My crampons fight for purchase while my gloved hand and ice axe claw at the ice covered granite. My entire body struggles to climb over the few remaining boulders marking the crux of Abol slide. To the uninitiated, the top of the slide appears as a false summit and many a climber has reached this spot only to be hit by despair when they realize the actual summit still lingers miles away.
Crossing the expansive tablelands, in the middle of winter, can be a physically and mentally demanding endeavor. High winds, snowdrifts and bitter cold challenge even the most fit and courageous adventurer. It is a battle of man against a monolithic obstacle older than time itself.
Staring across at the clear vast expanse, it is easy to forget oneself and proceed forward without locking in a GPS coordinate and determining a compass bearing. This, however, could prove a fatal error given that this area is prone to whiteout conditions that can appear out of nowhere on otherwise calm days. Sometimes the god Pamola strives to obliterate those who violate these high empty expanses during his time of slumber.
My plastic boots creak and groan in the cold and my crampons pierce packed snow the consistency of styrofoam. With each footfall, the squeaking noise sends a shiver down my spine. Rocks and crevasses are hidden by the snow, and a step unfortunate enough to land upon one of these soft spots could easily break a leg or hyperextend a knee, instantly making a winter hike a life or death situation.
My face is protected by goggles and a full-face balaclava and my labored breathing momentarily fogs the mask with each exhale. A fierce wind blows from the Northeast. Numbness on my flesh signals the potential for frostbite, and I am forced to use my gloved hand to provide my face additional coverage against the raging and unforgiving winds. Very little visibility makes it crucial to always be within sight of all members of the group, so I continually scan to make sure my comrades are in close proximity.
Here, high on the mountains, there is little room for error, and a lost team member can invoke a best-case scenario of an exhaustive search and the worse case, the possibility of death. As I tire, I begin to count my footfalls, putting my mind into a meditative state that allows me to forget that I am tired and my legs hurt. The trick of the mind works and within a short time I am standing with my friends on the summit. It is yet another battle hard won and a chance for reflection, wonderment and pride that is connected to the accomplishment of a difficult goal. Our moments on the summit are brief and we are soon on our way down the mountain. Though our breath is labored and our backs tired, in our minds we are already plotting our return to this high place.