Monday, February 4, 2013

Tour of Duty: 10 Days on the Front in Patagonia, Part 3

The 2012/2013 Patagonia season taught me so much about alpine climbing. Testing myself against the Torres for the first time was inspiring. The complexity of the routes on those ice capped spires requires a complete skill set, a brilliant game plan, and a lot of motivation.
When my good friend Chad Kellog arrived in Chalten the wind and rain was heavy. Soon though, a period of bluebird weather appeared on the Meteogram. Knowing we had the time frame to do something big, we chose to try the SE Ridge of Cerro Torre.
On our first go, poor planning and quirky strategy led to our demise 13 pitchs up. We had traveled through dicey terrain at the wrong time of day, let ourselves spiral into dehydration, not gotten adequate rest before the climb, and found the wet, snowy rock difficult and time consuming. To top it off, the distant headwall pitches seemed to be soaked with water.
When we arrived back in Niponino, we heard the good weather was supposed to hang around. All of the sudden we had another chance!
We raced back to town, intent on refueling and then taking a shot at Festerville on Cerro Stanhardt. Conditions had not been great on the SE Ridge and the approach to the Col of Hope was quite dicey. We had almost let it go...
Two days later we found ourselves, well, back at the Col of Hope! After staring at Cerro Torre while enjoying two days rest in Chalten, we couldn't not go back. The headwall appeared to be drying in the hot, sunny weather. We had to take another shot at the SE Ridge!
On our second go everything went much smoother. Conditions had improved dramatically and our knowledge of the terrain erased any routefinding issues. Adjustments in gear and tactics improved effeciency.
I led my 16 pitch block quickly and without losing much energy. The weather was downright hot and the rock was dry. By midday we had chosen a nice rest spot below the "Ice Tower" pitches. We certainly needed to refuel here, but a big part of stopping was to wait for the intense heat of day to subside. The gullies above us were spitting out alarming amounts of ice. We had no choice but to let the sun go down and the cool of night take hold.
Finally, the sun slipped low and the terrain above us quieted. Feeling psyched and ready to finish the climb, we powered out of our pit stop hydrated and full of calories. Chad led two pitches of easy mixed and ice. Suddenly, the headwall was right above us and the summit seemed so close. A rush of energy surged through me. I was estatic to be in such a sacred and wild place.

But my joy was quickly smothered by a cracking boom. 60 feet to my left, right above where I had just stood and removed a purple TCU, a van sized block of ice let loose and obliterated the steps Chad and I had just kicked. A sick feeling came over me. First off, I could have been crushed if my timing had been a bit different. Secondly, it was night. Spontaneous ice fall was what we had hoped to avoid by climbing this section in the dark.

Chad finished the pitch he was leading and another block of ice smashed into the path he had just climbed. I began to feel trapped in the gully. A large rock skipped down the slope to my left. I followed his lead with my head down. I didn't want to even look at the hanging mushrooms above me.

After a quick discussion we bagan rapping. It was clear by the amount of ice and rock fall around us, that it was much too warm to be hanging out under ice formations. This was suprising as we thought the night would cool off enough to allow passage. One hour after beginning our escape, a massive ice fall on the upper mountain shook the SE Ridge, vibrating the solid granite of the massive monolith we were clipped into. The roar and power of the event reinforced our decision to go down. I'm not sure we would have lived through whatever happened up there...
We rappeled through the dark, tired night. At one point we were so sleepy we each dozed off at different rappel stations! When I woke up I wondered what I was doing alone hanging off the side of a mountain in , "wait, where am I?".  Our back to back efforts on the SE Ridge were taking a deep toll. Even though we didn't summit, we had climbed over 50 pitches, hiked 40 miles, and slept very little over the last 9 days.

We raced the sun to finally hit the glacier. The approach to the Col of Hope had turned into a rubble pile over the last week of intense heat. It was a really scary set of rappels, but we finally crossed the bergshrund, coiled the ropes and began trotting away from the East face just as it began falling apart for the day. Whew!
On our way back to Niponino, I stopped many times to stare in awe at the peak that had beat us down and the summit that had alluded our best efforts. Deep down I knew we had made the right call to bail. To make this life of climbing sustainable you have to be able to let go when the hand of calamity is squeezing hard. To leave Patagonia on such a note has only heightened my passion for the mountains. I'm counting the days until my next attempt on the SE Ridge of Cerro Torre. The fire burns hot within.  

Many of these picutres were taken by Chad Kellog

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