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Michigan State's harrowing, Himalayan journey to the top of the Big Ten's last undefeated summit

In scaling Iowa, the Spartans gave us a football epic for the ages.

Jon Bois

September 3, 2015
1st and 10. Start: Michigan State 18-yard line.

Marcel said the porters required payment. I obliged. Our expedition is a serious matter and those who participate must take it with the seriousness of real work. Only money paid promptly demands the attention of those working beneath you.

As for those working alongside you, in most endeavors they must see the same imaginary mountaintop you do. Fortunately for me, I only need them to imagine the real. Our quarry is all too tangible, more fearsome than the fantastical, more deadly than the fabulous. Twelve teams have attempted its summit. Twelve have descended, defeated and broken, without overcoming it.

I need my men to believe what they can see, standing here just 82 yards beneath its summit. I need my men to believe they can climb ANFapurna.

On our first day, an eager LJ Scott leads the team six yards up the hill. Spirits are high, supplies are ample, and the weather is bright and sunny. We are on the march and feeling good.

Gain: 6 yards

September 4
2nd and 4. Start: Michigan State 24-yard line.

Misadventure is a visitor no mountaineer can escape. She visits; she leaves; she visits again. Today, as I was clearing ropes for the party, I fell into a crevasse. This is not as bad as it sounds; by any standard, it was a shallow and comfortable crevasse, and relatively dry.

I passed the time by coiling rope, and considering the challenges of ANFapurna. It was an unremarkable mountain on paper. It did nothing particularly well, in the sense of being difficult. For features? I could not point out one of a remarkable nature. There was no drama, just a consistent difficulty of motion up its slopes. I recall the words of the Fitzgerald Expedition, who lost badly to this blank, otherwise unmemorable opponent:

"There's just so much of it, and all the same."

Connor Cook, our young alpinist, pulled me from the crevasse despite having a bad shoulder. He would attempt a bold aerial move from our current location to a spot just ahead of us on the slope of the mountain. He failed, and we gained nothing on the day. That night it grew cold, and in our tents we shivered in our sleeping bags.

Merely the second day, already this mountain's tedium and resilience impress us.

September 7
3rd and 4. Start: Michigan State 24-yard line.

Great gains! Despite low morale as the day began due to cold and another member of the team falling in a crevasse during breakfast, we still made a friend of success today. Young Connor, through daring and guile and a brilliant throw of the grappling hook, took 13 yards from this mountain in a single heave. I compared his ability to make well-timed plays to noted adventurer Archie Griffin, and he swore he had no idea who he was. I will assume he was joking, as the young are prone to do.

We are making progress. Tonight's camp dinner shall include oysters and "champagne" as early encouragement for early but badly needed success. The oysters are canned, and the champagne something curious of local derivation. I'm told it bubbles, but no local can explain how.

Gain: 13 yards

September 9
1st and 10. Start: Michigan State 37-yard line.

Oysters were an unwise choice. The entire expedition has been ill for several days, making even the simplest of activities seemingly impossible. Any hopes the alcohol in the local "champagne" would kill the sickness in the oysters faded over a course of several very loud and humbling hours. The bubbles in the local "hooch" remained unexplained. The tents, while not ruined, are nearly uninhabitable after three days of unspeakable biological terror. We made no progress in that time.

Despite our struggles, Cook again led us to a four-yard gain on ANFapurna on our first day back after the incident. Those twelve feet came at a grievous cost. Three cans of the oysters remain. The porters have been ordered to throw them into the nearest crevasse. If the government authorities should wish to fine me for it, then let them.

Gain: 4 yards

September 20
2nd and 6. Start: Michigan State 41-yard line.

The treacheries of this seemingly unremarkable mountain become clearer by the day. LJ Scott, at dawn, led the party up the slopes. A brilliant sunset greeted us, as did clear weather. Despite a weakened party, we progressed another three yards up the slope, and felt our fortunes were trending in a positive direction. I ate a tube of condensed milk in celebration.*

*Note: apparently, there was a deal on condensed milk at the mountaineering supply store. It constitutes most of what we have left at this point after something broke into our packs during the Three Day Intesti-blizzard. Curiously, there are also edamame shells littering the area around our stores. I assume this to be the work of some wildlife we did not anticipate. Large birds, perhaps? It does not matter. We proceed.

Scott, our finest climber, was suddenly pulled seven yards backwards by one of our larger climbers. His feet found no purchase, and in a moment of panic he held tight to LJ's jersey, yanking him seven yards backward before arresting his fall. This is how the mountain humbles you. You gain three, only to lose seven.

Tonight we sleep in the mountain's cold silence, together but embittered by the day's cruel penalty.

Gain: -7 yards

September 24
2nd and 13. Start: Michigan State 34-yard line.

A driving snowstorm and cold winds greeted us at dawn. After some deliberation among the team, we opted to advance despite the weather. R.J. Shelton had not led the climb yet, and stated his desire to despite the bad weather and his relative inexperience. I granted him the lead. Unconventional circumstances demand unconventional tactics.

Shelton gained ten yards on ANFapurna, putting us back on schedule to summit. He was simply brilliant. We celebrated more modestly than after our first huge gain, simply shaking hands over some tubes of condensed milk. One of those days where pissing into the wind, proverbially speaking, leaves you dry and the flowers watered.

Gain: 10 yards

September 29
3rd and 3. Start: Michigan State 44-yard line

Better weather today. LJ Scott led us out, and after several hours of scaling the sides of the bastard, we found ourselves with a four-yard gain, and a pleasant small victory against the calendar.

A splendid dinner was interrupted by the news that one of our party had fallen into a crevasse during the second course, along with some extremely expensive dinnerware. Why anyone would bring expensive, 19th century heirloom dinnerware to a mountaineering expedition is valid question of logistical inquiry. Let us just say that elegance is the first comfort, even in a rustic situation like this, and that one man's definition of Spartan conditions is not another's. I escaped the crevasse on my own power, thank you. The dinnerware was a total loss, as was a candelabra lost to the mountain's glacial innards.

Gain: 4 yards


October 2
1st and 10. Start: Michigan State 48-yard line.

Several days were spent in search of the candelabra and dinnerware.

No sooner had we gotten back on schedule than we produce a day placing us behind it! The namelessness of this mountain is almost as frustrating as its shifting snows. As many times as the porters tell us the names of features, they disappear from the brain as soon as they enter. As slow as we go, the mountain demands even slower. Its victories become clearer by the day, and we pitch camp night after night mere inches from where we started.*

*After two days of this, pragmatism overcame optimism, and we simply stopped pulling stakes on the tents. It hurt to admit this at the time, but the effort we saved will add up down the road, I am assured. Each night we advanced the Spartan flag against the shifting snows; each morning we rose, knowing it was planted but a spitting distance up the hill. ANFapurna is the treadmill that never stops. Her generators are powered by gravity. Ours, by endless tubes of condensed milk. One would think the mountain to have an eternal advantage. We shall see.

Gain: 2 yards

October 7
2nd and 8. Start: 50-yard line.

In five days, we gained a mere two yards on the day against ANFapurna's rocky slopes. Such is the challenge ahead. On the sixth day, a failed traverse by Mr. Cook led us to waste the day's efforts completely.

Positives, though: Mr. Cook's shoulder appears to be holding up despite being held together with little more than duct tape and a positive attitude. Additionally, we are now where few have been: across the halfway mark of ANFapurna's total height. The men sense this, and morale is high.

On a darker note, the mysterious pack thievery continues, as does the mysterious appearance of edamame shells. I made a lighthearted joke about "the Soy Yeti", and they shuddered. Assume this is more local superstition running amok, and not a legitimate concern.


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October 8
3rd and 8. Start: 50-yard line.

The actions of the eighth determined our entire campaign. A quick breakfast of yet more condensed milk -- yes, the men are becoming quite sick of it, but it was on sale -- and then the steadiest week of climbing yet. Leading the way was Aaron Burbridge. The light snow that pelted us the entire week forward only encouraged him! Being from Michigan has its innate advantages.

The nights passed uneventfully. The days involved a steady creeping ascent of a snow-covered scree field along ANFapurna's flank. Looking up along the mountain's featureless side, we grew to respect her dangers. This was how the mountain worked: It let you think it was beatable, and gave up the occasional easy stretch of climbing like this. It held you close, and never let you get too far away.

I knew it would inevitably turn that embrace into a chokehold. You see how the observer of this game feels? How every positive gain is a curse in disguise, how every new day's opportunity becomes just another chance to fall backwards down the slope? The longer you play this game, the more you see this. This is why I prefer young climbers to the old. They see only the positives. An old climber sees only the impending avalanche, the hole with his name on it in the ground waiting below.

The young do not see the vultures, and confuse them for eagles. My job is to convince them not to look up at all, and simply focus on the step head of them. It is the hardest thing I have ever done -- and that includes climbing this infernal blank of a mountain.

Still, my young men ignore the vultures, and make a total of 16 yards progress against this mountain. My optimism, while guarded, has taken a front row seat.

Gain: 16 yards

October 15 
1st and 10. Start: Iowa 34-yard line.

Brilliant weather and still more success! A natural pessimist like myself cannot process this, but the wounded Connor Cook took the lead for seven more yards up the mountain. He is made almost entirely of Gore-Tex and duct tape at this point, and no one is sure how he is functioning as he is, but here we are.

LJ Scott shall take the point from this point forward, I have decided, and was on orders to rest for a week. I did not realize how seriously he would take this, sleeping for nearly six days straight, waking only to sip some tea, force down several tubes of condensed milk (savings!) and then return to his slumber.

Our porters carried him up the hill like a sainted bear-god. Let us hope he performs as one through the crux ahead. ANFapurna has turned back every party that attempted to summit her. Most of them failed north of her 34th yard marker.

Gain: 7 yards

October 22
2nd and 3. Start: Iowa 27-yard line.

The wind kicked up in the night. When we awoke, the tents were all but buried. Most of the men awoke inside lopsided rooms, the snow pushing their temporary homes into strange shapes. Digging out took most of a day, after which I declared it to be a rest and recuperation day.

The next day, the same thing happened, and we had to dig out. I declared this to be a rest and recuperation day, too.

The next day, the same thing happened. Another rest and recuperation day.

Finally, after four days and as much recuperation as any person can get sleeping sideways on the side of the world's most featureless yet treacherous mountain, we managed to avoid becoming snowed in overnight, and woke to clear skies. LJ Scott fought upwards, moving with ferocity. Our well-rested bear-god stole three yards from gravity, and put us back on schedule at last. As long as I do not take my regularly scheduled tumble into a crevasse, we should remain on schedule.

Gain: 3 yards

October 28
1st and 10. Start: Iowa 24-yard line.

Grim days. Moving upwards through ANFapurna's slopes is enough to dishearten the lionhearted. With Scott at the forefront, we fought the shifting snow all day. The going became so rough that we told the porters to leave the DVD player, flatscreen, and generator down at our previous camp. The men will have to catch up on Narcos when we descend. They will not like it, but conditions require sacrifice.

We still brought the mini-fridge. I will take up with the porters immediately.

Gain: 3 yards. Onward.

November 3
2nd and 7. Start: Iowa 21-yard line.

Bitter winds and driving snow forced us to hole up for several days. As leader of this expedition, I organized as many activities as possible, but torpor and indolence inevitably set in among the men. Some arguing ensued, and the men grew bitter, but this will happen. In the moment so much that happens in emotions seems large -- but like everything in relation to the mountain, it shrinks in the proper frame of reference.

(We cannot remember anger, can we? Not in its true form, at least, no? No, it would corrode, so it is released and forgotten to preserve the carrier before it ever becomes a poison to the soul.)

On day three, Young Connor threw the minifridge several thousand feet off the south face of the mountain. I hailed this as a great display of leadership. The men agreed. Morale instantly improved, and an impromptu card game played between tents only lightened the mood further.

In intermittent bursts of climbing, LJ Scott, possessed of a growing and unearthly strength, carried the team six yards further. Never has a man looked so relentlessly unstoppable in such small increments. ANFapurna is the elephant, and Scott is eating it with a shrimp fork and a smile.

Gain: 6 yards


November 5
3rd and one. Start: Iowa 15-yard line.

We have been on the mountain for two months now. Should we have known how long this would take, we would never have undertaken it. I have tried everything possible to undo its hold on our calendar, on our days, on the amount of time even the smallest action takes. I cannot force its hand.

ANFapurna's chief weapon is routine and ennui. Getting a yard might take a week. Getting three might take two weeks. The men have read through all of the books we have, and are on their second or third reads of each. I myself am on my second pass through The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. I do not understand what this book is about, but large sections of it take place at the bottom of well. The other men read it, too. To a man, the team agrees that it is terrible, and also very good, and yet terrible.

Grueling climbing and one day of blinding snow. Scott, carrying twice his bodyweight, slammed through the waist-deep snow to gain two yards. We are on schedule to summit the mountain, yet feel as if we are three hundred thousand feet from a peak we cannot yet see. There is a reason we like the book about the well. On this drive, we are at its bottom, and can only guess when we surface from its depths. Our eyes lie to us, and tell us the next crag is the peak. Over that peak, still more peaks.

Gain: 2 yards

November 7
1st and 10. Start: Iowa 13-yard line.

Our supplies now run lower than we expected. I attempt to pull a clearly fatigued Scott off the lead, but he refuses to hear me. "Snowdeafness," he claims. This is a malady I believe he just invented on the spot. No matter: he plows forward with the force of a man propelled by something between hatred and love. Three yards in two days. At night, he enters sleep like an asteroid meeting the earth: completely, and with an audible noise as he hits the floor of the tent.

I would not tell the men this, but at night I heard someone rustling through the packs. After several minutes of assembling my gear, I exited the tent one night. My flashlight caught a flash of motion, but landed only on a pair of enormous footprints in the snow -- and a telltale trail of edamame shells in its wake.

I fear what my mind tells me, but its message is clear. ANFapurna's greatest mystery is no longer its featureless tenacity. The legends may be true.

The Soy Yeti is real, and it is following us step for step. I covered the tracks, and picked up the shells before returning to my tent for the night. The men cannot know; if they make their suspicions known, I shall tell them they are worrying about a myth, and a myth alone.

Scott gains three yards in five days. The pace is a slow brutality. Our dinners are condensed milk and grim resignation. I sip coffee in the evenings and think about the well.

Gain: 3 yards

November 12
2nd and 7. Start: Iowa 10-yard line.

Somehow, we have found the porters breaking themselves hauling another mini-fridge up the slope. Cook allows Burbridge to throw the fridge off the mountain this time, as his shoulder continues to cause him pain. Burbridge tosses it a solid five feet clear of the ridgeline. The noise it makes upon impact buoys our party's spirits considerably.

The pool table, however, is a necessity, and follows us to the top. Of this there can be no doubt.

Scott is inhuman. He trudges forward five yards in three days where other men would be driven to tears. We feed him the discount snacks we have left from our ill-advised shopping at sea level. Know that the sides of ANFapurna were scaled mostly by a man fueled by tubes of condensed milk, endless packs of Gushers, and odious strip after strip of Airheads. Out of junk did this man create a masterpiece.

Five yards now in three days. The men are so tired now they barely have time to read in their tents. One burned his Malcolm Gladwell for warmth this morning, but it is no serious loss to the world.

p.s. Perhaps we should allow the porters to jettison the bookcase? I will consider this, albeit only as a last resort.

Gain: 5 yards

November 15
3rd and 2. Start: Iowa 5-yard line.

Storms. Endless, cruel storms of ice and snow. We have no choice: after a disastrous attempt to climb that left LJ Scott dangling from a dangerously exposed cornice, we holed up and examined our options.

Consider the mountain. She has left us to this. My men, after almost twenty stages of this climb, are exhausted. They barely lift themselves at this point. Our supplies are nearly gone, and we are reduced to half-rations of Aldi's worst snacks. We do have amenities of a sort. In a slight dimming of the weather's fury, my men attempted a game of pool one day. The wind blew the balls off the table.

Shortly thereafter, the pool table was abandoned to the mountain.

It would appear that we, so close to the summit, are already the winner. Yet even if we finish, consider what she has already won. Undefeated for so long, and requiring an effort from my men that would have broken most others in the making. We focus too intently on this notion of winning without realizing that this mountain has already taken so much.

We sit, heating water with pitiful little stoves on the five-yard line, behind schedule. The men are all on their fifth reading of The Martian. A brief meeting of our alpine book club agrees that the writing is terrible, and the story a very good one. It is about a man stranded alone in a quest for survival in an inhospitable environment. We, stranded here in frostbitten solitude, can understand this.

At this point, it is hard not to believe each of us alone with our thoughts, stuck feet from each other at all times, yet on our own planets.

Gain: No progress. We spend a miserable Thanksgiving on the mountain, and wait.

November 27
4th and 2. Start: Iowa 5-yard line.

The weather cleared on the morning after our holiday. Cook was supposed to lead out, and then cede the lead to Scott for the crux. Fourth down at this altitude, and after this many plays, could be dangerously unpredictable. It's killed more than its share of teams at this point. It demanded respect. We would hand it to our most reliable climber.

I emerged from my tent to find Cook in the lead. He was moving forward at dawn, alone and with the lead rope in hand. It was madness, but inspired: with one good shoulder and without a thought in his head, he broke forward for two yards of uninterrupted work over four grueling days. We followed, packing powdered coffee like snuff into our cheeks.

Beyond fatigue, we pushed past the crux and came in sight of the summit. If we had any energy left, we would have shed tears. Instead, we fell into our tents, and slept for an entire day.

Gain: 2 yards

November 30th

1st and goal. Start: Iowa 3-yard line.

Cook was a spent piece of human machinery. He handed climbing duties off to Scott. With three yards to go, we believed he should finish the job and after an effortful heave, he very nearly did.

I will admit this here and only here. On that last bitter night, I could not sleep. Walking outside, I met him. Standing in the moonlight of a still night, he stood, eating soybeans and rifling casually through our packs. He met my eyes. For an instant, I anticipated a struggle, and then slackened as his eyes met mine.

The Soy Yeti, at last.

The Soy Yeti nodded, and turned and walked down the slope quietly, a fistful of our condensed milk tubes in his hand. I knew what he meant: he had taken what he would take, and leave the rest to us. I believed he was surrendering ANFapurna, at long last, to us. Either that, or he was just stealing, and too tired and cold to fight.

I viewed either as a blessing.

Gain: 2 yards

December 1

2nd and goal. Start: Iowa 1-yard line.

A foolhardy attempt to make way in the face of what turned into a blizzard. LJ Scott gained nothing in the lead, but I blame myself for pressing on without rest.

December 5
TOUCHDOWN. Start: Iowa 1-yard line.

Three months and two days after we started, LJ Scott covered one torturous yard, and spun to the summit of ANFapurna, the last undefeated mountain in this territory.