Overwhelming. Breathtaking. Magnificent. Dumbfounding. Yes, some experiences and moments leave you bereft of speech – which is particularly powerful when it strikes a person who usually relishes transforming said experiences into words. Yet here I stand, and the words fail me. I try to speak, try to capture on video the immensity of the moment, and I can’t. The magnitude, and the intensity of the emotion is such that there is no room for words or voice. And so, after days of fighting and battling to overcome the myriad of obstacles, to withstand the rollercoaster of emotions, to persevere through the weakness; today I give in. I turn the camera off, smile, wipe my eyes and slowly turn 360 degrees as I take it all in. Lingering over the views of the lakes and the mine, noticing how very tiny is the tent in the valley, contemplating how high we stand and how expansive the land around us is, I embrace the feelings of relief, exaltation, and triumph. And finally, as the tears fall, my voice returns as a heartfelt laugh and woohoo! of delight. I’m here. Through all my self-doubt, all my fear, all the difficulty and despair…I’m here. ……………………………………………………….
At 2am, the weather check was a bit disheartening – we couldn’t see the stars, meaning cloud cover and the worry of snow. But it was quiet and calm, the wind of the previous day seeming to have blown itself out. There was a peace to the night that felt like a good omen, despite my tossing and turning and the elusiveness of sleep. Shortly before 4 am, we were up and moving. Having already dressed in summit base- and 2nd-layers the evening before (following my luxurious wet-wipe bath), getting dressed went quickly. Gear was mostly packed, so I just had to collect outerwear, lace up my boots (YAY! no rubber boots, we can enjoy proper footwear for the day) and turn on my head lamp as we trudge out of camp. The night is cold, but calm and still. The path leads steeply up to the rock wall, we walk slowly and breathe quickly as we approach the clip-in point, the only sound in the night the crunch of the ground beneath our boots and our own labored breathing. Two lone climbers in the dark. I’m trying to film with my action-camera, testing it out for higher up on the rocks and it keeps turning itself off. What am I doing wrong? Oh well, just walk – figure it out later.
It’s a relief to arrive at the bottom of the climb, even as my stomach clenches together, envisioning the cliffs above and the traverse along the top. This is what I’ve been fearing for so many months – even years. Can I do it? Or will the fear of heights see me get so close and fail? The questions swirl in my mind as I dig out my harness, helmet, and climbing gear. And then I hear behind me, “oh shit!” Startled, I twirl around to see Lauren looking forlorn as he examines the contents of his pack. He notices me watching and announces, “I forgot my helmet.”
During the wait, I figured out why my action cam kept shutting down. It apparently didn’t charge correctly – I must have bumped the charging cables in the night – and the battery is dead. All the effort of bringing it here with me, and it’s useless. Disappointing, but aside from a bit of annoyance I’m beyond getting too worked up over it. I remove the camera chest harness and camera itself, deposit it off to the side and make a mental note to collect it again on the descent. Lauren’s headlamp beam bobs up and down, swivels around as he returns up the slope; it didn’t take long, he was really hustling and although my wait is a bit cold, I’m glad to be the one resting instead of rushing along, getting tired before the climb. We clip into the ropes with our ascenders, Lauren gives me an inquisitive look and I confirm, “let’s go.”
The first pitch is formidable. It’s a large outcropping that has to be maneuvered around to the right and up a completely vertical wall. I keep looking at my ascender (only one attachment to secure me?), then clip in an extra carabiner just because, take a couple deep breaths and haul myself up a few meters. Okay, that’s fine – now around and up the front of the cliff, keep going – a few more meters behind and under me. But it’s dark, difficult to find handholds around the curve of the outcropping, and as I feel the expanse of open air beneath me increase, I also begin to feel panic creeping in. Another deep breath. Then I hear from above, “Jaimi, just use the ascender as your handhold! You don’t need the rock!” What? I look at the device in front of me again. Put all my weight on this one thing, attached to one rope, as I hang along the rock face? Deep breath again, and then I release my death grip on the stone and focus on the ascender. It holds. I slide it upward, shift my feet upwards and find new foot holds, push up with my legs and pull on the ascender. It holds again. Hmmmmph. Pretty cool little piece of equipment.
Above that first outcropping, the angle of the slope declines and we move quickly forward and upward. It is wonderful to feel rock under my feet – no mud, no water, no slippery logs or grass, but good old ROCK, just like I’m used to from a multitude of climbing day in the Alps. I fall into a rhythm: slide ascender, step once, step twice, push up and then slide the ascender forward again. It’s easy. I mean, it’s physically demanding to climb upwards in the thin air, but the technicality of the climbing is easy. With the ascender, the need to study the rock and find all the right holds vanishes. I’m pretty sure this is not how Harrer did it when he first summited Carstensz in 1962. Or how Messner did it when he summitted in 1971. I feel a bit annoyed at all the fixed ropes, turning this – the most technically difficult of the 7 Summits – into a tourist climb. Okay, granted, I’m exaggerating and overreacting a bit; but how can it be, that this enormous, daunting challenge I’ve been fearing for years suddenly feels easy? Is it a result of all the climbing training throughout the summer? Or is it just a facet of familiarity: being on rock – known terrain again – after all the days of slogging through mud and stumbling through the jungle? Or is it really much easier than I’d anticipated, having allowed my mental image to swell in difficulty during all the daydreams, imaginings and preparation? I almost chastise myself: such typical human behavior, when faced with the unknown to focus on the negative, to speculate the worst, to create a perceived reality that is so much more fraught with danger than actual reality. After all my years in executive roles, I’m a pro at change management and coaching others through exactly this dynamic – yet here in the outdoor world, I seem to have fallen into that same trap. And then I laugh. I’m going to make it! And I’m having fun. Yes, I am absolutely loving it!
The sun rises behind us as we climb, and we take an early morning break when we hit the high terrace connecting two sections of the climb. Sitting on a rock, now warm in the sun and with the exertion, I start shedding layers while I survey the traverse far above – the cables spanning the 20 meter gap in the rock, which we’ll navigate across – are visible against the blue sky. A shiver runs through my whole body, and I’m a bit embarrassed at the unconscious wiggly movement. I look away from the challenges above and instead focus on how good I’m feeling right now, with most of the world already below me.
Now for the hard part – navigating the ridge, which includes the famous traverse and two other “notches,” to arrive at the summit. I can see it ahead and still slightly above us: it’s within reach! Not easy reach, but we’ve already come so far, so quickly today, and the momentum propels me forward. Time and weather are on our side, we’re going to make it.
We set off along the ridge, which falls straight down for hundreds of meters right next to my feet at many points. Normally this would freak me out in a major way; today I’m riding the adrenaline, the achievement and focusing on the summit. I even manage to take some photos looking straight down (which of course don’t turn out – you can’t decipher the depth difference to see that it’s vertical rather than horizontal rock). Then we arrive at the traverse. I’ve done things like this before – as part of some Via Ferrata, in adventure “gardens,” even as part of an indoor adventure park “sky path.” Rationally, I’m fine – I’ll be double-secured and nothing can actually go wrong; if I fall off, it’ll be scary and I’ll hang there awkwardly for a moment, but nothing will really happen. Which is all fine and well, until I take my first step onto the cable. It swings a bit, wobbles about under my weight, and rational thought disintegrates. Why is this scary when I know it’s all okay? The power of primitive and deep-seated emotion is uncontrollable. Once across, I’m grinning from ear to ear but not yet relieved – I know the hardest part still lies ahead. It comes in the form of notches, or smaller gaps between the rock, which we’ll have to climb across.
When we reach the first one, Lauren explains how to cross it: wrap these two ropes around your arms, lower yourself backwards and down, then reach behind you with one leg to step onto the rock about a meter away. Then push off the rock in front, stepping with your second foot across. He demonstrates; it seems straightforward enough. My turn; the first couple of actions work well, until I’m suspended above the gap and I need to step across with my left leg. Every time I try to move it, my weight starts shifting sideways and I begin to twist around the rock in front of me and along the gap instead of across it. So I keep replacing my foot where it was, instead of where it needs to go. The distance behind me seems to stretch, the fall below extending all the way into the valley, my arms holding onto the ropes begin losing strength and going numb. A couple of deep breaths becomes hyperventilation as Lauren starts shouting from behind me “go now! You have to step!!” He can see me sagging as my muscles tire, and then he suddenly reaches across the gap (to this day, I’m not sure if he was secured somehow), holding my right foot in place and enabling me to step with my left. With the last of my energy, I push off as Lauren catches my arm and pulls. I’m across. I crumple down a bit, gasp and somewhat deliriously laugh. One more to go (and I try to avoid thinking about the fact that I’ll have to return this same way). The second notch is not as bad, and then shortly thereafter, I’m rounding the last buttress and walking up the final steps to the summit while Lauren videos with his phone. We fist-bump, high-five and hug, then check to clock. It’s 7:55, we’ve made it in less than 4 hours, faster than I ever would have imagined. Reaching the summit is magical – on any mountain, but especially when it’s such an exotic, legendary and remote mountain. So photos, celebration, basking in completing the seemingly unachievable (for me) were all in order.
As awesome as reaching the summit is, I’m not one to linger at the top – after all, once you summit, you’re really only at the halfway point; the ultimate objective is to get back home safely. So, 5 minutes later, we were heading back across the ridge (everything seemed easier on the way back, even the notches I mastered without help this time) and then I was clicking in for the abseil. It’s a long way back down, some of the ropes are stretched so tightly that it’s difficult to get them wrapped into my Super 8…and nearly impossible to disengage my 8 at the bottom of those sections. Down…down…down. I don’t mind hurrying, eventually it will begin to rain, and I’d like to be off the mountain before it starts. Rappelling in torrential rainfall is not my idea of a good time. I get a bit lazy and end up just arm-curling the rope on some of the easier pitches – faster than setting up to rappel. Finally, I’m at the second-to-last anchor, Lauren is already at the bottom of the rope. This final pitch is the tricky sideways and completely vertical large outcropping, it’s a little sketchy working my way down to the left (gravity wants to take me straight down the face of the rock); the adrenaline of the climb behind me and thrill of being almost back on the ground carries me through, however, and seconds later I’m unclipping from this last rope and recovering my unused action cam. Down the path and into camp, where the other guides and newly arrived climbers (helicoptered in – I’ve got some strong opinions on this and will share them later) are waiting to greet and congratulate us. After a few minutes of climbing talk, I’m glad that the rain begins to fall, so I can escape to our tent. I burrow myself into my sleeping bag, drink a hot tea while rehashing the day with Lauren, and then spend a few hours of reading-dozing-reading until we decide to eat. I’m not really hungry, but manage to finish a plate of ramen. The wind is picking up again outside, I make a final trip out for a bathroom stop, then burrow back into my sleeping bag for a fitful night – a large and very loud group of climbers create a lot of disturbance between 2 and 3 am as they prepare for and head out on their summit bid. I silently wish them luck and wait for daybreak, when we’ll begin the long trek back.
(post-trip note: my wishes for luck were apparently not enough. One of the climbers who summited the day after we did, died on the mountain. A very sad and sobering reminder that these types of undertakings are not to be treated lightly. I’m very glad to have successfully made it, and to have returned home safely.)