Sunday, January 29, 2012

Fitz Roy - The Journey

I first came down to El Chalten 4 years ago, in 2008. On that trip I was just scoping things out, making more of a total Argentinian climbing trip than a Patagonian specific one. I climbed in some of the "escuelas clasicas", like los Arenales and Frey on my way south, learning much about the climbing culture and history of the country.
When I made it to Chalten, I didn't have a clue (or a partner!). I hooked up with a local named Marcos and we climbed the normal route up Cerro Solo, more of a mountain scramble than a Patagonian peak, but from the summit you can look up both the Cordon Torre and Fitz Roy, and see the massive walls on each side of the Torre Valley. I was stunned. The power of this range was indescribable.

The next season I came down, together with my partner Josh Garrison, but this time to climb in the Torres del Paine, hoping to climb the North and Central Towers. It seemed to me like the Paine was a good stepping stone before commiting to the Chalten massif. Shorter approaches, smaller climbs, a bit easier to wrap our minds around. We climbed the North Tower that season, and that was it. We sat out 11 weeks of unforgiving weather before bailing to warmer latitudes.

Last season, we returned to the Paine, climbed a cold route on Peineta, and then turned our attention to a massive project; first ascents in an incredibly remote zone in the Northern Patagonian Andes. This would be the most committing thing either Josh or I had undertaken, and we were very lucky to make it out both successfully and safely. When I returned from that trip, I was happy, but also kind of nervous. I felt like I had been building towards something, ever bigger and badder, but wasn't sure what it was yet. By mid summer, I knew. I had to go back to Chalten. I wanted to climb Fitz.

Only a short 7 months later, I was again flying into Buenos Aires, this time to work some early season mountaineering courses for Outward Bound Patagonia before meeting up with my good friend Geoff for the month of January, but after only a short trip had the rest of my season cancelled due to low enrollment. Instead of moping around Bariloche, I took the first bus down to Chalten to get a jump on the season. I didn't have a partner, but I figured I could wrangle one up when I got there, and besides, the weather was probably just going to suck anyway right?
I lined up a partner, who spoke English and had visited the zone before, and seemed a good fit. We began ticking off classic routes during the several fantastic weather windows that came during December, but I never felt comfortable considering the bigger committing objectives of the range with this partner, and hoped that I wasn't squandering all the good windows of the season on moderate climbs. This gap in trust created an unresolvable rift, and in the end I ended up climbing Aguja de la S solo because of it.

Geoff arrived in early January, after a guiding gig on Aconcagua, and before that a major Himalayan expedition on which he climbed his first 8000m peak, Shishapangma. He was fit and ready to go, never having visited Patagonia before. After sport climbing and making pizzas for a week or so in town, a phenomenal high pressure system showed up on the NOAA Meteogram, one that looked like it could develop into a week long window, interrupted by a couple days of high winds in the middle. We started scheming...

Continued in a following post.

Fitz Roy - The Climb

After climbing de la S, I had cached the majority of my gear far up in the Torre Valley, thinking that climbing a rock route up there would be a great intro for Geoff into Patagonian climbing. With the forecast of the season, we decided that we would head up into the Torre, climb a route on Aguja Rafael Juarez (Innominata), descend to town, relax for 2 days and then hike around to the Northwest side of Fitz Roy. It was going to be a lot of hiking, and I was starting to get sick.

Our attempt on Rafael Juarez was short-lived; a party above us initiated a large rockfall, which missed both Geoff and I by only a couple meters. We were sufficiently spooked that we took it as a sign and decided to return to town early so that I could have an extra couple days to recover. Once back in town I began chugging cough syrup and popping anti-flu pills like they were candy, in an effort to purge the sickness out of my body, but as the weather forecast kept on improving, and I kept on hacking, I realized that the only way was to bite the bullet and go for it. The forecast showed 5 days of splitter weather, and so we decided on our course of action. Not only would we be going for the Fitz, but we would be going for the longest route in the whole massif- the Afanasieff (French Northwest Ridge) Route, a 1600m 5.10+ monster alpine rock climb. We received helpful beta, and another half rope from Rolo Garibotti, who with Colin made the second ascent of the route in 2006. Pretty crazy considering it was first climbed in 1979! We knew we would have to go light in order to climb fast and decend the Franco Argentine route, so we took a single sleeping bag, no bivy sack, a titanium Jetboil, 2.5 days of food, one ice axe and aluminum crampons with approach shoes. I was nervous about only taking light approach shoes on an ascent of Fitz, but Rolo assured us that we would otherwise be far too encumbered. More on that later...

Photo: Jon Byers

Guillamet Mermoz and paso Cuadrado. JB photo.

Our route approximately follows the skyline above us. JB photo

JB photo.

At 4 am on the morning of January 20th our friend Malu dropped us off at Rio Electrico to begin the 7 hour hike to the base of the route. Jon Byers, another long time friend of mine who was in the area repeating glacier photographs accompanied us as far as Paso Cuadrado. Geoff and I made it to the base of the route, just left of the ejection cone from the bone dry Supercanaleta, at just after noon. Simul-climbing and pitching out the first 10 pitches to the 3-star bivy Rolo recommended went quick, and we were there by 5.15 pm, with a lot of daylight left, so we kept chugging, intending to make our first bivy 9 more pitches up.

Cerro Torre is so small! Could probably climb it with just a few bolts wouldn't ya think?!

Geoff Schellens, starting pitch 1 of about 40.

These were some of the cooler pitches on the route, featured slabs with slightly bottomed out cracks which forced you to place gear when you could and run it out when you couldn't. Often there was would be no belay gear at the end of the rope, and we would simul climb another 20 meters until better gear appeared.
The bivy we made it to just before dark was definitely 1/2-star, with just enough room to sit side by side and cover ourselves with our single 20 degree sleeping bag, but as we settled in and watched the last light fade over the Torre Massif, we relaxed and enjoyed our candy bars for

One more to go before the bivy!

The night was cold, and I kept Geoff awake with my constant and violent hacking. I was getting sicker, develeping some sort of respiratory infection, but when the morning broke and we got some coffee in us, the stoke was uncontainable. I began leading out first, as we worked our way towards the crux, a difficult wide crack which is made more difficult wearing a pack. The climbing eased after this, and we were able to finally find a ledge with some snow with which to make some water. Around this point, I peeked behind a flake to see where the next pitch went, and found the tattered orange rucksack which Jean Afanasieff left behind during the first ascent. Pitch after pitch of moderate rock got us to the last of the hard pitches- a crack which ended at a fingertip traverse, taking me around the corner, wildly exposed above the sweeping North Face below my feet. I had an ear to ear smile as I swung around and pinched the granite fins taking the rope up and around to the belay.

Geoff follows the incredible exposed step around.

We soon put a rope away and began climbing together in the orange evening sun, weaving our way between icy blocks towards the summit. At 9.30 pm, all the noise stopped. No more calls of "off belay", or "get that anchor down I need you to start simuling!". No more clinking of gear on our harness. Not even a breath of wind in the air. Just silence as we stepped onto the summit block, and watched the sun cast a long shadow down onto the steppe far below. We took our time enjoying the moment, savoring our reward, before stepping down and finding a good spot to bivy for the night. The Franco-Argentine is a complex rap route, and we didn't want to on-sight it at night.


Jon Byers timelapse. We are sleeping on top, parties are climbing on the Franco Argentine.

Another JB photo. A "Coronal Mass Ejection" was the reason for the Southern Lights

The descent the next day was long and involved. We made around 25 semi-eventful rappels to make it back to the Fitz Roy glacier, and then trudged hours back down in soggy shoes to the dry trail. The jury is still out on the approach shoe tactic- a week later and I still have limited feeling in 6 toes. Like most things in alpine climbing, I will probably forget this fact and focus on the fact we went light and fast, and we sent. Same with the fact that I went up on this route with fully entrenched bronchitis and had to take a hefty series of antibiotics after returning to town.

Sunrise over the Hielo Continental. Fitz's shadow off in the distance.

This climb was for Geoff an amazing whirlwind first trip into the range, and I am sure he will be coming back. For me, it was the culmination of 4 seasons of hard work, dreaming and working towards a goal that wasn't always very well defined. I feel very lucky to have had all the variables turn out in my favor, this is not typical for Patagonia. I am indebted to my friends in Chalten, gringos and Argentinos alike, who contributed to such an amazing atmosphere of STOKE this season. Jason and Hayden for crushing the Torre, Rolo for the never ending beta sessions and giving us a rope, Joel for the pizzas and empanadas at Capa Bar, and everyone else. Props to Jon Byers for taking great photos.

Thank you Patagonia, see you next year.