Monday, December 7, 2009

Success on North Tower of Paine

As the sun shines in Puerto Natales, and we chop tomatos and avacados for a fajita feast tonight, I take a moment to realize how lucky I am to be here in Patagonia, climbing the towers that for so long have inspired, intimidated, and ultimately drawn me to their faces.

After the last attempt on the North Tower, Josh and I took several days of much needed rest in town, waiting for good weather. When the forecast looked good, we dashed back up to Campamento Japones, and after enduring a cold night with lots of snow, moved to our high camp up on the moraine in the Val de Silencio.

Approaching below Central Tower.

Waking at 3.30am to high winds, we went back to sleep. At 6.50 I awoke again to calm and clear skies, and we made a hasty breakfast and began the long and arduous slog up to the Torres. Our friend Matt showed up around this time, intent on solo climbing the North Tower. Harder snow made the gully much easier, and we made much better time than on our first attempt. At 11.30 we began the mixed snow and rock pitches up to Col Bich, and arrived there at 1.30pm.

Get psyched!

Josh climbs out of Col Bich.

After a short break for food and warming of feet, we began the harder climbing out of the Col. Josh led a fantastic thin splitter crack for a full 60m pitch, then we began swapping leads in blocks. The route-finding was a bit difficult at times, and the conditions were (d)icy, but manageable.

After many long but technically easy pitches, we stood at the base of the final summit block. The wind was beginning to pick up and the clouds were starting to envelop Fortaleza and Escudo. At 7.15pm we were standing on top of the summit of the North Tower of Paine. Matt joined us shortly thereafter, I fueled up with several espresso GU packs, and we began the long series of rappels together.

Josh follows on frozen blocks.

Below summit block.


The term "Tat-agonia" is not a misnomer. Rappel anchors in Patagonia are shitty. And after the first ascent of the Tower of the season, we got a chance to see how badly ravaged they become after being subjected to the elements during winter here.

Sport climbing never looked so good.

Replacing most of the cord on all the rap anchors, we made many rappels down the circuitous ridge, dealing with some stuck ropes on the way, and put two major core-shots in Matt´s new rope. Darkness is falling, and the winds are escalating.

With two more rappels to go, we begin to pull my rope (still in one piece), when it becomes hopelessly stuck above us. The winds are reaching 50 or 60 miles an hour, and wind-driven spindrift is stinging our faces as we huddle on the exposed ledge. Unwilling to spend any more time to free the rope, we make a hasty anchor to bail from and make another series of shorter rappels on Matt´s damaged rope to the bottom of the gully. The rappels seem like a twisted version of Russian Roulette, placing one more bullet in the chamber the longer you stay in the game.


Two long hours of plunge stepping take us down to the ice band bisecting the approach gully. Forced to downclimb this section of steep ice took patience and composure, and was certainly my personal crux of the day. At 3.00am we arrived at the bottom of the gully on the moraine and collapsed. Matt stayed to brew up some water, as Josh and I made the hour long drunken stumble back to our camp, post-holing through snow instead of staying on the moraine. Just before 4am we arrived back to camp and threw ourselves down, completely exhausted from so many hours spent too close to the edge. With a camp-to-camp time of 20 hours, ours was not the fastest ascent of the Monzino Route, but we are proud of making the first ascent of the season, in difficult conditions, and making it back to camp safe.

Junk show.

With good weather forecasted last this coming week, we hope to return to climb on the Central Tower, with a new respect for the power of the wind in this beautiful yet savage land.