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The Lost Times--Los Tiempos Perdidos

February 18, 2019

http://www.alpinist.com/doc/_print/web19w/wfeature-a64-full-value-the-lost-times
 
POSTED ON: JANUARY 7, 2019
 

[This Full Value story first appeared in Alpinist 64, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 64 for all the goodness!--Ed.]

 

[Illustration] Andreas Schmidt

 

I LOOK UP AT THE ROPE I'm pulling, waiting for the knot to arrive in the beam of my headlamp, when a large stone hurtles out of the darkness. "ROCK!" Chris moves a fraction, but the block slams the side of his head, and he slumps into his harness, his head askew. The silence shatters as the rock explodes far below. There's no way he can survive such a hit to his head, I think, and when I reach for him, I expect to see the worst. He's convulsing, and blood oozes from his ear, nose and neck. But his skull's intact, and he's still alive.

 

We're side by side, anchored to a spike of granite protruding from the vertical wall. The rock could just as well have hit me. Seconds slip by, I hold him steady until he's conscious. He's slurring his words, and he has no idea who and where he is, or who I am. A clueless flicker of his brilliant smile takes me by surprise, contrasting sharply with the bloody mess around his left ear. For a moment, I feel the remote expanse of ice and stone through the blackness of the night. Then Chris starts shivering uncontrollably, and I focus on the immediate again: I need to get him warm and stable. I dress him in both our down jackets.

 

"What? Where are we?" Chris stammers as I push him closer into the wall.

 

I force some energy gel into his mouth. "On the west side of Cerro Torre."

 

Chris stares at the blood on his glove. "Did I fall?" he asks.

 

"No, you got hit by a rock."

 

"Oh, that's good. That would be embarrassing. Was it your fault then?"

 

"Yeah, I guess." I say. "I pulled the rock off when I was pulling the rope."

 

"Tabernac! Where are we?"

 

I take the rope and tie a bowline through his belay loop, slap a carabiner into the anchor, and run the rope through it into my belay device so I can lower him. Together, we descend into the darkness below. We stop at the first sloping ice feature I find. I tie Chris off, and I begin to carve out a bivy platform. Chris's face is barely visible through the mass of jackets. As I unleash my anxiety on the ice with my axes, the corners of his eyes crinkle with curiosity before he closes them and sinks into another time and place.

 

"Chris!" I shout to get his attention back and keep him vocal, though he just says the same things over and over, remembering nothing.

 

"Quentin? What? Where are we?"

 

"The west side of Cerro Torre in Patagonia."

 

"Jesus! How did we get here? Are we climbing?"

 

"No, we were going down, and now we've got a long road ahead of us!"

 

"Oh, so what happened? Did I fall?"

 

I feel unsettled, now, by every falling object. While I chop ice, I watch gravity continue to wreak havoc: the shards disintegrate with force on ledges beneath us. Somehow Chris's repeated questions provide a comforting cadence. I can navigate the fog of stress about our predicament while mindlessly replying to the same questions with the same answers. I prepare a bed of rope and tie Chris into a nestled position on the corner of the ledge. I give him the rest of the warm clothes and tuck him into our one sleeping bag. I feed him our last gels and my last two bars. By now Chris is somewhat more coherent. His body relaxes a little. It looks as if he is improving, but I'm still not sure he'll live.

 

Time passes: I watch the sublime summits of the Patagonian Icefield hold steadfast as the star-speckled sky turns around them. When I start to shiver, I take out our tiny foil emergency bivy sack. I feel an intense solitude as my consciousness extends to the far reaches of this space. I think about what it would be like if Chris died now, and what I would do with his body. I think about his parents. With Chris's life in my hands, I feel the weight of every decision. Should I call someone for help? Will it even make a difference? It would take the local rescue team two days to get to us on foot. (Much later I will learn that there were two helicopters in El Calafate.) I decide not to try, but I wonder if I'm putting too much faith in myself. My shivering occasionally wakes Chris, and my own questions are replaced with the ones he has been asking for hours. I answer them once again.

 

THREE DAYS EARLIER, we'd set out to climb one of the most notorious mountains on earth: Cerro Torre. A mile-tall needle of frozen granite capped with hundreds of meters of aerated ice mushrooms. The forecast had promised four days of clear weather, and we decided to attempt Los Tiempos Perdidos into the Directa Huarpe. No one had done this linkup before, and we'd encounter direct and nearly continuous ice from the bottom to the top.

 

We started a few hours after sunset. A blanket of cold had wrapped the south face, and we hoped that it would also hold the serac in place some 700 meters above. While Chris led off from the 'schrund, I listened as the running rivulets of water froze still, and I found comfort in the frozen cold of night. We simulclimbed upward, mitigating danger with speed. Swing, swing, kick, kick, moving together connected through the sixty meters of rope between us.

 

It was still early when we reached the ridgeline--a breathtaking portal to another world of icefield and ocean. The rime-feathered summit of Cerro Torre rose above us, luminous and still, while the morning sun melted the traces of our passage into a vertical kilometer of chaos below. We worked our way up onto the "Elmo," a wind-sculpted platform that seemed to offer a miraculous respite from the vertical world. Here we rested, ate and slept for the remainder of the day, enjoying a moment of calm so rarely found on this mountain.

 

The next morning, we continued--weaving through extraordinary ice fangs, snow-mushrooms and flutings that towered above like giant cobra hoods. We were climbing well, though our bodies and minds were already tiring as we gazed at the overhanging rime of the final headwall. A faint blue vein of ice meandered its way through sugar-like snow. This fleeting ice was our only chance of protection.

 

Chris took the lead, but his axes wouldn't stick to the overhanging snow. Only ten meters above him was the ice we were aiming for, and the summit was just a rope length from there. A river of rime cascaded down while he spent over an hour tunneling into the wall, trying to find a solid-enough layer for his crampons and axes to adhere, without success. "Aaaarrrrgggghhh!" Chris yelled in fury as one of his tools sheared from the snow. I imagined him falling and shattering a leg. The snow only got worse. He backed off. I doubted I would do any better, and as I lowered him back down to the belay, I began preparing the rappels for our descent.

 

"QUENTIN?" I'M WRENCHED from my thoughts. Chris is awake, and he's blinking hard in confusion.

 

"How're you feeling, mate?" I ask. I squint to see if his pupils respond to the light. He reaches for his ear only to be rebuffed by the network of cord that ties him tightly to the wall. "I dunno. My head hurts. Where are we?" Bewildered, he stares at the moon. Its radiance flows in white streams from glaciated summits, transforming the surrounding icefield into a phosphorescent sea.

 

"We're nearly off Cerro Torre." I reply. "We were descending when you got hit by a rock. A big one, man. That was about eight hours ago. Do you remember climbing Los Tiempos Perdidos?"

 

He breathes and looks down at his feet. "We climbed Cerro Torre?" he says. "I thought I was in Canada. Is that the Patagonian Icefield?"

 

Chris keeps repeating himself, but his short-term memory seems to have been rebooted, and soon he's remembering some of my answers. As the alpenglow softens the night sky, I realize that we need to go down before the face awakens and the ice and rocks start falling again. Chris is going to have to regain some independence, I think. I can hardly carry him over this technical terrain.

 

"Just clip into the rope and rappel to me, I've got the rest, OK?" I say, once I've gotten us ready to continue our descent. He obeys without trouble. Despite his confusion, he manages the rope work--imprinted by years of repetition. Every time he joins me at the next station, he has forgotten where he is, and why, but he remembers what he has just done and what he has to do next. We are getting farther and farther down the mountain, and I start thinking that this might just work.

 

WE CROSS THE FINAL BERGSCHRUND and meet two Argentinean climbers who ask Chris where we were coming from. He struggles with an answer, but now he remembers the blurry outline of what happened, and where we are heading. There's still no way Chris can climb in this state, so going up and over the Standhart Col is out of the question. The other option is to trudge a fifty-kilometer loop around the range. We start along the icefield.

 

[Illustration] Andreas Schmidt

 

Navigating the icefield feels like walking on a giant treadmill. Nothing seems to get any closer. Sun turns the glacier into a UV sauna as the heat drives our boots knee-deep into the melting snow. I break trail, carrying all the gear, but I'm sure that Chris's concussed brain is struggling more than I am. I'm scared that he'll just collapse. We post-hole for twelve straight hours to Marconi Pass around the north side of the Fitz Roy group. There we are greeted by wind and rain, and we bivy just off the glacier. I taste and smell the metallic stench of our bodies burning muscle tissue as we shiver through the night.

 

The next day, green leaves appear under our boots as if by miracle. We've made it into the valley. Chris recognizes edible calafate berries, which we strip from their branches with wild hunger. These berries are the first food I've eaten in fifty hours. It is only here that I lower my guard and collapse in tears of relief. Chris sits next to me, his hand on my shoulder as he stares, still dazed, into the distance. We're going to make it.

 

ONCE WE'RE BACK IN EL CHALTEN, Chris asks me how I think I'd handle it emotionally if he'd died on the mountain. After pausing for a while, I tell him that although it would be hard, I'd be fine. At the time, I think I'm telling my best friend the truth.

 

But our epic on Cerro Torre turns out to be Chris's last mountain adventure. Upon our return to Canada, he relapses into a substance addiction, and he overdoses--I'd helped save his life just over two weeks before. It's hard knowing that I'll never wake up again to find that Chris has been making breakfast since before dawn, filling a house with the smell of fresh baked bread and hot coffee. Nor will I watch him speed up ten pitches of climbing, alternately giggling with joy and yelling in frustration. I'll never get another Chris hug, one that brims with so much love that you feel the gratitude enter your soul. I'll no longer see him melt at so much as a smile from a woman passing by or get a chance to find out how he'd carry all this intensity for living into old age.

 

Today, even though a year has passed since our adventure on Cerro Torre, my memories remain clear. I can still see the rock in the beam of my headlamp--suspended for less than an instant, yet also an eternity. I can feel the warmth of Chris's unconscious body in my arms, and I can feel the gentle tug of the rope behind me as I pull him on along the glacier. I also remember the explosive taste of the first handful of calafate berries, the weight of his hand on my shoulder, and the way that Chris's laughter filled the entire valley when he discovered that we could ride from the trailhead back to town in a generous local climber's truck. All these experiences exist separate from the chronological order of the past, and also transcend the present.

 

I think, now, of how the route name Los Tiempos Perdidos reminds me of the seven-volume novel by the French writer Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time. In these books, Proust suggests that during such vivid recollections, we can briefly enter a place in which we don't feel the losses of the past or the fears of the future, where we can even escape the torment of death because we are no longer bound by the consciousness of time. These moments are often found in the mountains, but also in other parts of existence. They come from the intensity of applied awareness when, like a child, you let your mind increase its capacity to absorb what is around you and become capable of true appreciation and love. They are the finest moments of all, and I cling to them with vehemence.

They are the lost times.

 

[This Full Value story first appeared in Alpinist 64, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 64 for all the goodness!--Ed.]

 

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