National Geographic : 2013 Sep
94 national geographic • september 2013 what we came for, a chance to complete a first ascent in this otherworldly frontier. But we’ve already had a taste of the katabatic winds on flat ground. What would happen if they return while we’re up on the wall? Libecki, naturally, wants to start climbing immediately. Our strategy is for Richards, Libecki, and me to fix ropes to a bivouac on a ledge about two-thirds of the way up, while Ladzinski pho- tographs us from below. But the wind fights us at every stage, and it takes us two weeks just to reach the ledge. Our new home is a perch the size of a farm- er’s porch, 1,200 feet off the ground. One eve- ning at dinner Richards tosses a few stones off the edge. They tumble through space for 20 long seconds before hitting the surface with a crackle of dust, having never touched the wall. “Who’s taking low bunk tonight?” he asks, joking. Our portaledge shelter, a cross between a tent and a cot attached to the wall, holds only two, so someone must spend the night outside, with just a sleeping bag for protection from the elements. The flattest piece of real estate is a nook inches from the void. I sigh and volunteer. For the next three days we make steady prog- ress, fixing ropes up the spire and returning to the ledge each night. But we know how exposed we are here if the howling winds return. In a decade of climbing I’ve never lost a tent to a storm. On this trip we’ve lost three: two buried in snow and the third flipped upside down as I lay inside. Libecki pulled me from my tattered shelter after hearing my call for help. He was laughing as he did so. Now, with time running out, Libecki asks for our attention as he chews his dinner ration of cheese. “You know, my grandmother told me Below the empty horizon the team crunches over blue glacial ice that may be thousands of years old. “It was like walking on a frozen ocean,” says photographer Cory Richards. the time is now,” he says. “I got that from her. We used to ask, ‘Grandma Bertha, what time is it?’ And she’d always say, ‘ The time is now, goddamn it!’” With any luck, he says, we could reach the summit soon. The next morning it’s my turn to lead. As I ascend the rope to where we left off, the over- hanging rock leaves me dangling 1,600 feet off the ground. Libecki belays me, prepared to hold the rope fast should I fall. Searching for the best holds with my gloved fingers, I make my first tentative moves on the vertical rock face. To reach the top I must cross the most exposed section of the entire pillar. “Watch me—this is getting weird,” I call down to Libecki, as I reach for a more promising line of cracks. A sudden downdraft surges past me, tugging the rope between us. If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that a sudden burst of katabatics can strike at any time, even on the nicest days. I swallow my doubts and let the crack lead me over a bulge and across an improbable slab, higher into the sky. The very top of the slender spire we would later name Bertha’s Tower is a mushroom rock the size of a coffee table. I stand on its head and see, far below, the tiny yellow speck of my tent. In the other direction the Fortresses blaze blood-red in the evening light. The sky above is overcast, the air unexpectedly still. Everything in this wilderness—the glaciers, the towers, the distances in between—has proved a far greater challenge than we expected. Yet the four of us have faced it alone. The wind can take you prisoner, I think, or it can set you free. I turn around once more and savor the silence. j i’ve never lost a tent to a storm. On this trip we’ve lost three: two buried in snow and the third flipped upside down as i lay inside. Libecki pulled me from my tattered shelter.