Nanga Parbat. Its summit guarded by the Rupal Face, the biggest mountain wall in the world. A murderous wall: sheer, beset by storms and avalanches. Four Japanese men are attempting it. They enter a steep chute called Merkl Gully. A storm breaks. The men do not return. At Base Camp the rest of their team wait . . . and wait . . . Before abandoning the mountain, they climb the fixed ropes to 22,000 feet and leave a duffel bag filled with equipment, food, and shelter. A gesture beyond hope, an offering to the dead.

Some years later four North American men attempt the same mountain, by the same face. They are in Merkl Gully, 1,200 feet from the summit. One man is suffering from altitude sickness. A storm breaks. They retreat. Spindrift avalanches pour over them in waves. One, far bigger than the rest, sweeps them off the face. Their rope holds by a single ice screw. Dangling in panic from the mountain, choked by rushing snow, they expect the screw to fail at any moment, and death to follow. When the avalanche ceases, the sick man's face points upward, his eyelids frozen shut. "I was going to unclip," he tells his friends, "and get it over with."

Hour after hour they fight their way down. About ten at night, they emerge from Merkl Gully and reach a protective overhang. Two of the men remove the ropes from the final section of the gully. "I'm letting go of the ropes," shouts the man at the top. The wind flows away some of his words. His friend misunderstands. He hears a command. He obeys it. "Okay, I let go," he shouts back. Their ropes — their umbilical cords to the mountain, to life — sail away through space.

They have two choices. To stay where they are and freeze to death, or to attempt the impossible — descending the Rupal Face without ropes.

Morning. Four specks cling to a mountain by a few slivers of steel — crampons and ice axes. No safety net. A single slip, and they fall 10,000 feet. Chances of survival: negligible. Then, they see it . . . a duffel bag clipped to the wall. Sun-bleached. Tattered. Emblazoned with Japanese writing. They cut it open. Sixty pitons spill out. A dozen ice screws. Chocolate bars. A tent. A stove. Two new fifty-meter ropes.

From "Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow" by Maria Coffey, pp. 68 69.

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