by Vince Anderson
I gripped hard and bore down on my two firmly planted ice axes as the half-dozen or so microwave-sized blocks of snow crashed down upon me. Some blocks hurtled by me, but some were direct hits. One block of hard snow pounded me on the top of my helmet, and I hunched forward as a couple of others drilled into my shoulders and back.
None of the blows were severe enough to hurt me (much), and I held on through the barrage. Past the front points of my crampons still stuck into the ice, I could clearly see the 9,000 feet of vertical terrain extending to the valley below us. When the pummeling stopped I looked up. The havoc had ceased, and I could see Steve dangling by one ice axe.
Steve had just about come off the Rupal Face while climbing up a small cornice at the end of an ice pitch at 22,000 feet on Nanga Parbat. It was nearing dark and we had been climbing all day. We were simul-climbing – climbing together, joined by the climbing rope running through one shorty ice-screw – and hurrying to get to a suitable bivy to settle in for the night after four hard days climbing a new route on the world’s largest mountain face. Fortunately for both of us, one of Steve’s tools was stuck in above the fracture line of the break and stayed there while his other three points of contact came out along with the mass of snow blocks that hit me.
Earlier in the day, we had passed the point of no return. If we were to fail now, it would have to be failing upwards and down the 1970 Messner route. Our meager climbing rack would not suffice for making enough rappel anchors to get us down from here. We were climbing in pure alpine style with minimal equipment, no bottled oxygen, no fixed ropes, no communications and no compromise. Of the previous three successful ascents of the Rupal Face, none were climbed in alpine style. Our chosen route was steeper, more direct and much more technically difficult than the other two routes established on the face. Climbing alpine style allowed us to move much faster and more efficiently on this dangerous face. It also allowed us a much smaller margin for error. It represented all that we had each aspired to in climbing. It was purifying, the dearest catharsis.
Just prior to our near-miss, we had made it through the key passage to the route, a beautiful flow of water ice that we had not been able to see from down in the valley. We had been ecstatic to find it because it allowed us access to the upper reaches of the headwall guarding the central pillar that we had chosen to attempt. The excitement wore off as we realized that the “beautiful flow of water ice” (600 feet of 70-degree ice) is not exactly the kind of place where one can make a decent campsite, certainly not at 22,000 feet. In the waning sunlight, we quickly decided to make a dash for the ridge above us and to our left in hopes of finding snow and flat ground. We desperately needed to find a place to make food and water, pitch our tent, and get some sleep.
When I looked up again, Steve was moving back left onto the now-clear ridge crest and was headed to the other side. As Steve continued out of sight onto the backside of the ridge, I climbed up the last 150 feet to the ridge through the freshly fractured cornice. As we had been doing for much of this climb, we moved together, 165 feet apart, joined by our rope. A few minutes later, I neared Steve, who was straddling a tiny snow perch that butted up against a steep rock wall. Night had fallen and this would have to suffice for our fourth bivy on the route. It would become one of the most memorable in my life.
After an exhausting hour of excavation and anchor construction, we managed to carve out a flat spot just wide enough for our small tent: six feet long by two and a half feet wide. Though the far end of the tent still hung over the edge a bit, we managed to get ourselves and all of our equipment inside. As we carefully dug snow for cooking from in front of the tent, we were also undermining what little snow was connecting us to the rocky rib. We stayed tied to our anchors while we spent the next few hours making water from snow and cooking up our much-anticipated dinner of instant mashed potatoes and stuffing. Despite our utter exhaustion and desire to lie down, it was absolutely crucial to eat and rehydrate.
Periodic breathing and coughing fits woke me up during the rest of the night. I felt as if I was constantly gasping for air. I was dead-tired physically, mentally and emotionally, and yet could not sleep.
At dawn I unzipped the tent door and, from the sleeping bag, could make out the intricate and ornate architecture of the upper reaches of the Rupal Face. I could not make out an easy or obvious path. We were still over 4,000 feet from the top.