Rain on the Tent
The Fall Alpine catalog just came out – or will be out soon – and has a theme of near-misses. Those climbs where we gave all we had but came up short. Anybody who’s thrown themselves to the alpine knows the story, and in the catalog we share some of those specific tales. I wrote the intro essay (inside cover), about mine and Josh Wharton’s 2006 failed attempt at the unclimbed north ridge of Shingu Charpa, Pakistan.
I love the theme of failure, and not just because it’s my specialty in life, but because I’ve always admired those unwilling to succumb to irrational fear, willing to try their hardest, willing to try and to fail by fair means, and willing to straight-up admit what they did without rationalizing.
It’s a disingenuous cliché, a justification seemingly present after every summit-less climb, that coming home itself defines success. Sure, OK, maybe at some point, but extend the thinking and you’d never leave the couch to begin with. Likewise, defining success merely by the summit oversimplifies everything, because you could get there with a helicopter. Somewhere in between we have route names lavishing self-congratulations for leaving the ground and stopping wherever the climbers got shut down. It goes like this: We could have done it, or, We retreated from the end of the difficulties, or, It was too hard/dangerous/whatever and so we retreated, followed by the obligatory: We reached our personal summit and named our route Steel Balls. Arg.
I suppose that the rationalizations remain unimportant. Maybe trying hard and returning with that feeling somewhere between emptiness and spaciousness is what we’re after – yes, I think that’s ultimately it. Whether “success” or “failure.”
Granted, success feels better than failure, but they’re both important, no?
[Josh Wharton in the Nangma Valley, Pakistan. Photo: Kelly Cordes]
So, here’s a different story on that attempt I wrote about for the intro essay – I drafted this soon after the trip, when memories of the love-hate relationship that defines big trips still lingered. It’s a little surly for the catalog and not as good (yes, aren’t you lucky that I post such drivel). Call it the B-roll – maybe appropriate for a “near misses” theme, anyway.
That’s it, I’m done. So done. No more, I tell myself one-third of the way up an obscure spire high in the Pakistani Karakoram. I don’t care that we just got here, we’re going home. I’ll sit on my couch, watch TV, clip bolts and get a real job.
Another involuntary coughing fit overwhelms me and I hack another gnarly chunk laced with blood, weight the rope and gasp for air.
OK, maybe not a real job, but back home I’m piercing my ears, growing a fu-man-chu and getting a sports car.
Done. I mean it this time.
We blew it. No, I blew it by getting sick at 15,000 feet on our first attempt. Pathetic.
Now I sit in the rain, having wasted a week of perfect weather, coughing up a lung and trying to recover. The self-doubt creeps-in and I try not to think of home. What am I doing here, anyway? Maybe I am too old for this stuff – god, I hate it when people say that, it’s such a cop-out, as if aging equals a death sentence.
Don’t be so hard on yourself, dude. You know the saying: You can rest when you’re 37.
Shit. The little voice started in. Such a twisted form of motivation, but it won’t shut up and so it rambles in my head, on and on, on and on...
Aw, c’mon, you know I’m a reeeally supportive partner – I wear Birkenstocks and speak more softly than you do. You’re doing the best that you can. Really.
Train hard and be mentally strong, I’ve always figured, and things like age become speed bumps, not excuses. Right. So, what’s my problem?
Maybe it’s the mentally strong bit, eh Chief?
No. No excuses, I’m just over it. Age 37, still living like a semi-vagrant, enough already. I don’t need this, I don’t.
Fine then, quit your whining and just quit. You’re never gonna climb this thing anyway, so what. You’ve failed at more important things in life.
More rain falls. Why does it have to be climbing? It’s pointless. There must be other things rewarding in life. I could be happy doing other stuff.
Totally. Maybe yoga camp for your next trip, or one of those jeep safaris. Actually, I’ve seen your version of yoga – jeep safari would be best for you.
The self-taunting continues, unstoppable and getting old. OK, I could still climb, but just quit this expedition festering and climb a helluva lot more back home. Comfy climbing on good rock, think of the sweet road trips….
In your sports car, right, Ace?
Another day passes, more rain. I shouldn’t even be here.
Absolutely. You should be in front of the TV. You know it’s best to have no goals whatsoever, that way you’ll never be disappointed if you don’t reach them.
I love my sleeping bag. The rain keeps falling, but I don’t care. Two days left and we start heading home. No more shivering under a space blanket, spooning with Josh on a rock ledge. We got a short break in the weather and made a run for it, climbing forty-five pitches of hard, low-quality choss and flared cracks. And yet we failed, retreating from an icy sub-summit, not the true top, in dangerous conditions on day three. No excuses. We tried.
Fatigue so overwhelms me that my fused spine no longer hurts but my fingertips kill, my hands are swollen and I can’t sleep. I lie still in my sleeping bag and turn off my music. All I hear now is the rain, pattering off the walls of my tent.
[Top, right: Josh Wharton following pitch 36. Photo: Kelly Cordes. Above, left: Kelly Cordes on pitch 40. Photo: Josh Wharton. Right: Festering in the rain for several weeks in the Nangma Valley. Photo: Kelly Cordes.]