I hold tightly to Steve's harness as he unzips the tent to remove the snow from between our collapsing tent and the rock wall we’re huddled against. Perched on a three-foot-wide ledge hacked out of the ice at 20,000 feet on the steep south face, the unclimbed Kunyang Chish East puts up a fight even when we are retreating from our summit attempt. Still 6,000 feet above the glacier, we have been pounded all night by nearly constant spindrift avalanches. Some are alarmingly big and threaten to push our tent, anchored by a few cams, into oblivion.
On the way up three days ago, Steve House and I simulclimbed on moderate ice terrain at over 21,000 feet – one solid piton, 100 feet below me, was our sole connection to the mountain and the 200-foot rope linking us. I saw an avalanche coming from above and made a last-ditch effort to reach the shelter of a rock 30 feet to my right. Just 10 feet away and out of breath, I realized that I wouldn’t make it. I swung both axes into the ice as solidly as I could, dug my crampons in, pushed my head against the slope, and tried to make myself as small as possible. A moment later, the snowy torrent hit me. My pack pulled on my shoulders as it caught the brunt of the force. I made the mistake of lifting my head to look up, and snow poured against my chest. I fought with everything I had to get my head back down against the slope.
The next day, Steve and I neared what we hoped would be the final block to the 23,000-foot summit. We had several hundred feet of snow-climbing between us and the top. We were both spent. I floundered across the snow ridge, trying to stay far enough away from the corniced edge yet above the avalanche-prone slopes. The deep, rotten snow offered little hope of a solid anchor. Wallowing, I failed to surmount a 30-foot section of vertical sugar-snow. Beyond lay another longer vertical step of snow, and then what appeared to be easier slopes to the summit.
Steve and I were 200 feet apart along the snow ridge, connected by a rope with nothing anchoring us to the mountain. I looked back at Steve with a grimace and shrugged my shoulders. He was vomiting. Nanga Parbat had taken it out of us the year before: The fire to summit that once burned, now only smoldered. We exchanged no words; we just turned back.
As I stand up through the tent door to clear the snow pushing us off the mountain, spindrift hits my shoulders. Sometime before dawn, the avalanches relent. At daybreak, we continue our retreat.
After six long days on Kunyang Chish, we stagger back to basecamp with shattered nerves but uplifted spirits. The simplicity in “just surviving” has given me some clarity. What I lacked emotionally near the top was making its return after the yearlong hangover of success from our ascent on Nanga Parbat. And somewhere during the chaos, hardship, good fortune and ultimate failure on Kunyang Chish, my fire for alpine climbing was rekindled.