Mountain Madness: A short story

Camping, AK style.

Authors note:  While being tent bound for days waiting out epic spring snow storms in the Chilkat Range of Southeast Alaska, any escape from the monotony is welcome. This short fictional story is a piece of that madness.

The wind is howling outside and for a few seconds I wonder if our feeble nylon shell can take it. The thin aluminum poles bend and sway with every gust.  For a moment I almost consider praying, but quickly cast the foolish gesture aside. I tend not to be the praying type.  I can recall a song by Robert Earl Keen called Tom Ames Prayer with the line “prayin’s the same as beggin’ lord I don’t take no charity.[1]” That sums up my feelings on the situation. It’s not the first time I’ve encountered gale force winds and it certainly wont be the last. I guess I figure that if I didn’t need to pray then I don’t need to pray now. If gods out there he’s watching out for me regardless, there’s plenty of proof for that. Or it could be just that I’m lucky, I’d like to think of it that way. It’s a matter of probabilities and my number hasn’t come up yet.[2] I stay warm huddled in my old worn and patched sleeping bag all to aware of the beating we’re taking and the likelihood of catastrophe.

In his own sleeping bag snoring in my ear beside me is my friend and climbing partner Ringo. Ringo is not aware of anything right now. Most likely in his sleep Ringo has himself swarmed by women at some sunny Mexican beach near sipping margaritas and every once in a while taking a chug of mescal just to keep himself bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence for Ringo. For about half the year he combs the beaches of the world looking for tasty waves and tan women. But another big part of Ringo’s life is climbing – basically why he’s here with me now. We’re camped on a small ledge three quarters of the way up an unnamed peak in Alaska’s Wrangle-St Elias rang. The ledge drops away just beside us to 150 meters of nothing. Below that is just snow, ice, a few glaciers, and some rock. Above us is rock too, another 75 meters of it. Coated with a thin layer of snow and Ice it is slippery and un-climbable.[3] Which is why we’re in the tent waiting. And why I am preparing to kill Ringo in his sleep to stop his snoring.

Ringo doesn’t think that the peak we’re on has ever been climbed before – he is probably right. Then again it’s hard to know if Ringo actually knows what peak he is on – or for that matter, what country he is in. But that doesn’t matter all that much right now because Ringo likes to climb. I’m here too because I like to climb and also because Ringo is the craziest climber the world has ever seen. This makes him a media icon and a rock star to the outdoor enthusiastic, eco-challenge watching, weekend warrior types. I’m here because I have a story to catch and Ringo and I have a history of adventures together.

As you might have already suspected, I am a writer. I graduated from a small liberal arts school in Washington with degrees in both math and physics a few years ago, but now I just write.  Sometimes I write about physics and math, but this story is about Ringo. Ringo sometimes defies the laws of physics and math. He is my friend, my climbing buddy and my current job assignment. So despite some of his pesky quarks I trust him, most likely a foolish admonition, but like I said, we have a history of adventures together and he hasn’t killed me yet. When I am in trouble I know he has got my back.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

I met Ringo three years ago in Argentina at a small bar/restaurant in a town called Penetentes. I think the bar is Mafia run, as men with Hawaiian shirts and expensive shoes carrying duffle bags go in and out of back rooms and have whispered conversations with each other. Ringo too has some connections with the Mafia but at this point I am still not sure what they are. There is a pretty strong Italian influence in Argentina.[4] Anyway – Penetentes is a good layover spot for folks going to climb Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America at 6958m. (that’s 22,829ft, physics students these days are encouraged to always think in metric. I personally encourage everyone to) that is why I was there and also Ringo was. I was sitting at the bar there with my climbing partners at the time and couldn’t help but overhear the conversation Ringo was having with some other folks nearby. Ringo was trying to talk these folks into the benefits of smoking marijuana to aid in altitude acclimatization. These people too were going to climb the mountain under the leadership of a popular guide service called Alaska Mountain Guides. Suddenly he looked up from his mixed drink and noticed me watching and listening and shouted across the room “Hey Amphoterric, what do you think?” Amphoterric[5] was the name and logo written large across the back of the t-shirt that I was wearing. They were a small innovative gear company at the time. I walked over to where they were talking and shyly replied I didn’t know and had never tried it out. Ringo was going to solo Aconcagua (more because his group had bailed on him rather than personal aspirations I later learned) and was many drinks past drunk in preparation for his expedition departure early the next morning. This is what I would come to know as his typical style – and a mild version at that. My first impressions of Ringo placed him in about his mid twenties, Caucasian – with tan almost sun burnt skin. His hair was long dark and wild, looking like a style from some Japanese cartoon character I had seen once.[6] At first I almost couldn’t tell if it was held standing up like that by hairspray or dirt. As I got closer I realized it was in fact dirt. His eyes were wide with excitement and his speech, though minorly slurred, was very enthusiastic. The folks Ringo was talking to took the opportunity of my arrival to glance at their watches, mumble goodbyes, and quickly escape. Intrigued as I was by this character I sat down in their place and made a more formal introduction. We talked there for a long while about climbing life, jobs, school etc. I was on my winter vacation at the time; Ringo couldn’t remember the last time he was in a classroom. I was working part time at an outdoor gear retail store, Ringo had never worked a day in his life and didn’t understand why people did. When questioned about money he said, “all that shit is just politics and war”

“Ok”

“People worry man, they worry way to much about that kind of thing”

I dropped the subject figuring Ringo was bankrolled by family money and trust funds. Remember that earlier comment about the mafia… something like that.

And so it went on like that with Ringo drinking and talking and me listening until my climbing partners came over and said they were hitting the hay, so I exchanged e-mail addresses with Ringo (the standard for correspondence while living a life on the road) said goodbye, and left.

My group didn’t start out on our own climb until two days later when we loaded up two mules with our gear and headed up the long trail towards the Aconcagua base camp. The trail in this section is long, gently inclined, and extremely dusty. When the wind blows it kicks up the light dust as well as mule shit that is scattered all over the trail. This makes for a somewhat less then enjoyable trip. But as many climbers will attest to, it’s about the suffering that makes a trip really good. If you don’t suffer you’re not having fun. A camp counselor I had had once at a summer camp during high school knew this idea well when she told the group “When I say adventure, I mean pain. When I say fun I mean longer.” The mules are handled by Argentinean cowboys, dressed in the same kind of cowboy garb you expect to see in old western movies, called Arrearos. They run the mules hard back and forth from the road to base camp day in and day out charging around seventy bucks per mule per trip. On the way in we were passed by two mules running up the trail and across the river. Their handler was not far behind but far enough back that the mules were off the trail and grazing before he could catch back up with them. Some of the bags they had been carrying had been torn in the scraggly bushes that lined the trail and some of the gear packed into them had fallen into the river. Luckily (*luck*) it wasn’t our stuff but we did feel bad for whoever had just lost half their gear and most likely lost their chance to even start a climb. The cowboy handler was dressed in more city-type clothes and I made a mental note never to hire a mule handler that didn’t look like the rugged cowboy type.

We arrived at base camp took a rest day to let our bodies acclimatize and then began the climb. The elevation at base camp is about 4000 meters. In order to allow the human body to acclimatize to high elevation without suffering bad things like pulmonary or cerebral edema you have to climb in stages that include rest days and carry days. Many altitude climbers use the saying “climb high sleep low.” Carried out on Aconcagua what this means is that starting from base camp we climbed up to 4800 meters carrying some food and extra gear and then climbed back down to sleep at base camp again. The next day we carried the rest of our gear up to camp one (4800m) and camped there for the night. Then we took a rest day and following that we continued the same progression carrying and then camping at about 6000m. The entire climb is on rock and talice with only small patches of snow here and there. Crampons, Ice axes, ropes, and other climbing gear usually required for glacier and snow climbing were not required and we didn’t carry them. It does get mighty cold up high when the sun goes down but during the day it can get well into the upper 20’s. (That’s in Celsius by the way, think metric! Its about 80 degrees Fahrenheit) Things were going pretty well up until camp two when a storm rattled in and brought with it zero visibility and snow, lots of snow. Waking the next morning to high winds and continuing precip we figured we’d just hunker down and take another rest day. Tent fabric flapped in the wind and tent poles strained against the force but overall our group weathered all right. We did however see a Mountain Hardwear Expedition tent that had been previously anchored by climbing rope bolted to rock wiz past our tent at speeds similar to that of the wind. Those kinds of sites can be a bit unnerving when you’re trying to get a stove lit in your own tents vestibule to get some hot drinks going. However halfway through the day the weather cleared and the sun came out. As we were walking around outside the tents and shuffling gear and accessing the tents for any damage I noticed a person wondering down from the slope above and stumbling down into camp. I recognize the hair almost immediately and walked over to greet Ringo and inquire about how he was doing out here alone. I came up just as he was pausing to bend over and vomit, a not so uncommon site as people struggle with the altitude. Unlike usual though Ringo’s vomit smelled of vodka.

“Hold this for me” he said holding out a Nalgene water bottle for me to take. Not to my surprise there was no water in the bottle, only vodka. Ringo let loose another volley and then stood up straight, pulled a large pill bottle from his parka’s large main pocket, poured out about ten tablets into his ungloved hand and then tossed them into his mouth. He downed all of the pills in a single gulp. Taking back the Nalgene bottle to wash it all down. I recognized the pills as speed, an unfortunately not uncommon in the mountains where the modern philosophy is “light and fast.” Personally I maintained a more natural view of mountaineering liking the idea of climbing pure and clean however, many opted for the superhuman strength attained by such drugs to do climbs in record breaking times on untouched routes. Reinhold Messner was rumored to have used speed to do his famous climb on Everest solo unaided by supplemental oxygen. Though probably not in the quantities I had just seen Ringo take.

“Messner! Now that guy is crazy,” Ringo would say later during a conversation about climbing Everest. “I mean, the dude is looking for Yeti.” Pausing to light a large joint he had just rolled and then continuing. “Yeah man, I wouldn’t climb with that guy – he’s nuts.” Pulling down the joint in two long drags he would then step up to a rock wall and free solo a 5.11, 50m pitch in the Yosemite Valley called Astroman.

Here on Aconcagua long before that event Ringo was in a bad way. “What were you doing wandering around out there?” I asked.

“Climbing man, summiting,” he replied.

“In this weather, in that whiteout!”

“Dude I just went up until I started coming down again”

Believing that this was utter insanity given the weather conditions, wind, altitude, and Ringo’s frail condition, I had to question this point. Ringo produced out of his jacket pocket first the pill bottle again and then after rooting around for a second a small Canon “Digital Elph” digital camera. Flipping through the pictures on the “preview mode” he displayed a self-taken image of himself kneeling beside the cross that is planted at the summit. Around Ringo was just pure whiteness and it looked like he was holding on pretty tight just to stay planted up there. Pictures don’t lie and I figured that Ringo didn’t have the knowledge or the inclination to fake something like that. As I mentioned before Ringo sometimes transcended the laws of physics. I truly belief this was one of them.

“Wow” I said, “That’s pretty wild”

“Always document man” he said “People never believe anything, always have proof, always take pictures, and never trust film”

“Ok.” I replied. “ So do you have any gear?” I asked, already starting to catch on to Ringo’s strange climbing style. Currently he wasn’t carrying a pack or any extra gear besides the clothes he was wearing and what had in his pockets.

“Yeah I started out with a full pack and all, but it was just to heavy and too much extra weight so I left it to the wind. Some poor sap who is down on his luck is gonna have a merry Christmas when he finds it.”

“Right”

“Anyway, I’m late for my own party at the bottom.” With that Ringo gave me a solid pat on the back, stood up straight and tall, dawned a clean and sober look, and thanked me for the help. “I’ll send you a line next time I need an adventure buddy.” He took about five determined steps that looked rather stable and then collapsed doing almost a complete summersault. Concerned I walked over to him (at 600m one does not run) to give him a hand, but he was already standing again and brushing himself off. “Dude” he said. “Its like surfing mavericks.” And with that he was off again down the mountain and I didn’t see him again in Argentina. My group would end up not even reaching the summit. Five days of stormy weather and high winds made it impossible to move much higher than camp and after a few aborted attempts for the top we decided to call it good and return home. You really deteriorate up there and we were all sick and tired and ready to go home without risking further attempts. Too many weird high altitude dreams, something about the lack of oxygen really plays with your subconscious. Plus you can buy beer at base camp for five pesos a can. (Argentina Pesos and American dollars exchange at a rate of one for one)

The nice thing about Aconcagua is that you can go all the way from the summit to the road in one day. It’s a long downhill chug but doable. One of the members of our party had had it a little rough up high and we decided that instead of really pushing to spend a night at base camp before continuing out. By the time we got there Ringo of course was long gone but there were a few rumors floating around down there about a crazy guy sleeping in one of the guide companies kitchen tents. Though strange acts like that are not too unheard of out there I figured it was Ringo anyway.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately. To front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
-Henry David Thoreau


[1] Mr. Keen was a west texas country/folk singer who had probably never even seen snow in his life. But I’d like to think that he respected the cowboys that roped rock and ice instead of cattle.

[2] Probability is a mathematical way at looking at every event in life. In this manner nothing is impossible, however it can be improbable. Even the laws of physics can be broken given an improbablistic cause.

[3] “un-climbable” does not necessarily mean that it is impossible to climb. As previously mentioned with regard to impossibilities nothing is impossible. However what “un-climbable” does mean is that the likelihood of death upon attempting a climb of this caliber is extremely probable. Statistically one might attribute probability of death (POD*) at around 98%.  Climbs that have a POD of less than 70% are not considered unclimbable. These are climbs like Alaska’s “Devil’s Thumb” or Nepal’s “K2.”

*This is a footnote to a footnote. Though POD here is used to denote “Probability of Death” the same acronym is used by a Christian hard rock group that sings about god, jesus, and “the youth of the nation.” For them this acronym means “Payable on Death.” The author, not being a Christian and sometimes ignorant to those types of things, has no idea what this means, he is simply noting this, or footnoting it, so as to avoid general confusion.

[4] A lot of this comes from post World War II migrations in which many affluent Italians as well as military leaders fearing persecutions sought refuge within the borders of Argentina. Rumor has it they brought with them hundreds of pounds of Nazi gold. Sounds like pirate treasure to me.

[5] Amphoterric denotes a substance that can be either acid or base depending on the physical conditions it is applied to.

[6] Later I would complete the connection while watching the Cartoon Network ® with a college buddy of mine named Ned. Ringo looked like Goku from the cartoon Dragonball Z.



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