How far will you go before you know you have gone far enough!
Well this is a question that cannot be answered hypothetically or theoretically. You need to get out there and into a situation where you would be stretched out both physically and mentally to know the answer. Even then you may never learn the real answer to the above quest. I haven’t, though I often go far, sometimes really far; and after going the distance when I turn around to return (for reasons of practicality) I know it deep inside my heart that I hadn’t yet gone far enough.
I don’t know if indeed there’s a horizon that would be my furthest where my heart would finally succumb and declare that I had gone far enough and it was now time to return. I don’t know if there would be a day when I would find this horizon even if it existed. People say I am living on and off the edge anyway. But how far is really far for me personally is something I have no clue about. Even then today I will relate to you of an incident that was near enough to my being ‘far’ but as you would see at the end, still wasn’t far enough.
It was a relatively large, well sponsored expedition in the Himalaya and our goal was to reach the apex of a massive peak that had never been climbed or explored before. Such peaks are exciting and challenging since so little is known about them and much of our plans made earlier fall apart on ground. This sense of the unknown allows the climber to use his survival skills more than his technical skills in order to stay alive and return from the top. So the mountain suited us and me perfectly.
Into the second week of the expedition, one afternoon, I found myself dangling from a sheer rock face around 2000 ft above ground, hammering protections into tiny fissures for my other team members to follow. On a near vertical ground being the lead is not so dangerous, since we are often protected by a sound belay from below. If I fall I would bruise, may be bleed, but death is a rare possibility. After a grueling hour I reach the end of my lead and settle on a tiny ledge and beckon my second to ascend. The ledge barely allows me to stand flat with my back squashed against the smooth rock. My toes are protruding out into emptiness. I look down and see my partner jumaring up in perfect synchronization of his upper and lower limb. Beyond him and far below lay the yawning crevasses of the glacier we had left few days earlier. If I dropped a stone from my stance it would hit nothing till it reached the glacier below. I am happy and almost feel airborne caught into the setting sun and the halcyon breeze. Suddenly my friend from below, who had been looking up, cried in alarm. I barely had time to look up and jump aside reflexively even as a thunderous cloud of rocks came crashing down from above.
Miraculously my helmet is battered only by medium sized rocks and all my anchors hold but two big stones, each weighing at least fifty kilos crash into my legs. One pinning my right ankle and toe in a gory angle while the other shattering my right knee and the ACL, before they both fall away into nothingness. It is over even before it started. In seconds the mountain side regaines its solitude and forlorn composure. There had been no warning, no signs of this disaster. My friend, who had pressed himself like a rag piece into a fissure down below, to escape the onslaught, now extracts himself and stares at me with sheer fright writ all over his face. The rope joining us hadn’t parted and hadn’t had any direct hits either. For the present I stay where I am securely fastened to my anchors and my friend dangles below. Apparently we are in no immediate danger. Even then we both know that we had just escaped an inglorious death by the narrowest margin possible.
Through my fogged brain, bruised by the rocks hitting my helmet, I slowly begin to feel pain all over my body. I look at my leg without comprehension as if in a movie I am watching a third person. And then out of the blue, an excruciating pain like a bolt of thunder leaps out of my right leg and shoots through my entire body. I scream as loud as I can. It is pure reflex. The pain makes me giddy. My head spins and my head rolls from side to side. As another jolt hit me, I scream even louder. My right leg feels like a lump of jelly. Surprisingly my pale colored trouser does not feel wet or show any shades of red. Both my friend and I are veterans in such arenas and have lived through countless such situations. Accidents and deaths are not alien to either; but the absence of blood worries me. I realize, when I had swung out, my left leg had escaped any major impact while my right leg had been fraction of a second late in leaving the ledge. I now carefully got my left leg back on the ledge and take the weight off the right, which eases the pain marginally but immediately it starts to dangle in an impossible angle, which confirms that I had certainly broken something very severely.
I try to move around a bit but the pain only increases. Just below my waist on the right side, my entire leg seems to be on fire or on a bed of nettles. After few moments when the adrenalin had dissipated a little in my blood, I calm my screaming head and convince myself that there is no pain. Willingly I dismember my right leg from my consciousness and from my sensory nerves that carry signals to the brain. It stops hurting for the time being. Despite the reduction in pain, my right leg didn’t have the physical capacity to bear any load and it remains dangling grotesquely. Eyeing my anchors absolutely safe, I signal my friend to climb up. Soon he is next to me and secures himself to the anchors so that now he can swing out and take a look at my leg. I can do nothing except sit in my harness and let my friend do the rest.
My friend takes hold of my right climbing shoe and with infinite care gets it off my foot. It takes a while to get it out fully and when it finally comes out, we see what the obstruction was and an involuntary gasp escapes us. My right big toe has totally uprooted from its socket and has traveled back towards my ankle and now it stood up at right angles to the ground like a flag pole. I stare disbelievingly at this appendage that is my big toe and couldn’t fathom how it reached this exalted position. I didn’t know that such a thing is possible in human anatomy. What do we do, my friend asks. Put it back to where it belongs, I suggest. Without it going back I would never be able to put my shoe back on. It wasn’t a fracture, only a dislocation and I thought we just had to put it back in its true location. I also know when my friend would pull it up and beyond, I would be subject to the greatest pain I have ever endured. Are you sure, my friend asks again. I nod and ask him to be quick and once he had the toe in his grip not to hesitate or stop in between.
It seemed a simple maneuver. Grip the toe firmly then pull it up in one jerk and then pull it forward till it fell back into its socket.
My friend grips my toe and I scream till I choke on my own saliva. The pain is beyond words. I can only scream like an animal being slaughtered. He pulls it up and I bite into my lips till I draw blood. He pulls it forward and suddenly we hear a resounding click as the ball joint falls back into its socket. I am bathing in my sweat in the air hovering at 16 deg C below zero. Then he rolls up my climbing trousers to feel my knee. It is swollen up like balloon and below my knee the leg is twisted to a degree that is impossible with all ligaments intact. Instinctively I know that my ACL is torn, and my right leg is therefore incapable of bearing any further weight. In place of my right leg I only have a useless stump, attached and dangling to my knees held by muscles and torn ligaments. It is a miracle that my knee cap hadn’t shattered or that there isn’t any bleeding at all.
We prepare to abseil, now the distant summit looming out of my reach. Pitch after pitch my friend supports me like a baby often down climbing and preparing rest points for me, and self anchoring at perilous places where a mere slip could kill us both. Words are unnecessary; any concern to my pain is totally irrelevant; only action can save us. We utter nothing and I fill my soul up with silent screams with every jolt and jerk that hound me by hundreds every minute.
Hand over hand, pitch by pitch, slowly and steadily the glacier gains proportion and finally I crash down on the hard ice along with my friend who is completely wasted. We shake hands and smile in complete glee. Our moment is now and in ‘now’ we both are alive and hence it is a moment to cherish, to celebrate, and to reseal our friendship and camaraderie. We could be dead in the next but that’s not our concern for the time being. We are still a day’s walk away from the advance base where our friends waited for our news and if I limped or dragged myself across the crevasse ridden glacier I would take forever to return. While alone my friend can get back with help much sooner.
We pitch our tent and my friend places me inside like a baby and takes his leave. As the impending gloom swallows his receding form, I know that he is indeed walking on the edge. Though now we are physically separated he still carries the seed of my life in his hand. I know he had to be dead to fail in his efforts to save me. Such trust and dependency comes easily in the mountains.
The night passes with me passing in and out of the delirious pain. I convince myself it will be over soon. The dawn is sweet and enchanting as always, only my pain fails to excite me as before. Even then I drag myself out of the tent and savor the warmth on my face and frozen limbs. I know my injuries are serious and I have no idea of the future but I wonder if I had gone far enough. My friends appear a little before noon and carry me down on a makeshift stretcher.
One look at my sprawled form and our doctor wants a helicopter evacuation. Financially we can do it, but do I want to go. I ask him to set my legs in any kind of fixture (he carried no plaster) that would at least prevent the right leg to dangle like a dismembered stump. My left leg is fine and so is my head. The big toe behaves itself. The pain is acute but then that is my friend. I also ask him to pump me with pain killers and anti-inflammatory drugs. Otherwise I am fit. I haven’t lost any blood, no major bones broken. Is there any justification for me to leave and give up on the climb! I ponder, had I gone far enough, or should I keep going.
In my present state I am a complete burden to my friends if I decide to climb on. I can’t belay and I am a dead weight. I can crawl on ground but can I climb through vertical pitches? Being back to the Base, I am now back where we had started; in short a vertical distance of nearly 10,000 ft and a horizontal distance of six kilometers to the summit along with unheralded perils of a first ascent. Even a crazy lunatic would know that I am completely outnumbered and outweighed by the obstacles that lay ahead. For the sake of the expedition’s success I cannot ask my friends to support me. They must go for the summit. Mountains teach us practicality.
We can think of our dearest friends in the most impartial and detached manner without any emotions or guilt involved. The equation is simple, anyone who is a burden to the overall goal, is to be left behind and down below. Decision is unanimous and I am the first to declare. I am not climbing with you guys; the doctor begins to smile; but I am climbing on my own. I end with a certainty that no one else oppose. It’s my life and I have a right to do whatever I wish with it and as long as I do not hamper others or seek any kind of exemption or favor, they are fine.
The plan is simple in itself. My friends would lead and climb as a team, in two pairs while I will follow them from a safe distance by whatever means I could. They are not to stop for me or offer me any assistance, or climb down in case I come to any harm. If I fall and die or break further bones, the risk will entirely be mine. The only assistance they would however provide would be to set up my tent and cook for me since I would be well behind them. To this arrangement everyone agrees, though the doctor tries to change my mind, and fails miserably in his efforts. We rest for two more days and then we are ready to depart.
That night I lie alone beneath the stars and ponder my motivation, my need, my restlessness, my all consuming desire to go back up from where I had escaped death so narrowly.
The prize at the end of the road, if I reached, was immense to my mind at least. A much coveted summit of a first ascent, of seeing never before seen mountains, of the battle between life and death, of staying on the edge, of pushing myself till I redefined my limits or fell in the attempt. Somehow my normal logic of safe climbing, that the peak will always be there, etc didn’t sound convincing. I just wished to go. Life seldom gives a second chance, I may never return to these mountains and even if I do I may never again have the same companions, who were among the world’s finest climbers. All I wanted was to go and see how far I was willing to go before I knew I had gone far enough.
The climb to the summit lasted two weeks and it’s way beyond the purview of this post for me to chronicle how I made it to the top, limping and crashing every step of the way, but following the steps of my friends when I crawled the last few meters to the icy summit from where my friends cheered me on, and stood up on my good leg, I knew that my decision was the right one. And also that I had not yet gone far enough.