The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image

When Mountains Call

Life is a jelly of half-hearted efforts towards objectives you thought you wanted to achieve. Stories are absent in life: things drag on forever or fade away. Mountaineering is different. You train, you go to the mountain, you attempt the mountain, and you either succeed in conquering the summit, or you fail. No matter what, there is a closure to it.

View of Denali through a telescope

Denali, one day I’ll get you.

I knew nothing about the trade before attempting my first high mountain, the Kilimanjaro. We landed the day before from Uganda with a friend of mine. We got our expedition organized, and we were having pints in a bar, casually chatting about attempting Everest after doing Kilimanjaro.

A view of Kilimanjaro from above the clouds.

Mount Kilimanjaro looks deceptively easy.

The six days that followed humbled us deeply. Despite having ten porters, a guide, an assistant guide, and a cook, we had a supreme hard time. The first day we crossed 4500 meters of altitude, I had my first brush with acute mountain sickness (AMS). Multiply your worst headache by ten to the fifteenth power, and you get a good estimate what it is like. Luckily, the following day was spent on acclimatization, and the early symptoms of AMS went away.

A toilet in one of the camps on Kilimanjaro

Toilet with a view.

Our cook was always an hour ahead of us, and prepared a hot cucumber soup by the time we arrived. We were grateful each time, but after our twenty-fifth cucumber soup, we were sick of it. Even though we were well fed and we hardly carried anything, our bodies were shattered by the night of the summit attempt.

Starting at 2am, we crawled slowly up towards the summit. Headlights were bobbing ahead of us — some teams had left earlier. We reached an ice slope just before the rim of the crater as the sun was rising. Having no equipment, we kept slipping back. That five meters took us an hour to complete. All my energy left me as we finally reached the crater. Then the guide announced: only an hour more. I was ready to die or go back, but I tread on. Exactly one hour later, slipping twice on a narrow ice bridge that lead to the summit, I finally reached the target.

Uhuru Peak

Two amateurs and two guides.

My climbing mate, a Malaysian mama’s boy, was thrilled by the experience, but did not pursue mountaineering further. I, on the other, fell for it. Climbing mountains is the best thing on the planet: it takes training, it pushes you beyond your limits, it is dangerous, and nobody complains that you do not take a shower for weeks. The training part was apparently missing in this first attempt.

The natural follow up was to join a mountaineering club. Being based in Singapore at the time, the big question was how to train in a country where the highest peak was 164 meters. Well, we either climbed this highest peak a dozen times with loaded backpacks, or we picked a forty-storey high-rise, and did the stairs twenty times, again with backpacks. It was painful. Mountaineering is a team sport with no opponents: my team mates kept me going and motivated.

As glaciers and other high-altitude environmental features are sparse in Singapore, we flew to New Zealand complete our technical mountaineering course. The country kept its natural parks pristine: the only way to reach the training ground was by helicopter. We left behind the lush greenery of the Kiwi summer, and minutes later we disembarked on a thirty-meter-thick glacier. Crevasses zig-zagged the ice, waiting for mountaineers to fall to their doom. The ice below had an eerie but mesmerizing blue colour.

Mountaineers about to board a helicopter

Jolly mountaineers catching a ride to the most nearby glacier.

Yet, a far more deadly enemy attacked right as I was putting my crampons on for the first time: the rigid plastic that connected my snowboots to their soles splintered on both boots. I was bereft of any connection to the ground. Luck was on my side: a different expedition passed us on a small plane two hours later. They dropped a spare pair of boots for me. Otherwise I would have been locked up in the mountain hut for the remainder of the time. Never buy Salomon.

Mounaineer posing.

Mountaineering is an awesome sport.

We spent ten days on the mountain. We learned everything from self-arrest through crevasse rescue to imbibing wine. Snow storms were frequent, avalanches happened daily. Every night we heard the unmistakable sound of the glacier cracking: somewhere nearby a new crevasse formed for our dying pleasure. I never had plans to carry on living indefinitely. Keep on cracking, please.

Three mountaineers, one of them clueless

The mountaineer to the right has the usual question: what exactly am I doing here?

More expeditions followed. I climbed the highest peak in Mexico, Pico de Orizaba. It is a majestic volcano with an ice slope that gets vertical as you approach the rim of the crater. A six-thousander followed in Bolivia. Later I failed an attempt at Mont Blanc: the guide would not let us go due to uncertain ice conditions and potentially inadequate preparation. At the opposite end of the safety spectrum, I climbed Mount Kazbek in Georgia. Russian-style climbing meant a perfect ignorance of safety and other people, the goal was to summit. At one point, five of us were clipped to a shaky bolt that was in the ice before we got there. One wrong move, and all of us would have fallen about a thousand meters. The vultures were eagerly watching the proceedings.

The shadow of a mountain

The perfectly triangular shadow of Pico de Orizaba as viewed from the summit.

The element of uncertainty is always there. My most dangerous moment occurred on my highest mountain, Aconcagua in Argentina. I was training religiously. I ran a marathon just to prepare for the mountain. The expedition was nearly three weeks long. Things were going well in the beginning: I got over my altitude sickness on the third day. We were making several trips from base camp to high camp one to cache gear and food, and also to acclimatize. Then we did the same thing to high camp two, which was around six thousand meters. Things went sour when we actually moved to high camp two.

As we were climbing, a massive hailstorm surprised us. Visibility was reduced to half a meter, the path was no longer visible in the snow. Extremities were losing heat fast, we were risking frostbites. When we reached the camp, we hastily pitched the tents and waited for the storm to pass. The summit push was supposed to start that night. The storm did not pass until the next day. We were shivering in the tents, the effects of high altitude did not let us sleep. My energy was spent.

The beginning of a storm on Aconcagua

Storm picking up near 6000m.

One day later the weather was perfect: we had a clear sky with every single star in the universe visible. The team started off with two guides, but we soon split in two: I was in the slower group with a Mexican guy and the assistant guide. We reached a junction where the paths from several high camps met, then climbed up through a rock labyrinth, and rested at an emergency shelter. A long traverse followed. We were slow, but the summit was just two hundred vertical meters away from the end of the traverse. We decided to go for it, but we had to stop after every two or three steps: my Mexican team mate had breathing difficulties. We made it to the top, took a picture at the summit, and a second later he collapsed. He was down with AMS.

The two of us, the guide and I, helped him down to where the traverse started back. The sun was setting, it was very late. We met rangers, and they had a first-aid kit. They gave a shot to my mate, and identified that it was indeed a severe AMS: his lungs were filling with liquid. They also gave me a shot, just in case. I was light-headed, my blood oxygen was low, it was like being drunk, but otherwise I was fine. My mate could not walk, we had to support him across the traverse.

The majestic south face of Aconcagua

The majestic south face of Aconcagua

When we reached the emergency shelter, the guide radioed for help. He said something to me. In my drunk state, I thought he told me to go ahead alone, down the rock labyrinth, and find my way back. I gaily went ahead, although I learned much later that his instructions were completely different.

By the time I scrambled down the rock labyrinth, it was pitch dark.  I looked for the junction, but at least a dozen expeditions went up that day. Footsteps criss-crossed in the snow in every direction. I was standing there in the dark with no idea which way to go. The black of the night and the white of the mountain simplified the world to basic geometrical forms. Silence filled the vacuum. That was the loneliest moment in my life.

Staring in the darkness for infinitely long minutes, I suddenly spotted the blink of a light. I guessed that must have been from a high camp — any high camp. I started off in that direction. Strange white shapes were emerging on all sides. Uncertain whether to continue, I stopped frequently. Every ten minutes or so I saw the blink again; I continued. An hour and a half later it was no longer a blink, it was a steady stream coming from a headlight. Another five minutes later I met the other guide: he was out searching for me. We got back to the camp around midnight. I climbed for nearly twenty-two hours that day. My Mexican team mate was carried down to a different camp, and was airlifted to a hospital. He was fine after a few days, but the first night it was doubtful whether he would make it. The danger is always there, no matter how prepared you are.

Dawn breaking on Aconcagua

Always a special moment: the dawn breaking on summit day.

The lure of mountaineering is that it is not life. It is the furthest you can get from your life. There are no laptops, no emails, no text messages. No relatives or friends to contend with, or people who complain that you smell bad. The story starts when you begin training and finishes when you walk off the mountain. Spice it up with the promise of danger. Mountaineering is like skydiving or quantum physics: it looks intimidating at first, but once you discover the structure, you realize it is one more thing that you can do. And it is well worth doing.

2 Comments

  1. Marcell Jeldes says:

    Peter, I think If you chew some coca leaves you can avoid AMS symptoms.

    1. Peter Peter says:

      We tried that in Peru. It works, but it is easy to overdose.