Essay: Retracing A Beautiful Route Jake Norton - Basecamp Fri, May 04, 2001 3:20AM
Aesthetic... This is a term we often use in reference to art. When something is deemed aesthetic, it is generally thought to be pure, simple, and beautiful in its very essence; generally, an aesthetic piece of work is was not arrived at by following the path of least resistance. In climbing, the same holds true. A climbing route - or line - which is aesthetic is pure and stunning in its simplicity, and, more often than not, difficult, for it follows pure lines of nature rather than contrived human paths of least resistance.
On April 28th, Brent Okita and I awaken to a beautiful day at 7,900 meter Camp V on the North Ridge. Our goal for the day: climb the North Ridge directly from Camp V as the pre-war British expeditions did and locate the site of the 1924 Camp VI. The contemporary route to Camp VI follows a less-than-aesthetic line, leading climbers off the North Ridge and onto the North Face to camp. The pre-war expeditions, however, stayed on the Ridge, following it through craggy slopes to high camp. Perhaps this was simply due to a lack of knowledge of the mountain and its lines of least resistance; or, perhaps, these pioneers followed this route because of a dedication to a pure line, a devotion to climbing aesthetics.
Regardless of the reason, the route is stellar. The steep, rubble-strewn slopes of the North Ridge are interspersed with crags, offering exciting - albeit manageable - climbing. We are off the fixed lines of the main route for the first time of the expedition, affording us the freedom to pick and choose where we feel the route should go while simultaneously forcing a higher level of focus and concentration than on other sections of the mountain: a fall here, off the fixed lines, would be fatal, period. As I climb, I am constantly awed by the terrain, by the immensity of my surroundings, and by the new views I am greeted by. At roughly 26,200 feet, I reach a snowy notch in the ridge and, pausing for a rest there, am able to gaze straight down at ABC thousands of feet below; I am atop one of the subsidiary gullies of the Rudy Couloir.
Soon, Brent and I have climbed high enough to enter into Jochen's line of telescope-sight from Basecamp, and he reminds us to keep our eyes open for evidence of 1924 Camp VI. Gazing about, I find it hard to imagine camping anywhere in the vicinity, as it is all steep and relatively unprotected. But, I know Jochen and his historical accuracy and knowledge, and am confident the camp must be nearby. We continue upward along the crest of the North Ridge, gazing at the Pinnacles to the left and the Northeast Ridge to the right, nature's drama all around. Scouting the route ahead of me, I see a high, three-tiered gendarme of rock protruding from the slopes above and obstructing our passage. Jochen's voice comes across the radio:
"Guys, could this be a camp spot?"
Sure enough, in another five steps I notice a bit of wood protruding from the ice and rubble ahead of me. My heart jumps as I pull from the rock an old, wooden tent pole. "We got it!" I radio down to Jochen as I scramble upward to where bits of fabric emanate from the scree. It is undoubtedly the 1924 Camp VI, spilling its weather-worn contents down the North Ridge. I spend an hour and a half extracting what artifacts I can manage from the Ridge's icy clutches before continuing on my way to Camp VI.
Yet again, I am spellbound by the aesthetic line chosen by the pre-war expeditions. From Camp VI, I chimney up a short section to the middle of the gendarme; the Pinnacles loom ominously to my left. Next, a few steep steps through suspect snow pop me out again onto the western flank of the North Ridge. Another 20 minutes of scrambling through crags and over slabs puts Brent and I within sight of our Camp VI. Traversing the North Face, we finally are able to flop down in the tents and take a well-needed rest.
As I lie there contemplating the day, I cannot help but reflect again and again on the tenacity and skill of the pre-war climbers. They and their porters climbed the North Ridge, clad only in hobnail boots and wool and tweed. They took the pure line up high, the natural line of the mountain, and it was not the easiest. Again, perhaps it was simply their folly, resulting from lack of knowledge of the mountain and its terrain. But, I prefer to believe it was their style, their desire to adhere to the climbing aesthetic... even if it meant a bit more tough going. If it is possible, I have even more respect for those pioneer climbers today than I did two weeks ago.