“There is only one rule in ice climbing,” Conrad Anker said, with an intensely furrowed brow: “Do not fall.” Then he solemnly patted the ice axes crossed against my chest.
Conrad, a true alpine climbing legend and de facto captain of the The North Face climbing team, which I had just recently joined, had given me the high honor of accompanying him to Nepal to do some first ascent ice climbing and to assist with the Khumbu Climbing School, an organization he started to teach Sherpas climbing skills, many of whom had summited Everest but couldn’t even tie a figure eight.
I had never ice climbed in my life, but I believed I was indestructible. Something as basic as ice climbing should be a walk in the park, right?
To train for our foray, I met Conrad at the Ouray Ice Festival in Ouray, Colorado, where he got me up to speed on the basics of ice. This entailed such niceties as getting hit in the face by ice shrapnel and laboring to put in ice screws that had the distinct possibility of ripping out if you fell on them! I also had the pleasure of experiencing my first “screaming barfies,” the excruciating pain of blood rushing back into one’s frozen fingers. My initial read on ice climbing was that it took all the worst parts of free soloing and aid climbing and wrapped them up into a single, horrific, soul-scarring exercise. I secretly wondered what the hell I’d gotten myself into, while outwardly projecting a false aura of confidence. I mean, this shit was easy—every hold’s a jug! Folks who knew me back then often described me with unflattering adjective-noun combinations, such as “sketchy knucklehead” or even “cocky dumbass.” And I would soon learn why.
We landed in Kathmandu and met up with our group of Khumbu Climbing School volunteers: fellow TNF athlete Heidi Wirtz, bestselling author John Krakauer, climbing guide Adam Knoff, and young ice climbing prodigy Ross Lynn. After a rickety, death trap of a plane landed us on the small, steep, and notoriously dangerous strip of runway in Lukla, we set off on foot for Namche Bazaar where Conrad assured us there was world-class ice climbing to be had.
Conrad is notorious for having an ascetic’s love of suffering, and one of his go-to expedition maneuvers was to keep food to a minimum. He believes that the modern comforts of the Western world make us soft, and he looks at these trips as a way to toughen back up. While the rest of us enjoyed the luxury of letting Sherpas carry in our climbing gear, Conrad proudly carried a heavy load and each morning handed out two Snickers bars, our daily rations.
Once we settled in at Namche, it became quickly apparent that given my lack of ice experience, I would be the odd man out, the equivalent of the kid who gets picked last in gym class. While Conrad and Krakauer sharpened their tools and got ready to climb Losar, a 2,000-foot waterfall that we could see from the window of our lodge, I kicked about until eventually Ross and Heidi reluctantly agreed to invite me on a recon for some first ascent ice. “Be safe and remember the one rule,” Conrad said to me as he patted me roughly on the shoulder.
Early the next morning Ross, Heidi, and I saddled our packs and headed up to where we had heard there were some impressive unclimbed ice flows across the river. I coveted first ascent glory and really wanted to be seen as a badass. A couple hours later, an impressive ribbon of ice came into view. “There’s our line,” I declared with no real clue if it was, in fact, climbable.
“I don’t know; it looks kind of messed up,” Heidi said. “It doesn’t even go to the ground. I think there might be water flowing behind it.”
“It’ll be fine,” I said, strong-arming the situation, assuring everyone that it was an awesome idea to go for this barely formed waterfall.
When we were standing at the base of the climb, things didn’t look promising. The ice didn’t start for about 150 feet and was protected by a Jenga puzzle of loose rock and frozen moss. Where Heidi and Ross saw an ice climb that wasn’t in, I saw a glorious first ascent waiting to be plucked, and somehow I convinced them. Ross tiptoed his way up pitch one to a sloping snow ledge, and then Heidi climbed a thin smear of ice up to an alcove. “The anchor is super sketchy, so try not to fall,” Heidi yelled down.
When we reached Heidi, she had a No. 4 Camalot with three lobes touching the rock, a hummock of moss slung with a cordelette, and a stubby ice screw. “Your lead,” Ross laughed.
I ran it out 20 feet, then managed to get a sling around a small runnel of ice about the size of my wrist. My crampons, which I would later find out were a failed prototype, gave me little purchase. I was essentially campusing. Another 20 feet out, the ice was getting really thin. I was already pumped. I pounded frantically to get a stick, then water began shooting out of the hole I had created—straight into my face and down my sleeves. I desperately tried to put in an ice screw; it went in halfway then hit rock. Too pumped to tie it off short where the screw met the ice, I clipped the hanger, which was sticking four inches out from the ice!
Above me was a final overhanging headwall and then an enticing sloping ledge where I hoped to relieve my arms. With the pump-clock ticking, I trembled my way out the overhang with my feet skittering uselessly. I was so flamed, but just two more moves and I was over the hump and back on my feet. I attempted to place an ice screw, but dropped it. Fuck! Now, horribly runout, I had nowhere to go but up. I pounded at the ice, but it just kept shearing off and smashing me in the face. A sizeable chunk ripped my forehead open, and an alarming mix of blood and sweat dripped into my eyes. I entered survival mode. One more swing and my axe finally stuck. With next to nothing left in the tank, I committed to the placement. I locked off, walked my feet up, and then CHICKCRACKKKKK! The ice sheared. And I was airborne.
My life did not flash before my eyes, but time did slow down. I saw the rope snaking wildly through the air. I watched my shadow moving in an abstract splotch down the frozen waterfall. I saw my only ice screw rip right out. As I fell past Ross and Heidi, I could see their eyes widen with disbelief.
I cartwheeled my arms to try to stay upright and in the process hucked my ice tools off the cliff into the river. I took a breath and screamed before I hit the snowy, sloping ledge at the top of pitch one. With the rope still slack, I tomahawked head over heels like a wrecked skier, and then without the rope ever going tight, I skidded to a halt.
“Oh my God! Cedar, are you alright?” Heidi screamed with a tone that suggested she thought I was dead. I twitched to life and began to assess my body. I lifted each hand up and stared at it wondrously. I moved my legs, and they seemed OK. I slowly sat up, half expecting my spine to crumple under my weight, but aside from the cut on my forehead, I seemed to be fine. I sprang up and raised my arms in a “V” for victory and screamed “I’m alive!” I had whipped two pitches and decked!
Back at the lodge, we met up with Conrad and John who had just climbed Losar. They both frowned and shook their heads at me like I had just shat the bed. “You broke the rule,” Conrad said. “The ONE rule.”
“What would have happened if you broke your legs, or worse, died? How would that have looked for an instructor of the climbing school to have to be rescued or buried?” John said. I shrunk sheepishly into the corner like a bad dog. Ross and Heidi made plans to climb the next day without me. I was officially a liability.
I had a rest day by myself while the remainder of the team went out to climb. By the afternoon, I had eaten my Snickers rations and was anxious, hungry, and lonely. I went over to Conrad’s duffel to grab a file to sharpen my crampons, when I noticed a bag of homemade jerky. I grabbed a chunk and gnawed on it as I rifled through the bag looking for the file. At that exact moment, Conrad and the gang came tromping through the door. My mouth gaped, and the jerky dropped to the ground. “What do you think you’re doing?” Conrad grumbled and for the rest of the evening didn’t say another word to me. I was mortified but had a catharsis: My ego had run away with my logic.
The next morning I ate oatmeal in silent misery, expecting another day of dejection. “Gear up, Cedar,” Conrad said. “Take these crampons. I think they are going to treat you a lot better.” I held the crampons, knowing they represented a second chance. Conrad took me under his wing, and I was soon leading steep, technical ice. By the time the climbing school started, I was fully integrated back into the family, and being in Nepal with the Sherpa climbers and sharing the joy of climbing with them was a transformational experience. After the school I even managed to climb Losar with Adam in record time. I had redeemed myself and learned one of the most valuable lessons of my life: humility.
Years later, I headed back to the Khumbu Climbing School, and in between sessions, Conrad invited me to come up to Everest basecamp to retrieve some memory cards containing climate data. As we sat on a rock enjoying the pristine beauty of the Himalaya, Conrad pulled some homemade jerky out of his pack, and then passed me a piece.
Cedar Wright is a contributing editor, sketchy knucklehead, and cocky dumbass for Climbing magazine.