“Daniel!” Gervacio shouted, stopping and turning back to face me, the white beam of his headlamp streaking across the dark landscape. “You must go slower and keep the rope tight!” His voice rang clear through the frigid mountain air.
“Sorry.” I knew this rule was paramount. If I didn't slow down to match my guide's pace, I would build slack in the rope that tethered us, putting us both in danger.
With renewed focus I slammed the ice with my axes, kicked the wall with my crampons, lifted my body and repeated. At 19,000 feet this simple process required tremendous physical exertion. My heart was hammering and my lungs were burning. My breathing was shallow and rapid. How much longer could my body take this punishment?
I was no mountaineer. A few hours earlier I had tripped over my crampons while walking on flat ground. If I fell now, I could get us both killed. The top of a mountain was not a good place to learn basic climbing technique.
It had been ten months since I had left my comfortable life as a software engineer to embark on this journey through South America. I had dreamed of exploring ancient Inca ruins and whitewashed colonial churches by day, drinking Argentine wine by night. I was out of shape and had almost no wilderness experience. How did I get here? To tell the whole tale, I would have to start before I paddled down a remote Amazon tributary in a wooden canoe with an Australian “Semi-Retired World Adventurer” (and a French brat); before I got the greatest deal ever on a trip to Antarctica, thanks to an English miser; and even before I learned the ropes of backpacking from a Frenchman who once made a living doing cartoon voice-overs. The story of this trip began anonymously and without fanfare, when someone I never knew decided that a particular office hallway would be a good place to hang a map of the world.
For the next agonizing hour, dawn approaching, Gervacio and I picked our way up the mountain's final slope. As soon as I felt a bit of slack in the rope, I leaned in close to the wall and clutched my axes tight. My fingers and toes tingled. Afraid to move, I focused on the snow, inches from my face. My right leg began to shake, sending flecks of ice trickling below me. I didn't dare look down.
A few minutes later I still hadn't felt the familiar tug on the rope indicating that I could continue. I looked up, expecting to see the spiky points of Gervacio's crampons. Instead I saw my guide kneeling and hammering a snow picket into the ground. Behind him was the deep blue glow of the dawn sky.
Could it be?
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