Friday, March 6, 2009

South tower attempt
It seems that climbing failures turn out to be better stories than successful ascents. When it all goes right the story just goes “we came, we climbed, we conquered.” The great climbing tale told around a campfire is always punctuated by “and when we thought it couldn’t get any worse” or a drawn out “and then…” While I would rather tell a story about my successful ascent of Torre Sur all I’ve got to work with is a tale of near success and near disaster.
I left the tent at 6 am in a light rain. Fortunately I had a freshly charged Ipod battery to get me along the moraine to the start of the route and keep my psyche levels high. I ran into Lori and Ivo along the way and they informed me a Chilean team was just ahead of me. I picked up the pace and rapped 2pac even louder to let them know I was coming. Just below the couloir I spotted 2 figures slowly picking their way up the icy slabs about 30 minutes in front of me. After stopping to fill my water bottle in an icy stream of run-off I put on my crampons and headed up the snow towards the base of the route. Luckily I had turned off the rap music as the team ahead of me was trundling all sorts of rock as they entered the loose section above me.
Upon reaching them I was ready to convince them I would climb faster than them and therefore should go first. This wasn’t necessary as one of the climbers still had black skin on his fingertips from frostbite resulting from a recent climb of the north tower and they didn’t want to climb. We consulted Nico’s Suunto watch which read the temps at 0’ Celsius and just before 9 am.
We all inspected the icy run-out first pitch as they tried to convince me to bail. I considered asking them to spot me as I free soloed the first pitch but decided against as I wanted to be alone, plus does that really count as soloing? So I nervously smoked a cigarette while they packed their bags and headed off down the couloir. They were nice enough to leave me a snickers bar and a juice drink mix packet which greatly increased the quality of my rations.
I started free soloing the first 5.10 pitch once they were out of sight. About 25 ft up my feet skated on icy rock and left me hanging on a crumbly flake looking at a bad ground fall. Sufficiently scared I down climbed to my pack and thought my options over. I had noticed a possible variation 10 meters to the left on an earlier recon and decided to give it a go. I hastily built an anchor off the one pin and only anchor piece available at the base and started up protectable 5.10 stemming. I reached a loose flaky roof which I French freed on cams until reaching a pin at the lip. From here I penjied into the upper section of the run-out 5.10 pitch I originally backed off of, at least this time I felt I wouldn’t hit the ground if I slipped on icy rock again.
This brought me to ledgy traversing and the first anchor. After rapping and jugging, I again traversed along a snowy ledge for 15 meters to an ugly choss chimney full of hanging death flakes capped by a roof of the same composure. I tossed MANY flakes out of the way and prayed no one was in the couloir below. The climbing quality more or less matched the rock quality and I was glad to put this pitch behind me.
The next several pitches were rated 5.10+ and weren’t a whole lot better than the choss chimney and for full Patagonia value were running with water. The gray rock on Torre Sur sucks and I looked forward to the bomber red granite higher up. The only thing was that I couldn’t see it; it was snowing so hard I couldn’t see the surrounding peaks or the ground I desperately longed for.
The route is broken up midway by a talus filled slab, easy to climb or walk really as it is interspersed with only a few vertical sections of 5.6 which I easily free soloed. Just below the beautiful orange summit ridge I stopped for a lunch and music break. I enjoyed a salami and cheese sandwich while taking in the sights of the freshly snow dusted faces of Fortaleza, Escudo and Torre Central and bumped my favorite techno mix. Luckily by now the snow had stopped and only given the route a light dusting or so it seemed.
Once I gained the terraced ridge I was surprised to find snow plastered rock and icy cracks. I plowed on ahead roping up for 5.8-9 climbing I had intended to free solo. After several pitches I stopped to drink from an icy puddle and got out the Motorola radio for an 8 pm radio check. Much to my surprise I got a hold of my bro D-Tweazy over in the French valley who I hadn’t spoken to in 2 months despite being just one valley away. He informed me a thick cloud was coming my way and the snow was picking back up on the south side of Torre Sur. I saw the approaching cloud and decided to pick up the pace to race the weather for the top.
Soon I was getting more than a dusting, at dark I was in a full on Patagonia whiteout that totally drowned out my LED headlamp. I got lost and then stopped cold by snowy rock only 100 meters from the summit, and then it got kind of epic. Forced to bail so close to the top was a heartbreaker. On the way down I couldn’t find any rap anchors in the whiteout. I couldn’t see more than 10 feet in any direction and the rapidly accumulating snow had buried the anchors I used just hours before. I was forced to build my own anchors with my meager nut rack although by now I was very willing to leave my cam rack as well if need be.
I rapped off route for about 150 meters, once I saw a familiar piton with yellow tat I decided to stop until I could see where I was going. I hunkered in for a long cold night as best I could with my ultra-light kit. I pulled the foam out of my near empty pack and settled in on that and the free end of the rope. Then I put on my thinly insulated jacket and put my wet feet in the pack. I had neglected to bring my stove in a weight slashing fury earlier thinking I would run up the route in daylight. Instead of a warm water bottle for the night I settled for a chemical hand warmer down the shirt. I had no food or water left but still had Ipod life and settled in with 2pac for a snowy night.
As I sat there in the snow and wind unable to see anything I shivered as much from fear as the cold. My feet were wooden and my hands soaking wet and slow to respond in my fingerless wool gloves. I alternately rubbed my hands and feet to avoid a fate similar to the Chilean at the base suffering from frostbite earned in a similar Patagonian storm. I sang myself hoarse and set my headlamp on strobe to let my friends know where I was and that I wasn’t moving for the night. As I sat there shivering 6” of snow accumulated around me adding to my discomfort. The quote “sometimes fast and light turns out to be frozen and fucked” started to settle into my head.
After 5 hours of fearful shivering the storm broke, followed shortly by daybreak. Much to my surprise I had bivied a mere 10 meters from a one bolt anchor with only a shred of blue tat exposed from the fresh snow. I pulled the rap from above that was my anchor for the night and packed my gear as quickly as my pruney, wooden fingers would allow. I down climbed sketchy snow filled flakes to the anchor and felt relieved to be back on route but knew much lay between me and the relative security of my tent on the moraine.
Now the rock was slicker than snot on a pig snout (sorry I read lonesome dove in the tent and it appears to have made an impression) and I slipped and slid around in my well worn and frozen approach shoes. I scavenged what rap material I could on the way down in case I needed to build more of my own anchors again. I arrived back at the talus slab before the shoulder without much incident. On the way up I could walk most of the slab but was now forced to rap low angle rock for fear of slipping on the icy slab off the 1000’ shoulder to the couloirs below. Near the lip of a snowy 5.6 section I built an anchor by threading cord between two large flakes. I kicked the hell out of them to test their integrity before deeming it a bomber anchor. 10 meters into the rap the anchor blew and I was airborne. I launched over the 5.6 flakes and hit a slab 10 meters below finally sliding to a halt by grabbing a boulder perched on the slab. Horrified by what had just happened I frantically checked my body to make sure I was okay. Luckily I had landed on my back and my pack softened the blow but I was shook up none the less. I built a STURDY stopper anchor near my landing zone and got back to rapping the vertical choss that had begun this epic adventure.
Aside from having to re-climb several pitches to free stuck ropes the rest of the raps were uneventful. As I reached the waterfalls encountered earlier I was shivering violently and my hand warmer was soaked and worthless. The rope further soaked me as the rap device squeezed water out as I descended and my hands were burning from being wet and cold for so long. Upon reaching the ground I let out a huge monkey call, OOOAAAH, and received no response from the silent valley below. I hurriedly threw my kit in the pack and coiled the now soaking rope and retrieved my stashed crampons for the descent. Exhausted I stumbled down the loose talus and was relieved to reach the snow so I could sit on my ass and slide down to level ground.

Back on the moraine I was greeted by Ivo and Lori fresh off a successful ascent of the Monzino on Torre Norte. They fed me hot soup and chocolate and rehydrated me with a full thermos of mate. Feeling re-energized I told them my epic story but left out the rap anchor blowing, they later said that was stoic but I was just embarrassed at my gumbyness. After the abridged story I staggered off down the moraine towards my cave home.
Nearing the tent I saw a figure rushing across the snow towards me. Confused I raised my arm to wave and realized it was my good friend Althea running towards me. She was wearing a full pack and looked me over to make sure I was okay before admitting she was on her way to look for me with a large first aid kit due to my prolonged absence. I told her I would return in the night when we spoke on the radio at 10 pm and I was now a full 12 hours late. It is truly wonderful to have friends such as this in an unforgiving climbing area such as Chilean Patagonia.

Central Tower solo

Central Tower

After the seemingly requisite botched attempt on the Boninngton-Whillans route on Torre Central on New Year’s Eve, we had 10 days of typically shitty Patagonian weather. Winds capable of knocking you off your feet and an impenetrable armor of rime ice on the Torres kept the residents of Campamento Japones pacing endlessly around or ghetto nylon tarp village, drinking mate by the gallon and obsessing over every small rise and fall of the barometer.
Finally on January 10 we got a promising two day weather window reported for the 11/12 from the local meteorologists in Puerto Natales (actually rock starved climbers scanning NOAA and navy weather sites on the net at the Erratic Rock hostel.) So I went through the familiar hiking ritual up into the Val de Silencio and up the large talus slope to the Boninngton platform below Torre Norte. Little to my surprise but much to my disappointment the Torres had a white shimmer to them indicating rimy conditions higher up. So at the platform I cranked the gangster rap on my Ipod and attempted to use my mind to melt the ice while I waited for nightfall.
After the same damn pasta dinner I’ve eaten for the past 2 months I crawled into my bivy sack for a few fitful hours of intermittent sleep. At 3 am I awoke to my alarm and a cloudless sky punctuated by a full moon over Fortaleza and Escudo, a great sign! I slammed no-es-cafĂ© and shoveled plain oatmeal into my mouth before monkey calling to my sleeping friends who were going for a late morning start.
I arrived at the start of the couloir rock approach at 5:30 am. I free soloed a few of the now familiar pitches before confronting with the same icy conditions I faced on my last attempt. What had taken me 1 hour to free solo in good conditions again took me 5 hours in icy mixed conditions roped up. I scrapped my way up to the Col Bich alternating between brushing snow off holds and smashing ice out of the cracks using a quickdraw.
After my personal crux of reaching the col, I took a nice soup and tea break at the same spot I open-bivied on New Year’s to get psyched for the route. By now it was 11 am and there was plenty of ice fall as the route started to get sun. I took that as a sign to get going! I felt very comfortable on the first 2 70 meter pitches as I had climbed them just 10 days prior before getting turned back in a storm. Although on the third pitch an icy layback almost sent me onto a ledge but I managed to reverse my moves and do an intricate face climbing sequence in guide tennis to access the traverse that leads into the beautiful red dihedral that is the jewel of the route.
Upon reaching the money pitch I was less than enthused to have to chop out each and every piton from underneath 2 inches of ice using a locking biner as brass knuckles, by now I was leaving a well marked trail of blood up the route. On this pitch all the ice fall was funneled right onto my dome piece and prevented me from looking up at the upcoming climbing. By now the pitches were running with water and I was soaked. The climbing was easy A1 but I took a fall when my superlight aider broke a step and undaised I fell bruising my hip when I penjied into a corner and the mini-trax on my harness took the blow.
I took a break on the next ledge to try and warm up with more tea and soup. That was cut short by ice fall and my now violent shivering. I started out on the next pitch and heard a pair of monkey calls from the col and saw my friends Jean and Lori in the couloir. They left me with “the monkey’s always send!” a trademark quote of our good friend Ivo. I climbed the next traverse with psyched up monkey calls echoing from below.
Thanks to my 70 meter rope stretcher pitches I ended up at a jingus belay in loose blocks 5 meters from a bolt anchor and a nice ledge. The following pitch was an icy chimney that rained ice on me from above. This pitch ends at the bivy ledge labeled pitch 14 on my topo. With the approaching night and cold I knew I didn’t want to bivy out and I dropped the pack and grabbed the summit kit, the camera and a caffeine gu packet.
I free soloed snowy 5.7 until the ice filled cracks necessitated a belay and built a cam anchor about 100 meters below the summit ridge. Blocky climbing led to an icy roof sporting fixed pins followed by another icy layback up a 4” crack; I slipped and slithered my way up from there.
Finally on the summit ridge I traversed more blocky terrain over towards the summit proper. I scrapped my way to the top for a few self-portraits in the dark and a gu packet that had exploded in my pocket. Satisfied and thoroughly cold, I rapped in the dark back to my pack and a few extra layers and the highlight of the night, fresh socks!
On the way down I replaced almost all the anchor tat with fresh 6mm cord as the Patagonian winter had ravaged the old tat. Not far below the bivy ledge I got the rope stuck and no amount of swearing and pulling would free it. I re-climbed to retrieve the rope and then down climbed to prevent a repeat. Not long after that the rope got stuck again on a long traversing pitch. I clipped the pack off to a pin and again re-climbed the pitch to free the rope. This time I built a stopper anchor to avoid down climbing the traverse in the dark and by now I was pretty tired.
More 30 meter raps brought me one pitch away from the col where once again the rope got stuck, by now I was furious. I cursed Patagonia, the Central Tower, Boninngton and all sorts of other irrelevant shit. I pulled and hauled all the stretch out of the rope from below to no avail. I re-climbed a 5.10 A1 pitch to free 2” of rope stuck in a flake, totally over it I rapped off a single pin to get back to my gear and the final rap to the col.
I arrived at the small ledge at the start of the route at 5 am totally spent. I curled up into the fetal position and felt a wave of relief sweep over me realizing I was almost done. A few more short raps down the couloirs led me back to the talus and my friends waiting tent.
I was greeted by big smiles and handfuls of mate and chocolate to celebrate my climb. After many photos of my battered hands and a belly full of candy and cookies, I passed out in the beautiful sunshine under a clear blue Patagonia sky. I got wicked sunburn but I didn’t really care as I had been so cold and wet only hours before.

Torre Central attempt, New Years Eve
Alpinism is hard. You have to wake up early, the approach is always long, ice hurts when it hits you in the face and it is hard to tell if you are shivering from the snow melt waterfall drenching you or if you are just shaking in fear.
My first attempt on the Central tower ended poorly, hell it started poorly. The approach couloirs shared between the North and Central Torres had previously taken me 1 hour to free solo in good conditions. After weeks of storms it was now coated in thin ice and snow filled cracks. Fearing a fatal slip I proceeded to rope up for what had been 5.6 rock climbing weeks earlier but now probably warranted some m grade that is lost on me. Six hours later I arrived at the Col Bich around midnight. I then prepared for an open bivy by putting my feet in the pack, cinching my hood tighter and throwing a chemical hand warmer down my shirt. I’ve had a lot of open bivies and this one wasn’t much different except for the incessant wind whipping thru the col, between that and the cold I didn’t sleep a wink. The skies were promising and I spent the next few sleepless hours shivering while I watched the starry sky.
At dawn the clouds came in thick and the wind picked up but after the open bivy I had just endured I decided to go for it anyway. I had suffered too much to quit now. As I repacked my bag I was disturbed that the camelback had frozen solid during the night. I accidentally bit the bite valve off in a failed attempt to get a drink. I chased a gu packet with a handful of snow and called it breakfast.
The first pitch was great! Splitter cracks and funky face climbing led me 60+ meters to a nice ledge and pin belay. By now the wind was wicked and the route was covered in ice. The cracks were ice filled when I started but now the windblown rain was freezing everything. Gri-gri’s just love wet and frozen ropes which made for an interesting rappel down to my last anchor.

The next pitch was of the same quality, awesome rock climbing but the frozen rope was beginning to concern me. My 9.5 mm rope is a little small for the gri-gri anyway and I started to doubt its ability to catch a fall. Not to mention that after 12 hours without water I was getting some gnarly cramps in my hands. Several times while laybacking my thumbs refused to move open and I was forced to hang on a cam and manually open them with my other hand. After the second 70 m pitch I said fuck it and began my descent screaming obscenities into the wind.

After several stressful hours of rappelling and stumbling down ice covered talus I arrived back at my cave. I ate chocolate and drank a few liters of water while hurriedly packing a bag to go down to Campamento Japones. I was anxious to see my friends who were wisely holed up in the tarp shelter we had dubbed “the rat shack” and undoubtedly drinking mate. Upon my arrival they were all relieved to see me after their failed radio attempts earlier in the day. Steve Schneider informed me today was not a climbing day; yeah I knew that now, but a hell of a way to ring in the New Year none the less.
With no break in the weather in sight most of the soggy Japones residents returned to Puerto Natales for pizza and beer. Ever the optimist I trudged back up the moraine to my cave where I sat out another 10 days of bad weather more or less alone in my tent. My orange Patagonia t-shirt/wind sock combo attracts most people that come to the Silencio valley directly to my tent. I go through the same conversation almost daily with the trekkers who come by looking for a view of the Torres. “It is 1 hour more to the Torres view,” “yes, I am here to climb,” yes I am climbing alone,” yes my mother knows and yes I am sure it bothers her.”
Finally on January 10th I received word from my returning friends that there is a weather window on the 11th and 12th. I hurry to the platform below the Torres where my gear is stashed, crawl into the bivy sack and wait for my 3 am alarm, which rings as usual well before I am ready for it.

North Tower solo

North tower
I have always operated on the assumption climbers around a campfire have a tendency to exaggerate their stories. Prior to my trip to the Torres del Paine in Chilean Patagonia, I had heard everything from tales of well staked out tents flying away full of gear or being shredded with their occupants still in them to descending climbers being held up and out from the rock while rappelling in some sort of wind induced purgatory. I mean how bad could the wind really be here?
As I lay flat on my back after the wind knocked me on my ass and sent my ice axe flying out of my hand on my first trip into the Val Silencio (which really isn't that quiet), I began to reconsider my original statement and search for a sizable boulder to cower behind. I started to wonder if it was this bad on the moraine carrying loads, how the hell am I suppose to solo the Torres? Maybe those spirited campfire tales I had so quickly dismissed contain a little more truth than I originally thought.
Climbing in Patagonia also requires a slightly different morning ritual than my home turf of Yosemite where it is more likely to be sunny and 70 than not. Hours spent loitering in the lodge cafeteria drinking "gourmet" coffee are replaced with hourly alarms during the night to make the sure the wind is still trying to give flight to my tent and on the off chance it has died down, the swill in the cafeteria is replaced with a Jetboil full of the South American delicacy "No-es-cafe" to get the psyche flowing.

So after shuttling ridiculous amounts of gear, one failed attempt and a whole lot of time spent staring down the yellow grid pattern on my tent I am finally standing at the col between the north and central towers below the Monzino route on Torre Norte. I go through the familiar ritual of uncoiling the rope, threading the gri-gri and tying a half dozen backup loops and experience a knot in my stomach the size of a #3 camalot as I watch the lenticular clouds come whipping by the Torres and send the loops of rope on my harness around the arete towards the imposing east face. But hell the sun is making brief appearances so I oughta give'er a go I guess as this is what I traveled half way around the world for, right?
I start up the first 5.10 pitch armed with little more than a few cams, a handful of stoppers and Guide Tennies on my feet. Soon I have entered a veritable rope graveyard within the first 20 meters and a mild wave of panic swept through me fearing a similar fate for my 9.5 mm friend. Okay, maybe "mild" is an understatement as I quickly turned tail and started downclimbing, taking out my gear and arrived back at the col within minutes of seeing the first sun bleached rope lodged behind a flake flapping violently in the wind.
Of the myriad problems facing the soloist, one of the most challenging is self-motivation. There is no trusted partner to turn to and hear it “ain't really that bad, shut and climb.” So me and my well worn gri-gri had a little pep talk over a slightly chilled espresso GU packet and came to the conclusion that it wasn't really that bad, shut up and climb. So I got back on the proverbial horse and climbed, rapped, and jugged the first 70 meter pitch. Fearing the wind and feeling a little more cold than bold, I decided to pick up the pace and put the rope on my back and start free soloing.
The next 8 pitches flew by in ropeless bliss. Ledge scrambling, loose rock, wet chimneys and splitter hand cracks soon led to the coolest summit block I have ever encountered in my fledging alpine career. Overhanging on 3 of the 4 sides route finding wasn't much of an issue and I weaved my way past hollow sounding holds and jingus fixed pins to my first Patagonian summit!

After the requisite self-portrait on top I rapped off the summy block and then coiled the rope, put it back on my back and started down climbing to avoid losing my cord to the dreaded flake in no man's land I'm sure was lurking around every corner. After circuitous down climbing and getting off route more than once I arrived back at my gear stash on top of the first pitch. I'm still not sure how I got lost on terrain I had done no less than an hour ago, I guess the route looks a little different from that perspective or because I was squinting to keep the flying granite dust out of my eyes, I'm not sure. I uncoiled the rope for two 35 meter raps down the crux and returned to my waiting pack and its precious extra layers and the water I forgot 4 hours earlier. "Warm" and rehydrated I headed back down the couloir and happily stumbled my way back across the moraine to my nylon fortress for a tent to tent time of 11 hours. Surrounded by empty chocolate bar wrappers and warm mug of soup in hand, I began scribbling notes in my journal drafting plans for the Bonington-Whillans on Torre Central as my newfound friend "el viento muy fuerte" kept me company.