I had two choices: up or down. Staying here in a bivouac with my limited gear was out of the question. I had only been here a very short time, but I was already getting cold and needed to move again. This could be the chance of a lifetime, and it needed 100 percent commitment. I was optimistic and rational at the same time, which was decisive. Such undertakings do not allow emotions. The only thing that works is to rationally focus on your actions. As soon as you allow your emotions to get in the way, you lose your nerve. And for one stricken by panic in this hostile environment, each step could be the last.
I started giving myself orders. I told myself that it was too early to give up. From earlier solo climbs I had found it useful to give myself commands. This let me believe that I was not making decisions for myself but for somebody else. I looked at myself from the outside and observed myself climbing. This person did the right thing, just like I told him to do.
So, up we go! The break had not been long. I left the tent and started out very slowly. Moving—plus the hot water bottle in my pocket—brought warmth back into my body. I had left everything at the bivouac: backpack, tent, and stove. I was only carrying the cord, which I had tied around my back, my water bottle, and a few bars of chocolate. I would climb as high as possible and would then descend to Camp 1. I allowed myself that freedom and did not put myself under pressure. This was my usual approach. When I felt that it was time to turn around, I did, no matter for what reason.
I was completely detached from the world below. There was nothing but climbing. No goal, no future, no past. I was climbing in the here and now. One swing of the ice axe after the other, one step after the other. I saw only my ice axes and how they penetrated the snow and ice. My view narrowed. There I was in the middle of this gigantic face with very limited equipment. I felt light but also extremely exposed. I knew that the tiniest mistake would mean certain death. However, I was not scared about making a mistake. I was still giving myself orders. I was controlling the person climbing the South Face of Annapurna. It was not me. If this person fell, it would not really be me.
The uninterrupted line of ice and snow crossing the rock band in combination with the light of my headlamp made it possible for me to find the way in the dark. I liked climbing at night. It made me concentrate. Only the next step counted. It could be the last, but I did not mind. I was not worried about route ending or about not being able to climb the next section. I was living for the moment, and right now everything was fine: Conditions were perfect. Rock and ice were covered in hard snow, just like on the Eiger North Face in perfect winter conditions. Whenever possible, I switched off my headlamp to save battery power, although it should have had enough charge to last the whole night. I knew cold temperatures can sap battery power in no time.
I was climbing pretty far to the right. The lower part had a few steep, icy sections, but it was not hard blue ice. The ice was covered in a sheet of hard snow, and wherever the ice was uncovered it did not chip. I used my one-hit approach, aimed at hitting each axe blow just once, precisely. This increased my speed but required total concentration. As I pulled I had to consciously avoid moving the axe since the tip of the blade sometimes did not sink very deeply into the ice.
It was ideal terrain for a solo climb. As long as I could continue like this, I would be extremely efficient. At 7000 meters the air starts getting thin. This is where the so-called death zone begins, but one can still move around quite freely. I felt light and agile. I didn’t have a backpack and wore light clothing. Only the cold bothered me. I was worried about my hands.
The rock next to the ice was well structured. For a short section just below the snow band, the ice line got pretty narrow and steep—about 85 degrees. It was classic alpine ice climbing terrain, just like in Chamonix. The ice section ended just below vertical rock. Here I was able to move onto a small ramp on the right, where the ice line was even narrower but not too steep at about 70 degrees. I put my right crampon on a rocky ledge in order to move my center of gravity. I then moved my left ice axe to the right and found myself again in a perpendicular position. From here the ice track widened again slowly. The ice was smoother and more compact than lower down, where it was a lot more corroded, like hard snow.
This story above is an excerpt from Ueli Steck: My Life in Climbing, a memoir by the late Swiss alpinist, published by Mountaineers Books as a part of its Legends and Lore Series.
Also, make sure to check out the next print issue of Rock and Ice, which will feature Stephane Benoist’s epic on Annapurna’s South Face, which he and Yannick Graziani had shortly after Steck’s climb.
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