After we arrived at our base camp site and had a little time to rest and absorb the magnificent views around us, we got to work and started building the camp. We set up our tents on the snow and we dug pits (“vestibules”) right in front of the entrances to make it easier to get in. We also built what would be our kitchen and dining area: a large pit in the snow complete with ice seats and table, all covered by a tarp. I felt like I was at one of those hotels that you occasionally see advertised as completely made of ice.
Our first formal lesson, which took place right after dinner, was about knots and “hitches”, which keep you and your climbing gear safe and steady during critical parts of a climb. It took me a little while to get the knots right (you even have to “dress” them to make sure they keep a certain symmetry), but once you are done it’s amazing to see how strong they can be, and the loads that they can hold are incredible.
During the following days we learned basic techniques to set up anchors in the snow, to advance as a group tied to the main rope while being tied to the anchors, and to stop ourselves with our ice axes in the event of a fall downhill (probably the most fun exercise of all).
The real challenge for me came on the fourth day, when we set out to climb the nearest peak to our camp, called Satellite. We started off very early in the morning, and we headed towards the snowed ridges in a single line, like a group of ants. It wasn’t long until we met with a near-vertical slope covered by gravel and loose rocks, which in most cases would easily crumble and roll downhill. The instructors told us that as long as we fixed our boots to the unstable terrain as best we could, without putting our weight on our hands, the climb up would be easier. It was an uncomfortable feeling, but by trusting our guides’ technique and focusing on my moves, I was able to ignore the rocks falling several hundred feet below me and to my side.
Once we got past that part, we continued on until we arrived at a small plateau from which we could see the summit. It was only a few hundred meters away, but to reach it we had to walk on a very steep slope of snow. Our group leader, Chris, went first, and treading carefully but with resolve he planted anchors as he went forward, so that we would have a secure hold in our trek to our “finish line”.
Since the snow was relatively untouched, the first climbers were setting off small avalanches as they climbed on, which was an amazing sight. Step by step, using our ice axes for better stability and being careful not to slide down too much, since to our left we could see a 200-meter drop, we reached the highest point of the mountain and were fortunate enough to admire a magnificent view of the surrounding mountain ranges, well worth the hardships, sweat and stress of the last few hours.
We couldn’t stay for too long at the top: as the sun got higher in the sky, the temperature rose accordingly and the snow started to turn into a slush. It was imperative to start our climb down before the snow lost its cohesive strength. This was the most demanding part of our climb, but once again, I forced myself to focus only on my technique and put aside any thoughts of falling down in the melting snow to the foot of the mountain.