Complete Focus: Lessons from the ChoktoiWednesday, Septembre 7, 2016
My legs and lungs were on fire. Here I was again, in a place I swore never to return. We were trying to get acclimatized, but the waist deep snow was making everything more difficult. I was frustrated and second-guessing my reasons for being here. The threat of avalanche was ever-present. Why am I here? Why am I here? Why am I here?
Photos: Courtesy of Jesse Mease
My friend Kyle Dempster had put together the trip to the Choktoi Glacier in Pakistan. It was a bold and lofty goal. Bruce Normand, Marcos Costa, Billy Pierson and I would climb the north face of the Ogre. Kyle and Scott Adamson would climb the north face of the Ogre II. Then after the others went home, I would stick around with Kyle and Scott to climb the legendary north ridge of Latok I.
To date, the only successful ascent made from the Choktoi Glacier was an ascent of the Ogre in 2012. The mountains that surround the Choktoi Glacier have been called by many climbers the most difficult mountains in the world. There have been many, many unsuccessful expeditions to the Choktoi, including an expedition that I was on in 2013. We knew all of this. But still we wanted to do three peaks in a single season….
After a short acclimatization bid that had us wallowing in soft snow and fearing constant avalanche dangers, we prepared for the Ogre’s north face. I was skeptical about our readiness, but with a good weather window approaching, we had to give it a go. The four of us made the six-hour approach to ABC with no issues, but fears and anxieties flew through my mind. I pushed them back, deeming them irrational as we set up a few tents.
At midnight, we began our ascent. Climbing over a rock band that I remembered from a previous attempt, I had flashbacks of the last attempt. I often looked up to make sure that no avalanches were coming, having been nearly swept away in the same place two years prior. But then a calmness began to set in, and a keen sense of focus took over. We flew past our previous high point and kept climbing.
Traversing a narrow gully, I set up a makeshift anchor to bring the others over. Only having solid snow, there was no possibility to build a proper anchor. I buried a tool and clipped into it. With the weather being abnormally warm, showers of quite large rocks were coming down. It became a little nerve racking. Nervous, I glanced up, just in time to see a basketball-size rock hit me square in the shoulder. I slammed onto my tool, a shooting pain entering my arm.
Standing up, I realized that my tool had held after I had fully shock-loaded it. With very little gear between me and the others, I was immediately thankful that we hadn’t been knocked off the mountain. Despite the gravity of the situation, my demeanor remained calm, focused on doing what was needed to keep us safe.
When the others reached me, we agreed that the face was no longer safe, and neither ascent nor descent would be safe until things refroze. We dug a snow cave and waited it out. At midnight, we retreated back to the glacier, and I collapsed at the bottom, grateful to be walking away with only a few cuts and bruises.
Over the next few weeks, we toyed with many ideas of the next objective, and when the weather window finally came, we headed out. Bruce and Billy decided to go right back to the Ogre’s north face. Marcos and I, feeling it too risky, headed to the seemingly safer northwest ridge of the Ogre II, while Kyle and Scott headed for the Ogre II’s north face.
Marcos and I had an amazingly fantastic adventure on the Ogre II. Over six days, we found brilliant climbing ranging from AI4, 5.10, hard mixed to classic Karakoram deep snow wallowing; it required every skill we have amassed over the years. We made it to roughly 6730 meters but were turned around by a snowstorm, unexpected hard climbing with a shortage of protection and the realities of having run out of food. It was a difficult decision to bail, but we had nothing left in the tank, and it felt like our luck had run out.
We found Bruce and Billy safely back in camp, but Kyle and Scott were still out in the storm. They know their way around the mountains, so we didn’t worry, and two days later, I saw the outline of two people coming down the glacier. With binoculars I could make out Kyle’s distinct swagger, and our cook, Ghafoor, and I headed out to greet them. As soon as we got close, I sensed that things were not right. Tears immediately filled Ghafoor’s eyes; he worries so much about us and was moved by the sight of our weary friends.
Kyle and Scott were staggering and on the verge of collapse, after too many days out and an epic battle. We helped them back to camp and used our sat phone to arrange a horse evacuation for Scott. Waiting for the porters and horses to arrive, I had to decide whether to walk out or remain and climb. Kyle and I talked it over and even though a difficult choice, I felt that the mountains were telling me to go home. And so I left.
Since coming home, I’ve often reflected on this trip. The question, Why was I there? runs through my mind. But after dinner with a friend, both of us veterans, I think we figured it out. We reflected on our shared experiences, our commonalities, over multiple glasses of wine. At first it was easy to assume that our actions and focus were driven by adrenaline. But I'm sure there is a deeper meaning.
These experiences give us a pristine focus. When you are in the moment, everything slows down, fear subsides and you have no other concerns besides the task at hand. Climbing takes me to a place where I can shut down all the noise and operate at max capacity.
And so I have answered my question. I was in the Choktoi because climbing in the alpine takes me to a place where time slows down and all else fades away. Fear leaves my mind, and all the chatter in my head is silent. I have to move forward, and for a short period of time, that is the only thing that matters. I've found it before, too, and it seems that I invariably find it in some far off land, with an immediate objective. It's a difficult state to reach, but I find it in the high mountains, and I can't wait to get there again. And now I'm excited to show my military friends into the mountains because I know there is a place where they can find, once again, this state we seek.