Them Howlin’ Winds, or Pain in Patagonia

“Oh, you’re alive! Good!  Ok, see you!”

Wait, what?  My climbing partner, Alex, and I were spooned together for warmth in a cramped tent that smelled of sweat, climbing shoes, and potato-tea mush.  We awoke to this Swiss climber cheerfully checking in on us, glad to see he didn’t have to trudge back up the mountain to find two frozen bodies.  We weren’t dead, but I felt like it–my head was sore, my legs, my shoulders, my hips, my fingers, even my fingernails felt exhausted.  Our erstwhile savior had opened the flaps on a world covered in snow and ice, a trickster lull in the howling storm that had ripped and beat at our tentpoles all night.  Windows in Patagonia are always closing, so we took this one to shake snow from gear, collapse our surprisingly resilient sanctuary, shoulder far-too-heavy packs, and begin a painful descent.

IMG_4921But the real story begins a few days before, on the bus from El Calafate to El Chalten.  As the highway runs north, the granite monolith of Cerro Fitzroy peeks teasingly over the steppe.  This land of wind and guanacos and condors is desolate in the manner of sweeping soundscapes–empty, swirling, lonely.  And then, the mountains rear out of the desert in cruel greys, blacks, and whites, sharp against the blue sky.  I arrived on one of those rare, clear Patagonian days when the vistas continue clear to the Pacific Ocean, and the absolute immensity of the peaks suffers no relief from cloud.  I came with the ambition to climb one of those peaks–the thousands of rising feet of granite outlined above the tiny town now filled me with a worrying dread.  How?  How in the goddamn world did I think I was ready for this?  The knifeblades of the Fitzroy Range stabbed into my gut while the wind whipped spindrift westward.

IMG_4949Like all great climbing partnerships, Alex and I forged ours over beer.  The beauty of El Chalten is such that you can’t throw a quickdraw without hitting a climber; the frustration is they never want to climb what you want to.  Alex wanted the Amy Coulior, I wanted the Comensana-Fonrouge–a supposedly great introductory route to Patagonia, though at Grade IV, 5.10+ would be a major step for me.  Reports of a cruelly overhanging bergschrund making access to the Amy dicey at best shifted the argument in my favor.  Yet, even then, I was scared.  I could feel those knives twisting, and was trying to be non-committal.  Maybe the famous Patagonian weather would shut down our plans and then I could feel good about chickening out.  Nope–our weather window expanded into two days.  Well, maybe we wouldn’t be able to string together enough gear?  Nope–the million climbers meant gear enough to go around.  Maybe–oh no…out of excuses.  And so I found myself hoisting an entirely too-heavy pack, following Alex down the Rio Electrico valley through a fairy forest of twisted oaks.

12 or so kilometers passed, and then we turned upwards.  The river thundered as it fell away behind us, a thousand feet, two thousand, three.  Spiny plants attacked our shins, the sun blazed down, and the “rest-stop” boulders seemed always further away.  But then, shining pink and golden the ridge of Aguja Guillaumet rose from the basin.  Our route traced the skyline, half in shadow, half in light.  It looked…doable?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  After what seemed hours more of boulder-hopping and talus-scrambling, we arrived at Piedra Negra, a scoured basin of rock and glacier, and set camp alongside the international fair of other climbers in the rocks.  Alex made a mashed potato meal that we decided would be best if combined with tea and Gatorade–it was not a success, but it was calories. The long sunset of the further poles lingered across the cleft of the Electrico valley, and a full moon kept twilight twilit.

We awoke to freezing temperatures and a frozen stream.  Alex fetched water from the IMG_4971glacial lake and I went over our gear one last time–ropes were coiled, cams were racked, and energy bars were stuffed into top pockets–it was time to go.  We knew we had a shrinking window; the ceiling was predicted to slowly descend over the day, and by afternoon, things should get downright Patagonian.  We shared a few words with a passing climbing team (made up of local climbing star Colin Haley and his partner–who had begun the day in El Chalten!) and then trudged up the talus towards the route.  The talus continued for another 1500 feet or so from basecamp, and my already exhausted body was not happy about the wonderfully secure feeling of a ten-ton boulder right before it decides to roll.  We passed the slithering crevasses and tendrils of the rotting glacier, and made our way onto the slabs and scrambles to access the first pitch.  An Italian team was there before us, so I took in the view (or maybe simply tried to coax myself into the 1600 feet of rock we had to go).  To the west, massive broken glaciers tumbled and cracked down the side of the Electrico massif; to the west, our small basecamp was indistinguishable among the rocks of Piedra Negra; and to the north, the great white expanse of the Southern Patagonian Icefield rested heavy across the border in Chile.  All in all, worth it just to be here.

But we had climbing to do.  Alex lead the first pitch, and found the cracks stuffed with ice.  He scraped out what he could with his ice tool (typically always the smaller bits finding their way onto my neck!) and mix-led up to the first stance.  Finally, I got on real Patagonian granite.  Yes, it is everything they tell you.  It is immaculate.  And sticky.  And just the right color.  And it eats your hand in the best way.  We high-fived over our luck to be here, on this mountain, in this delightfully calm weather, listening to the seracs crash and thunder thousands of feet below.  The first pitches went by quickly and the rock warmed, but I was still tired.  And then, it was suddenly my big lead–the crux pitch of 5.10+, short but overhanging–intimidating so far up here in the alpine world.  I could lie and say I climbed it with finesse and delicacy–no one would ever know–but to do so would take away from the grunting, straining, and ‘taking’ that I did to unceremoniously muscle my way up to the anchors.  It wasn’t pretty, but it was.  Along the way, I passed old wooden chocks hammered into the wall–reminders that we were not the first, but simply new witnesses to a history that stretched back decades–humans and mountains coming together for years for no other reason than to simply say, “We were there.”

IMG_4980A beautiful traverse pitch snaked across the face, frosted with snow, and then more rock.  And more rock.  And more.  All perfect Patagonian granite.  We reached the notch of the Amy Coulior, and ran into our first descending parties.  Ropes and logistics became a little more complicated, a little more involved.  We were told we were only a pitch away from the snowfield top the top.  Then three pitches.  Then maybe an hour or so.  We passed a massive tower and the face opened up below us, a 500 foot slab of layered granite.  Exposure.  And the ceiling continued to drop.  The Torre, just visible over the shoulder of Guillaumet disappeared in cloud.  Time was running short, as it always is in Patagonia.

And then, we were at the snowfield.  As we looked over the last rock ridge, we were slammed by 60 mph wind.  Spindrift on the snowfield rose and twisted in the air.  Far away, the lakes of Chalten rippled from the violence.  The summit beckoned, only 300 feet or so away, but it may have been a million.  It was approaching 5pm.  The wind did not care if we summited.  And at that point, neither did we.  We finished the rock route.  We had done the FC on Guillaumet.  To go out on the snowfield was to invite a foolishness that once called, cannot be deterred.  Discretion being the better part of valor, we set up our first rap.  With exquisite care, we rapped in ever dropping temperatures, somewhat protected from the wind by the ridge itself.  Maybe the mountain, knowing we had shown her due respect, was sheltering us from the storm?  But we would find the truth of that in a few short hours.

We reached the Amy and headed down the ice coulior.  Double rope rappels went IMG_4953quickly, though a bit of gear and rope shenanigans slowed us.  Over the bergschrund, I stopped to take a photo, hanging in air over the 20 feet or so of overhanging icicles.  Alex tried to show me his plan to tackle this monster, but belief and capacity are separate animals.  On this side of the mountain, the wind was blocked–it was almost balmy.  Ahh, but such times are fleeting, and we crossed over the pass into the descent gully in a gale.  The wind grew stronger and stronger, the snow fell harder and harder, and the talus felt looser and looser.  Somehow, hours after we began to make our way towards camp, we arrived.  Alex made more potato-tea as I simply collapsed in pure, unadulterated exhaustion.

And that brings us to our Swiss friend and the pain wracking my body.  Us being the last ones up the mountain, he rightfully thought we might still be up there.  In my near-delirious state, I thought so as well.  But we weren’t.  Somehow I was carrying my backpack down the mountain, down the pass, through the forest, across the river, and–stumbling–up to roadside.  But, just maybe the one part of me that didn’t hurt was my stomach–those Patagonian peaks had retreated.  I looked back at the summit of Guillaumet, from this angle looking nothing like the Patagonia logo representation.  I had stood there (almost).  I had climbed that.  I cooled my burning feet in the glacial waters of the Rio Electrico and smiled.

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