Breathless

By Adam Capelin

Looking back up the summit ridge

Sitting precariously on an exposed peak of wind blasted rock and ice that never melts, 6000m above sea level isn’t a typical way to start the day.  But this was the numb vista that was my reality on the 25 July.  I was anchored to the frozen earth via an ice screw at my feet and a 5m length of stiff rope that was tied to my two climbing companions, Johannes and our Bolivian climbing guide Adolfo.   It was dark when we summited. The light of the dawn was weakly descending around us.  Orange and golden hues were dancing on thin tortured clouds above us, like a veil of silk being torn apart by a relentless wind.  The land below was dark and unrevealing.  I was sitting on hard ice with no where higher to go, with no shelter left from the wind, in a cold dark place waiting for the altitude sickness headache to find me.

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We had been climbing the 6088m Bolivian peak of Huayna Potosi since 1:30am. I had been lured into the night by the small pool of light thrown onto the snow by my head torch and the sliding trace of the orange climbing rope tied to Johannes in front of me. I welcomed the early summit departure and the release from a restless sleep.

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Sleep had abandoned me on the mountain. For the past two nights I had lain in my sleeping bag and invited sleep to wrap it’s embrace around me, only it didn’t. Sleep was busy somewhere else. It eluded me. My breathing was erratic as it adjusted to the rarefied air. I felt like I was drowning in my own shallow breath. Lying still and breathing normally I would suddenly find myself short of breath and in a panic. I gulped at the still air with my arms flailing outside my sleeping bag pushing a hidden weight. Fatigue and altitude eventually overtook me, and I was haunted by a vivid imagination, neither asleep nor consciously awake or in control. When I closed my eyes on the eve of the summit departure, there was something meta-physical blocking my passage to sleep. This took the form of a large hard-back white book with a blank cover and filled with blank pages. Sleep perverted my imagination; if I could fill the book with a dream, a story, then sleep would read it to me and take me with it. Sleep had high expectations and I couldn’t project a lottery winning dream into these blank pages. It was cruel, I felt consciously awake yet I could almost hold sleeps hand. I could break the spell by opening my eyes to the same dark room and small window of light on the opposite wall, but it was despairing to do this over and over again and return to the same unchanging place. A place removed from sleep and time. If I rolled over and closed my eyes again, the vacant white book was waiting for me and I clutched it tight to my chest. Trapped, I lay in the darkness, drowning in my own breath, willing the light to change, for the silence to break and the movement of bodies to signal the call to climb.

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Stepping into the cold wasted air above 5000m at 1:30am in the morning and fastening steel crampons to plastic mountaineering boots is a surreal experience. The first groups were already away and hovered above us higher on the first pitch, enveloped in their own halos of torch light reflecting off the crisp snow. The mountain hid itself. My peripheral vision was blinkered by my own torch light. Only the spheres of light from other climbing groups above and below us revealed the distorted distance and gradient of what was up ahead and what we’d already climbed.

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My breath was ragged. The ascent was brutal. I had no sense of what I was climbing or steering for, no idea when we would crest the next pitch. Follow the torch light, watch the thin orange trace of climbing rope sliding over the snow and step over the crevasse that leers before you. I was forcing air into my lungs and punching it back out again. The pain of breathlessness saturated my lethargic body. Swinging my arms in time with my dragging legs only made it worse. I was shuffling along, side stepping up steeper sections to make sure my crampons were biting into the snow. One laboured inhale and one sharp exhale of breath for every pathetic foot step. When we stopped I was bent over double leaning on my ice pick for support. I gasped between inhales of tortured breath and lied about being ok. Bien, bien (good, good). Doubt crept into my mind and trespassed my thoughts. “You´re not going to make this” I internalized, “This is beyond you, you’re not fit for this”. I practiced my retirement speech for the next stop, but each time I pushed on to the next crest or corner I found the strength to continue. My breathing found a rhythm and a voice. I found a mantra inside my breathing, “stick it, stick it, you’ve got it in the neck”. Each time my conviction failed and defeat polluted my mind, my breathing repeated louder, “stick it, stick it, you’ve got it in the neck”.

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A quick fact: At 5500m there is only 50% of the available oxygen found at sea level. The air at the summit of Mt Everest is a suffocating waste of 30% of the available oxygen found at sea level. If you could be picked up at sea level and dropped at the summit of Mt Everest you would remain conscious for a couple of minutes before passing into a comatose state.

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The monotony of the crawling ascent gave way to survival. The pitch steepened over uneven icy sastrugi and frozen rock. We were climbing diagonally across a slope up towards the exposed summit ridge. My breath left me and I ignored the lactic acid swelling in my legs and the vacuum in my chest. I swung my ice pick up and kicked my crampons in hard, checked my weight and then swung and kicked again clawing on all fours. The rope went slack and then taut as Johannes and I struggled with our own mountaineering inexperience. I reached the summit ridge behind Johannes and my breath came up behind me attached to its own desperate rope looking white and spent.

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I had a strange sense of dislocation. The ice and rock fell away from me into infinite inky depths on both sides. I was on top of something, floating but fixed to the spot. We were exposed now, crouching behind a small drift of hard ice and snow. The wind assaulted the drift from the other side sending a plume of icing sugar spin drift over everything. “Only 15 minutes to go” shouted Andolfo. I looked up and squinted through the roaring shape of the wind. I could see distorted pools of head torches from other climbers floating towards an obscure summit. My breath reached inside me and picked up my tense body. We crawled forward together separated by bonds of climbing rope. Barren jagged rocks guarded my left and a small wall of hard drifted ice defended my right. Again and again I swung my ice pick up and kicked my crampons in hard, checking and re-checking the bite of the ice pick before moving up. The trace of orange climbing rope above me slithered with the advance of Johannes. A confusion of frozen tumbled rocks barred my way. My crampons scratched steel on rock defiling the surface searching for a purchase. I threw my ice pick up in an expanding arc searching for hard ice above me to the right. I pulled myself up and kicked my toes into hard ice again. Into the night we ascended, into the wind and into thin air, until I sat next to Johannes on a blunt cone of exposed ice on the highest point of the mountain.

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I sat with my back to the wind and grinned stupidly at the nothingness below. Fighting to catch my breath before the wind stole it from my lungs. I was shivering with cold and adrenalin, and waited patiently for the sun to rescue me and reveal the earth far below.


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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Breathless

  1. Hi Adam,

    That’s a wonderful piece of writing that should be published (it is!) about an amazing experience. The descent must have been exhilerating in comparison. Beautiful photos too.

    • adsiemenadsie

      Thanks Mum & Dad – The thought of climbing over 6000m captured my imagination in La Paz and I really wanted to do it. I was thrilled and scard at the same time thinking about it. It was an exhillerating experience and I enjoyed writing about it afterwards.

  2. Dear Adam
    I am amazed that you did this and I am so glad that I didn’t know that you were doing this. Your story is wonderful to read and gives an incredible insight into the mind games that come with the altitude and struggles for oxygen.
    And the photos are just awesome, colours surreal.
    Stay safe – love you
    Mum

  3. josh

    Dude – you’ve climbed to over 6km! No one I know has done that. Well done son! And such beautiful writing too; I think I started breathing shallower with you on your ascent!

  4. Ken

    Hi Adam, now that I have regained my breath & my hands have thawed out I congratulate you on your amazing effort. When Keira told us what you were doing we experienced some chills & chicken bumps & prayed for your safety. Your writing gave us a virtual experience that I’m sure everyone who reads it will have. I agree with Mick – you should publish it & a few others you have written.
    Well done but please don’t get bored with reality.
    Enjoy Canada but leave the rockies alone.

  5. Ken

    Congratulations Adam on an amazing effort & great piece of writing. I feel like I’ve had a virtual reality mountain climbing experience & guess what ?? that will do me !! You can now enjoy your Canadian chapter but please don’t venture past the ski slopes .

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