“It is one thing to romanticize mountains and love them from afar and quite another to get on their backs and climb them.” This quote from Forever on the Mountain seemed very apposite, as I prepared my gear for the biggest climb of my life. For months I have dreamed and fantasized about climbing Toclla. I am now faced with the very real task of actually getting to the top of this monster. If everything goes perfectly it will be one of the hardest days of my life. If they don’t…. well I’d rather not think about that.
The first objective was to move our tents 2400 ft up the mountain to “Moraine Camp” at 16,800 ft. This would give us a head start on the big day. We were going to carry everything to high camp. So to save weight we would be leaving the luxuries of basecamp behind, and sleeping three to a tent. Only three of the nine climbers were going to be allowed to try for this mountain. Two additional ladies were strong enough and decided they wanted to at least go to high camp with us. Following a leisurely breakfast, we broke down our tents and stuffed our packs until they were heavy with gear. I didn’t have a scale but I am certain mine was above fifty pounds.
The hike up to high camp was a messy struggle. The trail is steep and loose for the first half, and an exhausting scramble over a jumbled boulder field for the last. I put some good music on in my headphones, and let the sweat flow for three hours as I grappled with the hike. Around 3PM we finally reached high camp. We dropped our packs and immediately got to work erecting our tents to shelter us from the increasing wind and cold. Weary from the hard hike I crawled into my tent for a brief rest. We only had a few hours in camp to recharge our aching legs for the summit attempt later that night. While we rested, Elias (lead guide) fired up the stove and began the endless process of melting snow for water.
As late afternoon slipped into dusk, the sun dipped behind the horizon, but the daylight still lingered in the air as though accidentally left behind. All around us the vast mountains and cloud filled sky exploded with orange and red. We watched in awe as the colors changed and slowly faded. Behind us the last of the sunlight worked its way up Tocllaraju and the mountain slipped behind a curtain of darkness. I thought to myself that the next time the light touched those slopes we would be near the summit. I felt a tingle of anticipation for that moment.
As soon as the sun was gone the temperature began to plummet. We grabbed our puffy down coats and headed to the shelter of some near by rocks to huddle in a circle for dinner. Tonight there was no fresh cooked food served on a table by our camp cook. This evening we would be supping on dehydrated mountain-house meals. As we waited for the boiling water to reconstitute the dehydrated food we shoved the meal package in our jackets. The warmth from the hot water helped ward off the chill that was emanating from the rocks beneath us. While we were eating dinner the third guide Robby arrived at high camp. He had taken four climbers on a second attempt of Urus, and then made the hike up to base camp. I was quite fatigued from just hiking up here and was very impressed by the high level of fitness of our guides.
By 7PM, we were all crammed into the tents for a futile attempt at sleep. Our tent was perched on an uneven slanting rock slab. Little nubbins of rock dug through the inadequate padding of my thermarest. The angle of the ground caused us to slowly slide towards the downhill side of the tent. I was unlucky enough to be at the bottom of this manslide. I knew early on that sleep was not going to happen. I simply laid in the tent and tried to rest without disturbing Magnus, who was pretty much laying on top of me. My thoughts were already on the mountain which towered above us in the darkness. As the evening progressed I felt an increasing disquiet in my guts. Unsure if it was nerves, altitude, or food borne illness I tried to ignore it.
About 11:30PM Elias got out of the tent, a few minutes later I heard the hiss of the stove as he began heating water for breakfast. I knew it wouldn’t be long now. Elias was back at the tent with hot water around midnight. We used the water to brew instant coffee. I stared at my selection of breakfast items and my stomach contracted violently at the mere thought of food. No matter, I had to get in some calories. I chose the least disgusting sounding bar and put it in my mouth. I somehow forced the entire bar down,and it settled in my stomach like an unwelcome brick. Even my coffee, which is usually my favorite part of the morning routine, was unappetizing.
By 12:45AM I once again felt the familiar bite of my crampon as we stepped onto firm snow. The neon green rope glowed under a full moon as it stretched uphill to Robby. The glacier started with a gentle slope which was a nice warmup. I was glad for this gradual start as I was still not feeling well. All around us was quiet cold snow fading into black chasms beyond the ridge. Up this high there is remarkably little sensory stimulation. No plants or cities to produce smells, no rush of water or chirp of birds. Only wind, cold, and the constant crunch of crampons. We took a break around 2AM. I was unable to force down any food, and settled for drinking Gatorade. The moonlight revealed that the next hour would be on much steeper snow. Reluctantly we removed our down parkas and felt the bite of the high altitude air. I wriggled my toes against my stiff boots to warm them as we continued to make an easy traverse towards the ridge proper.
The gentle traverse ended abruptly into a steep 70 degree wall of snow. We paused briefly to discuss how to surmount this obstacle. It appeared a previous party had kicked in some steps which would ease our assent somewhat. It was decided Elias would lead and place pickets for protection. The rest of us would follow using a single long axe in high dagger. I was the last in line to make the assent. The climbing was by far the steepest snow I have been on and it was exhilarating. My heart was pounding from the combination of adrenaline and exertion. I was so concentrated on what I was doing I forgot how crappy I was feeling. This type of 100% focus and being forced wholly into the moment is one of the main thing that draws me to this sport. I apparently suck at high dagger (using a mountaineering ice axe pick much like you would use an ice tool). On the entire pitch I never felt like I got secure placement, and wished for my tool which was strapped to my pack. Being the last up I needed to pull the pickets and stash them between my pack and my body. The last picket got caught up and wouldn’t go in cleanly. I had to take both hands off the snow and balance precariously as I worked to get the picket stowed safely. Heart racing I finished the pitch and the angle of the slope soon eased.
Before long we were at the first crux of the route the section where we gained the ridge proper. There was some steep snow approaching a Bergschrund (a wall of ice created where the ice separates). Even in the dark the steep climb looked very intimidating. You could see the overhanging lip looming above us silhouetted against the setting moon. Elias being the baddass he is simply walked up and sent the climb with out even pausing. Once on top he built an anchor to belay the rest of us up. Magus and Kim who were on his rope went up next. I watched Magnus struggle to pull the roof and then fall. I knew this was not going to be easy at all. I was going to the the fourth to climb and as the minutes ticked by a deep chill set in. I stood in the darkness shivering, stomping my aching feet to get circulation. My stomach was cramping and I was nauseous from both nerves and unfamiliar bacteria. “Maybe I should just go down” my inner voice was becoming much louder, and I had serious doubts if I was going to summit. It was too late Robbie (first on my rope) was already on route. Looks like I am going to be trying this. I stuffed my puffy jacket and prepared to climb. I found the use of one tool and my axe in high dagger very awkward. Especially as I worked to clear the overhanging roof. I struggled and fought and managed to get to the top without falling. As I hauled myself over the lip and clipped into the anchor I felt like complete crap.
The extra exertion and excitement of climbing this section was just too much. I told Elias how bad I was feeling. He told me I needed to decide right then if I was going to go to the summit or turn around. Once he tore down the anchor it was going to be too difficult to split up. If i couldn’t summit the whole team would have to turn around. I really didn’t feel like I could commit 100% to continuing upwards. So there at 18,700 my 7 month quest to climb Toccliraju was going to end. I knew it was the right thing to do but I struggled to admit it and verbalize that I was quitting. I asked Elias for a break to think it over. “No time everyone is cold an we need to move” he responded. I nodded and hung my head and he knew that meant I was done. We quickly set about to rig me on rappel and Elias call down to Carlos who was still at the bottom of the pitch that I was turning around. I quickly wished the team good luck and rappelled down to Carlos. He had another rope in his pack which we tied into and started our descent. It wasn’t long before we were at the top of the lower steep section. I got out my second tool and prepared to downclimb. I thought I had noticed before but the light from my headlamp seemed very dim as I fiddled with the straps to remove the tool from my pack. Carlos put me on a boot axe belay and I climbed down over the lip. Just a few steps in and out of the glow of Carlos’s lamp I realized my headlamp was dying. I yelled up at Carlos obvious concern in my voice. He replied “do you have spare batteries?” I took a mental inventory of my pack and distinctly remembered leaving them all the way down at base camp. “Well you are just going to have to get down then Keith”. Off I set, gingerly feeling my way down near vertical snow. It was positively terrifying. I was not at all confident in the belay, and I was expending tons of energy kicking to secure foot holds. I took a really long time to climb down. Once I was on the ground I called back up to Carlos. In what seemed like less than a minute he was standing next to me.
I was still feeling really sick. He suggested I put on my big coat and see if getting warmer didn’t help me feel better. We also decided I needed to transfer the batteries from my avalanche transceiver to my headlamp so I could see where I was walking. He was kind enough to do this for me while I rested and drank some water. The rest of the route to basecamp was easy walking on snow. Even in my poor condition we were back in camp in less than an hour. The first sky was getting light as I crawled into my tent sick, tired, and very sad. As I lay there alone in my tent, It really hit hard that all that work, and all that dreaming was ending without a summit. I drifted in and out of sleep my thoughts were still on the mountain. At about 6:30 an urgent ache in my gut drove me back out of the tent for another date with a blue bag. Camp was quiet and I spent a while looking up at the mountain trying to spot the team. Carlos heard me up and asked if I was ok. He suggested we rest until the sun hit our tents and then pack up. I was feeling quite a bit better and was able to get maybe an hour of real sleep. I was awakened to Carlos calling up Elias on the radio. The team was high on the ridge and all was going well. The excitement and elation in Elias voice made it obvious they were in high spirits. I pulled my sleeping bag around me and pouted.
Once things warmed up we quietly packed up our gear and hit the trail. I was weak and slow on the hike to base camp. I felt as exhausted as if I had climbed Everest. Midway through the tedious descent we encountered the rest of the team who had decided to hike up to high camp to experience the fantastic views. They were all very surprised to see Carlos and me returning we shared the same sadness of unfulfilled hopes and they offered some encouraging words.
Shortly after dark we got word that the successful sumiteers were nearing camp. We all got out of the tents and stood out to congratulate them. As I embraced my battered and badly sunburned teammates I was honestly happy that they had had success and returned safely to camp. Magnus soon teetered towards our tent and literally collapsed into it. I helped him with his boots and offered to get him some food and water. He was completely exhausted but managed to relay some of the story of their exiting day.
As I sit and reflect on this more than a year later I feel much better about this failure. I think I have changed a lot in my definition of “success” in the mountains. The summit of Toccliraju was not a singular experience. It motivated almost a year of wonderful adventure. Sure I would be proud to have accomplished this goal. There are still unpleasant nagging doubts about if there was anything I could have done better or if I could have been mentally stronger and pushed through. There is also a calm assurance that I made the right decision. I had a fantastic life enriching experience, I summited two big peaks, I am alive, and I am still filled with a passion for the mountains. I showed up I gave it my best and on that day it wasn’t enough. I don’t know if I will ever return and finish this particular climb, but I know I have grown from it and I will continue to push myself to climb mountains that are big and hard and scary for me.