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Book of the month: The Bond

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

The Freaks took us in and shared what they had. Cramped in their tent, Bob and I begin to believe we will survive. L–R: Sean Meehan, John Rosen eld, Mike Pantelich, Bob and me. Photo by Peter Carter on either my camera or Bob’s. Photo: Simon McCartney. 

Now available in paperback format, Simon McCartney's multi-award-winning book, The Bond, is the tale of two legendary climbs in the Alaska Range and the complex relationship between climbers. This extract tells the little-known story of Simon’s rescue when he was stuck by the onset of cerebral oedema just below the summit of Denali – marooning him and his climbing partner, Jack Roberts, in their tent. By a stroke of luck, two climbers who were close to completing their own ascent of the adjacent Cassin Ridge, Bob Kandiko and Mike Helms, appeared unexpectedly, ready to help. Selflessly, they abandoned their own summit attempt and devoted themselves to saving Simon.

BOB KANDIKO – JUNE 25. The wind tore the fabric of the tent. Simon and I lay motionless, hoping that the seams would not rip. Each blast of wind hurled the nylon fabric of the tent into my face. As the snow piled up I pushed with all my might to prevent the wall from collapsing. Mercifully at noon the wind ceased and sunshine bathed the tent. Quickly we packed our bags and started down. We had to get off this mountain.

Exhausted to the point of tears we climbed and rappelled down the steep ground of the upper rock band. We struggled to remain upright, one slip here will result in a certain and quick death. At times it almost seemed preferable to let go but thoughts of my family brought back my desire to survive. To make matters worse I had dropped my sunglasses and was feeling the effects of snow blindness set in.

I must be very careful; I am struggling as much mentally as physically; my exhaustion is affecting my brain’s function. I forget what I am doing from one moment to the next and I am afraid that I will forget to clip into an anchor or, my worst fear, that I will accidentally rappel off  the end of the rope. So fearful am I that I stop on the next good foothold, pull up the fifty feet of rope under me and tie a figure-of-eight knot including both tails and then cast the rope out below me again. If I forget about how long the rope is, the knot will jam in the crossed karabiners I am using for a rappel brake and halt my descent.

The thought of my karabiners brings another jolt of anxiety. Are they the correct way around? Making a brake out of karabiners means that you don’t have to carry a piece of equipment specially for rappelling, but it is not foolproof and at this moment I have the head of a fool. If I have the gates on the wrong side I may accidentally unclip myself and fall to my death. I freeze and stare at them for about a minute until I am convinced that I have arranged everything correctly.
 
The day is long and complicated. Rappelling in this rock band is problematic because the terrain is not steep enough for clean rope retrievals. When the ropes are pulled down they tend to snag because there are so many medium-angled and less-than-vertical features on which the ropes can – and do – catch. This happens many times and on two such depressing occasions the pulled rope jams and we are too exhausted to climb back up and free them, forcing us to cut the ropes. If Bob had not found the stash of rope we would be dead men by now.
 
The nightmare Jack and I had on the descent of Mount Huntington is being relived, this time with Bob. The same game is afoot: a first ascent, followed by a descent of a classic route. I am seeing a lot of quality Alaskan climbing in spontaneous disasters.

Because I am getting to know Bob in a nightmare, we become close to each other very quickly. We are facing the possibility of our deaths and in such circumstances every layer of human affectation is stripped away, nothing can be hidden and each of us can see the soul of the other. I am seeing into the soul of a selfless and very brave man. Bob is an experienced climber, he is highly intelligent and he thinks about everything in his life, more than I do. When Jack and I attacked the south-west face I just thought to myself that if the going got tough we would deal with it. Bob analyses things and thinks about all the ‘what if’ stuff that I don’t. Or used not to. Maybe I have been too con dent, or maybe I put up a screen to avoid the imponderables so I can get on with a climb. Or maybe I am just a bit slow. It doesn’t matter now.

Bob is the person who is saving my life. The incredible thing is that he knew what he was doing when he made the decision to stay with me. He was nearly home free on the Cassin and yet he chose to put himself in great peril to nurse a cripple towards a chance of life. How lucky am I to have met Bob?

Bob told me that he and Mike had considered climbing the West Rib instead of the Cassin Ridge. If they had done that we would never have crossed paths and maybe the McCartney-Roberts team would have become a statistic. What a trap Jack and I set for ourselves this time. We are immortal no more.

I help Bob rig one more rappel using recycled pitons that I found above a little ledge. How we wish that we had not thrown my rack of Friends and chocks away at 19,400 feet, thinking back then that we had no need of them; I could have made cunning use of them now.

I tie another knot in the end of the doubled rope and start down. I make a bad job of walking backwards down over the rocks, losing my balance several times and twisting on the rope as I lose my footing, crashing into the rock face-first and banging my head. I stay motionless until I can regain composure and then arrange my feet and continue, but only go eighty feet before I near the knot. I know we have no anchors left and wonder if we will be able to make another rappel or if we will simply fade away, unable to get past the rock band. My life will surely end soon. I hear a voice. I cannot understand what it is saying. I glance up at Bob.

‘What?’

He shakes his head. He has not spoken and I continue to descend through the thin cloud. I can hardly see Bob now as the mist comes and goes.

I hear the voice again, below me. Am I dreaming or hallucinating? Bob and I are alone in the clouds, surely. I hear a voice yet again, louder this time. I really am losing my mind. Then Bob is shouting at me from above, waving and pointing, shouting for me to look down.

‘Si, there, below you!’

I am confused but do as he asks and am so amazed by what I see that I have to stare for a long moment to make sure it is real. Set up on the toe of the rock band is a Whillans-type box tent, with several climbers nearby. One with a beard is calling to me. I look up at Bob and he looks very happy. This dream is convincing!

With shaky steps I stumble towards the end of the rope. The bearded climber is obviously concerned about my uncoordinated movements and climbs up from his tent with a sling and karabiner ready to attach to me for safety.

He reaches me just as I get to the end of the rope, which whips out of my enfeebled hand. I would have fallen to my death had it not been for the knot which jams in my karabiner brake.

In tears I try to explain that we need help, that we’d had a week or more without food, that I had been ill. My incoherent babbling is not necessary – he can see all he needs to see from my pitiful state. He helps me sort out the mess with the rope and guides me to a ledge cut in the ice and sits me down.

‘How many of you are there?’ 

‘Just me and Bob. Bob!’

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