I am motionless as a spider spying upon its prey. I am stuck on a sheer column of ice, no thicker than few inches with visible ground far beyond my eyes dare to travel. I feel like a spider but wonder (the most irrelevant notion at that moment) if ever a spider has ventured across icy terrains of such smoothness and vertical travesty. Even as my eyes, though still, look for places where I could place my ice pick, my four limbs glued to the element begins to grow weary. Precious seconds are ticking away and all I can do is gasp, breathe, and pray for a miracle.
With mother Earth nearly 100 m below I am venturing upon a new ice route in the cold frigid mountains of Colorado’s Telluride town deep end of box canyon on one of the most treacherous and iconic winter routes of all, the dreaded ‘Bridal Veil’ graded WI 5-6 under normal conditions. It is a tottering column of such jumbled ice sculpture that from the bottom you cannot see even 1/4th of the way up.
Today the conditions are appalling right out of Dante’s ‘Inferno’. This path has been shut down by the authorities for several years when accidents started to pile up and many of us have been waiting for it to reopen. In the past week, around 50 of the world’s craziest ice climbers had assembled in the nearby hut and were looking for the nick (perfect ice climbing conditions). My partner of ‘crazy’ repute, the local ice magician Scott was however impatient and wanted to be the first one to ‘bag’ the route and he wanted to make a new one at that. It was either my naivety or my ignorance that made me pair up with him on the spur of the moment when no one else wanted to. I should have known something was amiss when the legendary Canadian guide, Marc shook my hands at the door with the parting words, ‘it was nice knowing you man, we shall miss you.’
And now, shivering within my soaking jacket I confess that I shall miss them too as much as I would miss being alive. Of Scott and his state of mind or existence I really didn’t care or wished to know. He is silent, and the rope from my harness hangs loose, whipping into the breeze, disappearing a little below my waist into the swirling gloom of snow and ice and the bone cutting blizzard. I hope like hell that he is on the other end of the line though only a fall would confirm it either way. The ice is brittle, swaying like a pendulum in the hurricane blizzard. I know going down is not an option any more. Most of my ice screws below won’t hold my weight as they are poor placements in utterly rotten ice. I have been climbing based on the premise that I will not rappel down neither will I rip off and that I would only keep going up till I top up. The option of retreat was not an option any more. In fact I had no option.
Self preservation kicks in as much as the hollowness into the pit of my stomach. Either I am starving or I am shit scared. I opt for the first and clipping one line into the ice axe leash; I extract the chewable chocolate from my breast pocket and transfer it to my mouth. No point in dying empty stomach, sweetness of death to match the chocolate. Morbidity doesn’t become me so I soon push the thought of meeting my maker and my mind races to find an option since right now I have none. I repeatedly shift my weight from one leg to another to keep both moving and relatively warm. Thankfully the ice axes remain stuck and bear my feather weight. I feel a tug at my harness and realize that my partner is still very much alive and raring to go. I wish there was some way humanly possible to reverse the lead. I scrape some ice, scratch the surface with the axes and then place the picks as gingerly as I can.
I remember the words of one of my early mentors, that on a vertical gradient, motion is everything. No matter the direction, one must keep moving and shifting body weight. If one remains stationary then sooner or later one would succumb to gravity. So I move. Gingerly at first and then with some boldness but after two strikes the ice comes crashing off into my face and head. Being near, the impact is slight and momentary but a hail of curses floating up from below tells me that they have found a more pliable target. I smile since it is my revenge. I wipe clear some more sharp pointed ice daggers and throw them carefully at the target below. More curses follow and I feel much rejuvenated.
I start moving up, kicking steps and flinging my axes on the ice as if I danced on a bed of raw eggs. Hanging by teeth gets a new meaning in my dictionary. My lifelong dictum, ‘failure is not an option’ floats on the ice. I so wish that I hadn’t eaten that full pan pizza earlier and that I am at least twenty years younger and twenty pounds lighter.
In action lies salvation and I decide to do only that I can. I drive away all thoughts from my mind and soul, I obliterate every sight around me, and I silence my mind to not speak. My entire being, mind, body, heart and soul are focused on the ice, on the wall, on the four points of steel that keeps me stuck. I don’t let my body feel the agony of the sheer physical strain, or my mind the rush of fear that surrounds me like the twilight glow, or the cold that can freeze me in moments. I suddenly become the element, ice itself and start seeing my body from the outside. I witness the struggle of this frail human being, as he inches up one step and one swing of ice axe at a time. Time itself stands still. I decide not to switch pitch lead and continue pitch after pitch. As I near the roof, the angle eases a tiny bit making it just a little less than sheer vertical and I find my speed and rhythm.
Finally at the end of the afternoon, two bodies roll on ice at the edge of exhaustion and mortality. As we part company and shake hands on returning to the lodge, I swear to myself that I would try not to repeat such insanity and never to believe in Scott again.
If I learnt anything that day, and if we are to find lessons in our climbs, then it was simply that –
When life is ebbing don’t waste time pondering, just do what you can, even if it isn’t necessary or recommended since the journey is the destination.