Too High A Price To Pay
We were behind schedule. The weather had slowed us down. I was anxious to make progress while I was still holding good. Suddenly, I heard a loud scream from Andy. I turned around and descended speedily on the slope, leaving behind my rucksack and gear. It was snowing heavily and I spotted Andy hanging on to a steep slope, very close to the bottom of the glacier exposed to a threatening drop below. His ice axe was missing.
I knew one slip from him and he would fall straight into the sinister unknown below. I needed a rope to reach him. I had to rush back and fetch the gear. That cost time. Trying to remain calm, I drilled an ice screw into the snow to create an anchor. Having anchored myself I used the rope to make a rapid descend towards him. I had to be precise. I had to be quick.
Meanwhile, Andy was losing strength. I was hollering to him to hold on, urging him to hang on for a few seconds until I could reach out to him. I was two steps away from him.
Andy was losing grip, losing balance. I made a frantic leap and struck my hand out to grab him. He was sliding down the slope. He was trying desperately to dig his hand deep in the snow to create a hold for himself. His body picked up pace. It was all happening too fast. I watched his eyes looking at me, his hand extended towards me, I was watching him slide down......I saw his body sink.
I stood at the edge of the glacier fearing the worst. I sighted Andy on a large ledge, about 200 meters below. Abseiling down, I reached Andy. He was in intense agony. The fall was bad though he managed to slide a good distance off the near vertical edge with friction. He was conscious but the fall had been hard on his legs....his knees were in a miserable state.
I don't mean to glorify dangerous living. But tell me, where do you find success without risk ? Risk is more than just the joy of survival. It heightens perceptions and personal abilities. In some cases, it's a way of overcoming personal inadequacy. In most instances, it's mind over matter that has separated glory from failure. After all, the only intrinsic reward is neither value nor fame. It's the profound feeling deep within.
Any movement of the joint caused him tremendous pain. That really gave me an idea of how bad it was, because I knew Andy could take pain. Somehow, he had acquired a deep slit above his eyebrow. Having bandaged his open wounds, Andy requested me to fish a cigarette out of his pocket and hold the ignited cigarette to his mouth. A few puffs and he was smiling. I smiled but I knew he couldn't be doing too good.
Months went by. His knee was healing slowly, but the physiotherapist regretted that the fall had damaged his knees so badly that using them for climbing again would be impossible. His knees would remain a weak link. Inclines were no longer possible for him to manoeuver.
Andy has been bravely battling his way to recovery. He can now walk on level ground, albeit accompanied by a shooting pain in his knees. Climbing again is still a dream that remains. For any climber, the most painful truth to accept is that the passion for mountaineering can only be relived in memories.
For me, expeditions are tinged with a sense of poignant regret. I have always imagined myself scaling peaks with Andy. We were a force together. Sometimes you share an incredible partnership or synergy that surely can only exist with one human being on earth. It's not easy to find that magical partnership. The compatibility, the understanding, the trust, the blind faith, the wavelength....it's rare to share all that with someone and also possess perfect mountaineering abilities.
I had lost the motivation to climb. Besides, I was living with this huge overhanging guilt. The truth is, I left my rucksack behind in a state of panic. Before I could rush up and come down again, valuable time had been lost. A good mountaineer always carries his safety gear and equipment during an emergency. Time is of critical essence. I had made a fatal mistake. And Andy still pays the price.
Sometimes, I desperately feel like rewinding the whole episode and editing my miserable error. I have already escaped those days when Andy's eyes kept appearing before me - the eyes of hope and desperation. He trusted me to do my best. Now with the passage of time, days do go by without a haunting vision of that fateful moment. But every time I see the mountains, I doubt myself as a mountaineer.
This year, I had been for a walk to the base of the same mountain, staring up at their savage stillness. Hands immersed in my pockets, head held low in the collar of my jacket, tears rolling down my cheeks, I relived the whole tragedy, right there below the mountain.
He wasn't just a great climbing partner...but my closest friend. I remember how we dreamed of climbing the earth's highest summit together. All our climbs together, our intense training, the madness of shared dreams....it all keeps running through my mind. Andy had big dreams.
Mountaineering carries a risk and every time I am on an expedition, I am ready to pay the price. But having a best friend pay for my lapse is not an easy situation to deal with.
And I had always believed mountaineering was the only thing I was good at.
Photo Credit: Somit Doshi
Editor: Romola Butalia   (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.