The Last Step

The Last Step

by Rick Ridgeway, published by The Mountaineers, 1980

1939. The Whermacht is invading Poland. The cigar-smoking Churchill stands before Parliment, slurring his words, calling for war against Germany…. Two men moving on a snow ridge, now stopping before an ice buttress. Neither can catch his breath. Twenty seven thousand five hundred fifty feet above sealevel, Fritz Weissner and a Nepalese Sherpa abandon the first American attempt on K2. So close. Darkness is a demon only an hour away and the cold moves with the night. No bivouac. The men plungestep down towards the Holocaust …

1978. The fifth American attempt on K2 is made. “The Last Step” is a chronicle of this historic expedition. Ridgeway’s prose reflects his profession as a writer. A keen observer of the harsh beauty of the Karakoram Himalaya, he also sees people living on an 8,000 meter mountain brought to their physical and emotional brinks. The clipped style of narration at the beginning of each chapter brings you through each microenvironment. The climb progresses:

Summit Pyramid. About 26,500 feet. 4:30 am. Hard snow. Windtortured to small cresents like the surface of the sea frozen, and a sense of time in slow motion. The sound of crampons biting hard snow, squeaking, and the sound of quick, conscious breathing. Dark. Wind. Cold. Extreme cold.

The team will spend 67 days on the mountain, most above 18,000 feet. Many of the days they will spend in tents, like moths in cocoons. Why even try to spread wings?

Perhaps those who risk their lives on alpine ridges and sheer faces are thrillseekers, or misfits who cannot be without the prsopect of another big climb for very long. We are all taught to cherish success. Certainly “success” and “summit” are synonymous. Is it that the only objectives that some consider worthwhile are frozen, treacherous, and foolhardy climbs to the unknown? Maybe. Or find in their dreams nothing to keep them back. There is no impossible, only the possible.

The team is small; they ferry all their own loads above Advanced Base Camp. But because their climb will be so long compared with the growing number of expeditons that are tending towards even smaller groups, light loads, and an often dangerous style of hauling all out ass up the route, the Americans are sieging” K2. Emotions are drawn taught on siege climbs. Climbers have to control their frustrations at not being chosen for the summit teams. They must listen to each other, yell at and apoligize to one another, all the while isolated as a group at extreme altitudes. The average person in such a setting grows richer from the necessity of interaction during the climb. According to Ridgeway, “ordinary people, with ordinary weaknesses” were on K2 in 1978, with only the possible for support.

By attempting K2, Ridgeway and 13 other Americans on the 1978 expedition are trying to live a 40 year old dream. Before they return down the Baltoro Glacier, past the Trango Towers, each person will have changed. How and why they change is more fascinating to read about than the near alpine-style, oxygen-less final attempts on the summit. They are people who have the courage to seek their limits, to try to turn dream into reality — the last step that so many of us stop short of during our own lives’ progress.

The late Rene Daumul wrestled with mountaineering philosophy for the last half of his short life. The title “The Last Step” is taken from his writings. What follows is his simple reason for climbing. It is more than once-in-a-lifetime views, and his words are applicable to any difficult effort that involves personal courage:

“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again … So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below, does not know what is above.”

Strength comes through movement, courage through curiosity, magic through risk.