He woke in darkness blinking, the memory of a bad dream clinging to the furrows of his mind like a dissipating residue. As his mind adjusted to waking life, he noticed the boy. His son. Aidan.
The boy breathed softly beside him, still tussling with his unrelenting slumber. He was of that age. A plane crash would not wake him. Dave suspected the boy may be battling demons of his own, his fists clenched as they were tightly against his chin. Or was it just the cold? It must be two in the morning, Dave thought. There was no rush. The sun was sleeping over the horizon. But the sun would come up soon enough.
by Chris Kalman, Senior Contributor (This piece is an excerpt from his upcoming book, As Above, So Below. He is currently running a Kickstarter campaign for the book, until November 15th.
How are you feeling, old man? He didn’t move a muscle.
When he stirred again, it was time. He unzipped a corner of the tent door. The boy shifted against the starlight that rushed in. The glacier glowed an otherworldly white beneath them. The surface of the moon. The night air stung his face—not unpleasantly, he thought—and watered his eyes. He unzipped his sleeping bag, swung out his legs, removed the boots from the warm nook by his feet where they spent the night, put on pants over his longjohns, put on his boots, put on a fat down jacket, opened the tent door fully, and stepped outside.
The sky was lightening to a deep violet when the boy emerged. The man was smoking a cigarette, melting snow on the stove. They wore lights strapped to their heads like spelunkers. In the beam of the old man’s light, bubbles formed on the bottom of the pot, rose to the surface, and popped. When he looked up at the stars, his breath rose through the headlamp’s haze like the sublimating clouds of vapor ever sheering off the summits of these jagged pinnacles.
“How kind of you to join us,” Dave said, “I hope I didn’t disturb your beauty sleep.”
The boy groaned, and mumbled a halfhearted reply. Teenager.
They drank tea and ate oatmeal, their bodies warming within. Now and then a breeze kicked up, sending bits of ice skittering haphazardly along the hard crust of the snow. The sound was that of the feet of mice on a tile floor. Everything else was silent, and still. When the breeze came, you could feel it in your ears.
They prepared their packs for the climb. The stove and the pot, the hardware, the ropes, a single sleeping bag to share, some dehydrated meals, more oats, tea, some trail mix and energy bars for the long day. Tobacco and papers for Dave. Extra webbing and cord for the rappel anchors. They tossed crampons and ice axes into the snow, zipped the tent shut, adjusted the guy lines, and set forth into the chilly predawn glow.
The town of El Chalten had been bustling when they arrived. Dave hardly recognized it for the ramshackle collection of dilapidated houses and forlorn dirt roads he had visited decades ago. There were street lamps now. The road was paved. Painted signs and placards advertised all manner of goods and services: La Vinería, Domo Blanco, Supermercado la Tostadora Moderna, Hotel Laguna Torre, Walk Patagonia, Mountaineering Patagonia.Patagonia? This place had grocery stores, icecream shops, sightseeing tours, internet cafes, refugios, campgrounds, restaurantes, hospedajes, andferreterias. This wasn’t the Patagonia Dave recalled – this was a veritable metropolis.
“It’s changed a lot,” people told him. But he hadn’t imagined this.
Still, modernization has its advantages. Their arrival to the bustling town coincided with a week of bad weather. High winds and driving ice pummeled the serrated range. “In my day” Dave told Aidan between bites of cheese and meat-filled empanadas, “you just sat in an ice cave and waited for the wind to stop.” The boy very nearly yawned, having heard this spiel before. “We could always just go bouldering,” Aidan suggested, “I heard the bouldering is really good.” Yuck, Dave thought. Bouldering.
Dave and Aidan interspersed grocery shopping, jogs, and bouldering sessions with long vigils in front of the computer. For hours they sat glued to the screen, refreshing weather forecasts at dial up speeds, plotting out their objective. If the temperature was cold, they should try a couloir; if warm, a sunny rock face. Other climbers—from modern day Messners to anonymous dreamers—deliberated in dark corners over mugs of coffee or glasses of beer. This pair or that would look up briefly to discuss some nuance of the forecast—say, the drop in wind speed from 3-6PM on Saturday—then back down to their illumined screens. From all over the world, climbers travelled here, apparently, to talk about the wind. Their faces poked out of down coats, perpetually cast in a bluish haze.
On Wednesday, the forecast began to hint at a break. An array of windsocks and numbers showed a temporary abatement of the storm winds that had buffeted the range for weeks. Much to Aidan’s elation, it had been far too warm for ice to form up stably. That meant they would attempt a rock objective. The window of good weather was short, but adequate for a smash and grab attempt. After two days of clear skies and low winds a snowstorm would blow through, and the weather would turn south again. By then, though, they would be back in town celebrating.
Of course all the other climbers saw the same forecast and the small town came alive with the buzz of commerce and preparations. Strange looking men and women rushed around from store to store, emptying the shelves of pasta, bread, tea, tobacco and anything resembling an energy bar. They spoke in Spanish and German, in Japanese and Korean, in English accents that neither Dave nor Aidan could decipher, though it was their native tongue. The store clerks loaded bag after bag, and in the guest houses and hostels names like Exocet, Cerro Torre and Fitzroy hung in the rafters like a haze of cigarette smoke.
By nightfall, most of the climbers were gone, and the town was eerily quiet. Here and there, pairs of headlamps dotted the hillside, ascending towards the mountains like constellations in the night sky. As Dave and Aidan walked through thick forests of beech and pine, the clamor and cacophony of the busy afternoon faded into somber birdsongs, gurgling streams, and rustling leaves.
“Why don’t we try the Cassarotto like the Germans?” Aidan asked, when they paused to drink and briefly rest.
“Because, Aidan, think of the weather. It’s been so warm, and windy. The mountains will be falling apart. It would be foolish to climb beneath other parties – stones that have been there for thousands of years will be coming down the next few days.”
“Don’t you think the Germans probably know that already? It’s not stopping them.”
“Sure, the Germans know it. But the Germans are relying on luck. Or at least on being first. I wouldn’t rely on either.”
Chris Kalman has been climbing, writing, and praising the mountains this river comes from for 15 years. You can read more of Kalman’s work at his blog, Fringes Folly: www.fringesfolly.com. He is currently running a Kickstarter campaign for As Above, So Below, until November 15th.
About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle.