My red and white umbrella casts a meager shadow over the path; puffs of hot dust lift from each footstep as I lengthen my stride across the flat ground. Around the next corner, I finally see the summit of Kunyang Chish East (24,278 feet), another unclimbed peak in the Karakoram Range of Pakistan.
It’s been a year since Vince Anderson and I climbed Nanga Parbat (26,600 feet) in the same region, so it seemed like the right time to go off the beaten track and attempt another great, steep wall on an unknown summit. We were drawn to this mountain’s warm south face, which has the added benefit of clearing quickly after storms.
Fast-forward two weeks. I lead across a snow-covered rock slab and up to a small stance below a ridge. Above me, skyscraper towers of black rock march up along the toothed ridgeline and snow sags limply from every surface; a misty, damp fog masks the afternoon sun. Vince climbs up looking past me as he stops at the belay and says, “That doesn’t look easy.” We had hoped this route would provide an easy way to acclimate.
“Yeah,” I reply, “it looks hard and dangerous.”
We continue for a while but then retreat, aware that we’ve set back our acclimatization plans.
I wake to a canopy of stars. I feel lazy, limp, like I want to go back to sleep. I shake myself awake and reach for my boots. Our first day on the ascent starts easy with moderate ice slopes we can steadily climb without ropes. We each go our own pace; I go fast to see if I can find a spark. When I glance back, Vince is uncomfortably far away and I wait for him.
Back together, Vince leads off, keeping an ice screw clipped to the rope between us. We don’t say another word the rest of the day until I climb over the lip of the ice cave and see Vince grinning. “Amazing!” I say, swinging my pack onto a perfectly flat bivy.
Three days in, Vince leads several pitches of steep and runout mixed climbing far above the deck. I’m gasping to follow with the heavy pack, fearful of slipping, hoping the belay is good. I’m impressed because we are higher than the summit of Denali and he is onsighting insecure M6 pitches with just two good pieces of pro. I arrive at the belay, lungs spent and breath heaving.
Two hours later we crest the face and climb together up deepening snow to a fine, flat ridge. We pitch our tent on a perfect bed of snow. Unclimbed Himalayan peaks – one after another – swell out across the horizon.
In the morning it is frostbite cold, and we haven’t slept well. The lassitude we’ve been accumulating for six weeks seems to collapse onto our shoulders all at once. Stubbornly, I sit up and start the stove, nearly freezing the tips of my fingers in the process.
It’s past noon now. Vince pushes an energy gel into his mouth, takes a swig of water and passes the water bag to me. He looks beaten down and tired. I feel worse than he looks. I open the one-liter bottle of meal-replacement shake, tip the bottle and drink half: 2,000 calories down the hole. Man, that stuff tastes awful. “OK, man, let’s see how badass this mountain is!”
Vince’s head jolts up, he smiles and I reach over to put him on belay. He leads out slowly. The snow is knee-deep and a cornice looms to our right; after 50 feet, the ridge steepens. He’s shoveling the snow with his hands, trying to make some progress.
I feel it, know what’s about to happen, and kneel in the snow. The energy drink comes up. I vomit at my feet and try to kick some snow over the stain.
Vince turns around, “You OK?”
“Just a cramp. I’m OK. How’s it look up there?” But he doesn’t reply. He turns back and continues his attempt to climb the steep snow, but can’t. We have to turn around. Disheartened and now shivering with a sudden chill, we start down and reach our tent by dusk. It’s over.
Back home I search for answers. I feel an odd mix of shame and pride that we didn’t summit Kunyang Chish East. Shame that we didn’t have it in us. Pride that we were able to turn back so close when the warning signs were telling us to retreat. We were unfocused, tired and undermotivated. We never properly completed the crucial task of acclimating. Above all, we were not recovered, physically or mentally, from the huge effort on Nanga Parbat twelve months earlier. Unfortunately, my ego wouldn’t let us take a break.