Breathing rapidly, I try to get more air into my lungs. I look like a fish on dry land. I’m just wordlessly opening my mouth struggling for the last bits of oxygen left in the air. It is a nasty feeling, getting slowly suffocated. More so when it is voluntary.
Why am I doing this? I know that I’ll be lacking oxygen for the next few hours, and that the difficult parts are still ahead. Things will get worse for sure. What drives me up here? Is it mere foolishness? Have I already forgot all my previous experiences of suffering? Am I a masochist? Perhaps. But it is also because of my immense passion for going further, higher.
It is a constant push-and-pull, but such sacrifices often lead me to the most transformative experiences.
And those, in turn can become a source of inspiration for others.
When I was leaving for my second expedition of the year to Peru, I felt a certain deficit. My body was ready to go, but my mind was tired. It was not a surprise. I hadn’t had a chance to take a proper break this season. I was giving lectures, went skiing in the Alps for a while, went rock climbing in sunny Thailand, and so on. During spring, I spent six months on an expedition in Nepal. I never stopped moving, and it was getting tiring. I barely had a chance to take a breather.
True, I had traveled more in previous years. But this time I had a proper dilemma. Two magnets were pulling me in opposite directions, threatening to rip me apart. I could have stayed at home and spent the warm summer days climbing, but the winter in the southern hemisphere was calling. Long day or short? Hot summer or freezing winter? Rest or suffering?
Finally, I decided to keep my promise to my climbing friends. So here I was, boarding a plane on my way to South America…
Step by step, I slowly climb up the slope. My mind is full of the images from the last few days. Landing in Lima, breathing in the local atmosphere, marveling at the beauty of nature and meeting friendly locals. Then acclimatization on some of the surrounding peaks and a growing anticipation for our main objective
My crampons screech as they bite into the frozen firn. As the temperature falls even lower, the screeching grows louder and louder. It seems as if the virtuoso Stradivari is slowly tightening the frozen strings of a fiddle.
I take a brief look at today’s goal higher up on Huandoy Norte (6,360 meters). The place where we aim to bivouac today lies as the very foot of the wall and it doesn’t look particularly luxurious. It is a hostile spot in the middle of a broken glacier—sort of an icefall—which somebody charmed into a momentary halt.
I share the silence with my climbing partner, Radoslav “Radek” Groh, who walks a few steps ahead. Only god knows what he’s thinking about right now. We finally decide to pitch the tent just below a cascade of crevasses that provide us with at least some protection against possible rockfall or avalanches, and settle in for a long night.
We had been deciding between several different objectives, and the current conditions finally led us to choose the eastern face of Huandoy Norte. We spotted a line that splits the middle of the face, from the glacier all the way to the summit. A beautiful and natural line that we simply could not resist.
I spent the last few days before the ascent observing the daily rhythm of the mountain, focusing on the parts that were crucial for our route. I noticed that some sections were constantly getting showered by whizzing ice and rock bullets. Obviously, we would have to avoid these shrapnel to get to the top and survive. The daily regimen of sun and wind that wakes up the mountain and puts it to sleep was no less important to note.
I observed all this with a high-end telephoto lens from the terrace of a Refugio Peru. The lens was so powerful that it seemed I could zoom in on the face of the moon to see if there were any fleas up there. The refuge itself is located right below the majestic amphitheater of the three summits of Huandoy and Pisco. It’s a great strategic spot with amazing views.
But that was a few days ago. Now the man behind the telephoto lens, watching and filming us, is Tomáš “Galas” Galásek. He’s my old friend, a talented filmmaker, and a personal paparazzi, who followed me on many of my previous expeditions.
Right now, he has one major advantage over Radek and I. When Galas starts feeling cold or bored he can simply go indoors, have a beer and a warm shower, and go to sleep on his bunk. (I hope it doesn’t get too boring, though, because we need to come back from this world’s end with a film!)
Despite all his comfort, I’ve found out that I’m actually not jealous of him. He’s the first to see what’s happening to us. I imagine that it’s not so easy to feel calm and detached when he can see us, through the lens, hanging up there on the rock face. He has to face the same drama and worries as we do, whether he wants to or not.
As the dawn comes, we start climbing. I still feel a bit stiff, but the effort of climbing soon warms me up. The wall gradually gets more vertical, the snowfields steeper. The firn snow turns into ice mixed with large rock steps.
After two hours of simul climbing we stop at a 150-meter rock barrier. I belay Radek as he launches into this first real challenge. This rock face is an obligatory ticket we need to punch for entry to the next 1,000 meters. There’s no way around it: we can either climb through it and continue, or retreat back to the valley.
The climbing itself, though, is not the major problem here. The whole place is like some monstrous shooting gallery. I try to climb as quickly as possible to minimize the risk of getting hit by one of the stones of various sizes and shapes sent down by the mountain. I always make my way to the next overhang, where the roofs provide at least some shelter from the never-ending shower.
I feel like a breathless snail, the height and the terror pressing hard on my lungs, stealing the last oxygen left in the air from me. Why am I doing this?
Alas, no time to consider that now. I simply have to forget about the rockfall and my burning lungs and focus just on being precise and executing the moves. It takes enough effort to hold on to the rock, so I must accept my fate and do what I can, hoping the rocks will spare me. I try to remember what the deal was that I made with the almighty—and if it still still stands.
This stressful, rockfall-riddled section takes us several bitter hours. Finally, we make it past and can continue. It would be too dangerous to retreat via the way we just came: Our only option is to continue climbing up.
The next challenge: a long traverse of another icefield, which at its top left corner contains some mixed terrain. The mixed part looks sort of like a letter “S” and starts with a tricky rock step followed by a narrow corner. From where we stand, we can see that the corner is well-stocked for our attempt with massive columns of loose ice that look like majestic organ pipes. It is clear that this is the next riddle of Huandoy that we will have to solve.
Normally, I would just sink my ice tool in as deep as possible. But this is more like frost than ice. The rock does not offer many holds either. And protection? Let’s not even talk about that. I manage to place some here and there, but more as mental pieces, which I try to convince myself will hold so that I can pretend I’m not soloing. In that moment, the rope is more of a fashion statement than anything else.
Fortunately, the sun slowly starts to set and the frost creeps in, freezing all movement on the wall. Finally a rest from those annoying flying stones. However, now we have to start thinking about a place for our next bivouac.
We’re now on the upper third of the face, and I already know that we cannot make it to the ridge before dark comes. The prospect of spending the night on some tiny ledge like two sailors lost at sea doesn’t seem so appealing. I hope that a miracle will happen, that we will find some nice comfortable place to spend the night further ahead. No such luck. Knowing there’s nothing else we can do now. I tell Radek, “We have to bivouac here.”
Our smiles are literally frozen to our faces. We manage to find two ledges, each as big as the seat of a chair, situated two meters apart. What a luxury! A private seat with such a great view for each of us. It requires a bit of imagination to see these ledges as our beds for the night, but it could be worse…
Now we only have to focus on building proper belay points and to crawl into our sleeping bags with a hot cup of tea before the cold starts leeching into us. Somehow, we manage to bumble through the comic sketch—unpacking, unrolling, boiling, making sure not to drop essentials—on the ledge quite quickly. A few moments later, each of us is already huddled in a warm bag breathing cool air through our nostrils.
We watch a play of light in the theater of the setting sun. It’s a never-ending show of bloody reds and crimsons. I’ve never seen such a sunset before. In the mountains, the sun usually sets behind the horizon and leaving a heavy darkness in its wake. Not here, though. Even minutes after the burning sun has sunk below the horizon, the mountains remain on fire. Rocks, ice, sky… it’s all burning.
This unique spectacle can happen only in the Cordillera Blanca, which is situated close to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. This mountain range resembles a huge wall built right at the edge of the ocean.
The lights faded, it is time to sleep. I’ve found that the first few minutes of sleeping in a bivouac are the best. You are absolutely fatigued after the ascent. Later, cold wakes you up. The ground under you suddenly feels firmer than before, your bottom goes numb, your legs start tingling, and your back hurts more than if you had been carrying bags full of sand for the past month. There’s no escaping from such discomfort. I’m tied to the rock by the rope so I cannot move too much and below my feet there is a huge precipice with a 1,000-meter drop all the way to the glacier.
Finally dawn comes. I look over at Radek who starts to boil water. Then he screams. Somehow, he has poured half of the water right into one of the shoes hanging by his side. As if that’s not a bad enough way to start the morning, a moment later a mysterious hand of some sort loosens a block of icy snow hanging high above us. It crashes into a rock a few meters above our heads and splits into smaller pieces. One piece hits me in my back, knocking the wind out of me. It is a friendly reminder that we should start as soon as possible, otherwise we could end up like two pancakes smashed on the face.
Another 300 meters of altitude lie between us and the summit ridge of the mountain. The climbing gets easier from here on out. There’s just one section with mixed climbing, and then basically just steep firn with the occasional ice passage. Nothing should stop us now.
Three hours later, we make our way through the last snowy part that looks like a draped skirt when viewed from the valley below. Below us, we can see the whole breadth of the wall and the surrounding mountains with their tops covered in cake-like frosting and cotton-candy puffs. Twenty minutes later, just before noon, we stand smiling at the summit of Huandoy.
What follows is six hours of descent and never-ending rappels. We arrive back at Refugio Peru and greet our friends after 55 hours on the go.
And so the story ends. We made the first ascent of a new route, which leads through the center of the eastern face of Huandoy Norte and bears the name BOYS 1970.
It is dedicated to a group of Czech climbers who died in a massive avalanche during an earthquake at the foot of Huascaran in 1970. Their dream faded together with their lives before anybody could even realize what was happening. A few minutes later another 70,000 lives in the valley were lost.
This accident reminds us about fickleness of our lives. Some might be lucky without any apparent reason while others can lose it all in a second or two despite all their efforts.
Let’s think about them for a while now.