[Photo] Kyle Dempster
“Is it possible to be awake for the amputation?” I asked Dr. Vanderhooft at St. Mark’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. Two and a half months had passed since I’d returned from attempting the unclimbed west wall of Tahu Rutum, a 6651-meter peak in Pakistan. The dead charcoal-black skin had slowly sloughed off my frostbitten fingers, exposing tendons and bone. New layers of bright pink fleshy tissue had replaced the gangrene, except for the last third of the ring finger on my left hand. My friends found it amusing that I could put the shriveled black tip into my mouth and bite down as hard as possible without feeling anything. I found it strange that part of a body could die and still remain attached to a living person.
I was ready to have the damaged area removed so I could get back to using my hand. But I didn’t want a portion of myself taken away from me while I remained in a state of medicated sleep. I thought that watching the amputation could be the final step in accepting the totality of the danger I posed to myself: my willingness to be completely absorbed by the natural world.
“No one has ever asked me that before,” Dr. Vanderhooft said. He looked at me with wide eyes and a furrowed brow. He said he’d have to check with the anesthesiologist before he could give me an answer.
When I was younger, I perceived a social blueprint for what life was supposed to look like: high school, college, career, marriage, home, kids, retirement. Yet this obvious path seemed to omit one of the greatest explorations of what it is to be human. I saw climbing as a means to go farther and deeper into the natural world until I could glimpse back into the heart of my own consciousness. I dreamed of a solitary adventure on a remote Karakoram peak as a way to siphon off distractions and comforts–and to answer the question of how much I was willing to give to the mountains.
In 2008, lured by a grainy photo of a sharp, dark spire above dull grey subpeaks, I began my journey to Tahu Rutum. So far, there was only one established route: a Japanese team had climbed the southwest ridge in 1977, the only known ascent of the mountain. After a four-day approach, the porters deposited my supplies at the junction of the Khani Basa and Hispar glaciers. I watched them begin the long walk back to their village and their families. Alone on the glacial rubble field that coated the ancient ice, I whooped and cheered at my first sight of the enchanting tower. This is it! The triangular granite form resembled a space shuttle, its nose pointed toward the heavens. I imagined the mountain poised to launch me away from a world of commonplace endeavors, stretching the boundaries of my being. Wispy clouds oscillated like smoking engines. The light and the air remained still, bound by huge walls and silence. For several weeks, I went up and down the glacier, ferrying loads nearly eight miles from base camp to a snowy pedestal below the wall. Intense sunlight reflected off the high Karakoram snow. I staggered under the weight of my haulbag. Sweat seeped from my body. With each breath, I let go of thoughts of friends and family, of memories that wouldn’t serve me in the moment. I tiptoed around crevasses, placing each foot in the boot print from my previous trip. After scanning the way around the bergschrund, I dropped my vision back to the path, Maybe I can go left, inhale, or Maybe right is better, exhale.
On the wall, my awareness of time slipped away. Each clear morning, I woke to the sun illuminating the red fabric of my portaledge–the signal that it was time to drink coffee and refasten my leg loops before crawling out to the start of what felt like the previous days. Hauling became a rhythmic practice, allowing my mind to sink deeper into the simple idea that upward movement was a flawless action, a natural course, my way of life. Back in my portaledge in the evenings, I craned my head out the fly door to watch the sun fade over the jagged skyline. The sky softly melted from golden to crimson to violet and finally to a glassy, star-speckled black. Heavy snow fell for days at a time, bowing the walls of my tent and making climbing impossible. I rationed my food and read from the Indian philosopher Krishnamurti’s Total Freedom. When the blizzard lightened to a flurry, I ventured outside, cleaning ice and powder out of cracks to fidget in cams and nuts. On two separate occasions, small pieces failed. Gear ripped as I plummeted, and the loud clanking of metal resounded sharply through the calm air. Each time the rope caught me; I pulled back to my highpoint and began again.
[Photo] Kyle Dempster
A month passed since I’d seen anyone. Then five weeks, then six. I disappeared higher into the atmosphere and farther from everything that reminded me of my humanity–from the people I loved and from the places that gave me a sense of belonging. I studied a plane as it flew overhead, and for a moment I was sitting in one of those tiny warm seats, eating peanuts, ordering another cocktail, and chatting with the stranger across the aisle. One night, as the darkness swelled inside my portaledge, I lit a small candle and fixated on the soft orange flame. The candle flickered for less than an hour before it was snuffed out in the abyss of a cold, black night.
After I’d spent seventeen days on Tahu Rutum, the angle of the rock eased. The summits of nearby mountains glittered below. Sometime around Day 19, I ran out of oatmeal for breakfast. On Day 20, I had orange Jell-O for dinner. Tattered clothes hung loosely from my body. I ached for calories, but my true hunger was for the summit. On September 10, I packed a small haulbag with crampons, axes, a stove, some clothing, my last remaining energy bar and my second-to-last can of tuna. Fatigue spread from the chasm in my stomach. My mind filled with a strange muzzy lightness. From my empty core, I started my push to the top.
Far beneath me, a white blanket of snow contrasted with the azure sky, the two colors merging in a magnificent sparkle and brittle cold. Each time I stepped higher into my etriers, pain shot through my body. White and grey clouds scattered the crystal air. Cold and hollow, above the final cliff band, I stood in a pocket of shin-deep powder. The top was only 150 meters away. Insignificant rocky outcrops dotted the last snowy crest. Spindrift twirled off the summit cone. The path was clear. But I paused. Perhaps I was concerned about the grey clouds, the mild wind, or the light snow pricking at my face. More notably, I just didn’t want to climb anymore. The reflection of myself standing on the summit was a mirage. The place was barren, and the light was gone.
[Photo] Kyle Dempster
My return to base camp took five days, four of which were without food. Back on the glacier, I kept losing my balance and collapsing on top of the snow. The sun warmed one half of my body; the ice cooled the other. Sleep came all too easily. Distant shouts echoed from downglacier. The porters must have come to help me back to civilization. Or maybe it was the voice of a friend, offering me a cup of coffee in the Utah desert. Hello? I whispered back.
A faint breeze carried the words of loved ones. Come home, Kyle. My eyes opened, and I staggered to my feet.
After placing a nerve block in my upper arm, the doctors woke me up from general anesthesia, just as I had requested. Dr. Vanderhooft, holding what looked like an oversized pair of wire cutters, sheared into the joint area at the end of my finger. He held the small black tip in the air while a nurse took a picture.
“Do you want to take it home with you?” he asked. Jolly dimples formed on both sides of his operating mask. He used another tool to sand away bulbous parts of the exposed bone, creating a more tapered shape that would function better as my new fingertip. The whole experience was over in what seemed like minutes.
A nurse pushed me in a wheelchair to the waiting area. My mother had gone to get the car. The doctor said I’d return to full function in just a short time. A mere six stitches sealed the amputated section–the answer to how much of myself I was willing to give. Is that it? I wondered. I felt as though I’d somehow cheated. I flipped through the pages of a magazine until something caught my eye: an article about the ability of starfish to re-grow lost arms.
As we drove from the hospital, I gazed up at the Wasatch Range, where I’d learned to climb. A few red and yellow trees still dotted the hillsides; higher up, the first snows frosted the mountains. The autumn color in Mill Creek Canyon was surely at its peak; the friction of Little Cottonwood granite must be impeccable. Soon, silvery lines of new ice would begin to form. I knew which trails would be dry.
I said to my mom, “Would you like to go on a really mellow hike tomorrow?”
[Every year since 2008, at least one climber has contacted me seeking information about Tahu Rutum. Several teams have made attempts. When I think back to the crack systems and the featured granite, I wonder about the free-climbing potential. Still, that line up the direct west face remains unfinished.–Author.]