A solid companion - first edit


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Social climber
No Ut
Topic Author's Original Post - Dec 11, 2007 - 03:11am PT
Just checked in to see what's happinin' at the Taco--and it's all a bit too much to absorb quickly. Lois, gone? And what all else? Whoo-eee, I seem to have missed a lot.

I've been absent because I was working hard on a fundraiser. I had to do a reading of a chapter from the book I'm working on, so I chose to edit and read the solid companion piece. It will need some more work before publication, but I thought some of you might be interested in its' evolution.

I kind of feel it belongs to this forum, in a way, since I wrote it for/to you:


It was mid-December of 1983. I'd gone to Nepal with Earl Wiggins, long-time friend, wizard of rock climbing, and one of the era’s premier soloists. Earl wanted to extend his climbing horizons to include the longer and more sustained climbs of the Himalayas. Our intentions were to try new routes in winter conditions on the steep rock and ice of Pumori and Nuptse. With its almost perfect pyramid shape, Pumori, at 23,400 feet, is an inspiring neighbor of Everest. Earl and I wanted to do a climb on the face between the South Ridge, and the French route on the Southeast Spur. If we were successful on Pumori, we planned to follow up with an attempt on the huge, elegant and obviously difficult, Southeast Spur of Nuptse East, whose summit is just less than 26,000 feet.

Almost immediately our plans were thwarted when, the first night after we arrived at our 17,000-foot base camp, Earl developed a life-threatening case of pulmonary edema, a relatively common malady at high altitude which causes the victim’s lungs to fill with fluid and can lead to death in a matter of hours. If not evacuated to a significantly lower elevation, the victim literally drowns in his or her own fluids. In the middle of the night, our Liason Officer (LO), [Narayan Shrestha], our sirdar, [Ang Tsering Sherpa], our cook, [Dawa Sherpa], and I started walking Earl down to the village of Pheriche at 14,000 feet, where we arrived just after dawn. At the little "hospital" there was bottled oxygen for Earl to breathe and a yak for Earl to ride as we continued down to the tiny Village of Phunkitanga [?], nestled in at about 9000 feet alongside the rocky banks of the Dudh Kosi. After a night there, Earl was obviously out of danger; his lungs were clearing fast and he was breathing freely.

We had a discussion and decided that Earl would stay with [Narayan] in Phunkitanga for five or six days, and then if he were feeling good, he could slowly make his way back to base camp, taking as much time as necessary. In this way we hoped he would not suffer a second bout of pulmonary edema. Perhaps, with more time, he might even be able to climb higher. In the meantime [Ang Tsering], [Dawa], and I would head back to our unattended base camp and wait there for Earl and the LO. Traveling fast, the walk back up to base camp took my two companions and me about eight hours of mostly silent hoofing.

We probably each had our reasons for not speaking much. Mine were primarily centered on the presence of some unsettling thoughts. Knowing Earl as I did—his intense drive, his optimism, and his relentless passion for climbing—I doubted he would wait the allotted time before starting to gain altitude again. I expected he would be back in base in probably half the agreed-upon time, raring to get up on the hill. I could then imagine the two of us getting three or four-thousand feet up the big face—then Earl's lungs would fill with fluid on some cramped bivy ledge—and I would be unable to get him back down the steep and difficult terrain. It seemed an all-to-plausible scenario. I decided the only thing to do was to quickly solo the mountain before Earl got back to camp. I hoped to explain my reasoning to him when he returned to basecamp.

The plan almost worked.

The day after arriving back in base camp, I packed the minimum of gear I thought I could get away with, and in the afternoon hiked the mile or so of glacial debris up to a bivouac at the bottom of the French Southeast Spur route. I thought this would be a safer solo than the gully and ramp system Earl and I had planned to climb. This five or six-thousand foot mixed rock and ice spur had only had one previous ascent ten years earlier by a strong team of Chamonix guides using expedition tactics. They strung ten-thousand feet of fixed ropes, established a number of camps, and spent more than a month on the mountain. I was hoping to climb up and down the same route in three or four days.

The first two days were great climbing on good ice and rock: never too difficult, but challenging, especially with a pack. Just right for keeping the interest up and the concentration focused. At the end of day two I found a natural ice cave that offered a sheltered, even commodious, bivy. Since I guessed this was at about 21,500 feet, I figured I was high enough to leave my pack and bivy gear and sprint to the summit and back the next day.

The next day was a bone-shattering cold but perfectly brilliant winter day in the Khumbu. Every ridge was precisely scribed against a sky so deep blue in contrast to the snowy cornices that the dividing line seemed laser-etched. The terrain now was mostly hard and glassy brittle ice. Front-pointing on the stuff was incredibly demanding—the previous two days' efforts were taking their toll on my reserves. After gaining about five-hundred feet I began to have doubts as to whether I could make it to the top and back safely.

I was resting, leaning my head on my hands which were gripping the shafts of my tools, when, strangely enough, I raised my head and blurted out, "I'm pretty wasted; do you want to lead for awhile?" I turned to look back over my shoulder as if expecting to see a familiar face. Of course there was no one there—I was alone. My conscious mind registered that fact quickly with a small, embarrassed giggle. But my subconscious seemed to be boiling to the surface, more accessible than ever before, and in this uncommon awareness there was a warm and resonant—not quite identifiable—presence.

I am not sure why, but it was easy and natural to accept this apparition who became my partner for the rest of that day, through the night, and well into the next day. As I climbed, I found myself describing to my unseen partner the moves I was making and the mental processes of the decisions I was taking. By the time I topped out on the face and walked the last thousand-feet of low-angle snow to the summit, the friend beside me had become my solid support for what was soon going to turn into a massive effort.

At dusk we stood together on the summit, surrounded by a 360-degree ring of the world's most powerful mountains. There we had a quiet one-sided conversation; me. talking, he. listening. "I feel like a pharoah standing at the apex of a pyramid built in his honor," I said. Of course there was no response, but a wave of acceptance swept over me, rooting me to the spot. For a short time I was transfixed: gravity kept me grounded there on the summit of Pumori; the taste of reality washed over my tongue as I inhaled the rare oxygen of cosmic loneliness; my blood burned with the heat of a stressed metabolism; and I stood there electrified in my nerves, muscles, bones and skin--translucent on the mountain top--like a spark plug trying to fire one of the uncountable cylinders of the universal engine. For that moment, I was where I was meant to be. Soon a cold wind began to blow. 'We better get moving,' I said, "It's a long way back to the ice cave."

Night descended much faster than we did. It was already dark when we reached the top of the wall that we had labored up less than two hours earlier. We stopped so I could put on my headlamp and uncoil the 200-foot x 7mm rope I'd brought for rappelling. Then began some of the most trying hours I had ever experienced in the mountains. The intense cold was sharpened into a cutting blade by the wind that whipped pellets of snow and ice all around, coming at this moment from one direction, a moment later from another direction. Where we could, we used old rock anchors left by the French. We hacked laboriously at the ice to cut a dozen bollards. It was all taking too long. I was losing core temperature to the frigid, black and star-filled night. We stopped rappelling and started down-climbing. Periodically I asked my friend to be strong—to keep me strong.

It must have been midnight when I stepped down and my left foot went into a hole. "We're here," I shouted, "we're at the cave." Shivering uncontrollably I removed my crampons, crawled into the cave, and climbed into my sleeping bag as fast as I could. I knew that I was in trouble and was rapidly becoming hypothermic. I was glad I that I was not alone.

Inside the cave, I shivered for a good half hour with no signs of warming up. "We've got to have something hot to drink," I said, and started fumbling with the hanging stove near the head of my sleeping platform. I'd left the cooking pot filled with ice chunks the previous morning, ready to go. I fumbled for the butane lighter I kept warm and dry in a chest pocket. After several shaky tries the stove fired up. In ten minutes the ice was melted, and I dumped the contents of a packet of dried soup into the luke-warm water and stirred it around. In another five minutes the soup was warm to my tongue, so I turned off the stove and set to getting the now critical liquid down.

"Oh, man, that feels good," I said, after several long pulls from the pot. The soup was immediately absorbed by my parched throat, and the warmth, as it hit my empty stomach, felt like I had just swallowed the first rays of the morning sun. In another ten minutes I had downed the whole quart; then I laid back contentedly for a short time, feeling every cell in my body being re-hydrated and nourished.

Then things became awful.

I barely had enough time, after realizing I was going to be sick, to turn my head away from my sleeping bag. I began to projectile vomit immediately. While I was still turning my head, the vomit splattered an arc across the ceiling and walls of the cave. I don't know how long the retching continued, but when it was all over, all of the soup I'd consumed and any dregs of bile that could come up had melted into the floor of ice. "This is going to be a long night, my friend," I said. Those words proved to be prophetic.

I hadn't slept at all when the entrance of the snow cave began slowly to take shape in the pre-dawn light. I felt like a fetus looking out of a cold womb into an even colder world. I had absolutely no strength of my own to do what needed to be done. My spirit companion was going to have to take on the role of midwife and deliver me from the icy womb if I were going to be introduced back into the world, safe and whole.

That must be exactly what happened.

Somebody pulled me out of my sleeping bag. Not me. Somebody shoved the things I needed into my pack and put the pack on my back. Not me. Then somebody pulled me through the narrow entrance to the cave. Not me. I found myself facing the slope, standing on front points, my ice tools planted before me. The Sun was rising over Everest. We were all set to continue the descent.

"OK", I chattered to my partner, "Let’s get down from here."

The descent from the ice cave unfolded like the petals of a miraculous flower opening to greet the winter sun.

I started backing down the ice-face below the cave. The welcomed scent of survival perfumed the day. The sweet smell cleared my brain of confusion and shocked me hard into the reality of what needed to be done. Carefully, step-by-step, I started the long process of down-climbing. At some point during the descent I strayed from the route I had used on the way up. When I realized this, I was at a point where I needed to choose which side of a prominent rock buttress to down-climb. After a moment of hesitation on my part, my partner urged me, “Go to the left, Jeff.”

It was the right choice.

This scenario was repeated several times--at critical junctures I would hesitate; he would speak, and I would be directed the right way. I am uncertain as to when our conversation stopped, and I realized I was alone once again—but once again, when that happened it all seemed perfectly natural and comfortable.

Late in the afternoon I stumbled into a surprised welcome at base camp—safe and whole. [Ang Tsering, Dawa and Narayan] came rushing up to grab my pack and hug me, ushering me home with true concern and happiness to see me. It wasn't long, however, before [Narayan] handed me a note on a scrap of lined paper. The note was from Earl:

Hey, Jello- (Earl wrote)

I felt good, so I came back up sooner than we planned. I watched through binoculars as you reached the summit yesterday. Congratulations! That's a beautiful big hill you've just climbed. I'm going to head up today and try to do the route we originally planned to climb. Should be gone about four days. If you want, I don't mind if you move base camp over to Nuptse. I'll catch up with you there.

But hey, would you mind waiting for me this time before doing the climb?


Upon reading this my heart dropped like a salmon into the bottom of a net. This was too fast for Earl to be back up in base camp, let alone for him to be climbing solo up a giant Himalayan wall. But there wasn't much I could do about it. Earl was already somewhere up above at the start of his climb. It was almost dark, and I was exhausted from my climb. I let the Sherpas feed me a little dahl-bhaat and tea, before helping me to bed. Immediately I fell into a comatose, dreamless sleep...

One word, and one word only—“HELP”—startled me instantly from sleep, and that salmon began flopping around in my chest. The cry had not been loud. In fact it seemed to have originated inside my head rather than coming in through the ears. One thing was certain, though—it was Earl's voice. But that was not possible. Earl was bivied at the base of the face, over a mile above camp. Whatever the case, I had heard his call for help.

Against all reason, I roused the Sherpas and the LO. They hadn't heard a thing and were reluctant to get up in the middle of the night to go looking for a phantom. I insisted that we had to go find Earl. Reluctantly, they got up, gathered a few necessary things, and we headed off in the direction of the mountain. Four headlamps bobbed and weaved an erratic course through the boulders, and shouts of "Earl, where are you?" were swallowed by the night, seeming to scarcely penetrate the vast, dark space surrounding us.

We had been searching and calling for hours. Several times one of the Sherpas or Narayan came to me and suggested that I couldn't have heard Earl, and we should go back to our tents. I had no doubt I had heard Earl, though, and insisted we keep looking. We were getting quite close to the bergschrund at the base of the face, where Earl had indicated to the LO that he was going to bivouac. I began to despair that we'd ever find him; he really could be almost anywhere in all the emptiness. There was just enough light from the stars that if you turned off your headlamp for a moment and let your eyes adjust, you could make out shapes and objects in the distance. I did this one last time to try and scan the line of the bergschrund in hopes something might clue me in to where Earl might have found a bivouac. Scanning back and forth, however, I could discern nothing. Feeling defeated, I turned around and looked back toward base camp...and the salmon leaped again!

Not twenty yards in front of me, a car-sized boulder was backlit by a faint but definite glow. There was only one possibility—the glow had to be from Earl's headlamp. "Over here," I yelled, already running toward the rock. When I rounded the corner of the big stone, there was Earl, lying curled on his side, the last photons from his nearly dead headlamp barely illuminating the frothy substance drooling from the corner of his mouth and making a dinner-plate size puddle freezing around his cheek. I dropped to my knees to check for signs of life. When my face was a foot away from his, Earl made the best joke I have ever heard:

"What took you so long?" he whispered and weakly coughed. Earl was alive!

The Sherpa’s and the LO had arrived at the scene by this time. "Hang in there, Earl, we're going to get you down," I said. "Just stay with us, old man." Earl couldn't even stand, let alone walk. Time was short if we were to save him. He needed to get down to a much lower elevation or he would certainly die. I dispatched the LO to the nearest village, Lobuche, which he could reach in about two hours. Hopefully, we could get a yak and some man-power to help.

Earl had a nearly empty expedition-size pack on his back. I removed Earl's pack and cut two leg holes in the bottom. Then the Sherpas and I loaded Earl into the pack, threading his legs through the holes. [Ang Tsering] took the first turn. Dawa and I picked Earl and the pack up and held him in the air so [Ang Tsering] could slip into the harness. I looped a sling with a carabiner around each of Earl’s thighs, and clipped the slings to the waist-belt of the pack at each of Ang Tsering’s hips, to keep Earl’s feet off the ground. Then we draped Earl's arms around [Ang Tsering’s] neck to help him stay upright, and the sirdar began to speed downhill using short quick steps. The cook and I stayed on either side holding onto [Ang Tsering’s] hands to help with balance.

After about a quarter-mile, the whole procession stopped and I took my turn carrying the load. When I became too tired to efficiently do the job, [Dawa] took a turn. And so it went for four hours. The night gradually faded and dawn turned to morning, the great peaks reassembling themselves on both sides of the valley, forming a massive corridor down which we struggled. For a while I tried to talk to Earl and keep him awake, but the overall effort became too great and eventually I just focused on the task of moving downhill.

The LO met us with help in the form of a yak not too far above Lobuche. As we thankfully loaded Earl onto the yak and secured him in place with webbing, [Narayan] told us he'd tried to radio from Lobuche for a helicopter to fly from Katmandu and come pick up Earl. But he couldn't get the message through, so It was up to us.

Below Lobuche, the trail drops steeply down for several thousand feet to Pheriche. By the time we arrived in Pheriche, the doctor working the little hospital was there to greet us with an oxygen tank and mask. The hospital hut was equipped with a hyperbaric chamber. It looked something like a small submarine with a little round portal to look inside. We loaded Earl into the tank, shut and sealed the door, then we waited while the doctor increased the pressure in the tank, effectively decreasing Earl's elevation by another six-thousand feet or so.

The results were miraculous! Within an hour Earl was giving us the thumbs-up from within the tank and mouthing the words "Thank you!" The doctor felt Earl was out of immediate danger at that point, but he felt Earl needed to stay in the chamber overnight to gain enough strength to continue the descent. Then the doctor showed me to a room with a bed and sleeping bag, and he assured me that he would watch over Earl for the night.

I stumbled into the room, closed the door behind me, crawled into the sleeping bag, and passed out.

"Chai sahib? Chai sahib?".

I opened me eyes, sat up, and accepted the cup of tea from [Dawa]. Leaning back against the wall I sipped my tea and reviewed the sequence of events that had unfolded within the last week: arriving at base camp, Earl and I full of piss and enthusiasm for our route, Earl getting sick and the first retreat to lower ground, my well-meant plan to climb Pumori and get down before Earl got back to base, almost pulling it off, only to find Earl had already come back and was on his way to solo a new route, the knowledge that he had probably been goaded into action by my climb, the whole trauma of the second scare and rescue.

I had never been put to such a physical and emotional trial.

I finished my tea and got up to check on Earl. I was surprised to find him sitting on a low rock wall outside the hospital in the chill morning sun. He was wearing an oxygen mask and breathing O's from a tank, but his face brightened when he saw me. He raised his right hand in a sort of casual salute. Pulling the mask to one side, he said, "Morning, Jello. I thought you were never going to wake up."

I sat down on the wall next to Earl. We talked a little, but there wasn't a lot to say. "You gave us quite a scare, lad," I said. "Thanks for rescuing my sorry ass," he said. Then we sat for at least half an hour, soaking in the sun and letting the details of a winter day in Pheriche become permanent in our memories.

Later, I ate breakfast and then had a shower in a little room with a bucket full of hot water draining from a dozen small holes. It felt great, even though I had to get dressed in the smelly clothes I'd sweated and lived in for the last week. In the afternoon, Earl, with extra oxygen bottles and sucking O's through a mask—and accompanied by [Narayan] and a couple of Sherpas who had volunteered to help—began the trek down to Lukla, where he could catch a flight to Katmandu.

We hugged goodbye. I was to meet Earl in Katmandu, but as it would turn out, I wouldn’t see Earl again until a month later, back in the US.

The Sherpas and I returned to base camp, where we whiled away a couple of days waiting for a handful of porters and yaks to arrive to help us transport our gear back out of the mountains. When I arrived in Katmandu five or six days later—true to Earl’s usual form—there was a letter at the hotel. In the letter, Earl explained that he'd met a girl, and they had gone off to explore the wilds of the jungle at Tiger Tops, a wildlife reserve in the lowlands of Nepal. All that was left for me to do before catching a plane back to the States was to make my final report to His Majesty's Ministry of Tourism.

The report was not going to mention my spirit guide on Pumori, although I continued to ruminate on the strange but comforting experience. In the vertical realm where life is lived at a sharp point, what is not possible—indeed, why do we question experience?

As the debriefing ended, the Minister handed me a stack of four or five letters that had arrived from the US while we were in the mountains. The third letter I opened was from my father:

Dear Jeff, (Dad wrote)

I hope this letter finds you in good health and spirits. Your mother and I are wishing you all the best on this latest adventure. I can imagine how beautiful the Khumbu is at this time of year. Not too many tourists, and lots of cold, clear, windy weather.

I want you to know just how much you impress me with your commitment and drive to do the things you do. You have chosen a hard path in life, but it seems as if you accept the difficulties that come with that choice. You can do the things you do because you believe you can. I can imagine the climbing on Pumori. Cold and steep. Brittle ice and intricate rock. I wish I were climbing with you.

My own health problems in the last few years have effectively squelched any more personal climbing dreams. I want to encourage you to do the things you want to do, now, and not put them off for some indefinite future. I also want to encourage you to continue to develop the side of yourself that loves people and cultures of all different stripes. It's this kind of diversity that makes life so interesting, and makes the planet spin.

Your mom and I look forward to hearing great stories upon your safe return home. Be sure to give our best to Earl.

Your ever-lovin' parents,

Ralph and Elgene"

At the top of the letter, Dad had put the date and time [ ]. After reading the letter once, I looked back to the top to check that date and time. My growing suspicion was correct. Accounting for the time difference between Utah and Nepal, Dad had begun to pen the letter at the exact same time as I had first turned to greet my unseen partner on the summit day on Pumori—my guardian and guide.

I should not be surprised. Many things are possible, especially in uncertainty—and I know this more everyday. Dad was a solid companion throughout my life while he lived. He died four months after the Pumori climb. Everything of importance that he left me still remains—his spirit most of all. And from time to time he visits—he still guides me.



Trad climber
the south
Dec 11, 2007 - 03:16am PT
You are a most impressive speaker. I'll never forget listening to your talk at Fosters.

How about a video with audio version?

Social climber
No Ut
Topic Author's Reply - Dec 11, 2007 - 03:21am PT
How are you, Dirt?


Trad climber
the south
Dec 11, 2007 - 03:38am PT
I'm sucking Jeff.

But really, how about an audio version? You have a great speaking demeanor, which just makes the stories that much better.


Social climber
Dec 11, 2007 - 04:39am PT
hey there jello... say, way to go... !!! ... keep up the great work...

say... as to your fundraising.. i sure wish i could find a way to get mine to work... i dont have the marketing knacks...

i need to find sponsors to get a few ads in the local paper, i reckon... i was thinking of going to some of the same folks that sponsor local kid teams---as maybe they can afford it...

or, hhahaha... go to some auto dealers.. they seem to have the biggest ads in the paper... oh, wellllllllllll...

thanks so much for sharing your stuff with us, jello... :)

Trad climber
Mammoth Lakes, CA
Dec 11, 2007 - 11:31am PT
Thanks for the story Jeff! Excellent stuff I must say. I'm inspired now - although I think I'll just go bouldering today - no "hill" climbing for my whimpy ass...

Earl was a badass dude - sure miss him.

Hey, see ya' in SLC January?

Cheers bro, JB

Edit: Got any pictures of that hill?

Trad climber
Green Mountains, Vermont
Dec 11, 2007 - 12:47pm PT
Truly fantastic.
Brett Pierce

Colorado Springs
Dec 11, 2007 - 12:47pm PT
Well written. Made my eyes sweat a little.

Dec 11, 2007 - 12:53pm PT
Thanks Jeff: my palms would have been sweating if it hadn't been so cold (the cold in the story seemed to transfer over to me sitting by my puter)

Any pics of Earl?

Trad climber
Dec 11, 2007 - 01:12pm PT
Inspired writing Jeff!

Thanks for your effort,

Desolation Basin, Calif.
Dec 11, 2007 - 01:14pm PT
Shades of Hermann Buhl! That's a wonderfully written story.

The Late Great Planet Earth
Dec 11, 2007 - 02:46pm PT
Nicely polished, Jeff--without losing any of the finger-freezing suspense of the initial version.

I still get chills when I read this. But in a good way!

Mountain climber
Dec 11, 2007 - 03:04pm PT
Hey Jeff, great stuff.

How's that artificial ice climbing wall going? Is it ready for use? I'm looking for some ice and it seems no one around supertopo knows of any (or they're not talking - ha)so I'm thinking its time for a road trip.


Social climber
No Ut
Topic Author's Reply - Dec 11, 2007 - 10:26pm PT
Thanks, dirt, JB, nebe, finn, brett, locker, couch, Brad, Gary, L, Gary and rocker. It has been fun writing to a known (knowledgeable) audience. Made it easier to know what to include and what to omit. As eKat says, keep THAT magic alive!


1/2way between Yos and Moab
Dec 11, 2007 - 11:25pm PT
another fine piece of work Jeff

Trad climber
New York, NY
Dec 11, 2007 - 11:33pm PT
Good work Jeff! I remember your first draft - just as wrenching, but now you've got things flowing really well. The twists and turns of the mystery man, your dad, are really well done. Looking forward to reading more.

The Eye of the Snail
Dec 12, 2007 - 12:50am PT
Very nice, TolstoyJello.

If I may be so bold...

There we had a quiet one-sided conversation; me. talking, he. listening. Soon a cold wind began to blow. "We better get moving," I said, "It's a long way back to the ice cave."

For me, the wrong part of this paragraph is in dialogue. That's not the talking I want to hear. I really want to hear the "conversation."

A friends backyard with the neighbors wifi
Dec 12, 2007 - 04:22am PT
amazing story, thanks for sharing that.
scuffy b

The deck above the 5
Dec 12, 2007 - 02:10pm PT
Well, I can't remember the original clearly enough to comment on
I do remember that it gave me chills and brought tears to my eyes
and that quality remains.
Powerful, gripping. It brings the reader to a more participatory
state than any account of mountaineering I can recall.
Maybe a tiny bit more buffing and polishing, but how much better
can it get?
Totally rocks.
John Mac

Trad climber
Littleton, CO
Dec 12, 2007 - 10:25pm PT

I had a rough day at work today and decided to log on to Sp for some relief, only to find your pice of writing that had somehow missed.

Thank you for sharing a truly great inspiration heartwarming piece of writing.

You changed my day!


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