Sixteen hours have passed since the morning drama. I was walking, didn't stop, even at camp two, only managed to mumble to Jurek and Mietek who were sitting by the tents, that I'm going to camp one. And tacking between the huge boulders I continued slow decline.
I could only hear a few muffled words encouraging me to have dinner, but I feared that the brief stop may turn into a "stay" so I decided to continue down.
Between the boulders that were the size of the house, I paused for a moment to
pump into my lungs as much oxygen as possible in this life deprived-air.
Then Peter, my fellow climber decided to accelerate our descent so we can arrive in camp 1 as quickly as possible. His silhouette flashed between the rocks only to disappear behind the next hill.
Following the dream of already being in my tent, wrapped down in a sleeping bag.
Yet for a long time I felt the back sight colleagues, only after leaving a small screen in the valley I began to feel lonely. I leaned on my walking sticks, hanging my head between my shoulders, and pulled in cold air with my wide open mouth.
Oxygen depravation begun to blur my vision and caused pains in my chest.
I straightened up and looked at a nearby ridge, scanning the huge boulders. For a moment my eyes hung on a small child and as if it was normal at this extreme height, I went down, but after making few more steps I got this strange feeling and looked again in that direction. This time, there were two dwarfs dressed in usual dwarf costumes.
The one laying down smiled at me, but the other one was piercing me with his eyes.
My overwhelmed brain was of course telling me that it is a hallucination caused by fatigue and oxygen depravation but still, I saw what I saw...
I looked down on my boots and decided to continue walking, despite my little friends showing up.
Like looking at old movies, I started to recall dramatic hours of today's early morning.
It was two in the morning in our small tent when Peter and I started to get ready to attack the highest mountain peak in South America, Aconcagua 6962m above sea level.
We spent the last 48 hours in camp two, at the foot of the Polish Glacier at an altitude of over 6000m above sea level. With only frail fabric separating us from icy turmoil raging outside since the day we arrived at camp two, we waited for the weather to improve.
Last night when I stuck my head outside the tent, I was greeted by a dark starry hemisphere and a white glow emanating from the glacier of the Poles. With its cracked surface, the glacier seemed to be flowing straight into our tent.
Stone Guard, as he is called by locals, gave us a window of opportunity and made it possible for us to attempt our attack.
Our tent for two, in which we spent the last two days, was of the "assult" type, with a single wall which caused very poor ventilation.
All the moisture created while preparing our meals was condensing inside. Almost all our clothes were wet, with socks and gloves being the worst of it.
At three in the morning we forced ourselves to leave, Peter was the first to crawl out. He sat in the snow and put on his racks. With great difficulty I put on more layers of clothing. The moist socks that I put on simply cracked in half when they got in contact with my cold boots. Peter urged me all the time. On all fours I squeezed through a small hole in the tent and started to struggle with my frozen solid rack mounts. Here is when "the movie" ends, where I have lost almost an entire half of my life, standing in front of our tent.
Memory comes back when I stretch over my arm to hand Peter a
flask with something hot to drink. It took us until four to leave the tent and head out.
We walked in silence, only the crackling snow beneath our boots reminded me of where we are.
I felt a little out of it, two days in a small tent plucked by the cold blasts, reflected negatively on my mind, habitual fatigue and lack of sleep did not improve the situation.
Feeble light slipped through the frozen solid snow-drifts.
We passed the burial place of an unknown climber, with only some stones marking the place of his last rest. Wrapped in a sleeping bag were scraps of which were torn and pulled by a frosty wind.
When the horizon became a black grenade, the temperature dropped sharply, and the vastness of the space around us amplified the feeling of cold.
Slowly, with every passing step, the feeling that something bad was happening began to circulate around me, I started to feel tingling in both legs.
I tried to stretch my cramped fingers and toes, warm them up with continuous motion, but it did not bring the desired improvement.
I looked at the ridge and saw them again, standing in a small rocky niche, directly above me, they both changed their posture and watched.
I was tired. I could not force myself to walk towards them, I was afraid to touch the unknown. Each step was a great challenge for me.
To break away from this view I took a deep breath and looked toward camp one. For a moment, watching the dark silhouette of Peter already sliding into His tent. Oh how I envied him.
I realized that I had to speed up to make it before nightfall, I was not afraid of getting lost but of cold and frost. Every step down was full of pain, burning pain in my knees.
Again I stopped and turned around toward the ridge, where besides my two little friends I now saw a third one!
For a while I watched these fantastic characters. The tallest one stood on a shelf facing my way.
I squinted my eyes wanting to get rid of the hallucinations, telling myself that it was just the contrasting rocks and game of light caused by the setting sun.
But no, I clearly saw features of his smiling face. I turned my eyes toward our tent.
I realized that Peter was sitting on the stone wall with someone else. I was ready to approach him. He was supposed to cook our pea soup. Is it possible that Mirek made it from the main camp ? There will be time for these questions later. There was a few hundred meters of sharp distance ahead of me. I knew that they should not be here. There should not be anyone besides Peter and me on this slope.
Stream of cold fear ran through my spine and squeezed my stomach in a powerful grip.
I continued walking slowly with a subjective feeling of one's eyes on my back. Slowly but steadily frost was penetrating my plastic shoes and was biting into the living tissue of my foot.
I was freezing. Dementia was caused by the extreme conditions which resulted in a lack of rational behavior as well as ability to make sensible decisions. Peter stopped and sat down on a boulder after making some two hundred meters. Ever growing pain from my fingers was calling for my attention, move, move, move prompted the subconscious.
Should I return to the tent or follow Peter, a sudden sharp gust of wind and I lost my train of thought. Sharp particles of ice were cutting my face.
After making some distance I've noticed Peter in the distance, he was boldly pulling his boots off.
This sight made me panic, my attempt to try bending my fingers on both hands caused a piercing pain.
Successive freezing and wind gusts penetrating my downy coat blew away the remaining pockets of heat left.
Damp gloves became hard, very hard, frozen solid and did not provide any protection against frost any more.
An attempt to hit my hands one against the other to warm them up caused so much pain I was ready to throw up.
Peter saw what was happening to me and urged me to take the shells off and massage my feet and hands.
The freezing process proceeded rapidly.
I took the outer gloves off and tried to warm up my hands by blowing on them, but it only worsened the situation because moist exhaust instantly froze causing even more pain.
Massage, massage! shouted Peter, fighting the increasingly loud gusts of frigid wind.
You, have to!
Every attempt to even touch my stiff and purple fingers caused me to scream in agonizing pain.
The term "pain" grew in size to dimensions unknown to me, crossing all possible limits.
It hurts, do not touch! my mind was stubbornly repeating.
With another blast of freezing wind, I felt with a chill an even greater drop in temperature.
Wet clothing was not a barrier against frost any more.
A long moment passed before I was able to convince myself to slide my hands under a sweater.
I asked Peter, "Who apart from us is in the camp?"
Peter still stirring the pea soup answered,
"No one is here."
"So who sat on the wall with you outside the tent?" I asked.
Turning his head, and with his understanding eyes he looked at me and said,
"Eddie go to sleep, tomorrow I will go down to the main camp, and you will rest, sounds like you definitely need it."
After taking off the outer shells of my boots I noticed the absence of the feeling in my feet. When Peter began to massage them, it began to come back first as a little creak, then as a growing river of pain flooding my brain. Paralyzing fear grabbed me by the throat.
Our only salvation was the slow sunrise.
Sitting on the ice and trying to maintain the circulation in our extremities we waited for the first rays of light. I stopped thrashing around, as every movement of the body caused recurring pain, and waited.
I'm sure the pain I experienced when attempting to bring my hands and feet back to life engraved my cerebral cortex so deep that it will stay with me for many years to come.
In surrounding silence the sun slowly emerged above the horizon. It was six in the morning when the sun fully embraced the slope. Our base camp below us was still in darkness and shadow of the departing night, while we were already in the warm light. This very moment, on this slope I realized how great and magical the power of sun is, it only needed a few minutes to warm up our rigid limbs. I absorbed every life-giving ray of warmth. The few hour long struggle for survival sapped our strength away. But after an hour of rest we both rose to face the peak. In silence we followed a long traverse to the road Independencja and at 2 in the afternoon we stopped in front of the Gutter Canaletto. Our goal seemed to be already at hand, until the slope gradient increased sharply making our approach so much harder. At 100 meters before the summit, very tired we pushed ahead only by the force of will.
More and more exhausted, we climbed so slowly we seemed to be almost stuck in place.
Being aware of the hardships awaiting us while descending, we decided to turn back at about four in the afternoon.
The next day, with Jurek Adamuszek, we passed the snow-covered Polish Trail linking with Indepediecia Trail, above which, on the snowy field, we set the tent.
As soon as the first rays of sun bounced of the walls of our tent we went up the trail. Hours quickly passed on the clock and so did the climb. Finally, in front of us the long awaited and dreamed of summit. Around 2 pm we were at the top of Aconcagua. We were filled with joy of overcoming not only the mountain but also ourselves, our weaknesses.
On average, only about 30% of the climbers win this fight.
Unpredictably changing weather conditions are one of the factors that kill more alpinists here than on all 8-k's together and the stories of visual hallucinations circulate for years among the people of the mountains. In all honesty I did not think that I will personally experience one of them. Well, it seems that a human mind in extreme conditions caused by extreme fatigue and oxygen depravation will create unbelievable scenarios, so real at the time of occurrence, but become blurry and dreamy with the passing of time...
Ed Bochnak, November, 2010 Translated by Piotr Kulesza