True passions are irrational. They are excessive, obsessional and often controlling to the point of becoming compulsive. More often than not the object of passion is senseless and worse…dangerous. There is then a no more useless and absurd activity (passion) than mountaineering. Ask any serious climber: the cold, the effort, the risk, frost bite, dehydration, altitude sickness and even death- the list goes on. As Hamlet summarized in his famous self-searching soliloquy "ay, there's the rub…". The rub is the uncertainty, that dark space which our reasoning minds cannot illuminate.
But there is something in it! The world seems to be shrinking, overpopulated and overpolluted. The highest peaks have been climbed and are up for sale, there are even fixed ropes all the way from basecamp to the summit of Everest. The age of exploration has discovered with intimacy the anatomy of the planet and commercial space travel is the millionaire's next adventure. There is a restless spirit, contumacious to reason that stirs in the core of many climbers. In the shrinking planet, many want to find a private place, a mysterious location. What about the journey?
In the colloquial language of the climber, an "epic" is the most transcendental manifestation of the absurdity, passion of climbing. Epic journeys are those where the climber is exposed to all the rigors of nature in extremis, to serious risk and utter exhaustion. The greater the fear and suffering, the more valuable the epic experience. Is this then the gold of the climbers' alchemy?
Photography by Erik Monasterio
The intrepid British explorer, Sir Martin Conway first visited Kondoriri in 1885 and wrote that it was a natural wonder, with much resemblance to the great Cervino of the Alps. "This bewitching massif casts a strange spell over the local farmers. They call it Kondoriri and believe it to hide ferocious animals and strange mysteries. A cloud of condors stalking their prey can be seen as night falls on the mountain". The locals still believe her to be the creator and God of the condor, who spread colossal wings from her magnificent body and froze, forever facing the highland plateau.
With Jared Ogden I stood on the gently sloped glacier beneath the head of the Condor. We were about to set off on a new route on the Southeast face of the bird of prey. Roped up we found a way across the gaping bergshrund and moved up the steepening face. After one hundred meters of steady climbing the conditions began to change, each step and strike of the ice axe returned a hollow echoing thud from the neve snow. The reason soon became apparent. There was only a crusty, tense mantle of snow covering the black, schist layer of rocks. The sun was on the face and in the heat of the day the risk of an avalanche was alarming. I yelled out to Jared that there was no point roping up as, in the conditions it was impossible to place any securities and we were safer to make the ascent as fast as possible. He untied, threw the rope down and raced ahead. Fearing an avalanche I climbed well to the left. Each step intensified the stress of the climb. The hollow thuds continued, grew louder and it just kept getting warmer. Halfway up we were fully committed, it would have been more dangerous to back down. The only thought in my mind was to keep moving: counting steps I tried to cut back on rests. The sense of urgency inexorably pushed me on despite the altitude (over 5500m). Two thirds of the way up I reached the first of a series of rock bands. Jared was out of sight- we were on our own. The steep, friable rotten rock kept fragmenting and sliding off into the precipice. Small stone avalanches shot past and the tempo and intensity of the climb kept creeping up. I was scared. Focusing on the urgency of speed, I desperately tried to find a rhythm to maximize the efficiency of my climbing. The focus of my mind became narrow, precise and sharp. The usual subsidiary thoughts and worries were squeezed out. And then…I was catapulted out of this concentrated state. My breath was out of control, stinging sweat impaired my vision and my limbs were shaking uncontrollably. I was stuck in the rock bands, every hold I grabbed broke off. It was like climbing stacked dinner plates. I couldn't move, there was fire in my calf muscles and my mouth was dreadfully dry. I was sure I would die and felt the panic welling up. How absurd and pointless it all seemed. I was on my own with no chance of help. I would have given anything not to be there any more. I even muttered a prayer. The panic then rushed over me and engulfed me in the turbulent eddies of adrenaline, I could feel myself slipping!
The strangest of things happen at the strangest of times. From the chaos of all my overwhelmed physiology suddenly there came a strange, foreign calmness, a certainty that all was not lost. Out loud I talked to myself, controlled my breathing and once again narrowed the focus of my attention. I studied the rocks around me and everything else disappeared. It was so calm, without a single thought, without a doubt. The tiredness and the stinging vanished. I made no conscious choice and the front points of my crampons seemed to guide me. There was no longer any urgency, just a smooth stream of weightless movement through the breaking rocks. Above the line of stone avalanches I regained the snow slabs and rhythmically pushed on. I can't remember having a single thought. I didn't think of thinking. I just indulged in the calm euphoria of thoughtlessness. There was no sense of time or reason, just the certainty of action in a dream-like buoyancy. I sunk up to my thighs and chest and pushed past the feathered flutings of snow draped over the summit. I swung my leg over the ridge and the reverie was over. The childish excitement of the summit and the sudden relief almost overcame me as my brain burst forth into its usual dialogue of contradictions. Cold air filled my lungs, and the entire landscape rushed in through my eyes as I recognized peaks on the horizon. Reason crept back in and Jared pulled up next to me.
TORRES DEL PARON- PERU
The granite friction on the slopping belly of the Paron Towers was good, deceptively good. With my brother Grigota, we were climbing 2000m above the serpentine road that wound it's way out of the Paron Valley. It was a difficult climbing season, el niño weather patterns were dominant and it was hot and humid, mosquitoes above 5000m, and heavy rains by mid afternoon. Grigota was belaying from a scoop on the enormous slab face. Over the years constant rain had polished the wall featureless. The protection in a shallow crack by the belay station was useless, but the climbing was straightforward. Grigota kept paying the rope out…and God the friction was good…so I kept moving. There were no cracks or fissures on the rock, so no protection, but the friction was oh …so good. Feet spaced well apart, maximising the contact of the rubber soles on the granite and flat hands slapping up the slope, I kept moving. Twenty meters out of the belay station, still no protection. The gentle angle was now deceptively steep. "Any pro, bro?". Hmm, nothing, so I stopped moving to have a good look around. When I stopped, the balance no longer felt that good. One meter up I spotted a thin hairline crack, a subtle wrinkle on the youthful rock. Stepping up over a shallow scoop I reached up to it. It was the thinnest of lines and choked up with dirt, but there was nothing else. With hands and feet spread apart the balance was good. To take the weight of my arms I pushed down onto the balls of my feet, freed one hand and started cleaning the crack. It wasn't much of a crack. From my harness I unclipped a piton and scraped away, revealing a margin so thin as to be useless. The tension through my outstretched ankles began to cause deep calve pain. I leant into the slab and shifted the weight across my arms. I shook each foot, shifting left and right. I cleaned some more and the pain in my legs returned. I repeated the motion, but each time the recovery was less successful. Despite the cleaning it looked like the crack would be to thin for the piton. I looked below me and realized that I could not reverse into the scoop beneath me. I was stuck!
Photography by Erik Monasterio
I stared down, past my worried belayer, past the one hundred meters of climbing we had done, and then straight down the 600m. ravine we had climbed the day before. The Paron River waters foamed a cavalcade of white caps. This was serious! As I became fully aware of the situation the aching and cramping in my legs got disproportionally worse. Trying to steady myself I leant into the rock, rested onto my left elbow and with my left hand held a thin pitton into the crack. Gently I hammered as the piton danced refusing to bite. The pain in my legs kept getting worse and mosquitoes settled on my arms and face. The sweat of fear and exhaustion dripped a steady trickle onto the rock. Finally the piton held. With each blow it creeped deeper...then a solid blow and...jumping into the air the piton bounced, pinged and disappeared into the precipice. The fear of falling intensified. The poor belay security wouldn't hold us and so I yelled to Grigota to take me off the rope. Shaking his head he screamed back an irrefutable negative reply. I insisted, but he would have none of it "work it out, I am with you bro"...My legs were shaking uncontrollably. Concentrating on the task at hand, I reached for the thinnest (knifeblade) piton, placed it in the crack and gently hammered. It held, the thin blade slid a couple of centimeters. The hammering sounds got reassuringly duller and then...it bounced out, somersaulting and bouncing, heading straight for Grigota. As the piton bounced away the passage of time froze. We were doomed! The only piton that had a chance of biting into the crack was falling away. Everything stopped, the image in my mind suspended as a still-life frame. It was trance-like. The spell was finally broken when Grigota reached out and caught the flying piton. It was too much, the man is a genius! "This time, use a sling and secure the piton to the rope, bro"...Finally the piton was in the crack far enough to clip the rope and rest.
As I hung the pent-up pressure just drained away. Then gingerly and trepidaciously I worked my way over easier ground and onto a safe, securable balcony of rock. Not realising that behind us a thick chariot of clouds was moving up the valley we committed further up the face. Undeterred Grigota ran out the next pitch over poorly protected ground. Absorbed, we just kept moving. Then, in an instant the valley fell asleep, the mosquitoes disappeared and the sky blackened. The first roar of thunder was followed by the flaming filaments of lightning. There were no abseil points or escape routes so, as the first drops built to streams of water, we begun downclimbing. When there are no choices, decisions are quite simple- We descended. The tropical rain didn't dampen the feverish pitch. The water gushed down and we pushed hard into the rock. The friction was gone, and blindly we groped. The water seemed possessed, committed to washing us away. It ran up my arms, into my face, punched my chest and bounced of my shoes. I remembered what a Spanish philosopher, summarising the human condition once said, “The best a man can do is hope”, and against all odds that is all we did- Hoped. And that was enough to keep us moving. Lower down Grigota managed to secure himself sufficiently to protect me over the difficult, final descent to the balcony. Then in a surreal display of controlled desperation, he freeclimbed to my side. We fixed the rope and retreated back to high camp.
THE EPIC JOURNEY
Inarguably mountaineers are seduced by irrational instincts. The rare, epic journeys are always the most remembered, the most talked about and the most dreaded. Their seductiveness is their mysteriousness and it is difficult to understand their meaning. Perhaps they connect us to primitive experiences, to impulses long forgotten. Things we cant describe. They are intense and enriching in a way that few other experiences are, but they are also dangerous, absurd and to actively seek them out is to follow the counsel of a fool.