The Grand Tetons are a serrated line of grantite running by a long lake the more to emphasise
their preening perfection. They are the show-offs of American mountain ranges. To teach them a thing
or two, four of us decided to do some serious off-trail climbing. We were to climb along a
gully, scramble up some rock pitches and emerge onto a short ridge beside a height called Storm Point
in order to assess and then tackle the height itself. The ascent would be from about 2000m to a height
of about 3200m. Horizontally, about 16 km. The day was clear, sunny and dry. Perfect conditions. I looked forward
to my first ever climb at altitude.
I have never been so close to death. Not my own, someone else's. For yourself, in times of danger, you can at least
act, but when another person is caught and you cannot help, but only watch...
Roberto, our Taiwanese friend, had never been climbing before. We instructed him
as we started the rock scramble: how to keep three points of
contact with the rock face, how to test each hold before committing himself, how to take his time.
The initial rock pitches went fine, as we found adequate holds in the tough granite, but as we rose,
the rock became looser and looser. At this altitude the mountain froze and thawed every single night,
shattering the rock into scree and shingle, leaving us with few reliable holds.
The thin air
of the altitude made breathing more difficult, but acceptable. Stefan and I, the lower climbing pair,
became unhappy with the steep and broken gully, and sought an alternative route on the harder rock
high up on the side. Steve and Roberto continued up the increasingly unstable wash. I was forced
to focus on my own holds, getting stuck a couple of times, but no more than expected.
There was a crash and an ominous rumble. I looked round. Below me, in the gully,
Steve had dislodged a rock which clattered down, loosing more and more to create an instant
landslide - straight down onto Roberto, 30 m below me. He froze in place, looking up at the onslaught. I remember
shouting "Get down! Get your head down!" If your head is down you are less of a target, but
Roberto was locked in place, rigid with alarm. I watched horrified, as boulders larger than his head,
bounced down to - beside - past him. I was sure he was dead. He must be. Any minute now just one of those
rocks would crash into him. He didn't have a chance.
The rush subsided. He was still there! Still locked in the same postion, one hand held uselessly in front
of his face, but alive! The God of the Taiwanese smiled that day. I could hardly believe it. We came to the top,
relieved, chastened. Admired the beauty, the hidden power of the mountains, and - gingerly - made our way back down.