Sipping wine on the porch of the San Sebastian, and seldom have I been more content. Or sore. Beat up is an understatement. “Dropped off a cliff in a metal barrel full of frozen bricks and angry ferrets” hits a little closer to the mark. Let’s see. 19,000 feet. 12 hours of climbing and trekking, most of it in heavy glacier boots, kicking into the ice with crampons, dragging myself up sheer icy walls with iceaxe, wheezing in the thin air.
The best analogy I can come up with for high alpine climbing is being part of an old fashioned prison chain gang. Roped in to two other people by the belt, pounding relentlessly at the ground with a pointed apparatus, trudging along against gravity and fate. You know that feeling you get sometimes when you stand up suddenly after having sat too long – where the world gets all woozy and you feel lightheaded? That’s was a constant state for me above 5500 meters or so – and I blacked out not once or twice or thrice but 4 times from oxygen deprivation before reaching the summit. Luckily I wasn’t rappelling or climbing an ice wall at any of those times.
On the plus side (there is one!) the mountain was beautiful. We started our ascent at 2AM, crossing massive boulder fields and moraine walls.
We were halfway up when the first rays of orange light were just touching the mountains.
Massive ice caves yawned around us, their frozen teeth bared.
A mist of snowy powder danced and curled from the summit like a djinn, fracturing the rising sun into a prismatic haze as we approached.
We summitted around 9 o’clock, with clouds already moving in fast. I set up a timelapse and caught the last of the awesome vista before they closed on us like a white vice.
Going down, we were lost in impenetrable white. Suddenly the ice was harder, the going slipperier. We had to rappel down several icy cliffs along the way.
A seeming eternity later, we were off the ice and into the boulders again. We made camp that afternoon around 3.
Tomorrow, 12 hour drive to the coast, where I’ll be filming the massive irrigation projects bringing water from the mountains to grow asparagus in the coastal deserts. From my conversations with Cesar earlier today, it’s clear that the watershed is being depleted – less water flows every year. The extent to which this has been caused by human drainage of the water vs. shifting climate patterns is not well studied, but I’d hazard that “both” isn’t far from the mark, with a healthy dose of the former blaming it entirely on the latter.
So I may be out for a few more days. Until then, don’t forget your sunblock. My crispy nose will testify.