And so it was with the familiar blend of apprehension and coursing adrenalin that I followed the trailing rope across the glacier and towards our latest foe: the 5,700-metre high Cerro Sofia whose summit lay to the left hand side of a snowy col whose imposing wall rose in front of us. The sun, risen now, was shrouded beneath woolly clouds and somehow set the tone for what was to come.
Back in the tent a realisation is washing over me as fast as the water I’m splashed down my front. It was not the sun cream that was causing the pain.
Beneath the col now, we’re cutting diagonal swathes across the vast embankment of snow in an effort to decrease the gradient and steady our ascent – a necessity in the thin air above 5,000 metres. JC, in particular, is not looking his healthiest and my rope-mate, Matt, and I sit on our packs at the top of the col and wait for him to catch us. Pure white expands beneath us, down the ski slope we’ve just ascended, across the surface of our glacier and back up the peak we climbed the other day. JC still flounders at the back of the group as we tread carefully our way along the razor sharp ridge of snow that leads us to the rocky summit buttress.
Blinking in slow motion – open for five seconds, close for five seconds – inside the tent, having worked out what’s actually happened is of little solace. My eyes don’t hurt any less only now my pride is suffering a little bit. How could I be so stupid?
The white tight-rope has been crossed and we’re at the foot of the rocks. The summit is less than fifty metres away but the route up is not obvious. I take a steady stance as Matt explores on the other end of the rope.
“I think it’ll go. Hard to say though”, he cries back.
Sarah, our fourth and final team member for the day, is hesitant. JC silent. And I’m getting a little chilled. The altitude, the exertion, the fatigue, the remoteness, the cold. There’s no way to be sure you’re thinking rationally. The top is so tantalisingly close that we would be mad to turn back having come all this way – not just along the valley, over the glacier and up this slope, but from England. From our homes, our daily lives and through planning and fundraising and training. Turn back now? But now is not the time to try a daring move on untested rock, in full mountaineering garb with a, what-do-we-reckon, 1000-metre drop to our right? Did I mention I was getting a little chilled?
Few words are spoken as we make an about turn and retrace our steps along the ridge, cautiously down the slope, wearily across the glacier and exhausted along the valley. I’m still not sure to this day whether it was a shrewd decision or one made from fatigue but I do know that I should have been wearing sun glasses.
I did manage to get some sleep that night though it wasn’t the most comfortable of experiences. And little comfort was garnered from the rest of the team when I told them I’d neglected to wear any eye protection on the glacier yesterday and was suffering the consequences.
I spent the following day sat at base camp in an embarrassingly largely pair of what looked like industrial safety spectacles in a limited edition shade of black. It was a foolish mistake and I paid for it by missing a day’s climbing, instead stuck with the entertainment of a base camp of rocks and dust. I couldn’t even enjoy the view properly, my vision sub-par as it was, but the picture of the previous weeks’ summits remained crystal in my mind’s eye throughout the day as it does to this one.
(This article was originally written for Wide World Mag)