It wasn’t until 4:00 in the afternoon that the rest of our bags arrived and, when we set off for Base Camp just before midnight so that, again, no one would notice us, the Land Cruiser was full to the brim. Still, it powered its way up the muddy roads of the upper mine and, as we hid behind its pur- posely mud-smeared side and rear windows, we re- ally felt like a team of SAS commandos embarking on a ‘mission impossible’ behind enemy lines.
The subsequent trek up to Base Camp, in driving rain and total darkness, was completed with heavy backpacks, while initially holding an umbrella in one hand and a walking pole in the other. After about 20 minutes, we arrived at the Zebra Wall, but it was another half an hour before the rain eased to the point where we no longer needed umbrellas.
We reached Base Camp some three hours after setting out on foot, and it was 4:00 am by the time Martin, Chuck and I settled into our tent and fell into a much needed sleep. Five hours later, when I re-emerged into the great outdoors, the view was stunning, consisting of several beautiful turquoise lakes surrounded by huge granite walls that tow- er to the sky, including the main one that we’d be climbing, which rises more than 600 metres from its base to the summit.
Following a rest day that was well earned (due to the mental stress, rather than any physical ex- ertion), we spent Tuesday, December 6, climbing to the base of the Pyramid and practising on the lower xed lines. Certainly, the Pyramid looked impres- sive, but in no way did I think it would take us more than 10 hours to reach the top. Little did I – or any of us – know that the next day, summit day, would boast by far the worst weather that we’d experience in this habitually warm part of the world.
I led as soon as we began making our way up the steep rock wall and, although the rock was wet, it was also abrasive enough to grip onto when climbing. The ongoing rain certainly didn’t deter me from enjoying this part of the ascent, which boasted sev- eral hand and footholds yet, when we reached the ridge, things started to deteriorate. The rain turned to sleet and snow, and what had, until then, been a challenging but pleasant rock climb, quickly turned into a balancing act on a razor-sharp edge, with deep ravines on either side, conducted amid dete- riorating climatic conditions.
I secured each move and made sure of every step, knowing that any error could be fatal.
After jumaring up an extremely exposed verti- cal rock and rappelling down the other side with an increasingly ice-covered rope, Bo and I reached an inverted, overhanging wall that represented the most technically dif cult part of the climb. Again, I decided to go rst yet, in my haste to get on with it, I failed to properly adjust the length of my ju- mars’ runners. Consequently, the next thing I knew, I was hanging with both jumars – one on each rope – about three metres above an uncomfortably small ledge that also had huge drops on either side. Due to the incorrect length of the runners, I was no lon- ger able to pull myself up or lower myself down, and I struggled for a moment – much to Bo’s amuse- ment – until I nally managed to place one foot on the wall and the other on the rock just behind it, adopting a stance worthy of a top ballet dancer.
Had I been even a fraction shorter, I wouldn’t have been able to do this and raise myself just enough to release the jumars, whose teeth had dug deep into the ropes under my weight.
Fortunately, I managed it, and so I painstak- ingly installed my descender and, after removing the other jumar, gently lowered myself back down to the ledge. There, I shortened my runners while watching Bo – who was no longer laughing – clum- sily wriggle his way up the overhang. Properly ad- justing the length of the runners is crucial before jumaring – this was a cheap lesson that could have cost me a lot more.
By the time I subsequently made it to the top of the inverted wall, Bo was, surprisingly, already quite a long way ahead, which meant that he didn’t even wait at the top. This, to me, somewhat proved his inexperience. Meanwhile, since I couldn’t wait for the others who were too far back, I kept moving along the ridge, taking photos and shooting footage every time the sleet and snow subsided, and then carefully putting the cameras back into their Ziploc bags before reinserting them in my jacket’s large waterproof, zipped chest pockets. With a couple of extremely tricky and exposed sections still ahead, I secured each move and made sure of every step, knowing that any error could be fatal, especially as I was now climbing alone. Chris, Martin and Chuck looked like tiny dots of red, blue and yellow down below on the dark grey, yet now brie y sunlit face of the mountain.
This was technical climbing, the like of which I had never experienced or expected, and it took me another three hours to nally reach the sum- mit amid incessant rain, sleet and snow. Bo was al- ready there, and he asked me to take some photos of him, since his own camera was wet and no longer operational. In return, he photographed and lmed me with my ags, and then, after I’d said a prayer and left our fellow climbers a bag of beef jerky at the foot of the plaque that marks the summit, we commenced the long, dangerous descent towards the foot of the wall, some 600 metres below.
I felt a sense of relief at having renewed my accidental death insurance policy – that’s how exposed and dangerous some of the moves were.
We came across Martin, Chris and Chuck on the ridge, and I encouraged them while pointing to the summit. Then we passed Frankie, who was resting inside a small cave with a young Indonesian climb- ing companion, who looked scared and almost in a state of shock. By now, the weather was going hay- wire, with driving sleet soon making the conditions so ridiculous that I felt a sense of relief at having renewed my accidental death insurance policy on the Internet at the Ritzy Hotel in Manado. A silly thought, maybe, but that’s how exposed and dan- gerous some of the moves were. Certainly, I had scaled 8,000-metre summits and this 4,884-metre peak was one of the lowest that I had climbed, but I honestly felt more threatened here than ever be- fore. This, in turn, taught me never to underestimate anything in life, and that every task or job deserves all the respect one can give it.
A couple of times, one of my descenders slipped, due to ice building up around it, and it was only much later, when we’d left the ridge, that I began to feel less likely to have an accident. Still, the ropes were so snowy and icy that rappelling down on them made my extreme weather Gore-Tex gloves and garments soaking wet on the inside. As on Ama Dablam, I refrained from looking down at the steep sections, while convincing myself that, whether from ve metres or 500 metres, a fall is a fall. This time, however, having already experienced this type of situation, I did feel a little more secure and, after putting on my spare pair of dry gloves, I continued rappelling down the several lengths of rope to the base of the wall.
All the while, I kept checking every anchor and making sure that the rope below me was still there and in good condition. So, when Bo, who was fol- lowing right behind, kept asking me if the rope and anchors were okay, I nally joked, “What better proof do you need than me trusting them with my own life?”
Later, when we encountered a length of frayed rope near the foot of the climb, I removed my pack and took the time to x it properly, so that it would be safe for the others to rappel on. Although the conditions kept improving as we moved down the mountain, the rain never let up, yet this was like cat’s pee compared to the ongoing hell that our col- leagues were probably still contending with near the summit. We arrived at Base Camp precisely 13 hours and 19 minutes after leaving there at 1:50 am, and when the others still hadn’t shown up, after it began getting dark around 6:00 pm, I became seri- ously concerned. Then, just as I was about to walk over to Bo’s tent to discuss this, I heard Chris’s voice as she walked into camp. What a relief!
All of us had reached the summit and returned safely without incident, except for Chuck, who had slipped and opened a 10-centimetre gash below his right knee. As ever, he was in good spirits, and his and the others’ presence certainly lightened my own mood as we settled in for the night. The next day, Thursday, December 8, we left camp at 5:30 in the afternoon, hoping to glimpse the scenery before darkness fell, yet this coincided with rain starting to fall yet again and it didn’t stop the rest of the way. We reached the Zebra Wall at around 7:00 pm, and as we walked towards the Toyota Land Cruiser, we could see the CAT 797B ‘monster’ trucks going back and forth in the distance, each transporting a payload of several tonnes of precious metals.
A quick drive down to the army compound was followed by a four-hour nap before we descended the steep, narrow roads inside the mine. Again, this was done in a car with mud-smeared windows, yet we still ducked down as we passed each of the checkpoints and, 40 minutes into our journey, we also had to transfer to a new car, because of brake problems with the rst one. At that point, we were still within the mine and, after going through a couple of tunnels, we switched vehicles yet again, this time climbing into a brand new and far more comfortable Land Rover Defender 110. Now we were riding in style and, although we still encoun- tered some trucks going up and down, the drama was over.
This had been my strangest expedition to date; one on which just getting to the mountain had been more dif cult than the climb itself, and that hadn’t been easy. While ying from Tembagapura back to Soreang, I had time to re ect on where I’d been and where I was going, and that’s when I asked myself: was I out of my mind, planning to venture yet again – but this time as far as possible – into that area known as the ‘Death Zone’?