Fear and Loathing
Alpine-style suffering on Jirishanca’s great southeast face.
We started to climb at one in the morning and I felt terrible. Approaching the start of an evil chimney—the drain for anything falling from Jirishanca’s massive southeast face—we well remembered that this was the place where we had nearly died in 2002 during an avalanche. Our breathing grew labored. Was it the altitude? Or were we psyching up for the sprint ahead? But our decision was made. We would solo for a while. Speed was safety.
As we entered the dark confines, the sense of menace was overpowering. Fighting the desire to quit, we began our sprint. The climbing was not too difficult, but I desperately wanted to escape this sinister place. It took an age to break loose from the clutches of the chimney, then I aimed for a large, overhanging buttress to the right, silhouetted in the eerie half-light of the moon. I could sense the massive gargoyles of snow and ice stuck to the soaring towers directly above. Why had Al Powell talked about earthquakes the day before? Where was he? I turned to look below. Yes, he was there, a pinprick of light still in the confines, plugging away as quick as his body would allow. Our partnership had started in Peru three years earlier. My aggressive, impatient character was tempered by his steady, laid-back approach. We were in this together now, gnarled and knotted like old oaks.
Dawn arrived and highlighted our spectacular setting. We clung to life in the middle of a great, concave amphitheater. Upside down organ-pipes hung all around us in this cold cathedral, some as thick as tree trunks. The mountains behind woke for another day, lit with a deep red glow as the sun lifted its head above the horizon. Immediately, the warmth made its presence felt. A large serac broke from the wall above and crashed down, scattering into a thousand pieces. Minutes later a second one followed. With every resounding crash we cowered, insects at the bottom of an egg timer.
Al cut across the rippled ice, moving right and aiming for the vertical ice towering above. I moved toward him, crossing runnels furrowed by falling debris. We were pitching the climbing now since the chance of something crashing from above and wiping us out was very real. Roped, the fall wouldn’t kill us.
After a fantastic and sustained 60-meter pitch of vertical water ice, I belayed, casting a wary eye above. A runnel of rotten rock waited, covered by a thin skin of ice and topped with a bulbous overhang of icicles. This was not the type of ground for someone new to the fathering game, like Al.
My lead! I climbed straight up. Good ice gave way to a skin of rotten crud. Frantically I scratched and scraped, eventually managing to reach a large cluster of icicles drooling from the exit. The screw I had placed an eternity ago was 15 meters below and Al was another 10 meters below that. Placing three more screws into the crud, with one tied off and two wobbling, I made a move up, then another. Feet kicked, lumps of crud flew. Al dodged, I swore, an axe ripped. I lurched, I reversed. I tried two more times; both failed.
“Any ideas?” I yawped to Al, who hadn’t made a sound the whole time I was swinging around trying to kill myself.
“Why don’t you aid it?”
“On what? Everything is rotten.”
“Just slap a sling on your top screw to stand in, then aid it on your axes.”
The thought of aiding through rotten ice didn’t appeal to me. “I don’t do aid!”
After an hour Al realized I wasn’t joking.
Groveling up unconsolidated snow at the top of the overhang, I vowed never to scoff again at aid climbers: I had succeeded by aiding on my axes. Al started to climb but quickly decided to jug one rope. I belayed him on the other while watching television-sized blocks of ice ring constantly down the steeple of rock opposite. Approaching me, Al stared at me and whispered, “you’re a fucking nutter!” That pleased me.
Two pitches of unprotected powder-bashing placed us on a knife-edge arête of snow beneath a great tilting serac fringed with a massive mouth of sharp teeth. We dug out a ledge for a bivy and ate our evening meal while sitting out a storm.
Through the night the clouds swarmed, but later, to my great relief, the sky cleared. Easing the stiffness from our aching bodies on the first pitch, we saw the sunrise and the mountain begin its morning song. Six pitches of weaving and groveling followed. Climbing vertical, unprotected mush ate into the time, and it was with joy that I tunneled through the second wafer-thin cornice of the day onto the ridge. Celebration took the form of a whole Mars Bar each.
At last the foreboding face was left behind. We were now on the East Buttress, first climbed by Egger and Jungmair in 1957. A panoramic vista opened out in front of me: new valleys, intense blue lakes, new mountains. I felt alive.
Dropping down from the cornice, I traversed to belay at the side of a large ice overhang. Al swam past then crawled beneath a wild umbrella of ice, where he fixed a belay. “You’re going to love this!” As I climbed to meet him, I didn’t think I was. Sitting at the rear of the cave, he reminded me of a fly in the jaws of a Venus flytrap, but this fly was attached to ice screws and sitting at the edge of a hole looking directly down the face. As I traversed the wall of thin snow surrounding the hole, Al yelled quite loudly, “Careful, you haven’t seen how far that overhangs!”
I hadn’t, but as I minced around the hole to join him it became obvious.
“Why is nothing on this mountain normal?” I moaned. Al ignored my moaning and set about digging a bivy ledge, making a pulpit overlooking a congregation of fine mountains.
The third day followed in a similar fashion to the second. The climbing was never as hard as the first day but it just kept coming. We cut slots, carefully crawled over crumbling rock, pulled overhanging ice. Having squirmed up more bottomless powder, I basked in the sun and checked the buttress above. The rock was the same as lower down: a pile of crumbling cornflakes. Rusty pegs sprouted from lumps of congealed mud, and rotting ropes swung forlornly in the wind.
I pointed out a line I had spotted to my left. It looked more in keeping with everything we had already done and would be more new climbing. Al set off around the corner to check it out.
“It looks like it’ll go,” he mumbled. “It looks okay as long as the ice isn’t rotten.”
A very sustained 55 meters later he escaped the confines of the runnel, pulling through an ice overhang and belaying at the base of a tottering dollop of snow. On the next section—the third, vertical, unprotected excavation pitch of the climb—I surprised myself by digging through it easily; it must have been all the practice I was getting.
Leading onto the steep summit ridge, every step kicked into rotten, sun-bleached snow gave me reason for rejoicing. A long traverse left found me burrowing through Joe Simpsonesque flutings of death and led me to thoughts of hanging over the headwall. I didn’t fancy emulating the epic that occurred on Siula Grande, and so we belayed.
Following my weaving steps, Al joined me at my confined spot. Continuing directly up the runnel, he chopped through the top of the fluting and continued up a steep, icy slope. The afternoon bubble-up of clouds had started earlier than normal and soon it spitted hail. Spindrift poured down the runnel, hitting me. It continued to fall in great clouds, blowing across the hundreds of fringed icefalls covering the headwall to my left.
I became concerned. We had climbed all day, having eaten only one bar of chocolate each. I could feel my body eating away muscle for fuel and imagined returning to my job in the prison gymnasium emaciated. The drug-detox class would come into the gym fresh from the street, rattling and drug addled. They’d take one look at me, smile, and wink, recognising a fellow sufferer. Little did they know the drug of my choice didn’t come in tablet form!
The lack of food and energy would make waiting on the ridge in this weather very risky. The line had dictated that we move light and quick. We couldn’t slip down to the valley for a rest and food before our summit push. We had no ropes fixed, no stash of food, no place prepared to safely sit out a storm. This was the style of climbing we both preferred, but if we stayed up here I was going to make the worst crack addict look healthy.
Our passage across the corniced ridge in near white-out conditions was a tad disconcerting. I guessed that the towering pile of crud swirling in and out of the mist half a pitch away was the summit. Al appeared out of the driving snow, fighting his way along the ridge. With no food and unable to see what we would be climbing into, we hung around praying for the weather to clear. But after waiting half an hour our prayers were not answered. It didn’t feel fair, but a lesson learned long ago that life isn’t fair turned us around to start the long and scary journey home.
Summary of Statistics:
Area: Peru, Cordillera Huayhuash
Ascent: Jirishanca’s southeast face to very near the summit, Fear and Loathing (900m to merger with East Buttress route and approximately 150m beyond, 25 pitches, ED 3/4, A2 WI6+ 90°+). Al Powell and Nick Bullock. June 15-18, 2003.
Nick Bullock would like to thank the B.M.C., the M.E.F., Mammut, and D.M.M. for their support.