Anguish and Relief on the Big Stone

By Xaver Bongard.

First Solo Ascent of Lost in America, A5, 5.10, 9 days in 1987 .

Here I am, suspended from my sky-hook, ten yards from the Lost in America ledge. Two things hold my life: a bit of rope, and two worthless pitons anchored into a mere quarter inch of rock. At this precise moment, it's not the fall I fear. Rather, I have the feeling of being lost and forgotten on this breathtaking rock face 1200 feet above the ground. The more I draw near the end of the pitch, the more cautious I become. It would be sad irony to have a mishap so close to the end, to be thrown from the face only to end up back at the previous belay. If that were to happen, I don't see how I could get myself together again and find the courage to continue. I have no other alternatives; there is but one way out of this predicament and it lies directly above me. To contemplate a retreat from this, one of the most overhanging of not to even think about it. As well, it's no use expecting any help from any of my three climbing "companions". One of them inundates my ears at 45 minute intervals with music. The two others, my indispensible haulbag and porta-ledge, are but silent mutes offering no advice whatsoever. Enough complaining, let us return to my problem. Thirty feet still lie between me and the ledge. The bottom line is that I really don't know what to do. I actually have two choices: a short climb directly above me, or a longer one which would take me around to the right. Which way did the last guy pass? The situation is getting comical. I cannot arrive at a decision while hanging here quietly suspended from a hook whose hold could give at any moment. Silently I ask myself, "Where would my body end up if the hook did give way?" I finally decide to move, and my efforts find success once again. As my progress becomes evident, I find myself reassured of what is commonly said: when climbing A4 or harder, one no longer falls. But even for the expert, this maxim only holds true if your energies are fully concentrated on success. After several days on this monstrous rock wall, I am beginning to experience strange sensations: my mind is slowly becomming frozen by the constant state of concentration and anguish to which it is subjected. The anguish of wanting to give up but feeling a need to continue. Anguish always present, like talking to someone non-stop fifteen hours a day, every day, for more than a week. No wonder then that my senses are playing tricks on me. I feel as though invariably my pitons are coming loose, pulling out of the fissures, while actually they could easily support twice my weight. My reasoning tells me that everything is under control, but what can I do? I can't shake the doubts and frustrations from my over- anxious mind. I suppose it's best to just accept fate and try to get used to it--if I fall I fall. I have the distinct impression of being "cooked", as it is commonly said around here. At this stage I could decidedly go for a good rest, to lie down on my port-ledge with a bit of gorp and warm beer. But it's not yet time. The only solution to getting me out of this predicament is to get hold of a good piton, like the one protruding 45 feet above me at the next belay. The 15 Knifeblades required to reach it don't really inspire a lot of confidence. I could certainly pull out my bolt-kit and drill. That would certainly get me out of this mess. But that would be the easy way out, the defeat of the whole purpose of being here. I won't give up so easily, so quickly, even if the devil himself appeared and offered to drill for me. It is time to test one's fortitude, to prove that I can finish what I started. This adventure of mine seems like a funny game filled with doubts and joys, a game filled with moments of anxiety and fear, but rarely fatal. Sensations accentuated by the fact that you are alone, you are your only partner; no one else can share your fears at the moment you grin at the face of death and pass it by. This game at times seems as dangerous as heroin; addicting and life- threatening. To take part, you must truly be motivated with the impetus it takes to uproot trees, to channel all your energy and concentration on accomplishing a mammoth task few will even attempt. Without that dedication of force, it would be highly inexpedient to pursue a solo on the "big stone". The first slip could be your last. I have described the situation from the physical perspective, from the mental aspect it is quite a different story. For me, the most difficult time is the evening before the climb. I feel relieved at having finished the arduous task of preparation. Then the doubts arise, penetrating every thought. The last time, before setting up on this climb, the doubts were so intense I almost changed my mind.