You know that feeling were you’re kind of half asleep because you need a piss - well more half awake, as being half asleep would be OK, so no - lets say half awake. You lay there in the dark knowing you should get up and have a slash, like it’s the only way, the only way the niggling little torment will leave you, a stone in the shoe of sleep, but you don’t - you just try and ignore it, maybe imagining your body will just soak it back up. On a side note do you know that Apache indians used to make sure they woke up early by drinking loads of water…. I digress. So you lay there in the dark, and practice some strange form of delusion, when really all you need is do a little bit of action for a lot of sleep.
Well being buried in a tent is a bit like that, something that I’ve become quite good at over the years. It always starts the same way, were you think your tent is safe, your pitch a clever one, that the hissing spindrift will not build, not bulge, not crush, not break, not kill.
But then it comes; the snow, some times in the day, often at night - sometimes both, and for days on end. It hisses down, building, building, building, backing up beyond the cold damp cold fabric, first just an annoyance, just nuzzling, but then before you know it, it begins to roll onto you like a selfish fat lover.
To begin with you elbow and poke, roll back against it, fight and kick, pushing the snow away - and it relents at first. And so you sleep, but then you wake again, only this time to the mountain’s press, pressing harder, elbows and shoulders repulsed, the hiss continuing. Denial is a dangerous thing in climbing, denial of the loaded slope, the loose hold, the bad belay - but you lay still and think “the snow will stop”, and you fall asleep again. In many ways it would be a nice way to go, cuddled and squeezed by a trillion frozen stars.
And then you wake with your cold lover - your cold lovers - bloated and damp, are all around you, the tent ballooning in tight, the mountain embracing. You feel it rolling over your head, your shoulders, pinning hips, a leg - maybe your ribs, the snow, the tent, your sleeping bags and clothes, a Russian doll, and Iron Madian.
The door is at your feet.
Can I get out?
Can I even sit up?
Am I too far buried already?
Like I said, being buried alive - well not being buried alive - is what I’m good at, and I’d already been ¾ buried already this year, while in Norway. The first thing you need to do is try to stay calm, to not make things worse, not to struggle. Maybe you are already too buried to get out, but there’s no use being overly dramatic about it is there. No best not think about being trapped, to think about the air, of suffocation. The walls cannot be fought, only the beast trapped within them. You feel in your pocket for your knife, knowing that the final option would be to try and ‘cut out’ - to make a slit in the thin fabric than fight the weight of snow that would burst in, like a submariner escaping his sinking sub, hoping he’d make it to the surface before he drowned. Instead I grope for my head-torch and twist it on and feel shocked at how little space there is, just a tight intestinal squeeze. Staying calm I turn on my side and create just enough space unzip my bag and slide my body up, my boots, stove, stuff-sacks, all trapped under the roll of fabric. Like a caver in a squeeze I twist and push until I find some air, hear the hiss of the spindrift.
It as as if the tent is quickly sinking down into the earth, only inches left to go.
I find my outer boots, and with Houdini moves I get them on, leaving laces undone. Then I feel for my mitts and stuff my hands in, pulling up my hood and closing all my zippers. My head is still the wrong way in the tent, the top of the door zipper only a dozen inches clear of the snow, and I feel close to panic as I try and force and twist my body around - feeling the snow set as tight as stone around me. But again, with patience and slow breathing I twist around, opening the door a few inches to clear a gap, then force myself out - like baby born from a balloon - squeezing, struggling, snow coming down, slipping into the tent behind me, into my bag I’ve stupidly not closed.
And then I’m out, in the shower of snow, only the tip of my tent still showing, the whole landscape - a tiny Eiger ledge - transformed by 1800 metres of snow catching face above.
I zip up the door and begin to dig away with my hands, pushing the snow away, kicking, punching, clearing a space until the tent pops back into shape.
It’s 2am. I crawl back inside. Everything cold and wet. I take off my boots and mitts and get back into my wet bag, glad of it’s man made fibres, lay back again and listen to the snow build once more.
This continues for four days, in bad weather and weather that was meant to be better, a cycle of being buried, denial, then reality, digging, then repeat. I check the forecast and 0.1mm of snow feels more like a hundred times that, and days later a woman in Interlaken will tell me the weather forecast for the Eiger is the one thing the Swiss cannot subdue with anal efficiency.
On the 3rd day the weight of the snow pushes a pole through the groundsheet of the tent. On the fourth a pole snaps at the join and I use an ice screw and gaffer tape to join the two halves.
I try to climb, hoping the weather will improve, covering ground I’d climbed before, only here everything always feel new and old at the same time, every peg or bolt or strand of rope an artefact.
What scares me as much as being buried alive is the cement mixer, a huge rumble and jumble of snow that spews down the line every 10 minutes. I once tried the Harlin with Paul Ramsden in Winter, a climber I think of as a hard man. We meant to begin climbing at 2am, and at 1am a snow shower came through. When the alarm sounded I said “We should wait - they will be an avalanche’, this statement based on spending a week on the Harlin a few years previously. “You think so?” said Paul dismissively. We waited an extra half an hour, and then it came - far off at first - just a low rumble, like the start of an earthquake - the earth moving far away - the sound growing as tense as Paul’s body as the stamped approached, spewing up with weight and violence where we would have been climbing. “Lets go down” said Paul “I’m too old for this”.
But this time I stayed, fixing my rope up, two hundred metres long, my idea to span five or six pitches in one, knowing the climbing was always fast, while making belays invariably slow, sometimes having a ratio of 1/10. When Jeff Lowe talks about not taking a bolt kit on Metanoia it really was a bold move.
On my first day of actually leading I’d made it up a steep narrows, the climbing no harder than grade IV, but full of traps and Eiger funkyness, when BANG I got hit by a dump of spindrift, pressing my helmet tight to my head, filling up my clothes, holding me there - surprised I was still there, just looking at my hands, holding my tools, waiting to fall or waiting for the snow to stop. And it did, and on I climbed.
Another night of being buried.
I climbed up to the end of my rope, hauling up my kit, about 15 days food, already feeling trashed, only 600 feet up the wall. I think about Robert Steiner telling me the Harlin is too big to solo, and I think he’d right, that no one has ever soloed the whole route, just parts of it and called it done, often using old fixed ropes, never the whole thing from top to bottom. What am I thinking. But then I look down at the slopes below me, below the wall, steep at first, then less steep - but all loaded and ready to go, untouched by skis for days. Can I even retreat? The thought of waiting any longer in my damp and battered tent is too much. All climbs have a turning point, but this had been full of them, when all I wanted to do was step back, but where I told myself I could only do so if I had the guts to take just one step forward.
I reached the first band, a place I reached once more, a place where I’d imagined I be safer - but I didn’t feel the love. All I felt was the inhumanity of it. The cruelty. I thought about how much time and money I’d spent to be here. I thought out being sponsored, and that I had to perform, that last time I’d backed off I’m resigned my sponsorship for that very reason, that I never wanted that to be a reason to continue. Like a man who wants to die, who makes it known to everyone, when I came to the the leaving - I wanted to stay.
I’d made plans to be here with friends, but a rapidly disintegrating life had made look for pain instead of friendship - that walking deep into ‘fire’ always helped. Now I wished they were here, to laugh at the horror, the snow, the weather forecast. With one more person we could do it, with two we’d be invincible. But was getting up this climb ever the point?
Whatever - there was just me.
I wanted to go down. Too take my chances with the slopes. So easy with my mega ropes. 100 metre raps.
Take one more step upwards and then I’ll let you go.
Instead I turned and began down.
Leaving my rope fixed, as much in the knowledge as I could not carry it down, as well as the belief I may be back, I packed my bag and lifted it onto my shoulders, the airport scales telling me later it was 50 kilos. I started down, trying the read the slopes, different angles, blocking rocks and aiming for safe run-outs in case the slope went (where I’d only suffocate) over run-outs that led over cliffs (where I’d break bones then suffocate).
At the beginning I totally let go of any thought that I might get down, simply resigned to the now - my future timeline as short as single a careful stride.
Like tiptoeing down the spine of a sleeping dragon, the angle went from fifty, then forty, to thirty degrees, the snow up to my thighs.
In the dusk I heard the boom of an explosion, then the whoop of skiers, the sound of the train, legs punching down into old ski tracks, like some hellish purgatory.
Two hours after leaving the wall I jumped from the edge of the train tunnel and rolled down the hill within a hundred metres of the Eiger toboggan trail, my clothes soaking with sweat and melted water. I laid there and felt that incredible relief, remembered that saying that we should celebrate failures, as champagne brings its own success.
Two figures appeared down the trail, and old couple walking, looking up at me with some concern as they got close, an old couple who had probably walked this trail below the Eiger many times, walked and talked and laughed and loved each other below this dark wall devoid of love or warmth. Then I realised, for at least two hours I had not thought about her.
“Do you know the way” the man shouted up at me.
“Yes - I think I do”
A Snickers bar costs 60p. Were these words worth as much?
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Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite's El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.Follow @ Instagram