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Trudging painfully to Shiva

October 25, 2005

Inspired by the surfing movie "The Endless Summer," Arlene Blum dreamed up her own "endless winter," a 15-month round-the-world climbing adventure. In the spring of 1972, Blum and three companions tackled the unclimbed 16,500-foot ice peak Shiva, which she describes in "Breaking Trail."

AT dawn, we began picking our way through a mass of crevasses and seracs in the ice fall above our camp. Progress was excruciatingly slow because of the worst possible snow conditions: brittle crust over deep powder. I'd put my foot on the hard surface, break through into calf-deep thick powder, pull my foot out of the jagged hole, and start all over again. For hours we trudged painfully toward Shiva, the central Shishnag peak. The snow was deep and heavy. Falling through the breakable crust was so unpleasant that Toby and Dave decided to turn back. Joel, who was roped to me, started to follow them down. But I wanted to continue high enough to see the unknown valleys on the other side of the ridge leading to the peak.

"Cut the rope, Joel," Toby suggested as he and Dave headed down. We all laughed, although I wasn't sure if this suggestion was completely in jest.

Joel did not cut the rope. As we fought our way up, I didn't think about how exhausted I was or how bad the snow was; I was determined to reach the ridge. It was the old step-and-breathe routine: breathe many times, step forward on the crust, break through and sink to my knees in the snow, breathe many times, pull my foot up out of the hole and step again. Sometimes I crawled on my knees, which helped since I didn't sink down as far. I remembered swimming endless mind-numbing laps on the swim team at the Y.

After breaking trail through the heavy snow for hours, I suddenly found myself on steep, hard ice, the kind that delighted Joel and Toby, but frightened me. Joel took over the lead and I followed him up the 50-degree face with huge flutings of protruding ice. My heart racing and my mouth dry, I continued up a ridge that turned out to be more than 60 degrees. (For comparison, a staircase is typically about 25 degrees. At 60 degrees you can reach your arm out in front of you and touch the slope.)

Seeing that we were heading for the top, Toby and Dave raced back up the broken trail to join us. Then Toby and Joel alternated leads for two hours of intense ice climbing. Although I felt out of my element, I struggled along behind them. Reaching the top at last, we gave a loud cheer and I flew my ... flag from Shiva, our second first ascent. Our magnificent view of the forbidden high plateau of Ladakh, the beautiful twin ice pyramids of Nun Kun, and ranges of unknown peaks was reward enough for my effort. Someday, I thought, I will climb there.

Our celebration was cut short by black clouds and peals of thunder. We hung our rope around a convenient rock and rappelled down the steep ice face in the lightly falling snow. Back at our camp in the crevasse, my three companions congratulated me on persevering when they'd been ready to give up.

"You're the Queen of Tenacity, Arlene!" said Joel. "I would never have guessed there was a solid slope beyond that terrible snow. I'm glad you went on -- and that I didn't cut the rope."

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