The Long Range Lens

Pete settled down with his back resting against a convenient bolder, it was  warm down at base camp, despite the  altitude of nearly 16,000 feet, he felt relaxed but slightly apprehensive.

Looking up through the long range lens of his Cannon camera, he could clearly see the two climbers in ‘Death Gully’, a 2,500 foot ice filled gash splitting the  upper face of Nevada Santiago, an unclimbed mountain in a remote region of the Peruvian Andes. He watched as the climbers methodically checked out their ropes, harnesses, and assorted ice climbing hardware.

This had been their second overnight bivouac, the first one had been in a snow cave three hundred feet below. This one on a small cramped ledge, was almost half way up the gully, their progress the previous day had been impressive, even by their standards. They had now reached the crux of the climb, no one had ever made it past this point before; and three people failed to make it down alive.

Pete zoomed in close to capture his friends, the details and sharpness of his images were superb, he was very pleased he’d accepted the invitation to join Tony and Ian yet again- on one of their extreme mountain expeditions. The pair were highly experienced with many first ascents to their credit. Nevada Santiago however was probably their most difficult and dangerous undertaking so far.

Although Pete was enjoying the warmth of the rising sun, he knew that the temperature in Death Gully was well below freezing, the bivi would have been very uncomfortable, to put it mildly. Through his camera lens he watched as they made slow but steady progress above their icy resting place. Tony was leading, picking his way through a series of loose unstable ice covered overhangs and pinnacles, they had to be cleared away to make it safe for their accent.

All this activity was unavoidably sending rock and ice debris down the gully, it slithered and bounced off the gully walls, landing on top of Ian’s belay below, where it gathered momentum and continued falling-uninterrupted for a 1000 feet.

The weather was gradually changing, the clear skies giving way to menacing dark clouds, ‘It’s not looking good’ thought Pete with a shudder, his warm boulder seat was now more like an icy throne. The wind was swirling around the campsite, buffeting the tents and making the guy ropes twang with tension. Snow flurries blanketed the site with a fresh new covering. He zipped up his extreme Himalayan Down Jacket and pulled the hood round his now freezing head and ears. Conditions on the climb had deteriorated dramatically, with mist now obscuring any view of his companions.

They had communication via a pair of ‘walk y talkies’ , but in keeping with the manner in which the pair liked to climb, it was agreed they should only be used in an emergency or to clarify a situation. Tony and Ian preferred to be more traditional in their approach to big climbs. ‘Alpine style’, taking everything they needed on their backs, no porters, no sack hauling. ‘If we can carry it, we’ll climb with it’ was their motto. Radio contact had been made with base camp from the bivi ledge the night before, everything was working fine!

It was now five hours since Pete had seen the pair, his radio was nestled inside his jacket pocket, silent, not even a squeak. He was beginning to get concerned  as he focused the lens with his gloved hands, hoping desperately to see through the swirling mist and confirm they were safe. There was nothing, only gray unrelenting mist.

As the light faded, he reluctantly pressed the radio transmit button – ‘Base to climbers- base to climbers – come in please’. There was no reply, only an eerie silence .Pete could do nothing but wait, and watch the last rays of the setting sun disappear behind the Western peaks. He was bitterly cold despite wearing his down jacket and pants, he dreaded to think what it was like in ‘Death Gully’.

Suddenly his radio crackled and hissed,- then fell silent, and at that same moment the upper part of the gully was bathed in the dying light from the West. Through his lens he could just make out two figures floundering through new snow as they tried desperately to reach the summit ridge- 300 feet above them!

The last time he saw them was just before the clouds blanked out the mountain completely,

He was still awake way after midnight, the wind had stopped, everything was frozen into silence. The moon was full, bathing the mountains in a surreal and ghostly hew, the sky was crystal clear and alive with a billion stars.

He lay huddled in his sleeping bag, occasionally drifting into a shallow fitful sleep, then suddenly his radio burst into life. ‘Base this is Tony- base this is Tony- we did it mate- we did it’

 ‘Fantastic, bloody fantastic’ he replied; and then realized that his huge smile was making his freezing cheek bones ache.

As the dawn light slowly rose from the East, Pete sat in the doorway of his tent methodically scanning the South ridge through his camera lens, the bottom half of the mountain was still under the mantle of darkness, but he thought he’d seen   the wavering flash of a head torch.

A couple of hours later he spotted them about a mile away, descending at a steady pace down a snow slope towards camp. ‘Better get the kettle on then’ he said to himself with a grin.

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