China Doll Hands

My hands. My God, my hands. So cold. I am convinced if I struck them carelessly against my ice axe they would shatter like porcelain and tumble down the side of the mountain.

I focus along the rope attached to my harness until I can just make out the image of Alvaro, my guide on Huayna Potosi. He takes calm, calculated steps ahead of me into the cloud that has descended upon us at 6,000 meters. The thinning air means each haggard breath I draw is a refusal to quit. Alvaro appears unfazed by the gruelling ascent which we began at midnight 8 hours ago. He shoots me a look of mild boredom when I stop to rest and the rope connecting us tugs on his waist.

I try to flex my hands and think “What am I doing here?” I am from Connecticut, but now I am on a mountain face in Bolivia, tied to a short man with three gold teeth and an impressive coca leaf habit. We are dressed in matching knock-off North Face jackets and trousers on loan from the expedition company in La Paz. The clothes are cheap, but why didn’t they at least give us some quality ice screws? Why are we teetering on this ledge 15 minutes from the summit with no ice screws?

I want to question Alvaro about this, but the wind catches my words and crushes them before they can leave my lips. Every primal cell in my body screams “don´t you dare take another step,” but as other climbers approach from behind, pride takes over. No choice now but to move forward, one breath a step, constant mucous draining from both nostrils and freezing in my hair. I let it flow. Even if I had the strength to take a photo of myself, I would never share it.

To the left of the 6-inch wide ledge I am standing on is a shear drop-off with a dazzlingly white, vertigo-inducing jumble of jagged snow-covered boulders 300 meters below. I place one foot in front of the other and chip my axe repeatedly into the 4-foot tall barrier of snow acting as a guardrail to my right. Beyond this low icy wall lies the other side of the mountain; the north face. The north side has an even steeper drop with no discernible bottom, so I focus on my feet and nowhere else.

Step. Breathe. Step. Breathe. I step away from the ridge to a small peak of packed snow that serves as the summit, and cast a wild-eyed glance at a fellow British climber resting his cramponed feet. His beard is white with snow and breath-ice.

He flashes me a knowing grin. “Well that wasn´t terrifying.” he says with a roll of the eyes.

We regard each other with nervous smiles as I circle the small pinnacle in search of the perfect spot to take a picture of myself. It’s a useless endeavour, because at this altitude in bad weather, there is simply nothing to see in the photo but my red, breathless face peeking out from behind a fake, ice-covered Black Diamond helmet. I could be anywhere in the world in this cloud, looking terrible. Alvaro takes a photo anyway.

I refuse to remove my outer mittens for fear of snapping off one of my frigid fingers, and imagine one broken and hanging loose in my liner glove. Perhaps the thin air is beginning to affect my thinking. After 10 minutes of wondering what I am doing in the middle of a cloud on this gusty mountaintop, the sun begins to cast a faint golden glow to the East. As delighted as I am to see the sun, I know we have precious few hours before retina-burning reflections bounce off the snow and night-time ice bridges begin to buckle. What part of this is fun, again?

I pick up my axe with my china doll hands and follow Alvaro back across the thin ridge. With wobbly legs, we begin the five hour descent through the cloud layer, towards oxygen rich air and coca leaves.

Melanie O'Toole

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