Krakauer and I were using the coin-operated telescope at the gift shop next to the hotel to follow Lowe's progress, but he was so high now that we could tell little about his individual moves. On Tuesday night we took a walk. There was a full moon directly behind the Eiger. We caught sight of a pinpoint, impossibly far above us, three fifths of the way up the wall: Lowe's headlamp, as he dug his bivouac site, a lonely beacon of purpose in the mindless night.
Later, his voice came in on the radio, raspy with lassitude. "Watch that forecast real carefully," he said. "It's going to be a strategy-type thing. If it comes in hard and I'm not in a good place, it's not going to be good."
On Wednesday night, the storm indeed came in hard, forcing Lowe to hole up in the claustrophobic snow cave he'd dug in the vertical fan of snow. It was from the pathetic shelter that he'd wondered aloud over the radio "whether to go up or down." After a long, pregnant silenced, he confessed: "I don't know how hard it would be to get down from here. I figure it'll take three days minimum to reach the summit if I go up ... if I go for it, I'll have to pull out all the stops."
Lowe's miserable snow burrow proved to be a poor place to ride out the tempest. On Thursday morning, he remarked over the radio: "I've never been so pummeled in my life. There's a big avalanche coming down every five minutes. I couldn't move if I wanted to."
At noon Lowe radioed again. He had managed to get out of his snow hole, but a search for a better bivouac site had been fruitless. The avalanches were still rumbling down, his clothes were soaking wet, and he was cold. It seemed that Lowe had little choice but to descend, and even that would be exceedingly sketchy. Much to our surprise, however, he declared, "I'm going to sign off now and try to get something done." He had resolved to push for the summit.
More than a week before, I had probed Lowe's motives by alluding to the suggestions I had heard of a suicidal impulse. "I think everybody has had thoughts about checking out early," he said. "But I wouldn't do it this way. I'd do it a lot simpler."
Even if Lowe could complete his route, what lasting difference would it make in his life? Magnificent though the climb might be, was it little more than a superstitious gesture, a way of lashing back at the furies that bedeviled his path? The finest climb ever accomplished by an American in the Alps could indeed bring with it a huge bestowal of self-esteem. And in the chaos that his personal affairs had become, self-esteem might what Lowe needed most.
He had said: "For me there's no future. All I'm interested in is now." In the hotel, that had sounded like wishful thinking. Divorce and bankruptcy turned now into a crumbling wall between the flash floods of the past and the future. But up on the Eiger, all that changed. The past was the piton 10 feet below, the future was that handhold three feet above and to the left. Now was what held him to the world, and the trance of grasping its ledges and cracks gave it a glorious breadth. It expanded and became the ocean of all that was.
Friday, March 1st, marked the sixth day of Lowe's second attempt on the Nordwand, his 10th day of climbing overall. A south wind sent hazy wreaths of fog sailing over the mountain, but the favorable weather that had blessed the first week of the climb had returned, although another storm was forecast to arrive by Sunday. If he didn't reach the top before it hit, his prospects for survival might be grim. By noon, Lowe had hauled all his gear up to a distinctive ledge called the Central Band. Only 1,200 feet remained.
Here the wall was scored with ice-glazed ramps leading up and to the left, most of which led nowhere. The protection was minimal, the climbing nasty. Lowe was aiming for the Fly, a small ice field 500 feet above. But now, when he needed to move fast, with the threat of the next storm hanging over him, he was slowed drastically by what turned out to be the most difficult climbing yet.
Watching through the telescope, I could gauge how steep the cliff was when I saw him knock loose chunks of snow that fell 40 feet before striking rock again. At one point it took him more than an hour to gain 25 feet. The rock had turned loose and crumbly; stone towers, teetering like gargoyles, sat waiting to collapse at the touch of a boot, and pitons, instead of ringing home as he pounded them, splintered the flaky limestone and refused to hold. Bolts would have been a godsend.
Yet on those pitches, Lowe's brilliance came to the fore. He thought of one particular stretch of 50 feet as a kind of never-never land: it was the crux of the whole route to this point. A more driven, impatient alpinist might succumb to dizzy panic at this point, where the slightest misjudgment could rip protection loose and send him hurtling into the void. With his phlegmatic disposition, Lowe inched his way through his never-never land in a cloud of Buddhist calm.
On Saturday, Krakauer started up the west ridge – the easiest route on the Eiger and the path by which Lowe would descend. Krakauer wanted to camp near the top to greet Lowe and, if need be, help him down. As soon as he skied above the Eigergletscher station, however, Krakauer realized the venture was a mistake. A few days before, he had cruised halfway up the ridge in only two hours; but in the interim, the conditions had completely changed. The storm had blanketed the slope with steep, unstable snow; without skis, Krakauer sank in to his waist, and even with skis on he plowed a knee-deep furrow as he zigzagged laboriously upward.
At the fastest pace Krakauer could sustain, it would take days to get to the summit. What was worse, the slopes were dangerously close to avalanching; indeed, as he climbed slowly up the ridge, his skis periodically set off small slides.
At two o'clock Krakauer came over the radio. "I'm getting the hell down," he said in a jumpy voice. "The hundred feet just below me is ready to avalanche. Watch me carefully. If it releases, it's going to be massive." With a series of slow, deliberate turns, he skied down as delicately as he could. The slope held.
When Lowe next radioed, I had to tell him about Krakauer's retreat from the west ridge. He took the news calmly, even though it raised a specter of serious danger for his own descent. For the first time we talked about the possibility of a helicopter picking him up on the summit.
Lowe climbed on. By early afternoon clouds had gathered around the upper face, where it was snowing lightly, even though the hotel still baked in sunshine. Pushing himself beyond fatigue, again well into the night, he managed to set up an uncomfortable bivouac just below the Fly. His two-day push from the Central Band had been a brilliant piece of work, but the Sunday storm was coming in early, and 700 feet still lay between him and the summit. He was well past the point of no return.
That evening he slithered into his dank bivouac sack and tried to sleep. Lowe had two gas cartridges left to melt snow, but his food supply was down to a couple of candy bars. His hands were in terrible shape – the incessant pounding, grasping, and soaking had bruised his fingertips until they had swelled into tender blobs, and the nails had begun to crack away from the cuticles. Each morning, his fingers were so sore and puffy that merely tying his boot laces was an ordeal.
Worse, his sleeping bag, thin to begin with, was soaked like a dishrag: It provided almost no warmth at all. That night Lowe got not a wink of sleep. For 14 hours he shivered, waiting for dawn, as the snow fell outside his cave.
On Sunday morning it was still snowing. "Where I am," he radioed, "it's hard to even peek out of the bivy tent without dislodging everything. I'm going to sit here and hydrate." He faced an acute dilemma. If he hunkered down and waited for the storm to end, he could run out of food and gas and succumb to hypothermia. If he pushed upward prematurely, on the other hand, the storm itself could finish him.
By noon he had not moved. At two o'clock, through a break in the clouds, we saw him climbing slowly above the Fly. As he started to climb, however, he grew deeply alarmed. Something was wrong. He felt week all over, weaker than he should have from fatigue alone. He had been going on too little food, not enough liquids, insufficient sleep. This was how climbers died on the Eiger. This was too much like what had happened to Longhi and Kurz. After stringing out 300 feet of rope, Lowe returned to his bivouac hole of the night before and spent the rest of the day resting and hydrating and trying in vain to get warm.
Once more, sleep was impossible. Lowe shivered through another night, even though he lit the stove and burned precious fuel in an effort to heat his frigid cavern. The weather had cleared late Sunday afternoon, and the sky was now sown with stars. There was odd acoustic clarity: Toward morning he could plainly hear dogs barking in Grindelwald, miles away and 10,000 feet below. And he thought he heard something else: a humming, crystalline, harmonic music in the air. Was it an aural hallucination? Was he beginning to lose his grip?