Monday, December 7, 2009
Climb of My Life
I am always asked what has been my best climb, the most dangerous, most technical, highest, finest, toughest, etc, etc and it often leaves me wondering for words. At times I end up with the cliché, ‘it’s yet to come’. But today let me share with you the ‘Climb of my Life’.
Ceillac would not mean much or nothing at all to most ice climbers outside of France & Italy. I take you to a time when Ceillac was known even less, only to handful of climbers keen to find unclimbed lines and risk everything into the unknown. A sleepy and dreamy French village spitting distance from the Italian border, Ceillac was not discovered before the late-nineties and has only recently been included in the list of French Ski and ice climbing locations. My long standing buddy and fellow alpinist, the outrageously crazy climber Ludo and I had put up few routes on Aiguille du Dru in and around the famous Bonatti Pillar and were hungry for more when he drops Ceillac. I hadn’t heard the name before.
We dump ourselves and our stinking gear into his severely battered and broken Citroën that has one door missing and the rear axle about to fall off. So there we are with wind in our face and some raucous song on our lips literally flying off the highway A43. My French rivaled Ludo’s English and our mindless duet must have sounded like the lost tongue of Lemuria. We take turns driving… did I just say driving! Driving every motorist or cyclist off the road for sure! The only device in the car that still worked to its designed capacity was the horn, and mon Dieu, did we use it! In under five hours without stop and a short tiptoeing into Italy we reach Ceillac. We, the two fools, were only a day after ‘all fools day’ and rightfully so.
The ice draped slopes and sheer waterfalls frozen into silence in their cascade silence us for a second perhaps. Then we regain our speech, our gear, our food, and our dreams and over the next week climb like maniacal monkeys. But for the food that runs out including the big chunk of smelly cheese Ludo drops into one of the cavernous icefalls, I am sure we would have stayed there till my visa ran out or they deported me forcibly, whichever happened later. But you can’t outsmart or out-climb a growling stomach. So we return to our car. That’s when Ludo utters perhaps the most meaningful sentence of his entire existence (he disappears few years later in a freakish accident while snowboarding down a 90 deg slope in Austria), ‘Sat, let’s check out this cool place, heard some stuff happening up there around this time.’ With Ludo it is pointless to ask when he uses indeterminate words like ‘this’ ‘that’ ‘him’ ‘her’ ‘there’ ‘some’ ‘stuff’ what is he talking about. But when Ludo says ‘stuff’, stuff it is. So we jump into the car now arguably lighter by few kilos and fly off for stuff.
We cross River Durance and after a while head north and the road starts climbing into the snow draped mountains. The sunny bright morning caressing my bruised body feels wonderful and with Ludo by my side the world couldn’t have been better. We reach St Leger and stop at the recreation centre car park. There are many people around, walking; camping on the grass, moving around and I notice the peculiarity only after I step out of the car. Nearly all the people around me are different in their physical form. I stare incredulous, swarmed in an ocean of differently able people. Double amputees, wheelchair bound, prosthetic limbed, visually impaired, mentally disoriented, torsos rolling on ground in a pantomime of walk, men, women, children, aged and very few complete human beings like us. I have never been in a place like this and feel overwhelmed by the unabashed display of physical limitations. Yet what I notice is the palpable air of joy and positivity. Everyone radiates energy, optimism and fun. What are they doing here, I wonder. I follow Ludo inside the bar-cum reception area. He walks up to the gorgeous bartender and we are introduced. I like Melanie instantly. She offers me a glass of ginger-ale on the house. She looks at me amusedly and says, ‘Why should a decent guy like you hang out with this skunk,’ she rubs Ludo’s back fondly. ‘You have no idea how dirty Sat can get, ok,’ Ludo retorts and we all laugh. Ludo is hailed from another table and I ask Melanie what’s going on.
‘Ah, this is our biannual meet of people who has less but can do more. They come from all over. Wonderful and amazing people.’ ‘Why here?’ I ask. ‘To climb of course, to live life on the edge, like you guys say!’ ‘Climb? What can they climb?’ I am incredulous. ‘Anything, wait, here comes someone you must meet.’ She looks across my shoulder. I turn around to find a middle-aged athletic man with a wide grin and no legs approaching us on his artificial lower limbs. Everyone he passes gives him a high five. Everyone seems to know him as he knows everyone. His smile just radiates and permeates every corner of the room, he simply glows. Even from a distance I feel his enthusiasm and joy of living. ‘That’s Marc, lost his legs ten years back in an accident but look at him. You must climb with him.’ Melanie whispers into my ear. And even before I can say a word Melanie hails Marc, ‘Hey love, I found you a climbing partner.’ Marc reaches over and kisses Melanie loudly. ‘Anyone that crazy!’ ‘He is crazier than you, you brute, meet my friend Sat and he has come all the way from India.’
Marc looks at me and bursts out in a guffaw, ‘Yeah that should be alright, Indians are crazy I hear,’ His grip is strong as he shakes my hand. I watch his powerful forearm. We become friends instantly. Ludo appears and the four of us join into a team of revelers. ‘I am going up Centinela (Sentinel) tomorrow morning, want to join me?’ Marc says. ‘Take him, I am burst.’ Ludo points his finger at me. Ludo and burst, doesn’t make sense and I am apprehensive to go climbing with Marc. I feel Ludo deliberately wishes to avoid Marc on a climb or maybe he and Melanie have plans for tomorrow. ‘Great, meet me here at 6 in the morning. I will get two more and we climb Sentinel.’ Marc pumps my back enthusiastically. I wonder as I make pasta that night in my tent, what the day would bring in. I had no idea that I will be living one of the most profound experiences of my life within the next twelve hours.
I get up at 5 and prepare my rack. Ludo had told me earlier Sentinel is a straightforward line of trad with two cruxes and a pinch traverse. You can free solo it, he had assured me. Ludo’s straightforward could be anything so I got in few nuts, odd hexes, a pair of micro-friends, six pairs of quickdraw and assortment of runners. I reach the bar at quarter to six and was surprised to see quite a few people around up and about with their climbing gear. Melanie or Ludo were nowhere to be found, I had expected no less. Sharp six Marc strolls in; once again I catch the positive energy he carries around him so naturally. ‘Morning Sat, all set as I can see. We have food for the day, let’s go.’ I accompany him outside and he leads me to a 4X4. I jump in beside the driver’s seat. We have two co-passengers at the back. Marc does the intro. I grasp Jeff’s extended hand noticing that he proffers his left palm so I twist my right palm and give him a firm shake. Jeff guides his companion, Matt’s hand into mine. As I take his palm I realize to my horror that Matt is totally blind. ‘Howdy guys,’ I quip and turn around to face the road and the mountain we are going to climb. I don’t feel comfortable. One guy with no legs, one blind and Jeff I had no idea about his disability though I suspect he has some severe physical limitations. I had never climbed or done anything remotely outdoors with physically challenged individual before. My curiosity got the upper hand and though apprehensive I decide to play along and see where the day concludes.
We drive silently for twenty minutes the headlight cutting through the rising dawn. ‘Here we are, let’s unload boys,’ Marc announces. I jump out as Marc wriggles out from his seat. He opens the door for Matt and helps him down. I watch Jeff as he opens his side door and first pushes out a walker-aid, then turns to his left side and literally slides down the door maintaining balance with the walker-aid. He flops down to the ground and steadies himself. He catches my eye and smiles. ‘I am paraplegic, can’t move or feel anything on my right.’ He hobbles to the back to get the gear out. I begin to see a nightmare happening in daylight. Either Sentinel had to be a literal walk in the park or these guys were only fooling with me. Each of them got their personal gear and we divided the food and water load. I took the 100 m rope that will be our main climbing line while Marc packed in a 6mm 50 m rappel for emergency. There was no need for us to climb; we already had an emergency in hand.
‘There you are, our boy, Sat what do you think.’ Jeff taps me on the back. I follow his outstretched finger and gasp more out of fear then wonder. He takes it otherwise, ‘Cool, eh, knew you would like it.’ ‘Have you guys done it before?’ I ask for the sake of asking. ‘Marc has done it few times, not us, but with you in the line he thought we should go for it.’ Jeff explained. ‘Yeah right,’ I muttered silently, ‘blame it to the stupid Indian who got all of you killed.’ I realize with a sinking feeling that there was absolutely no way I could wriggle myself out of the situation. The point of no return for once had been decided by someone else and I had crossed it long time back.
The wall stretches out like a giant ogre around half a km ahead. Bathed under the soft sun I had no difficulty in picking up Sentinel on the vast face. Around 300 – 350 m a straight crack dihedral leading all the way from bottom to the top with a gradient varying between 40 – 60. There were two ledges where the crack thinned out and one would need to pull out and off to a smear for two body lengths perhaps at each ledge before gaining the crack and the line. These must be the two cruxes. Around 20 ft from the top the crack widened to a chimney that could only be body-bridged by someone 180 cm or taller, which left all of us out. The inner wall of the chimney seemed absolutely smooth without any traction and on either side it rose vertically to the top. I look to its left and notice the obvious pinch traverse. I can see no place for protection at that point. The lead will need to balance his entire weight on his fingers and toes and move up and sideways simultaneously to emerge at the top – a difficult move by our present team’s standard. A fall could and would be fatal. Marc must have followed my eyes. ‘There’s a nubbin there, you can get a runner in if you are fast and lucky,’ his eyes glint in excitement. I nod my head and say nothing. I judge the entire line to be anywhere between 5.9 and 5.10 with the cruxes perhaps touching 5.11 and the last move around 5.11b. With good resting and stance points it is a serious line though very possible, doable and normal for me and Ludo but with these three, I have my doubts. There are some good rappel points interspaced across the line I notice to my relief. We could always come down if the going becomes too tough. We reach the base, Jeff leading Matt by hand all the way. With his own half-body out of control it is an amazing sight. Matt grasped Jeff’s useless right hand since with his left Jeff had to keep his walker-aid pushing. There’s a thin layer of snow on ground. The line is entirely snow free. The day is good, clear sky, soon it will be warm and nice. Barely any breeze, it is a perfect climbing day. Marc is obviously the leader and even before he opens his mouth to discuss the climb I know that I will be the last in the line of four.
‘Ok boys, here’s the plan. Since I am the only one here with route beta I lead all the way with Sat belaying from below. Matt will follow me with Jeff coming next and Sat covering our sorry arses. He is our brake, our emergency plan, if anything happens and we fly off he will hopefully keep us alive, no sweat I hope Sat!’ Marc winks at me. I wink back and start calling all the gods in my dictionary. ‘While I am climbing, both you guys in the middle will let the rope run free through your loops and for god’s sake don’t fall off when either I or Sat is moving. Once I reach my stance I will holler and then Matt clips in and I will top rope him, pull him in like a fish caught in the hook, ha ha ha.’ Marc is actually laughing and so are my two other companions. ‘I will guide you with the route so listen to me well, Jeff you can guide Matt from below. Once Matt is with me Jeff starts climbing. Sat, you will need to come up and help him keep his left side onto the route. You two would need to climb really close to each other. Jeff stinks, sorry about that Sat, he would buy you beer when we get back. I don’t think Sat will need any top-roping. Once we four reach my stance we repeat the same procedure. It will be a slow and steady climb; should not take us more than a couple of hours. Any questions!’ I had few critical ones but remain quiet; after all I am the brake. Never in my life had I heard of such a climbing strategy and I had heard some. We gobble some chocolates and cheese, wash it down with black coffee and then change into climbing shoes and bases. Harnesses come in next and between Marc and me, we divided the entire rack. Matt and Jeff carry only water bottles and few packets of cookies each. We strap our chalk bags, crack our limbs and fingers and take off.
Marc grasps the first ledge and pushes out. He is soon climbing steadily as I pay out the rope through my belay. He is agile, surefooted (if we can say that) and has tremendous strength in his arms. I watch him fascinated. How on earth does he feel the tiny placements for his toes I wonder? His body waist-below simply follows his upper body in a wave like rhythm with the inertia. He is literally climbing on his fingers and forearms. Can he sustain it all the way to the top? He puts the anchors deftly. He is a seasoned climber I can see. He reaches the first stance around 100 ft off ground and cries out for Matt. Matt gets a figure-o-eight on the rope and pushes it down his harness clip and starts climbing. Jeff guides his legs and hands to the first hold. He gropes and steadies himself and then moves up. Marc talks to him incessantly from above. Matt stops at every step, rotates his head around, feels the wall and the face and the crack as if he is caressing some delicate fabric and then pushes or pulls himself up. I watch transfixed. How can a blind climb? His movements though scattered were well-controlled and balanced. Several times I thought he would slip and fall since he stays glued to a spot for long, but he doesn’t. I notice that Marc keeps the top rope lose and is not really pulling Matt up. Matt would stop at places and finding no holds or footage even with all of us shouting at him from up and below, would hug the entire face like a long lost beloved. He would stay there for a while and suddenly would smile like a kid in candy store and start climbing. Did he know sorcery? I wonder. Or did he have some primitive communion with the mountain who whispered secrets into his ears when he hugged! Rarely had I been so intrigued in my life. Matt reaches Marc and they hug fondly. Marc gives few hard and well-meaning thumps to Matt’s back. ‘Ok you stinky man, it’s your turn.’ Marc hollers.
With his walker-aid out, Jeff is leaning heavily into the face. His face though smiling is screwed up. I can feel his pain and his isolation. Among the four it is the most challenging for him. I am not even sure if I know what to do or how could we climb together. I fumble around with his harness and clip him in. Marc pulls up the rope till it stretches taut between him and Jeff. I am only a meter below Jeff, so I come up and stand next to him, looping the rope around him so that he would not fall off. By default I am attached to his harness as well so if we fall, Marc will need to hold both of us. Jeff and I would be climbing almost as a single entity yet no way could I put my weight on his harness and had to maintain a considerable loop between us. I had absolutely no clue how it could be done.
Jeff came to my rescue. ‘Don’t worry Sat, I know this is new to you, but I will guide you. Just follow my words and we will be fine. You have no idea how happy I am today and you made it happen. No one climbs with us and we are left to do only easy stuff. This is my dream come true and when Marc told us last night that you would be coming along and we could do Sentinel I thanked god for sending you our way.’ Jeff grasped my hand in a warm shake. ‘I am indebted to you for life.’ A lump rose to my throat and for all my verbose I found no words to say to my new found friend. I silently vowed right then that even if it took my everything I would ensure that Jeff and my other two friends reached the top in one piece.
‘Place my left shoulder into the crack,’ Jeff begins his commentary. He jams his left shoulder and reaches out with his left fingers the furthest hold he could then pulls and pushes against the wall and starts moving up. I follow him right by his side keeping a sharp watch over his rope, foot and hand holds and what lay beneath. Even as I take the first step above ground I know that Marc had been fooling earlier; this is a one-way climb, there is no way we can reverse it or back off. Either we would top out or we would fall off all the way. And I begin to feel comfortable; I like such options where there is none.
Jeff’s forearms shake under the strain and I sweat in the cold air. We are way too slow. The other two watch us and pulls up Jeff inch by inch. ‘Now turn me around,’ Jeff says and I plaster him across a tiny ledge for a brief rest. I stop looking at my watch or anything else. My complete focus is on this insanely amazing man who simply refuses to give up. He cringes, grunts, bleeds from his nails but simply would not stop. He only smiles and keeps chattering. My mind stops thinking thankfully. I am so completely overwhelmed and out-awed that my mind goes into suspended animation. This is the literal enactment of an amputee leading a complete blind leading a half-paralyzed leading a complete able. I was sure no mountain line anywhere in the world had ever seen a group so outrageously comical, ill-matched, implausibly short-charged and so enthused. For these guys every step is a summit in itself, with every foot gained vertically they out-climbed me by several pitch-lengths. I am nothing compared to them. I always preached mastery of mind over matter but had never seen it enacted so fully till now. Jeff keeps up his words and I follow his biddings unconditionally. He has good eyes and understands the climbing nuances. He guides me flawless. We continue going up. We finally put the first pitch behind and below. A major celebration follows merely 100 ft above ground. We still have nearly a thousand to go and the difficulties hadn’t yet started. But that doesn’t matter. We live in and enjoy the ‘now’. We are euphoric enough to rival a first time Everest summiteer but then for these guys this was and is their personal Everest. They were broadening my horizon, my perspective every minute. Priceless lessons were being given to me free.
We continue after a while. Steadily but surely the ground beneath keeps falling away; Marc shows no fatigue neither does the other two, though we all sweat profusely. The hours fall away too. At the first crux Jeff and I get stuck. No matter how I turn him he would constantly swing out from the face and dangle like a broken doll. He is anchored though from the top securely but I am finding it hard to keep my footing as I begin to grow tired. If I slip now I too would dangle at the end of his rope and that would be suicidal. I can’t go down back into the crack either as for that I will have to unclip from Jeff and I may never be able to get back to him thereafter. Though witnessing the entire drama from above Marc is unable to offer any suggestions while Matt is blissfully unaware of the situation so he keeps telling us to hurry up in a cheery voice.
Jeff looks at me helplessly and nods his head gravely. For the first time he doesn’t smile. Stuck half way up the wall I realize that I am in a spot as tight as I have ever been. We can’t back off and we can’t stay there forever. More importantly I cannot fail them, my friends. Life is all about redefining ones limit and going beyond where one earlier thought impossible. Even as my knees start to buckle I throw a smile at Jeff, ‘Don’t worry mate, we will reach the top, even if it is the last thing we do. Just hang in there.’ ‘There’s nothing else I can do right now, can I!’ Jeff smiles back.
I study the face carefully across Jeff and notice a tiny peck from where I could hang myself out and then with the traction get him going. All I need right now is a coat-hanger or an etrier. I have none. I uncoil my rope and back out into the crack and jam myself comfortably. I pull out my longest runner and quickly tie up three steps. It would do for the moment. I sling it around my neck and step out. ‘I will cross you,’ I caution Jeff and inch carefully sideways without a single clue to what would happen if I slip and fall. The empty air beneath pulls me down. I reach him, and step across. He does stink. As there is nothing else to hold on to without which I cannot reach the peck I put my entire weight momentarily on Jeff and slip the runner across the peck. It slips in at first go. By now the other two understand my plan and start cheering. I hop into the loop with one leg and with the other steady myself right next to Jeff. ‘Here you go,’ I right him and then push him to the hold, supporting his back with my weight so that he won’t swing out again like before. After a brief struggle he gets his grip and takes off. I empty my lungs in relief and follow. The runner stays back. There’s no way I can retrieve it. At the second crux I imitate the previous move and we go over that smoothly as well.
Seven painful hours later we finally top out. Though technically not too difficult I had never done such a sustained trad before and doubted if I would do something similar ever again. During the climb I had seen myself from all perspectives through glass of all colors and tint. I feel humbled and awed by my companions. I have discovered a new world, new meanings to pushing boundaries, things I had never known or imagined before. I am totally burnt out. As we all lie on ground and talk gibberish, Matt suddenly springs up and with arms akimbo says, ‘Enough rest guys, let’s continue. You can relax as much once we reach the top.’ The rest of us break into howls of laughter as we realize that in our excitement we had completely forgotten to tell Matt that we had reached the top and there was nothing further to climb. We hug him and pull him down on ground and roll around in the afternoon sun. You would never see a merrier bunch of four guys.
P.S. All the names (except Ludo and Marc) and the dialogues have been used fictitiously though as closely recreated to the actual as possible after a gap of sixteen years. Other than these few aberrations the entire episode is true and the experience led me to device climbing methods for differently-abled people in India. If you want me to teach climbing to people who have less but can do more or simply to take them outdoors do let me know.