We have been ascending for hours. Glances back to the north face of Johannesburg mountain, once towering above us and now at eye level, are a consolation. Now we need to stop and put on our harnesses. We gain a notch beside a decaying tower of rock and sit down. It is mid-morning, warm and windless. The sun makes me sleepy. I drift off for a few minutes before Mike, clinking hardware, draws me unwillingly back into consciousness. I glance at the route description and artfully offer to lead the first pitch to avoid leading the crux.
A few hours and a few pitches later, I am leading again. The ridge narrows to a sharp edge. I gingerly traverse, stick in a cam, and pause with a sinking feeling as I eye the next fin ahead. It is nearly vertical, six or seven feet long, and doesn't have even so much as the edge of a dime to step on. I look down, horrified at the abyss yawning beneath. I glance over to the north side, and see a rubble-strewn ledge system running four or five feet below the crest. Shit, that doesn't look enticing, either. I dither for a few more minutes and fantasize about large birds plucking me from my airy, unwilling perch and gliding with me to flat ground. I order my freaked-out brain to commit. It is much easier than it looked, but I'm gripped by the time I make my way across some sloping ledges a bit below the crest. I think I want my mom.
The next few pitches go slowly and it is now late afternoon. We come to the edge of an abrupt tower and rappel into a notch stacked with blocks of dark, lichen-covered rock. Above us, another stark tower of rock, variegated with water stains, guards passage to the summit. From the looks of it, this is the crux. Mike leads out, takes a few minutes to arrange a couple cams and suss out the moves, and then disappears over the top of the bulge. I feed out rope steadily for a while, then in fits and spurts, then stop.
I look down. Far below me, to my right, the immense Boston Glacier is now in shadow. Its crevasses are now black, the snow, blue. On my left, some final-looking rays of sunlight color the basin. The only human presence I see is a tent, three thousand feet below, in a stunted stand of avalanche-flagged pines. It is hopelessly removed and impossibly small.
I feel impossibly small, a trespasser sitting on this broken ridge. I shiver a bit and turn more of my body into the sun as a chill settles on the evening. At my feet, a clump of cobalt flowers flutters in the breeze, also seeming to shiver. The sun gets me drowsy and through the slits of my eyelids I see a fat bumblebee settle on one of the flowers at my feet. The bee doesn't care that it's on an inhospitable fin of rock thousands of feet above the nearest tree, just as the rock doesn't care that two humans are scrabbling across its spine. It seems inhuman, but beautiful. It makes me want to cry. A tug on the end of the rope startles me out of my existential reverie and I break down the anchor and start climbing.
It's a while still before we are standing on the summit. By now it is obvious that we will be chasing twilight off the mountain. Mike arrives, and we flee for our packs. Rappelling off of the north side of the mountain, further away from any road, only deepens the feeling of isolation. As the dusk deepens, we make our way along grassy ledges and look for passages across rocky ribs. It's dark by the time we find the gully that leads back to the civilized side of the ridge and up to our packs.
Back at our packs we exchange relieved high-fives. We descend by headlamp into the dark. A yellow moon is creeping above the horizon, but it is still hard to make out the buttress that guided us up this morning. We stand above an unfamiliar gully: noisy, with water pouring over drop-offs. I eye it dubiously and follow Mike. This is not the one we want. I dislodge a pile of rocks onto Mike as I claw my way back up to the flat spot above the gully. Hearts racing, we sit in the darkness, which is just as warm and windless as it was 12 hours before.
We try several variations on this theme before we locate the correct gully and slowly follow it back to the lower basin. By now the moon is diving towards the hazy western horizon. Some stumbling around in the dark later, we find the trail and follow it back towards the trees. The forest moths are startled by the strange blue orbs our headlamps cast, and flutter dizzily around our faces. Slippery roots blend into the dusty forest debris that conceals the tread. An hour later, I bid Mike goodnight and crawl off the trail. A man-shaped depression between two trees cradles me. I turn off my headlamp. The darkness is complete. I do not dream.
It's light out when the chill wakes me. I continue down the trail. Back at the car, Johannesburg once again towers above, its hanging glaciers cast blue by the diffuse light of dawn. Another team is preparing to head up.