It's 02:30 and I wake. 6 hours of sleep last night. It will have to do. Today is my first attempt at a real alpine climb. Breakfast. Its Ham steak and eggs. Quite filling but I’m already hungry. We drive an hour north to the trail-head. It’s 04:00 and we start. Its cold but just cold enough to let us move fast. Fred’s headlamp goes out. Its good because he is fast. He is used to the mountain air and long days. I move ahead and we share light. Now at my pace. The morning glow lights up the eastern sky and we cross a frozen lake. Its eerie. The silence and the clear ice below my feet. I hold my breath and wait for the sound of breaking ice, it never comes. I feel like a duck walking on the moon. Move fast, shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. slide…
We reach the base of the diamond. Its enormous and towers above us. Now, the real climbing starts. As we basque in the morning light I’m freezing. I have on all of the clothes I brought and I can't feel my hands. We change from our approach shoes to our climbing boots. Strap on our crampons, eat a powerbar, sip some water and grab our axes.
Clap! Clap! Clap!
We clap to keep the feeling in our hands, or whats left of it. This sound breaks the silence the rest of the day. All the while Long’s Diamond looms beside us. Its summit, nearly 2,500 feet above. I realize we have only just begun but now my heart races. Excitement for the climb ahead. The hike in is always the worst part. Or so I’ve come to think. A monotonous trek of one foot in front of the other. Nothing to do but think of the burning sensation in my legs.
Doubt. Doubt. Doubt…
It enters my head and I cant seem to shake it. Am I strong enough? Will the ice and snow hold? Will we make it? If not to the top at least back to the car? Behind us the so called Lamb’s slide rises 800 feet. The path, a colouir of ice and snow. With both axes in hand we climb. Our hands and feet deep in snow. Not yet ice. The rope doesn’t yet leave my back though there is no room for error. This is my element. I love the snow, the cold, the challenge. Move your hands. Move your feet. Nothing else matters. Nothing else can matter. Not here, not now. We continue to climb to the top of the colouir. It turns to pure ice and we must cross it. From here on there can be no falls. No errors. Freddy is up first. I kick in a ledge as best I can and anchor myself to my axe, wedged deep in the ice. I belay him across. He moves effortlessly or so it seems. Our target? an 1,000 ft traverse that will gain us the leftmost edge of the
diamond. The Broadway Traverse. Freddy gets across and its my turn. I tie in. From here till the end we are connected. A bond of brotherhood. A bond of survival. All the while trusting our lives to one another. My first step. I slam my pick into the ice. It goes in effortlessly and feels solid.
Its easier than I would have thought. One after the other, the pick, the crampons, they stick to the ice and I climb. Before I know it we are across and onto the traverse. Its easy going for a time. Stepping in the snow and around the rocks. The wind howls and snow whips at our faces. All the while the void off to the edge gets larger. The ground further and further below us. It will be this way for the rest of the climb. 1,000 ft and more. The farther you climb the farther the fall. Right at your back. You know you can never let your guard down. You can feel it. We don't even have to look to know its there. The void. Always pulling. Always there…
For however long we are on this mountain we must be alert. Stay sharp. Stay strong. I can see the sun lighting up the face of the mountain. Its warmth I can only imagine. It will never touch us. Not this day. The mountain is cold and the traverse becomes thinner and thinner. The void ever closer. My heart races. This section of the traverse is the most dangerous. Most exposed. At least from what we’d read. My ass hangs over the edge and senses heighten.
Slow and steady.
The hand holds are hard to find with gloves. Time stops. My heart races. And we are through. We let out a battlecry, a sigh of relief. A sound of victory. We are the only ones on the mountain and our yells echo in the distance. Our victory, a short one for we still have a long way to go. After the traverse we find a slot canyon and start to climb it. The snow is powder and up to my waist. Fred is so far away I cant hear him. I cant hear anything. Silence. I clap and try to keep my hands warm. It’s almost pointless. As the rope runs out we begin to simul-climb.
Not too fast.
Not too slow.
We are connected.
Slow and steady we gain elevation. Pitch after pitch. Hour after hour. What was supposed to be a fourth class scramble, The “homestretch” turns into an eternity. We are forced out of the snow and onto the rocks. Crampons and all. The snow pure powder. Every foot forward we would fall a half foot back. Unconsolidated. Unsafe. The rocks were a safe haven. Our safe haven. The going slow. We split a cliff-bar. We hadn’t had a drink of water or food in hours. It wasn’t hunger. It was necessity. Every pitch I belayed Freddy I stood shaking. Cold. Mind numb. We had to keep going. Had to reach the top. It was our only way down. Nearing the top the sun started to wane. We had to hurry. We had to find our rappel while it was still light. If not we would be out here all night.
The summit. A lifeless place of rock and wind packed snow. The setting sun and snow capped peaks were breathtaking but I didn’t care. I couldn’t. I was relieved but only momentarily. We were only half way there. The sun was setting fast. I could feel the tension in the air, in our situation. Then as his voice shattered the silence, the tension. Freddy calls out that he had found the found the way down and I am relieved once again.
At the rappel I eat another bar and have a drink of water. I feel like an animal. A shell. Drooling as I shove the bar in its entirety in my mouth. I don't care. After two rappels we are in the boulder field. We head left. Head right. We walk into the dark. Into the night. We know the trail is here somewhere but we cant find it. I see things in the shadows out of the corner of my eyes. The rocks. Is that a sign? A trail marker? My mind playing tricks on me in the dark. The boulders seemed to never end. The trail never to come. We walked through the night. Sharing light once again. I thought it would never end.
And then. There it was. The trail. Safety. The way home. I read the sign, 4.7 miles. It was just a number. I couldn’t tell how long I had been walking or how far. Mile after mile we walked in the dark. Slipping on ice. Falling on rocks. Switchback after switchback in the dark. How long had we been here? It felt like a dream in a darkened forest. I couldn’t even feel the cold anymore. Numb. Thirsty. Tired. And then there it was. The car. We had made it. Finally our last sigh of relief. We had pulled it off. We threw all of our gear in the back and guzzled water. As I sat in the passengers seat and watched the headlights beam into the night. I lost myself into my head. Into exhaustion. What had we done? Anything? Nothing? Was it all just a dream? I didn’t know. I still don't. 16 hours from car to car. A gaze into the abyss. Now. Now I know what its like to be alive. Soon enough I will again.