The Two-Year Mountain

By Phil Deutschle

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Bebeep, bebeep… My watch alarm sounds from the side-wall pocket. At 3.30 a.m., it’s cold and dark. Wind shakes the tent, but it’s not strong enough to worry about. I light the stove in the vestibule and it goes to work warming the tent and melting the snow that I collected last night. As the temperature rises, so does my activity: stuffing odds and ends into my pack, eating granola with warm milk, melting more snow to carry on the ascent, pulling on my thick socks, and finally lacing up my boots. All this takes one and a quarter hours and I’m soon moving up the glacier…

I plunge my ice axe into the slope and lean forward for a short rest. I’m already halfway to the col. I’ve opted for the route up the right side and it’s been a good choice. So far I’ve met only step-over crevasses. My plan is to traverse to the center of the glacier just below the section of ice blocks.
I continue up and step over another crevasse. I dismiss the ever-present danger of falling into a crevasse that’s concealed by snow. The climbing is pleasant. The surface of the glacier is firm and my crampons bite securely with each step. I encounter only small patches of hard ice. A few small clouds hang over the Chikim La and the wind has stopped.

Suddenly I see a movement and I jerk my head up. An ice block the size of two railroad cars slowly topples over. It picks up speed and the sound comes a moment later—a deep groan and crunch, like a train crash in slow motion. The falling ice creates its own wind and a cloud of snow billows up.
I’m directly below the avalanche, but where should I go? I have the crazy notion that I can dodge whatever comes my way—like dodging a tidal wave? The falling ice consumes everything in its path.
As I realize the hopelessness of my situation, the entire avalanche begins to sink, plunging into a chasm just above my proposed traverse. Ice missiles the size of footballs whizz by, but only the smallest pieces hit me. The glacier shakes and grumbles as the ice drops into its bowels. I’m awed and intimidated.

With nowhere to go but up, I continue climbing. Just below the scene of the avalanche is a ramp leading to the left, toward the center of the glacier. It gives me some tense moments. I move swiftly along a line of ice blocks and I stop to rest when I’m above the ice fall.
From the top of the col, I look down on the Gyubanare Glacier and across to Tibet 4 miles distant. The east summit of Kangchung looms 1,500 feet above. The face is steep and featureless, so I contour around the col towards the north ridge. The pointed summit looks broken at the very top and I’m unenthusiastic about making another nearly complete climb, like the ascent of Island Peak. The north ridge is steeper than I had expected, and I’m soon stopped by a crevasse. I traverse to the right, climbing far across the face before I can skirt around it. Instead of returning to the ridge, I proceed straight up, using the inside points of my crampons and the pick of my ice axe. The angle is severe, and I feel very exposed.

Another crevasse divides the face. It’s bottomless and its sides taper in a deep, cold blue. Because of the steep slope, the crevasse’s near edge forms an acute angle and its far edge is almost directly above. I could balance on the near edge, step over the crevasse, and continue on the face above. But if I slip, the game is over. I decide to traverse around this one too. I hold the lip of the crevasse like a guard rail, and keeping my right hand on the axe, I confidently begin. After two steps, I FALL!! My body pendulums across the ice and my feet swing through the air. Suddenly I’m hanging by my arms, one hand holding the lip of ice and the other hand clutching the axe. I kick in my front points and pull myself up. I regain my footing, but not my confidence. I had slipped. Slipped? I stand motionless for five minutes, pondering the steep ice and my near fall to oblivion. Reluctantly I start down.

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