The pitch seems endless. Soon it will be dark. I try to hurry but can’t. Inch by inch I work my way up sculpted frost the consistency of cotton candy – a favorite treat as a kid, though now it makes my stomach hurt. We have two snow pickets, our only protection for this 200-foot vertical wall of frost. The last picket is already far out of sight, and so are my partners.
It’s snowing, and thick clouds engulf us. We have fought hard, climbing over 4,000 feet of steep granite to reach this point, but, believing that this section would be easy, we are psychologically ill-prepared for this last battle. This is one of the finest climbs of our lives and though I can almost see the summit, it still feels awfully far. I grind my teeth and push on.
The frozen half-pipe in which I am struggling turns into a chimney. An extremely thin snow fin forms its left wall and, fearing it will break, I move right and tunnel through an overhang to better footing. Every move takes an eternity. I first clean the frost overhead, then compact it into a small step at waist level and gingerly pull myself up, all while trying to breathe deeply and focus. But my mind slips and I think of my friend Bean Bowers, who last year took a 100-foot fall in similar terrain, and imagine myself falling past our belay – a snow-filled stuff sack buried in the snow – and slamming hopelessly into the granite slabs below.
When the angle finally lessens, I collapse like a punctured balloon, crouch and close my eyes. Overcome with relief, for several minutes I forget my partners and the task at hand. I have no headlamp, little rope left and no gear to make an anchor, so I excavate a snow hole and brace myself inside, using my body for our anchor. Over and over I shout,“blocatta!”, letting my Italian partners know that the rope is fixed. I shout until my voice turns hoarse, but each time my words evaporate in the wind. A wave of warmth flows through my body when the rope finally pulls tight on my waist as one of them begins to jumar.
The falling snow covers my pants, my jacket, my boots, my gloves, everything. For an instant I feel myself descending toward hypothermia, but instead of worrying I smile, marveling at the absurd beauty of our predicament. Though darkness and clouds obscure our surroundings, in my mind’s eye I see the wind-whipped snow mushroom atop Torre Egger to the north (much like the one on which I now sit); Fitz Roy’s massive pyramid jutting skyward to the east; and 4,000 feet below and west, endless glaciers running to the Pacific Ocean.
As Erman and Ale come up, my mind wanders, following the slow dance of falling snowflakes and revisiting the long path that has brought me here. When they arrive it’s nearly midnight. We exchange a few words, Ale gives me a dry jacket from his pack, and I follow their footprints to the summit, where the cold and the hardship are forgotten in one big, warm hug.