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Inside an Elysium Fridge

February 5, 2014

storm290A storm smashes the hut an hour before our colleagues arrive back from the top of the Tasman Glacier where they have been doing crevasse and ice work. We are surprised that they were  able to find their way in such a white out and had half expected them to make for the Tasman Saddle Hut. As I sit down to fill in the journal they are stomping snow and ice off themselves in the foyer, a neutral air lock of sorts between the kitchen and the outdoors. They stagger in one by one, eying off the steaming kettle, disheveled and wooly and looking mildly surprised at their own arrival in this haven – and possibly survival.

Our own day started in sunshine and we completed the first two pitches of our mixed ice and rock day. It was an interesting climb and I relished the opportunity to experiment with what was possible climbing (described by one guide as a ’15 maybe 17’ grade – I am inclined to the 15) using crampons on rock. I put them under pressure, using only one front prong to leverage and pivot on a small rock fissure. To my delight it worked perfectly and I leveraged up on rock that I might have struggled with using only God’s hands and feet. The rock is rotten though, and I have to test every piece. The strata stands vertically and what looks juggy (technical climbing term) and easy to grip most often turns into a loose lever, easily and quickly slipping away from its neighbouring pieces of shale and clattering into space below me. At one stage in this stoney chimney I resort of palming off and jamming (using my fist in a crack to get a purchase) in order to get height – there simply were no handholds that wanted to take my weight and all I was doing was pulling the mountain down around me.  As I get to the top of the crux I haul myself up a piece of narrow ribbed ice and stand up, only to find myself looking over a precipitous drop on the other side, into the head ice of a glacier and  valley far below me. I pull back, make sure of my foothold, clip into the anchor Elke has already established and then have another look. I find moving and looking into cavernous holes can topple my gyros if I am not careful. Best only to look once I have stopped moving and am happy that I am properly anchored.

Every commentator of the mountains observes how quickly the weather shifts. Maurice Herzog, the first man to summit an 8000m peak, (and who finished his account of the adventure with the stirring “there are other Annapurnas in the lives of men”) commented often on how rapidly the weather changed, transformations we also witnessed when we walked the Annapurna Circuit.  I will be no different, for as we perch on our narrow ledge of ice and rock cloud wraps and unwraps around us, appearing as if out of nowhere as that moist air is pushed up into cold layers around us. But over our backs that storm is coming and we are asked what our call should be  – to press on and complete our training circuit over Mt Mabel, or to retreat and use the remainder of the day for other training? It’s a no brainer for me, and the same decision a pilot easily makes – stay out of the storm especially when you are at altitude. We rig for an abseil and drop back down to the snow line, recover the rope and scrunch our crisp way back to the hut.  The front closes in, high in the sky at present but moving inexorably onto us.

We arrived back at mid day and took a light lunch before going through the mechanics of crevasse rescue. 1. Hold the fall. 2. Ease forward until preset knots lock on the edge of the crevasse 3. Remove pack. 4 Create anchor. And so on through another twenty steps. At least that many according to mechanical engineer Andrew Finnigan. Each step is perfectly logical but putting it all together in one sequence is a challenge for me and I need to go over it a number of times before I start to get the routine sorted. I do what I can to draw up each step in a cartoon series but it remains a challenge to the memory.

The details of crevasse rescue aside we are locked in here in the middle of a storm for the night. I have put my final merino layer on (total of two)  over thermals and a t-shirt and am feeling slightly more warmed up. The hut is unheated so we will be in bed early tonight I suspect, if only to stay warm.  Every now and then the hut rocks under an icy, booming blast and the snow and ice granules hurl themselves in a frenetic and furious dance around the windows. The afternoon shudders on and any thought of venturing outside is shut down. We resort to working on the uses of our prussics (climbing up and down ropes) and more of that crevasse pulley system.

The wind continues but the sun breaks through about 8pm and the rib ridge of Hochstetter stands out (photo refers) but the wind howls across it lifting snow and cloud out past its rim into a canopy of dark grey. Even from our safe distance it looks intimidating, yet alluring and majestic too. The clouds boil and swirl and rip as they are pushed across crests and summits and smashed past ridges and spurs. They dip and rise and rage with  a life of their own as they are shredded off an even larger cloud mass or flash out of nowhere, swirl in a wisp of half light, gyrate and dance up the valley floor and vanish into the sky above us. All is turmoil and violence, energy and activity, restless and forever changing. There is a stillness and solitude in the mountains the poets love. There is violence and sharp antagonism that boils away in the mountains which the adventurer loves. The poet adventurer is in heaven here – locked inside a chilly Elysium fridge.

Diary 22 January 2014

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