I looked up at the white summit, across and over a convex wall of rock-hard ice... it looked tantalisingly near yet I knew I would never reach it, at least not today. I had reached the end of my endurance, expertise and wits. I had nothing more to counter the mountain’s defences. If I wished to live then today I must quit. For the moment it was a summit too far.
I looked down and could see all the way to the ground beneath, nearly 3000 m vertically distant, and at my companion who swung around gently in the twilight breeze hanging from a slender rope that stood between mortality and us. He was looking up at me, our eyes met, mine full of disappointment and defeat, his full of mirth and jubilation. He could well be basking by the fireplace in his lovely house while baking a giant pizza pepperoni.
I nodded my head sideways and pointed to the obvious exit to my left where a tricky tension traverse of 60 m will get us to the window of safety and escape from exhaustion that now was cruising through my limbs like blood. He jerked his head up and down, indicating assent, and bared his teeth in a grin of camaraderie.
After we had both climbed through the round window, kept open, for climbers on the ‘Death Wall’ of Eiger, I craned my head out and took a deep sigh while eyeing my stance where I finally gave up. The infamous spider with tentacles spread into thin runnels of ice leered back at me. Eigerwand had beaten me one more time. I felt miserable, thoroughly dejected, full of remorse and self censure... I couldn’t accept that I had failed once again on Eiger North Face, a face that had killed nearly as many as she allowed on her summit. I stared out into the darkness, oblivious to the freezing breeze cutting through my outer shell and was on the verge of tears; so immense was my disappointment.
My long time friend, mentor and climbing partner, Marco, or ‘the rock’ as I often called him since he seemed invincible, stood mute next to me. Only his slow gentle breathing betrayed his presence. Eiger North Face wasn’t new to him; he had three ascents on it.
I had never felt that useless or meaningless in my life and despite having around two-dozen Himalayan summits and equal number of Alpine ones (including the dreaded Walker Spur on Grand Jerasses) I felt as if I was a wimp. Eiger North Face was simply to be my crowning glory and I had been so sure of my success this time. I also felt I had let my friend down. But for my failing to lead the crux exit pitch from Spider he would have surely made it to the top. I had to find out few honest answers to few hard questions.
I turned around and looked at Marco. The tunnel was ill lit and there were no trains scheduled now so we had a long way back to the nearest refuge. My headlamp illuminated Marco’s weather beaten face. ‘I am sorry Marco, I failed, and I let you down. I feel worthless.’
‘You did fine Satya,’ Marco retorted slowly, ‘you did your best, and you didn’t give up. You only quit. It’s not the same as giving up. You didn’t fail you only allowed the mountain to win.’
‘I am sure with someone else you would have summited, we were so close.’ I let my self-pity run free.
Marco remained silent for a while and his blue steely eyes looked back at mine. ‘Perhaps,’ he said, ‘but what makes you think that I wanted to reach the summit! What makes you think that I am not happy to be where we reached and where I am right now? What makes you think this is not OUR summit?’
I felt puzzled; I couldn’t follow his line of thought. I was barely 24, adrenalin cruised through my veins like mercury, I was always charged up to do something spectacular and I was forever hungry for another summit. Eiger North Face had to be mine.
‘Look Satya,’ Marco said slowly, ‘Eiger is not going anywhere and it has grown as big, as high and as difficult as it can ever be. While you my friend are still growing, getting better and becoming stronger, so you will keep on climbing higher and bigger mountains. Don’t worry, Eiger summit is not the end of the road, it can never be. It was and will always be a stepping stone to higher mountains.’
In my early twenties, shivering within my layers, on that freezing night, standing within the bowels of one of the most famous and notorious mountains in the world I learned one of the biggest lessons of my life from a dear friend 12 years senior in age but decades ahead in climbing and wisdom.
I learned that ‘to fail’ is actually a necessity and each ‘failure’ is only a stepping-stone towards betterment. You never fail, even if you do not arrive and you may quit for the time being, but you can never give up.