If successful, Illimani was going to be the highest mountain I had climbed, standing at 21,122 feet/6,438 meters. But, as I stood in the dark, looking at the crevasse in front of me, I was no longer certain I would make it to the summit. My goal in life, at that time, was to be a mountaineer, but I was still early in this journey and this was the first crevasse I had to cross without an ice bridge or another way around. It was not very wide and, if both sides were even, would be a long stretch of a step, nothing more. But, it was not even on both sides. Opposite that dark void in the glacier, was an ice wall about 3 feet high, leading to the slope beyond. Up until this point, the summit push that night had been long and tiring, but not technical. The air was thin at that elevation and each step was an effort. Step, step, ice axe, breath. That had been my mantra for the past few hours as we slowly trudged upwards. The route changed here, though, to a technical ascent, requiring some of the ice climbing techniques I had been practicing back on the frozen waterfalls in New York and Vermont and the glacier a few days prior during my acclimatization for this mountain. It would not take more than 2 or 3 moves to be up and over that wall. I had done much harder moves in the past and for much longer sections. But we were mountain climbing now, nearly 19,000 feet up and even the smallest moves were exhausting. I looked at the wall, shifted my gaze to the slope above the wall, then down to the dark void of the crevasse below. Slowly, I turned my head to allow my headlamp to open up the darkness between me and my guide. His smiling face shown in the glow of the dim lights. “Ready?” he asked. My first thought was “No” as I gazed down into the darkness of the crevasse. “How far down does it go?” I asked, fearing the answer would be to the center of the earth itself. “It’s not deep. You would only fall in up to your waist,” he assured, “but, you won’t fall.” I took a deep breath and, again, looked at a wall and the slope above it. It’s now or never, I thought to myself. This is what I was here for, this was why I travel and climb, for the adventure. It was up here in the mountains that I felt alive. Part of that feeling came from the thrill of coming close to the proverbial edge. In my regular life at that time, down on the flat land below these summits, there was no thrill. A desperate boredom had overtaken my daily life with a lack of fulfillment. I wanted to be anywhere but where I was when I was home, yet could not seem to untangle myself from the life that had trapped me. But, up in the mountains and on the wall of a cliff while climbing, I felt free and alive. It was up there that I could ride close to the edge. Where I could feel the rush of excitement, close to that place where you could lose it all. I could feel life all around and within me in those moments where amazement, hard work, and fear mixed. At that moment, standing in front of the crevasse, with fear getting the upper hand, I reminded myself this was what it was all about: deciding if the risk was worth it, finding the courage to overcome the fear, and trusting in myself to have the skill and strength to succeed. I tightened my hand around my ice axe then relaxed my grip, stepped towards the edge of the ice, and swung. My ice axe landed with solid purchase into the glacier wall. My heart was pounding and I had to steady my breath. In air this thin, I could not let tension and fear use up the limited oxygen available. Focus. Clear your mind. I kicked my right toe pick into the wall. I tested it and found it to be solid, so I eased my weight onto it and kicked my left toe pick into the wall. Ice axe, kick, kick, breath. In a few moments, I was up and over the wall. It was exhilarating. I was over the crevasse! Then, through the light of my headlamp, I looked at what surrounded me. The slope, which had not looked too steep from below, felt like it had moved more vertical now that I was on it. As my guide scrambled easily over the wall and settled in next to me, I realized we had only just started this climb. We were roped to each other but not to the slope. There was no room for error. No option to fall or to turn back. The only direction was up, and up we went. On and on, with pauses to suck in the thin air and let my pounding heart rest. My guide was unable to tell me how far up we would have to climb because, being a glacier, the ice was constantly moving. Where there had been a route to the more level section above us one week, there was only steep ice the next. Time passed by slowly in silence and I used all I had to keep my focus on the rhythm of the movements and not on the burn in my arms, legs, and chest. In the darkness of the night, it seemed as if we were moving into infinity, to a place without an end. Digging deep into my reserves and with the strength that comes from knowing there is no option other than to succeed, I moved on, up that slope in the night towards my dream.
I still do not know exactly how long that part of the climb took to complete, but at some point we pulled ourselves over a ledge and were standing on reasonably level ice. My guide turned to me momentarily with a huge smile on his face, just long enough to say, “You did it”, before moving on, slowly placing one crampon in front of the next.
We did eventually reach the summit. I cannot describe the feeling of standing on the top of a mountain that takes days to climb, but for me it is one of the greatest I have ever experienced. It’s what calls me back to mountain climbing over and over again, on to higher summits and more challenging climbs. Heaven and earth meet on those summits. Life below disappears and that place and moment are all that is real. The time spent there is fleeting, however, as the need to descend is pressing. Most mountain summits are climbed during the night because that is when the glacier is most stable. Summits are reached in the magic of sunrise, which makes the descent occur as the sun rises increasingly higher in the sky. So after a few inspiring moments at the summit, we turned around to retrace our steps back to high camp. Eventually, we reached the steep section and the crevasse that separated it from the last leg of the morning’s descent. After climbing down the wall and stepping back over the crevasse, I paused to look back into it, curious to see the ice close up at less than a few feet down, where it would have caught me had I fallen earlier in the night. What I saw when I looked down, though, was only darkness. A darkness that seemed to go on forever. A darkness that certainly would not have stopped me at my waist, but swallowed me whole. In surprise, I once again turned to my guide. “There is no bottom”, I said to my guide. “There is”, he said, as he peered into the crevasse, “somewhere. Would you have crossed if you had known?” And he turned around and continued down the mountain.