Another day in El Chalten. Get up late, go to the shop for eggs and bread. Eat, read for a couple of hours, go and check the weather.
Nothing good on the horizon – no big surprises there, and no great disappointment. I’m too tired to entertain the idea of another trip into the mountains anyway. Last week we made an attempt on Fitzroy’s Supercanaleata – approaching, climbing most of the way up, and then retreating in a vicious storm – in a more or less non stop 35 hour push. Four days later we climbed the Exocet route on Aguja Standhart, Cerro Torre’s little brother, in a push of similar length. We’re literally broken, our muscles are badly emaciated, and we can barely go a day without having a lengthy midday sleep. I half heartedly act like I’m disappointed that the forecast is bad, but truthfully, I’m glad. The bad weather on the forecast is my holy grail. The idea of receiving another Patagonian whipping terrifies me, I’d almost rather go back to work. Almost.
Finish coffee, go eat lunch, have a sleep. Eat an afternoon snack, read some more, shower. Eat dinner and drink a beer, bed early. Rinse and repeat.
Life is easy here. The bouldering is great, but after last weeks efforts it seems unlikely that we’ll be venturing past the perimeter of cafés and bakeries that make up the majority of this small town’s buildings. Our days have been reduced to a cycle of minimal activity and effort – I never felt so justified in doing so little. I sit down on the sofas in ‘El Relincho’, our campsite, and laugh with the campsite manager Brian as he does one of his little dances. It’s sunny in town; maybe I’ll go for a little walk this afternoon, nothing too strenuous though. Perhaps I’ll just make it to the ice cream shop.
I finish my breakfast and lounge back on the sofa, putting my feet up, and closing my eyes. My mind is still. I’m aware of very little, other than the blackness of my eyelids, and the faint murmur of Trekkers planning their walks. Most are here for only a few days, they’ve got to go out no matter the weather, not that it matters so much for them. The greatest misfortune bad weather will bring them is duller views. Having been here for a month and a half already, and with a fortnight to go, I quietly lap it up; the sound of plans being made makes me grateful that I have nothing to do, and have to do nothing.
The door to the hut opens and someone walks in. A half yawning American drawl drifts over. “Hey Ben.” It’s the trout man, up even later than I am, though Pete still holds the title. “You seen the meteogram today?” He continues, with a sort of strained and understated excitement.
“No, have you?” I reply, without expectation.
“No, but I just saw my buddy Sam. There might be a window coming, and it looks hot.”
Such simple words, such heavy connotations. Good weather in Patagonia suggests such a broad range of experience that I don’t really know what to feel. My stomach begins to churn a strange blend of fear and excitement, my limbs lighten and somehow become heavier at the same time. My breath fluctuates between fast and heavy, or slow and relaxed. Exhaustion is forgotten in the face of opportunity, though my need for rest is still apparent. We need to be on top form. Will this be our chance to go big?
Most of us have practically given up on the idea of climbing a long rock route in the mountains. Until now the weather windows have been thirty hours max, usually much less, with the weather far too cold to climb rock. A lot of people have left and many more are leaving; we decided to stick it out until the end of our trip, just in case. This could well be it. Checking the forecast (several times daily now) we see the pressure bending upwards, the temperatures rising, and the precipitation falling. The next few days reveal the forecast everyone was hoping for. The window of the season.
Our plane is due to leave the day after the window ends. Going big means risking missing it, but it’s a chance we’re willing to take. As the forecast improves our plans grow, until eventually we settle on a route. We’ll try and climb the ‘Mate, Porro’ route on Fitzroy’s awesome north pillar; reputedly one of the best routes on the mountain, with consistently perfect rock, and very little if any fixed gear. It’ll be a big undertaking for our tired bodies, so we break the climb down, telling ourselves that we’d be happy to top just the pillar out, though we both know that given half a chance we’ll be gunning for the summit. Tales of icy horror shows on the head wall make butterflies in our stomachs flap, but we know we can do it. We just need to try.
The next few days follow a fairly ordinary course. We discuss our plans with other climbers, and try to figure out where they’re going. El Chalten is busy nowadays, we want to avoid getting stuck behind others on route. We try to readjust our bodies to exercise, and do a few pull ups to remind our arms what it is they’re there for. We sort gear and re-sort it, making sure we have exactly what we need and nothing more. Once everything is ready we rest and demolish mountains of mayonnaise, and wait, until eventually the alarm clock rings and it’s time to move out.
We share a taxi down the road with two Americans, Sam and Luke. They’re going to try the north east ridge, one of the longest routes in the massif (excluding link ups) at 1500m long. As we walk in the four of us hide our excitement and terror beneath a veil of small talk and reassurances, though loose bowels suggest what our mouths don’t say. It’s Fitzroy after all, the mighty, and we’ve no room to let our fear take over, though acknowledging it quietly to ourselves is mandatory.
After an exhausting twelve hour slog, Pete and I arrive at the bivy below the north pillar, which we share with three very excited and friendly Russians. They’re going to try the same route as us, and the five of us spend a long time staring at the route, growing increasingly nervous and excited beneath the still warm evening sun. The line is beautifully obvious and we do our best to work out where the cruxes lie. Behind us the icecap shines brightly in all of its magnificent white. Eventually night begins to fall, and the temperature drops, forcing us into our foil blizzard bags. The alarm is set early and we’re ready to give it all we’ve got.
A few easy pitches lead us to the start of the real climbing. A kilometre of corners and cracks loom above us; it’s going to be a big day, and a damned good one by the looks of it. The Russians speed off ahead of us; they’re extremely good climbers, and the fact that their gear is divided into three means that they can second the pitches simultaneously rather than jugging. Soon they’re out of sight, leaving Pete and I alone on the side of that terrific monolith of soaring orange granite. Pete leads up cracks and corners that wouldn’t be amiss in Yosemite, I jumar after him with most of the weight. The climbing looks amazing and I can’t wait to take over.
After about seven pitches it’s my lead and I set off. More fantastic cracks lead to a tricky corner change, followed by a nasty wet pitch, and shortly after that the crux. I don’t bother trying to free climb it and aid through easily enough, and by the time Pete reaches the belay night has fallen. For the sake of speed I continue leading, and after a slight route finding error we finally reach the big terrace two thirds of the way up the pillar. We were hoping to find a good bivy here, but the Russians have taken one spot and some Argentines the other, so we make a single abseil down the last pitch to a large but sloping ledge. It’s nearly dawn by the time we get to sleep and we wind up having a naughty alpine lay in, which isn’t saying much.
The following day is much harder, and the fun makes a quick transition from type one to type three. On day one we were sheltered in the depths of the corner, both from the sun and falling objects. We were fresh and able to enjoy the climbing. Now the sun burns our skin, and mushrooms of rime ice at the top of the pillar collapse as the sun loosens their grip on the rock. The climbing at this point is some of the steepest and best so far, but it’s hard to appreciate when large chunks of ice shower down every few minutes. Our battered shoulders begin to ache, our tired limbs hang heavily by our sides. Turning back is barely an option, we’re about 20 pitches up and the lack of fixed gear means that we’d run out of kit to abseil from long before we reach the ground. Besides, we don’t want to turn back. The only way is up.
A couple more pitches and I take over from Pete again. He’s taken a couple of bad hits and its up to me to get us to the top of the pillar. Fortunately the climbing begins to ease and we’re there a little before dark. As we approach the top we catch our first glimpse of the head wall. Steep, wet, and covered in gravity defying rime formations, it looks like the biggest undertaking of the route. The Russians are already on their way up it, clearly gunning for the summit that night, and we exchange hoots and cheers as they race upwards. Atop the pillar I bump into three American friends who are attempting the north pillar sit start. I chat to them about the route while Pete jumars up the rope; it’s strange to have such an ordinary social exchange in such a hostile environment, but it helps to make me feel safe again. They direct us to a large snowy bivy right at the top of the pillar, where we gladly claim a few precious hours of rest.
We wake early the following morning. No lay ins this time, we’re going to give the head wall everything we’ve got, and we want to climb the first pitch before the sun hits the rime poised menacingly above it. A couple of abseils brings us to the bottom of the head wall, and seeing the amount of snow and ice on the pitch I mistakenly decide to tool up. This proves useful for the first half, but the second half requires some icy aid and smearing, and I wind up slipping off and badly hurting my finger. Pete has to take over, and by donning his rock shoes he manages to smear through the crux, making for a very impressive lead.
My finger means that I can no longer lead, and exhaustion is starting to make me feel nauseous. The head wall pitches are quite overhanging, making jugging very hard work with the pack on – each movement of the jumars makes me retch slightly. I need to eat but a hollow feeling in my abdomen prevents me, despite us having plenty of food, so we give away spare biscuits to the passing Americans to lighten our load. Their momentary company does little to alleviate the loneliness of our position. The view is staggering but I’m in no mood to enjoy it. Fun has been surpassed by necessary action – we do what we must. Soon the worst is over and all that remains is a slog up slush to the summit.
After what seems like an eternity I reach Pete on the small summit ridge and collapse against a block. The summit is 30 metres away and Pete makes a final lead to stand on top of it. At this point I honestly couldn’t care less about following him, all I want to do is go down, where I’m sat is good enough for me. The 30 metres to the summit feel like a kilometre, but I muster the strength to follow him and I’m glad I did. We sit on the summit for a moment and eat what we can while we take in the view. We can see El Chalten in the distance, it’s hard to imagine that we were ever there, that we could ever return. In the opposite direction lie the Torres, pointing into the sky like dragons teeth, the clouds swirling between them its smokey breath. Behind them lies the ice cap, revealed to us now in all it’s vastness, open and barren like nothing I’ve ever seen. For these few and precious moments the pain is somewhat forgotten, until the darkening sky forces us to press on. In total we spend about five minutes on the summit, and feeling incrementally recharged we begin the descent.
Easy snow leads us down for a few hundred metres, until we reach a point where we need to begin abseiling. We want to descend the Franco-Argentine but we can’t find it. I go for a look round a corner and find myself staring down the gaping scar of the Supercanaleata. I almost suggest descending there, not realising that a fresh corpse lies approximately 150 metres below me, but the warm unsettled weather and long hike out from that side of the mountain dissuade me. We continue searching and eventually find the correct descent. We make the first few abseils successfully, then make a wrong turn. The topo is confusing and we wind up in the middle of featureless virgin granite, in the dark. The bottom looks miles away and we’re running out of kit to abseil from, but fortunately we make it down without much trouble.
We stumble across to the Brecha bivy and steal a couple of hours sleep before waking to ferocious winds. We have no gas left so we get going without stopping to eat or drink. First we make several abseils down an icy gully which is already pouring with freezing water, soaking us thoroughly. Having crossed the bergshrund all that remains is several hours of slogging through sometimes waist deep slush, until we reach the Lago de Los Tres, dry ground, and on the other side – people.
As we skirt round the edge of the lake, three huge condors land on a ledge no more than twenty metres away from us. We stand there stunned as they flap and squawk at each other, making strange hissing noises. Once again, we don’t know whether to be scared or excited; each one is bigger than us, they could pluck us from the ground if they so wished. They soon fly away though, their beating wings making a deep bass noise as they tear through the air, and we continue the walk back. After an hour or so we ask a French hiker how far we are from town. He tells us that since we’re tired and have big packs on it’ll take us at least three hours. We take this as a challenge and storm back in two, reaching town about eight hours before our bus leaves. We say some goodbyes and give our condolences for the awful tragedy that we’ve by now been informed of. Chad was hit by a falling block in the Supercanaleata, only hours before I peered down it during our descent. The blatant truth behind the risks we take in alpine environments becomes glaringly obvious in the eyes of every climber that night, and none escape a feeling that it could have just as easily been one of us.
We wake after too little sleep and haul our bags to the bus station. One final effort. The three hour bus journey to El Calafate passes quickly and smoothly, and before long we’re on the plane to Buenos Aires. Finally, we’re able to take in our accomplishment, and feel some satisfaction, though such emotions are still deeply hidden beneath a veil of exhaustion. A whirlwind of power naps and activity which mirrors the past two months eventually deposits us in Manchester, where we say our goodbyes. We hug and make vague plans to go climbing soon – the Welsh sea beckons. Finally, we go our separate ways, quietly acknowledging the fact that it won’t be a very long time before we’re back, brandishing the desire for another Patagonian beat down.