The Storm: Learning to Retreat on Mount Nilkantha
As I swung my tools into the unconsolidated snowy headwall and tried to catch something that would hold my weight, I looked down and saw Jason and Caro huddled together at a hanging belay. In the gathering dark, they were trying to avoid the constant barrage of snow and ice I was creating. We’d been climbing for 16 hours. I swung again, dug in up to my elbows, and grunted up and over the steep cornice that led to the final summit ridge.
As I let my lungs absorb the cold, thin air, I could see the summit above glowing in the last light. It was still at least two hours away, and a dark wall of clouds was heading toward us.
I built an anchor and pulled up rope. “On belay!” I yelled. My body moved through the motions I had made a thousand times, as my mind wandered. Should we keep going or bail? How bad is this storm really going to be? Was it the wrong decision to leave our bivy gear below?
This trip and the Himalayas had consumed me for the last year. Just the planning alone had been a major challenge: denied permits, foreign bureaucracy and partners that fell through, all creating the uneven stepping stones that led me to this exact moment and place. Mount Nilkantha towers 6,596 meters above the Hindu pilgrimage town of Badrinath in the Garhwal Himalaya. Despite the fact that it wasn’t my original objective, it had quickly captivated me with its majesty. Nilkantha’s southwest face had seen many attempts but few successes over the years, and we were hoping to be part of the latter.
“Hey! Nice work. That was some weird climbing.” Caro wormed up and over the lip of the headwall and stood up next to me looking toward the summit. “We still have some climbing ahead of us, eh?”
“Yeah, seems like a few hours still.” Jason’s tool popped over the ridge, then his head, then his big smile. “Yeah, nice one,” he said. He pressed his tools down into the snow and mantled up and over the cornice. We were all feeling strong and, despite the approaching storm, decided the safety margin was big enough. We kept going.
Caro set off, making quick work of the terrain above. Jason and I followed, navigating a path illuminated by the glistening blue ice under our feet. I could feel my lungs laboring and dehydration working itself into my legs, but still I remained calm and focused.
Dark clouds settled over us as Jason and I reached the awkward stance where Caro was crouched belaying. The storm began with light graupel, followed by heavy snow and wind. And just like that, on an exposed ridge at 6,300 meters, we were in the middle of it.
Before I had time to think of our next move, something hit me. I yelled and grabbed my head. Caro and Jason stared at me. “What’s wrong?” Jason asked. “I think I was struck by lightning!”
Then Jason felt a surge in his waist. We were in the middle of a static electricity storm with no quick escape.
“Fuck, that hurt!” Caro bellowed, grabbing her chest.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” I yelled, my voice whipped away by the howling wind and increasing snow.
As small jolts of electricity continued, I struggled to get a V-thread in the ice. My mind was racing, and I couldn’t focus on the simple task I had done so many times before. I felt responsible for the safety of the team, and now our safety margin was gone.
“Come on, what’s taking so long?” Caro urged.
I looked up and locked eyes with her. Caro and I had not met before this trip. We’d had an immediate, strong connection and we climbed fluidly together, but now this storm was wreaking havoc on our blind date. We stared, saying nothing, understanding that things were going terribly wrong.
Sensing my paralysis, she snapped into action. “Hey, what about slinging this rock. What do you guys think?” She grabbed hold of a rock half exposed in the ice.
Relief settled over me as I regained my thoughts. “Looks solid. Let’s do it.”
Wasting no time, we rigged the rappel and started down. As the frozen ropes slid through my belay device, I looked back up toward Jason and Caro, and the summit above wrapped in blackness. For a moment, everything around me went silent and I fought an urge to scream as tears welled in my eyes. It was over.
I can’t deny my disappointment for not summiting. And maybe if I’d made the summit, the entire journey would now feel like a simpler event, more tied-up and defined. I know now that working toward the chance to not summit was the real expedition, a journey defined not by single moments but by what I learned from all those moments combined. As a result, my respect for the mountains deepened, the bond with my climbing partners deepened, and my ability as a climber expanded. For all that, I am grateful. Because I’d retreated, the lesson of the trip became complex, nuanced, deeper and more difficult. No simple thing. But a thing I’d never trade.
This story first appeared in the Fall 2016 Patagonia catalog.