Unroped

by Barry Blanchard
Heart of Winter 2010

The halo of Ward Robinson’s headlamp swept down onto me as he doubled over at the waist to brush snow from a key handhold. I knew that his pack would be shifting and pressing onto his shoulders and neck like an opponent’s hands making it harder yet for him to breathe the cold and emaciated air of the Himalayan predawn. I nodded my light at Ward’s in affirmation and wrapped a gloved hand onto the hold, and pulled up to plant the pick of my axe in the relative security of the ice arête. Farther up that linear arc of ice, Mark Twight and Kevin Doyle’s headlamps bobbed and flashed to the rhythm of their climbing.

The four of us were at 20,500 feet on the Central Spur on the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat, and we were climbing unroped. From our base camp of 11,500 feet in the valley, the summit lay at 26,660 feet – no other escarpment on earth covered so much terrain. We wanted to climb the Rupal in pure alpine style. To do this, we needed to be up and down the face in seven days. To gain that much ground in so short a time, we all agreed to use the rope as little as possible. Our style of going light on gear and believing in each other’s ability to climb safely had evolved over the hundreds of days we’d shared in the mountains.

Three hundred feet higher the dawn finally came, warming our eastern horizon with a shimmering yellow light, but it would bring little heat. Already the rounded heads of cumulus cells had risen to form a thick quilt over the valley floor. Mark and Kevin stood anchored to ice screws silently uncoiling our two ropes – one orange, one yellow – each the diameter of my little finger. Ward and I clipped in and started threading figure-eight knots into our harnesses. It was time to add the security of the rope; the next passage was threatened by an unstable ice cliff the size and shape of an oil tanker’s bow. Kevin wrapped my yellow rope around his waist in a traditional hip belay. It was the fastest belay but demanded a lot of skill and attention. I knew that Kevin would hold me if I fell.

We all agreed where the safest line lay, that it would involve harder climbing, and that we could still be crushed by a collapsing wall of sea blue ice. I pounded into the chute, nervous sweat glazing the small of my back. We barked commands to each other as our fear pushed on us to move faster while the lack of oxygen compromised our ability to do so. I felt our bond in the tension that rang through the rope; we were doing the best that we could.

Fifty-six hours later, the four of us stood anchored to a single ice screw as the atmosphere unleashed hell onto Nanga Parbat. Seventy-mile-per-hour winds strafed straight down into the narrow ice gulley that had trapped us. Lightning exploded with claps of thunder so immediate that they shook my lungs. The snowfall was unbelievably heavy, but I still saw the first avalanche coming, like a charging wave of black water, milliseconds before it pounded into us like the fist of God, slapping our crampons out and slamming all four of us onto the screw. I thought I would never see the people who I loved again, and my chest crumpled from the thought and from the violence of the hit. Miraculously, the screw held … and continued to hold for the next 27 minutes as the avalanche charged onto us unabated. We couldn’t communicate, and I worried that the four of us would be swept away with each surge in the flow. Ironically, hypothermia became more of a threat as my body began to shiver, then jackhammer, to produce heat.

The avalanche hissed away, leaving each of us to bear a dunce cap of rock hard snow that the avalanche had accreted onto our bowed heads. Mark pushed the snow off of my head, from my shoulders. In his eyes I saw fear and resolve. “We have to get the hell out of here,” he said. We entered into the battle down; I could not imagine being there with any other men.

About the Author

Barry Blanchard is an IFMGA-certified mountain guide and writer. Five years ago he shelved two and a half decades of chasing mountains – on a global basis – in order to immerse himself in the most significant, longest and richest expedition of his life: fatherhood. Barry, his wife, their two young daughters and two dogs have decided to call Canmore, Alberta, home.