National Geographic : 2015 Sep
Point of No Return 91 career where openness and honesty trump polite silence, even with my friends. We were all weary, light-headed from the thin air, and fearful of what lay ahead, and the con- versations over the next hours devolved into shouting, accusations, and recriminations. Eventually, Cory couldn’t stand the rancor and said Hilaree could take his place on the summit team. Renan and I were concerned but reluc- tantly agreed to the new plan. At three the next morning, as we began to rope up, with a freezing Tibetan wind howling, Hilaree made the correct decision. She said it was too cold for her, reasoning that if she had a second bout with hypothermia, she might en- danger the team. She told Cory to go instead. “Why do we do this?” Cory asks, struggling like a contortionist to put his boots on inside the tiny tent. “Really! Why?” His hands are too numb to tie the laces. “Because it’s so much fun,” Renan says drily, pressing his elbows against the snapping tent walls. After 39 days of boats and trains, snakes and leeches; after clawing up the sheer faces of Hka- kabo’s west ridge; today is summit day. We each take slugs of steaming tea until the pot’s empty, then reluctantly crawl out of the tent into the battering wind. Spindrift is whirling around us. The sun is a distant cold ball. We click on our crampons, rope up, and start climbing. Our feet and fingers are numb, but moving beats trem- bling in the tent. Our blood starts pumping, and warmth gradually returns to our cores. Together we traverse the first of a series of large rock spires. To either side, a mile below us, is an ocean of clouds. If one of us were to slip off the lance-like ridge, the only way to save his life would be for the next climber on the rope to quickly throw himself off the opposite side, both men praying in the millisecond of potential oblivion that the rope isn’t pulled taut over a knife-sharp rock and severed. This is the depth of trust required in mountain climbing. This is how you transcend yourself and bond with your climbing partners. It is the reason we climb. We gather on a little point of snow to reassess. “I’m scared,” Cory says. “I’m really [expletive] scared. I think we should turn around.” His naked honesty is strangely comforting. He’s saying what we all feel. But Renan and I aren’t ready to turn back. I lead down around a snowcapped block, up through a narrow hallway between two slabs of rock, hook along a crescent of snow, and suddenly the entire route to the summit appears before me. I am aghast. We knew we had one more deep notch in the ridge to negotiate, but I see now that it is filled with massive stone teeth, like the jawbone of a dinosaur. It would take us hours, well into the night, to climb through this wind-gnashed maw. To summit would require another night on the mountain, but this time without a tent, stove, food, or water. We would be perched on a ledge on the side of the mountain in the wind in the dark, and we would freeze to death. It is the point of no return. I realize we will not reach the top. We will not measure the height of Hkakabo Razi. We will not solve the mystery of Myanmar’s tallest moun- tain. I have been carrying a photo of Mike Moe and Keith Spencer for the entire expedition. In it, Mike and Keith are standing on a mountain wearing puffy down coats, helmets, and wide grins. I so fiercely wanted to place this picture onthesummit.Butitisnottobe.Ipawouta little hole and place the photo in the snow. I take a GPS reading at our high point, 18,841 feet, then climb slowly back along the ridge to Renan and Cory. They already know our expedition is over. All we want now is to get down alive. j See a five-minute excerpt from Down to Nothing, an award-winning film shot by expedition member Renan Ozturk and produced by Camp 4 Collective, available in the magazine’s digital editions and at ngm.com/ more. This expedition was sponsored by a grant from National Geographic’s Expeditions Council and The North Face.