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Room of Doom

 Room of Doom

by Erik Sandelin

March 10, 2002

"Oh, miserable race of men! – and miserable he, too, who on this account calls himself miserable."

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment, 1866.

The scene is the following: Two brave climbers are trapped in a snowstorm in a tent at the base of a big and cold mountain in the heart of Alaska. One of the climber is I and the other one is my partner, Norman. I am still young enough to motivate trips like this by the illusion of ”fame, fortune and lecture-tours”. But Norman, who started climbing when I was still learning to walk, should have known better than spending his hard-earned vacation-days in a mountain range notorious for its bad weather. It has been snowing for days and we slowly lose the sense of time, one day being identical to the other.

Our base camp tent is of the ”summit-attempt” style, which means no vestibule, and floor space equivalent to that of the trunk of a car. Inside, it smells from bodily odours and wet fleece which never gets the chance to dry. Every time we leave or enter the tent we unavoidably let some snow into the tent. The snow subsequently melts and form small streams seeking their way down to the pools which have formed under the sleeping-pads. Nothing is dry. Socks, mittens, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, underwear, our books, everything is damp. Every morning a full bladder wakes us up, but for hours we fight the call of nature, because no sane man wants to change the warmth of a sleeping bag for the cold and wet snow outside. However, by noon, when the sun would have hit the tent if it had not been snowing, nature wins over human will, and we stagger out of the tent into the waist-deep snow. After confirming that this day will be exactly the same as the day before, we start laughing and exchange a couple of ”We’re screwed man”, and then start to prepare breakfast.

First we have to melt snow for water. To accomplish this, we have to open the tent-door and fill a pot with snow, whereby more snow blows into the tent, melts, and makes another contribution to the pools on the tent-floor. In the process of filling the pot, snow unavoidably sticks to the outside of the pot which subsequently melts when we put the pot on the stove and either drops down onto the burner and put out the flame, or it drops down onto the sleeping-pads. After repeating these procedures a couple of times we finally have enough water to cook our delicious breakfast: instant oatmeal, with either cinnamon-apple or strawberry flavour, and a cup of chinese tea.

After breakfast we discuss what to do if the forecast is wrong and it actually stops snowing. Reading route-descriptions and drawing lines on photos with our fingers, it’s like our last attempt never happened. Happily ignoring our encounter with reality we discuss the various options using terms like ”It’s only three days up”, ”Snow-conditions are much better on this route”, ”The approach is much easier” and, ”Our packs will be much lighter”. Realizing that it is a quite hypothetical discussion we divert from the subject and drift into an intellectual discussion about the origins of religions. When we run out of arguments we retreat to our books. I am reading the classic piece ”Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. A dark and heavy book about the angst of a murderer before and after committing his horrible deed, a book I will only have the focus and energy to read when I am trapped in a tent with nothing to distract me. Norman is reading ”The Greenlanders” by Jane Smiley. An epos about the Vikings’ settlements on southern Greenland. He is a fast reader and is reaching the end of the book where increasingly colder winters are diminishing the Vikings. With a huge smile on his face Norman reads aloud from the book: ”..... and it grew considerable colder and a great deal of snow fell.” Hmmm. Is the book about us ?

For a change, we are sitting up while reading, one in the front and one in the back, since the tent doesn’t allow two adults to sit next to each other. Now and then we think it is brighter than usual outside and with a faint hope we open the tent-door, only to confirm that the weather looks exactly the same as the last couple of days, cloudy and snow. At four or five in the afternoon lunchtime is officially declared by the one who first get bored or hungry, whichever comes first. As for all of our meals, lunch starts with the usual snow-melting procedure with the usual consequences for the humidity in the tent. Some salami, cheese and mashed potatoes with spices goes down way too quick, and then we return to our books, now laying down in our sleeping-bags. Twenty minutes later I am too tired and bored to read, so I just lay on my back thinking about what I should do with my life and what I have accomplished so far. An hour or so later I realise that I need some fresh air and exercise for my body, so I leave the tent for a snow-shuffling session. Clearing our tent from snow requires quite some effort after days of snowfall, but after all the hours in the tent it feels refreshing.

A few minutes before 8pm, Norman turns on the radio, waiting for the big event of the day: the weather-report from Denali base camp at the Kahiltna glacier:

"- Hi everyone. Kahiltna here with todays forecast."
"-Tonight, cloudy and snow." ( Happy voice ).
"-Friday, cloudy and snow." ( Giggling ).
"-Saturday, ....... cloudy and snow." ( Laughter ).
"- That’s all from Kahiltna. Hope everybody are having a good time out there!"

Laughing hysterically Norman and I exchange yet another couple of "We are screwed!", and then I go to the remains of our kitchen tent to fire up the big stove. Weakened by years of use under the ever shining Californian sun the fly is extremely fragile. The first rupture appeared just from erecting the tent and several days of heavy snowfall have added numerous ruptures, creating an ”energy-flow” in our kitchen which even the most hardcore feng-shui designer would be proud of. I produce two liters of water on the stove before my cold toes forces me into the tent again. Announcing my arrival to Norman he moves to the ”Erik is entering the tent” position. This means clearing the front of the tent from him, the sleeping-bags and all other items, which we still try to keep reasonable dry. Balancing on one leg I remove one of the neoprene socks, which we use as make-shift base camp-boots, and put that foot inside the tent while I remove the other sock. With my whole body finally inside the tent I have to sit in quarantine for half-an-hour in the front of tent, allowing the snow on my clothes to melt and only wet one half of the tent.

We proceed with an hour of book-reading, interspersed with a few comments like "We could have been in Bahamas, but noooo, we had to go to a big cold mountain!" and of course a couple of the usual "We’re screwed man!". Then it is suddenly time for the dinner arrangements, which are not many. Melting and boiling water and pouring it into our bags of freeze-dried food. The temperature has now dropped considerably and all the damp in our tent turns to ice. I move my sleeping-bag which has frozen to the tent-fabric, and while shivering we wait silently for Norman’s watch to tell us that ten minutes have passed and the dinner has obtained a digestable condition. When it’s time, we start eating as it was a matter of life and death. All too soon dinner is over. A sip of whiskey later it is bedtime.

Giggling and laughing we look at our once so fluffy high-tech sleeping-bags which now mostly consist of frozen clumps of down between two nylon-sheets. A couple of bad jokes on themes like "DryloftTM" and "It’s baking in here!" end the day’s conversation. Smiling, I slowly drift into the dream-world, thinking of the last words in the diary of the ever-optimistic Maurice Wilson1, written in 1934, alone with broken ribs in a tent high up on the north side of Mount Everest, abandon by his sherpas. "Off again, gorgeous day!"

1 In 1934 the stubborn and highly religious Englishman, Maurice Wilson, set out to fly alone to Mt. Everest and climb it to prove that Mallory and Irving died because of the intake of food. Influenced by homeopathy he believed that had they only fasted they would have reached the summit and come back alive. Hence Maurice’s plan was to only drink rice water during his ascent. The only problem with his plan was that he neither knew how to fly or how to climb. A year after, a British expedition discovered his body, and diary, close to camp 3 on the north col route. They threw his body into a crevasse, but during the years his body has reappeared several times. He sure is a stubborn man!

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Live To Climb