Mikel Zabalza alpinista

Alpine confinement, by Mikel Zabalza

I started with these expeditions outside Europe back in the year 1992. Since then I have participated in 38 expeditions in the Himalayas, the Karakorums, Greenland, Antarctica and Patagonia: all of them with a duration of between 6 and 10 weeks. This is not counting the trips to the nearby massifs such as the Pyrenees, Picos de Europa, Alps and Atlas Mountains.

In so many days in the mountains I have lived through a good number of spells of confinement in high altitude camps and of course in base camps (where it is much more pleasant).

Expedition to Tierra del Fuego

In February 2004, together with José Carlos Tamayo and Iñaki San Vicente, we went to Tierra del Fuego to try to climb Mount Sarmiento. Tierra del Fuego, south of the Strait of Magellan, between Chile and Argentina, is characterised by its dire climate and isolated location. We had a month to stay in our remote and isolated base camp before the yacht which had brought us there would return to pick us up. The days passed and we saw no opportunities to reach the top, so we decided to go to the altitude camp that we had established at the foot of the difficult section (6 hours from base camp) for a few days and try our luck.

We took food for three or four days. In the end we were there for seven days and the provisions had to be rationed severely. At midday, “Commander Tamayo” gave everyone four peanuts each and a recycled infusion without sugar. If we had at least been at 7,000 metres, where your stomach closes and you barely have an appetite … but here we were at 1,000 metres and I would have eaten a horse.

The days ran out and we went down to base camp with just enough time to collect our things, without having made an attempt to reach the summit, without love handles, but having received some good yoga lessons from Iñaki, and enjoyed a pleasant and human experience in our tiny high altitude tent.

Expedition to the Paiju Peak

It was the summer of 2013 when we were trying to climb the South Pillar of Paiju Peak, in Pakistan. We reached the middle of the wall and set up our small tent for two, where three of us slept, on a platform carved out with an ice axe, in the small névé hanging off the wall. Bad weather took us by surprise and kept us there for three days with no possibility of moving. Avalanches fell down the mountainsides and thoughts of continuing to climb soon turned into thoughts about saving our skins. We could only hope that at least the storm would subside a little so that the avalanches were not as relentless. The storm did not let up, supplies ran out, and our forced confinement in the tent seemed to me like being in a coffin.

It was time to make the decision and risk going down before our strength began to fade. We were very lucky that no major avalanche caught us and we kissed the floor of the glacier.

Hornbein Couloir on the north face of Everest

On another occasion, and again together with Alberto Iñurrategi and Juan Vallejo, we tried to ascend the Hornbein Couloir on the north face of Everest, alpine style. On the second day we set up our tent, once again using the ice axe, on the gigantic slope of snow and ice; at this point the inclination was about 50°. In the afternoon it began to gently snow and at dusk it was already falling heavily. The snow hitting our tiny tent, added to the altitude (we were at 7,300 m), prevented me from sleeping. At 00:30 a first avalanche fell that almost sent us flying down the slope inside the tent. Luckily we had secured it firmly with stakes and ice screws. A slide over a thousand metres high was a fast route to the great beyond, so we quickly went outside and put on our boots and crampons under considerable stress. Alberto and I were already outside preparing a rappel to reach some fallen rocks about fifty metres away. A second avalanche fell that destroyed the tent with Juan still inside. With a knife we managed to cut open a way for Juan to get out and the three of us rappelled to below the protective rock.

Confined under the rock, without a tent and with the avalanches passing above us, we carved a tiny ledge on the ice to sit down and watched the hours pass trapped in our meagre refuge. If it didn’t stop snowing, it was going to be impossible for us to get out of there alive, the three of us thought, but none of us actually said it out loud at the time. Juan told jokes and talked nonsense as usual and we had some good laughs. It is curious that even thinking that we had little chance of getting out of there in one piece, I had no feeling of fear, nor the desire to say goodbye to anyone. I just thought that at dawn I had to go up to retrieve whatever material I could from the tent and the two 50-metre and 5-mm ropes that we had fixed at that point.

At dawn the snow stopped and the avalanches gradually subsided. I went up to recover the ropes and we began to rappel with the obvious fear that an avalanche would send us flying to our deaths.

Under different conditions, we would have climbed down, but with the continuous snowslides it would have been madness. On the other hand, we had very little equipment, so we had to work out what to do. We started by making Abalakovs (ice bridges), an anchor point on the rappel where a piece of cord of about 70 cm is left in the ice. When our accessory cords ran out, we started using the dyneema tapes, which we usually carry, and ended up cutting as many straps as possible from our backpacks. From that moment on we started using the stakes. We only had three. Two rappelled from two stakes, and the third climbed down, thereby easing the tension somewhat; we each had to climb down one out of every three rappels. At the bottom we found some rock and left four of the five nuts and three titanium pitons that we had. The first two rappelled from two anchors without equalisation and the third from only one. We reached the ground with a nut, two screws and the 50-meter ropes that had been reduced to 30.

We kissed the ground once again and looked up with a strong sense of relief.

Right now we have time to think about future projects while we remember other confinements that help us to put the current one into perspective and cope with it better.

Keep your spirits up!



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