Tough Call (Part 2)

I came in dead last, behind a Frog, and the mountain made me cry like a baby.

But no one seemed to notice my heroic effort. Fabrice marched inexorably off the front, and Terri, Louise, Nancy and Frank passed me one by one. We breasted a ridge and Camp 2 came into sight across a basin of deep snow. I glanced behind me, gulping for breath, and realized with satisfaction that I still led three people: Marshall, Dmitri and a new, enthusiastic guide we’d acquired named Pinky. On this section the strangest thing happened.

My one-step-one-breath rhythm, a pace that had served me well on every mountain I’d ever climbed, was suddenly no longer adequate. As the lead climbers shrunk in the distance, my one-step-one-breath became one-step-two-breaths, and then one-step-three-breaths, but the additional air didn’t propel me any faster. If anything I moved slower. Altitude sickness is still something of a mystery to science. Thin mountain air can disable the young or old, man or woman, the fit or the unfit in equal measure, and can even spare a climber on one mountain but level him on another. My heart hammered in my chest and I panted so hard I almost drooled in the snow. Behind me, I heard Marshall say something, and Dmitri laughed.

They can still talk! And laugh! It dawned on me that these men were not behind the Great Pacesetter because they liked his pace. No, they were along for the ride. They were cruising. They were here for moral support.

Several eternities later, when I hobbled up the last rise like an 90-year-old on his way to the shuffleboard deck, Pinky hollered, “Welcome to Camp 2!” If Fabrice sent a Gallic shrug in my direction, I didn’t even notice; I was keeled over my trekking poles, sobbing with exhaustion.

But no sobbing made it into the blog post that night.

The harshest truth I could have uttered into the phone would have been that I came in dead last, behind a Frog, and the mountain made me cry like a baby. But too much climbing remained for that depth of self-examination.

“For some reason, it seems my lungs are not adapting to the altitude as quickly as others in our party,” I reported with diplomatic formality of a U.N. declaration. “I trained diligently for this climb, but it seems that today I needed to take three breaths for everyone else’s two.”

Forty-eight hours later we repeated the climb to Camp 2. We weren’t yet to the top of the first snowfield when I sensed impatience at my back. As one unit, five climbers swung to the left and marched by, including all the women, Frank and Fabrice. None said a word; everyone looked straight ahead as if ignoring the proverbial elephant. The rest of the route we headed into a freezing headwind with the occasional 50-mph gust that nearly blew us over. I limped into Camp Two dead last.

Again, I couldn’t summon the honesty to say into the phone Today I learned I really do suck, and that if I don’t hut-to, I’ll never see the summit. All I said was “This climb, once again, was very hard, and it took me several hours to do anything more than drink soup and stare into space after it was over.”

* * * *

At Camp Two, the wind picked up and stopped us in our tracks. Situated in a shallow basin below the Polish Glacier and the edge of an abyss, Camp Two offered little cover from the gale. Terri and I burrowed into our big sleeping bags and tried to read our books over the endless flapping of the tent. We moved slowly and thought slowly and only basic needs could make us stir. One of us would poop in the tent vestibule while the other turned away, and once, in the evening, I staggered through the whiteout to the guides’ tent. There I gathered our one hot meal from the three young Argentines, who wore colorful spandex shorts and boiled endless pots of water. I returned to the tent and passed the spoon by my cracked lips, only to realize the altitude had robbed me of an appetite.

On Day 13, at 3:45 a.m., I heard Martín’s boots crunching the ground outside. “We go!” he called. I sat up, heartened by the announcement Marshall had made the day before: Today the party would stick together, all for one and one for all, no matter what.

Terri and I struggled into stinky clothes by the light of our headlamps. We headed out into the dark to put on our crampons. An hour after waking I clanked up to the trailhead, wrapped in down, fleece and Gore-Tex like a Wisconsin schoolboy dressed for February. I arrived at the trailhead at the same time as Dmitri and Frank. No one else was there. We looked uphill; we saw our teammates’ and guides’ headlamps in a line, half a mile away and gaining.

For three hours Dmitri, Frank and I walked alone. The sun rose but did nothing to ease our gloom. “How could they just leave us?” Frank asked for the fifteenth time. The Great Pacesetter looked back at his miserable subjects and shrugged sadly. About 9:30 a.m. we crested a rise and saw our assistant guide, Gueri, sunning on a rock. A lanky thirtysomething with a curly black ponytail, Gueri had been gruff and distant for the last few days. Now he just seemed annoyed.

“If you do not go to Refugio Independencia by eleven, you turn back,” he said. Then he turned away and strode up the trail. We bitterly watched him go; we’d thought that paying $2,600 for a guiding service meant having, you know, a guide.

All week, Dmitri had shadowed me as silent as a Soviet submarine on maneuvers. Now he tapped some deep artery of Slavic forbearance and took off up the trail after Gueri. He was out of sight in no time at all.

So the Great Pacesetter was reduced to one subject, Frank. Frank’s mood and energy were improving just as mine began to bottom out. “You know,” Frank yelled over my shoulder, “if Gueri has so much energy, he can carry my crampons. Right in his ass.”

“Heh,” I gasped.

We soldiered on toward Refugio Independencia and made the ramshackle wooden hut just under Gueri’s deadline. Gueri joined us for a snack. Then we three shouldered our backpacks and entered a long, wide snowfield that formed a welcome mat to Aconcagua’s final knob. We were almost there.

But I was moving slow, epically slow, the slowness of a nightmare where one is pursued by impatient men with iceaxes. Frank and Gueri watched as I shuffled and weaved and my chin dropped to my chest. I was so oxygen-starved I was falling asleep.

Frank stepped around me. “I’m sorry, buddy,” he said. “This is my only chance.”

Frank hiked off, and Gueri followed him without even a backward glance.

I slouched down and pointed myself toward that rock in the snow. There I was, the only living thing among the dead peaks, alone to concoct an explanation for my invisible, expectant friends.

* * * *

I don’t know how long I sat on that rock. I stared at the sky without really seeing it and thought, maybe I’ll sit here just a while longer. But another voice nagged: It reminded me that people freeze to death at altitudes like this because they simply forget to stand up. I unzipped my backpack, chewed on an energy bar, and peed. I knew what I had to do.

At that moment I looked up and saw Gueri walking down the trail. I wanted to hug him. I wanted to slash him with my ice axe.

“Buenos tardes,” he says. “Como estas.”

“No bien,” I said. “Quiero bajar.” Not good. I want to go down.

“Una buena idea,” he replied.

* * * *

The next afternoon, seven thousand six hundred feet lower in the thicker air of Base Camp, I sat with an index finger poised over the satphone keyboard.

Already I’d alerted listeners to the ugly fact of my failure, as there were simply too many witnesses to lie. I had stumbled back to camp with Gueri and plunged into a 14-hour oblivion of sleep. At twilight Terri crawled in, dusty and hollow-eyed. She told me everyone had made the summit and then joined me in exhausted slumber. The next morning we broke down camp and prepared to descend. No one seemed to want to look me in the eye, except for Louise, who approached and held my hand and asked “how are you?” like I were a second-grader who’d scraped his knee. On that long downclimb, each minute brought us easier breath and a step closer to Sunjaya’s cooking. But the sense of relief fled when I glanced back at Aconcagua, that run-on sentence that concluded, not with a period, but a question mark.

Now the question hovered between my finger and the keyboard. It was the question that friends and family and clients would be too polite to ask.

I dialed the number. Ahem. “Could I have made it to the summit?” I said.

“It’s a question that hurts to ask right now. To be the only person on an eight-person party not to summit is difficult to accept. The Clint Eastwood, the Rocky Balboa, the Edmund Hillary in me imagines that I would get up and go forward, regardless of the odds. But that’s not what I did. Instead, exhausted, alone and somewhat delirious, I decided to descend.”

It took us three days to climb out of the high wastelands and drive back to Mendoza, the graceful Argentine town of wine and steak from which we’d started, and find an Internet cafe.

I leaned in toward the screen and rubbed my chin, recently cleared of stubble with the help of three disposable razors. At the next computer an Argentinean girl wore pink velour and popped gum. I stared over at this alien life form for a moment, then opened my email.

Messages had poured in by the dozens. “Bless your heart! And your sea level lungs, and your very good brain and sound judgment, “ wrote Mom. “There is just no way you can count this trip as a failure of any sort,” insisted my friend Ariel. “You gave it your all. That's all anyone can do,” wrote Dad. “You are the best, best, best,” wrote my client Jan, “and your experience (and your rich and honest description of it) has created and inspired a virtual community.”

My view of the computer screen blurred and there seemed to be salt water in my eyes. I rubbed them hard so the Argentinean girl would know I was un norteamericano muy macho.

Another email came a few weeks later from Louise:

“The parents of my students, as well as my students, followed us each day, and appear to have adopted you along the way, and were quite devastated when you returned to camp. There were comments such as...at least he tried; he can always try again; I know when I'm feeling sick I just want to go to bed; and, he was brave to turn back!”

After committing such a public belly flop, I might have been insulted to receive peppy advice from second graders. But I wasn’t. I’ve kept that email, as well as a picture I borrowed of our climbing party on the peak, where every victorious face is present but mine. I find myself thinking of the email much more often than the picture. Failing big, and getting love anyway, is better than standing on a heap of rock. Who knew?



Epilogue: To further embarrass himself, David Ferris has archived all his Aconcagua audio posts at http://theferrisfiles.com/projects/the-aconcagua-project/

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