Josh’s head sagged against the ice in despair at 19,600 feet. His weary body slumped forward, and through the thin air he muttered a single expletive. I pulled again, weakly, on the skinny rope with all my remaining strength. It wouldn’t budge. Leaning into the slope, I brought a handful of snow to my cracked lips and gazed down with objective detachment at my hands, shredded raw from four and a half days of sharp granite. Across each fingertip, clean and deep splits, devoid of blood, looked like fleshy eyes without eyeballs, open yet vacant and staring back at me. Above, the end of our lead rope danced in the wind partway up the smooth granite wall like some sinister prank by Great Trango Tower, taunting us: “You ain’t done yet, boys.”
We had just made the first ascent of Great Trango’s immense southwest ridge in the heart of Pakistan’s Karakoram mountains, united by that rope and deep, unspoken ambition. Our plan had bordered on the absurd, but it made sense to us: blitz the mostly rock, 7,400-vertical-foot route in superlight alpine style – by fair means or not at all – with two ropes, a rack and a single 28-pound pack; go over the top; rap down the unknown other side; down-climb the easy-looking hanging glacier to its lower terminus where it melts into a 4,000-foot talus gully; and stumble down to base camp before a storm could catch us.
But now we were barely hanging on. It’d been two days since either of us had drank any water – we killed our fuel during the second bivy – and storm clouds swirled slowly toward us, swallowing where we’d been. The wall above, which we blindly rapped into from the summit, had grown increasingly smooth, even forcing one very gentle rappel from a single RP in a seam backed by two horrible knife blades. Nine hundred feet below the tower’s west summit, perched like two ragged, infinitesimal specs on an avalanche-swept hanging glacier, we must have looked ridiculous, like subjects of a cartoon promoting Darwinism.
Now this. Josh climbed over and we both heaved on the rope. Nothing.
Between us and safety was 2,500 vertical feet of glacier, up to 70-degrees steep, riddled with crevasses and seracs. Just then, in our sneakers and aluminum strap-on crampons, with one and a half ice axes between us, it didn’t look so easy. Our decimated rock rack was useless for the snow and ice, so maybe the rope didn’t matter anyway. Tied together without protection, if one person falls the outcome is simple: The other guy performs a miraculous, team-saving self-arrest, or we plummet together. Modern-day practicality and every-man-for-himself logic says don’t tie in – chances are better that way.Josh pulled the hopelessly stuck rope taught while I took my knife and cut what remained: 70 feet of 7.9 mm line. We barely spoke as each of us picked up an end, tied in and carefully began downclimbing.