The Weight of Thin Air
Fat snowflakes fall heavily to the rocky ground. The first flakes melt despite winter’s chill, but subsequent ones don’t and flakes stack upon flakes until the world is white and silent. My friend Lander and I gaze at the mountain looming obstinate and uncaring above us, its glaciated lower slopes rising rapidly to the base of its sheer, rocky crown. Alone and unguided in Bolivia’s Cordillera Real, we plan to climb Condoriri’s 5,648 meters of rock and ice. It will be the most challenging mountain that either of us has yet attempted and deep inside, I feel a rising fear that whispers encouragement at any excuse to get out of this. I want badly to climb this mountain, yet feel my conviction to do so weakening.
This is a familiar struggle. A parallel me inhabits my imagination and taunts me at moments like this one. In my head, my hardened doppelganger conquers impossible mountains with gleefully bloody knuckles and a wild grin. Confronting the actual challenges involved in matching the image to myself, however, fills me with fear and self-doubt. I cringe from doing the hard work of truly inhabiting this ideal image.
Snow continues falling into the Bolivian winter evening and I wonder if the weather will make my decision for me. Secretly, I feel relief at this prospect. Never underestimate the power of a good excuse.
At 1 am, the sky is a rich black canvass painted with stars. The Milky Way cuts a path across them, an alternate route that we can only dream of following. A windless silence fills the valley, in which no excuse not to climb resides.
I exit the tent to face the mountain and I am sixteen years younger, showing the same false courage in the face of a Ranger Instructor on Zero Day, the day before the Ranger Indoctrination Program is to begin. RIP is the Army’s grueling selection process for entry into the storied 75th Ranger Regiment. I want badly to wear the scroll of that regiment.
A Ranger Instructor, or RI, tells us that RIP will not be the hardest thing that we ever do, but that it will probably be the hardest thing that any of us has done yet. The next day, I push forward with the rest of the would-be Rangers through the first week’s challenges. A black soldier from the hollers of Tennessee, who cannot mask his fear of swimming, drowns during the Combat Water Survival Test and the RIs resuscitate him. I follow him into the water and barely fare any better.
We wander for three sleepless days through Fort Benning’s dense terrain, falling into vine thickets in the dark, breaking out in poison ivy rashes and hallucinating about discovering food in the swamp’s humid depths. When Friday of our first week of selection arrives, roughly half the class has quit. I remain in the running. The Ranger Creed dictates the rhythm of my heartbeat: “…I accept the fact that as a ranger, my country expects me to move further, faster, and fight harder than any other soldier.”
Standing in the group that has made it through week one, I feel exhausted and dizzy, as though racing uphill along a cliff’s edge. I worry about what the second week will bring. Fake it till you make it, we say in the Army and I hope that I can fake it long enough to see myself through RIP.
Still groggy from our dreamless high-altitude nap and with a fluttering nervousness in my gut, we cross the sharp, dark features of our nighttime terrain, the only sounds those of our plastic boots striking glacial rocks and crunching frost-bound soil. Several times, we fan out and sweep our headlamps across the landscape, looking for the next cairn that marks the faint trail. At the black and white border demarcating the glacier from the moraine slope that it ground out, we strap on our crampons and the tap-scrape of our boots on loose rock becomes the thud-crunch of compacting snow and crampons biting the underlying ice.
Despite only bringing a small pack for the summit attempt, the climbing gear inside it and the thin air conspire to create the false impression of a much greater weight. My shoulders ache and my lungs burn, and Sgt. Straight is yelling into my ear; Ranger, if you can’t carry my fat ass up this hill then I don’t want you in my regiment. Can you do this, Ranger? Can you do this?
Even the night air is thick and humid on Ft. Benning in mid-August. Tonight’s task is a long march, at the end of which we take turns draping our buddies over our shoulders and carrying them up Cardiac Hill, whose length compensates for its gentle incline. The Ranger candidates are odd-numbered, and I draw Sgt. Straight, who outweighs me by about fifty pounds, as my partner.
At the top of the hill, the carrier becomes the carried. All except for me. “It’s your lucky day, Ranger,” says Sgt. Straight. “I’m not the one trying to pass this course, so you get to prove yourself one more time.”
My thighs begin quivering halfway up this bonus ascent and Sgt. Straight can feel it. “Are you going to drop me, Ranger? You better not fucking drop me!”
The night air on the mountain is so cold that it hurts without the fleece shield of my balaclava and the terrain is deceptive. A few degrees of movement to either side and the ascent vacillates between an impregnable sheer cliff and a series of ravines and gullies. The mountain is the ultimate blind date, only showing you its true form once it holds you tightly in its bosom.
Yesterday we had tried to trace the path from our camp to the high ridge with our eyes, but lost it in a labyrinth of rocky outcrops, scree fields and dirty snow slopes. A friendly Inca guide named Alex was camped near us and we asked him for details of the way up. The Inca have their own ideas of time, distance and direction, however, which rarely coincide with mainstream western standards. A language barrier compounded the challenge of asking directions, as many guides speak Quechua and very little Spanish.
“How do we access the high ridge?” we asked Alex.
“You just climb up there,” he said, waving his hands indistinctly towards the mountain.
“We have to climb that rock face to get to the ridge?” we asked.
“Yes, yes,” he replied, nodding.
“There isn’t a way around the rocks? We thought that the climbing only came at the end.”
“Yes, yes,” he replied, nodding.
Now, the impenetrable labyrinth of sharp and rotten rock transforms into alleys and ramps of mixed rock and snow as each step brings us simultaneously forward and up into less oxygenated heights. My legs burn like I’m running a race as we trudge at a steady pace underneath hulking masses of starlit rock. On a thin platform of snow and scree, I exchange trekking poles for a long piolet, its jagged teeth better able to arrest an unexpected fall and together we step onto the pristine snow of the upper glacier.
Yesterday, we had reasoned that we would be able to follow the tracks of those who had climbed Condoriri before us, thereby providing ourselves with a measure of security while navigating the glacier’s crevasses. That possibility now lies buried under snow. The path through the crevasses now exists only in the memories of those past climbers, as inaccessible to us as the Milky Way that faintly illuminates our landscape.
We struggle through the snow, ankle deep and firm, then suddenly thigh deep and soft, setting us back two steps for the last three taken forward. All the while, we maintain a strained lookout for the black maws of crevasses. The effort expended in gaining ground feels equivalent to running at a half marathon pace with intent to win. Lander punches through the snow again and loses his patience, cursing and punching at our treacherous surface. I move forward and take my turn in the lead.
Hours pass this way. A voice from my past, that of a Ranger Instructor, echoes into the present. Do you want to quit, Ranger? Something inside me trembles.
Last week of RIP. Home stretch. I’ve almost made it through the thresher and into the Army’s elite. It is now that I fall heavily, a useless sack of pure weight as my ankle rolls over the edge of the broken pavement in dawn’s first light. The medic cuts my boot off because my ankle has already swollen to the size of a grapefruit. At the hospital, the doctor examines the result of an MRI and tells me that I will likely be kicked out of the Army and a hard ball of tear-laden anger chokes any possible response. He hands me my medical file and tells me to report to a specialist on another floor, then walks out the door.
In the Army’s byzantine bureaucracy, I know that I will never see this doctor again. I have already forgotten his face and he has forgotten mine. Walking out of the room, I throw my medical records into a trash bin. I find an empty exam room, wrap my ankle tightly in a self-adhesive sports wrap and practice not limping as I return to the Ranger training facility.
While standing at parade rest on the cement in front of the main building, Sgt. Straight questions me about the morning’s injury and the day spent “relaxing” at the hospital. I refuse to come clean about the injury and am not a skilled enough liar to hide the fact that I’m hiding something. This is unacceptable. I’m thrown out of the Ranger Indoctrination Program, but not out of the Army. My orders arrive quickly and when the sun next rises, I am a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division.
Dawn’s golden light breaks Bolivia’s horizon as we round a fold in a steep cliff face that looks like a tapering pancake stack of alternating rock and ice. A tongue of snow rises narrowing into an icy couloir, marking the transition from hiking to climbing. It is Lander’s turn to lead and he disappears above me in a cascade of ice and snow.
“This ice is una mierda,” he yells down! “I’m placing a screw, but I think it’s just for peace of mind.”
I see what he means as I begin my ascent. My ice axes punch through a thin and brittle layer of snow-covered ice, striking the underlying rock. Warm days and cold nights have resulted in a freeze-thaw cycle that has rendered the ice frail, riddled with air pockets like the bones of a bird. Climbing the gully is an act of careful balance. I try to think light thoughts.
I also try to move quickly through this section, but nearing six thousand meters, moving quickly means I am rapidly running out of breath. After failing to find safe purchase for both feet in the snow/ice mixture, I rest spread-eagle with one foot in the snow, one jammed in a crack and both ice axes resting on thin rock lips. I gasp until my breathing steadies.
From the belay, the ridge to the summit arcs upwards, a knife edge aimed at the sky. Under a meter wide at times and falling away straight down to the glaciers below on either side, it is a daring final ascent.
“Should we climb roped or unroped?” Lander asks.
We opt to continue climbing with a belay. It would be a pity to fall so near the summit. Lander and I trade places, and I lead the sharp end of the rope up the razor blade to the summit. Once on top, however, I see a higher summit further down the ridge. From below, the summit ridge looked like a gentle and unbroken rise from one end to the other. From my new vantage point, however, I see that it undulates from a false summit to the real one.
I crouch down to build an anchor and belay Lander up. With one tap, my snow picket drops through the snow, sinking its entire length. So does the next. This snow is as brittle and untrustworthy as the snow in the gully and I wonder if there is any point to this anchor.
“Climb on,” I shout to Lander, “but don’t fall.”
Lander climbs to me, then continues onward to set the next anchor. He shouts down to me that I’m good to climb and I shout back, asking if he’s on the summit.
“No tío,” he shouts down, laughing. “Not even!”
Tired muscles pumping and lungs sucking in the thin air, we climb onwards, discovering to our shared dismay that there are several false summits obscuring the view of the real one. We’ll only find the final summit when we can look over its far side.
This sort of blind ascent is frustrating, and I voice my discontent with unoriginal epithets from atop the third false summit, as my legs quiver from the sustained effort.
“¡Puta madre! ¡Que puta mierda!”
The voice of the Ranger Instructor asks again: Do you want to quit? On the inside, I think of a warm couch, TV, and a glass of wine. On the outside, I feel cold and my breath is ragged.
Pain and exhaustion yield to elation on the summit. The air I inhale is suddenly more sweet than thin. Standing on that final dagger tip of snow, I momentarily forget to feel tired and sore. Below us to one side, our footprints point the way home. To the other side, the high mountains of the Cordillera Real drop quickly away towards a lustrous golden sea of clouds, below which hides the vast Amazon rainforest. Centimeters in every direction from our crampon-clad boots, sun-cupped nevé falls unbroken to the glaciers below, a constant reminder not to let our guard down, that the summit is merely a mid-point.
We descend one cautious footstep at a time. We rappel back down the rotten gully that we had so recently climbed and moments later we are safely on the glacier’s wide field.
We did it, I think. I did it. There remains the glacier to cross, but now we have our path to guide us through the crevasses. I can relax and let my mind wander.
Instead of wandering, my mind makes a beeline to a recurrent question. Why do I do this?
I’ve always cherished the calm and contentment that being in quiet and wild places brings me, but why pursue challenging experiences in less accessible places? Why not content myself with a simple hike and a nice view?
These questions have always bothered me and I’ve never had an answer for them, but it comes now, so simple that I wonder if I didn’t already know it. I need to test myself in the outdoors.
Nonetheless, why the outdoors? I glance back at the snowy cliffs and the precipitous summit ridge and I know this answer as well. No person will ever be bigger than you in the way that a mountain is. No adversary will ever be so impassive.
Wading home through deep snow, past adversaries spring readily to mind. A skinny, bookish, and bespectacled child, I was a ready-made bully magnet. Meet me after school, they whispered and the only choice was to comply. Better to be beaten in a fight than to be known as a coward.
A circle gathers, fear turns blood cold, the punch, the fall, the ensuing scuffle. The crowd disperses and the ancient ritual repeats. The repetition of an action is the best method for long-term learning, as the song says, and after a few cycles of this ritual, I learned to hit back. Winning and losing grew less important than simply fighting and the larger-than-life bullies soon shrank to simple kids of my size. The grudging respect born of these after-hours lessons even rendered some bullies, if not friends, then at least friendly.
A mountain is not a man. You can neither reason with it nor accomplish anything by hitting it back. When confronting its challenges, you struggle neither against the rock nor the weather, but against your own limits, your own shortcomings. Therein lies my greatest fear, so often hidden even from myself—that of falling short.
True to the Ranger Instructor’s words, RIP had been the hardest thing that I had done to that date. Beyond that, however, RIP was also my moment of greatest shortcoming. Not because of the injury. I cut the story short, you see. I altered its ending. I’ve been altering the ending for the past sixteen years, a long running con to shield my own ego. Not even my wife knows the true ending.
After wrapping up my ankle and not-hobbling back to the training headquarters, I struggled to explain myself to Sgt. Straight without giving away my injury. He wasn’t buying it. Rather than press the issue, he asked me a simple question.
“Ray, do you think that you should continue in the Ranger Indoctrination Program?”
I could have said yes. I could have tried to push myself through the last four days and seek proper care for my ankle later. My missing medical records could be explained away easily enough at my next unit by simply saying that they were lost at the training facility. I might get an eye roll and a reprimand, but little was likely to happen beyond that.
I’ll never know, though. In that snap-decision moment between Sgt. Straight’s question and my reply, I felt the pain in my ankle and the accumulated pain of the past few weeks of training. I felt exhaustion and I felt anger at my crap luck and I felt the self-doubt that all of that engendered.
And I said no.
Despite the medical records, despite having bound my ankle and walked back to the barracks, I was out in the seamless passing of one moment to the next. I had brought myself to that precipice and then turned away. From that, there was no going back.
“Frankly,” said a Ranger Instructor on Zero Day, the day before training was to begin, “I think that every soldier should attend RIP. Most of you won’t pass, but that’s the point. This whole program is designed to teach you what your limits are and how you deal with them. If you don’t know what your limits are today, you won’t be able to change them tomorrow. Failure is our greatest teacher. You know what happens to those of you who pass and go on to Ranger Regiment? Life just gets harder. That’s great if you don’t fail now, but we’ll keep pushing you until you do. Failure is a good thing. “
Failure might be a good thing, but it feels like shit. Failure is also a frontier, a limit that we must choose to obey or to move. I had obeyed long enough. On that cold midwinter’s day, I push my limits one step forward.
“You’re glowing,” my wife Jordan says to me as I grin irrepressibly on the couch the next day.
“I feel good,” I say. And then I tell her the truth.