Decision in the Dark

Two o’clock in the morning is a time unknown to sensible people. Those who do know it can be counted on three fingers: the profane, the pious, and possibly, the summiteer. The nine men who walk out of High Camp belong to at least one of these three groups already. Before the day is over, regardless of outcome, they will likely belong to one more.

Mapping the journey – “It’s a round trip. Getting to the summit is optional, getting down is mandatory.” –Ed Viesturs in “No Shortcuts To The Top: Climbing the World’s 14 Highest Peaks”.

Our immediate task is to mount the ice cap of Ağrı Dağı. The mess tent is pitched at 13,643 feet, more than two and a half vertical miles above the face of the sea. Almost half of the total mass of the atmosphere rests below our feet. The ice begins in earnest another half mile directly overhead. Getting to it, however, will be the most challenging segment of the climb. The grade is unrelenting. The loose scree is constant. The air is thin. The cold is biting. And, of course, all this must be accomplished in the dark. It is, after all, two o’clock in the morning. We must get on–and off–the summit before the heat of the rising sun turns the elements against us.

Celîl knows the path. It is a remarkable feat, I muse, given how difficult it would be to follow this route even in broad daylight. Steel posts rise every now and then. I catch one in the glare of my lamp. It spears the mountain at an awkward angle. Apart from these wayposts, my eyes can discern nothing else that resembles a trail. We churn against a traceless face of gravel, boulders, and patches of snow. The effort is exhausting. It reduces my entire existence to a simple duty: focus on the back of the man in front of me. Do not let him outclimb the reach of my lamp. He, I trust, is focused on the back of the man in front of him. It is a odd train in an odd place, a caravan of the blind. We are utterly and completely in Celîl’s hands. As for our leader, he is in his metronomic mode, slow and steady. Thank God he is is alert to the elusive path ahead and sensitive to the aging legs behind. Up, up, up, we step.

At times, the trekking poles (shortened for ascent) are essential. I push forward with my legs and arms like an insect. At other times, the poles are an encumbrance. I clear a jutting ridge by clawing the rocks directly with gloved hands. The poles follow by tether.

The fogginess in my head from the evening develops into a dull ache. Some feelings of nausea also rise. I try not to think of these and instead focus on the man in front of me. I am a magnet moved by silent and unseen forces. Apart from the incessant wind, the only noises to be heard are the regular tik . . . tik . . . tik of trekking poles against rock, the occasional sliding of boots in gravel, and the heavy breathing of my partners.

A focused view.

Wilkerson struggles mightily. He climbs. He rests. He climbs. He rests. With each rest, the gap between him and the climber in front of him grows. The depletion of his body over the last two days cannot be overcome by the strongest of hearts. Somewhere above 15,000 feet we stop for a conference. Wilkerson is done. Uraz will escort him back down to High Camp. Before Uraz takes his leave, however, he examines us one by one. Our breath hangs in his headlamp. He lingers before me, seemingly sensing my exhaustion.

“If anyone else wants to come down, now is the time.”

I wonder if his announcement is meant for me or for the whole group?

I flashback to a conversation from the day before.

Leaning on my stool in High Camp, I asked Uraz if he thought we would make it to the summit.

He did not answer immediately. He knew this night would be a mighty struggle. He also knew that apart from Tanner, the legs of this crew were not young.

The words that followed were wise, originating from a place beyond his years.

“This is not about making the summit. It is about experiencing the mountain.”

His words hit me broadside. In my inexperience, I had never contemplated any other option. It was a lifeline, a rescue from the tyranny of self-imposed goals.

Now, standing in the glow of his headlamp at 15,000 feet, I chew the option afresh. It is a moment of decision.

Complicating it, though, is another unspoken fact. If any one of us turns back now with Uraz, the group can continue. If any one of us falters higher up, the whole group will be forced to abort the attempt. Celîl will not leave anyone alone to wait on the mountain. Neither will he send a climber down unaccompanied. The group must go up or go down together. All of this swirls like snow in my dulled head.

The words are out of my mouth before my brain can protest,  “I’m good.”

Uraz grins.

“I’ll see you after your summit.”

He slaps me on the back. Then he and Wilkerson melt away. I am left gripping my own irrationality, Uraz’s declaration, and two trekking poles. I smile weakly, but there is no one to see it. It is dark.