National Geographic : 2015 Sep
66 national geographic • september 2015 T he wind slams into me, and I desperately grip my ice axes to keep from being ripped off the mountain face. I push my head against the snow, calm myself, and look down. Beneath my crampons is a 5,000-foot drop. It’s like looking down from the open door of an airplane. I am roped to my two companions, with nothing attaching us to the mountain. A fall here would send all three of us plummeting to our death. By Mark Jenkins Photographs by Cory Richards When the wind subsides, I pound an alumi- num stake into the snow and clip the rope to it. It wouldn’t hold if I were to fall but gives me enough psychological comfort to continue. I concentrate, methodically swinging my ice tools and kicking my crampons. At a rock rampart I place an anchor and belay my partners, Cory Richards and Renan Ozturk, across the chasm. “Nice lead, dude!” Cory shouts above the roar of the wind when he arrives. He climbs onward, slanting left, searching for a passage up through the granite and snow. When Renan reaches me, there is no room on my ledge, so he traverses out to his own perch. Cory carefully tiptoes the teeth of his crampons along a thin ledge above us and disappears from sight. Renan and I wait, hunched against the wind. We stomp our feet and painfully slap our gloved hands. We are too far apart to talk. We just stand there, together but alone, on the side of the snow-plastered cliff more than three miles in the sky. After a half hour we begin to freeze. After an hour we can no longer feel our fingers or toes. “I can’t take it anymore,” Renan yells through his frozen beard. “My feet are gone. I have to start moving.” We don’t know what Cory is doing above us, but we’re so cold it doesn’t matter. Renan starts climbing, then I follow. We’re all still roped to- gether, so it’s crucial that none of us fall. The rope is supposed to be secured to the mountain to catch a fall, but mortal predicaments like this happen often in mountaineering. When there are no good anchors, your partners become your anchors, physically and emotionally. You must trust your life to their judgment and ability, and they entrust their lives to yours. This is the code of the mountains. Renan and I halt in a small rock recess over- looking the north face of the mountain. Through blowing spindrift we can see Cory traversing another expanse of snow. It is too dangerous for Renan and me to keep moving. Again, we must wait. We huddle close, but we’re still freezing. The wind swirls around our bodies, howling and biting at us like invisible hyenas. “My feet are turnaround cold,” Renan says. What he means is that they’re close to frostbite. I wonder, for at least the tenth time on this expedition, whether this is the end of our quest to climb the highest peak in Myanmar—a jour- ney that has pushed us to our physical and emo- tional limits. Far below us on the mountain, our other team members are pulling for us in spirit. Our base camp manager, Taylor Rees, is at the foot of the mountain. The previous day we left Hilaree O’Neill and Emily Harrington at camp 3, a tent nested on a snowy ridgeline, where our weary team had a bitter argument over who would try for the summit.