Published in Alpinist, No. 6, Spring 2004.
This was a short piece I wrote for an excellent and detailed special feature on Thalay Sagar in Alpinist. It was originally titled, "The Antipodean Route," but here I've changed the title to "Going to the North Face." The feature was written by John Thackray and included great pieces from the major players on Thalay Sagar over the years.
Thalay Sagar was an often violent climbing experience for Athol Whimp and me: cold bones, nausea, constant storm. We had to meet this intensity with our own output of aggression and momentum, and only then did I sense a fleeting equilibrium with the mountain.
Others had begun painting a picture on this shadowed, gunmetal wall before us. Two of them, Kitty Calhoun and Jay Smith, had inspired us during our first attempt in 1996. The route we did in 1997 was the obvious line, but also a stroke Kitty and others had imagined.
We spent seven days on the north face, climbing capsule style to 6550 meters, where we left the portaledge and continued to the top. We lived on charred instinct. Willing to confront ourselves and what lay ahead, we were left constantly battered and repaired the holes as we went. Darkness hit us on the summit. The sun looked like a bleary, bloodshot eye as it went down between showers of snow.
To me, the idea of a north face can seem abstract. On Thalay, Athol and I shared the clear sense that it is simply the most beautiful, seductive aspect of this mountain. The most important part of our ascent was the microcosm of our experience: the elastic, fibrous, animal bond that held us together and propelled us forward. Words like “notorious shale band” and “north face” might have built a reputation around Thalay Sagar, but to us they seemed cosmetic and irrelevant to the purity of the face and the climbing that potentially lay on it.
Athol and I are the closest of friends, and are fortunate enough to share similar, or even the same, ideas about climbing. As we hung from various anchors during storms, Athol always exuded a surplus of deep-seated stamina, born from years of climbing and before that years of SAS (Special Air Service – the elite special forces of Great Britain, New Zealand and Australia) and Oman Reconnaissance Force desert patrols. The seemingly endless hours of shared agony we endured during incessant spindrift avalanches helped me to understand what we were doing as a deep form of love, something we were creating together. Thus the loneliness of our predicament was vanquished, as was the inner-loneliness that had, in part, sent me to Thalay.
In this mountain endeavor we used our hands and feet, legs and arms, hearts and bones. They are rugged tools, knocked and beaten by years of climbing, and on Thalay they were often worked to within moments of self-destruction. Yet even though our bodies were willing to give everything, it can be difficult to truly let them do so. My time on Thalay taught me to see more deeply that the mental constraints we place upon ourselves can be purely arbitrary. The more I peeled away these mental constraints (fear, cold, ice and rockfall, detachment from the ground, etc.), the more I understood my connection to the mountain and my desire to be there.
We received the 1998 Piolet d’Or for our ascent, something we didn’t expect or covet. Although I am proud, it is genuine freedom that will always remain most elusive and intangible, and for which I truly long. For reasons I have yet to understand, freedom seems to exist on the very fine edge of leaving this world, and it is this that arouses simultaneous sadness, frustration, and boundless joy within me.