Vinson Vignette #3: Bookends and Rope Teams

When I arrived in Santiago three weeks ago, I popped up to the Great Gatsby to have some dinner while I waited for my connection to Punta Arenas. Tonight, as I passed the time to my Toronto connection, I did the same. Turns out I ordered the same meal: a cheese and chicken quesadilla with guacamole. It seemed right. To finish the experience in the way I started. To provide bookends on a very cool (excuse the pun) life experience. A recognition of start and finish and the line of rope in between.

A series of crevasses on a glacier (seen from the air)

Glacier mountaineering is a somewhat unique experience. It requires the team to “rope up” to defend against the danger of falling into a crevasse. The hope is, that by spreading the team out along 120 metres of rope or so, not everyone will end up on the same snow bridge over a crevasse. That way, if a snow bridge over a crevasse collapses and someone drops in, the rest of the team can fall down onto their ice axes and keep the dropping climber from going too deep. In theory. Crevasses can be quite terrifying: icy, cold, and often dark. These dangerous slots are often hidden by a blanket of snow. Narrowing at their bottoms. We always hope that we never pitch in head first.

The most experienced climber usually leads the rope team up the glacier. The second most experienced is often the last with other team members tied in between. The leader tries to set a pace for climbing that everyone can be comfortable with as the team needs to take every step in unison. Minute after minute, hour after hour each individual subjugates her or his individual pace for one that works as a whole. The rope must be maintained at just the right amount of tension: too much slack and a team member will drop deeper into a potentially icy grave; too tight and frustration and tripping reign. Moving on a rope team seems to me to be like playing in a symphony (though I never have and likely never will-was standing at the back of the line when they gave out music ability). I must be intimately aware of my individual part and how I play it while as the same time, fitting my movement into the orchestration of the whole. It is truly a lived experience of “one for all and all for one.”

It’s a funny thing to meet people one day and two days later, be placing the care of your life into their hands. Ideally, I’d get to climb with the same people each expedition and we’d develop that faith and trust in each other over time. In reality, I climb with new folks every time and so have learned both to surrender and to trust the rope that binds us together. Sometimes we formalize and openly speak of the commitment to each other, other times we use the act of tying into rope to signify that bond.

I was one of the bookends of the rope team for the Vinson expedition. I inhabited the last spot on the rope for the whole expedition. It’s my favourite spot in that it allows me to take pictures of the team, manage only one rope strand, and notice my competence and ability (as the furthest spot from the leader-he or she has to trust your abilities to put you back that far). In the Bible and rope teams, “The first shall go last and the last shall go first.” When we’d finished a carry or were coming down from the summit, it was my job to lead the team down and set the pace (this also sets up the leader to be the last ditch catch should the team need one).

We took every step from base camp to the summit roped together. By sharing every footstep, we shared the climb in an intimate physical way even though, while climbing, it was hard to exchange any words except at breaks. Another lived experience of “being both alone and together and for that, and my teammates, I am grateful.

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