“Up there, there is nothing. Just the story you wrote with your own life to get there”, Alfonso de Vizán
PREVIOUS NIGHT'S SYNDROME
(PAULO) The biggest doubts always assault me by night. I imagine every detail of the climb, I try to guess each step. When I try to sleep, the greatest dangers of the mountain seem to take shape, they become almost real. I see myself falling, I’m caught by a stone falling from the mountain, I’m caught by an avalanche. Daniela is lying by my side. The idea of her getting hurt is unbearable. The more I try to stay away from negative thoughts, the more they invade my brain, obsessively. The book I lay down on the side of the tent was of no use.
The years should have taught me to deal with the "previous night syndrome", when the negative thoughts and irrational fears arise. It's always the same. Before every significant climb, there comes the little devil, the pessimist invisible gnome, the harbinger of doom, to demonize my spirit.
I turn my head in the sleeping bag. "Does Daniela feel the same?" I stop breathing for a moment and try to listen to the silence. Daniela sleeps. Outside, all is quiet. The wind doesn’t blow. In a couple of hours we’ll initiate our attempt to climb Kapura, with over 6000 meters of altitude, never before tried through Nanghma valley side.
At home everything is simpler. For more technical as it sounds, all the climbs become much easier and possible. Then, the time lapse between the real and the imaginary increasingly shortens and it all begins to gain new proportions. The certainties of the initial plans begin to be questioned, until the moment of truth arrives, when we stand face to face with our goal. On this moment, something changes drastically. The beautiful, perfect, possible, abstract mountain becomes ogre, hard, unforgiving, harsh...real. This is the moment to play the biggest card, the trump that only years of experience can provide. It's the moment of objective analysis, the ultimate question: "I am, or am not able to climb it?”
In the middle of the night, I decide to withdraw that trump card. Objectively, I tell myself: "You are certainly able to climb that!” Almost immediately, the “pessimist gnome" flies away, windswept by a thought.
I wished that the hours would pass quickly, to face the vertical unknown, to once again face my own ghosts, this time in a forgotten mountain, in a distant land. Beside me, Daniela seems to be sleeping peacefully. I wonder if she had those same thoughts. I could not sleep a wink that night.
The alarm sounded at 23:30. It was the 6th of September. We switched on our headlamps to discover a myriad of bright dots covering the roof of the tent, tiny ice crystals produced by the condensation of moisture from our own breathing. Slowly, we began to emerge from torpor. Still with turtle eyes from the lack of sleep and dry lips caused by the overnight dehydration, I leaned as much as I could, stretching my arm, trying to reach the bottom of the sleeping bag. Fumbling blindly, I tried to grab the gas cylinder.
We repeated the ritual to which we became accustomed in the bothersome high mountain dawns. Daniela immediately began to heat the water for the cappuccinos and the stove has not stopped ever since.
(DANIELA) There are tasks within the silence of the rope team that are already assigned to me, as well as some others are a part of Paulo’s labors. "Cooking" breakfast is on me. I lit the stove and heated water for our typical morning cappuccinos (this time, night cappucinos!). Between tasks, we forced ourselves to drink almost a liter of liquids each, as it is mandatory under the good behavior rules at altitude.
(PAULO) After a frugal breakfast, we stepped in our boots and went out of the tent into the cold dark night.
The col where we were was sharp and the slopes were steep to both sides of the mountain. One of the cliffs dropped down to the Charakusa valley, the other dropped for "our" side, the Nanghma valley. The crest was about a meter large. We were literally on the razor edge. Some hours before, we had found the only possible place for a decent bivouac. We managed to build a small but proud platform where we placed our tiny bivouac, with the edges pending to both sides of the precipice, but still large enough for two people to lay there.
(DANIELA) 23:30, September 6, the alarm clock rings. The hours prior to departure for the summit tend to be anxious, but this time, I felt calm, quiet. In fact, despite not having slept deeply, as a result of altitude and the wavy hard floor of our tiny bivy, I felt comfortable in the warm sleeping bag, and had the clear feeling that my body was relaxed, perfectly prepared for a long day at altitude. I had that sweet sensation that drives us to postpone the alarm clock for ten minutes later. The solution I found to fight that sweet inertia was going out of the sleeping bag in a burst, dressing up quickly and starting the whole long process that separates the awakening from the going out of the tent.
We filled one thermos with tea, another one with coffee, and the two plastic botles with energetic orange juice. At the last minute, contrary to what we originally agreed, we decided not to bring the stove with us. So we saved about 600g to our back. We estimated that the climb and descent would take us around 15 hours, and that should be ok with two liters of fluid for each. The wind was blowing slightly. We roped, kissed, and hug for good luck, and by 1:30a.m. on the 7th September, we began the ascent. Carefully to avoid the cornices, we crossed the edge of the "Alam’s Col" to access the face of Kapura. The night was dark and there was no moon to enlighten us. On my right side shining in the sky were the 3 Marias. I smiled. I thought those three stars aligned would bring us good luck.
(PAULO) I placed the ice-axes on that steep slope for the first time. I leaned my head and the helmet touched the ice, I closed my eyes for a moment. I inhaled deeply. It was a very personal kind of symbolic ritual. For months, we imagined that moment. The moment to be face to face with the monster. Now the monster was not the mountain but, our own will. The small geographical point we were aiming was far up there, but the real challenge was within us, and the exact time had come to fight for both of us. I felt that Daniela’s thoughts were the same. The rope united us in such a way, that we became a single being. The real spirit of a rope team is this.
(DANIELA) Everything, all around me made me believe that we would make it to the summit. I felt that the entire ascent would be a true moment of enjoyment, a beautiful climb on a superb mountain, in untouched ground, with the best partner in the world, Paulo. I saw two shooting stars crossing the sky and the desire I formulated couldn’t be more predictable: to reach the summit and return safely.
(PAULO) I opened my eyes, I looked up scanning the darkness. I raised my arm and firmly I placed the left ice-axe. “What are you willing to sacrifice for your dreams?”
It was with no surprise that we found the wall in pure and hard ice covered by a thin layer of snow. From the first steps, we knew that the best option would be to climb pitch by pitch. This was a world that would not forgive any fall.
(DANIELA) Climbing at night, I let myself get involved by the typical noise of the ice-axes and crampons penetrating into the crunchy ice. In the first 40 meters of each pitch, I always progressed with a comfortable cadence, controlling my breath, letting the movements of my body flow. We were part of the mountain, the south face of Kapura welcomed us with hospitality. The 20 meters before reaching each belay were always more sustained, with deeper breaths. Sometimes Paulo would switch off the headlamp to spare the batteries and gain a better perception of the shapes of the mountain.
(PAULO) I didn’t need light to belay Daniela. After a few seconds, my eyes would become accustomed to the darkness of the night. The Milky Way was emerging as a motorway filled with bright asterisks, among other nebulae of distant stars. The weak light emitted by the galactic swarm of small lights was enough to illuminate the Karakorum mountain range.
Still in Portugal, we knew we would be one of the last teams of the season to climb in Pakistan. When we arrived in that Asian country in the middle of August, the vast majority of teams were already leaving. Anyway, this year, nobody visited Nanghma valley, this meaning that we would not come across any Western climber.
With my headlamp off, I could watch the colorless silhouettes that those giants of ice and rock hinted. Most likely, at that moment, we would be the only climbers within many, many miles of mountain wilderness. The sense of isolation and exposure crushed me and that feeling fascinated me.
Hours later, we found the first rock outcrops and with them came the first steps of mixed climbing. The rock band that cuts the wall in a large ascending diagonal to the right has forced us to make a long traverse. Suddenly, the ice disappeared and in its place, we found a thin and inconsistent layer of snow covering flat slabs of granite. A type of terrain which required a special kind of concentration.
The front points of the crampons held precariously on something that I could not distinguish. One ice-axe was hooking a piece of rock. I used the other to try to find a decent placement, either scraping the snow, either trying to find some hidden piece of ice. The unpleasant sound of metal on rock did not show many possibilities. Finally, I managed to overcome the obstacle. “One less. On to the next!" One last traverse pitch of 60 meters, protected by a stopper hammered into a small crack, led us to the final ice slope ... at least it seemed to us the final ice slope!
The time went flying and the summit still seemed quite far. The doubts were back. It was past noon and the path of the sun led to the inexorable sunset and the unwelcome prospect of an overnight descent.
- How do you feel? - Daniela asked.
- I am tired but I feel good. And you, how are you?
- I'm fine. The only thing that worries me is a night descent, because of the rock band.
Daniela was right. From that moment, descending by the same route was out of the question. The great traverse d eliminated that possibility. All we could do was rappelling straight on unknown terrain. We looked up for a while trying to figure out the distance that separated us from the summit. It seemed relatively close but we knew we were being deceived by an error of perspective.
- What about going on the direction of that shoulder? - Daniela stretched her arm pointing a kind of crest from where the steepness seamed to diminish.
- If we are lucky, the steepness will allow us to continue "ensambe ".
- Yes. From there it should be only one more pitch to reach the summit. – I agreed .
(DANIELA) We went on. My mood ... my feelings were confused, I think for the first time I felt cheated because I could not estimate the correct distances. The mountain deceived us, it seemed almost there ... so close ... it was as difficult to take the risk as turning back. I felt an unconscious fear of the night, of not knowing to measure my strength against the power of the mountain. I tried to rationalize it all, physically I felt good, the weather was perfect, the ice was in ideal conditions ... if my body would not betray me, it would only be matter of time. I thought about Paulo, in his face I could read his will to go on. The only drawback was really the short amount of liquids and food we had left ... the fuel that we rationalized already for a few hours. I tried to focus, I thought of Cho Oyu. "I went up 8000 with only one pint of water, certainly it would not be there, at 6000m, that my body would betray me for the lack of fluids!".
(PAULO) To overcome the "shoulder", I climbed the last wall of ice with around 70 º steep. Upon reaching the edge of the wall, reality slapped me with violence.
- NOOOOOOOOO! – I screamed to the wind and let my head drop between my ice axes. The helmet made a hollow sound. Above me, was the painful evidence that there would be more than 60 meters to reach the summit. At that moment, I collapsed psychologically.
- It cannot be! It was too late and at that precise moment, the wall seemed endless. The result was in sight, failure was evident. Bent over myself, I let the tears flow over the face.
(DANIELA) I saw Paulo getting to that place, screaming in rage and lowering his head. I realized that once again the mountain deceived us. There was 50 meters of rope between us. I could not embrace him, I felt anger, frustration. This was our fourth visit to Pakistan and once again, we would not summit. I decided never again to return to that country. It simply did not bring us any luck.
(PAULO) I announced the bad news to Daniela, who was watching me carefully from the belay. She replied me with a cry of dismay. With hypnotic slowness, I placed an ice-screw and prepared to belay my partner. At least, we would decide together what to do next. Up or down? Daniela climbed slowly, I could feel the mix between fatigue and discouragement. We could smell it in the air, the atmosphere of defeat.
(DANIELA) I started climbing without thinking about breathing, about keeping my back straight, about physical exhaustion ... mentally I was lost. I just wanted to get as quickly as possible close to Paulo, to see what he saw.
(PAULO) The weather was still magnificent. While recovering the ropes slowly, I began to analyze the surroundings. I recognized that the edge that divides the south face of the southeast wall was not that far. Looking a bit more carefully I realized I was very near the top of the great bigwall that rises directly from the glacier, almost to the summit of Kapura. I turned my head to the opposite side and I noticed the edge of the left side also did not look that far away. A new joy invaded my soul.
- We cannot be far! Perhaps a pitch and a half. Maybe 80 meters. - I shared my optimism with Daniela.
- Ok! But you are aware that we will reach the rock band by night, right?
- At this point, we’ll be caught by night, in one way or another! - Daniela agreed.
The inevitability led to the final decision.
Sometime later, we reached the rocky edge. To our left, all the way down, was the vertigo West face of the mountain. Finally, we could see the rock needles that are the central summits of Kapura. The main summit was hidden behind those needles but its icy cap was visible from where we were. We abandoned our rucksacks, suspended in two rock pegs, which would later be used to rappel. We had about 30 meters left to finish the climb.
The clock struck 6 o'clock p.m. when we reached the south summit of Kapura, with about 6350 meters of altitude, sixteen and a half hours after we started the climb.
We were the first human beings to step that narrow piece of the planet. We hugged in joy, but the celebration would still have to wait. At that moment, we felt void of emotions. Despite the fatigue, our instinct kept us alert, tense. We just wanted to come down as fast as we could. We still had many rappels to do until reaching the safety of “Alam’s col”.
EPILOGUE FOR AN ENDLESS DAY
(DANIELA) The sun sank into the horizon during the second rappel. Now the speed of the descent was irrelevant. For the first time we decided to take a break to eat and drink properly, a 20 minute break, a whole luxury!
A few rappels led us to the top of the rock band. We knew that if we managed to descend the rock band, the rest would be a matter of time. Paulo rappelled down, I saw the light of his headlamp fade away in the darkness. There was nothing I could do but wait. I knew it would not be easy to find cracks to place a belay in the dark night. From time to time I felt the rope swinging and realized he would still be looking. Moments later my anxiety came to an end.
- YOU CAN COOOOMEEEEEEE! - A scream coming from the ends of darkness cut the silence.
I put the rope on the descender and rappelled.
- Good job! You are awesome! – I told him when I saw the place he found for the belay.
- Sorry for making you wait so long! – He replied.
We repeated this process for three more rappels and hours later we reached the ice. It should be about 11:00p.m. and we still had at least 500 meters more to descend (not less than 10 rappels for sure!), but now we felt safe. We knew it was only a matter of time until we reach the comfort of our tiny bivy.
It all became mechanical, Paulo would rappel until the end of the ropes and would place an ice-screw. I would then start rappelling. When I finished the rappel he was preparing an “Abalakov" for the next one. I would clean the ice-screw and pull the ropes. We would pass the ropes on the " Abalakov ", Paulo would place them on the descender and would start rappelling down, and the process would be repeated over and over again. We were watching each other permanently so that nothing would go wrong because of the fatigue. At that time the thirst was the worst. The contents of the plastic botles were already cold and inconsumable. To be able to drink all that we had, we had to mix the orange juice, with the tea and coffee from the thermos. That way, we just invent two new energy high altitude drinks - orange coffee and orange Verbena tea!
The hours went by, the rappels went on and everything was the same in the darkness, not even the silhouettes of the mountains were on sight. The monotony was immense, then suddenly:
- Wow, I just fell asleep! – Paulo said.
For a moment it crossed my mind that something could still go wrong, so close to the end.
- If necessary we can have a break here and wait for the morning! There’s no need of risking now – I replied him.
- No. I 'm fine, it was just for a split second. I guess it’s better to continue down.
The time passed on, more and more slowly until I seemed to distinguish the familiar silhouette of “Alam’s col”.
- We're almost there! It's there! We’re only one or two rappels away!
- Do you think so? Hummmm, I’m not so sure about that! - Paulo kept being careful calculating the distances.
At that time I felt the need of reaching our bivy and resting, but I knew we still had some mandatory tasks ahead. To drink, to eat…
After the last rappel, we arrived to “Alam’s col” at 3:15 a.m. on September 8th. Finally we crawled inside our red bivy, 25 hours and 45 minutes after we first left.
Only then I felt safe and enjoyed in plenitude the adventure we'd just lived, the line we have just opened, the untouched summit we had just climbed. That was the perfect moment, when we hugged again in happiness and the night toasted with us and became even more beautiful.
- It’s done! – I exclaimed.
- Not yet, we still have to get down to the glacier tomorrow! - Paulo replied with full consciousness.
But at that moment, I was sure everything was going to be ok. The tiny bivy seemed like a palace to us. We melted some snow, drank some soup and we hided inside our warm sleeping bags. The floor was even more irregular than the day before, as a result of the snow that had melted, but at that moment, that was only an insignificant detail. We fell asleep without anxiety.
Me, with a giant smile.
Written by Paulo Roxo & Daniela Teixeira