Excerpt from Alpine Warriors, By Bernadette McDonald
Of all the climbers on Makalu’s South Face, Aleš understood the European standards of alpine climbing best. He knew, even back in 1972, that climbing Makalu by its normal route was not enough for Yugoslavia to break into the rarefied air of the European alpine scene. Only the South Face would do. He had seen the reaction – some of it disbelief – when his team had climbed so high in 1972. Of course, this year they would reach the summit, but he wanted to get as many climbers to the top of the face as possible.
At 11:00 a.m. the radio crackled from base camp. They could see Šrauf reach the rim of the face and Marjan arrive not long after. Šrauf heard the chatter, stood up, took off his pack and waved. The radio came alive again. Whooping and hollering, base yelled, “Marjan, show you’re better than the Parisian!” Šrauf looked at Marjan, who stared back in stunned silence. They both understood. Four years before, a French expedition had stood on this same spot after climbing Makalu’s West Pillar. One of the climbers, Jean-Paul Paris, had reached 8,300 meters without the use of bottled oxygen. These simple words were a challenge for Marjan: to better the Frenchman’s altitude record. Maybe even go for the top!
Aleš came back on the radio. “Šrauf, we were going crazy here when you reached the ridge. Now you still have seven hours you can use to get to the summit. Tell the man from Bohinj [Marjan] that he can’t let the Frenchman get the better of him. Call whenever you want to. We’ll stay on the line at all times. It would be incredible if Marjan summited without oxygen. Help him, support him, encourage him!”
The two rose from their snowy reprieve and turned to face the ridge soaring above them. The day was still. So quiet. Only soft whispers from the oxygen mask accompanied Šrauf’s footsteps. The snow was deep, sometimes almost up to his waist. He wanted to make the ascent easy for Marjan, so he slowed the pace. Even so, Marjan couldn’t keep up. Little by little, he fell behind. Aleš called again, urging Šrauf to wait for Marjan, to help him, to drag him if necessary.
Even in his hypoxic haze, Marjan now realized that the ridge seemed less steep. He could take as many as 40 steps at a time without resting. He caught up with Šrauf at the junction of the French and Japanese ridges. Slumped over his ice axe, he became aware that Šrauf was talking on the radio to base camp. Somehow, that connection brought a feeling of warmth; he had company up in this harsh environment, so high above the valley. But there was still a long way to go. How easy it would be to sit down. Stop thinking. Sleep. Then another voice spoke: Don’t give up.
When he raised his head he was alone on the ridge. A deep, snowy trail led upward. Marjan straightened his back. He lurched to his feet, his exhaustion falling away just enough for him to stand. He lifted one leg and then the other. The broken trail made it easier. But now he needed several breaths between each step. This would take forever. His goal shifted from the summit to a point just a few meters ahead. When he reached that point, he reset his goal again. In this way he crawled up the ridge of Makalu, the fifth-highest mountain on Earth.
Šrauf stopped, leaned over his axe and watched Marjan toiling up the slope at a funereal pace. Oxygen, what a precious commodity. If you don’t have enough oxygen, you are confused and weak. Reflexes are slow. Judgment is impaired. A mistake – even a small slip – would be fatal for Marjan in his state. As he came closer, Šrauf cheered him on, giving him courage. Marjan said nothing, simply took off his pack, gave the full oxygen canister to Šrauf and planted the empty one in the snow. Now his pack would be lighter. Šrauf switched on the new bottle.
Before them reared a steep rock step, the last puzzle on the route. Once again, the depth of their partnership revealed itself, for who was there to belay Šrauf if not Marjan? Who would carry the full oxygen bottle as backup for Šrauf if not Marjan? Šrauf looked at him: “Maybe he is aware of my feelings…the elder, rope-team member. I am ten years older. Or maybe he is aware of his own hidden strength…It’s very beautiful to approach the summit with a friend like this. My friend’s gasps for air are slowly calming down.” They orbited around each other, offering their strength, composure and support. Their love.
As Šrauf began climbing, the rock crumbled in his hands. Finally he was able to pound a piton into a small crack. With the tip of his ice axe he probed above for possible holds on the scaly, frost-covered granite. The frost seemed to help, making the holds slightly more reliable. His complete absorption and focus calmed him as, hold by frosty hold, he advanced upward.
Marjan leaned against a rock and belayed Šrauf. The sun caressed him, and there was a gentle breeze. The rope slid through his hands a few centimeters at a time. Without even looking, Marjan could sense the difficulties. When Šrauf reached the edge of the rock step, he secured the rope and continued toward the summit. Years later, Marjan remembered these moments. “I said to him, ‘Go on, I will wait here for you. Only one person needs to reach the summit.’ I sat down and waited.” He continued: “It got cold. I got cold! Finally I was freezing. I could have gone down, but instead, I went up.” Bone tired, he clipped into the rope and forced himself to ascend the fixed line up the wall. Forty meters later, the route to the summit opened before him. The tension eased and a horrible exhaustion overwhelmed him. He collapsed into the snow, gasping in the thin air.
Šrauf continued on above the rock step, then suddenly stopped. He couldn’t breathe. His vision clouded and his lungs raged as he fell into the snow while trying to rip off his mask. There must be a problem with it. His frantic eyes rested on the regulator. It read zero. The bottle was empty. The veins in his temples grew close to bursting, and the signature crease in his massive forehead deepened into a crevasse. Šrauf cursed. Technology had failed him. His body had failed him. God had failed him. But then he watched himself rise up from the snow and begin to walk. Through an eerie haze, the summit neared. Time is malleable, and at this moment it seemed agonizingly slow. His body was no longer being guided by reason. He was now like a robot, programmed to reach a certain point on Earth.
He kept the empty bottle with him, intent on taking the wretched thing to the top as proof. Angry now, and even more determined, he attacked the last slope. Like Marjan below him, he concentrated on a position a few meters in front of him, plunged his axe into the snow, lifted one leg, and then the other. A stranger to himself, he watched his own body, a machine-like creature, advance up the slope toward a rock just below the summit. Or perhaps it wasn’t a rock but some kind of cruel hallucination. He straightened his body and lunged for it. Yes, it was a real rock. His head pounded and the atmosphere shimmered with tiny white crystals. But it was clear enough for him to see that he was on the summit. The first Yugoslavian eight-thousand-meter summit: 4:00 pm, October 6, 1975.
Šrauf’s memories of these moments are precise: “I forget all resolution to act with dignity on the summit; forget all fear and disappointments of the giant rock face, across which we fixed four kilometers of rope; forget the heat and the rains of the trek through the foothills; I forget the days of feverish preparations for this great moment. I lie on the summit and grab at the crystals of snow around me. I want to be absolutely sure! I’m really on the summit! On the very tip of the mountain consecrated to the great goddess Kali!”
He swiveled around and looked back down the ridge. Could that be a human figure? He watched someone moving up from behind the sunlit curve. It was not a hallucination. His friend and partner had climbed across the rock pinnacle and was advancing toward him. Šrauf screamed with joy. To reach this summit with no oxygen! Could it be possible?
Marjan stopped and looked up. “I watch Šrauf as the dream of his life is coming true. He is shouting and whooping on the summit, he is ecstatic. I force myself to get up and go on. I slowly follow in Šrauf’s footsteps. By now the mind, which thinks of nothing else but the summit that has to be reached, is the sole one left in command. The body has given up long ago. Every few meters I sit in the snow and gasp for air. Šrauf is calling me. A few more steps.”
Marjan reached the summit 45 minutes after Šrauf. They hugged. For Marjan there was no exhilaration, joy or feeling of triumph. He was simply relieved that he no longer had to climb upward. Šrauf turned on his radio and started screaming, “Summit! Summit! Summit!”
Alpine Warriors ($30.00) is published by Rocky Mountain Books and is available from online retailers, your local bookstore, or direct from the publisher at rmbooks.com.
Bernadette McDonald is the author of eight books on mountaineering and mountain culture. She has received numerous mountain writing awards, including Italy’s ITAS Prize (2010), and is a two-time winner of India’s Kekoo Naoroji Award for mountain literature (2008 and 2009). In 2011 Bernadette’s book Freedom Climbers won the Grand Prize at the Banff Mountain Book Festival (Canada), the Boardman Tasker Prize (UK) and the American Alpine Club’s H. Adams Carter Literary Award.