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.

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