Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Walkup

When one attempts a solo ascent, preparation is everything: Conditioning. Reconnaissance. Scheduling. And, of course, gear. I removed my Arc'teryx Bora 95 internal-frame backpack, made of urethane-coated RipStorm™ nylon with a thermoformed back panel and WaterTight™ zippers, and set it down beside me with a thud. I opened the top and took stock: three DMM Sentinel Keylock Screwgate locking carabiners, four PMI SM18001 SMC Mountain D non-locking carabiners, a Petzl Mini pulley, a Silva Ranger 15 compass, a Western Mountaineering Lynx GWS sleeping bag with a Gore® WindStopper™ microporous polytetrafluoroethylene membrane (rated at ten below), a Thermarest Prolite Plus sleeping pad, an MSR Dragontail 2 tent with FastFeed™ pole sleeves, a rope bag with a Texas T prusik and a waist prusik tied to sixty meters of Bluewater 9.7 millimeter Lightning Pro rope, a Petzl seven-step etrier, a Black Diamond Turbo Express ice screw, an Optimus Nova Multi-Fuel Expedition Pack stove, a 32-ounce Nalgene Wide Mouth HDPE water bottle, a variety of CLIF SHOT® energy gels – Sonic Strawberry, Mocha Mocha, Razz Sorbet – to make sure I don't bonk, Hi-Tec Altitude IV hiking boots with Comfort-Tec memory foam sockliners to wear around camp, a toiletry kit, a first aid kit, and three extra pairs of socks. An REI Yeti Ice Axe with a chromoly-steel head and aluminum shaft was stuck in the ice axe holder.

And that's in addition to what I was wearing: military-issue, expedition-weight fleece polypropylene thermal underwear; Mammut Extreme Hybrid Pants featuring liquid- and soil-resistant NanoSphere® technology, three-layer DRYtech™ construction (for optimal rip resistance) and Schoeller®-Keprotec® knee reinforcements; a Duofold ProTherm polypro crew shirt; a Mountain Hardwear Exposure II parka with Simplex pit zips, a CoolMax® torso liner and a Napoleon pocket; a Singing Rock Balance II climbing harness with prethreaded "rock and lock" buckles; RBH Designs VaprThrm® vapor barrier socks; Scarpa Inverno plastic mountaineering boots with PEBAX® lining fitted with Petzl Vasak Leverlock crampons; 40 Below K2 Superlight overboots with two layers of heat-reflecting titanium; Grandoe Annapurna Mittens with Thinsulate™ insulation and DuPont ComforMAX™ Radiant technology; an Outdoor Research Polartec® Wind Pro® balaclava; Julbo Revolution goggles with a Zebra® photochromic lens; and a Beko nose guard.

Now all I needed was for the gods and goddesses of the rarefied realms to smile upon me for just a little while.

I stood at the base and peered up the daunting path that lay before me. It was difficult to imagine that I'd ever reach the top. That a single, solitary human placing one foot before the other might reach the gates of heaven. Yet in my moment of deepest doubt, of greatest discouragement, I lifted my right foot and dropped it on the first step, the crampons clawing into the charcoal-gray carpeting. My journey had begun.

My initial progress was fraught. The crampons provided invaluable grip but tended to stick to the carpet; as I proceeded they resisted fiercely, tearing out great tufts of fibrous material. My legs burned with lactic acid as they labored, but I was determined to continue. I was halfway up the first flight, within tantalizing sight of Camp 1 – the second story landing – when I was felled by another, more insidious foe. I grew dizzy and weak, and suddenly developed a debilitating headache. Altitude sickness. There was nothing to do but turn around, descend to base camp, wait, and try again.

I took off my backpack and sat on the bottom step with my head between my knees. I heard someone enter the building. The mailman. He opened the mailbox panel with his master key and rapidly distributed the mail, mostly bills and junk, while occasionally glancing at me with vague curiosity.

"How are you?" he asked.

"Good, thanks," I replied. Then he closed the panel and walked back out again.

The rest and acclimatization did me good, and in forty minutes or so I was able to reach Camp 1. I took off my gloves and balaclava and – with tremendous relief – pulled my blistered feet out of my stiff, plastic boots. I set up the tent along the wall in the middle of the landing and took out the stove to make some tea. Just then I heard a noise below, an inhuman thump, thump, thump!

What is this yeti? I wondered. What is this beast, come to molest me?

It was old Mrs. Ledbetter from 3C, dragging her grocery cart behind her.

"Hi," I said.

"Well hello!" she said.

"Can you get by?"

"I'll manage, I..."

"Here, let me–" I moved the stove aside and swung my legs out of her way to let her past.

"Have a good day!" she said as she made her way up the second flight of stairs.

"You too!"

I retired to the tent and jotted some half-formed thoughts into my journal. Impressions of the beautiful serenity around me, the solitude, the magnificence of it all. After an hour's fitful sleep I got up and broke down the tent, determined to make progress. I couldn't tarry if I wanted to summit before nighttime.

The next flight went better than the first. I'd developed an effective physical and mental routine, heaving my body up each new step in a lurching rhythm while playing mental games to forget the pain, to make the time go by: Listing the Canadian provinces and their capitals. Remembering the names of game show hosts.

I encountered an unexpected obstacle on the third floor landing. A familiar, savory fragrance wafted into my balaclava and below my nose guard: spaghetti bolognese. The Kessels in 3A were making dinner. Though my appetite had largely been suppressed by the altitude, the supremely delicious odor of gently simmering onions, garlic, basil, oregano, ground veal and tomatoes arrested me in my tracks. I slumped against the wall, felled by stabbing hunger pangs. The neck of my balaclava now seemed strangely cold. I pulled it up to see that it was soaked in spit; my face was so numb I didn't realize I'd been drooling. I took off my pack and searched desperately for a CLIF SHOT®. The first one I grabbed was raspberry flavored. I bit off the top, letting it dangle by the patented Litter Leash™, then extruded the fuchsia goo into my gullet. The supersweet, viscous gel coated my palate and slid down my throat with some difficulty, leaving a sharp, chemical aftertaste. I wiped my open mouth with the back of my gloved hand, streaking it with syrupy remains. It was not very good. But it was food. And I had a climb to make.

I'd just put my head down and started up the third flight when I felt a trembling beneath my feet. Avalanche? Falling rocks? I stuck the tip of my axe handle in the carpet and warily looked up to face whatever hazard fate had loosed upon my head. The Fowler twins, age ten, racing perilously down the stairs.

"Mister, mister! Look out, mister!" they cried.

I knelt down on the steps to brace myself against this demonic, heedless wind.

"Careful, kids! Careful!" I admonished as they scrambled by.

With calm restored, I took the measure of my present circumstances. Everything seemed to be OK. Body OK. Gear OK. Or was it? At this stage in a high-altitude climb, hypoxia is a maddening worry. Oxygen deficiency can provoke confusion, disorientation and – most insidiously – euphoria, making it nearly impossible to accurately assess the severity of the creeping malaise. I'd chosen to climb without supplemental oxygen. What foolish vanity to so defy the laws of nature! What hubris! I summoned a sober moment to mutter to myself a rueful curse. And then – because it's all I knew to do – I placed my foot upon the higher step.

If I applied all my will and strength, I knew I could make it to Camp 2 in the next two hours or so. However, I had to factor in one more stop along the way. And though it had nothing to do with rest or nourishment or shelter, it was perhaps the most important one of all. It was sacred. It was the puja, the blessing ceremony in which I was to petition the Gods for good fortune and protection in my quest. I knew the chick in 4B was a Buddhist or something. Sometimes she'd be leaving just as I was climbing down the stairs and I'd glimpse a statue of the Buddha by the wall behind her door. What was her name? Susan? Suzie? After an arduous push to the top of the stairs, I knocked on her door.

"Hi," she said, looking perplexed.

I lifted my goggles to my forehead so she could see my eyes.

"Hi," I greeted her pantingly, hot from my exertions. "Susan, right?"

"Suzie, Suzie. And you're... you live upstairs. Right?"

"Right, right. I'm Dan. 5C."

"Well, what's going on, Dan? Are you OK?"

"Just," I gasped, "a little. Out of breath."

"Well, uh, what can I do for you?"

"You're a... are you a Buddhist? If you don't. Mind my asking."

Her face bore an expression of utter bewilderment.

"I... I... I meditate sometimes, I..."

"Good, good. That's good enough. Listen. As you can see, I'm on my way up," I said, pointing up my index finger. "Normally, there's a blessing ceremony. Needs to take place. Pretty simple. Really. Would you mind helping out?"

"I, uh... I don't know what to say. I... what would I have to do?"

"Do you have yak milk?"


"Maybe any kind of milk will do."

"It's two percent," she said tentatively.

"Put it in a bowl and offer it to the Buddha."

"Uh, wow. OK. Can you just... wait here for a minute?"

Suzie reappeared with a bowl of milk and turned to her Siddhārtha.

"Like this?" she asked me over her shoulder.

"Yeah, I guess. Just right in front like that."

She placed the bowl on the edge of the table upon which the golden statue sat.

"Now what?" she asked.

I shifted in my crampons, tearing carpet fibers with each step.

"Do you know any mantras?"

"I know Om mani padme hum."

"Perfect. Will you chant it?"



As we stood before her idol, she began:

"Om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum."

She looked to me uncertainly.

"Is that enough? I can do a few more if you want."

"No, that's great. That was great. Now we need him to bless my journey."

"How do we get him to do that?"

"I think you just have to ask."

Suzie turned again to the Awakened One. She hesitated.

"How do I... address him?"

"What do you mean?"

"What do I call him? Your majesty?"

"I dunno. That doesn't sound right."


"Go with your gut."

Suzie exhaled slowly, her eyes closed. She opened them and spoke to the statue in a solemn tone.

"Father. Holy Father, please bless Dan... Daniel?"


"Dan. Please bless Dan's journey. Thank you very much."

We stood in silence for half a minute. The Buddha beheld us with his trademark squint and smile, everloving and a little mocking, too.

"Thank you so much, Suzie."

"Anytime. Good luck," she said as she closed the door.

The fourth floor landing was meant to be Camp 2, my final resting point before summit assault. But I felt strong. Confident. Again, was this mere delusion? Was I suffering from oxygen deprivation? I thought I wasn't, but I didn't know. All I knew, in fact, was what every solitary climber knows: subjectivity is a trap. Your thoughts and perceptions are at best an educated guess, a blind stab at the truth. Doubt thyself, and you may know. But embarking on this harrowing expedition was my fundamental folly; shouldn't I honor that decision now? I decided to continue to the top.

I'd reached about a third of the way up when I realized I'd made a mistake. I couldn't climb any further. Every step – every movement, even – produced scorching pain in my joints that radiated up my spine and into my skull. I considered climbing back down and setting up camp, but it was too late. With a heart full of worry I bivouacked on the seventh step, shuddering in my bag as the wind blew through that fist-sized hole in the skylight. I awoke about twenty minutes later. I didn't feel much better, but I knew I had no choice. This was what every serious alpinist faces on a risk-taking ascent. This was my Moment of Truth.

I squeezed a packet of caffeinated, chocolate-flavored nutritious goop into my mouth, washed it down with water and packed up. I took a long, deep breath and willed my leg to rise and carry me another step, and then another, and another. I felt like I might just make it as long as nothing went wrong. Nothing, nothing wrong. Please, please, please, God. Nothing.

Then I saw it. That flap of torn carpet on the third step from the top. The one we told the super about weeks ago but that he's completely neglected to repair. There it was, with the fabric folded back and hanging off the edge. Sinister. Deceptively dangerous. The most hazardous obstacle of the entire climb.

Right away, I knew the wrong thing to do. The wrong thing to do was the lazy thing to do. And when you're this high up, the lazy thing gets you killed. The lazy thing would be to attempt to traverse this rift as though it weren't there, to try to step over it, around it.

Though I was at my limit physically, mentally and emotionally, I decided to do the right thing. I took my rope and my etrier out of my backpack. I tied myself to the rope and looped it through both ends of the etrier. I threw one end of the rope up onto the fifth floor landing and tied the other end to the wooden banister where I stood. Now came the hard part.

I stood up on the banister, digging my crampons deep into the cracking, painted wood. I stretched over the precipice and leaned against the side of the landing, where the posts of the railing met the floor. I knew I shouldn't look. Of course you're not supposed to look. But, perversely, I permitted myself a glance: the void was sickening, a hundred-foot plunge to the black-and-white tiled lobby floor. I slowly lifted my head. My mouth was dry and my hands were soaked with sweat. I held my ice screw in my left hand and hammered it through the loop of the etrier with the blunt side of my axe. Then I tied the rope to one of the posts. I was ready to go.

The first step was the scariest. The etrier sank and bowed under my weight, but held fast. The second step was steadier, the third one steadier still. But then I completely missed the fourth. Maybe I'd gotten too confident, too comfortable. I tumbled off the etrier, hit my leg on the banister, and found myself suspended upside down by my waist, lost in the middle of the air. My heart was knocking at my ribs. My body was convulsed with adrenaline. But I was alright. I was alright. Slowly, as calmly as I could, I reached for the Texas T prusik and placed my right foot into one of the stirrups. Then I put my left foot in the other and stood up, wavering a little under the taught ropes, a solo high-wire act without a crowd, without a net. Then I sat in the seat loop and prusiked up, and repeated the process a few more times until I was above the rope and could place my feet back on the etrier. No more mistakes this time. Just go. One, two, three steps, over the railing, and suddenly I was on the fifth floor landing.

I can hardly remember the last few meters. My reality had constricted: only the next step remained, and then the next step after that. All purpose, romance and glory had evanesced with the rest of the world. I was sure that I would make it; I was sure of nothing else. Here I am, here I am, here I am, I thought, and for all I know that was the purpose: to know exactly where you are.

Finally I reached the threshold. I took off my glove and fumbled through my jacket pocket for my keys. My hand was shaking as I unlocked the door. I turned the knob and pushed. Inside, my apartment was warm and welcoming. I walked in and fell down to my knees.

"Honey? Is that you?" my wife called from the kitchen.

"Yes," I croaked, trembling, nearly weeping. "I'm home!"