Trust. More than any other sport on the planet, climbing is founded on trust. There are two reasons for this: first, consequences are life or death; second, you’re always tied to your partner. If your tennis partner blows the volley, who cares. If the tight end misses the quarterback’s spiral, just another down. If your teammate throws the three pointer, you’ll have the ball back in a matter of minutes.
There’s isn’t even a comparison with other adventure sports. If a kayaker drops into a keeper hole and drowns, you’re not dragged in with him. If a BASE jumper rips his chute too late and hits the ground at 100 mph, you’re not jerked from the sky along with him. But in climbing, if your partner doesn’t climb cautiously and belay properly, he’ll kill you. That’s the brotherhood, or sisterhood, of the rope. Your fates are quite literally tied together. Although I loath the analogy, one of the only times ordinary people rely on each other this much is in combat.
Reviewing the photographs of the West Ridge we shot from base camp, we knew our camp III was less than halfway along the ridge. This meant that we would have to bivouac somewhere along the ridge for one night, and that we would have to simul-climb to move swiftly. These two requirements were intimately related. The only way to move fast was to have light packs—hence we ditched our 0-degree down sleeping bags and brought the 50-degree summer outer bags. We took the two-person tent, one stove, one fuel bottle, one pot, and one spoon for the three of us.
We had hoped to leave at 5 a.m., but the wind was so malevolent, practically knocking us over, we didn’t get out of camp III until after 8 a.m. I lead out descending the first long rib of snow, stopped on the back side of the rock crown, and brought up Renan and Cory. We rapped down into the next col, left the rope for our retreat, and I lead to the base of a rock face. In simul-climbing, as the term suggests, all climbers are moving together. The leader puts in protection, the second back clips the rope, and the third removes the gear. If anyone falls, there’s gear to catch the climber. The problem is that there is little actual belaying, so if the second (or third) falls, he will pull off the leader, which means everyone will fall and be caught by the few pieces of gear in the rock and snow. Thus, simul-climbing requires the ultimate trust in your partners.
Renan passed me, then Cory came up to take over the lead. Two feet of unconsolidated snow lay over sheer piles of unconsolidated rock. The climbing was so delicate it took Cory a long time to lead out. Eventually, Renan yelled to me, “I’m losing my feet. I have to move!” Cory had gone out of sight and there was a large loop in the rope, but to avert frostbite, Renan and I started climbing anyway. We all regrouped after rapping around to the next col. Renan said his feet were “turnaround cold.” If we didn’t warm them immediately, the climb was over. Fortunately, on the south side of the col, we found a ledge in the sun yet blocked from the wind. We brewed up a splendid pot of noodles, and Renan vigorously rubbed his white toes until they came back to life.
From the lunch ledge, the summit of Hkakabo Razi was just right there. So tantalizingly close, yet proverbially so far away. We also spied our bivy spot—the next wide col beyond the next wide gendarme. After an intricate, weaving line over the crenelated ridge, followed by a long horizontal traverse on steep snow, we reached our bivouac.
We put our tent dead on a crevasse filled with snow and hoped we weren’t actually on a mere snow bridge. Cramming three guys into a two-person tent that any normal human would consider a solo tent would be comical if it weren’t so desperate. We were all zipped up inside by 6 p.m., an hour after dark. Thence began our exquisite misery. We set our stove on our boots between us and asphyxiated ourselves boiling water from snow. The wind battered the tent as we shared a meager pot of dehydrated stew. Thereafter, we tried to find a way for all of us to stretch out. If we all laid on our sides it was just possible. We didn’t expect to sleep, just shiver. Indeed we nicknamed it the “Shiver Bivy.” Hours pass very slowly when you’re very cold. Renan and I were up against the frost-covered wind-slapping outside walls while skinny Cory was in the middle. At 2:30 a.m., I told Cory I was so frozen I needed to start the stove. He generously offered to switch places, and we all laid there until we couldn’t stand it anymore and fired up the stove. After 39 days away from home, it was summit day.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
We had to trust that each of us was still capable of climbing. Our lives were in each other’s hands.
Check back here and on thenorthface.com for updates from the field. The team will also be posting to Instagram using #MyanmarClimb to document their travels.Follow our National Geographic-The North Face team on a seven-week expedition in Myanmar (Burma) to attempt to determine the tallest peak in Southeast Asia. The adventure will take them overland by plane, train, bus, and motorbike to begin a 300-mile round-trip jungle trek across tiger reserves, into plunging gorges, over raging rivers, and through cultural areas that have only recently been opened to Westerners. From their base camp in the remote northern reaches of the country, the team—including expedition leader Hilaree O’Neill, writer Mark Jenkins, photographer Cory Richards, filmmaker Renan Ozturk, climber Emily Harrington, and video assistant Taylor Rees—will climb to the summits of 5,800-meter (19,140-foot) peaks Hkakabo Razi and, if time allows, to Gamlang Razi with a calibrated Juniper GPS system to determine their true heights and solve the mystery. This story will appear in an upcoming edition of National Geographic magazine and was supported by a National Geographic Expeditions Council grant.