One of my two big objectives coming to Patagonia was to try climbing Cerro Torre an incredible looking mountain with no easy way to the summit and some of the worlds most crazy rime formations.
Since arriving in El Chalten I have felt intimidated by the mountains and weather. With no world class alpine rescue services, no helicopters and no search and rescue teams, just you and your partner, and some volunteers that may or may not have any idea of what they are really doing. Rescue by foot is the only way and that is not easy especially when you can be up to 50 km from a road end and at the end of heavily glaciated terrain. Just getting to places uninjured can be quite the challenge. What if you are half way up or down a vertical face
or near the summit of one of these gnarly incredible mountains, what then?
These are things that one needs to keep in mind before committing to the challenges of climbing in Patagonia.
Cerro Torre 3,128 metres high was once thought to be the hardest mountain in the world to climb, its sheer vertical sides and crazy rime mushroom ice cap is enough to make even the strongest climber quiver. It is not the height that is the problem, it is the weather and the technical difficulty of the mountain that stops most. The first undisputed ascent was made in 1974 vir the "Ragni di Lecco Route" by climbers Daniele Chiappa, Mario Conti, Casimiro Ferrari, and Pino Negri. Bill Denz an extremely accomplished New Zealand climber who had numerous first ascents to his name attempted the first solo ascent of a route on Cerro Torre called the Compressor Route. Over a five-month period he made 13 concerted attempts but was driven back by storms on every occasion. On his last attempt in November 1980 he got to within 60 metres of the summit, and still to this day no New Zealander has made it to the summit.
The appeal of Cerro Torre for me is that it seems like a challenge that would really test me. I would need to use all the skills, tricks and knowledge I had gained over my climbing career to get to the top.
One night I said to Lukas, “I am not sure I will ever be ready to climb such a mountain as Cerro Torre.” He responded with “You have what it takes, just break it down into pitches”. I thought about what he said for some time.
I check the weather one morning and to my surprise there actually looked like some good weather on the horizon, two reasonable days one bad day then two great looking days. This was a window that would be perfect for an attempt at the Ragni route on Cerro Torre. I could not come up with any good reasons to not try.
The big unknown with a climb like Cerro Torre is what condition the top mushroom is in. So far it had turned around a lot of really strong climbing parties. That was an indication that the last pitch could be really hard. It involves digging a vertical tunnel for 60 meters through rime (unsporting snow-ice – stuff that your ice axe just slides through and gives no purchase, scary and unprotectable). This can take 12 hours or longer, and will probably be the most physical and scary thing you will ever do. To help tackle this obstacle I had made an ice axe wing to dig through the rime with, it is like a mini shovel that attaches to your ice axe. We also joined forces with two other climbers to make a party of four Lukas and I with Adrian and Marcos, thinking that on the last pitch we could share the digging between four people to make it easier.
Loaded with six days worth of food and supplies we headed into the mountains. To save weight we took snow shovels instead of a tent, planning to just sleep in snow caves each night. The other advantage with a snow cave is you can safely sit out a storm, not needing to worry about your tent being ripped to shreds or getting blown off the mountain.
I had never climbed in the mountains with the two other climbers we partnered with and this left me feeling a little uncomfortable. I am usually very picky as to whom I climb with. I felt this was especially important since we were in Patagonia a place you have to heavily rely on your partner for safety (they can be your only hope to save your life).
The plan was;
Day 1, walk 20 kms to Niponino.
Day 2, cross the Standhardt col 2200mt, rappel and descend the other side, then climb back up towards the Col de la Esperanza and dig a snow cave.
Day 3, climb higher to either the Col or the El Elmo and dig another snow cave.
Day 4, sit out the storm that was predicted to arrive that day.
Day 5, climb Cerro Torre and sleep in the snow cave again.
Day 6, walk the 50 km back to El Chalten.
Day 2, The climbing to the Standhardt col had been pretty straight forward except for some deep snow we had to wade through – I was constantly on edge through that section as the avalanche risk seemed very high, yet it didn’t seem any safer to just turn back, so we had to keep ploughing through it crossing our fingers and hoping that it would not release while we were on it.
I was concerned about our game plan to climb as a party of four on the descent from the col as rappelling in a team of four took a very long time and the thought of rappelling off Cerro Torre made me feel a very nervous.
Day 3, I woke in the morning to find my sleeping bag dripping with water, the snow cave didn’t have enough air flow to remove the moisture we were creating and left us with wet sleeping bags. This is something of a nightmare for a climber as your sleeping bag is extremely important and is the one thing that stops you from freezing to death each night. Now our bags were wet and we still had a lot of cold nights ahead of us. I stepped out of the cave, looked at Marcos and Adrian and instantly knew something was wrong. Adrian had vomited and Marcos had diarrhea both things that could easily get worse. Marcos also had a wet boot from when he stepped into a puddle the day before. After a lot of debating backwards and forwards Marcos and Adrian decided to not go any further and to walk out. I found the process challenging and was left feeling unsettled by the decision relieved but upset at the same time. A pit in my stomach formed, I felt somewhat responsible for the outcome and disappointed in myself for not having thought through all the little problems having a party of four could create. Lukas and I roped up for the glacier and slowly walked on.
By lunch Lukas and I had decided that it was going to be best to snow cave below the Col de la Esperanza worried about the prospect of no suitable spots to dig a snow cave up on the El Elmo. I noticed a crevasse that had a small opening, we peered in excited about the prospect of it offering shelter. To our surprise it was the ultimate home / shelter for us for the next three nights. Three hours of hard digging later, we had a snow palace inside a crevasse – it felt so safe we were not worried at the least about weathering any storm inside there.
Day 4, We spent most of the day trying to keep occupied and stay warm, every so often we would peek our heads out of the crevasse only to be blasted by wind and snow. Inside the crevasse it was dead still and quiet without even the sound of the wind, like living in a giant freezer.
Day 5, ‘BEEP’ ‘BEEP’ ‘BEEP’, I turn over rub my eyes and charge into action it was 3.00 am. Boots on, breakfast inhaled, gear on and out of the crevasse we charged, only to be hit by a freezing wall of wind and snow, Lukas and I didn’t even look at each other, we focussed on forward motion. I stared into the darkness not sure if were are going the right way, visibility was 60 to 100 meters at best and everything looked completely different from the days before. All I could see at times were my hands and ice axes as clouds of snow stung my eye balls. I saw the rays from Lukas’s head lamp light up various ice features as he tried to navigate through unknown terrain. This was a frozen wonderland with crazy ice formations that created large ominous impenetrable features. I wondered if we were doing the right thing and how long we could last in these harsh conditions. We were moving fast, my calves started to burn, my lungs were working hard. I tried to push the discomfort aside and focus on each step and the task ahead. We arrived immediately below the El Elmo just before daybreak and Lukas found a natural ice tunnel leading to the top of the El Elmo. I squealed with joy inside the tunnel having never climbed such a wild feature, extremely stoked and excited by the climbing so far. I wondered like a scientist as to how such tunnels could form on the side of a mountain. It was then my time to lead which involved some mixed climbing and steep ice. As i climbed I noticed my attitude changing slowly, intimidation and unease were slowly creeping up my back. We kept forging our way up through more tunnels till there it was the last pitch. The last hurdle before the summit, the 60 metre rime mushroom. It looked as daunting as I thought it would, a steep vertical pitch of scary looking rime. I really started to doubt my ability, as fear lurked at my shoulder and questioned my need to be up there. I tried to put all negative thoughts to the back of my mind and just focussed on what needed to be done. I attached ice axe wings, made a solid anchor, ate, drank and started digging. I hacked away at the rime for 5 mins with a only a small hole nothing for protection. I retreated and consulted Lukas. To the right of us, was a small grove, it looked like you could chimney up and then start digging, it was worth a try we thought. I got Lukas to lower me down off the side of Cerro Torre where there was a lot of exposure. I yelled as loud as I could ‘tension’ he held the rope tight.
I swung over into a natural groove and began chiming up it till I could go no further, there started digging. This rime was completely different, softer and easier to dig compared to the other. I slowly made upward progress digging vertically through the rime making a complete tunnel. With each step up I would slide down slightly as the rime did not fully support my body weight, the only way to stop yourself from sliding out of the tunnel was to make as much contact as possible pressing your ditgets into the sides of the tunnel. I would dig in the tunnel above my head, till I was fully covered with rime, then push all the rime out the bottom of the tunnel through my legs to make room to dig some more. I did this for over one hour and by this stage I was completely wet and super exhausted. Later I figured I must have only travelled five meters vertically. I carefully retreated feeling defeated, knowing it would take too long to get to the summit. I was saturated down to my first layer, a condition I try to avoid at all cost in the mountains as being wet can be life threatening. I said to Lukas “Bro we have to go down”. I explained that it would take at least 12 hours to dig our way to the summit we would be super wet, cold and completely exhausted. Also it would be dark, the weather might change, the wind might pick up and we would still need to spend time getting down. I looked at Lukas, he blankly looked back and replied with, “ Ok, so I will start digging”. He proceeded to get ready to start climbing. I felt something boil up inside me, my barriers have been worn thin by the day's events. I POP…”Lukas it is like I am talking to a wooden stick. Did you hear anything I said? It’s not going to happen this time. Do you not understand?” I realised I had been on edge the whole day battling fear and exposure, juggling safety and success. I looked at Lukas who by this stage was looking emotional. “We have worked so hard for this climb and invested, so much time, money and energy, we can’t go down now”….he spurts out…….
We slowly started making our way down the mountain to our snow cave, focused on the task ahead, not talking much about what had just happened and trying to stay focused.
Day 6, We woke feeling tired and daunted by the thought that we still had a 50 km walk ahead of us back to Chalten. We emerged out of the snow cave to the best day either of us had seen in Patagonia. I felt conflicted, confused, unsettled, unrewarded, low and disappointed. It felt wrong if not criminal to be walking out of the mountains on the best day of the season. We pounded our way back towards Chalten, our minds a mess, swirling like a whirlpool, not willing to talk about the last twenty four hours.
We had to travel along an endless amazing ice cap, travel up and over the beautiful Pass of the Wind and down into lush green green landscape of Lake Toro then up and over another hill that would feel as if it would never end, to finally descend to El Chalten. This journey felt everlasting at times with our feet raw and tender with every step, like they had been walking on hot coals for many kilometres. Our mountain boots were like torture devices on this terrain.
I climb for the challenge and I am forced to learn about myself in the process. Having parts of my personality exposed compelled to deal with them in situations less than ideal.
The mountains leave us with questions that take a while to answer…….
On the 24th of February Daniel Joll became the first New Zealander to climb Cerro Torre he had been trying for several seasons and was the first to summit this year...