I’m shivering uncontrollably. Wind and snow whip into the entrance of the tiny ice cave. The ridge is barely wide enough for a single climber to stand. I look at my watch. I’ve been asleep for ten minutes. Alex is huddled against my side. I feel every one of his increasingly violent shivers. He is colder than me. He suggests a different position might be warmer, but I can’t move. My legs are tangled with Michael’s, and my crampons are locked with Lloyd’s. I’m too cold to consider crawling out of the cave onto the steep ridge. It’s twenty degrees colder outside. I stay where I am.
My brain is running at a thousand miles a second. Which decision did I make that led me to this point?
I’ve failed them.
I lean my head against Alex and aim for another ten minutes of sleep.
I swung my left axe into the ice. I stood up and widened my stance for a rest. I slung my right axe across my shoulder and reached to my harness for an ice screw. I used two to create an anchor. We had brought seven screws for each team.
“Safe!” I shouted.
I rigged the rope to belay my partner from a hanging belay off the 80° face.
We were climbing the West Face of Tocllaraju. The climb was traditionally rated as Difficil, 50°-65°. It would be harder this year. Snow and ice routes continually change from year to year, and month to month. It was a low snow year. Every climb had been 10°-20° steeper than usual. Glaciers that were usually covered in snowy slopes had transformed into icy, heavily crevassed labyrinths. And it was October. There was no current route information. The climbing season was over, and no one had been reported to have climbed the route since July. Despite that, the unusually dry weather had opened additional opportunities to climb.
The glint of dawn appeared over the horizon. Ten minutes had passed. I couldn’t see Lloyd’s headlamp. I had accessed the face by climbing a short vertical step from our previous anchor, and climbing across the face until the rope ran out. Lloyd’s headlamp appeared over the vertical step. I looked up for the headlamps of the other team. No sign. Alex and Michael had gone to access the face farther to the left, but seracs obstructed my view.
Four of us were climbing the West Face together. We split into two teams of two, Lloyd and I, and Alex and Michael. In order to save weight, each team would bring a single rope. This meant that each team could only rappel half a rope length alone. In order to rappel a full rope length, we would combine our ropes. We had one sixty-meter rope and one fifty-meter rope. When we used both ropes, we could rappel fifty-meters. When we reached the summit, we had planned to descend Tocllaraju’s Northwest Ridge, the easiest route to ascend. Our beta told us that the descent would require a single fifty-meter rappel.
Lloyd climbed up to my side, out of breath. He clipped into the anchor, and I attached him to the anchor with a clove hitch. Lloyd had been showing signs of fatigue throughout the approach. It was either a symptom of physical fitness or an early symptom of altitude sickness. One week earlier Lloyd had acclimatized at 5000m, but it may not have been enough. We were now at 5400m.
“I don’t think we’re going to reach the top,” said Lloyd.
“We aren’t likely to reach the top.”
“If we’re going to turn around, now is the time to do it. I’m up for it if you are,” I replied.
“Let’s go one more pitch, and see how we feel.”
I began to climb up. Only a month ago, I would have had zero tolerance for a doubtful teammate. Climbing at altitude was less about physical prowess, and more about mental determination. Under a stressful situation, it was easy to let doubt grow into fear, and fear into panic. Especially at high altitudes, where it always seemed like your wits weren’t one hundred percent there. However, I had softened my position since then. It was the job of your partner to keep your fear in check, and your job to do the same. That’s what made solo climbs that much harder.
Not that I didn’t have my own doubts. We had planned to simul-climb the first pitch, a faster, but less safe method of climbing. However, the first pitch was steeper than expected and we had already started to belay. This meant it would take us longer to climb. In addition, the routes I had climbed earlier in the season became steeper the higher I climbed. I had run into a short section of overhanging ice and what was usually 70°-80° ice, and I hoped it didn’t get too much harder. I wondered if Lloyd could sense my doubts.
A headlamp. I spotted Michael on the face. Alex was traversing to his position. My rope went taut. I was twenty-meters below Michael’s position. As I belayed Lloyd my position, the sun began to rise. The sky was clear, and the sun lit up the mountains in the distance. It would be a beautiful day.
“How’re you feeling, ” I asked as Lloyd reached the anchor.
“Good, but I don’t think we’ll make it to the top,” replied Lloyd.
“If we’re not to the top of the face by noon we’ll turn around.”
At the next belay, Michael was thirty-meters above me. Part of my competitive drive wanted to catch up to our other partners, and I was frustrated that they seemed farther ahead than before.
How’d he get there? I thought. I’m traversing way too much.
Above us was a rock band. At moraine camp, we had spent the better part of an hour debating the best way to cross the rock band. We agreed that it would be best to climb to the left of the band. However, without a way of spotting the smaller features on the mountain, it was at best a guesstimate. From where we were standing, the left of the rock band appeared to lead to a dead end. A channel of snow split the rock band to our right, and looked like it offered a way through. Michael was heading towards the snow channel, and I followed.
Two pitches later, Michael was an entire rope length above me. We had given the faster team, the longer rope. He had begun to climb through the snow channel. As I belayed Lloyd, I watched Michael climb. Michael was having difficulty passing over a small lip. It looked like he was wading through powder, and having trouble finding purchase with his feet. I began to get second thoughts about the snow channel. On an earlier climb, we had run into a nearly vertical section of powder snow while off route. I was unable to lead the section. Michael was able to pass through by literally climbing faster than the snow below him crumbled. I didn’t much want to get into a similar situation.
I glanced to our left. I was certain that there was a way through to the left of the rock band. It was 9:00 am—late. But we still had time. We would meet up with Alex and Michael on the other side of the rock band, and if we were still going too slow, we could retreat.
Another pitch. The rock band loomed to my right. It began to merge with an ice ridge. In front of me was an overhanging wall of ice. The ridge flowed into the wall, and formed a corner. I still couldn’t see a way through. I could climb over the ridge near the corner, but I had no idea what was on the other side. Turning back meant that we would have to retreat. There no was time to find another path. I began climbing up a short vertical step. I was on the left the side of the ridge. The moment of truth. I poked my head over the ridge.
From there, I could easily traverse back to the center of the face. Lloyd was shouting. He wanted to know if it was a dead end. It wasn’t, but I didn’t immediately respond. I could not see Michael or Alex.
It was 10:30 am. I had traversed back into the center of the face. I could see clear up to the summit ridge. No Michael or Alex. I shouted, but there was no reply.
Did they already reach the summit ridge?, I thought.
There was a fork in the face, but I couldn’t see into the far right path. At this point, we needed to decide if we would retreat. We had climbed seven pitches, but we only had a single rope. This meant that a retreat would require twelve rappels, plus a traverse back over the pitch we had just climbed. I estimated that if we retreated, we could be back in our tents by 5:30 pm.
But, there was a problem. I didn’t know where Michael and Alex were. If they retreated, then we should have done the same. However, they should have been a full pitch ahead of us, and they would have less reason to retreat. It was more likely that they had continued towards the summit. If that was the case, they would be relying on our rope to complete the fifty-meter rappel. Without our rope they could rappel thirty-meters down, and if they found another anchor, they could rappel again. If not, they would have to downclimb twenty-meters, assuming that the conditions were good enough to downclimb. If not, they would need to descend the face with their single rope.
I looked up. It was probably two more pitches to the summit ridge. From there, it was one hundred-meters of elevation gain to the summit. If the summit ridge was covered in powder, I guessed that we could make it to the summit by 2:30 pm at the latest. The descent was supposed to take two to three hours. This meant we could reach camp at the same time as if we had retreated. The decision seemed obvious.
“Do you think that they’ll wait for us to rappel down?” asked Lloyd.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Would you wait?”
I climbed two more pitches. I didn’t quite reach the summit ridge. I was a couple meters below it. I waited for Lloyd climb up. He had nearly reached me when he began to violently cough. Then he retched, though he swears that this never happened. He kept coughing at the anchor. It was altitude sickness. It wasn’t serious yet, but it wasn’t good either. My altimeter told me that we were one hundred-meters from the summit. At this point, the fastest way to get down was to go up.
We reached the summit ridge. It was 12:30 pm. We could see a man higher up on the ridge waving to us, but I couldn’t see who it was. He motioned in the direction that we should go. A 50° powder slope led to the spine of the ridge. From there, the ridge steepened, then flattened again before reaching the summit block.
We began to simul-climb, occasionally placing pickets between us for protection. Eventually, the slope flattened out as I reached the spine of the ridge. I saw two short vertical steps, followed by lower angled terrain that led higher on the ridge.
To say that the ridge was out of condition would be an understatement. The entire ridge was made of rotten snow. The type of snow that appeared solid, but could crumble away at the slightest touch. I dug through the snow, struggling to find foot placements solid enough to hold my weight. Many held just long enough for me to reach the next placement, before tumbling down the face. The easiest path was decimated by Michael and Alex. As each climber climbed, it became harder for the next climber to follow. Lloyd would have soon taken out the last picket between us. The snow here would not hold any protection. If either one of us fell it risked pulling both of us off the mountain. I felt the increasingly incessant tug of the rope at my waist. It was best for the rope to be snug between us, but I wondered if Lloyd was slowing down, or if he was falling through the collapsing ridge. As I reached the flat part of the ridge, I dug into the snow, and put Lloyd on belay. Lloyd came up over the ridge, cursed, then collapsed on the ground. It was 2:00 pm. Alex and Michael were on the far end of the ridge. They had waited for us.
Alex and Michael were preparing to climb the last pitch. From below, it looked as though you could traverse below the summit block to reach a notch in the ridge. However, in our case, the snow was steep and in bad condition. It would be easier to climb straight up. We climbed the summit block in two pitches as a team of four. It was by far the steepest and toughest pitch due to the poor ice quality. My gloves had become wet from climbing the collapsing ridge, so I had switched to my mitts. But, I left one hand bare to better grip my axe. My bare hand burned like fire from the cold. The slope became gentler. Soon, I was able to walk. We had reached the summit. It was 4:00 pm.
We celebrated and took photos for longer than we should have. We let the euphoria of reaching the summit get the better of us. It was sunny as we reached the summit, and there was no sense of urgency. Our first action should have been to scout our route of descent the moment we reached the summit. But as we celebrated, we became enshrouded in fog. It was 4:30 pm.
It would get dark at 6:00 pm. Lloyd’s coughs were worse and more frequent. In addition, Michael was wearing Nepal Evos, and they had soaked through. My immediate goal was to get everyone down as soon as possible. Altitude sickness and wet feet could both turn into serious problems. The quickest way to descend was by the Northwest Ridge. It required a single rappel, and a fit party often descended in an hour and a half during the climbing season. The visibility, lack of a trail, and heavy snow would slow our progress. However, moving through heavy snow downhill was quick, we only needed to follow the ridge after the first rappel, and we had a team member who had been on the ridge before, albeit fifteen years earlier.
The alternative was to descend the face we had just climbed. That way, we would know exactly where to go. But descending the face would require eleven full-length rappels. In addition, we would need to descend through the collapsing summit ridge. I had concerns that it would be both time-consuming and dangerous to descend the ridge. In total, it would take ten hours or more. In addition, rappelling involved standing still waiting for anchors to be built, waiting for teammates to descend, and it often led to decreased circulation in the lower extremities. It was a cold endeavor.
Beforehand, we had all agreed that we would descend the Northwest Ridge. However, when we reached the end of the summit block, we weren’t happy with what we found. A crevasse blocked access to the summit ridge farther north of the summit block. It was the same crevasse that created the notch in the ridge we had seen earlier. We did not know where we should rappel from, however from what we had seen earlier, that was not the place. Luckily, it wouldn’t be too difficult to cross the crevasse, but it was going to require an additional rappel. The additional rappel, combined with the uncertainty of the unexpected crevasse caused Alex to rethink our plan. He and Michael agreed that they wanted to descend the West Face. Lloyd and I agreed that we wanted to descend the Northwest Ridge. Neither team could convince the other that their decision was the correct one.
“Justin decides,” said Alex.
I took a moment. I would have full responsibility for the decision. It was no different than a thousand decisions I had made before, but this time I felt a knot in my stomach. I just wasn’t sure. But I made the decision, and I believe it was the correct one.
“We’re descending the Northwest Ridge,” I said.
We had crossed the crevasse, and daylight was beginning to fade. The fog had thickened, and we could no longer see over the edge of the ridge. We followed the ridge looking for a place to descend when the ridge came to an abrupt drop. At this point, we couldn’t have been more than two hundred meters from the summit, and we made the mistake of believing that this ridge was the Northwest Ridge. I began to rappel as it became dark. I had descended thirty-meters, forty-meters, fifty-meters. I still couldn’t see the bottom. This ridge never flattened out. It continued to drop for as far as I could see.
This isn’t the way,
“This isn’t the way,” I shouted.
I couldn’t believe what was I doing. I had descended off the wrong side of the ridge. The fog had begun to clear. It was pitch black abyss as far as I could see on either side of the ridge. I could hear cursing above. Just then, the ridge broke away below my feet. I had punched through a cornice. I was completely safe, but the surprise swing gave me a jolt. I was put on belay, and I began to climb back up the north ridge.
The climb up was exhausting. It would have been far too difficult for me to climb without a rope above me, but climbing was faster than using prussiks to ascend. Michael was becoming dangerously cold, and Alex was becoming increasingly worried. We shone our headlamps below the ridge. Headlamps have a limited range, and our visibility was poor, but we could see the flat ground below us. I redirected the rappel, and began to rappel what I hoped was the correct side.
My legs swung out into open space as I lowered over the lip. I was rappelling down an overhanging headwall. Twenty-meters down, I gained access to a ridge. The ridge projected out from the headwall by about ten- to fifteen-meters, and I needed to follow it to reach the bottom. This meant that the rappel would traverse, and falling off the ridge would result in a large swing, potentially resulting in injury when I swung back into the headwall. I rappelled another fifteen-meters down when the rope began to shake. Somebody was pulling, and shaking the rope. I clutched onto the ridge to avoid falling.
“Get off the rope!” I heard. “We need to get down!”
“I’m still rappelling,” I shouted as loud as I could.
“Get off the rope! Get off the rope!”
I shouted back again. The rope was whipping back and forth. I was going to fall. I had no choice but to lock off my rappel and unweight the rope. By unweighting the rope, it allowed the next person to rappel. I heard more cursing. Lloyd appeared over the lip and began to rappel towards me. I asked what had happened, and all he could tell me was that the atmosphere was tense up above, and that they wanted to get down.
I had him wait on the ridge while I continued to rappel. I was almost to the bottom when the rope ran out. I had reached the bottom of the ridge, but a large bergschrund surrounded the ridge on all sides. If the rope was ten-meters longer, I could have reached the other side. It was possible to extend the rappel with slings, but it would have to be set up from the top of the rappel, and at that moment, I was not confident that this could be successfully communicated above the lip of the headwall. There was no chance to build an anchor where I was, and I didn’t want to prussik up the rope since doing so would cause both myself and Lloyd to go for a big swing into the headwall. The reason why I had not set up an anchor mid-rappel was that I had not found any good quality anchors. What I needed to do now was climb back up, and dig in search of a suitable anchor that I could create with our last picket. Failing that, both Lloyd and I would need to climb back up the headwall and search for another place to rappel. In addition, the vertical ice in front of me was more air than ice. It would be difficult to climb back up. For a second I laid my head on the ice and just breathed. Lloyd asked what we needed to do. I told him. He began shouting words of encouragement, and I climbed back up the ridge with the help of a belay from Lloyd.
I reached Lloyd and began looking for an anchor for our next rappel. The snow was powder, but a foot underneath was ice. It was awful ice. An ice screw pulled out by hand, and it was no good for a v-thread. A picket might hold though.
I told Michael and Alex to rappel down, and about my plan. However, by the time Michael had reached us, he was in bad condition. He couldn’t continue. His feet were too cold, and he was afraid that he was at risk of losing his toes. From what we could see, the slopes below the ridge were low angled, and there was little opportunity for shelter. Michael asked for my axe—equipped with a full-sized adze—and began to chop away at the ice. We took turns chopping the ice cave. One person at a time. Whoever was the coldest got the opportunity to be the one to chop. He’d be lucky enough to warm himself for as long as he had the energy to swing the axe, but Michael did more work than anyone else. Within half an hour he had dug a shelter just barely big enough to fit four climbers.
This was the longest night of my life so far. We slept sitting up, huddled together for warmth. We had no bivy gear and used our packs and helmets to insulate ourselves as best we could from the cold ice beneath us. It was snowing outside, and the wind whipped the snow into the cave. Our body heat melted the snow, soaking our insulation. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep, but I would wake just minutes later.
Morning came. For the longest time, nobody moved. Then the first rays of sunlight entered the cave, and we began to stir. Lloyd had candies, and we shared them amongst ourselves for breakfast. Michael thought that he had kept his toes for now, but we still needed to get off the mountain. In the daylight, we saw that we could rappel off the side of our ridge and cross the bergshrund. As I was rappelling I saw a picket lodged in the ice beneath us. At least one person had descended the same way we had. We were on route.
The sun was strong. There was a surprising juxtaposition between the bitter cold a few hours ago, and the warmth that we now felt. It reinvigorated our spirits. We quickly descended. But, it wasn’t long before the ridge ended in an abrupt drop. It looked as though large crevasses had split the ridge into seracs. It would have been extremely difficult to climb through without ladders and many more pickets. To the north, there appeared to be a path that led to the bottom of the seracs, but it deviated significantly off of the ridge. Lloyd did not want to leave the ridge. We explained ourselves, but he would not budge. Afterall, we were descending the Northwest Ridge, a route that followed the ridge the entire way to the summit. However, the only other alternative would have been to rappel off the side of the ridge. Unfortunately, due to the angle of the ridge, we couldn’t see down, we only had a single picket, and it was much farther than a single rappel to the bottom of the ridge. We would be at the mercy of finding good ice, and with our current anchor options, ascending back up would be dangerous if not impossible on a single picket. Lloyd was tired. We all were, and our water was running low. The detour would mean a couple hours of plodding through heavy powder. Rappels were physically less strenuous, but it was important that we didn’t let fatigue dictate our decisions. Lloyd’s better judgment won out, and he agreed to the detour.
At that point, the fog returned, and visibility reduced to zero. The whiteout disoriented our senses, and it became difficult to tell the difference between up and down. I followed a heading on my compass and was only able to tell when we were walking uphill by the burn in my thighs. We zig-zagged through the crevasses, often spotting them at the very last moment. Hours later, the crevasses became fewer, and the fog began to clear. We were at the bottom of the ridge next to the West Face.
The sun felt fantastic. We all laid in the snow and took a nap. We were nearly back. The last thing left to do was to find out how to descend from the ridge back to the lower glacier. To do so we set up a rappel near the West Face. Perfect ice created the perfect spot for a v-thread. We made a traversing rappel into the bergshrund. After crossing through a series of snow bridges we gained access to slopes that led to the bottom of the West Face. At that point, we had made it. We followed the slopes downhill, and back to High Camp.
It felt good to be back at our tents. Friends that we had met in Huaraz were waiting for us. They had come to camp on the glacier with us. It had been thirty-eight hours since we had left High Camp. They gave us water, hot drinks, and told us how worried they were about us. I felt responsible for the entire incident, but all the guys came up to me and thanked me for getting them down. The next morning, we descended 1900m to the nearest town and caught a Taxi back to Huaraz.
Lloyd’s cough had become better after the night in the ice cave, although the skin on his noise from blistering from sunburn. Michael’s feet sustained first-degree frostbite. Patches of skin were white, and they caused him pain throughout the next few days. Given that we had reached the summit, I still believe that the best decision was to descend the Northwest Ridge, although it was a much closer decision than I had thought at the time. The Northwest Ridge was further out of condition than I had expected. However, it allowed us to find a suitable location to build an ice shelter that saved Michael’s toes. It would have been much more difficult to build a similar shelter in the soft snow of the ridge, or in the hard ice of the West Face. In total, if we subtracted the time took sleeping in the ice cave, or napping, we descended the Northwest Ridge faster than we could have descended the West Face.
However, the real problem was that by the time we had reached the summit, there was no good choice. We had already screwed up. The first problem was Michael’s boots. At the time, I had little experience with single layer boots. However, during our last climb, Michael’s feet had also become cold. While we were preparing our gear, I asked Michael if he would rent warmer boots, but he thought he would be fine. I should have forced him to rent double layer boots. If all of our feet were warm, we could have continued to descend the Northwest Ridge through the night.
The second problem was that we were climbing as a team, dependent on each other, yet we didn’t stay together. We should have brought all the necessary gear for each team to retreat by themselves, or we should have stayed together. This interdependence forced us to continue climbing, when it may have been better to retreat.
The third problem is that we didn’t retreat earlier. It’s a decision that I had made several dozen times before. I’ve retreated from far more climbs than I’ve successfully completed, and there is a certain pride in that.
“Getting to the summit is optional, getting down is mandatory.” - Ed Viesturs