Frostbite (Part I)

How difficult it is to recall the morning of an alpine start!  Only a few subdued images remain, folded into the deep uncharted crevices of my brain and locked in the grayish hues and intense cold of the predawn wilderness, punctuated by icy gusts of wind sweeping across the valley floor.  These shadowy memories have only blurred with the passage of time, commingling with other images from other such mornings: when not only the body but the mind, too, recoils inward from the wind, when the thought of keeping out the cold is long abandoned and a dulling of the senses the only reprieve.  The mind recoils from the creation of memory as if in each moment the act of forgetting would negate the weariness and the harrowing gales–as if it could retroactively diminish the stresses of the event.  This half-willful amnesia, like the biological proclivity of a mother to forget the agony of childbirth so that she may willingly go through it again and again, must be part of the reason that climbers can continue to climb.

One memory does remain clear for me. When I removed them from their plastic bag inside the tent, my boots were so stiff from the cold that in spite of my best efforts I could not put them on: I pulled at their tongues, I plied their laces,  I stood on one half-shod foot and drove my heel violently into the boot.  None of this proved successful, but giving up on the climb before even starting it did not occur to me so I took my boots away from the tent and peed on them, the frozen leather loosening in the warmth of my urine.  I pried open the tongue of each boot and thrust in first one foot and then the other.  Even with thick wool socks on my feet, the cold was nearly unbearable but I stamped upon the ground and pretended that I felt no pain.

The approach to Longs Peak took us several hours.  We followed the main trail south to Black Lake, then headed east and then southeast over snowy talus fields until we reached the Trough, a steep snow chute curling up the western aspect of the mountain.  Although we had walked the trail to Black Lake several times in the days before, this morning in the bitter darkness the path twisted incomprehensibly through the trees.  We traveled slowly and often stumbled off trail, tripping and falling up to our waists in the deep snowdrifts.  We stopped many times to rest and drink water, to add or remove layers.  By the time we reached Black Lake the first rays of sunlight were settling pleasantly on the tips of the peaks to the west; gusts of wind froze our faces and fingers, and my exhalations formed a splintered halo on the balaclava around my mouth.  Although I wore heavy gloves my hands often became so stiff that I could barely hold onto my ice axe, and then I would remove the gloves and breathe upon my fingers.  My feet were cold and heavy.  We moved steadily upwards, making our way in the shadow of the mountain, until at last the sun appeared over the ridgeline and we warmed ourselves upon a rock, chewing on Cliff bars that we kept under our armpits to keep them from freezing and looking downward at our deep footprints zigzagging up the sheer snow slope beneath us.

For several more hours we climbed over mixed rock and snow, weaving in and out of the shadows as we took turns exploring the safest route beneath looming pinnacles of red schist and granite.  We climbed the rock with our crampons and ice axes, hooking our picks onto imperceptible features and leaning heavily into our crampon points like large, awkward spiders.  A careless step might have sent us tumbling down ten feet, or several hundred.  Eventually we reached a thin snow-covered ledge beneath an imposing face, much steeper than anything we had climbed so far that day.  We shuffled along the ledge, testing out several jagged clefts in the granite wall before us, but all seemed too difficult and exposed to attempt without rope protection.

It was three o’clock in the afternoon and with some relief we decided to turn around and begin the treacherous descent–making our way slowly, pressing our bodies close to the rock to secure a sense of balance against the dizzying precariousness of our climb.  We reached the Trough soon afterwards and glided down the sticky wet snow while the sun beat warmly upon us, and we spoke of future climbing adventures with the eagerness and confidence of those who believe that they have accomplished something today and that they will soon enjoy a hot meal and a warm sleeping bag.  After stopping at the base of the chute to put away our ice gear, we traveled too far west across the boulder field, forcing us to switchback down a hundred feet of talus to the Black Lake Slabs where glassy ice swelled and glistened in the sunlight.  We stopped near Black Lake to drink the last of our water: grey and scummy snowmelt that we strained through our teeth to keep from swallowing the floating particles of coffee grounds and pine needles.  I realized suddenly that my feet were numb inside my boots, now soggy and packed with snow since my gaiters splayed open during the march down the Trough, so I left my partner behind, intending to hurry back to camp to change my socks and clothes before he arrived.


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