Johnny’s the kind of guy you’d trust with your life, the kind you read about in extreme adventure magazines. Dedicated paramedic. Fearless backcountry ski patrol ranger. Respected mountaineering instructor. Then there’s Paul, a square-jawed environmental engineer with a soft Dublin brogue, and Willy, a lanky, full-bearded computer geek who’s had more experience with an ice ax than either Paul or me. He’s 40, Paul’s 37, and Johnny tells us he’s just celebrated his 33rd birthday.
“How old did you say you were?” Johnny asks. When I tell him, he scratches his scruffy goatee, “Dude, I think you are the oldest dude I’ve ever had in my class.”
Johnny sets his alarm for two a.m., reckoning the final assent will require 10 to 11 hours—flat out. As we hydrate, and load up on quinoa and sausage stew, he decides to tuck us into our sleeping bags with a cautionary note.
“We have totally lucked out, gentlemen.” Johnny nods earnestly at each of us in turn. “Clear shot at the summit. But we gotta make that ridge below the headwall by first light, and then we gotta slip past the bergshrund by ten. Otherwise, dudes, we are screwed. We’ve had three toasty afternoons softening those icefalls, and Hotlum is one dangerous piece of real estate by mid-morning. You following me? Assuming we make the summit, we still gotta get back down, and that, is where 80 percent of all accidents happen.”