We had some unfinished business with this mountain. It had beaten us once, but we weren’t about to give it up on it. This time round, we were going to take a different route, starting almost immediately up from base camp, and we left around lunchtime with the intention of getting to the snowline before dark.
The first few hundred metres before the snow were pretty gruelling. It was just one long slog up scree. I really need some distraction from the effort, but I didn’t have the lung capacity to maintain a conversation. Instead, I counted footsteps, which is perhaps the worst possible thing you could do, but still, I persisted with it until at least two thousand.
As planned, we stopped for the night just shy of the snow, creating a platform out of rocks which turned out to be surprisingly comfortable. We enjoyed a typically early night, followed by a less pleasant ‘alpine start’ somewhere around 4am. It’s bad enough getting up at that time, but when you know the only thing to greet you is ice-cold air and an uphill struggle, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking it might be nicer to stay in bed.
The snowline turned out to be a little higher than we thought, and we stopped for a rest after an hour or so of scrambling on rock. Taking our packs off and enjoying the sweeping panorama our new vantage afforded us, Thom and I set about the painstaking task of melting snow.
At this height on a mountain, snow is the only source of water, and thus a stove is the only way you can get to it. We filled up a pan with huge chunks of snow and watched as they slowly melted away into icy pools and, finally, drinkable water. After failing at a team effort, Thom took over both the pouring of the water and the holding of the bottle. I grimaced, and Thom cursed as we watched half of our hard-fought water dribble into the snow. Another fifteen minutes or so later, still itching to get moving again, another pan was ready, and Thom set about filling the rest of the bottle. Thom’s accuracy improved this time, but unfortunately, his grip didn’t. The bottle tumbled down the mountain, joining the mattress and stuff-sack from our last attempt.
"Mate, you have really gotta stop dropping things!"
Now we were in the snow. Crampons on, ice axes in hand, and a rope strung between the three of us, we plodded onwards and upwards through thigh-deep snow. The sky was blue, and the snow was white, but it wasn’t enough to distract me from the continual effort involved in the climb. After some time, we approached a cornice (a large chunk of overhanging snow and ice) that we hadn’t seen from below. Thom attempted to dig his way through, but the snow just kept tumbling down, making progress impossible.
We were walking along a ridge that was almost overhanging on our right, so we decided to hop off it and try to climb round the cornice. The ‘hop’ was only about 4 or 5 feet, but when you’re wearing a big rucksack and crampons, tied to two other people and trying to land on ice, it seems like a bigger deal than normal. Thom led the way again, climbing out and round the protrusion, with me positioned beneath him. As he hacked away at the ice above, he was perpetually showering me with ice until he let out a very short ‘Woh!’ and slipped. A mini-avalanche of icicles covered me, and Thom watched in dismay as the cap fluttered down the mountain like so many other of his belongings.
Clearly this was not the way forward. It was too late in the day, the sun was warming up the snow, and we would have to wait until it refroze overnight if we wanted to get anywhere. At this point, Thom was still above me, and Ben was 20 yards to my left, waiting back by the cornice. Thom climbed down to me and then, due to the resultant cat’s cradle of ropes, I had to down-climb some ice and come back up beside Ben. The climbing was essentially over for the day, and I got lazy. My crampon popped out of the ice, and my axes didn’t hold. I flew down the steep ice so fast, it took my breath away. As I dangled on the end of a taught rope in a state of shock, I thanked my lucky stars (and Ben) for the ice screw that had been dug into the snow only moments before and was now holding my full weight.
Wandering back down the mountain in search of flatter ground, we soon realised the foreshortening effect of looking straight down a snow slope had gotten the better of us, and the gradient wasn’t easing off at all. With that, we stopped, dumped our sacks, and started digging out a ledge for the tent.