Judgment Day Early While Rock Climbing

October 15, 2004

ROCK climbing is largely a matter of judgmentand you can put a whole team at risk if youturn out to be wrong. I learned this the hard waywhen we were climbing Nanga Parbat in Kashmir –struggling to reach Camp 3 before the weatherclosed in on us.In fact, the wind came up earlier than expected,so we decided that if we were going to make Camp3 that day we had better take the little-used, thoughmuch quicker, chimney route. Having had the mostexperience with chimneys, which are usually justclefts in a cliff, I snapped on the lead rope and wasgoing strong for the first hundred feet.Chimney climbing looks almost impossible atfirst. Mastery of the technique, which involveswedging one foot and your rump across the gap while you wedge the otherfoot a bit higher, comes only with practice. And there are only a few inchesdifference in width between what will go and what won’t. But I was 23then and supremely confident in my own powers. And in any case, I knewit had been done before, so I went at it without a qualm.But what I didn’t know was that the chimney, open at the outer side,gradually folded in on itself and became a shaft, narrowing slightly at thesame time before opening out again a few feet above me. I stopped to havea think about this, with both legs wedged firmly beneath me.AFTER weighing the odds, I judged that I could just get through if Iheld my arms above me, hunched my shoulders enough and let out all mybreath. Then I gave a mighty push and got my shoulders through, but myhips stuck in the narrow funnel like a cork in a bottle. I could take theweight on my elbows while I tried to wriggle free, but that didn’t work, andnow I couldn’t get either leg wedged to support me while I used my arms.In this kind of situation, the great enemy is panic and hasty action, so Itook five minutes to calm down and assess the possibilities. In the end, Idecided the only solution was to hang on to a rope lowered from the top ofthe chimney while I wriggled back down where I came from.By the immobility of the lead rope, the team quickly figured out whatwas wrong and two of them promptly set out on the long detour to find thetop of the chimney and lower a rope. Even so, it was nearly six hours beforeit reached me, during which I had ample opportunity to think about overconfidence.Once back at the bottom, we waited for my rescuers to retrace theirsteps, and then we all struggled back down to Camp 2.My bad judgment had ruined the climb for the whole team, put two ofthem at great risk to rescue me and they were not amused, as we now hadno chance of reaching the summit that season.I had learned a hard lesson in humility, but that didn’t get me an invitationon the next attempt.

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