It’s midnight and only 50 meters remain between us and the first winter ascent of Mermoz’s East Face.
I stand shivering, listening to the sound of Ian climbing above me in the darkness, unfairly hating him for every long, cold second he takes. He’s breathing hard, struggling, shouting, both at himself and the night around him, forcing his way to the top. The sound of his struggle penetrates my balaclava, helmet, hood and skull. It is a lonely sound – the sound of a climber’s soul laid bare. I’ve heard it before.
In Patagonia, this is how it always ends.
I’m feeding ducks in the park with my daughter, telling her not to fall in the dirty water of the pond, rationing out the old stiff bread as she runs backwards and forwards from the ducks. It’s raining. I think of Patagonia.
As usual, I find myself forced to be grateful to the cold for the high pressure it brings. It is an odd, strange relationship, for even though it sucks my life away, I must embrace it, knowing the cold brings rare sanity to this unstable land. A dangerous film of ice that lets you cross the impassable river.
I stand in the kitchen, hands deep in the soapy water of washing up. My wife sits at the table behind me and talks about decorating the living room. I think of Patagonia.
The cold is indescribable.
I’ve hung from this belay since sunset, exhausted and close to hypothermia after 72 hours on this face. I can smell my body consuming its muscle – it makes me want to vomit – and I would if I had any food in my belly. Instead, I just shake, physically and mentally, waiting for the rope to come tight and yank me out of this. No more clothes to put on, fat to digest, or imminent danger to distract me from the suffering.
All I can do is close my freezing eyes and wait.
Half-awake, I stand in the dark, feeding my son his bottle. It’s 3 a.m., but it’s my turn. I think his nappy needs changing. I think of Patagonia.
At minus 25 degrees Celsius, ego, greed and desire become irrelevant, the reason to be here lost, the only incentive left, to survive. You may well ask “Why?” The very question repeats itself in my mind every second I wait.
What are my rewards? Money, fame, success?
The only answer I find worthy of the pain is that I suffer all these things in order to gain something I already have – but only by doing so am I able to see its beauty.
The rope goes tight.
I open my eyes.
I think of home.