Q & A
Editor's Note: The following story was excerpted from Extreme Alpinism, by Mark Twight and James Martin, (Mountaineers Books, Seattle, 1999). For a full question-and-answer session with Twight, click here I Was Wrong
As I unzipped my fly and added my biological waste to the rest that had been left on the summit of Mont Blanc, I felt the shame come over me. I had climbed the Aiguille du Midi's North Face, the East Face of Mont Blanc du Tacul, then Mont Maudit and Mont Blanc's "normal routes" in less than 20 hours. But my sense of athletic and spiritual achievement was deadened by having used the cable car to approach the mountains, by letting vanity and my quest for recognition and approval inspire an otherwise illogical "enchainment."
I hadn't done it for me, not 100% anyway and obviously, since I was having second thoughts, the whole thing had not been difficult enough to wipe away my doubts and introspective tendencies. Visibility extended for about 50 miles and I turned slowly, my vacant gaze pausing in Switzerland, then Italy, and finally France. I could almost see the bus stop 12,685' below me. It was where I wanted to be because that bus would take me home.
After another five weeks of rest and training I set out again. Leaving the village of Le Tour on foot during the night of February 6th, I hiked to the Aiguille du Chardonnet and climbed its North Face. The climbing was easy and the weather winter-perfect. Descending the South Face of the mountain placed me at the base of the Swiss Route on Les Courtes. The 3000' high "wall" stood between me and my objective for the day. I started up.
Evil, black ice conditions turned what could have been an enjoyable romp into an ugly brawl where I fought for every placement and nothing felt as secure as I would have liked. I'd left the headweights for my ice tools at home to save a crucial eight ounces, but paid the caloric price of at least two extra swings for every placement. "Stupid fool". But it was no surprise to me; I can sabotage myself better than anybody else. I spent just over three hours on the route, as long as it had taken me back in 1984, and that pissed me off because I thought I'd progressed as a climber over the years.
The descent went smoothly once I'd downclimbed an initial arete of brittle blue ice. It was the edge of the world, with the end of the world a miscalculated step away. But I laughed the frightened tension away as I relaxed into the wet snow and a 2000' bumslide down the rest of the South Face. Trevor and Tanya Peterson skied up to meet me at the Couvercle Refuge where they fed me soup and sandwiches. One cup of their Côtes du Rhone sent me into unconsciousness. I weighed myself down with heavy wool blankets and slept the sleep of the penitent.
I finished my food and water. After tightening down all the compression straps, my empty pack felt like nothing more than an envelope. I charged up into the gully and kept going until I was done. A Zen trance began at about 180 beats per minute, and I held my pulse there for the next two and a half hours. I said nothing to the other teams as I passed them, just nodded and moved on. On top, I waded up the "cattle trough", through the skiers headed towards the Vallée Blanche, and into the restaurant in the cable car station. Sunburned and hollowed out, I felt like a zoo exhibit as I sipped my beer, listening to the whispers of the non-climbing tourists.
I spent the night on a concrete floor above the furnace room it's the warmest place in the cable car station. My wife brought me up some pasta, cheese sandwiches and moral support. But despite all the comfort, I slept badly and dreamed that something would go wrong. Normally I listen to the voices and rhythms inside me and obey them without question. I believe religiously in my own predilection for success or failure on any given day, and if I don't feel 100% "on", I do not go. But that day I disobeyed the muse. I wanted to traverse the entire Mont Blanc Massif, I'd done half of it and figured it was too much of an investment to walk away from. I laced up my boots and started jogging across the perfectly frozen Vallée Blanche.
I traversed beneath it, searching for another option. Curiosity got the better of me, though, and I reversed my ice tool to hit the 600 pound chunk of snow with my hammer. I tapped lightly, saw the movement and heard the cosmic voice say, "Got you sucker." And the block fell.
When it broke apart on the 40° slope I was under it and I tumbled a hundred feet with the debris. The first thing I thought as I swam and leaped out of it was that I'd lost my hat, but that paled beside the paralyzing fear of more serious injury and not being able to breathe. Mowed down by Lyle Alzado. My jaw was dislocated and the ice tool had gone through my cheek. There was blood everywhere, staining the snow a vitamin-rich red. I wedged two fingers behind my lower teeth and yanked my jaw forward. The pain was unbearable. When I came to I was lying in the snow. I walked my fingers up the right side of my chest and when I got to the squishy section I figured I'd broken some ribs. At least none were sticking through the skin. Completely high on adrenaline, I tore at my pack, digging for the walkie talkie. When I realized that it had been broken in the fall, that the hospital was more than a helicopter ride away, I hung my head and started limping back the way I came.
As I staggered up the arete back to the cable car station the crowds of skiers parted before me. I felt like Mohammed. My yellow pullover was saturated with blood and people wanted to get as far away from me as they could. Bernard Prudhomme, president of the Chamonix Guides Bureau said, "It looks as though you've had a very fine adventure Mark." I had no words with which to answer. They didn't charge me for the ride down and as I walked along the Rue Paccard on my way to the hospital I heard the screech of tires. Marile Walch called out demanding to know what had happened. As we raced down the one way streets, I told her the story and asked her to call my wife. In the Emergency Room I waited over an hour for treatment. I didn't care because I knew things weren't going to get any worse.
In the treatment room the doctors all sat around joking. They were climbers and relished stitching me up rather than consoling all the skiers who'd skied into rocks or sprained their knees that day. We talked about conditions, one of them had climbed the North Face of Les Droites the week before. They thought the weather would hold for awhile, but not long enough for me to recover and go out again. I was pronounced cut, bruised, broken and very, very lucky. Nothing too serious though. Dr Cadot figured I'd be able to laugh within a week and climb again after six "If you want to, that is."
But to admit the truth, after having broken all my own rules, the same rules that had kept me alive through a lot of years of dangerous climbs, I didn't know if I was ready for more climbing. What I really needed was a long, hot bath.
Mark Twight, Author
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