From high above comes a deep throaty growl. Instantly, I know its source. I desperately look around for shelter; but the only option, a single rock immediately to my right, is too small. The ropes snake down the gully, useless. I drive both tools into wet, melting ice and cower. An animal trapped. The heavy concrete snow hits me square on. I’m plucked from the middle of the couloir and thrown down the face. I scream deep from the hollow of my guts. I know I am about to die …
Tumbling, hurtling, cartwheeling, smashing into rock upside-down, my body collapses, concertinaed. My knees smash into my face and chest, splitting soft skin and forcing the air from my lungs. My ribs, chest and back feel as though they are tearing apart. I black out for a second then regain consciousness, horrified to find I am still falling.
Let the next one end the pain, I plead. I’ve suffered enough now. Please.
I hit deep, soft snow hard. I’m alive. The joy of surviving … soon gives way to more panic as I begin to slide … only to hurtle another two hundred feet down the ice-cone. Spinning, twisting, pushed on by hundreds of tons of heavy, wet snow. Surfacing, I gulp air pulling hard for the side of the avalanche. My legs are twisted into unnatural angles; joints are forced the wrong way. Still I fight, clawing, flailing. My resolve strengthens: I refuse to be taken under.
The snow slows. I claw and swim. As it starts to set, I pull hard to get high, pushing an arm into the air in the hope of leaving some part of me visible, something for Powell to dig out.
It never enters my head that he can be buried as well.
I shake my head, attempting to clear out the memory of our doomed attempt on this mountain twelve months earlier. Any sane person would avoid repeating such an experience. So why am I now bivvied on the same rock-step, waiting to climb the same evil chimney with the same deadly face above? Powell, sitting at my side, looks reflective; his intense, dark eyes set deep in a gaunt face. Is he also questioning, wondering what has made us return to this face?
Jirishanca is an icy, towering skyscraper in a remote corner of Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash. Fringed, latticed icefalls, joined together by snowy ledges and steep compact rock cover the upper three-quarters of its concave southeast face. The pointed summit is protected by overhanging mushrooms and fluted honeycombs of snow. Access to the unclimbed central area is via a massive snow cone and a tight chimney. As the sun strikes the face in the early morning it becomes a living entity. Everything falling from above is funnelled down the face and flushed through this chimney – the place where I had nearly died the year before.
The southeast face has seen only one ascent – ¬¬¬¬ in 1973 by a Japanese team that seiged their route over forty-five days. Several teams are coming to try their luck on the face this year. Al Powell and I comprise the second team. The first, Alex Fidi and Julian Neumayer, two young guides from Austria, didn’t make it beyond their warm-up climb. While attempting a new line on Jirishanca Chico, in preparation for the main event on Jirishanca, they were caught in an avalanche. Both were killed.
We start soloing at 1 a.m. We have two days food for the nine-hundred-meter line. My stomach is playing up, I feel terrible. As we approach the start of the chimney my breathing becomes laboured. Entering it, fighting the desire to run away, I begin the sprint, but on perfect névé. It is freezing-cold; a luxury not experienced the year before. The chimney’s dark confines constrict my swings and kicks. Lumps of snow whoosh past me, the odd rock whirrs by. I desperately want to escape.
A crashing rumble breaks the black silence. Driving both axes into the névé, I pull in tight and wait. And wait …
… Nothing happens. I swear at myself for being so stupid: it is only a serac collapsing on Yerupaja Chico. My guts feel like rope creaking under load. I rush onwards until finally the rock surrounding me opens, leading out to a wide expanse of snow.
A large overhanging buttress to the right promises a haven. In my mind’s eye I can see the picture of the face pinned above my desk in the Prison Gymnasium. I have stared longingly at it for two years. I can see the massive snow and ice gargoyles stuck to soaring towers directly above. Why had Powell talked about earthquakes the day before? Where is he, anyway? I turn to look below. Yes, there he is: I can see a pin-prick of light still in the confines. He is still in danger. Still plugging away. Still moving as quick as his body will allow.
A final sprint across the wide, right-leaning snow slope deposits me safely under the overhanging buttress. I gasp for breath whilst waiting for Powell to catch up.
“Jesus, what were we thinking last year? This place must have been loaded with fresh snow.” He mutters as much to himself as to me.
“It’ll be one of the best ice routes in the world if we do it.” I reply, trying to control the tremble in my voice while glancing above, to the left, to the right, below, behind.
“That chimney went on forever. I thought you said you were nearly at the ramp last year?”
“Yes, well, I did have other things on my mind at the time.”
Powell now meticulously checks the pictures of the face he had blown up from slides taken last year. I wonder how he feels. What drives him? A partner at home cares for their new-born baby; how would that effect me? Thirty-seven years old and single – there are no distractions or complications to interfere with my climbing. Does Powell find this as scary as I do?
Chalk and cheese, Powell and me. My aggressive, impatient character is tempered by his quiet, laid-back but solid approach. A partnership three years old and already gnarled and knotted like an old oak lintel.
Dawn highlights our spectacular setting. We cling to life in the middle of a great concave amphitheatre. Upside-down organ pipes hang all around us in this cold cathedral; some are as thick as tree trunks. The mountains behind wake for another day, lit with a deepening red glow as the sun lifts above the horizon.
Suddenly the sun’s warmth make its presence felt. A large serac breaks free from the wall above the chimney. It crashes scattering into a thousand pieces funnelled through the constriction below us. Minutes later a second one follows. We cower with every resounding crash, insects in the bottom of an egg-timer.
Powell cuts across right, aiming for a great swathe of sastrugi-rippled ice. I move toward him, crossing runnels furrowed by falling debris. We pitch the climbing now: the chance of something crashing from above and wiping us out is very real.
Setting the belay, two screws and two axes, I stand between vertical-ice above and below. Powell, obsessive about saving weight, has chosen to bring small fun-size chocolate bars for our food. But as I gaze up I realise that even that extra weight will slow us down on the desperate looking ground above. While Powell seconds the fifty-meter ice wall below, I now study the east face of Siula Grande across the valley. It looks like hell. I imagine Joe Simpson and Simon Yates down-climbing the ridge above it. I am amazed as I recall the epic of their struggle. My amazement turns into trepidation. If we are lucky enough to reach our summit, how will we get down?
A strained, serious face pops above the final bulge of the long pitch. Al has struggled with the sustained climbing, shouting repeatedly to be held. Maybe he has some full-sized Mars Bars stashed in his pack? “Shit, that is desperate,” he says through clenched teeth. “I’m really not fit for this sort of stuff.”
A winter of skiing in preparation for his guide’s test has seriously affected his climbing. But I’m not worried: with more gnarly first ascents around the world than anyone I know, I can’t think of a better person to be with on such a serious face as this. The Bullock/Powell partnership works because with every pitch I throw myself at, he will address the balance with quiet control on the next. However, I sense that the icicle fest above is about to be offered over.
The pitch looks innocuous enough except for the overhanging ice at the top of the gutter. However, I’m twenty meters out with only one screw between us. I really must learn to say no. It comes naturally enough back home at work in the prison gym – why not when climbing? Out of balance, I frantically scratch and scrape, looking for any placements. I clear powder from the rock – this gives me a precarious right pick placement on a rugosity. I gingerly weight my right monopoint on a sloping edge, and release my left foot from the good ice. I shout to Powell to watch me. I hold my breath … as I match the left monopoint on the sloping edge. With both feet now in the middle of the gutter I can finally balance. I need to step up right, but there is only smooth rock and a thin blob of rotten ice. “Why do I always get into these positions?” I yell, shaking.
Looking down, I spy the screw ten meters below, and Powell another ten meters below that. Maths at school was my favourite class to miss, but the distance I can now fall comes to me in a flash: Twenty meters onto the screw, forty meters if it failed. I regret not missing more lessons.
Insecure, frantic-frenetic-footwork, fumbling and scratching. Eventually I find myself under a large cluster of icicles drooling from the exit. I place three screws into crud, one tied off, two wobbling. I now make another move up, and another. Feet kicking, lumps of crud fly, Powell dodges, I swear, an axe rips. I lurch then reverse. I try again, but fail. And then again. But again I can’t get it. “Any ideas?”
“Why don’t you aid it?”
“On what? everything is rotten.”
“Just slap a sling on your top screw to stand in, and aid it on your axes.”
The thought of aiding through rotten ice doesn’t appeal. “I don’t do aid.”
After an hour Powell realizes I’m not joking. “I thought aiding is supposed to be less strenuous than proper climbing?” I yawp between gasps.
“It is if you know what you’re doing.’ Powell replies.
As I grovel up the unconsolidated snow at the top of the overhang I vow never to scoff at aid-climbers again.
Powell starts to climb, quickly realising that the sensible option is to jug one rope. I belay him on the other, while watching television-sized blocks of ice ring constantly down the steeple of rock on the other side of the overhang. Powell comes into view – he fixes me with a long hard stare. We are, after all in deepest darkest Peru. As he reaches the belay he whispers those immortal words: “You’re a fucking nutter.” This pleases me. Obviously, he also thinks it is difficult.
Two pitches of worrying, unprotected powder-bashing place us on a knife-edge arête beneath a great tilting serac fringed with a massive mouth of sharp, icy teeth. For the first time since daylight we can see down into the valley, the place we have spent so long waiting for this chance to climb. Our tent is a dot nestled among the capillary system of streams pouring from the tumbling glaciers that spew from Yerupaja Chico, Yerupaja and Siula Grande. The dark rocky peaks of the Huayhuash extend beyond for miles.
For the last hour I have watched a storm track across the range. We go to work cutting a ledge from the snow. It won’t be long before the bad weather hits. An hour and a half of daylight remains.
The storm lashes the mountain and us with snow and hail. The wind gusts and the views disappear. Night arrives, and we are enshrouded in our vertical world. I squeeze alongside Powell, shoulder to shoulder inside his homemade bivvy bag. “I suppose we can sit it out for a day if this keeps up.” For once I don’t have to strain to hear his quietly-hissed reply:
“No need. We can climb through this.”
I think of the slopes above loaded with fresh snow, and how little it took to knock me off last year. I think of us being trapped, unable to reverse the chimney as avalanches thunder through it. “Aye, I suppose we can,” I reply, though with not quite as much determination.
Through the night the clouds pass over, and much to my relief the sky clears. As we ease the stiffness from our aching limbs, the sun comes out and so the mountain begins its morning song.
We follow six pitches of weaving and grovelling. Climbing vertical unprotected mush eats into precious time, though our moving together for a while claws a little of it back.
Moving together is a part of mountaineering that doesn’t usually worry me. In fact, most of the time I prefer it: the ground is covered quickly, and there’s no messing with belays. This face is different. The uncertainty of the ground taxes the nerves. The chances of being hit by falling debris taxes the nerves. The weather and conditions taxes the nerves. All our hard earned climbing so unfairly taxed. The simplest formalities on this mountain are serious. I watch Powell kick a stance beneath another vertical, rotten wall of despair. I force myself to get on with it.
Tunnelling through a wafer-thin cornice I crawl onto the East Ridge (first climbed by Austrians Toni Egger and Siegfried Jungmair in 1957). A panoramic vista opens in front of me: new valleys, intense blue lakes, grass, new mountains. I feel alive and relieved that the dark and foreboding face has been left behind.
Dropping down from the overhanging cornice, I traverse to belay at the side of a large ice umbrella. The sight of Jirishanca Chico tempers my joy. A growing sense of guilt begins to threaten my contentment. The Peruvian police left the area yesterday – we heard their chopper blades thudding in the early morning, mingled with the sound of crashing ice. The bodies of the two Austrians have finally been found: from where I am I can see the holes in the snow where they had lain. Had they been pushing too hard in questionable conditions, trying to get acclimatized to beat Powell and myself onto this route? Is it worth it? Is any of this worth it?
We had helped in the search for the Austrians’ bodies, leading the police through the icefall on the first attempt. The policemen were a happy bunch, just doing a job. Pointing to the southeast face, we told them that we were going to try to climb Jirishanca. They looked at us as if we were aliens beamed down from The Planet Pointless.
“You should go to the beach and meet women,” one of them said.
After the last two days, I start to think that maybe he had been right. For the first time I have witnessed the pain of loss caused for those left behind. Am I selfish to pursue a life of satisfaction for myself? Perhaps. But an existence of work, warmth, comfort, and mundane regularity simply don’t give me enough reward.
How would people view my demise if it came now? “He lived life to the limit and died doing what he loved.” I hope that’s what they would say. A cliché, I know – but true. The reward from climbing will always be worth the risk for me.
Powell traverses across to join me, disturbing my thoughts. He continues to climb the slope until beneath the wildest umbrella of ice. He fixes a belay. “You’re going to love this!” he calls. As I climb up to meet him I just know that ‘loving it’, whatever ‘it’ is, is not what I’m going to be doing.
Belayed underneath the umbrella, formed by erupting ice at the rear of the cave, Powell sits like a fly in the jaws of a Venus flytrap. At his feet is a hole, giving a direct uninterrupted view down the face. I now begin to traverse a wall of thin, corniced snow that hangs over the hole.
“Careful!” Powell yells at me quite loudly. “You haven’t seen how far that overhangs.”
I haven’t, but as I mince around the hole, to join him, it suddenly becomes obvious. “Why is nothing on this mountain normal?” I whine. “Everything has to be bigger, steeper, scarier, more rotten.” Powell ignores my moaning and sets about digging a five-star bivvy ledge. Soon, we have a pulpit overlooking a fine congregation of mountains. The night draws in, and for the first time in three days the afternoon bubble-up hasn’t resulted in a storm. “The weather looks to be settling again – just in time for our summit bid, eh? Couple of hours, maybe?”
“Hmm,” Powell whispers his reply, “still a long way to go, I reckon.”
Bastard! I thought. Why does he always have to spoil my illusions with the truth?
7 a.m. I tiptoe across the knife-edge ridge. Cross a thin bridge of icicles shining in the sun. Multi-coloured prisms of light dance as if through a stained-glass window. I am petrified. Staring at the bridge all night has freaked me out. It is so thin, and the whole face drops away so drastically beneath it. Finally on the other side of it, I whoop a yell of relief.
The climbing above continues in a vein similar to yesterday; never as hard as the first day, but sustained, uncertain and always serious. Slots are cut, crumbling rock crawled over and overhanging ice pulled through. Mid-morning finds me tackling a steep buttress head on. It isn’t until I’m in trouble that I realise that a snow slope to the right is running straight up the ridge. “There’s a fucking simple slope there!” I yell to Powell.
“Didn’t you think to check around the corner before sending me on this death pitch?”
I’m not really that angry – in the three years I have known him this is his first error of judgement. It is good to realize he is human after all. Still, throwing a little tantrum gives me a feeling of smug satisfaction.
A careful sideways shuffle to escape the buttress deposits me gratefully on the slope. Climbing it indeed proves to be easy, apart from the effort of pushing, kicking and swimming at nearly 6000-meters. There is no protection, but that is par for the course.
Powell swims to the base of a second rock buttress, to which I am now attached. The rock is a pile of crumbling corn flakes. Rusty pegs sprout from lumps of congealed mud, and rotting slings hang forlorn, blowing in the wind. The angle of the buttress looks amenable for the first few feet, but bulges higher up. I point to a line to my left. It looks more in keeping with everything we have already done, and will give us more new climbing. Powell sets off around the corner to check it out. “It looks like it’ll go,” he mumbles.
My old ears struggle. “Eh?”
“It looks OK as long as the ice isn’t rotten.”
“Oh, it’ll be desperate then.” I whisper.
The morning sun dazzles me as I belay at the base of the buttress. Around the corner Powell, squeezed into the dark confines of a typical Scottish gully, is in a different world. Chockstones, overhangs, thin rotten ice covering compact rock: it is the Ben’s Minus One Gully, only at 6000-meters. No queuing here, then.
A sustained fifty-five meters later Powell escapes the confines, pulls through an ice overhang and belays at the base of a great dollop of snow balanced on the crest of the ridge. I join him with new-found respect. It’s easy to forget the skill and determination that brings you and a close partner together in the first place.
Powell points me toward the third, vertical, unprotected death-fluting-excavation-pitch of the climb. I dig through it with surprising ease, emerging onto the steep summit ridge. With each kick in the rotten, sun-bleached snow I sing hallelujah, each step bringing us nearer to our goal.
I make a long traverse left, passing above Powell, who is hidden beneath the whipped-cream dollop twenty meters below. I now start to burrow through Simpsonesque flutings of despair. Halfway up a fluting I dig out some ice and belay. Above looks to be the final ridge leading to the summit, and below – the runnel drops dramatically for thousands of feet. I picture falling now, without a single piece of gear between us. We would hang in space over the headwall without a chance of pulling back onto the face. Powell won’t have a clue if that’s about to happen; he is tucked away out of sight and sound. I don’t fancy emulating Simpson’s Siula epic, even if it would make a good story.
Powell follows my weaving steps to join me at my confined spot. It is a tight fit hemmed by snow walls. Continuing directly up the runnel he chops through the top of the fluting and follows a steep icy slope. The afternoon bubble-up of cloud has started earlier than normal – it is now spitting with hail. Spindrift falls in great clouds, blowing across the hundreds of fringed icefalls hanging from the headwall to my left. Soon I am covered. “Come on Al, it can’t be far now.”
I’m impatient; the weather has started to concern me. I just want to be up this thing, though the thought of now getting off scares me stupid. I picture all the white shit thundering down the chimney, and before I can stop it my head starts to list climbers I knew who have been killed by falling debris. Sod that: I have Powell to get me down safe. I know he won’t take any risks getting us off.
The summit is close. Taking the gear, I quickly scurry off before the clouds come in and block the view completely. The mist clears for a second: I can see a flat ridge and a tower less than a pitch away. It has to be the summit. But what I now see scares me. The ridge looks deadly. On the right a curling cornice overhangs the northwest face, and on the left a perfect avalanche slope waits to be set off.
I belay off my rucksack buried in snow. Powell grovels back from checking the tower. Leaning close and shouting in my ear he delivers the bad news. “It’ll go with a lot of digging. There’s no gear, and getting back will be interesting. Maybe we can get down the other side?”
I didn’t like the idea of blindly forcing on in the teeth of a storm. “How about digging a ledge to bivvy and waiting for the weather to pick up? At least we’ll be able to see what we’re getting into.”
“No, we’re strung out now. And if this weather continues we could get stuck here.”
He is right. We have no food left and even less energy. Getting down is going to be exhausting enough as it is. The line has dictated we move light and fast. We have no fixed rope to slip back down in times of trouble. There is no de-stressing, relaxing and eating before our summit push. My mind flashes to the scene that would greet me on my return to work: The detox class would come into the prison gym fresh from the street, pale, rattling and drug-riddled. Taking one look at me, they would smile and wink recognizing a fellow sufferer. Little would they know the drug of my choice didn’t come wrapped in foil. If we bivvy up here now, I am going to make the worse crack addict look healthy.
All we want is to stand and rejoice on the tip of the summit, shake hands and celebrate. We have paid our taxes, but the weather is now robbing us. Battered by large snow flakes, hoping for a miracle, we stand there for half an hour. But our prayers are not answered. “We should start getting down – it’ll be better down climbing if it’s light,” announces a stoic Powell.
I don’t want to leave. Neither does he. We want the summit. It just doesn’t feel fair. Fair is for dreamers, though; fair isn’t real. Life isn’t fair. Kicking angrily, I turn, facing in toward the slope.
We begin the long scary way back down to normality, hoping we will be delivered alive.