Small chunks of ice fell from the glacier above; I could not see Justin. He was somewhere at the upper end of the rope I was holding, over the ledge, climbing higher. The wind picked up as the morning sun rose over the southern tip of the Andes Mountains. Cold found its way to my toes and fingers.
Damn, I wish Chad was here with us right now, I thought to myself. Chad had planned to climb with Justin and me, but had gotten sick and stayed in the hotel in Puerto Natales. The idea of coming to Patagonia in the winter was Chad’s. He and I had climbed several peaks in North America together, but this was our first trip to South America. It was Chad who said we should bring along a third. Patagonia was remote; if one of us got injured on the climb, we would need another’s help to get off the mountain. But Chad was sick. Probably in a nice warm bathroom, worshipping at the porcelain throne.
I had never climbed with Justin before. We met in a climber’s chat room, just two months ago. Justin was a few years younger than Chad and me, athletic, and enthusiastic. He seemed to have the right climbing credentials under his belt: Mount Rainier, El Capitan, Red River Gorge, and the North Face of Athabasca. We needed someone like him who could do big rock, alpine, and ice. Justin also had some money and offered to help bankroll our trip.
More chunks of ice fell past my perch on a small ice shelf, and on to the valley floor, 500 meters below. Yesterday, Justin and I had climbed up the rock face and spent the night in a portaledge hanging tent just below our current position. Today we were making our way up an icy couloir. When Chad got sick last week, I suggested that we cancel our plans. “The mountain will be here next year,” I said. But Justin was confident that he and I could do it, just the two of us. Chad didn’t seem to care, which was unusual for him. He was ever the careful one, always had contingency plans, and never took unnecessary risks. Fever and dehydration must have clouded his judgment. Now, I wished Justin, and I had never started the climb alone.
A block of ice the size of a suitcase slid off the ledge above; my belay went slack, Justin came tumbling down the ice face. Bolts holding the rope to the ice wall pulled out one-by-one, as he continued to fall. Finally, the line became taut, and Justin came to rest, hanging from his harness, just ten meters to my left.
“Shit,” Justin said, as a cloud of ice crystals swirled around him.
“My arm’s busted.”
“Justin, stay calm.” I tied off the belay rope to a solid anchor on the ice shelf.
Three-hundred meters of air separated Justin from the rocks below. He held the rope above him with his left hand while his right arm dangled oddly to his side. What would Chad do?
“Justin, stay calm,” I said again, not knowing what else to say.
“Don’t leave me, Allen,” Justin said.
“I’m not. Lemme figure this out for a sec.”
A gust of wind picked up Justin and pulled him out away from the ice face only to slam him back down against his limp arm. More small chunks of ice came cascading off the ledge above and covered Justin in white flakes.
“Look here.” I flung a length of rope at him. It sailed out over the cliff below, failing to reach him.
“Dammit, I’m trying.” Again, I heaved the nylon climbing rope toward Justin, but it came up short. He was too far, the wind too high, and the rope was too heavy, laden with water and ice.
“Stay there,” I said.
“Where the fuck you think I’m going?”
I buried my ice ax into the wall above me and inched over, using the tips of my crampons to purchase a small foot-hold. I screwed in another ice bolt as far to the left as I could reach and clipped myself in. I repeated this maneuver three times until I was close enough to pitch the rope to Justin. Back on the ice shelf, I pulled Justin to me. His right forearm seemed to bend freely to any angle.
If one of us gets injured, we would need three to get us off the mountain, Chad’s words kept biting me. Now, what was I going to do? I was five-hundred meters up a rock and ice wall, by myself with an injured climbing partner I barely knew.
“What the fuck happened up there?” I asked.
“I don’t know, Allen,” Justin said. “I had good anchors. Just making my way around some rock when I guess I just lost my grip, man.”
The ice anchors should have held his fall. I started to believe that Justin didn’t have the climbing experience he had advertised before the trip.
The short winter day was quickly coming to an end. I hauled up our hanging bags of gear from the ropes below and set about getting the portaledge tent anchored to the rock face above us. I was able to get Justin into the shelter and the rest of our climbing gear secure before the sun set below a distant white-blue mountain range to the west.
“Sorry, Allen,” Justin said as I finally climbed into the tent.
“Damn,” I said. “Let me just think before you go apologizing and all.”
“I’m not sure . . .”
“Shut up,” I said, “I want to think right now.”
The wind picked up, and the fabric overhead began to flutter violently. I salvaged an aluminum support rod from Justin’s pack and tied it to the outside of his flail arm to provide some stability. The fracture had not broken the skin, and he seemed to have color and sensation in his hand.
Cold jets of air found their way around zippers and grommets in our shell. It was going to be a long cold night. My headlight cast eerie shadows and glow around our four-by-eight-foot platform as I pulled out some energy bars and powdered sports drinks for dinner. Neither of us said anything for the rest of the evening.
Dammit, Chad. Dammit, Justin. Dammit. Dammit. Dammit. I lay awake, perched on the side of a mountain, 500 meters above the valley floor, 3000 miles from home, in the dead of winter, without my climbing partner Chad. Justin had no use of his right arm and, therefore, could not help in climbing off the mountain. I could get down by myself and leave Justin, I thought. Could I lower him one pitch at a time? There were 300 meters of air between our portaledge and the snowy boulders below. The trailhead was 200 meters further down the scree slope. Damn it, Justin.
My head was still spinning with scenarios, plans, calculations, possibilities, and prayers when the first light in the east outlined the mountain’s silhouette. I had not slept more than a few minutes at a time, while dreams and reality fused together in a jumbled mass of conflict.
“Justin, you awake?” I asked when he shifted position on the platform.
“How’s your arm feeling?” I asked.
“Hurts, man. But I’m okay,” Justin said. “How are we getting down?”
“I dunno, yet,” I said. Shit.
The wind died down as the sun peeked over the horizon, splashing the tent in bright orange. I opened the fly and saw blue skies and the shimmering of rock and ice—a good day for a climb or self-rescue.
“I think I should climb down by myself—”
“Today and then come back later for you,” I said.
“No, don’t do that to me,” Justin said. “I can’t stay here.”
“No, listen, I think I can get down and back to Natales by morning. I’ll get Chad or someone and come back for you,” I said.
“Come on, man, you’ve got to try. At least try,” Justin said, his voice spiked with fear.
“I can’t get you off this Goddamn mountain by myself.”
Despite the sun rising in the sky, the temperature was dropping. A cold front had moved in a few days earlier than forecasted. Justin and I had planned to be off the mountain before the weather changed. I was sure hypothermia was on Justin’s mind. If he were left alone, nobody would know when he slipped from sleep to cold death.
“Allen, we gotta try getting down together,” Justin said. “We gotta try.”
“Fine, we’ll just fucking flap our fucking wings and fly home,” I said. “How the hell do you think I am going to be able to lower you down?” I asked. “Doesn’t your little brain remember that we are sitting on the side of a 300-meter cliff?”
“Don’t leave me here.” Justin pleaded.
“Okay, we’ll try,” I said. He could not handle being left alone.
I started to gather the gear we would need to climb down, only the necessary stuff. We had enough rope and anchors to rappel down in stages. I would drop down one rope length, secure myself, lower Justin down to me, then repeat. Baring no mistakes, we might be able to do it. There was no room for error; any mishap could be fatal. Damn it, Chad. Why did you not stop me from climbing alone with Justin?
I entered the warm hotel lobby alone. Big pine logs supported a highly pitched roof. The walls were covered with yellow pine planks, stained with brown sap that seemed to ooze from dark knots, like little tears on judgemental eyes; all were looking at me. Every wall was looking. Every knot could see, could know what I had done. I found Chad wrapped in a red wool blanket, sitting by the fireplace in a rustic rocking chair made from bent willow branches. He looked up at my approach. The fire’s heat burned the raw skin on my face.
“Chad,” I said. “I tried.”