Sunday, June 19, 2011

Chimborazo - Lessons from my Father

My father fell on his face for the thirtieth time.  I hoped he would stay.  I had fallen a lot too – I could only bear this so long before breaking into tears.  Luckily I was last on the line; nobody would see the frozen streaks on my face.

The snow was corn on the surface and rock-hard somewhere below.  You never knew where.  Each step varied – you’d crunch along a few steps catching grip six inches below, then scrooosh – your crampons caught nothing and your leg disappeared in slush up to your hip.  Goddamit.  All you heard besides crunch and scroosh was the brush of your balaclava against your parka hood, and all you could think was, Why the hell are we still climbing?

The reason I kept climbing was because my father, just ahead of me on rope, was still climbing.  Seven hours and counting.  He was fifty – if he continued, so would I.  Why was he still climbing?  Pathologic determination.

I couldn’t believe he was still going.  This time was his last fall, for sure.  I was glad.  Resting and watching from a few paces back, I heard him cough and wheeze.  Good.  The wheezing should be a clue it's time to turn around.  But he was the doctor, not me.

Climbing Chimborazo was his idea.  My dad was the adventurer in the family.  His need for adventure brought our family out west, where we lost friends in whitewater, avalanches, small aircraft crashes.  On weekend getaways I watched him treat friends and family on the scene of motorcycle wrecks, hunting accidents, and a fall into a vertical mine shaft.  Dad once butterflied my brother's face closed so he could get back on the ski slope.  If it was outdoors and posed risk of injury, he loved it.

Presently, Dad was the dark rounded figure on the rope ahead of me, half-swallowed in the snow.  We could only manage eight or ten steps at a time before stopping to gulp thin air.  I was always glad when he rested.  But this time he just stayed.  Ten minutes maybe.  Didn't even bother to climb out of the hole he'd created in the snow.  Good.  We'd turn around, I thought.

Everything was white or pale blue:  the mountain, the sky above, the clouds below us.  The colors flashing in the corner of my eye were a nice distraction.   I’d turn my head to follow the crimson and orange bursts.  They stayed just out of view for a second then disappeared.  My headache was gone.  Bonus.  The whole day prior, we'd sat at el refugio nursing headaches with sweet tea, acclimatizing to altitude before the summit push to 20,500.  

I hiked up to my father.  When I got close, he scrambled out his snow pit and moved on.  He's full-on crazy, I thought.  I could hear him breathe till he was five paces away.  I should've known he'd never give up.  Forget breathing.  We were so close.  The gentle remaining slope was so reassuring – so close.  Just a straight hike.

We went on.  Another two hours.

He couldn't stand for the summit photo.  We took one sitting together, and a standing group shot with him on his knees in the middle, smiling broadly.

We’d got our picture, our cocktail party story, and a half-minute of exhilaration:  the morning sun melted the clouds below and Chimborazo's long, pointed shadow parted the earth in perfect halves.  I raised my arms and looked for my own shadow at the tip of the tip, a hundred miles west.  Now.  Let's.  Get.  Off.  This.  Mountain.

He’d used everything to make the summit.  How will we get down, I wondered.  Nine hours up.  He was spent.

The self-arrest became very important.  My dad would take big lumbering steps on the frozen down-slope, knees locking and unlocking uncontrollably, then tumble like a drunk and skid to a stop.  No big deal, we were making progress. 

The slope steepened.  He no longer skidded to a stop but had to self arrest after every fall, digging his ice-axe into the mountainside.  I stopped looking back.  I could hear him on the rope behind me scraping to a stop every few minutes.  Then, for a while I heard nothing.  Looking back, I was surprised to see him on his feet for a full five minutes or so.  Caught his second wind.  Thank god.  I’d been worried, and tired of waiting for him.  I wanted off Mount Chimborazo.

I heard his muffled voice just before he hit me behind the knees like an overloaded inner-tube.  I was thrown and landed on head and shoulders, disoriented, yelling to him:  Arrest, arrest!  He was sliding away, listless, accelerating as the slope ahead steepened and disappeared from view.  Before I could position myself, the rope between us lost slack.  After another clumsy jerk, we were both sliding on a disappearing ice slope.

By evolutionary mechanism, the mind breaks moments like this into slow motion.  There is as much cortex storing these ten seconds in my head as the whole rest of the trip.  And while the curved time didn't benefit me in the moment (I couldn't act any faster) I'm sure the prolonged seconds are a self-preservation memento keeping me off future mountain climbs.

As we slid and tumbled, gaining speed on the ice, I recalled a water bottle tossed between us hours before.  It was fumbled and we all watched it for amusement, sliding, sliding and disappearing the same moment it left earshot.  I recall deep anger for the man pulling me over a cliff; I wished for a Bruce Banner moment.  I had whole internal conversations about what to do as I struggled to match pitch and roll with the banking slope.  I held my axe point into the hill, slowing, till the rope went taught again and yanked me out.  Ice plowing from the axe filled my face.  Toes, get the toes going, I thought.  Digging the stuttering crampons into the hillside, I felt us slowing even as the rope pulled.  Then, finally, I got purchase with my axe.

We stopped.  And rested.  Then continued down.

Around noon, we un-roped to move independently through the calving snow line.  I moved quickly.  My father negotiated the glacial cliff and boulders with caution, then stopped completely. 

I stood on the dry gravel slope twenty yards away, looking back.  An ice chunk like a Volkswagen fell beside him, crumbling, and dusting him with snow.  He didn’t even look over.  He just slumped on a round boulder, heaving.  I yelled.

“Let’s get the f**k outta here, Dad!”

He waved me on.  Intense sun worked on the snowline – a cliff of ice and boulders, audible creeks underneath.   The wall fell in pieces left and right; my father was inert among it.

“C’mon!"  I pointed above him.  "That big stuff is coming any time.  You gotta keep walking.”

“I can’t breathe.”

“I know, I’ve been listening to you puff for thirteen hours.  Let’s go. You can’t stay here.”

“You don’t understand,” he said, pausing for air between phrases.

“Understand?  We’re almost down, you’ve got to move!  C’mon.  You stay here and you’re going to die!”

“You don’t understand. Huff, huff.  You’re not a doctor.  Puff, puff.  I can’t breathe…and I can’t walk anymore.  No oxygen."

He was a doctor, and I was not - he just wanted to make that clear before he was killed by falling ice, I figured.  I was a belated college graduate with no career plans whatsoever.

“I can’t carry your ass out of here, Doctor,” I said.  "Hope you have a cure for f**king falling rocks."  I shouldered my backpack, turned and continued downhill.  I started to trot a bit, so he’d know maybe I did have the strength to save him.

I heard him cough and mumble something about pulmonary edema this, partial-pressure that

He saved himself.  I was asleep in el refugio when his tin cough woke me.

"We have to get... to a lower altitude."  He sounded like drainpipes.  I had just enough energy to care again.  Not enough to keep hiking, though.  But I put my boots back on, took a handful of aspirin, drank some sweet tea, and packed our gear.

We continued down the slope.

By the time we got down to 10,000 feet elevation, my dad was breathing easier.  In the morning he was fine, and I’d decided to become a doctor.  I didn’t tell him for a few weeks; I couldn’t stand for him to think he had anything to do with it.

Dr Robert James Porter II - adventurer and father of five

Thank you, Dad, for many lessons and adventures. Happy Father's Day.