The High Life
Being outdoors is a way of life for me: I spent my first night in a snow cave at ten months old. I enjoyed backpacking and cross country skiing by the age of three. From my earliest years, my dad has inspired in me a love for the outdoors and taught me how to safely enjoy adventures there.
In 1999, my dad spent a summer at K2 Base Camp, living in the shadow of the world’s second highest mountain. During the 2000s, he was part of three expeditions to Mt. Everest. All total, he’s now spent nearly a year living at or above 17,000 feet. My dad had always done incredibly well up high. He summited everest when at age 49, the strongest fastest climber on a team of fifty people. Perhaps his high altitude aptitude was genetic; perhaps I’d inherited it: there was only one way to find out. But it’s not every day you have a spare month in which to acclimatize and live way up high on some plantless, airless mountain desert. When given the opportunity to spend a couple weeks living on the Painful Mountain’s summit, I realized my chance had come. What would it be like spending a fortnight at 5200 meters?
In short, breathless anticipation turned to plain old breathlessness. When sitting down, I felt fine. Standing up made me dizzy if I didn’t make a conscious effort to breathe deeply. The hundred meter walk from our camp on the rocks of Chuckmuck to the giant cook tent on the crooked northern horizon required one to stop and rest halfway. Tying boots became a big deal. Putting on pants proved tiring, especially when one got to the second or third layer of pants. Some pants were slippery, allowing one pair to slide right over the first, but certain fleece-lined pants stuck. That situation required a lot of squirming and wriggling before the wrinkles got worked out and made the pants feel halfway comfortable.
When you live on a rock pile surrounded by ice and cliffs, you find out that a day can be a long time. Sunlight illumined up our yellow tents like big cheery lanterns at five am each day. Somehow, the call of nature aligned itself with sunrise, making sleeping in difficult. In other words, the day started early. Having lots of hours to fill wasn’t such a bad deal, though. After all, getting dressed could take half an hour and walking to the mess tent seemed to take eons. We had plenty of mundane chores to see to each day: our team went through several gallons of water, all of which had to be collected from melting ice and then sterilized. Water took ages to boil; cooking took far longer.
The most important requirement each day was a four hour strategic planning exercise in the community tent, a huge Sierra Designs Mothership big enough to sleep eight people. We’d zip open the door, pull off our outer boots and get settled inside. A mere three of our twelve chairs had arrived at Chuckmuck, so three strategic planners occupied the chairs, leaving the fourth team member to sit on a pile of duffel bags containing food. No doubt this contributed significantly to the deplorable, busted up state of our granola bars. Time for 500, a card game to which all members of our team were hopelessly addicted. With four participants seated, a deck of cards was dealt into four hands of ten cards and a “cat” of three cards left on the table as a prize for whoever won the bid. Strategic planning involved using strategy to outbid determined opponents at this game. We’d played together enough to know how people liked to bid. We’d also developed serious competitiveness. Tensions were high, bidding outrageous. The Old Chap, a quintessentially british fellow, played shrewdly, fearing the shame of letting Queen and country down in the event he lost a bid or, heaven forbid, an entire game. I became known as the Nula Kid because of my fondness for Nula hands where the object was to avoid taking a single trick. This grew old for my partner, however, because in a Nula the player’s partner has to put down his cards and sit out the hand.
When not occupied in our special version of strategic planning, our summit team enjoyed short outings on top of the Painful Mountain. Three stand out as particularly noteworthy.
The first outing began in the center of the universe, the massive orange mess tent on the exposed slopes of Chuckmuck. A nasty bit of storm rolled in. Forty mile per hour winds blasted us with prickly snowflakes, stinging skin and filling beards with ice. Never one to turn down the opportunity to test my Gore-Tex outerwear, I traipsed around in the storm with the rest of our crew. I tried taking pictures, but mostly caught fuzzy white frames. After a couple minutes the viewfinder filled up with snow. Eventually, the weather event increased in severity, prompting our retreat to our cozy tents. Time to thaw and enjoy a good book in the comfort of my tent.
Our second outing took place on a sunny afternoon when my dad and I fancied having a look into the deep gorge below Chuckmuck. A rocky spur hung down from the top of the mountain, forming a divider between two spectacular canyons. Descending this spur gave an opportunity to play with our climbing gear. Since a fall down the steep icy incline would mean losing a couple thousand meters of elevation, not to mention our lives, we tied our rope off to an anchor consisting of six ice screws.
Looking up from the end of 280 meters of rope no thicker than my index finger, I felt like a tiny spider dangling at the end of a long spiderweb. The tenuous line stretched to the horizon and beyond, leaving me dangling between two of the most impressive chasms I’ve ever beheld. On one side, a respectable valley opened up beneath a rugged cliff decorated with ice falls. But this was an irrigation ditch compared with the chasm on my other side. I was tempted to describe the larger gorge as “so big it took my breath away.” But at 17,000 feet, I didn’t have any breath to take away, so a different expression was necessary.
A glacier spilled down a no man’s land of busted up ice, like the granola bars in the duffel we sat on to play 500, only infinitely bigger. Little cracks in the snowfield turned out to be crevasses wide enough to put a freeway in. Over the edge where the glacier disappeared from sight, the next visible object was the dusty tan valley floor some 3000 meters below. Clipped into our rope with an ascender, I felt quite secure. I twisted in my harness to get a better look down the canyon. Could I even comprehend the vastness of this hole, I wondered. My appreciation for the size of the painful mountain grew as I hauled myself back up the rope to the top. The fun part of the outing ended when we started going back up the shimmery carpet of ice. Step up, take a deep breath, push the ascender up. Repeat.
Our final memorable outing took place a stone’s throw in front of the big orange mess tent. While wandering around there one day one of our guys had fallen up to his waist in a snowed in crevasse. Ten paces uphill from where he fell in, my dad discovered a place to get into a lower part of the crevasse. The ropes and ice screws came out again, an ice axe was used to widen the entrance to the crevasse and two by two we slithered and squirmed through the tiny hole.
Like a cave, this unique environment was adorned with chandeliers of crystal formations and unique slow flowing stalactites. The floor of the cave was a slush pool, so we had to hang from climbing ropes during our exploration. Limited by the rope, we didn’t move far, but there really wasn’t far to go. Nevertheless, getting under the skin of the painful mountain and catching a glimpse of what lay beneath evoked admiration in all of us.
Occupied by these and similar adventures, the long days passed quickly. Suddenly, the sun would drop below the horizon, taking moderated daytime temperatures with it. Night descended like a big, cold black blanket over Chuckmuck.
I’d crawl in my tent burrowing into the depths of my massive Western Mountaineering down sleeping bag. With days flying by at this rate, our departure date drew near with alarming rapidity. Occasionally I’d remind myself that all too soon, that bittersweet day would come. We’d go back to the luxury of decent food, mattresses, showers and thick air. But we’d also leave behind the scintillating adventurous life atop the Painful Mountain.