It all started as a dream; a distant mountain in a high, unknown place. My parents had a large picture hung above the fire place of this wild landscape. There were strange animals abound, wildflowers, and an unmistakable mountain. As a boy, I asked my dad what this beautiful rocky summit was. “It’s Panorajunga Pinnacle, son, in the mighty Himalabraska’s. There are few who live to tell the tale of climbing to the highest point in this storied range of giants” he told me, staring in a gaze at the photo as he sipped his whiskey. “I want to climb it!” I responded. “In time, young Twinkle” he chuckled as he raised his glass for another sip. “This isn’t a mountain that is climbed as a boy. To climb this mountain, you must be a man.”
That was in 1999, and the mountain has pulled at my innermost being ever since. I had to climb it. I needed to know what it felt like on the top of the world. I wanted to be one of the elite! I’ve spent the better part of my twenties climbing Colorado’s high summits, hiking thousands of miles, and growing a beard that even a cave man would envy. Yet still, I felt unfulfilled. I needed to tackle my fear, and all of this gallivanting around was prolonging the inevitable. I needed to climb Panorajunga; I needed to become a man, and earn my spot in the ranks of those who have climbed it before me.
2014 was the year. I was ready, and I could wait no more. I called my childhood friend and photographer for international geographic, Lord Badgetown. I pitched the idea to him. “I’m going to climb Panorajunga” I told him. At first there was silence, followed by a calibrated response.
“Panorajunga? Twinkle, you don’t have to do this. You’ve climbed so many peaks, what makes this one any different?”
“I have to do this. You know what it means to me.” I responded.
“But you’ve got a beard past your nipples. You’ve been to the top of countless summits. You have nothing left to prove!”
“That’s where you’re wrong. I need to prove it to myself. I need to stand on that summit. I need to look around, knowing I’ve done something worthwhile with my life. I need to become a man!”
We went back and forth, and eventually he realized I was going to go, whether he thought it was too dangerous or not.
“Well, if I can’t stop you, I’ve got no choice but to join you.” He said.
And so it was. The two of us, out to hike the highest mountain in the Himalabraska’s.
We spent months discussing the merits of the different routes. There are several up Panorajunga, but none that didn’t include at least 6 miles of glaciated travel, with deep crevasse territory, and couloirs with over 50% grades. This was going to be no joke, no matter which route we chose. Through much deliberation, we chose the South fantasy buttress route, incorporating the class 5.10c pitch on the buffalo step before reaching Lhotse Couloir.
On December 18th, 2014, we ventured out into the great unknown, taking the trusty off-road beast, the blue bullet. The roads to the approach trail were rooted out, had obtrusive rocks, and several downed trees meant to deny us access. But they were no match for this great piece of man made machinery. It would get us to where we needed; quickly and safely.
After days of travel, we reached the approach, at 5,380 feet. A fresh blanket of snow covered the ground, and the wind crashed up against our bodies as we readied our packs with the essential gear:
Crampons, ice axe, harnesses, ice picks, ice screws, 150 feet of climbing rope, and an endless amount of cold weather gear.
The morning was getting late; it was already 0600, and we needed to get going. Badgetown snapped some photos with his winter adept DSLR camera before we were off.
Right away, the mountain threw some softballs our way, to challenge our will. There were gale force winds, sunshine, and an obnoxiously high albedo rate. It took the strongest Wal-Mart sunglasses to fight the impeding brightness from blinding our eyes.
As we marched on, roped together due to the fall factor, the snow became deeper, and the air thinner. Panorajunga was hitting us with the double whammy! Endless hours of struggle passed, but we pushed on. As we reached the Puquahgamta glacier, we took a break to survey the crevasses that lie before us. I pulled out a snickers bar, and tried to bit into it, but it was frozen. A frozen snicker bar, my heart sank. How would I ever make the summit with a frozen snickers bar? It was a rookie mistake, leaving it exposed to the cold. And I was going to pay the price. Hunger awaits me. I could feel my inner diva coming out already.
Badgetown and I made our way around the deadly ice shoots, staying on the solid serac above the abyss. It felt like days before we made it past the danger zone, paying witness to several icefalls on our way across. Just as we reached the cirque containing a steep, 15 pitch couloir to the summit the glacier began calving. I looked at Badgetown, fear in his eyes, and we both began running to the edge of the glacier. Ice was shooting all over, rising from the bottom of the glacier and crashing above us in a thunderous display of power. Racing to the edge, we leaped off the moving ice pillars, ice axes in hand, and clung to the side of the couloir, using our crampons to stick to the wall. We both looked at eachother in disbelief, before exchanging high-fives in celebration.
But then the realization hit me, as I felt a shiver shoot up my leg from my foot. Oh shit, please no! I lost my right boot down the mountain. It just seems like everything is going wrong. In a fit of rage, I channeled my inner Sheryl and took off my other boot, clinging to the ice by just my ice axe, and chucked it down the slopes, all the while screaming obscenities into the wind. Badgetown looked over at me, confusion and disgust in his face.
“As if losing one boot wasn’t enough, you had to throw your other one into the darkness?”
“Don’t judge me!” I shouted in return.
Much to my surprise, the shoe I threw down the mountain didn’t return, and I was left shoeless on a steep icy couloir. Luckily for me, I had some old flip flops, some duct tape, and some metal webbing. With this, I made pseudo boots with metal prongs to help me continue my journey, and I yell back to Badgetown “Race you to the summit!”
I start kicking and hacking my way into the ice, climbing to the highest point in the Himalabraska’s. It was finally in my sights. The home stretch. My heart was racing, and my feet had totally lost feeling. I took my last swing of the axe and pulled myself onto the summit. I lay there, trying to catch my breath, face down in the snow, when Badger reaches the top.
“We should have carried oxygen. Why not?” I gasp