We began the climb at 10pm. We slept at 15,000 ft but I couldn’t sleep. I lay there instead trying to remember to breathe deep in the dark of a mountain hut. Altitude does funny things to the brain. It feels a bit like a panic attack, especially as I try to sleep. The thoughts spiral and the body tenses and there’s simply not enough oxygen to draw the deep calming breath we come to love. So it goes.
I lay there waiting for ten o’clock to come. And I decided to write my family a letter. A “what if” letter. And tears streamed down my face as I type. Why? Why am I doing this? Why do something you feel you must write a “what if” letter before? The question rattles around. I’m not sure I had or even have an answer. I guess it’s like, when I decide I’m doing something, no amount of fear or doubt will stop it. Maybe that’s a bad thing? But I don’t know any other way to live.
At 10 we gear up. 8 hours to go. Outside, it’s dark and foggy and cold. Pack on. Boots on. Gloves on. Ice axe in hand. Crampons waiting in the bag. Let’s go.
I truly don’t even remember the first two hours. Strange. Only after coming back down can I say that they were fairly easy, across rock, a nice upward slant but manageable.
The first thing I remember is my guide, Frank, telling me it’s time to put the crampons on. We’d hit ice. I oblige. We sit, just the two of us, now slightly above the fog, with the stars blazing and falling above us. The air is cold but I’m well dressed. And then the real fun begins.
We walk for about 45 minutes on a path about a foot wide, cut into snow, a sheer rock wall to our left and a 1000 foot drop to our right. This would become a theme. Apparently, I’m afraid of heights. Or maybe not heights, but death. And here, these heights seem to scream death. Yeah, we’re roped to each other, but given the gradient to my left, the quality of ice, and the speed at which I know I would fall, I’m not so sure that the rope would do anything except pull down Frank as well. Or me, if he fell, I suppose. So I’m scared. But I just don’t entertain those thoughts now. For the first time I think of turning back. But I don’t listen to that thought either.
Then we hit the real climb. At first, the path is cut through a mixture of ice and rock and climbs up at about a 50 degree angle — steep enough that any misstep would send me tumbling far and fast. We’re at about 17,000 feet now. At one point, we rock climb up about 30 feet of exposed rock. At least it’s frozen together. My crampons click and scrape against the rock. Again, I feel greatly out of my comfort zone. It’s like every 15 minutes my comfort zone gets absolutely torn open again. It happens too rapidly to feel comfortable in between. It happens too rapidly to say no.
At about 18,000 feet we now find ourselves on a switchback trail cutting along a 60 degree slope of ice and snow. The clouds mist below us. Lights from towns glimmer up at us. Beyond looms the darkness of false peaks and beyond them, stars and blackness. The wind howls and at times threatens to blow me over. And now the altitude cuts me. I’m acclimated to about 17,000 feet from previous climbs in the area, but we’re beyond that now and my body does not like it. I endure waves of dizziness and nausea. I can go about 10 steps before gasping for air. It feels like sprint training when you feel like you need to throw up. For hours.
Doubt claws at me. It whispers that I can’t get up the mountain. Sometimes I believe it and feel almost ready to tell Frank I’m done. To throw in the towel. Something stops me. I keep going. I don’t really think I can do it. But I keep going. 10 more steps. We walk at the pace of a distracted two year old on a walk they don’t want to be on. I can relate.
It’s really brutal because there is really no place to rest. Rest means digging the ice axe and crampons into the slope and holding on for dear life. Every second gives the cold a deeper grip on my already cold extremities. I can’t really feel my toes, but I keep checking that I can move them a bit. Ok… still good. The rests last for about a minute, just enough to let me catch my breath but not enough to calm the fear that claws at my stomach. I fear falling. I fear freezing to death. I simply feel fear and so very very vulnerable. I am on the side of a f-cking mountain in the middle of the night and I feel like I have nothing left. But I keep going.
I can’t even eat. The smallest movement beyond the slow step of my feet is exhausting and just makes the dizziness worse. To even adjust my scarf is almost too much. To reach into my backpack and chew food…impossible.
A group passes us. They’ve turned back. I want to join them. It’s about 3am. We still have another two thousand feet to go. It will probably take us 3 more hours. I can’t. I can’t. But I keep going. I’m really not sure why.
It feels like it will never end. Each switchback takes about 100 steps, then we turn, and walk a hundred more. I’m going to puke. I’m going to puke. There’s no where to hide. Nowhere to run. My brain feels cloudy enough, that I can’t even reason my way out of the pain. Me, the mountain, the darkness, the cold. Onwards.
The scariest part is that it becomes less scary. As the burning in my lungs and the nausea and the pain and cold in my body builds, the thought of taking a wrong step is less concerning. As though as life becomes more uncomfortable, death becomes less of a tragedy and more of an escape. So I remind myself of how much I don’t want to fall. And I focus back in. One step. One step. One step.
I keep checking my phone. Like somehow that helps. 19,000 feet. 19,400. 19,800. I can’t endure about 400 feet before I need the reassurance of the oncoming end. A group climbs in front of us. Their lights never seem to get closer. I stop watching them. It’s just demoralizing. The thought of the end promises no relief. There’s too many feet and too many hours between me and it and I am too cold and too tired. Nowhere to run. No relief to be found even in the mind. Onwards.
And then, the slope starts to flatten. Subtly but definitely. Even still, each foot is exhausting. At this altitude, there’s no “summit push.” I would suffocate. There’s simply tue continuous slow, steady trudge upwards.
And finally, we’re on top. The sun is coming up, bathing the clouds below in gold. The wind rips. I’m seriously cold now. My hands are frozen. I snap a few pictures, barely looking at them. And then I’m informed that we’re not quite there yet. Ha. We’re at 20,444, but the tallest point is like 200 feet above us.
We start moving towards it. But I can’t. Not anymore. I need to puke. I have nothing to prove. Enough I say. So we snap a few more pictures. Where I am doesn’t even compute. All I can think about is the 5,000 feet of 60 degree ice below me, now beginning to soften in the sun. Did anyone say avalanche? I try to drink some water but it’s frozen solid. Let’s go before I end up like that, I say.
The climb down takes three hours. Eight up. Three down. We stop every ten minutes and I dry heave into the snow. Finally, we get to somewhere that feels safe enough for me to relax and stick a finger down my throat. I throw up last night’s dinner and feel much better. I’m still so weak and tired but not so sick anymore. We keep going.
Really, until I hit my bed in the lodge, I’m not sure I enjoyed any of it. It felt like pure survival mode. Either there were no thoughts and I was so hyper focused on my next step or there was simply an awareness of pain and the hopelessness in my thoughts. Best not to go there. It takes ten minutes in bed for my back to stop screaming enough for sleep to come. Oh boy though, I love this oxygen. Never thought I’d say that at 15,000 feet.
I wake up. I see the other groups. They ask me why I didn’t summit? The thought suddenly comes. Did I not summit? Ha! The thought dances around shamefully for about 15 minutes. Can I not now use this climb to show off, to validate myself, to build some sort of identity upon what was simply a series of moments? How appropriate. I love it.
So I stood at 20,444 feet, slightly below the summit of Chimborazo, the closest place on earth to the sun. Pick axe in hand. Freezing. Just wanting to be back down. Vomiting 30 minutes later. I’m not so sure I want to do it again. Ot definitely felt exhilaratingly terrifying to be standing on an ice covered mountain at a height I’ve only reached in an airplane. Then I came back down, the same old me. The freedom I seek is not to be found at 20,000 feet anymore than it is at 0 feet. Or better yet said, the freedom I seek is just as much found at 20,000 feet as at 0 feet. But it does make a damn good story.