Baby, It’s Cold Outside
This past September, as I was trying to leave Aspen, we were hit by an absolutely absurd blizzard: More than a foot of snow in the mountains and several inches in town. It was also cold. Who wears down jackets in mid-September? It set me off ruminating about the coldest times I have had in the mountains. It was a continuum – like naming, say, the three most unattractive women you ever went out with. The tendency is to want to forget. But finally I came up with three – three coldest times, not women. I have forgotten the women. These events took place in the Alps, Mexico and Tibet, in that chronological order. I begin with the Alps.I cannot pin down the exact year, but it must have been in the 1970s when my Alpine career was in full flower. I had been for more than a decade the least-skilled client of a Chamonix guide named Claude Jaccoux, noted both for his exploits in the mountains and a large quantity of blonde hair. During this period, however, my natural inclination was to remain beside the swimming pool at the Hotel Mont Blanc, but once or twice a week Jaccoux would appear with the announcement that we were going to climb something.On this occasion he said that, with a somewhat folklorique group that was to include another guide or two and assorted girlfriends, we were going to climb the south point of the Aguille de Blatière by the voie normale – the normal route. Unless you are a Chamonix person this will mean nothing to you. If you are, the Blatière is the needle at one end of a ridge facing the Grèpon, a ridge which at its other end you will find the Fou – so-called because it was thought you were crazy if you wanted to climb it.The Grèpon has an almost legendary place in Alpine climbing. It was considered absolutely unclimbable until Aug. 5, 1881, when the British climber A.F. Mummery and his two Swiss guides, Alexander Burgener and Benedikt Ventez, actually climbed it. The three had already made some great technical Alpine climbs, with Ventez leading on rock while Burgener prodded him with his ice ax. It was Mummery’s genius to spot these climbs and plausible routes, and, of course, to pay for the guides. In this instance, while they were deep into the route they found themselves confronted by what seemed to be a sheer wall. Ventez, however, noticed a small vertical fissure some 50 feet long that has been known, from that day to this, as the Mummery Crack. It is the key passage on the climb, which needless to say I have never set foot on.
In the unlikely case that I should ever find myself at its base, I did consult Jaccoux as to the best way to tackle it. It is crucial, he said, not to get into the crack because, once you do, you are unlikely to get out – at least on top. You stay, he said, on the outside as much as possible to take advantage of whatever minuscule holds there are. At the time Mummery and his guides climbed it, they were either wearing hobnailed boots or tennis shoes. There is, as we shall see, glacier work to be done so they would have needed a change of shoes (rubber-soled climbing boots, of the kind we all know, were not introduced in the Alps until after the Second World War). In any event, they reached what seemed to be the top. But Mummery spotted another summit not reachable from where they were and possibly higher. They returned to the valley, where Burgener’s pants, which he had torn on a rock, were repaired, and, the following day, climbed the Grèpon a second time, this time reaching the other summit, on which Mummery planted his ice ax and challenging anyone to come get it for a thousand-franc reward. It was claimed four years later by two Chamonix guides and a client who replaced the ax with a flag. These people took advantage of the fact that, in the meantime, a boulder had fallen in a convenient place that allowed another and easier access to the face. Mummery’s climbs represented a quantum leap in the technical level of Alpine climbing.But I digress; back to the matter at hand, the Blatière.It was always my habit when Jaccoux announced one of these expeditions to consult the multivolume Guide Vallot which, considering all the new climbs that have been done since my 1977 edition, must be even more voluminous. In any event, after a brief study, my heart sank. The climb consisted of two parts, each of which looked formidable. The first part was the ascension of the Nantillons Glacier, followed by what appeared to be a nontrivial climb on the Blatière itself. It is classified AD – assez dificile – “rather difficult.” On the bright side, one can now take advantage of either a train to Montenvers, or the cable car to the Plan des Aiguilles, to get within a reasonably short distance from the base of the glacier. In Mummery’s day they walked up from Chamonix, which must have added a couple of hours to the climb. Getting to the base of the glacier is the least of your problems. Your first task is to climb a rock formation known as the Rognon – the kidney. On top of this there is a platform known as the Salle à Manger – the dining room. I did not make these names up. You can look in the Vallot. Probably the early ascensionists had breakfast there, or lunch, or dinner on their way down. This seemed to me to be within my capacities.What happened then profoundly worried me. Above the Rognon, the guide says, ” Climb on the axis of the glacier in crossing a rather steep ice wall, and then circle to the left in passing at the foot of a high ice wall [falling seracs].” Let us pause and consider “falling seracs.” You will know that a serac is a block of ice which in the Alps can be the size of a small house. They are formed at deformities in the glacier and are not very stable. They seem to fall at random and make equal opportunity casualties. Jaccoux told me that once he was guiding a client on a glacier and, as is prudent, had the client behind him on a fairly long rope. A serac fell on her and killed her, barely missing him. When I saw Jaccoux later in the afternoon before we were to tackle the Blatière, I mentioned the seracs. He said not to worry, we would pass under them jogging. I then went to the display near the guide office where the weather reports are posted, in the hope that a storm was imminent. In fact the report was somewhat ambiguous, meaning the die was cast.The following morning I was out of the hotel by 4:30, which meant that no proper breakfast was available. The night porter, who had a skeletal head, served tea and some sort of dreadful dry biscuit. I was carrying enough food for lunch, but thought that 4 in the morning was not the right moment for a sausage. It is a short walk to the cable car station where, even at that hour, a substantial number of climbers were assembled. There was also a hearse. This belonged to two guides from Argentière who had attached a loud speaker to it so they could startle the unaware climber by announcing in sepulchral voices the mortal danger posed by the mountain he or she was intent on climbing. These wags had very likely spent the night in their hearse, sleeping off an evening of bar-hopping in Chamonix.When I located Jaccoux it was evident that our projected climbing group was now substantially diminished – the wiser heads having decided to stay in bed. In any event the weather was now ambiguous. This did not deter Jaccoux and the others.As I anticipated, the climb to the Salle à Manger passed without incident. At the Salle itself we found two English climbers who had spent the night there – probably to avoid paying for a hotel room in Chamonix. From the Salle I could see an ominous line of seracs above, any one of which could crush a tank. The terrain was crevassed and not amenable to jogging. We went as fast as I was able to and arrived above the seracs, in my case out of breath and somewhat demoralized. I announced to Jaccoux that, while I much appreciated his good intentions of taking me on thisclimb, I had reached my personal summit and he and his friends should feel free to carry on. Jaccoux accepted this with a minimum of attempts at persuasion and disappeared into a growing fog in the general direction of the Blatière.
I was left to contemplate my position. There was no immediate danger where I was standing, but it was clear that moving in any direction ran the risk of encountering a crevasse. The good news was that I was within hailing distance of the Grèpon, so when the fog lifted occasionally I could study Mummery’s route, although no one seemed to be on the mountain. I think I spotted the crack. While this was going on, I began to realize that I was freezing. It was freezing.I seemed to be losing feeling in my legs. I began a sort of Saint Vitus’ dance on my crampons. I then decided that the crampons were part of the problem, as they conducted my remaining body heat onto the glacier like an open window. With some difficulty I removed the crampons and began my dance again. I also ate some sausage. I have no idea how long this went on before Jaccoux emerged from the fog. They had not gotten too far. We headed down. By this time the sun came out and the glacier had softened up to the point where one could jog. In no time at all we were at the Salle à Manger and back down to the cable car. I was at the pool at the hotel by noon – an altogether satisfying day in the mountains.Next I turn to Mexico.This was a case, as Pasteur would put it, of chance favoring the prepared mind. In this instance the prepared mind was mine, and the chance involved the presence of one Arnulfo Zepeda Dominguez in the physics department at Rockefeller University in New York. I will explain. Zepeda, who as his name might suggest, is Mexican, had taken his Ph.D. at Rockefeller, where he was now visiting. I was at this very time, the early 1980s, an adjunct professor in the same department. Zepeda belonged to a Mexican institution with the impossibly long name Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados del Instituto Politécnico. This was an institute for advanced study in disciplines like physics located in Mexico City. As it happened, this Institute had gotten funds from our National Science Foundation to import American visitors, and Zepeda recruited me. I had never been to Mexico City and I told him that in return for giving the requisite lectures I wanted to climb Popocatépetl – “Popo,” as it is known locally.My visit was to take place in January, which Zepeda said was an excellent time for the climb. The only problem was that I would have had no time to train at any kind of altitude. I was jogging in Central Park in New York but this was hardly sufficient. Nonetheless, I took off for Mexico City as planned, carrying an old ice ax in the passenger cabin, something that would be unthinkable nowadays.As it happened, Zepeda had already made contact with the guias – guides – who are all members of the Socorro Alpino de México, the entity responsible for mountain rescue in Mexico. While they had frequently gotten people down Popo, it seems I was the first person who had actually requested their help in getting up the mountain. Zepeda took me to their headquarters, where I was subjected to a quiz about my mountaineering experience. I did not mention the Blatiére. It was explained to me that the only route that was open was the easiest – Las Cruces – the others were at risk of avalanches. I was perfectly happy to accept Las Cruces, not knowing one route from another. They then wanted to know if I wanted to do the climb in one, two or three days. This was a very odd question but I said two. This meant one night on the mountain in an albergue, which they said was at 14,700 feet. Moreover, they noted, this albergue had no beds. We would sleep on the concrete floor. The chief guide Guillermo Rangel, or “Mimo,” added, “Y hace frio” – “It will be cold” – something I could readily imagine.
This posed a serious dilemma. I had naively assumed that a mountain hut on a highly frequented route would resemble the comparable establishments in the Alps – small hotels. In these Alpine refuges one is supplied with enough blankets – often of marginal hygienic quality – so that one is at least not cold. Furthermore, these Alpine huts are not, like this one, at an altitude comparable to the summit of Mount Rainier. It had not occurred to me to bring a sleeping bag to Mexico, although in New York I had two of them that had served well on several Nepalese treks. I told Mimo I would have to buy a sleeping bag which, after the climb, I would be happy to donate to the Socorro. The next day, having made an elastic future date for the climb – don’t call us, we will call you – I went to a shop suggested by Mimo to buy the sleeping bag, “una bolsa de dormir” (none were for rent). They had only one model, which was light blue and had a label that read, “probada en las principales alturas de México, bajo las condiciones más adversas” – “tested in the highest altitudes in Mexico, under the most adverse conditions.”In truth, this bolsa looked like something a kid might spend a night out in, in a treehouse where the conditions were emphatically not adverse. But there was no choice, so I bought it. I then settled in to wait to hear from the guias.A few days later I was surprised when the telephone rang in the hotel room where I was staying at 8:30 in the morning. I was informed that the guias were in the lobby and needed to see me. There were two of them and we managed a conversation in somewhat fractured Spanish. It turned out that the purpose of the meeting was to arrange for the guias to purchase food for all of us for four meals, three for sure and a fourth for the improvisto – chance. It was arranged that we would leave for the mountain the following Saturday when the guias had their days off from their regular jobs. Zepeda had very kindly volunteered to drive us to the base of the mountain at Tlamacas. He also lent us an excellent portable butane cooker which, as it happened, he had purchased in Aspen where we have a physics institute. In the meantime, I had filled my canteen with a Mexican mineral water called Tehucán, something that would soon lead to a disaster. In any event, by early afternoon on Saturday three guias and myself, along with a two-way radio used for rescue purposes, were jammed into Zepeda’s car and on our way to the mountain.Our first destination was the modern Albergue de Juventud – the youth hostel – at the start of the trail. Just before reaching it, a kid came up to me and said something was leaking from my pack. It was the canteen, which had managed to open itself. I stopped it up and imagined with dread what it had done to the sleeping bag and my down jacket. By this time it was about 5:30. The sun was setting and it was already fairly chilly. We were at almost 13,000 feet, with 1,700 to go over a stretch of some two miles. If the trail had been different this might not have been such a slog. But it was thick with volcanic ash, so that with each step one slipped backward – a nightmare. By the time we reached the hut, a Quonset-like structure, it was night and very cold – I mean very cold. Inside the refuge there was almost nothing except for a few rickety chairs, a small table, and some wooden boards that we were meant to use as beds. When I opened my rucksack, what emerged was a soaked sleeping bag and down jacket – basically worthless.Mimo had set to work lighting the butane cooker while the other guide, Rodolfo, had gone out to get some snow to melt. (The third guide had stayed below to man the radio.) At one point Rodolfo presented me with a plastic beaker with the instruction that I should drink its contents – “una medicina” – as fast as possible. Needless to say, it was tequila which, for an instant or two, raised my internal temperature.It was now unbearably cold. I tried every permutation of whatever clothing I had and nothing helped – even the corn soup, bread and tea that I ate while shivering. My teeth were literally chattering. I have no idea when I went to sleep. I would have guessed never, except that at what seemed to be dawn I was awakened by what sounded like scratching at the door. It turned out that there were four Mexican climbers who had started out from Tlamacas at 4 a.m. in order to avoid spending the night in this Godforsaken hut. They were followed by a steady stream of climbers, including a group of three Americans who proposed to climb the mountain in tennis shoes. After a somewhat nasty argument with the guias they were sent back down.
It was now about 8, an impossibly late hour by Alpine standards to begin a snow climb. But this did not seem to bother the guias, who started up the mountain in the bright sun. As you will know if you have done it, this route on Popo is, for most of the way, basically a walk. I did have crampons but there was no rope. I am not sure the guias had a rope. It was just one foot after the other with many rest stops because of the altitude. We were about 100 feet from the summit when we hit the ice. We were so close to the summit you could see steam coming over the top. This ice was rather steep and very hard – black ice. Mimo said that this was as far as we were going. We had no equipment for this kind of ice – no ice pitons and no rope. We might have gotten up, but coming down would have been very risky. In the days before the 1994 eruptions began, there were a number of fatal accidents on Popo. My guess is that people fell on this ice and kept going. As we went down, Mimo cleared the mountain, telling climbers coming up about the ice. We looked like a herd fleeing before a storm. I have no regrets, but God was it cold!Next, Tibet. A few years ago a group of Tibetan monks visited Aspen. They actually came from a monastery in northern India for which they were trying to raise money. They gave a concert of chants and built a mandala. As you know, a mandala is an elaborate vedic icon made out of colored sand and then blown away after it is constructed. It seemed like an appropriate symbol for what was then happening to a great many Aspen residents in the stock market. Be that as it may, a small reception was given for the monks at the beginning of their visit, to which I was invited. One of them, whose English was better than the others, engaged me in conversation. My own Tibetan is limited to phrases like “Phö la yak du” – In Tibet (Phö) there are yaks. This is not going to get you far. The monk asked me if I had ever visited Tibet. I told him that in 1994 I had made a circumnavigation of Mount Kailas. This was greeted by a blank look of incomprehension. It was as if I had told him that I had tried to climb the Blatière. I thought my pronunciation might be at fault so I tried “kailash,” “kailas,” “kaila,” to no avail. A friend of mine, who has a Ph.D. in Tibetan studies and speaks the language fluently, was observing this fiasco and came to my rescue.It turns out that not only do the Tibetans not call their country “Tibet,” but they do not call their most famous mountain “Kailas” – the Hindi name. In Tibet, it is “khang rimpoche,” or “snow precious.” A snowy mountain pass is “khang-ree la,” which I suspect is where “Shangri-La” comes from. That “Kailas” is not “Kailas” in Tibet should not be a surprise. After all, “Everest” is called “sagarmatha” in Nepal and “Chomo lungma” in Tibet. “Everest” of course, is a British invention named after the surveyor who “discovered” it in the 19th century. Be all that as it may, I could now tell the monk about my visit to khang rimpoche – Kailas.This also had to do with the previously mentioned Claude Jaccoux. In addition to his guiding and ski instructing, Jaccoux had created an enterprise which he called “Jaccoux Voyages,” which specialized in adventure travel. Unlike many of these agencies, which purport to do the same sort of thing, these really were, I can tell you from experience, adventures. I had read about Kailas for years and told Jaccoux that if he ever organized a trip there he could count me in. Jaccoux held off for several years until the Chinese allowed one to do the trip he had in mind.In spring 1994, Jaccoux informed me that he was now able to run the trip and explained what he had planned for the following September. We would fly to Kathmandu and then use internal airlines to get to a remote town in western Nepal named Simikot, which is the district capital of the Humla district, not very often visited by foreigners. We would then trek some five days to the north until we reached the Tibetan border. There would be a considerable altitude gain, culminating in crossing the Nara La, a pass that is over 14,000 feet. We would then be on the Tibetan plateau and would never be for the rest of the trip at an altitude of less than 12,000 feet. Once we got into Tibet, we would be met by a crew of Tibetan drivers in four-wheel drive vehicles who would first take us to Taklakot – the real border town – where we would clear customs. Then we would drive to Darchen, the settlement at the base of Kailas. We would do our three-day circumnavigation, followed by a weeklong drive to Lhasa, thence to fly back to Kathmandu. He expected the whole operation to take about three weeks.
That was the plan. But it was vetoed by the Chinese, who said that we could only do it in the opposite direction. When I heard this, I thought they were crazy, but once I got on the ground I understood what the problem was. Nepal and Tibet are at this point are separated by the Karnali River. There is a small wooden bridge and the boundary is presumably in the middle of the bridge. There is no marker and there is no frontier station of any kind – at least there wasn’t in 1994. You could wander freely in and out of Tibet and this is what the Chinese were worried about. Going the other way, we had to go through customs at Taklakot before leaving the country so our movements could be monitored. Thus on Sept. 6 we left Kathmandu by South West China Airlines for Lhasa.Lhasa, which I visited again a few years later, is now a lumpen Chinese city in which the Tibetan culture seems almost grafted on to entertain the tourists. I was glad to leave it and begin our drive west. It was a remarkable drive. There were mountains and lakes we could not even find on the map. The roads, if you can call them that, were often dirt tracks. After about a week we arrived at the “lion town,” which was basically a Chinese military garrison. We were about as far west as one can go and remain in Tibet. We had passed Kailas, which was to the south hidden by the intervening mountains. We had to loop back this time, crossing a couple of 18,000-foot passes and stopping at the ruins of the medieval Gu-je kingdom – wonderful structures carved in the cliffs.Then we headed for Kailas. We got our first views at sunset. I have spent much of my life looking at mountains, but Kailas at sunset is close to the top of the list. The lower part was glowing red rock and the upper part a snow Capuchin. It was immediately evident why every Eastern religion has worshipped it. And then we arrived in Darchen, the settlement at the base. To coin a phrase, Darchin is an armpit, a filthy, swarming warren with no redeeming features. There is a “nightclub” with a blaring loudspeaker. I kept thinking of a variant of the gospels – throw the record changers out of the temple. It was almost impossible to sleep.The next morning we started on our three-day trek around the mountain – the kora circuit – along with dozens of Tibetan pilgrims turning small prayer wheels. Kailas is 21,850 feet high. As far as one knows, it has never been climbed. This is not because of the difficulty but because of the veneration it is held in. Veneration or no, Reinhold Messner got permission to climb it in 1985 – he probably paid the Chinese enough to make it worth their while. But before he could begin the climb, he learned that one of his brothers had been killed in a climbing accident in Italy, so he left. Bad karma.The first day on the kora is a long hike to about 16,000 feet, where there is a monastery, or gompa, called Drira Phuk. This is at the base of the real climb, which is to the Drölma La – an 18,400-foot pass. All the transportation of baggage – sleeping bags, tents, food and the rest – is done on yaks. This was the problem, I later learned. I had started out by myself carrying some food, water and a down jacket but, of course, no sleeping bag. By early afternoon there was no sign of Jaccoux and the yaks, to say nothing of the rest of the group. By late afternoon, there was also no sign. We had planned to camp in a field below the monastery, but I decided there was nothing for it, except to head for the monastery. By this time I was joined by another member of the group. She had no idea where the rest were either.It was now beginning to get seriously cold – really cold. With great relief we found the door of the monastery open and inside a pleasant yak-dung fire with several pilgrims, some were Indian, in front of it. There was a lama serving soup, that thick Tibetan noodle soup you can practically walk on. Then we were led to a sort of loft to sleep in. I had paid for all the beds in the loft so that we could have some privacy. But it was very drafty. Through the open window you could see the sheer north face of Kailas in the moonlight. There were some thin and rather dirty blankets on a wooden bed, but no mattress. It began to resemble the Las Cruces hut. The temperature was well below freezing and even though I was in my down jacket, hat and gloves, I could not get warm. At dawn, I gave up and went outside. Down below I could see some tents. I later learned that because of a complicated negotiation with the yak drivers, Jaccoux did not get to the campsite until midnight.Not long after I had started up the trail toward the pass, one of the Sherpas we had with us caught up to me with breakfast. I sat on a grass slope in the growing sunlight with a sense of well-being. That’s what a pilgrimage is – a hard night, followed by the sunrise.