Friday, March 6, 2009

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.

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