Through sharp, rarefied air I gasp. My breath freezes. I stare at the summit and then glance down the rope, disappearing to the belay. A mile of chaos crumbles, falls, disintegrates into the basin below, where everything tumbles, spills, merges into glaciers, into rivers, into valleys. Thick, dark clouds roll closer. After freeing 4,500 vertical feet of difficult rock in just over two days, we’re failing on 50-degree ice. I swallow hard, pause, and lift my head to gaze across the darkening Karakoram sky – K6, K7, Masherbrum, K2 and countless unnamed spires, all lifeless but alive and inspiring, all immaculate. My breath disappears from my chest. “Whaddya think?” I shout down to Josh Wharton. As if he knows. I figure that continuing gives us a 50/50 chance of taking the joke out of Disaster Style, our term – intended as dark humor – for ultralight, risk-accepted climbing. We should bail. My hypoxia-addled brain recalls Josh’s words two pitches below, something about killing us both. But we’re so close.
The line drew us in at first sight: a photo of a stiletto ridge splitting the rarely seen, even more rarely attempted, Shingu Charpa – a rocky spire in Pakistan’s pristine Nangma Valley. The ridge starts at the mountain’s lowest point and soars to its summit, the upper bits holding the only white stuff – soft snow, it’s gotta be soft snow. A couple of parties had tried the route previously, nobody got far. They all said the same thing: don’t bother, total chosspile. But we didn’t listen – who would? Ahhh, that line …
For that line, we’d traveled halfway around the world to the sweltering heat and utter mayhem of Islamabad-Rawalpindi; endured a 20-hour drive on a dirt road carved into mountainsides, a jostling off-road jeep ride and then a two-day trek; then got weather-lucky immediately, except I got deathly ill on our first attempt, wasting perfect weather; and then festered in a month of rain knowing that I had blown it. All this after dreaming, daydreaming, working, training all year to make it happen.
Our days in the valley dwindled. And then the weather broke. We lunged at that final chance and raced up 45 pitches, all free on lead, not a single one crag-worthy, managed continuous runout choss, shivered through two nights in aluminized bivy sacks, and no sleeping bags – part of our brilliant weight-saving plan based on the notion that every ounce saved increases speed. Above the rock we scratched and clawed on bulletproof ice. I flailed upward in the "good” ice setup: lightweight boots with aluminum strap-on crampons, one axe. At first, Josh, the strongest and boldest climber I know, simuled some snow-ice behind me and finished jugging iron-hard ice in the flimsy-sneakers-and-half-sized-axe setup, feet skating like a baby deer on a frozen lake. At the anchor, he gasped, paused, then glanced at his running shoes and said, “If I have to simulclimb this, I’ll kill us both.”
And so there I stood, on a microsummit of snow and ice, in pathetic ice gear barely adequate for walking on a glacier, staring across at the summit. Storm clouds rolled near, but we had just a couple more rope lengths, mostly horizontal traversing. Complicated to jug, it would be easy to simulclimb – practically a hike with real boots and steel crampons. Planning is part of the game and we blew it, but no, shit, c’mon, we can do it, we can adapt, no, you keep pushing it and it’ll catch up to you, yeah but … we blew it, no, we should try. I think I heard God snicker.
I place one of our two ice screws, clip in, and wait for Josh to answer. As if he knows.
“Up to you,” Josh calls back. Bastard.
I look one more time toward the summit, so close.