Marriage in the Mountains
A relationship forged by risk
Words & Photography by Tim Howell
‘The mountain doesn’t take into consideration your gender, the love for your climbing partner, or your ability. It’s inanimate, unforgiving.’ – Tim Howell
Ewa sank in the wet afternoon snow, through an ice trapdoor hiding a crevasse below, and stabbed her calf with a freshly sharpened crampon as I kept tension on the rope. Tears fell from her face as she struggled to get out of the hole. These few weeks had been long, with many firsts: first expedition, first time above 5,000m, and the first time we had both summited an unclimbed mountain.
She clawed her way back to the surface and I saw the tears glisten on her cheek. I took a second to understand the situation. We all show our emotions in different ways – was this frustration, anger, or something else? Initially annoyed by this outburst, I put myself in her shoes. Only three years ago Ewa had put crampons on for the first time. When her job as a project manager allowed she had spent as much time as she could in the mountains – weekends, birthdays, Christmases, racking up experience for a trip such as this. I placed my feet carefully in the deep footprints and made my way back up to my wife. ‘I don’t want you to be disappointed in me,’ she said. ‘I’m trying.’ I held her and we both looked across the valley to the mighty peak at the end of the glacier. I told her, ‘A week ago we climbed that mountain. The only people to have ever stood on that summit. How could I be anything but proud of you?’
The mountain doesn’t take into consideration your gender, the love for your climbing partner, or your ability. It’s inanimate, unforgiving. I’ve always opted to train hard and fight easy, enjoying the hardship in semi-controlled environments before heading to remote alpine ranges. It takes some tough love to sit back and watch Ewa struggle, overcoming obstacles on her own, enduring while becoming stronger.
Two weeks before, the team had arrived at our base camp. Our group of nine included a range of personalities but we all shared a love of alpine mountaineering. Our goal had been to split up into separate teams and attempt first ascents of 4,000m and 5,000m peaks in the area.
We’d set up camp on an elevated meadow surrounded on both sides by rivers. At night the glaciers slept, but the heat of the day would wake them up, feeding the rivers until they became torrents that our four-by-four Soviet Kamaz could only just cross. Horses frequented our camp, but we rarely saw the lonely herdsman; only discarded bottles of vodka indicated his presence. Shrieks from marmots would herald a team coming back off the mountain, and we could pre-emptively put the kettle on – but only after waiting for the silt to settle at the bottom of the blue barrel we used to collect water. This was our base camp, and our marital home during the expedition.
Ewa had recently taken a temporary hiatus from BASE jumping. I welcomed the rest from this risky sport – it relieved my tension somewhat, but we swapped our time flying for time climbing, still spending it in our alpine playground. Soon we had accumulated enough experience on various 4,000m peaks and north faces in the European Alps. It was time to take our experience to the many unclimbed mountains of the Tian Shan. I had wanted to gain enough experience to be able to make the most of these virgin summits – no marked paths, no condition reports or route descriptions to follow. Just old Soviet maps.
To make the most of the weather window and our pre-acclimatization, Ewa and I set off on day one to bivvy under the north face of our objective. Heavily laden with gear, we hiked 11km up the valley, avoiding hundreds of marmot holes as we crossed rivers and gorges until finally reaching the glacier – a decaying stump, much receded from its former size. We reached the bivvy early in the day and took our time to recover from the arduous hike. Neither of us had been light nor fast – the opposite of the alpine mantra. Having never set eyes on our objective before, we had to prepare for anything: rock and ice protection, as well as all possible weather eventualities, as our daily forecast was not the most accurate. Such is the nature of exploratory mountaineering. Despite our careful preparation, I still found the prospect daunting.
Karabiners clinked the next morning as we roped up to climb 200m of steep frozen snow in the blue shade of the mountain’s north face. I could see no ice on the long sweep above, no likely spots to place protection. On a climb like this, if one falls the other will go with them, tumbling hundreds of metres to a mangled mess on the glacier below. But I knew that the crux of the climb would be well within our limits. Confidence was key; we were on terrain we knew we could manage, but the reality was still there, the awareness of a slender margin. As climbers we make decisions based on past experiences, calculate the likelihood of it all going wrong, and balance that with our goal – is it worth taking the risk for?
After years of spending time in the mountains, making decisions in high-risk situations, Ewa and I knew each other’s thought processes very well. Especially when under pressure.
After years of spending time in the mountains, making decisions in high-risk situations, Ewa and I knew each other’s thought processes very well. Especially when under pressure. A relationship forged by risk. We’d wingsuited from the north face of the Eiger; we’d jumped into the Grand Canyon and crossed the Colorado River to get back out. Always impressed by the feats Ewa can accomplish, I sometimes had to remind myself that chivalry isn’t dead and I needed to find a balance. It feels patronising to offer a hand while crossing a stream when the day before she was wingsuiting down a glacier.
We make personal decisions together so that they become a team assessment. With friends I may give advice or recommendations, but with Ewa I have so much more to lose. She never seems unsettled when I go for a demanding jump or climb; I wonder if that’s because she has complete faith in my abilities, or if she just doesn’t like to think too deeply about it. Ultimately it’s about trust and faith in each other’s abilities. Trust that our decision-making process will be sound. Faith that the decision we make is the correct one. We want to be doing these sports as long as possible and we try to make the best decisions to come home to our loved ones at the end of the day.
With the crux of the climb over, we saddled the ridge, one half in the sun and the other still in the shadow of the north face, and paused for a moment to let our burning calves recover before continuing along the west ridge to the summit. Standing on the summit is never the end of the climb but merely the halfway point – and never, for me, a place to fully celebrate. We still had to get back down to base camp safely. Despite this, we took a moment to acknowledge our feat. A view no-one had ever seen before, a mountain no-one had stood on before, and to share this moment with my life partner was a special moment for me. Seeing Ewa’s smiles, I knew that it was for her too.
With one week left, the group headed up to advanced base camp to see if we could squeeze in a bit more climbing. Wind and rain battered the tent all through the night, and lightning flickered, casting the shadows of swaying guy lines onto the flysheet. It had subsided by the time our alarms rang at 2.30am. Head torches started to emerge from the tents, but, although the storm had passed, we knew that the surrounding peaks would now be deep with fresh snow. Together we made the decision to hike back down to base camp.
Tired from no sleep and carrying all our kit back down to base camp, we staggered in the dark over the terrain, stumbling in marmot holes. I am always regretful about not accomplishing a summit – especially with a decision to turn back. The thought loomed that maybe I should have just continued. But I try to make days on the mountain more about the experience than the objective. That way unaccomplished goals don’t diminish the day as much. It becomes more about the people you climb with, the conversations you have, and in our case the overall team accomplishments and not about the individuals. We knew that would be our last day at altitude. The Kamaz would arrive in the next few days, crossing the river once again before driving us back to Karakol.
We drove away from base camp leaving no trace behind. The success of the trip was a testament to how well the team worked together: seven first ascents of 4,000m peaks, one first ascent of a 5,000m peak, and four second ascents. But our success was also measured by the decisions made, the planning accomplished, and the relationships forged and strengthened. And me and Ewa? Our relationship grows stronger with each one of our experiences together in the mountains. Daily household problems now feel mundane and unproblematic compared to storms, crevasses, and injuries. In the mountains, risk makes relationships better.