Often I do not understand the fineness of the distinction that we claim exists between courage and stupidity. I sit on a boulder in the moraine and look up at the couloir that we came here to climb and I don’t know if it is cowardice or some sounder judgment but my mind is set on retreat. The tension makes me humorless but if it didn’t I would be laughing at myself, tortured over the small unknown of what lies beyond that col when in earlier years, before illness and injury, I would have risked so much more.
I have considered the thoughtlessness of what we did by remaining roped together on the slopes above the second serac band. I did not consider it then and I doubt Ryan did either. I danced my crampons around that line for a thousand feet and looking down between my boots I could see it winding across the sculpted neve and arcing down over sun cups and ice runnels. It was thoughtless but we were quick and did not halt until we reached a high shoulder and the sun and we knew the summit was only a short hike away. We did not talk about it then, nor later, when I did slip and slide some distance and puncture a lung, but that was after we were off the glacier and the rope was in my pack. It was some time after that that he said something about trust: he said that if I had fallen then, high on the mountain, I would have killed him, but he knew I wouldn’t fall. This is both true and not. We did trust each other. Our faith was not blind but built on many days on many mountains, but the rationalization was a later development. I did not consider, as the slope steepened and turned icy, that he could fall and take me with him nor that I believed he would not, I did not think at all.
Soloing an easy pitch or high above my gear, I didn’t use to think. I used to wear socks with my climbing shoes and single layer tape gloves and climb sandstone patina with an interior texture of granulated sugar. I could have spun into that horrible weightlessness with a slip, a tear, a break. All the trust, all the faith, it couldn’t have been in my own weak and fallible body. I just didn’t think about it.
I have remembered Bonatti, alone on the Petit Dru, prusiking a rope thrown up to jam between blocks beyond his sight, and thought of what insane desperation he must have had to trust such a measure, although I read this long before I had any idea what such actions meant. Even earlier I read about Twight and Radcliffe on Reality Bath and I have considered at length how one would go about committing to such a thing. They had to have thought about this. Bonatti and Twight at first turned back, Bonatti twice. This would indicate cognition, some sort of arithmetic of risk and fate, to retreat yesterday but go today. Maybe they could see through the confusing jumble of anxious calculation and make decisions in full awareness of what stood to be gained and lost and if so it seems probable that this was a part, if not the entire, of what made them look like God’s elect. This is possible but I also wonder if they were like me only stronger and bolder and smarter. I wonder if, while the seracs crumbled and the rope grew taut, all they were doing was trying not to think, trying to stand there, right at the edge, and feel their way through their lives, face first.
I have remarked before that it has a post hoc character to it, this line of our judgment, but I am now closer to believing that our decisions are impulsive and our reasons absurd. I might risk my life out of a desire that a three hour hike not be wasted, or because a song I liked came on the radio, or because if I stopped moving I would get cold. As we talk on the moraine the summit clouds over and then clears again. A trickle of debris rumbles down a nearby buttress. My doubt fatigues me. I am tired of this fight before the fight, this pre-battle that leaves me nauseous and shaking, but I worry that there is something tragic in the denial of thought, some deep Cartesian loss such as that suffered in opiate addiction and alcoholism. I am scared to stop thinking, to lose myself, to hover overhead as Twight described, lost in the climb.