’s been a really dry season here in Bolivia,” she stated. Her face appeared serious, but a fiery sparkle lit her eyes. “There is no ice forming anywhere for the past few years.”

My imagined ice lines shattered as we discussed weather patterns. Then Juliana suggested we head toward the seldom-climbed Tiquimani, referred to as Illampu by the Indigenous Quechua. Although the mountain is just northeast of the often-traveled Huayna Potosi, no one had established a new route on Tiquimani for many years. Few people climbed the existing lines. I felt that familiar quiver of fear and excitement. We were becoming unattached, again, from expectations.

Mystery. That much is certain. It can be a kind of compass.–Rebecca Solnit

Juliana and I had no real idea of where we were going–all we knew was that we needed to find a lake called Wara Warani, above the village of Botijlaca. We loaded a decrepit two-wheel-drive minivan with five days worth of food and gear. Our driver, Valentino, was confident he could figure out the way. The minivan rattled up the steep roads into El Alto toward the Zongo Pass. While he and Juliana conversed in Spanish, I tried to make sense of the map.

As we drove into the night, the road switch-backed above a deepening void. Darkness and fog filled the air. Three times, we stopped to change flat tires. “Who needs an all-terrain vehicle? We have Valentino,” I laughed to Juliana. When we ran out of tires, we failed to patch one with seam grip. Valentino pumped up the tire as vigorously as possible, and he assured us that we were near the lake.

Three hours later, we arrived at an opening between rolling hills. Local residents were preparing chuno (potatoes) by headlamp. They told us the lake was just over the horizon. The minivan trundled on, and we set up our base camp at 4600 meters near the shore. Although the south face of Tiquimani was invisible in the dark, I could feel its broad, vast presence in front of me. Juliana seemed to feel it too. “What did we get ourselves into?” she asked. I could slightly make out ghostly ridges and features, contours smooth and faintly gleaming, as if the peak were a naked body standing tall in the night.

When we climb alone / en cordee feminine, /…we make the routes we follow/ disappear….–Helen Mort, No Map Could Show Them

I awoke to gentle hills and thick clouds. White-capped peaks rose and fell like waves. The view resembled a postcard image or a dream. Except for a few frozen patches at the top, the wall was dry. “What do you think about the normal route?” Juliana asked. She was referring to the South Face climbed in 1997 by Pere Vilarasau.

I glanced up: without ice to seal it together, the rock was crumbling. “Let’s do something new, Juliana,” I said. “How about the east ridge?” I traced its long crest with my finger as if I were connecting dots on a piece of paper. The rock looked as scaly as the skin of a giant walleye, the monster-like fish I used to pull out of Lake Erie as a child. No es bueno pero no esta mal, I joked to Juliana in Spanish with a horrible American accent.

Juliana agreed, so we packed three days worth of food and fuel. That night, a full moon illuminated the sky. It was the summer solstice–the best time for an adventure. As we sipped tequila, we offered some to Pachamama, Mother Earth, as Juliana suggested, an Andean tradition.

At 4 a.m., we started the winding approach by headlamp. After seven kilometers of walking and climbing low-angle slabs, we crossed over the east ridge, dropped down into the next valley and headed back up to the base of the northeast ridge. Around noon, we set up our first bivy at a glistening alpine lake. Lush rainforest poked through tiny holes in the dense veil of clouds below.

I was exhausted from the elevation, although Juliana, strong as ever, had carried the heavy pack. Bundled in the sleeping bag, under the stars and moonlight, I felt the remoteness wash over me. No map had brought us here. The idea of two women climbing by themselves in the Andes is almost unheard of among the local community. Only a few people had even a vague idea of where we were. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be, I thought.

Juliana Garcia and Pfaff on Tiquimani (5519m), Cordillera Real, Bolivia, 2016. On the third recorded ascent of the peak in 1963, climbers were surprised to find a large wooden cross, on the west summit, according to the 1985 American Alpine Journal. Apparently, Fritz and Kuehm [the first ascensionists] left these behind in 1940; or perhaps unknown climbers who came after [them] were responsible for the artifacts. [Photo] Juliana Garcia

Juliana Garcia and Pfaff on Tiquimani (5519m), Cordillera Real, Bolivia, 2016. On the third recorded ascent of the peak in 1963, climbers “were surprised to find a large wooden cross,” on the west summit, according to the 1985 American Alpine Journal. “Apparently, Fritz and Kuehm [the first ascensionists] left these behind in 1940; or perhaps unknown climbers who came after [them] were responsible for the artifacts.” [Photo] Juliana Garcia

At first light, Juliana led over unconsolidated rock to the ridge. Since we didn’t know what kind of terrain we might encounter, we’d brought our entire kit: ice tools, crampons, pitons, cams, screws and pickets. Juliana navigated the first pitches of steep grey cracks in mountain boots with precision and caution. Higher up, I balanced on small edges and fragile nubs. Blocks teetered upon blocks, some fifty meters below the east summit. I was terrified of knocking one onto Juliana as she belayed me. Our anchor consisted of a poorly placed knifeblade and a nominally superior micronut. I brought Juliana up, and we hugged each other tightly. Alpenglow flared in brief, rose-colored flames. “We did it!” Juliana shouted in a blissful voice, “Divertido!” and then her gleaming eyes turned serious. “It’s going to be really difficult getting off this mountain.”

The sun dropped below the horizon. Focus, I thought. Don’t make bad decisions just because all the options are poor, a friend once told me. I relied on creativity to equalize knifeblades and Spectres into a web of safety. At one point, I held a cordelette around a block as I yelled to Juliana, “Do not traverse. Only straight down.” Amid a halo of incandescent light, her eyes widened.

The usual feeling of night climbing at high altitude set in: a sheet of fatigue covered my body; imaginary chattering voices, chirping birds and light laughter resumed in my head each time I was alone at an anchor. In classic alpine style, we used up the entire rack. The last rappel anchor was a single nut. “Well it is either go or stay here, and in the morning there is still not going to be a better option,” I said to Juliana. We held our breath and descended. Sometimes you get lucky.

Tiquimani. [Photo] Anna Pfaff

Tiquimani. [Photo] Anna Pfaff

Back at our bivy, we crawled into our single bag and slept until the yellow mountain sun hit our faces. Images flashed in my half-dreaming mind: I was a small girl again, catching tadpoles in the cool river and running through thick, tall cottontails to jump into the lake, watching from my bedroom window as the leaves changed from green to magic oranges, yellows and reds. I was a nurse working multiple late night shifts in the emergency room, facing the 3 a.m. trauma calls, the hands held and tears cried after the failure of a long resuscitation attempt, the way that life can transform in a single instant. I was an alpine climber, astride a narrow ridge between sun and shadow, trusting my existence to a delicate flake of stone, a thin blade of metal.

I didn’t feel as though I knew much more about the world than I’d glimpsed from my childhood explorations. Despite how far I’d traveled, I was still on the edges of that vast, mysterious universe. Perhaps, all I’d learned was to try to accept the uncertainty of life, to move through it, with what grace I could. We are each on a perpetual journey through a land in which everything is changing, and the only constant is the unknown.

–Anna Pfaff, Oakland, California

This On Belay first appeared in Alpinist 57–Spring 2017. Subscribe today or order your own copy at the store.