Alpine Umbrella

by Kate Rutherford
Fall 2009

My teeth had been chattering for 36 hours; my summit expectations had been blown away. All that work, I thought: All those steep moves I’d aided, because it was too cold to put on climbing shoes, how Mikey defied death in an icy offwidth, and Dana led endless pitches of névé. Was it really time to give up on the summit?

After climbing the California Route in icy, slow conditions, Mikey Schaefer, Dana Drummond and I stopped to sleep for a few hours just 80 meters below the summit of Fitz Roy. It was 1 a.m., a clear night with low winds and the moon illuminating the clouds over the icecap to the east. We were exhausted on this, our second day, and we were at the top of the snow ridge with the summit boulders looming close and frosty in the light from our headlamps.

Crammed in one sleeping bag, the three of us lay on our sides shivering in unison. I tried to pad my boney hips with my rain jacket and, in a moment of brilliance, took off a mitten to insulate the other hip which was exposed to the wind. I was fatigued, and anxious about the cold and lack of food. Finally, I fell asleep.

At 4 a.m. it began to blow, hard. I ignored it, closed my eyes, and pretended it wasn’t happening. But by first light, the snow had begun to swirl into the sleeping bag. Gusts came from every direction, loud with crazed howling. I pulled my jacket out, tucked one end under a shoulder, and looped the other end over my head. Then, by clamping both the sleeping bag and jacket with my fist, I invented the alpine umbrella. It was a great solution – until I fell asleep. I lost my grip and my umbrella flapped wildly in the wind, waking me.

While thinking about climbing the icy summit boulders in blow-you-off-the-mountain wind, I shared my umbrella with the shivering Dana. Every two minutes I had to switch hands to relieve the cramping. The wind had become outrageous, pressing us down against the snow. The summit boulders, so close just hours ago, were disappearing into the fog. My thoughts whipped with the wind: I wanted to go up, I wanted to stay in the sleeping bag. Go up? Go down? Finally, I mentioned summiting: “The top is so close; maybe we should go?”

The boys never gave me an answer. I thought of my father’s rational words of advice before I left: “I know you push it up there, Kate. When the shit hits the fan, make sure you attend to the fundamentals: food, water, shelter. Be safe.”

So when our single sleeping bag billowed like a parachute and my umbrella failed, I began to re-evaluate. My face was swollen from the wind, and my core ached from shivering. The wind had taken away our shelter, our ability to melt water, and between us we had six energy bars left. As I ate one, I took a peek at the summit. It was gone. That was when I felt scared. The fundamentals that keep us alive had vanished, and we were running out of food. The fog had taken away our intuitive compass; all of a sudden we were no longer burly super alpinists, but kids lost in a cloud.

I put my rain jacket on, allowing my imaginary umbrella to fly away. Shivering hard in the piercing cold, I also let go of my summit expectations. We had a new purpose: a 12-hour descent to onsight. We packed the sleeping bag, put on icy boots and frozen harnesses. The wind tore at the ropes as we coiled them. Then, with the ice-rimed rack and ropes, we began rappelling into the blowing foggy unknown. We had 25 pitches plastered with ice to rappel. Before I descended, I looked again toward the summit. I was relieved to be going, but I knew I would have to come back.

About the Author

After a youth spent in the back woods of Alaska, Kate Rutherford has taken her intimate knowledge of the wilderness, mixed it with rock climbing, and is traveling the world to climb. Most recently in Patagonia, Kate and Mikey Schaefer climbed a new route on Aguja Guillaumet, a mixed climb full of shivering called Hard Sayin’ Not Knowin’. When not climbing, Kate makes jewelry from stones collected from the beaches of her home on Vashon Island, Washington.