Monday, January 7, 2019

Cerro Torre; Merely An Attempt (Jan 2017)

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? 

The least rational decision of all was to attempt the climb of Cerro Torre - one of the most imposing peaks on Earth - in a 24 hour weather clearing, that was supposed to come after a few decent hours and a day long storm. It was followed by a slammer storm to close the brief clearing. To no surprise, we were the only team attempting the peak, which made the huge relief of the ice cap seem that much larger and intimidating. Being alone, in one of the fiercest places on earth makes you feel even more insignificant as you ponder about mortality and meaning of life. To get to the base we hiked, climbed and descended to camp in intermittent, rain, snow fall, high winds and a whiteout. Same approach to the West side of the Torres takes the huge majority of climbers attempting the peak two days in good conditions - we pushed it in one. Otherwise we would never get there in time for the clearing we aimed for. 

Guidebook and photo overlays we saw online make the environment seem fairly straight forward. You get to the other side, descent a bit and make a camp. So let me describe the approach as it really is - hike 10km (a couple of hours) to a huge lake on a popular trail - easy. A tyrolean traverse across a raging river will take you to the other side of the pond. Enjoy the trail for another hour and a half or so, do a few loose descents down some old sketchy ropes before you find your way on to a dry glacier.  This dry glacier has hundreds of little streams that are large enough that finding a crossing over them is not an easy task and if you don't clear the jump over the raging river below, you will likely die. A little further down, climb piles of loose talus to Niponino. Most climbers reach this camp in 5-9 hours (depending on fitness level and the amount of gear they have stashed) and consider it to be a fairly difficult approach. Because we were going to the West side of the Torre, the difficulty was doubled, as we made our way further down the valley, broke trail up a complicated glacier, moving up towards the col. To get to the col we soloed steep steps of ice with large back packs, through windy whiteout. On the other side, we were unsure where to go, as the amount of terrain in front of you is overwhelming. With no visible mountains to figure out where the Cerro Torre really is, it was hard to make decisions of where to go or how to get there, as there seemed to be multiple options and multiple reasons why those options would not work out. Steep cliffs, big drop offs, fields of crevasses. It is a whole different world out there. A world we wanted to experience for ourselves on slightly different terms, yet at this point we had to figure out how to get to where we want to be, not wish for a miracle.

"Over the last four decades I have climbed on all seven continents. During that time it became apparent to me that Cerro Torre was the most magical mountain that I would ever encounter," wrote Jim Donini, one of the most accomplished mountain climbers I have met and was honored to go climbing with. Years ago, before meeting him, I read the article in which Jim labeled Cerro Torre as "the most magical mountain," did more research and was stunned by the perfect challenge it offers to a mountaineer, especially after the chopping of the Compressor route. 

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 sun did not come out in the morning as it should have and it continued to snow, so we continued to freeze for the next ten hours or so. We could not devour all of our food, as we packed spartan portions, so we warmed up some hot tea and continued with the cruntches and push ups. Finally, at 4 PM, our dreams of seeing the sun realized. Funny how it was no longer about climbing the Torre, all we wanted in life is to see the sun. 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.

 Constant fifty mile per hour winds and a whiteout, in addition to temperatures that kept me climbing in my down pants and a down jacket all day. We could no longer bail upward, the only sane way was down, over huge terrain further complicated by low visibility and rime ice - a sea of white fury all around. When the ropes were tossed down, instead they shot up. Moments when even the most delusional people realize, we don't belong, nothing with a heartbeat can survive here for long. 
Half way down, the darkness of night took over, which led to more confusion about where to go. We ended up having to climb up a few pitches, traverse and get back on the proper descent path, which may sound simple, yet is further complicated by the dark, semi-whiteout and the howling wind. Many, many, many V-threads later and our ropes got stuck on the last rapell, we wasted more time retrieving them, but thank god Garrett led up to retrieve them. The aching toes had no other choice but to down-climb the last 500 feet of thin ice over rock back to terrain we could walk on. As we got closer to the tent, we saw the sun rise for the second time. A 29 hour tent to tent climb earned us two hours of rest, followed by a climb out via melting Standhardt col, which had to be done over loose mixed rock. At the time we had no idea how difficult it would be, yet we found a way up a decomposing rock ramp left of the waterfall. With our 40lb packs and rain fall, it felt M4-5R - instead of the WI3ish ice climb, which was flowing with water as the storm we were trying to avoid unleashed its fury when we reached the base. Climbing over was further complicated with huge chunks of ice falling from Aguja Standhardt.  As I faced the last 40 foot section to the col, I could no longer avoid not climbing a waterfall and had to sprint up a solid 8 inches of flowing water over ice to Garrett's "get your Dan Osman on brother!" 
Beat to shit on top of the col, we were met with huge wind gusts, which only intensified in force. If we had the will to record the experience, or give it the proper context, a common mind would describe it with one word, the apocalypse.

A 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. 
This hike out is broken down into a two day affair by a huge majority that attempt Cerro Torre, we had to do it in a day due to the forecast of the strengthening storm, following a 29 hour climb. Crossing the glacier in such winds was a scary affair as getting hit with one of those gusts as you try to jump over a raging river of ice water would likely be grim, yet we made it over. And back to the trail, where we can mindlessly hike. From there we kept on hiking to Chalten in a dream-like state of confusion, totally dazed. Everything hurt, yet by now the body was numb to it. The rain is gone, the winds are tolerable, you are on a nice trail, you will not die here. 

It was an outing which made me appreciate my partners even more. When real shit hit the fan, more than once, or twice, or thrice, our unit made rational decisions and stuck to the old climbing wisdom:  "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

Somewhere up there during pre-sunrise glow
View of Torre Egger around sunrise
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
Fitz Roy

And the dream remains (from the summit of Superdomo)