After a few weeks of mostly poor weather in the mountains and several camping trips up to Lago De Tres on The Fitz Roy Sendero, Tim and I decided to go up and fetch our cache from the boulders. We had hoped to base out of this camp and climb the stellar walls above Paso Superior. Dreams of the Red Pillar on Mermoz and the North Pillar on Fitz Roy, danced in my mind. Eight years ago, I had made it half way up the Red Pillar with Janet Bergman and I was hoping to finish it with Tim on this trip. Conditions were not lining up for crack climbing so far.
We changed our objectives with the weather. If it cleared up, we’d climb the Whillans-Cochrane 550M M4 5+ on Poincenot. It was initially climbed in 1962 and Rolo’s book described it as “a remarkably varied and scenic alpine route, following an obvious snow ramp that cuts across the east face. The crux pitch is a short mixed section at the end of the ramp. From there, easy rock leads to the summit. A competent party can easily climb this route in a day from the Paso Superior or from the west side of Laguna de Los Tres.”
Each attempt at reading the weather forecasts on NOAA and Wind Guru, resulted in a 3 to 4 hour walk up to the Laguna to experience wind, snow and rain. We watched others push higher to camp at Paso Superior and get beaten back by the horrible conditions. On one of our hikes, Tim told me he wanted to experience Patagonia. I cringed, thinking of the weather gods listening. I remembered when Bossman at Valdez Heli Ski Guides taunted the wind gods saying “Bring it On” after the first blow down. “Please take it back” I begged him. He didn’t and we got pummeled over and over until Bossman finally promised not to say that again. I do think “Mother Nature” is listening and has a untamed sense of humor. The last thing you want to do is taunt her.
After retreating from the mountains, El Chalten is a nice valley with blooming flowers and sport climbing to be had even when the weather is bad up high. I got to climb a couple days with my friend Juan Aguada, whom I met here 10 years ago. He was in his early 20’s and enthusiastic about learning how to climb. Now, he is a certified guide and has climbed all the summits in the Fitz Roy Group and also Cerro Torre! We climbed with another friend of his named Juan. His friend only had a few hours to sport climb, because he had to pick up his two kids from daycare. Juan#2 told me he worked as a hiking guide almost everyday and the other days he took care of the kids. He said he had one day off this season and was hoping to climb Poincenot. He thought there was a window and he planned to jump through it!
On the computer screen, it did look like a nice calm clearing after an onslaught of rain and snow. We planned to head up again, but Tim was feeling a little sick and hiking up in the rain didn’t seem like a good idea for such a short window. It down poured all night. We awoke to clear skies and decided to go for a walk to retrieve our gear and position ourselves for quicker approaches on the Piedra Negra side.
Several climbers passed us heading down with stories of the relentless storm and the DEEP snow at Paso Superior and the avalanches coming down with the sun. We arrived at the Laguna, just past the Lago and the fixed lines to see the Chilleans naked on the rocks after swimming in the Laguna. It was that nice! Not a breathe of wind, not a cloud, Fitz Roy aka Chalten in all her glory with not a single climber on her flanks! Israel, from Spain, who was also staying at our hostel, Lo De Trivi, was organizing gear with two Austrians in the sun and up on the deep snow in the baking sun were two climbers post holing a trail to Paso Superior. After chatting with the other climbers, we found out that it was Juan#2 and his partner, Raf. As it turned out, I had met Nico, one of the Chilleans 8 years ago at the Piedra Negra camp. It was a friendly bunch and they invited us to gang bang Poincenot, with a midnight departure on Juan’s trail. We set up our tent, relaxed in the sun and watched Juan and Raf make slow progress in the wet snow.
Tim and I talked about our strategy. He was definitely not feeling 100%. We conjectured about how long it would take to climb it from camp to camp. The fastest we had seen climbers go up to Paso Superior was 2 hrs. Rolo’s book said in good conditions you could be at the base of Poincenot from Paso in an hour. Considering it was bad conditions, I said we should call it 5 to 6 hours just to get to the climb. Say, a couple hours to climb the ramp and then it’s 9 pitches from there to the top. Possibly 11 hours up and then you have the rappells and the walk back, so according to my calculations, we could be out for 27 hours. Tim looked at me incredulously…”17 hours max”. Tim is a much faster climber/hiker than me, but we are in this together. I thought about my other adventures in the past here…. Two bivouacs and several 24hour+ pushes. This was Tim’s first and he had already started whispering sweet nothings to the weather gods.
After a 3 hour nap, we started our journey in the calm dark at midnight towards Poincenot. The trail had started to freeze, but the depth of the steps made for slow walking as you had to pull your leg all the way out and into the next step. Tim and I roped up and let the others pass. We drafted. When we reached the snowfield beyond Paso Superior, the dark slowly eased into light and we could see the awesome towers bending towards us. We could also see two more climbers out ahead, making it 9 of us in total. The route finding between the seracs and avalanche debris in the deep snow with a tiring crust was slow and we took our time letting the others do the work. The sunrise was breathtaking, and the completely clear skies had changed with wisps of clouds, yet it was calm and pleasant.
Everyone assembled together in layers of ropes climbing the ramp as quickly as possible as the sun started to warm the snow. I took the lead on our rope and we simul climbed up to the mixed pitches. At this point, the Chilleans took the lead, and the team of 3 was starting up behind them. Now that we were out of the avalanche hazard, I waved Juan and Raf ahead and we brewed up some water on our sunny perch feeling quite comfortable in a single layer in the sun. Big smiles on our faces as we shared leads through the “crux” mixed pitches leading to the arête. A breathe of wind blew some of the drier colder snow our way and we put on our shells. A few clouds started to draw little pictures in the sky. We had talked to some other climber friends who climbed it last week in some wind and our only thoughts were to follow this train to the summit. As we turned the corner with views of the Torres, we gaped at the beauty and tried to ignore those clouds billowing up from the ice cap and creeping towards us. We were like the parents of an obviously drugged out kid, saying ” our little Johnny wouldn’t do drugs”. We put the blinders on and tried to blur the obvious into something we wanted to see. We changed into thicker gloves, put on our puffy jackets, and dry tooled our way up the not so easy rock climbing.
Memories from the past swirled with the wind as I looked across to Saint Exupery. We were higher than its summit now. I remembered trying to sleep at the base of the chimneys with Janet Bergman and Sarah Garlick, freezing, the wind shredding our emergency blanket and retreating at dawn. I remembered going back with Zoe Hart and Max Turgeon, making the summit as the wind threatened to blow us off. Blasts of glacial dust beating our eyes after hours of rappelling on our return to camp. The glacier has changed so much since then. Many things have; the asphalt road, tons of new sport climbs, my girlfriends with kids, the prices, and the size of town, but the wind remains a constant.
The teams have split courses now on the back side. The Chilleans and the party of three are traversing more left. Juan decides to go straight up from here. Tim asks, ” Where do you want to go?” I tell him to follow Juan. The climbing gets harder and Juan is starting to aid. We wait patiently. Tim shows his expertise at mixed climbing and flashes the next two pitches which must be M7. I try really hard but fall and hook gear with my picks to follow. We see the others traversing back to the right above us now. We take a different line from Juan. The wind becomes stronger, the clouds have over taken the Torres. We continue on. Juan and Raf decide to go down. It looks as though we are only two pitches from the summit. Tim asks what I want to do. Hand signals take the place of words as the wind blows harder. I point up. The others are beginning to rappell to our station, their eyes blinded by the blowing snow. They yell even though we are inches apart,”one pitch from the summit.” I have the fever. Tim gives me the lead. I have to stop to put my googles on. Wallowing through sugar snow and climbing slightly overhanging terrain with my tools until I have to make an unprotected move. I am stalled out. The summit ridge is 10M away. If I make that ridge, I’ll likely be blown off. I look down at Tim. He motions the go down signal. I know he is right, we should have turned around hours ago. I start down climbing.
The clouds are swirling over the shoulder of Poincenot and a lenticular hangs overhead. “This is the closest I have ever been to a lenticular”, I scream. I try to coil the ropes to attach to my harness for the rappell, but it is so windy I can’t contain them. These new ropes are too supple and tie into endless knots on the way down. I try to stay calm and organize the lines that are now blowing above my head. We are doing 30M rappells so we have a chance at retrieving our rope. The next station has a rope attached to it, but it isn’t moving. It’s Juan’s rope, thick and old and apparently stuck. We add another carabiner, attach our line and look over the edge. We can’t see anything. There is no weight on the ropes. The lines are twisted and Tim tries to pull them free. Slowly, they start moving. The idea of being stuck up here right now is horrific. After a couple more short and time consuming rappells with lots of tangles including knots in the middle of the rope, I ask Tim to lower me instead. I’m hoping this technique will work better for us. Letting someone else lower me while the wind blows me sideways across the face, is somewhat unpleasant. Hanging there, flying like a kite, while you know they are dealing with tangled ropes requires a certain zen. Now, I’m talking to the gods a bit myself.
Slowly, we are going down at what seems about the same pace we were going up. We can see the others below and are happy that these anchors are already set up. Of course, the rope gets stuck. I reluctantly climb up to get it unstuck and am happy the climbing is not difficult on this pitch. We make it to the traverse pitch and walk towards the arête hoping the wind will be better around the corner. It is. It went from really bad to bad, which was a huge improvement. We can now do 60M rappells! I continue leading the rappells. Anything that can spin, hook or tangle continues to do so. I am pretty tired and frustrated with the wind and everything getting twisted and tangled up on me. These next rappells are slightly traversing across the ramp. The light is just starting to turn into night. I start rappelling into the abyss. I hear Tim yelling, “Where are you going?” A panic rush surges through me as I realize I almost took us into no mans land. I traverse across the face until I see a gulley that I’m sure we climbed up. I go to the ends of the rope and see no anchors. Catching a glimpse of Juan’s position off to my right on the other side of the gulley I’m in, I begin the exhausting climb back up. Tim keeps pulling the ropes wondering what’s taking so long. Finally, I get back on track and get my headlamp out at the anchor. That was the last rappell and now we have to traverse the face for 40M on fairly steep and extremely exposed terrain. Tim keeps me on belay, I am starting to melt down….the wind is picking up. “Everything is going to be okay” he tells me as he helps put my headlamp on my helmet correctly. My gloves are wet, but my hands are warm and I don’t think I’ll get them back on if I take them off now.
Tim steps across the ice schrund to meet me where we left our ski poles. We won’t be stuck up on that mountain. I thank the gods for passage and look forward to constant movement back to camp. The snow hasn’t frozen, but we are well past the heat of the day which triggered many more wet slides. We plunge deep into the snow with every step. The ice screw clips hold my tools and flip as the tools hit my legs. The cams pulled my harness down and the wind blows up my shirt. I’m trapped in discomfort. I’m yelling at my gear. “Stupid cams, stupid rope, stupid tools”. I take a break to fix my junk show. Tim waits patiently while I curse the things attached to me blowing in the wind. We walk in the soft deep snow and the wind rips at our cheeks. It builds momentum and you can hear it coming like a freight train. I stop to brace myself and then walk between the lulls. Sometimes it circles back around and hits from the other side of my braced position smacking me into the snow. Sometimes, my brace isn’t enough and I get thrown into the air. I’m thankful the snow is soft so I can fall into it over and over and over again. It’s like a rhythm of sorts, the sound of the wind growing, the furry, the smack down. Then, as if to add another beat, sideways sleet pelting our faces. It stings. It hurts. It’s dark and I don’t have clear goggles. I squint and put my head down letting the helmet take the brunt of it.
Finally, we reach Paso Superior. Juan and Raf are in a small snow cave. We can see their light. I’m happy they are safe and we keep walking. The wind is stronger here, but we are thankful that the pelting sleet has turned to rain. My headlamp flickers, letting me know it is fading. I am leading the way and I can’t tell if I am following tracks or wet roller balls down this steep hill. The snow is so soft, I’m certain I will punch into any crevasse I encounter. “I can’t see” my heart sinks at the thought of digging out my spare batteries at the bottom of my pack in the first aid kit. Tears are welling up in my eyes. Tim offers to change them for me so I won’t have to take off my wet gloves. It feels like all my gear is playing practical jokes on me, and I have zero energy left for it. We decide to rappell over the last bergschrun as there is an available anchor in place. I am so tired. Not sleepy, just exhausted and I can’t imagine trying to get myself or someone else out of a crevasse right now. We stay roped up. The night starts easing into day. Tim punches a leg into a crevasse. The wind is still full throttle. I hope our tent is okay. All I want to do is crawl in it. I keep staring to see if I can see it across the Laguna. My imagination plays tricks on me. One minute it is there and the next it is gone. What I do see is gusts of wind ripping across the lake like an invisible army going to war. I don’t need the headlamp now, but the sun is still hiding. It’s the strange light mixed with my exhaustion and the pouring rain with wind that makes me feel numb. We stop and coil the ropes at the rocks and take off our crampons. Tim goes ahead. It’s not far now, only one last possibility of disaster for me, the crossing of the river outlet from the Laguna. My mind goes back to when Zoe Hart, Anna Pfaff, and myself got blown into a glacial stream by a rogue gust of wind on the Torre glacier. I stop again to secure my crampons and rope to the pack for better balance to cross the wet rocks being hit by whitecaps from the lake. Tim has already been to camp and easily comes back across the rocks to help me. ” I’m sorry ” he says. Me, numb and focused on this last task doesn’t understand what he is saying. “The tent didn’t make it”. I wasn’t surprised. I saw the army. I had tied it down well, but the poles were broken and the fly shredded. It was soaked and covered in sand. We were soaked, we crawled into the wet mess. We got out of our clothes and into our sleeping bags inside a two man bivy bag, with a broken pole lifting one side of the tent.
It was morning and we passed out after 29 hours on the move. We awoke a couple hours later like cooked rice in the sun. Suffocating in the hot moisture, we gasped for air and struggled to find the zippers. It was sunny and slightly raining. Tim fed me and organized a load of gear to take down. We passed out for a couple minutes or hours at the stream by Poincenot camp. We finished the journey into town with the extra weight of wet gear on our backs. After hot showers at Lo de Trivi, we feasted at the new Mexican restaurant where we were warmly greeted by fellow Gringos enjoying the HOT salsa served only on weekends. We weren’t celebrating our climb as we felt lucky and a bit reckless in our decision making. We felt tired and happy that it all worked out. Tim had a new respect for Patagonia after the gods delivered his wish. I was glad to add this type 1, 2 and 3 experience of fun into the archives of adventures.(Type 1-actually fun while doing it. Type 2-fun after you did it. Type 3-not sure if it was fun at all). We shared something that is hard to describe. Tim saw me melt down for the first time in the mountains. Strangely, he thought it was “cute”. We won’t have to discuss the weather next time. We very well know the Patagonia lore is true.
After a day of rest in town, we headed back up to gather the rest of our gear. After hiking this trail so many times, we decided to try the trail out to El Pillar to change it up. We stopped in at El Pillar to have a beer. It was so cozy, we had two, thanks to our server, Joaquin. We learned a lot from that experience, but fortunately, Alpinism is a bit like having a baby or too many beers. Something short circuits in the mind telling you it wasn’t that bad. Pretty soon you forget the worst parts and mostly remember all that beauty. The next thing you know…. Your packing the clear goggles.