[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 74, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store. This article is based on Bernadette McDonald’s 2015 book Alpine Warriors, published by Rocky Mountain Books. Translations of Nejc Zaplotnik’s Pot by Mimi Marinsek.–Ed.]
Tomorrow, a great day will dawn. I have thought a lot about this moment, but now I cannot think any longer. I know we will risk a lot. A long time ago I decided that, for Everest, I am even willing to give up my toes. Hands were another matter, or so I thought then, yet now I am convinced that no sacrifice is too great. Even my life! Perhaps you don’t believe me! Andrej certainly believes me. And I believe myself, which is the most important thing. If only you could see my friends’ weary faces. If you could see them, their eyes glowing as they staggered with fatigue, you too would believe it!
–Nejc Zaplotnik, Pot
LESS THAN 350 METERS FROM THE TOP of the world’s highest peak, Nejc Zaplotnik and Andrej Stemfelj reached an ominous rock step, bulging with loose flakes.
Two thousand five hundred meters of mind-numbing space gaped below Nejc Zaplotnik and Andrej Stremfelj as they traversed along a narrow, crumbling ledge. After digging a small belay stance in the snow, Zaplotnik pounded a piton into the brittle rock. Then he removed his gloves and began to climb upward. Stremfelj belayed, watching his friend intently. The frozen rock numbed Zaplotnik’s skin while he tested various holds. A shard snapped off, and the vast curving arc of the Western Cwm seemed to rush up toward him as he slithered down to Stremfelj. Back on the ledge, Zaplotnik pummeled his hands until his fingers throbbed and the blood returned. Stremfelj said nothing, just watched and waited. Zaplotnik tried again. A foothold broke, and he tumbled down to Stremfelj again. Leader falls at 8500 meters. Zaplotnik later wrote of the intensity of those moments: “We shall win this battle! Not a battle with the mountain, but rather a battle with ourselves and our weaknesses.” They were just hours away from completing the first ascent of the West Ridge Direct of Everest.
I FIRST LEARNED OF NEJC ZAPLOTNIK in Tomaz Humar’s living room, at the edge of the forest near the town of Kamnik. At the time, I was working on a biography of Humar, a Slovenian climber famous for solo ascents of difficult big walls. Clutching a slender, tattered volume, Humar explained to me how this book, Pot, authored by Nejc Zaplotnik, had given him a reference point for his life, even though they’d never met.
“What does it mean?” I asked.
“Pot? It means the Way or the Path. It’s a way of living, like a philosophy. Nejc wrote about how he felt about the mountains and people and love, about making the most of his life. It’s incredible, how he wrote. He was a poet, an artist, a climber, all wrapped in one.”
A few years later, while doing research for a book on Slovenian climbers, I was in Viki Groselj’s living room, in Ljubljana, the capital city. Both Groselj and Zaplotnik had been on the South Face of Lhotse in 1981, and Groselj had returned with a serious back injury. It wasn’t clear if he would ever climb again, and at age twenty-nine, he was awash in depression. Late that autumn, Zaplotnik burst into his house, laughing and excited, his disheveled curls escaping from under a striped bandana. He bounded over and handed Groselj a copy of Pot–straight from the printers. As Groselj read the inscription, he began to cry: “To Viki, although we came from different sides of the sky and we looked toward different horizons, we walked a large chunk of the way together and we munched crumbs from the same sack.”
Groselj raced through the book, and then savored it several more times, absorbing the words:
Alpinism is like art. You put all your strength, your entire soul into your work. You forget everything. You only live for that meter ahead of you, and when you stand, exhausted on the top of a snowy mountain, and bask in the warmth of the sun, you feel beauty within you that cannot be described. You feel the world. You feel the earth, the sun, the wind; everything breathes with you and intoxicates you. The friend with you keeps silent. Only his eyes glow above his sunken cheeks. And without asking him, you know that he has exactly the same experience.
“I read it from line to line, and then between the lines,” Groselj explained. “He wrote it for himself, for me, for all of us who feel life, and who experience life alike.”
I can’t begin to count how many times I heard similar expressions of gratitude in Slovenia: from alpinists, from my landlady, from the car rental guy, from widows of climbers and survivors alike. I vowed to learn more about this book and this man. As an author of mountaineering history books, I’d met many people who had devoted their lives to alpinism. But Zaplotnik’s impact went far beyond his climbing accomplishments, however impressive they were. His greatest legacy appeared to be his reflections about the emotional and aesthetic complexity of that chosen path. The more I learned about him, and the more I read his work, the more I realized how rich his life was in contradictions. He seemed to ricochet between an austere focus that allowed him to explore the remote corners of his brain in the high, wild places of the earth–and a yearning for the pleasures of an ordinary existence with the people he loved.
NEJC ZAPLOTNIK WAS BORN on April 15, 1952, in Rupa, a small village nestled among fertile fields and dominated by a vibrant, red-roofed church. On one side of his home valley reared the shining summits of the Karavankan and Kamnik Alps, and on the other, far to the west, the sharp ridges of the Julian Alps, Slovenia’s highest mountains. He was a sickly child, afflicted with celiac disease and rheumatoid arthritis. Thin as a blade of grass, he caught every virus that drifted through the valley. His father worked as a tailor. His mother cleaned offices in the nearby factories.
With his parents and two siblings, Zaplotnik lived in a cramped, two-room apartment. Each summer he escaped to his cousin’s farm at the base of Grintovec, the highest mountain in the Kamnik Alps.
Here he thrived, herding animals, plowing fields, hunting chamois in the forest, riding horses and scrambling about on the rocks. He caught his first glimpse of red-faced climbers with their impressive packs, lugging themselves up into the hills to unbelievable heights. What courage, Zaplotnik thought. When he was nine years old, his cousins took him to the summit of Grintovec, where he was shocked and excited by the void below his feet.
Back in Rupa, his only distraction from the mundane routine of classes and chores was reading, often late into the night with a flashlight under his blanket. Fairy tales, adventure stories and serious literature–everything stimulated his overactive imagination. Adolescence presented the usual problems, both with school and his father, who disapproved of Zaplotnik’s free spirit. “No one understood that, within me, there was an energy boiling that the devil himself was afraid of,” Zaplotnik later wrote. “I was looking for my own path of freedom and independence.” It was this search for a path–a way, a direction–that would consume Zaplotnik throughout his life.
He was soon venturing farther afield, hitchhiking or cycling to the Julian Alps with his closest friend and fellow altar boy Tone Percic. The soaring grey limestone ridges of Triglav and Krisakpod and Razor and Prisijoke lured the boys ever higher. They fashioned their own pitons and restored discarded ice axes. Zaplotnik enrolled in a climbing school and learned the various knots and belaying techniques, how to place protection in the rock and how to free climb without using the aid of the rope. He became adept at moving quickly and confidently on descents, a skill that saved his life on numerous occasions.
As winter approached, fog smothered the valleys, but the boys remained high on the ridges as long as they could, basking in the soft warmth of the autumn sun and the reflected glow of golden larches, beech leaves and white limestone. The seasons were never long enough for Zaplotnik, but when he returned to the lowlands, his body still carried a lightness of spirit. He described it in Pot:
If I were a poet, I would be struck speechless upon entering this unearthly landscape. I would lay myself down in the shadow of the blossoming snow-white rhododendron and remain silent forever. Such beauty makes poetry, however lofty, seem ridiculously inadequate. Words fade into emptiness…. You can’t even attempt to express it because you have become completely aware that true beauty can only be given and felt. It cannot be described.
WHEN ZAPLOTNIK WAS ACCEPTED into the Alpine Association of Slovenia as an alpinist, he endured the ritual hazing initiation, during which he was first beaten and then forced to drink copious quantities of spiced homebrew. He later wrote that it was “the first time in my life I felt the charm of alcoholic vapors, which, after that, I gave a few years’ special attention to.”
He tried–unsuccessfully–to live at what musicians call tempo giusto, the right speed. “I was eating life with a very large spoon,” he recalled, “as if I would die the very next year.” While he did various odd jobs, and completed his one and a half years of military service, the mountains, parties and his love life all jostled for his attention. The mountains usually prevailed. “To me, alpinism is not just sport,” he admitted. “To me, this is life.”
After one particularly heartbreaking affair, Zaplotnik met Mojca at a climbers’ party. Within a short period of time, they married and had a son. “We wanted big achievements,” he reflected, “but were not aware that the biggest achievements–the same as a dull life–are composed of little moments.” Seated at their kitchen table, wreathed in cigarette smoke, the young couple planned their future together.
With their new family responsibilities, they both looked for steady employment in Kamnik: Mojca became a nurse in a factory; Zaplotnik began working in a bank. There, he withered in the shadow of a mountain of paper. Terrified of losing that special feeling of lightness and peace that the mountains gave him, he wrote:
Day after day, I sit at the window in a smoky office. Darkness falls quietly on the bustling city streets, only the mountains still glow scarlet. Their blinding light falls directly on my miserable window…. How much I would like to share with [my coworkers] at least some of my yearnings and hopes and blue horizons within me.
A new routine developed: a short walk to the bank, a whole day of shuffling papers, the occasional family trip to the seaside. “My life was leaking between my hands the way sand flows in an hourglass…. All that precious time. All that precious vitality, strength, flows through the narrow neck, down, and is lost,” he wrote. He was torn between his love of family and freedom. “I’m like a wolf that cannot be chained. I can only be destroyed. The path to freedom is very long. And at this point, these were only the first battles of a long war.”
Like many Slovenian alpinists, his hopes and dreams went far beyond his miserable office window, beyond the Julian Alps, all the way to the Himalaya, where great adventures awaited. He was about to take his place among a group of climbers who had emerged from the ruins of World War II and witnessed the birth of socialist Yugoslavia in 1946 under Josip Broz Tito. It was a generation that struggled to understand the changing ideological rhetoric around them. Many felt a desire for complete freedom tempered by their reliance on the socialist safety net that, ultimately, enabled their ability to climb.
Among them was expedition leader Ales Kunaver, who had gone to the Himalaya in 1962, scouting ambitious new objectives for his compatriots. He brought an expedition to the unclimbed South Face of Makalu in 1972, without success. In the years that followed, others attempted the route, including the legendary Reinhold Messner, as a member of a high-powered Austrian team. No one reached the high point of Kunaver’s expedition. He returned in 1975 with a twenty-one-person team, including several members of the 1972 expedition: Marjan Manfreda, Stane Belak (Srauf) and Danilo Cedilnik. But Kunaver was also developing a climbing program in Slovenia for talented younger climbers. Zaplotnik was one of the proteges he brought to Makalu.
They spent a month on the South Face of Makalu, fixing lines, setting up camps, moving supplies and equipment and oxygen to the upper camps, only to have them destroyed by avalanches, rockfall and wind. Srauf and Manfreda began the first summit attempt from Camp 5 at 8000 meters on October 6, but because of a malfunctioning oxygen ventilator, only Srauf was using oxygen. They set out with the understanding that Manfreda would accompany Srauf as far as he could, and then return to the high camp and wait. At 8200 meters, it became clear that Manfreda wasn’t turning back.
Srauf recalled looking down at him: “Oxygen, this life-enabling substance played a trick on us at the most crucial moment,” he wrote in his memoir, Veliki Dnevi. “Now my friend is doing his utmost to finish this ascent which represents at the same time a once-in-a-lifetime athletic achievement, an inconceivable emotional burden, and last but not least, an act of national importance…. My friend is lurching toward me. His face is full of suffering…. What moments are these.” Manfreda reached the summit forty-five minutes after Srauf. They’d completed the first ascent of the South Face of Makalu, and Manfreda had accomplished the climb without supplemental oxygen.
Kunaver immediately set in motion three more rope teams. Zaplotnik and his partners were up next, but they faced the same faulty oxygen bottle issues. It was clear that only two of the four climbers could realistically try for the summit. When Danilo Cedilnik offered to step down, giving Zaplotnik his equipment, Zaplotnik was torn. “I want to suggest that we choose by lot,” he wrote in Pot, “but I can’t bring myself to say it…. Yet how much is the summit worth when I see tears in my friend’s eyes? Something dies inside me. An emptiness opens up in my heart…. The only thing left is this terrible alpinist’s longing. I am aware that Den should be the one to go on…. He is older than me and will probably not get another chance like this, while I have my whole life before me…. Thank you, Den. You thought you had lost the summit. But you won a friend forever.”
Zaplotnik and Janko Azman reached the top, followed by Ivc Kotnik and Viki Groselj on October 10. A day later, Janez Dovzan and Zoran Beslin started up. Dovzan summited and descended safely, but Beslin collapsed just below the summit, initiating a heroic self-rescue that resulted in lost fingers and toes for both. Zaplotnik’s first Himalayan expedition was a heady experience: a first ascent of a difficult face on an 8000-meter peak. He later wrote:
You are slowly overcome by the eternal restlessness of high mountains, by the natural current of life that we have almost forgotten…. This is when you become aware that these lonely paths keep drawing you back to the highest peaks where the sky and the Earth meet amid the howling wind.
But what stayed with him even more was a feeling of loyalty:
Pictures from Makalu flash before my eyes. The wall, soaring into the sky, the heavy packs, the miles of fixed ropes, the snowstorms, the friends’ suffering…. I am growing increasingly aware that friendship is worth much more than success. Friends have remained and everything else is history.
TWO YEARS LATER, ZAPLOTNIK was back in the high mountains, this time in the heart of Baltistan, in the Karakoram region of Pakistan:
Somewhere toward the east, after days and weeks of driving along hot, dry, dusty desert roads, lies the land where the Earth touches the sky. Somewhere there is a land where black glaciers carve deep valleys amid vertical granite towers…. Your open heart drinks in the eternal paths of the stars; you count the falling stars while the wind slowly covers you with fine-grained sand that grits between your teeth and glues to your forehead.
Led by Janez Loncar, from Trzic, a mountain village near the Austrian border, they were a small group–nine climbers, minimal equipment, no supplemental oxygen and no high-altitude staff–on their way to the unclimbed Southwest Ridge of Gasherbrum I, an 8080-meter peak of angular perfection. The team included Andrej Stremfelj, a young climber from the city of Kranj, near Rupa, where Zaplotnik had spent his childhood. Stremfelj and Zaplotnik often climbed and socialized together, and as Stremfelj recalled, Zaplotnik liked to drink, and he loved to sing, usually at the same time. However, it wasn’t all climbing and partying for Zaplotnik. Others saw a different side of Zaplotnik: frighteningly intelligent, sometimes moody. His intensity could be unsettling.
With one truck and a borrowed van, the team lumbered along for eleven days through Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Crossing seven thousand kilometers, they choked on dust in the blistering heat of day and camped by roadsides, their sleep disturbed by the roar of the nighttime truck traffic. At the end of their nine-day approach march, a slim rock pyramid appeared, glowing in the evening sun: Gasherbrum I, and their goal, the rocky Southwest Ridge. Zaplotnik’s rope partner was Drago Bregar. As they broke trail in the waist-deep snow, carrying loads of food and equipment, they hardly needed to talk. “I could never climb with a man who is seen only as an alpinist but not a genuine friend,” Zaplotnik admitted. Both men viewed this climb as a dress rehearsal. If they performed well on Gasherbrum I, they might be chosen for an upcoming Everest expedition.
When the climbers rested at the end of the day, the only sounds were the caws of crows flitting about camp as they scavenged for scraps, and the constant hissing of the stove. Sometimes a serac would collapse in the distance, sending a thundering shudder through the camp. Each night, as the cold seeped in, they burrowed into their sleeping bags, talked about their families and dreamed of their mountain.
Then the partnership configuration suddenly changed. A climber high on the mountain required Bregar’s help with a rescue, and as a result, Loncar asked twenty-year-old Andrej Stremfelj to climb to Camp 2 with Zaplotnik. Everyone understood that the two going to Camp 2 would get the first summit attempt. As Zaplotnik watched the sun set that last evening in base camp, he fantasized about the summit he was so sure to touch. A range of emotions flooded his mind: excitement about the possibility of his young friend climbing his first 8000-meter peak, and terror at the 1200 meters that remained between them and the summit.
Two days later, they were at Camp 3. A pale ashen hue suffused the tent, giving them hope that the long night was ending. A sharp wind snapped the nylon walls. They heated pots of milk laced with honey, and then, carefully packed up: extra clothing, cameras and flags. No ropes. There would be safety in speed. And in Zaplotnik’s pack, a tiny rubber elephant given to him by his boys–his precious good luck talisman. As he looked at the toy, he thought:
It conjures up an image of two tiny fair-haired children’s heads with great brown trusting eyes. In those eyes I can discern a trace of admiration. At the same time, I also discern a narrow, hidden, brand-new path that has just awoken yet is completely independent of me. A tiny path on which new personalities will be shaped. To these new personalities, their father represents only a temporary role model, which they will soon leave, free and independent, like I want to be myself.
No sooner had Zaplotnik and his partners left the tent than black clouds rolled in, swallowing their view. A thick, murky fog enveloped them, while snowflakes spun around their heads. The wind grew stronger, pushing them to the ground. Everything merged into a wall of grey. Stremfelj stayed close, always one step behind Zaplotnik. Like robots, they repeated the movements: Step up; lean on the axe; step up again. Amid the tedium, Zaplotnik’s thoughts wandered dangerously:
Back home it’s 6 a.m. and the children are just going to kindergarten. My thoughts always drift homeward when I am in the mountains, but when I am at home they always drift to the mountains.
By noon, all that remained was a gentle snow slope. They retrieved the flags from their packs, tied them to their ice axes and took the few remaining steps to the summit. Zaplotnik recalled his thoughts of his partner at that moment:
I wouldn’t want to overtake him, not even by one step…. I stood below the summit and watched his last steps, how the dream of his life was coming true. At that moment I was overcome by an unearthly happiness.
The clouds ripped apart for just a moment, then the mist closed in again. After a few photographs with their backs bent to the wind, they began feeling their way down a series of gullies. They finally spied a few familiar-looking rocks and their tiny blue tent. They collapsed inside, tore at their ice-encrusted hair and rubbed their faces and fingers to restore some feeling.
Then they heard cursing. Somebody was ripping at the tent. Bregar–Zaplotnik’s original climbing partner–had climbed alone from Camp 3. He burst in, full of congratulations and enthusiasm: he would wait for the next rope team to arrive from Camp 3 and climb to the summit with them.
The morning dawned sad and dreary, and the wind howled even more fiercely than before. “Drago, descend to the valley with us,” Zaplotnik said.
“No, I will wait for a day or two,” Bregar said. “The weather will surely improve. I have food.”
How often does this conversation take place in the big mountains? After days and even weeks of hard work and suffering, all for one goal–the summit–there comes a moment when one climber is on his way down, another on his way up. It was clear that the mountain was closing its doors. But desire is stronger than reason.
Stremfelj and Zaplotnik crawled out into the fog, hoisted their packs and started down, searching for the fixed lines. After six hours, they stopped at Camp 3, ate some hot soup with their friends and headed out into the storm again. It was nearly dark when they arrived at Camp 1.
They reached base camp the next day after navigating the glacier’s weakened snow bridges and yawning crevasses. There, they learned that the team at Camp 3 was also descending. Nobody knew whether Drago was heading down with them or whether he’d made a bid for the summit.
“Drago, report back! Drago, report back!” they howled into the radio. The only reply was static.
After two days, climbers in base camp started up the mountain to search for him. But it was hopeless. They were too exhausted. They retreated to the kitchen tent, silent and morose. The radio remained on, but everyone knew there would be no message from Bregar.
It snowed for the next six days. Six days to sit, completely powerless. Zaplotnik realized that the mountain would become Bregar’s grave. “No ascent is worth wasting a life,” he wrote in his journal. “I know it now as I am sitting in a warm tent with a bitter lump in my throat. But up on the mountain I would have done exactly as Drago did. To give up a goal is much more difficult than to reach it.”
After watching Gasherbrum I disappear under a blanket of white, Zaplotnik described their return:
In the midst of this desolate yet beautiful landscape a small group of foreigners…in dirty trousers grown ragged from the long journey, march on. Their hair is glued together…from sweat and the desert sand. Their faces are gaunt…. Their skin is burnt from the high-altitude sun and wind. Their lips are swollen and cracked from the lashing needles of snowstorms. Their bodies are thin and bony, bent double beneath the heavy packs…. Only their eyes glow with the fullness of life tested by the most difficult trials. Only their eyes bear witness that they found the sun itself…. This is how the expedition returns to life….
Now we are leaving this land where we spent the most magnificent days of the rest of our lives. We are older.
ZAPLOTNIK’S PERFORMANCE ON GASHERBRUM I did earn him an invitation to Everest–to the most ambitious objective the Slovenians had yet envisioned. The initial push for the unclimbed West Ridge Direct of Everest came from Ales Kunaver. But because Kunaver was busy starting a mountaineering school for Nepalese Sherpas in Manang, another leading figure in Slovenian alpinism, Tone Skarja, led the team. With financial support from Belgrade, this would be a Yugoslavian national expedition. There were between eighty and a hundred applicants. After the first elimination round, forty remained. The second cut determined the final twenty-five. Joining Zaplotnik, Srauf and Manfreda were Andrej Stremfelj and his brother Marko, as well as Croatian climber Stipe Bozic.
The expedition was a massive affair: nineteen Sherpas, three cooks, three kitchen assistants, two mail runners, seven hundred porters and eighteen tons of equipment. They assembled at Base Camp on March 31, 1979, and began hauling six tons of supplies up to Camp 1, using a winch system for the last 200 meters below the Lho La, the lowest point on the West Ridge. They competed to see who could crank the winch the hardest. The Nepalese climbers cranked while belting out “Oh My Darling, Clementine,” and the Slovenians resorted to obscene versions of popular songs.
Although a strong feeling of camaraderie pervaded the team, Tone Skarja’s strategy was based solely on performance. If a climber couldn’t reach Camp 5 without supplemental oxygen, he wasn’t a summit candidate. When one member became ill or exhausted, another would replace him. No partnership was sacred.
After Viki Groselj and Marjan Manfreda pitched Camp 5 at 8120 meters, they earned the first chance at the summit. At around 8300 meters, a rock chimney reared–the crux of the climb. Manfreda’s crampons scratched against the smooth rock, and the handholds were so small that he couldn’t use gloves. At first, his fingers felt on fire; later, not as much.
Groselj stood below, belaying him. “I just took care for Marjan, who fell three times.” After Manfreda managed to fix a rope up the chimney, they noticed Manfreda’s hands. Frozen, pale and rigid as marble. They headed down, Groselj to Camp 3 and Manfreda as fast as possible all the way to Base Camp. The next day, Dusan Podbevsek and Roman Robas moved into position. When they lost their way in the rock towers above Manfreda’s fixed rope, they retreated. Now it was up to Zaplotnik and the Stremfelj brothers.
The winds roared down the endless ridge, choking their lungs with snow and ice crystals while they cowered behind rocks. Near Camp 5, the gusts were so strong they were forced to crawl. They finally retreated to Camp 4, where they huddled in the tent. That night, awake and on edge, Zaplotnik decided that Everest would be his last summit. Within moments, he knew he was fooling himself. “My way is without an end,” he later wrote. They retreated to Base Camp where they regrouped and recovered.
By May 13, Zaplotnik and the Stremfeljs were back in Camp 5. There are many factors that determine the outcome on a climb of this magnitude: fitness, strength, weather, illness and equipment. On Everest’s West Ridge Direct, it was equipment that let them down. The evening before their summit bid, they sipped mugs of tea, talking quietly about the morning. The air was desperately cold, the sky heavy with stars so bright they felt within reach. A light wind rustled the tent. They crept into their bags, put on their oxygen masks and set the ventilators at a half liter per minute.
At 5 a.m., they crawled out. Sometime during the night, Marko Stremfelj’s oxygen system had failed, and he was now using his backup ventilator. When Andrej Stremfelj opened his ventilator, it cracked, hissing loudly. He replaced it: now both brothers were on backup ventilators.
Zaplotnik was out front when Andrej Stremfelj called out. Marko’s backup ventilator had also failed. Watching his brother descend, Andrej admitted: “I lost interest in the summit. I was looking for a reason to go down.” Zaplotnik swore and slammed his axe against a rock, then turned around and continued up, with Andrej Stremfelj right behind him. They were making rapid progress when there was a sudden loud hiss: Stremfelj’s backup ventilator had failed. Zaplotnik struggled to remain calm, sensing they were at a critical point. He replaced Stremfelj’s backup ventilator with his own backup. Both of them were now using backup equipment. There was no Plan C.
Crack. Another hiss.
Zaplotnik unscrewed the faulty ventilator and flung it down. “Andrej, take my vent and the bottles!” he yelled. “You will climb on with the oxygen ahead of me, and I will climb behind you without it!”
“OK, then I will climb alone,” Zaplotnik announced.
“No, Nejc. You can’t,” pleaded Stremfelj.
But Zaplotnik had no intention of stopping. He was prepared to give his life for this summit. In a moment of intuitive brilliance (or luck), Zaplotnik screwed the ventilator back onto Stremfelj’s oxygen bottle and spit on it, hoping to assess the extent of the leakage. The hissing lessened. Astonished, he realized that his saliva was freezing, filling up the tiny leak. They continued up to the vertical chimney where a white rope dangled, thanks to Manfreda. Zaplotnik attached his Jumars to the ice-sheathed rope and adjusted his oxygen to four liters per minute. Panting like a racehorse, he hauled himself up. Stremfelj followed.
At the top of the chimney, now on the ridge, the wind slammed them. They dropped to their knees as the blasts of air moaned with strange organ-like sounds around the rocky outcroppings. Below them was the vast river of ice that forms the Western Cwm. Beyond Nuptse, the plains of India shimmered in the distance.
They crept up the sharp ridge, clambering over its imposing rock barriers. They reached the Yellow Band: a prominent layer of rock that encircles Everest between 8200 and 8600 meters. Afterward, Zaplotnik lost all memory of the next stages of the climb, how they moved from the Yellow Band to the Grey Band. He would only recall that things became easier for a time. That there were some snowfields and the occasional rock step. That, at some point, they roped up. And that the Grey Band became terribly steep near the end.
AFTER HIS TWO FALLS at 8500 meters, Zaplotnik asked the time.
“Eleven forty-five,” Stremfelj answered.
“That’s late,” Zaplotnik replied. “Very late. We’re moving too slowly.”
For his third attempt at the rock step, Zaplotnik grasped a minuscule hold and scratched his foot onto a rock nubbin. He knee-jammed his body into position and held on. “Keep calm, keep calm,” he said to himself. “You still have a lot of strength. You are not finished yet.” He traversed along a narrow ledge, but just as he arrived at a cleft in the rock, the rope tightened. He could go no farther. He nailed a piton into a shallow crack. Two centimeters of doubtful protection. Now it was Stremfelj’s turn.
Zaplotnik could feel Stremfelj’s full weight on the rope as it stretched taut. Was he climbing? Ascending the ropes with his Jumars? With horror, he looked at the piton, now tilting under the weight. Thirty-five years later, Stremfelj laughed as he recalled that moment: “Yes, I was jumaring–good thing I didn’t know about the bad piton.”
Stremfelj led off next, and they soon reached the top of the Grey Band, where they unroped. Zaplotnik hauled out the radio.
“Hello, Tone. Report back!”
“We are on the top of the Grey Band. From here on, climbing gets easier, and we might be on the summit in about three hours.”
“Good job, boys. You won’t turn back now, will you?”
“The wind is so bad here. We won’t be able to descend on this side. We will probably go down the southern side. We should probably ask the Austrians if we can borrow their tents.”
“We will arrange everything. You just be good and climb on.”
“What time is it?”
“Twelve. Good luck. We will be in touch at all times. Over.”
Stremfelj and Zaplotnik looked at each other. Only noon? Impossible! It was 11:45 a.m. three hours ago. Stremfelj had misread his watch. This news gave them new confidence, not only that they would reach the summit, but that they might avoid a life-threatening bivouac. As Zaplotnik fumbled with the radio, he noticed his hands. White as chalk. He rubbed them, banging them against his legs until a familiar stinging pain returned. But he knew they might be the price of Everest’s West Ridge.
Although the air was choked with snow, they read the labyrinthine terrain with assurance, threading their way through the weaknesses on the ridge to a gentle snow slope covered in a thin layer of black sand blown up from Tibet. And there, looming through the fog, was the tripod that had been placed on the summit by the Chinese team in 1975.
They embraced on the top, slapping each other’s shoulders. They removed their oxygen masks and sat down in the snow. Now what? Emptied of all the gut-wrenching stress, they just sat. Then Zaplotnik remembered. The radio.
“Hello, Tone. Hello, Tone. We are on the summit!”
A roar erupted from climbers at every camp on the mountain.
Skarja asked about their plans for descent.
Zaplotnik answered, “We are sitting by the Chinese pyramid and don’t know what to do. Motherfucker. What to do now, eh?”
They decided to descend the Hornbein Couloir, the same one that Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld had climbed up in 1963 on the first traverse of the mountain. The couloir would bring them to easier terrain that would eventually lead to Camp 4, where their teammates waited. Zaplotnik made his way down a narrow cleft and then exited across a boulder. As Stremfelj followed, his pack frame caught in the chimney, and he flipped over, accelerating wildly.
“Andrej, stop! Stop!”
After falling fifty or sixty meters, Stremfelj slammed his axe into the slope with all his might. He came to rest, covered in snow. Zaplotnik descended to him, yelling, “Andrej, are you OK?”
Stremfelj lifted his head, stood up and brushed himself off, seemingly unfazed. “I put so much energy into this self-arrest that for fifteen minutes I couldn’t talk,” he recalled. “I didn’t feel any fear. But I was hyperventilating. I cut the fall out. It is a survival technique,” he explained.
Focused like lasers now, they continued down the interminable slopes leading to Camp 4. As night fell, their headlamps flickered and failed. The cold seeped into their bodies as surely as fear eroded their confidence. Could they be too low? Had they missed their camp?
At 9:30 p.m. they saw the lights of Camp 4. Their teammates helped them the last steps to the tent, and suddenly there was warmth and tea and friendship.
Days later, when they reached base camp, Zaplotnik went immediately to Manfreda’s tent. They talked for hours: about the crux pitch, the Grey Band, the summit. About Manfreda’s frozen hands.
Up high on the mountain, Srauf, Stipe Bozic and Ang Phu Sherpa moved into position for their summit bid. Ang Phu had already climbed Everest in 1978. If he reached the summit again, he’d become the first to climb the mountain by two different routes. The trio succeeded, but as they headed down, their progress slowed. Haunted by the threat of freezing, Srauf wanted to keep moving. Ang Phu, who had been silent so far, said in a calm voice, and with complete certainty, “Srauf. Stop. We will die this night.”
Base camp had been trying to contact Srauf, but as his radio began dying his voice sounded fainter with each transmission. The pauses between calls grew longer, until there was only silence.
Srauf and Bozic and Ang Phu did not die during their bivouac at 8300 meters. Eventually, a silvery light slid over them as a new day dawned and the horrors of the night faded. They unwound from their frozen positions and started down the snowfield. The temperature began to rise, and figures appeared below, calling up to them, bringing hot tea.
Ang Phu reached out his hand in greeting, and in that moment of lapsed concentration, he lost his balance. He fell on his back and began sliding. In seconds, a few meters stretched to twenty. He twisted around in an attempt to stop. His axe flew out of his hand, and he tumbled steadily down, toward a black rocky rib, which he hit hard, bouncing up in a great sweeping arc. All that remained were a few scratches in the hard snow.
The expedition was over.
WHEN ZAPLOTNIK ARRIVED at the Ljubljana airport, his mother embraced him. “My son, with whom I made pilgrimages from hospital to hospital, stayed up endless nights by his bed…climbed the highest mountain in the world,” she cried. Although Zaplotnik suspected that Everest could very well be his most significant climb, he knew it would not be his last climb. He wrote:
And this is how alpinism became my life. It doesn’t lead anywhere but back to the beginning, and I have learned that a moment, once experienced, becomes history, shuttered and locked because, in front of me there is a bright new shiny little pebble. This is what our life is like; full of joy, full of sadness, full of longing, full of successes, and of bitter disappointments. So full of happiness and suffering at the same time, that sometimes there is just too much of everything. It is then that we grow old.
Yugoslavian expeditions to the Himalaya continued to push the standards of difficulty and limits of survival: Lhotse South Face in 1981, Dhaulagiri South Face in 1981, Annapurna South Face in 1983 among other objectives. When Zaplotnik and Groselj were invited to join an expedition to Manaslu, neither could resist. Zaplotnik, who was also working on another book, was confident and trusted his instincts. “I nearly believe in a lucky charm,” he wrote.
On April 15, 1983, the team gathered in base camp to celebrate Zaplotnik’s thirty-first birthday. Nine days later, high on the mountain, Groselj was a few hundred feet above Zaplotnik and two others when he heard a crack. Several towering ice seracs collapsed, sending tons of snow and ice down upon them. Groselj and his partner sped down the slope. One of the three survived. One was never found. And Zaplotnik was dead.
Across Slovenia, people were shocked at his death. Climbers felt destroyed by their grief. Zaplotnik had been their climbing partner and their friend. But more than that, he was their voice. He had understood their dreams, their fears and their doubts, and he had articulated those emotions for them through his writing. Losing him was like losing a part of themselves. Andrej Stremfelj felt as if his climbing compass disappeared with Zaplotnik’s death. “I felt lost and alone,” he recalled. “When Nejc was killed my house of experiences broke down…I needed one year or more to build the house again, but never was it quite as strong as before.”
Mojca Zaplotnik was twenty-nine when her husband was killed on Manaslu. With three young boys to raise, she eventually remarried, to Tomaz Jamnik, a friend and former climbing partner of Zaplotnik. In 1996 she traveled with Viki Groselj and her sons to the foot of Manaslu to see the faded wooden cross, Zaplotnik’s memorial. “My father was king!” shouted the youngest son, Jaka. “Just look what land he chose for his cemetery.” Luka Zaplotnik, who was twenty-three years old at the time, later recalled: “We’d never been in such a high and beautiful place. I guess we needed that trip to see why our father loved the mountains so much, especially the Himalaya.”
I CAN’T RESIST MUSING about Zaplotnik’s life if he could have further evolved as a writer, an elder. His understanding of the arc of his life as a climber and writer and family man was unique in its honesty. His internal battles and his vulnerability were part of what made him, like everyone, human. In Pot, he recounted:
I am no longer drawn to the highest peaks. I no longer possess the terrible driving force that, until now, has never allowed me to ask myself why all this? Perhaps Everest was my swansong…. Perhaps I really was prepared to give too much…. I don’t know how to dream and yearn anymore. Maybe the dreams that came true in the mountains as well as in the lowlands awoke a vision of a peaceful and quiet life, a vision, however, that was soon shattered…. I am only aware of the fact of my existence, my increasingly real, painful and lonely existence. The people dearest to me have grown so distant from me.
While at Manaslu, he had been working on his second book, Peter Simsen. The main character, alternately a teacher and a student, was clearly Zaplotnik’s alter ego and even looked like him, with a large-boned, wide face and a toothy smile. A traveler without a cause, he was driven by an inner voice that occasionally morphed into a scream: “I am sentenced to freedom, so free that, among the crowd of people who love me, as well as those who don’t care for me, I continue to be alone. Alone with my wishes, dreams, desires; alone on my endless path.”
On February 6, 2006, the inner voice of Zaplotnik’s son Jaka also turned on him. His suicide was almost too much for the family to endure.
THE MUSICIAN LEONARD COHEN once wrote that “Any artist who remains true to himself becomes a work of art himself.” During Nejc Zaplotnik’s brief and dazzling existence, the cost of remaining true to his path had been high. He had mourned the loss of friends in the mountains. He had struggled with the solitude and self-isolation that appeared to be a requirement or a consequence of his pursuits, and that had led to suffering for him and those around him. In Pot, he had written, “Alpinism is like art. You put all your strength, your entire soul into your work. You forget everything.” It was an approach that left little space for compromise, breadth or balance in his life.
He had also experienced fleeting moments of exquisite joy: his first electrical storm on a ridge in the Julian Alps, his hair crackling and fat droplets of rain caressing his face; those few minutes of repose, sprawled with Andrej next to the Chinese tripod on the summit of Everest; slipping into the warm waters of the Adriatic with Mojca after a day of climbing with his boys. And he had found a way to transmute all of this–the grief and wonder–into words that still reverberate with the power of sheer rock walls and shimmering blue ice, the gift of friendship in the mountains, and the encounters with the wildness inside us all. Nearly forty years after Zaplotnik’s death, young Slovenian climber Luka Lindic continues to be inspired by his words: “I try to remember them almost every day, whatever I am doing. Not only climbing.”
But if Zaplotnik himself became a work of art, he was one that was constantly in motion, self-transforming, eluding the same net of words he cast again and again–and that others, myself included, have since tried to cast around him. Throughout it all, Zaplotnik never stopped believing that the alpinist’s path is as important as the summit. It’s impossible to know where that path might have led him in later years, perhaps only back to the beginning again, as he’d surmised in one passage of Pot–or perhaps somewhere as-yet unimagined, though the traces of its ever-evolving topography must have already glimmered in his mind. In his words: He who is in pursuit of a goal will remain empty once he has attained it. But he who has found the way will always carry the goal within him.
[This article is based on Bernadette McDonald’s 2015 book Alpine Warriors, published by Rocky Mountain Books. Translations of Nejc Zaplotnik’s Pot by Mimi Marinsek.–Ed.]