My friends familiar with pop culture tell me that 42 is the answer to life, the universe and a few other things. When I realized that camp II on the Painful Mountain was at 4200 meters, I automatically began thinking of it as the answer-to-everything-a-hundred-times-over camp. Having such a camp was good news, because we’d accumulated a small mountain of questions inside our heads. It didn’t help that we’d heard horror stories from some of last year’s summiteers, an eclectic group we met at Camp M. Like old salts recounting voyages around cape horn, these old timers wove frightening yarns about the perils they’d lived to tell about. The fog could come in so quickly and thickly that climbers had no choice but to hunker down on the spot and wait until it cleared. Windstorms swooshed out of nowhere, accelerating to the point that they ripped and destroyed tents. Four feet of snow might fall overnight and drift all the tents in. In general, it sounded like an excruciating cold weather endurance course for superhumans. Naturally, the stories put questions in our minds, but the only way we could get answers would be to experience the Painful Mountain ourselves.
Getting to 4200 meter camp would be a big step toward conquering the Painful Mountain and answering the questions bouncing around the back of our heads. With this in mind and eager to claim quality tent sites before the hordes of other climbers reached 4200 meter camp, I accompanied the Old Chap, a witty Englishman on our team, up the mountain ahead of the rest of our party. As we left 3200 meter camp, vegetation promptly vanished, giving way to rocks and dust. Since I’d already been to 4200 meter camp, I let my mind go on autopilot. Suddenly, I realized the Old Chap and I had arrived.
Hiking directly to the upper portion of camp, we found an excited throng standing around an empty tent platform. In the center of the circle, a few people knelt around a large bundle of blankets. Getting closer, I realized the bundle of blankets was a medical emergency in the form of a badly injured climber.
Over the next hour, details leaked out. The injuries were a prime example of a mountaineer who was not a Mountain Ear. First, the man had been climbing solo. Even on a relatively easy climb, this is foolish at best. Next, he had completely ignored mountain conditions, taking a “shortcut” across an iced over snowfield, steep as a black diamond ski run, while wearing glorified tennis shoes with no crampons. Once on the slippery frozen surface, he had lost his footing, rolled a few hundred meters, bounced over some rocks and ended up lying in a creek far from camp. In the fall, he’d displaced the dirty top layer of corn snow, leaving a series of bright white blotches marking the path of his fall. Fortunately, he remained conscious, and his screams of pain alerted the Wild Bills, who rescued him. He now lay at the center of a circle of concerned climbers using their small personal first aid kits to bandage up his broken and lacerated left leg, dislocated shoulder and gashed forehead. Porters erected a floorless tent around the suffering climber while others made arrangements for a helicopter to come rescue him.
A typical day at the 4200 consists of dense cloud cover punctuated by brief snatches of sunshine. Occasionally one can watch massive cumulus clouds building, right in front of the camp. The rest of the time, ragged bits of cloud are driven across the camp’s rough rocks by a relentless wind. The rescue helicopter missed a 20 minute sunshine window and could be heard flying about in the dense fog until the fuel ran low. A search and rescue team that just happened to be climbing the Painful Mountain carried the sufferer down the scree field to the 3200 camp.
Though a sobering experience, witnessing the injured climber failed to worry me. His wounds were the direct result of inexperience and stupidity. My team was led by two experienced mountaineers and comprised of outdoor savvy people. Further reassurance showed up in the form of climbers returning from the summit. A collection of midweight hiking boots, cheap off brand jackets and discount store backpacks arrived at 4200 camp, worn by summiteers. Though ill equipped for proper mountaineering, a group of thirty such climbers had summited and returned safely. Our well equipped team had little to fear so long as we exercised caution and common sense.
Excitement evacuated our camp with the injured climber. As soon as he was gone, our minds and energies turned to setting up camp and examining our surroundings. The 4200 is a steep pile of loose basalt which is in the process of falling down. Nothing is firm. Even the largest rocks, big as a wheelbarrow, shift and slide at the slightest prodding. Up close all the rocks are featureless grey, tan and red solids. But from afar, the camp looks like a spilled pile of some exotic and slightly colored spice mix. Climbers have scraped out a great number of tent platforms, pushing larger rocks to the side and spreading gravel over the top. Little paths interconnect the whole camp while a main trail leads up to a toothlike rock outcropping featuring a shiny plaque commemorating a deceased climber. Like real teeth with plaque, this rock tooth appears rotten and unstable, covered in grime and loose fragments. In color, too, it is unhealthy like a giant cavity.
My dad and I chose the highest tent platform at 4200 meter camp. Though probably the largest flat space in all of the camp, it was still barely big enough for our Black Diamond bombshelter tent. One side of the tent was shoved against the stone retaining wall we’d built to keep uphill rocks off the platform, but the other side still hung off the edge of the tent space. At least our spot was very smooth, being surfaced with fine gravel.
After three days, living at the 4200 grew old. Occasionally, spectacular views appeared when clouds parted. I savored these moments, losing my self in a reverie, staring at the volcanic formations which had oozed from the mountain and formed long ranges of hills stretching miles out onto the valley floor. When clouds laid siege to the camp, I spent as much time as possible lounging in my tent.
One afternoon four of us decided to hike a couple hundred meters above camp so we could stretch our legs, acclimatize and hopefully enjoy a view. Serious clouds stayed at bay, allowing a short sunny outing. We passed the rotten tooth with its plaque. We passed a flag made from a trekking pole and an old shirt. Camp and the myriad of switchbacks in the trail above it grew small, a sprinkling of orange, white and green against the drab earth tones of the mountain. Trying to breathe and hike up the mountain at the same time seemed terribly hard. Each step required a few heaving breaths, tiring my chest and developing a dry cough deep in my throat. I began to have second thoughts about climbing to the summit. If a 150 meter climb proved so tiring, what would a thousand meters feel like? I soon forgot my concern as we sat down to rest and enjoy the view. Even the slight distance of a few hundred meters seemed enough to escape the unpleasantness of 4200 camp. But before long, we headed back to camp in a vain attempt to wrap up some logistics.
Answers were easy to get at the answer-a-hundred-times-over camp, but good answers were few and far between. Each evening, we argued with our porters. We had hired 15 load carriers, why were only nine going up? Porters had agreed to carry 35 pound bags, why were they now complaining that all our carefully weighed and packed bags were far too heavy? Tired of shouting over the noise of a rattly old generator and trying to cross a language barrier with nothing but the brute force of our words, we threw our hands up and went off to bed. The porters eagerly zipped open our bags, distributing the once organized and inventoried contents willy nilly across a variety of beat up backpacks. There was reason to believe we might not see some of our gear again. Needless to say, three nights of this madness wore us down.
The best answer at the camp of one hundred answers came on our third night there. All of us wanted to know when we could leave for the summit. That night we were told “at 2 am.” A pitiful dinner of pasta noodles with ketchup residue on them was the last thing I saw before making the trek to my tent at the top of camp. I had precious few hours to sleep before the 2AM departure for high camp. But I went to bed happy, knowing that 4200 would behind me soon.