This climb took place a few years ago, during the season many dubbed "the worst in the last dozen years." It felt like a magnificent triumph and a frightening failure, mixed in the same bowl, with a dose of type 2.5 fun, glimpses of natural beauty, two cups of rain, a tablespoon of knee deep trail-breaking, a teaspoon of 100 MPH wind gusts, cooked for four days on minimal sleep. Even though we were ambushed by a storm fifty meters below the true summit, the experience stands out as one of my favorite climbs because we worked well as a unit in face of constant flow of adversity, making rational decisions under stress and above all, surviving. Such experiences are what I hoped to find in the fringe world of Alpinism many years ago and a huge reason I picked up the ice tools in the first place, transitioning from a hiker. Only during journeys into hostile environments one may get a glimpse of a warrior they may have been if they lived in the days of the Samurai. Along with a meditative state of mind, concentration on one thing and one thing only because thinking about the politics while soloing or climbing loose runouts in the alpine may have a sad conclusion. Some people run ultras, some lift thousands of pounds, cycle hundreds of miles in a day, some climb mountains. All these activities involve pain and turn into journeys that force you to dismiss conventional mediocrity, leading to new appreciation of close people and everyday comforts we take for granted. Some of these experiences are hard to relay with words, impossible to repeat, for a huge majority such experiences will never become much more than the product of the imagination and I don't know if at this point the memory of this climb is at least partially a delusion, but why would I want it any other way?
A long rugged approach to a place without cell phone service, no organized search and rescue teams, nor a major hospital anywhere close to little village of Chalten. Steep granite walls capped with vertical to overhanging ice mushroom coated with a layer of soft rime. A mountaineer hoping to climb this magnificent peak by its easiest route would have to be in top notch physical shape, have the ability to climb difficult ice (WI5), mixed terrain which could vary from M4 to M7 and mental toughness to dig a way up terrain I now could best describe as vertical cotton candy. Of course, when the conditions are great, which they are once in four to five years, these tunnels are icy enough to support pickets or ice screws and are already dug out by teams who climbed the peak previously. In fact, when the conditions are perceived as good by the majority, there are many teams going up. I have heard stories of such ascents - parties trailing ropes for the other parties below them. If the point of the Compressor Route chopping was rising to the peak's challenge, top roping the more difficult pitches of the Ragni and following a broken trail did not seem like a way up our party would enjoy, thus it influenced our decision of trying the route in marginal weather. Along with the attitude of "We climbed the Fitz Roy in a 20 hour clearing, so why not try?!"
But Torre isn't like anything else on Earth, and even when the notorious Compressor route was in place, the peak defeated many legendary mountaineers, including the above mentioned Jim Donini, who has done the first ascent of the Torre Egger. Torre Egger, is lower and visually not as impressive as the Torre towering above it, yet it is in fact a more difficult summit to reach. The Compressor Route, was not only a big bolt ladder, it was a climb that defeated, many of the most prominent climbers of the day, who would repeat it over, and over, and over again, hoping to reach the elusive summit. Stories of their epics surely felt close to our reality as we watched the updraft of wind push our ropes above our heads. "Will we find a place to make an anchor or an old anchor before we reach the end of our ropes?"
After descending about a thousand feet of steep slope, we hiked across some rocky slabs and onto a glacier. We gained another 500 feet or so to a wall where we dropped our shit and made camp, as we no longer had much energy to tolerate the freezing winds and were sick of the whiteout. The camp was actually quite nice, yet we had no idea if we were below the Torre or some random rock rib, as the visibility allowed did not allow much of a view. Here, we planned to rest for the next 24 hours as a storm passes through. The window we were shooting for was supposed to begin in the morning of the following day and continue for a day and a half. Unfortunately for us, the storm came in form of rain mixed with wet snow flakes and our sleeping bags got soaked by the humidity. We could not keep up with trying to dry off the interior of the tent, as drops of water kept on coming. Brian and I in one tent, with Garrett and extra gear in the other, we did not sleep, but only shivered through the night. I could be wrong but remember doing intermittent crunches through the night and talking with Brian about how fucked this whole situation is. This was the time when we were supposed to be recovering from a huge approach, not pumping out ab workouts! It was like being in some sort of a torture. You are drained from not sleeping well prior to the approach because you are anticipating the climb of a lifetime, then you get your ass handed to you by the exertion mixed with the environment and you can't close your eyes because you are wet, cold and feel like a used condom thrown out of a window during the New Year's eve celebration. "Fuck, fuck fuck, fucking FUCK!!!" At some point we were so cold that we begun to spoon.
The beauty of the surrounding landscape was overwhelming and the view of the four main summits along the Torre Massif was incredible. I have never seen anything like it, even in hundreds of photos I have looked at. Likely because not many have seen these peaks TOTALLY coated with rime, with not an inch of stone showing. We took some photos, attempted to dry out our gear as best as possible for the next few hours before the sun disappears over the ridge-line and dosed off for about 2-3 hours of sleep, again interrupted by the anticipation of the climb.
The alarm woke us up at midnight, it was the time to rise and shine. We slogged through deep snow to the base of the steeper slope, which required two tools and concentration while climbing unroped. We roped up for two pitches of mostly drytooling and unroped again for a long stretch of slogging up a huge snow slope. While belaying one of the pitches I was hit by a bout of sharp pain in one of my sides and had some doubts that I could continue, yet the pain went away without much explanation. The stars were out and it was a clear night. Breaking trail through deep snow sucked. We kept a steady pace, towards the col de la Esperanza. During the dark hours of night it wasn't clear as it seems from the route overlay where the col is and where to climb from there. Many vertical ribs of ice rise up above and we took what seemed to be the way of least resistance. After the initial hill, we reached sustained WI2-3 steps of ice which we continued to solo through the night. First sections of vertical rime came a few pitches before the top of Elmo, which isn't as fun and fuzzy as it sounds. I found a vertical chimney composed of vertical powder and made my way up to a seat on top, where I was able to make some sort of an anchor, belay and in turn dyno down and to the side of another slope, which was straight forward and took us to the top and towards another pitch which was actually pretty gnar and I was afraid we would have to bail, as Garrett dug through overhanging snow and took a gnarly fall on his first attempt to get over. We probably screwed up the route finding, as it shouldn't have been that difficult.
As we traversed from Elmo to the mixed pitches, we didn't really know where to go either, but found a way that felt like m7. M7 at least according to Mark Westman who said he took the same way on their attempt some years ago. It was difficult at the crux but damn fun. The headwall was steep and rimed over and we managed two more pitches of rime digging. At that point we collectively decided Garrett would do the rime stuff as the lightest climber who should have less trouble having his weight supported by this garbage. Unfortunately, as we reached the top of the ledge below the last pitch, we were met with the wall of hate. Ambushed, as it came over our heads from the South. Later, when we returned to town, a friend said he saw a few specs below the summit mushroom from Domo Blanco, but dismissed it as impossible, as there could be no humans on the Torre during this crap stretch of weather.
couple hours later, near Niponino, the winds intensified to 80-100 MPH gusts which knocked all three of us onto the talus, multiple times. I have never experienced anything like it. In the Ukraine, we had a saying that made fun of skinny people, saying if you don't eat much, you will be taken away by the wind. In Patagonia, this saying wouldn't work, as unless you are a thousand pound boulder, your safety is not guaranteed.
"when we go to the mountains, we come back safe, we come back friends, and we go to the top. In that order. " We got damn close to the top, in fact it was the high point of the season at the time, and if mountains are meant to pose a challenge, not an opportunity to collect a trophy, we have succeeded by pushing our physical and psychological limits, yet the closure in form of 'to the top' part is missing. No matter what the deceptive mind will whisper, the summits do matter for those that dub themselves mountain-climbers, yet the experience will stand out among others. This time it was more than reaching a summit in good weather, this time was a battle that took us close to our goal and showed us we were capable of much more than we believe possible. This coming from someone who has soloed the Evolution Traverse onsight car to car (15,000 feet of elevation gain, 36 miles, 9 peaks above 13,000 feet, 8 miles of technical ridge traversing to 5.8) and completed the first solo of the Full Evolution Crest traverse in 3 days (probably close to 10,000 feet of elevation gain, or more, every day for 3 days in a row with about 25 peaks above 13,000 feet and some 5.9 here and there). Another cookie in the jar of cookies I can devour on my death bed portraying why the life was worth living.
The report below was written close to two years after the climb. I do not know why my writing muse waited so long, maybe I was hoping to bury this experience in the depths of my memory, maybe it took so long to process, or maybe the upcoming trip to Argentina is trying to wake up the beast in me that enjoys this sort of fun? I don't know, but if you got this far, thank you for investing your time and hope it influenced your day in a positive way.
|El Chalten with Fitz Roy rising above it at sunrise|
|What a view..|
|Cerro Torre. One of the most magnificent peaks on Earth.|
|Tyrolean on a different day|
|View towards the glacier we will cross on the way to Niponino. Rock buttress right of the rainbow is the lower flank of Cerro Torre's SE ridge and the upper part of it has a few popular 5.10s (El Mocho)|
|Approach towards the col|
|Standhartd col is the notch on the right side of the photo.|
|Brief clearing on the approach|
|Climbing to Standhardt Col in a windy whiteout|
|This place is one of a kind. On the way back over the col all this rime was coming down at us.|
|Camp. Planet Cerro Torre|
|Torre is the one on the right|
|Garrett checking out the views from camp after being stormed on and shivering for 24 hours|
|Brian trying to squeeze the water out of his sleeping bag|
|Vertical cotton candy chimneying|
|Garrett Leading a pitch of overhanging gnar. On his first attempt he took a fall straight down to the ledge we belayed on and was unhurt, likely because he weights 110 lbs and has agility of a cat. When it comes to his climbing abilities, he sends wi6, m8/9s and can push it into 5.13. We likely messed up the route finding and were not in a proper runnel.|
|Few pitches of easy led to a m7ish crux (we did not go the right way again)|
|Brian following a bit of steep gnar|
|Brian leading on the headwall|
|Weather getting worse, but the hell was coming in from the other side. Hole we chimneyed through.|
|Brian going down!|
Other photos from outings to Superdomo on Domo Blanco, Rafael Juarez and De L'S
|Me leading on superdomo, photo by Brian|
|Excocet. Photo by Brian|
|Hauling garbage from the glacier|
|Cerro Solo - nice dayhike with the Cutler brothers from Iowa|
|North Pillar of Fitz|
|This wind wasn't even THAT bad and the rope was going sideways and up. Top of Medialuna earlier in the trip|
|Summit of Fitz Roy|
|Superdomo again, photo by Brian|
|Spreading Edward Lau's ashes from top of Superdomo. The summit did not have much of a drop off to do it from. Photo by Brian|
|Brian Prince on top of De L'S|
|Top of De L'S (me, photo by Brian)|
|St. Exupary from the top of Rafael Juarez|
|Post sunset glow as we rap from the summit of Fitz Roy via the Supercanaleta|
|And the dream remains (from the summit of Superdomo)|