Flagging

- Originally written for Patagonia’s “Field Notes” series -

We’ve lost the trail again. Wet snow stings my face as I post hole back to the last piece of flagging. Visibility is dropping, and the pink marker is already out of site just a hundred feet back. There, found it. Whipping in the wind, it’s tied to a snag where the trail leaves some trees. Ok, start over, where does it go from here… come on, think.

The radio strapped to my chest squawks something about the team on the Nose. The spotters must be eyeing the face from below, trying to catch a glimpse through the storm. “It’s totally socked in. Our last view was a hour ago, and they hadn’t moved.”

They’re dead, they’ve got to be, there’s no way, not in this. We need to move faster. What about the other parties, the team on Salathe, the guys on Never Never Land? No one expected this, three days of rain turning to snow. Everyone on the wall is getting hammered. It went from summer to winter overnight.

The snow turns back to rain, then to hale, then back to snow again. Just like the gusting wind, it can’t make up its mind. I’m back on the trail now, flagging trees as I slog up the snow covered ridge.  My hands are freezing, gloves soaked through, and every time I stop to fumble with the pink tape I’m urged to press on. Screw the flagging, hurry, just get to the top. But there’s nothing we can do from the summit tonight, not in this crap. All that matters now is marking our breadcrumb path through the white-out so others can follow. Flag another tree.

They’re Japanese, the party on the Nose, just like the party twenty years ago.  They’re a pitch above Camp 6, just a few pitches from the top of El Cap, the absolute wrong place at the absolute wrong time. Damn it, why weren’t we here yesterday? We didn’t know. No one asked for help. But should we have known? Should we have been watching out for them? Who’s “we?” Other climbers? The government? It doesn’t matter, damn it, we’re too late.

They got themselves into this. Climbing is dangerous, everyone knows that. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t do it. Climbing is about accepting risk, sticking your neck out. It’s about being scared, living on the edge. Without that edge it’s not climbing. The best stories are those of self reliance. The closer to the limit, to failure, to death, the better.

Bullshit. Climbing is about watching out for your buddy, depending on each other, helping your partner, teamwork. It’s about controlling danger, keeping it in check, saving each other from failure, from death. The best stories are those of rescue. We should have known. We should have been here yesterday.

The debate circles in my head while I search for the trail.  It’s getting dark, and we’re still four miles from the summit. “I think it’s over here!” Jim calls over the wind, barely visible through the snow.  He’s still fumbling with the flagging when Scott and I catch up. We’re spinning our wheels. The light is going, and we’re freezing, cold enough to cut through ego. The smartest thing to do is find a bivy for the night and keep flagging at first light.

As we try to build a fire the conversation turns to stories of past epics, stormy nights in a porta-ledge, rock fall, running out of food. We smile at our tales of pain, one-upping each other’s stories of discomfort, but inevitably the humor fades, and these stories turn back to questions about the one unfolding in front of us. Weather, equipment, time… by morning dozens of people will be following our trail. I hope we’re not too late.

Epilogue:

In October, 2004, over a hundred people helped in the effort to rescue seven climbers caught high on El Cap in a raging storm. Five survived, but in a tragic repeat of an accident 20 years earlier, two climbers died just a few hundred feet from the top of the Nose before rescuers could reach them.

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