Poincenot is a mountain that looks impressive, very grandiose even though it is perched next to the towering Fitz Roy. I have stared at its eastern face for many months and thought about climbing this iconic mountain.
I start every morning by checking the weather, comparing different websites to try get a grasp on what might be happening in the mountains. The weather in Patagonia is very unstable. I would try figure out what the conditions would be like for certain routes after storms and try to pick the most suitable climb, given the predicted conditions and the length and temperature of the predicted good weather. There are lots of factors like; how long will the weather hold, will the route be in good condition, will it be covered in snow, will there be ice, will it be warm or cold enough?
I thought hard and long about what routes would fit best. I decide upon a route on Poincenot (3002 meters), the Whillans-Cochrane. This was first climbed in 1962 by Don Whillans (UK) and Frank Cochrane (Ireland). It is a classic route that goes up a snow ramp on the east face then traverses around to the west where it turns to rock that leads to the summit.
The equipment used in the 60’s was very different to what we have now, with everything weighing close to double. Ropes have gone from weighing around 4kg down to 2kg, helmets from over 390gm down to 150gm. We also now have forecasts that are reasonably accurate. It would have been quite an adventure back then, arriving in El Chalten on horseback to a very small village with virtually nothing. The early mountaineers would set an advanced base camp and just wait until they thought the weather was good. This was usually done by observing clouds and the change in air pressure.
I put all my savings together to try get some of the lightest gear on the market and have sewn a custom double sleeping bag and double bivy bag, a super light sleeping system for two weighing just over 1kg. Lots of climbers are using a fast and light approach which leaves you with less margin for error where you are forced to make compromises between safety and speed. Do you need to take a cooker? Do you need a sleeping bag? Do you need extra food? All these decisions seem easy to make while in the safety of your dry warm hostel!
After having chosen a route I now needed to find a partner, something I had been struggling with a lot for most of my time in Patagonia. I had met a promising guy who was there for the season but had sprained his ankle bouldering and so I was back out on the street looking for a partner.
“Ping” a message, it’s from Michael an Austrian climber who had been working as a porter for the season, he now had some time off and was keen to climb. I don’t know what I would have done with myself if I had not found someone to climb with. I think I would have gone crazy. We plan to start in two days.
After 7 hours with some beautiful views and plugging through snow we made it to a camp site. Beep beep.. 1.00 am I roll over, scratch my weary eyes and jump into action. Time = Safety, well that is my motto, if you are fast and efficient, you save time, which could mean the climb takes 15 hours instead of 25 hours and can mean you get back to your tent while it is still light etc.
We slowly made our way towards the start of the climb as the conditions were not ideal. The person in front breaking trail did not use a light, they just navigated by the massive silhouettes of the mountains that looked very ominous like giants towering into the sky looking down at us. I feel as little as an ant next to them. The person following used a light so they could see the footprints to step in. We rotate leading to preserve energy. The going was tough breaking through a thin crust at first and later we were wading through waist deep powder in places. We were connected together by a rope like an umbilical cord keeping us safe. If one of us walked into a crevasse he would be caught by the other person. The snow started to get really deep, up to my waist. I had to compress it with my knee first, then move my foot, place it and try to step up. Nine out of ten times I would slide backwards to where I started, like trying to walk up an escalator the wrong way.
By the time we were are the start of the ramp we were quite worn out. I started leading up the ramp as the light changed. Morning emerged slowly, then bam there it was… the SUN… I felt like a primitive being, unable to control the hooting and hollering at the sight. The orange light made everything glow as if I was wearing tinted glasses. Sunrises in the mountains are like nothing else, so beautiful, words can’t explain it. It could be because you have put so much energy into getting there, or that you can see for what feels like an eternity, or that the snow absorbs every colour, or maybe it is a combination of all of the above. I felt so alive at that very moment, the sun on my face gave warmth to my body, my skin felt alive like it was bubbling. The rich orange stained the grey granite red, the snow vibrated yellow and orange tones. The lakes in the distance reflected the rays of the sun. This was all framed by the deep blue of the sky above. Every second it would change slightly keeping you on your toes. For a moment I forgot why I was there, nothing mattered but watching the sun. This is a memory I will never forget. Is it about the summit or the journey? Do we climb in order to say we have done it, or is it the experiences along the way that invigorate us? I have a huge catalogue of these memories that pop back into my mind on random occasions.
We had made good time up the ramp, and now I was at the base of the mixed pitch M4 (mixed climbing with a technical difficulty of 4) not super hard but enough to keep me focussed. I climbed using my ice tools on the rock finding cracks and edges, sometimes there would be a patch of ice that I could swing one of the tools into. I used my front points (spikes on the front of my crampons) to stand on small edges only a few mm thick. We were almost half way up the route, things had been going great and we had one more rope length (60mt) to the rock section where the climbing was meant to be easy.
Every time you head into the mountains you are balancing weight and safety. We had decided to not bring rock shoes on this climb, instead we planned to climb the rock in our clunky mountain boots as it was not meant to be that technically difficult, we also left crampons and one ice axe at the start of the rock section to keep our packs light. I peered at the rock face above, it looked pretty clean of snow and ice, the closer I got, the more I started to realise how wrong I was.
I started climbing with one glove and one ice axe, using my hand at times and my ice axe at others, sometimes having to try kick a foot hold into an icy crack with my boot. I travelled up and around towards the west face trying to find the line of least resistance. My hand turned different colours from pink to red to purple at one point as I clawed my way up a snowy section having to clear snow off the rock with my bare skin. After that I decided to climb with both gloves and forgo the friction of a bare hand. The climb dragged on, pitch after pitch with lots of hard mixed moves. I thought we would have been able to run up the rock sections, that is more my strength. Instead it was slow and technical with some bold moves. I had to use my ice axe more than my hands as the rock and cracks were covered in ice and snow.
I felt this drive surge through me pushing me to the summit, I really wanted it on this climb.
Why is it that at times I can feel so confident, without a worry, capable of suppressing any fear, able to do really bold moves with little to no protection, 100% focused. Other times I am paralysed by fear sometimes even in situations that are not even dangerous?
On Poincenot, I was in the ZONE, in a space that few of us experience, a space where time can stand still and it feels like anything is possible. I forged my way towards the summit pitch after pitch.
Looking at the clouds I could see signs of the weather changing. It had started out fantastic, but now the window was closing, the clouds thickened and lowered, starting to bank up on the mountains to the west. If we did not get to the top fast, we would have to turn around because we were rapidly running out of time. I climbed with focus and efficiency.
I was close to the summit, but constantly had to down climb, go around features and take slightly different lines because there was way too much ice and snow in the cracks leaving nothing to climb on and no protection. I turned a corner and could make out the summit, I traversed to it from the left and squeezed through a crack, just wide enough for me to fit through on my side only once I had exhaled all the air from my chest. We had finally made it!
I straddled the summit which was just a thin sharp piece of rock; a knife blade of granite was all that separated me and the sky, thousands of feet of air pulled at my feet. At that moment I feared gravity not wanting to move. I was there, on top of Poincenot, what a journey, challenge and view. I glanced over to the surrounding mountains that I had climbed feeling like I could just reach over and touch them, and reflected on how they were, their challenges and rewards. They were all dwarfed by the summit of Poincenot, but all had memories that would last a lifetime. I do not need to climb the highest, hardest or most remote mountain, I just seek a certain challenge sometimes more than others. And once the journey / climb starts, you find out how willing, or committed you are to that challenge. Most mountains have a technical grade but until you are there in the current conditions, climbing, you don’t know what it will take to get to the summit. I am pulled from my reflection like a child from his favorite toy to the lowering and darkening clouds.
The weather was now looking really threatening and the summit is only half way. Most places in the world that I have climbed, getting to the top is the hard part and getting down is easy. Patagonia is very different though, getting down can almost be the biggest challenge or the crux! Sometimes you have to leave a lot of your expensive gear behind to make anchors to abseil from, or to back up anchors that are not safe enough. Fortunately, this descent was very straight forward; however with the threatening weather I felt the fear or rationale bubbling within me making me feel agitated. I witness my lack of patience and quick temper at the slightest setback or fumbling of ropes, which resulted in barks to Michael. I felt like I was the only one conscious of the weather and importance to get down ASAP.
As we reached the last abseil it started to snow. I could see nothing but whiteness, it was like I was under a blanket, I could only just make out Michael on the other side of the rope a few meters ahead of me. We diligently followed the steps we had made that morning back to the tent, extremely relieved that they had not been filled in by snow yet. I could not help but wonder what would have happened to us if they had, and was grateful we had embraced every opportunity to climb fast and make the most of every second. Without a bearing to our camp, some tricky terrain, crevasses to cross and no bivy gear it would have been a long cold night with the chances of survival slim. Instead we flew along our tracks making the most of the last remnants of daylight. Exhausted, dehydrated, hungry, wet, but extremely satisfied we arrive at camp, melt snow to create water for dinner and shortly after crash out.
Poincneot turned out to be a successful mission. Too often we forget about the what if’s or near misses, and focus on the success instead. I keep hearing about deaths in the mountains and think, could that have been me, is it worth it?
I keep coming back to the everlasting memories and connections with partners and nature, and I can't think of a better way to live life, but then again once it’s gone it’s gone.
Dedicated to Conor Smith and Ueli Steck who died this month doing what they love, living life………..