Ski Patrol: When The Slopes Take You Down, They Provide A Lift.
Struggling to scale one of the most fearsome peaks of the Alps, travel writer Jon Krauker's worries begin to wear on him.
As the day wore on, I could feel my nerves beginning to unravel. At one point, while leading over crusty, crumbly vertical ice on the Ice Hose, I suddenly became overwhelmed by the fact that the only things preventing me from flying off into space were two thin steel picks sunk half an inch into a medium that resembled the inside of my freezer when it needs to be defrosted. I looked down at the ground more than three thousand feet below and felt dizzy, as if I were about to faint. I had to close my eyes and take a dozen deep breaths before I could resume climbing.
One 165-foot pitch past the Ice Hose brought us to the bottom of the Second Ice Field, a point slightly more than halfway up the wall. Above, the first protected place to spend the night would be the Death Bivouac, the ledge where Max Sedlmayer and Karl Mehringer had expired in a storm during the first attempt on the Nordwand in 1935. Despite its grim name, the Death Bivouac is probably the safest and most comfortable bivouac site on the face. To get to it, however, we still had to make an eighteen-hundred-foot rising traverse across the Second Ice Field, and then ascend several hundred devious feet more to the top of a buttress called the Flatiron.
It was 1 p.m. We had climbed only about fourteen hundred feet in the eight hours since we'd left our bivouac.
Critically injured during his ascent in the Peruvian Andes, Joe Simpson fell again and dangled by a rope over a deep crevasse, his weight threatening to drag his partner, Simon Yates after him. Having no other choice, Simon cut the rope, sending Joe falling to the abyss below. Eerily, Simon had seen a similar fate befall a pair of Japanese climbers just a few years prior.
When they reached the summit headwall, Simon had seen the leading Japanese climber fall outward and backward, arms outstretched in surprise. The awesome 2,500-foot plunge, visible through breaks in the cloud, was framed behind him. To his horror, he had then seen the falling leader jerk and twist and, without a sound, pull his partner into the void. Their belay piton had torn free. The two men plunged down, roped together, helpless.
They stood quietly on the small rock ledge in the gathering storm trying to absorb the enormity of what had just taken place so close to them. There was nothing they could do for the two men, who would never have survived the fall, and the quickest way to get news to the rescue services would be over the summit and down into Italy.
As they resumed the climb they were shocked to hear a ghastly screaming from far below—the chilling sounds of someone in agony, desperately alone and terrified. Looking down, they saw the two climbers sliding down the upper ice field at ever-increasing speed six hundred feet below them.
They were still roped together, and various scattered items of gear and their rucksacks tumbled alongside them. All Simon could do was to stare helplessly at the two tiny figures racing down the ice. Then they were gone: disappearing over the lip of the ice field, falling out of view into the horrendous drop to the glacier.