The Narrow Margin

// September 6th, 2017 // Climbing, Events, Leadership, Reflections

Eric stemming and Erik Shimmying the great chimney

Eric stemming and Erik Shimmying the great chimney (Photo: Marco Bergamo)

Not every climb forces me to take inventory and reflect on my faith and the things that are most dear in my life, but the climb I just returned from in the Swiss Alps has done just that.  The Alps?  They seem so serene, so tamed, so first world with fine wine, good meals, huts and yodeling.  The Alps are not where I would expect to narrowly miss a catastrophe.

As a climber my bookshelves are full of climbing guide books describing routes in the most beautiful mountain ranges all over the planet.  The lines inside describe everything from short and sweet local climbs to the most intense, arduous, physically demanding and extreme expeditions imaginable.  The stories behind a number of the first ascents are of heroism, exploration, bravery and tragedy.  The names behind them: heroes of the sport much like Babe Ruth is to baseball, these names are to climbing.  One such name is Riccardo Cassin.  Cassin is a name that is branded not only on outdoor equipment, but on great mountains in great ranges around the world.  He was a very prolific and strong climber and when trying to repeat one of his routes you know you are in for an adventure.

The Piz Badile is known as one of the great summits of the alps and prominently displays one of the alp’s six great north faces.  It shares this title with it’s more famous counterparts the Matterhorn, Eiger, Dru, Grand Jorasse, and Cime Grande di Lavaredo, a veritable who’s who of mountains.  Mountaineers dream of climbing these faces and put their years of training, expertise, and fitness to the test when attempting one of them – even in this modern age they still present a massive challenge that most never take on.  I took it on at the invite of my blind friend Erik Weihenmayer.  We have climbed around the world together for the last twenty years, and have even stood upon the summit of Everest together.  This would be yet another great challenge for a blind athlete, as well as for one that can see just fine.  Erik told me before we left that he had hurt the tendon in his ring finger and that “fingers are a critical part of climbing.”  I replied “last I checked so was eyesight!  Why should a finger stop us?”

Erik broiling his way up the Cassin route

Erik brailing his way up the Cassin route

Training complete, finger taped, gear packed, we headed to Switzerland to meet guide and friend Marco Bergamo and then climb the Cassin route on the Piz Badile (pronounced Bah-deal-eh – or as Siri says “Piz Big Deal”).  This 3,000 foot granite wall is about 22-27 pitches depending on the length of rope used, and goes at a difficulty of 5.10a.  This rating means that portions of the climb would be overhanging, holds would be small, and with a twenty pound pack it would stretch my abilities pretty good especially since I would be holding on to things longer, and looking behind me to help my friend as he would “braille” his way up the climb.  Marco came over from the Dolomites where he had climbed with Erik before.  We would use Marco’s speed and strength as our asset in setting the rope.  This would enable me to climb just a few moves above Erik so that together we could move up over the difficulties and communicate our way through the crux moves.  It was on one such traversing move that I could not see well enough to let Erik know where the hidden hold was.  Eight hundred feet above the glacier and valley floor I gasped as I saw Erik’s foot slip off the tiny edge where it had momentarily found purchase.  As if in slow motion, I saw my friend take flight out into space, twenty feet down and twenty feet over he fell, slamming into the wall below with a thud and a grunt with just 8.5mm of cord holding his 185 pounds from hitting the deck way below.  The gear we use is solid, but on a big mountain falling is to be avoided.  It was still early on the climb and the hardest parts were yet to come.  I wondered if we could pull this off, if maybe his finger was the problem, or if maybe it was me and poor communication.  Full of adrenaline masking the pain of a possible broken rib, Erik climbed back up and continued the climb.  I paid closer attention as we moved up cracks jamming hands and toes inside, over smooth faces standing on edges the width of a dime at times, and then into chimneys requiring us to sacrifice our bodies to shimmy up and to stem out wide into the splits, one foot on each wall thousands of feet above the floor – breathtaking.

Breathless and tired we emerged on the knife ridge thinking the difficulties were over, but with the cold wind and intricate terrain we still had two hours to go of navigating what I would describe as a dragon’s back, with three thousand feet of air on either side.  Exciting doesn’t begin to describe the feeling, especially with the nerves that rattle me knowing I am responsible for Erik’s well being and nearly every step he takes.  Thanks to Marco’s efficient leadership and skill we arrived at the summit in thirteen hours.  We awoke from our bivouac on a ledge below the face at 4:00 a.m. that morning.  Having shared an ultralight sleeping bag with Erik to save weight, (he assured me the soft squishy thing was his camelback, not his belly as we spooned for warmth) but not shivers, we set off to start the climb at 5:00 a.m. and were soon passed by fast moving, unroped Euros, who had the benefit of eyesight and headlamps.  Now 6:00 p.m. we were tired and hunkered down inside a tin tuff-shed atop the summit.  We had done it!  Success!  We had achieved the dream – such a sweet feeling of accomplishment, teamwork, trust and perseverance.

With faith, as with perseverance, the story is never really ever quite finished.  Keep your eyes open and keep on pressing on.  We had a long arduous descent ahead of us upon which when we began the mountain next to us collapsed.  Piz Cengalo (chain-ga-low) calved off 4 million cubic meters of granite – the equivalent of about 500,000 dump truck loads.  This caused a massive landslide of rock, mud and debris to run the length of the valley, decimate the trail and small mountain road used for access, destroy homes, bridges, and bury the small mountain town of Bondo Switzerland.  One hundred people had been evacuated from town prior to the destruction, eight climbers/hikers were missing and our rental car, with our passports, was now cut off, but thankfully not destroyed.

A climber ascends the north ridge as the landslide begins

A climber ascends the north ridge as the landslide begins (Photo: Guy Mevellec)

Our celebration of the climb quickly turned to feelings of shock and sorrow, my prayers of thanks turned to prayers for help for these people as I now began to see the miracles around me.  Many different decisions and scenarios could have put us in the path of this destruction, but the one we followed kept us safe.  Marco’s new truck remains trapped indefinitely at the trailhead with the road wiped out below it.  An escort by the fire chief allowed me to recuperate our car and passports, drive through the narrow path cleared of debris, pick up Erik and Marco, and pass the Italian border just before another slide once again closed the road behind us.  We were all thankful for the prayers of those at home.  As soon as our wheels hit the tarmac here at home, Harvey unloaded on the city of Houston and my knees again hit the floor as prayers were sent heavenward.  The success of the climb seemed to lack any importance or relevance at all with these tragic events wreaking havoc around us, but I guess what doesn’t change is the fact that if it doesn’t kill us it makes us stronger, more is demanded of us and our faith, we help each other out, we pitch in, we don’t give up, we carry on, we persevere and we pray.  Making it or missing it, the margin in life is narrow regardless of what we do and where we live, it is important to take hold of those we love, those we call friends, shoot even strangers and let them know they are loved – let’em know it and don’t be afraid to show it.

Driving through the debris

Driving through the debris

In Bondo and in Houston I have seen people climbing higher, not just to escape the flood, but heroes emerge showing their true mettle.  That, after all, is what climbing higher is – shining through in character in the midst of adversity.

Keep climbing higher!

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