Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The South Face of Poincenot: A First Ascent Tale

On the approach to Niponino, basecamp for the route

“Dude, we shouldn’t brew coffee this morning. You know I hate to say it, but I think we should conserve the fuel we have.” I wince at my own words, but know the issues go beyond our ability to caffinate. Joel shakes our one fuel cannister next to his ear to gauge how much gas is left. We share a knowing look, start stuffing the packs, and prepare for a dry day on the desert of stone rearing above our heads. Mike scrambles over from a separate bivy and we share the news about the bunk cannister. A look of confusion blends into acceptance. I begin climbing the steepest part of the wall.

Two days ago, Joel Kauffman, Mike Schaefer, and I picked our way up the Torre Valley to a basecamp suitable for reaching our chosen line, a new set of cracks up the south face of Poincenot. Mike had been kind enough to share his first ascent idea with Joel and I only a few days after his arrival in Chalten. We traced our fingers over a high res photo of the mountain, wondering if we could climb what we thought we saw. Joel and I had camped near the route only the week before and could not stop staring at the wall, especially in the evening light. Mike’s specific details sealed the deal. We all felt inspired to have a look.

Day one finds us approaching the base and then climbing to a distinct ledge system a third of the way up the route. Joel races up the best climbing we could ever hope for. Mike and I hoop and hollar our way up splitter hand and finger cracks. We tackle overhangs on gritty jugs and dance across slabs on shiny ripples. So far, so good.

Joel an I at Bivy #1

Shock gives way to more shock. “Really, you dropped your boot?” My eyes follow the path of the flying footwear. Down the rock, the snowy approach coulior, and finally across a boulder strewn glacier. “We’ll find it on the way down,” Joel says. His calmness in the midst of a serious loss comforts me. Joel knows this game, so there is no reason to pester him with questions. Shit happens. No we have to decide our course of action. Once Mike arrives and we work though his own surprise, we decide that with the relatively warm weather, Joel can manage his toes. Luckily, he fits into my approach shoes. When I’m in rock shoes, he can wear the tennies. When I’m not, well, we’ll figure something out.

The classic nature of the lower pitches ends as abruptly as the headwall starts.My first lead on the wall proper is a flairing trench of kitty litter. Enough solid cam placements make it safe enough, but my heart skips beats on the way to the belay. I gingerly french free off a downward pointing, half driven angle after climbing an aider attached to an ice tool stuck in the trench. The artsy, but crappy stretch launches us into pitch after pitch of sustained, steep fissures. Unfortunately, the rock itself leaves something to be desired and both Mike and I constantly scrape at the cracks with an ice tool.

Myself leading on pitch three of the headwall

Damn, my waist hurts. My tongue stings with cracks of dryness. Mike is crushing through his block, managing complex situations with dialed ease. Now he has changed crack systems and the fate of Joel and I is simple. As we jumar past the first crack we block the thought of the coming swing. With a feature so splitter it won’t take nuts or pitons and a rack that must be preserved, there is no lower out option. If Mike says it’s safe I believe him without question. You don’t climb routes like this with people you don’t trust. Still, puffs of adrenaline accompany my being as it swings through space and then climbs the free hanging rope to the belay. Wildness surrounds me. A great void falls beneath my feet. Mike begins up his final, tired ropelength. “Doing great man,” I say.

Steep jugging!

I arrive at the top of the final pitch of Mike’s block. He is standing on the first ledge we’ve seen all day. Inspired by his awesome effort, I vow within myself to be strong into the darkness. The way shows itself easily, but not without some technical difficulty. 5.11 bulges challenge my wasting muscles. Still, I feel the passion within. This is what I came for.

Free climbing in my final block

At 1:00 AM I pull onto a ledge spacious enough to unrope. Easier terrain rambles into the darkness above. We coax water from the stove and I savor each chilly sip. There is not enough fuel to make our freeze dried meals, but water suffices. I fall deeply into sleep after the last grainy gulp.

The next morning Joel charges out of the bivy, inspired to finish our ascent. He climbs quickly and within one hour we are moving into the established terrain of the upper mountain. Joel fires to the summit as Mike and I try to keep our eyes open. I’m glad he’s feeling strong. The fatigue wants to overtake me, but I can’t let that happen. I squint at Chalten from the summit, so many thousands of feetbelow. There is still so far to go.

I lead the upper rappels. They are short and easy. It’s the least I can do for the team. Before we drop back into the steep wall we had ascended, I hand the gear to Mike, master of big wall rappeling. Deciding to finish the cannister, Joel makes water and some food. My thoughts swim in my dry brain, sludgy and thick. The water again rejuvenates. Mike takes one last swig and drops in.


“Holy Shit!” Fear pushes at my soul. The biggest rockfall I’ve ever seen crushes terrain across the valley. Though it is far away, I taste the intensity on my cracked lips. Joel’s eyes scan the wall around us, a swath we did not ascend, but similar in it’s steepness. The rappel ropes stretch tight below to Mike. Working through a gigantic rock scar ourselves, we are all a bit unnerved. There is nothing to do but snuff the emotion and accept our position. This is no time to let the mind off it’s leash.

A look up the face during the rappels

By the time the sun is setting we are in the snow coulior beneath our route. Mike has done a brilliant job navigating down the wall. We plunge down isothermic snow, Mike and I in approach shoes, Joel with one boot and a rock shoe. We are zombies. It’s all starting to catch up with us now. We stop after leaving the snow to warm our feet. Our eyes are heavy and our steps unsure. Nevertheless, we keep sharp enough to pick our way back to basecamp through loose stone on black ice. The way is most painful for Joel, every step in his rock shoe a painful and touchy maneuver. Mike and I realize our hands are beaten and infected. The pain is zeroing in. Our moods are tense and dark like the windy night around us. We all recede into our own Hades, doing whatever it takes to stay upright in this evil land. Making our way down a moraine, Mike’s light catches an old plastic boot shell. It’s for the left foot and may provide relief for Joel. The absurdity of finding the boot digs out humor from the grave. We laugh deleriously as gusts of wind push us around. Unfortunately, the boot flops uselessly on Joel’s foot. Still, the way he throws it into the darkness and the jokes we make about the crazy find has us shaking with laughter. The healing power of a good laugh is just enough for us to sputter into basecamp. We lay in the sand. We eat a freeze dried meal. The journey is over.

FA of Rise of the Machines
South Face of Poincenot
VI 5.11 A2+
900 meters (750 new)

Big thanks to Mike Schaefer for the awesome photos. To see more of his great work check out:

Also, check Planet Kauffman in the coming days for more photos and more stories from Joel Kauffman


Sol Wertkin said...

Woo-hoo! Awesome job you guys!

Unknown said...

Congratulations! Always a great read and fantastic pictures.

renan said...


Luis "Lucho" Rivera said...

Badass!!! Beautiful route you guys!

Kyle O'Meara said...

Great work team! Living the dream...

James said...


Isaac Howard said...


Nagaja said...

Insanity! Very COOL!

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