[Photo] Jimmy Chin
SOME WESTERNERS ARE DRIVEN to explore the “unknown,” believing that we will discover bliss in uncharted regions, whether we define it as riches, science or self-discovery. To the Hindus of the Gangotri, the known features of the landscape already form part of a sacred, present reality–one that can be seen, touched, heard, tasted and felt. The more I visited the Himalaya, the less I began to think of its summits as the fragments of some dream country that I might conquer. These peaks are also the deities of indigenous cultures. Human impact and climate change endanger their abode.
In 2002 I’d walked across the western Tibetan plateau with Rick Ridgeway and the photographers Galen Rowell and Jimmy Chin to inventory the chiru, a threatened species of antelope sought for its fine, thick coat of hair. I watched Galen teach Jimmy how to search, with patience and discipline, for the perfect, magic light. Jimmy had a calm, earthy solidity to him, and he worked hard. Six weeks after the expedition, Galen and his wife Barbara died in a small plane accident. I remembered Mugs and Alex, and how Galen, too, had felt a need to pass on discipline, art and knowledge while he could. I began to mentor Jimmy on expeditions to big mountains, the same way that Mugs had once taught me.
In June of 2008, I was back in the Gangotri region studying glacial recession. Our team stayed at Tapovan. Each morning, the pale blade of the Shark’s Fin glimmered, so close and seemingly attainable, before it vanished behind the afternoon clouds. Despite the short notice, Jimmy and I managed to get a permit for Meru. In the early autumn, we traveled to Delhi to meet our climbing partner Renan Ozturk, a young artist who’d just finished filming ancient murals of the Buddha in the mountain caves of western Nepal. Renan spoke with awe about the 3,000-year-old culture and the depth of connection between the local people and the mountains. His face was radiant with enthusiasm, but I noticed how thin he’d become, and I worried that he’d already burned through his reserves. At Base Camp under clear skies, Renan sat in a golden meadow and unrolled a big canvas to sketch in swirling, concentric lines and colors of the glaciers and the spires, mixing paint with crayons and a ballpoint pen. To him, there was no boundary between art and climbing: both provided a path deeper into the unknowns within our selves. He looked up from his cloth to the peaks with gentle eyes, keenly aware of everything. Meru would be far more intense than our previous climbs together in Yosemite.
Four days later, the three of us set out, carrying two dynamic and two static ropes, food for a week and a big-wall rack, intending to climb in capsule style. We thought the difficulty of the aid on the upper section would require too much time and heavy gear for a pure alpine-style approach. Yet sieging the Shark’s Fin or using a power drill would feel wrong: Meru was too close to the myth of the hidden paradise and to Mugs’ memory. To ensure good snow conditions on the initial slope, we climbed through the night, stopping to rest next to an abandoned tent filled with food wrappers and fuel cartridges. Earlier that year, a Korean team had forced a route up the brooding wall to the left of the Fin. After summiting in a severe storm, they abandoned their fixed rope, portaledge and this first camp. The trash seemed incongruous in a sacred place.
[Photo] Jimmy Chin
We slept in the open under the stars. From far below, the roar of the Ganges River echoed up the wall, full of power, a dull, timeless noise dropping off the mountains. Perhaps it was this night that Jimmy first said, quietly, what we all felt: “I can’t believe we’re here.” The next morning, we were several pitches up the ice when the snow began to fall. The wind whirled off the blades of granite peaks around us. The sound of the river muted. Only twenty hours into the climb, and we were stormbound in our portaledge. We sat there for three days, pelted by snow, lifted by wind, nailed by shards of ice. Thunder and lightning amplified within the cathedral of walls. Across the valley, unbeknownst to us, a group of porters died after getting lost in meter-deep snow. Faced with the magnitude of nature, I felt inconsequential, absolutely on the mountain’s terms.
At last, the air cleared for a few hours each day. The fury of the storm plastered white into every niche and crevice in the rock. We scratched through blankets of powder and suspended layers of ice crystals. The snow packed our collars and seeped into our clothes. About halfway up the route, a horizontal band of ice separated the lower ridge from the upper headwall like a moat. As we traversed the deep trough, I felt as though we were crossing a mysterious threshold that might commit us forever.
A high-pressure system from Tibet brought cloudless skies and plummeting temperatures. Snow coated the horizon, magnifying the deep cold. The glaciers, now far below us, arched from blue into black, as if descending into the underworld. It was then that we realized the nature of this climb: relentless.
On the thirteenth day, we eked into an inverted world of overhanging thin cracks, angular edges and suspended blocks. Jimmy hooked loose features of exfoliating stone in his slow, methodical way, without ever losing his patience or making hasty errors. Mugs would be proud, I thought. I’d tried to pass on some of Mugs’ ability to judge the thin line between reasonable and unreasonable risk, although I wasn’t always sure where it lay.
When I took over the lead, I noticed how little weathering there was on this sharp, angular rock. No glaciation had worn the upper sections. We were moving over the raw outer skin of a peak thrust up from the depths of the earth into the sky. The surface rasped like sandpaper. Our clothing was full of holes. We had only meager rations of food. A look of mute, confused fear grew in Renan’s eyes. He seemed frail to me in this vast space, overwhelmed by the immensity of it all. But we were each moving more and more slowly, as our physical reserves declined.
On Day 17, with three ropes fixed from our high camp, we jugged in the frigid dawn air. Thin ice coated the granite. In the midmorning shade, I clambered over a roof and tapped my way up a narrow ribbon of ice, only a few centimeters deep. Soon I was six, then ten meters above my last piece of protection. I couldn’t beat my tool into the ice to place a piton in the cracks behind it; I needed the surface to climb. In the back of my mind, a dull terror began to roar: I can’t get killed and let my family down. A small fracture appeared in a patch of bare stone, perfect for a horizontal pin. My thoughts quieted again, for the moment.
A hundred meters from the summit, a final gendarme rose in smooth and overhanging facets like panes of tilted glass. It could take hours to aid this one pitch. We were too weak, now, to finish before dark. Renan had dropped a glove. The consequences of an open bivy above 6000 meters, of frostbite and hypothermia, of an emergency retreat that would leave trash on the wall–all this would represent climbing beyond our means.
The dusk of October lit the mountaintops, turning the orange stone to pink above the deepening shadows. We rappelled into what seemed like an endless series of nights. It felt fitting that the upper world was unattainable. Perhaps our goal had only been another form of Western hubris. And yet I felt good about the attempt: we’d gotten so close, no one was hurt, and I’d return to my family. We’d played on the mountain’s terms, and the mountain had won. Renan named the film he made of our expedition Samsara, “the center of suffering.”
In the autumn of 2009, I received an email from Silvo Karo, a Slovenian climber who planned another attempt on Shark’s Fin. In 1990 Silvo had made a six-day ascent of the west face of Bhagirathi III, across the valley from Meru, climbing in frozen rock shoes and carrying chunks of ice in his pack to melt for water on the dry upper wall. I sent him our topo and wished him success: he seemed to have the tenacity to finish the line. When Silvo returned, his story reminded me of our 2003 expedition. A light rack and double ropes, a tent and food for four days. His team turned back at the start of the headwall. Silvo remarked on how cold and steep it was.
Still unclimbed. I wanted to go back. After a year, I’d forgotten the cold feet, chapped face, parched throat and dry, swollen hands. I only remembered the sunset illuminating the glaciers and the spires, the forest of giant pines, and the holy men whose faces bore Mugs’ patina of wind and sun and cold mountain air. We knew each piece of gear and where to scout for water. We could bring a larger portaledge and warmer sleeping bags. Having just made a winter ascent of Tawoche, Renan would feel more at home on the wall. “To settle the score” is something a street fighter might say, and that kind of violent rhetoric felt out of place. I didn’t want to be like the conquistadors who fantasized of plundering Eldorado. Everything would depend on weather. We would reach the summit only if we obtained a blessing from the peak.
When I told Jenni that I hoped to return to Meru with Jimmy and Renan in the autumn of 2011, she pleaded with me not to go. “What is the sense in going back? ” she asked. I pondered. “The chance to revisit the peak, to re-climb difficult and dangerous pitches, to get after the last 100 meters and look out over the summit.” It sounded absurd. With modern satellite technology, the terrain was already mapped and visible. No mysterious land of untold riches existed there. The City of Gold was a trick of Western folly, part of a colonial mentality I was trying to escape. But I still had to finish Mugs’ dream for him, even if I didn’t understand why. I tried to justify the hazards in the same arrogant way I had for twenty years. With proper planning, I thought, we will avoid risk. Fear and doubt awakened me late at night. All my rationalizing was bullshit. It was dangerous and selfish to go to Meru.
Each morning, as I sat down to breakfast with my family, I remembered my responsibilities as a husband and a father. The morning light shone through the kitchen corridor like a shaft of ice. I felt possessed.
[Photo] Jimmy Chin
[This story is from Alpinist 38–Spring 2012. To read Alpinist‘s review of the film Meru and to watch the theatrical trailer, click here. Read Chapter 1 here, Chapter 2 here. Stay tuned for Chapter 4.–Ed]