The southern tip of the Americas shares latitude with no other landmass. Winds remain unhindered while lapping the globe accruing tempestuous for the Southern Andes; bad weather inevitably and unfortunately the norm. Why try to climb in Patagonia I used to think and hear you ask? I believe Tres Torres & the Fitzroy massif some of the planet's finest peaks: steep, aesthetic and unhindered by thin air. If life is truly a collection of moments, then the brief vivid en route and summit views from here go straight to the bank. A child grazing paper with pencil depicting a mountain could easily conjure a steep sided Dr Seuss style Cerro Torre likeness - the perfect Mountain! Unique snow formation grace the summit, huge mushrooms resulting from cool air traversing across a large ice-cap then meeting warm Pampa air on the ridge-line created by Cerro Torre, Torre Egger, and Cerro Standhardt. The frosting on the three towers is not matched across valley. Fitzroy, Poincenot, Raphael, Exupery & De l' S offer dry routes without extensive mixed climbing. For me, the fickle elusive nature of the Torres' adds appeal; if the weather is good sneak up try not to be noticed should the peaks become shy & quickly redraw their weather shroud.
From an expedition standpoint it is quick access Super Alpine terrain, town is close enough to re-supply, and boulders for precipitous exercise are plentiful, luckily many lay just beyond the blowing rain veil. Plenty to do; especially the ability to leave weather behind (sometimes), certainly not the type of venue where mandatory tent sitting slowly stirs one’s mind.
Our goal for the Southern Hemisphere's summer '04 season was to unmask controversy shrouding an ascent claimed on Cerro Torre's North Face in 1959. Myself, Leo Houlding, & Cedar Wright basically just wanted some adventure from the alpine style challenge posed by their stated route.
The history is thus: Maestri & Toni Egger climbed crack systems via a snow patch (Torre’s lower E face), then tangented rightwards to the Col of Conquest via a crack and ramp-line. The actual North Face he reported to have been entirely ice coated, allowing straightforward passage with the crux being a section below the col, on the East side. A party climbed Torre Egger ascending to the Col of Conquest in similar fashion, some ropes and pieces were discovered, but quite low down. Pitches directly beneath the col proved technically easy via a hidden ramp. Contrary to the Italian’s tale, dissent formed and his claim came under question.
Maestri stumbled alone from the base of his claim, with Egger having been swept by avalanche along with the camera. The ice glazed upper section was claimed prior to the use of twin ice axes; one shoddy long handled axe and a dagger was the era’s mode. True evidence, Maestri says, is in a drilled rappel route down the left (East) side of the North face plus occasional belay bolts on their ascent route. The face has seen few attempts with only one team making serious progress beyond the col. None have found evidence of bolts and none have succeeded on one of the ultimate Alpine prizes.
Reports of a long weather window trickled out of the mountains as we arrived in Southern Argentina. Movement became exaggeratedly rushed in eagerness to see blue skies over the Torre, though realistically there is no way to speed overland transit. Clouds unfortunately matched our bus' speed while trundling the dirt road towards El Chalten, and offered only a brief teasing glimpse before shutting the window.
Basecamp is two hours (six miles) above the rustic, yet rapidly developing town. The site is situated at the head of the Torres valley, immediately below a lake wrung from the glacier's snout. Its dam is the prior terminal moraine and protects camp from wind, with glacial melt providing mineral rich drinking water straight from the river. An idyllic setting with an added bonus of a climber built cabana, a cook, and hangout zone during shoddy weather also foundation for a multi-national social hub.
Rush rush, straight to the climb's base. One night in Chalten, one night in the pleasant setting of basecamp, spent re-packing to set the scene for an immediate foray up the glacial valley. Barometric pressure is the oracle for Patagonian weather; a slow rise results in a slow descent so if the peak is high enough weather should hold (if it takes several days to become fine it ideally will take the same time to regress), visual indication certainly swayed to brighter skies. No lingering in Campamentto D'Agostini (aka Bridwell), a Tyrolean begins the approach, spanning 150 ft across the boiling river-mouth ten yards downstream from its birth, Laguna Torre. Steep trails enter the woods above the Laguna, gaining elevation to avoid cliffs only to loose it again down to the glacier's tongue. Temperature at elevation can be assessed while descending toward the glacier. Gauge comes in the form of a stream/waterfall crossing; heavy rain or warm temperatures form a raging torrent offering daunting, insecure passage. A quick boat ride across the Laguna would negate most of the elevation gain, we even had a quick look in Buenos Aires but not really time enough to find anything but Disney dinghies.
The valley is forged by three main glaciers plus several hanging atop walls, clinging into gullies and leering from the peaks. All on the approach are dry (bare ice, visible crevasses) and all flow to the same outlet. Each has unique character specially to travel upon: The first spills from an impressively extensive icefall down the eastern slope of Cerro Adela, re-compressing at the slopes base for its final flow to the Lake. This primary glacier is circuitous to navigate, and heavily crevassed if one ventures the ‘wrong way’. Highlight of the first crossing is undoubtedly the climber dubbed "Rio de la Muerte" (River of Death); sometimes a life-changing leap, sometimes a neat 'trekking pole' vault. Watercourses on the glacier's surface channel into this one stream that looks like the ultimate Water-Park ride; a deep (15ft) canyon of fast flowing, high volume, very cold water that eventually deposits into a dark cavernous hole at least half a mile from the snout, hence the name. This season it proved a non-event, I chuckled to myself remembering my first crossing, donning crampons and launching with ice axe in-hand toward no particular landing pad. Luckily, a better crossing point was mentioned before our second venture and we no longer blindly went for the first option.
Glacier number two flows from under the 'gob-smacking' 5000+ ft South face of Cerro Torre. A smattering of rocks coats its surface opening the way for quicker strides until a final gash hopping section gains access to the moraine created by the third and final frozen flow. A flat sandy wash hovers beyond this moraine (gravel hills), a beach amid mountains, sandwiched between Poincenot and El Mocho (the Torre's footstool), surrounded by tall needles. It is the turning point for peak choice: up and left for Cerro Torre, Egger, & Standhardt, or right for Fitzroy, Poincenot, Raphael, Exupery, & De l' S.
There is no real outlet from the valley; it ends in a cascading cirque, steep ice and granite wall. High camp's accommodation is provided by hospitable boulder caves. Polakos (Polish bivi) lies in a sandy boulder strewn valley/ditch below Poincenot. Our bivi of intent, Norwegos (Norwegian), lay a further hour (2000ft) up loose talus, directly below Media Luna and the tongue of the snowy glacier guarding the three towers. Steep gravel relinquishes the sole flat spot to a collection of large boulders. Over seasons of high wind and rain, their users have been forced to further excavate caves and fabricate walls. Quite homely, when not churning in cloud and precipitation.
Our first morning in Norwegos brought murk and drizzle with threatening skies. The barometer bumped up and down so we recouped, festered, and grazed throughout our first real 'rest' day. Early evening saw the barometer raise again, a strange bumpy graph but positive never the less.
Exiting Norwegos to approach the climb requires spiky feet and umbilically attached teammates. Snow hides the gaping holes of the Torres glacier rather admirably; large bridges and heavily sloughed areas are inevitable. Early morning is preferred transit time; it is much better to be riding atop the crisp frozen snow wearing crampons than dragging heavy feet out of trenches after the sun has churned the surface. An hour and a half of marching, jumping, trusting, toiling, sees one at the beginning of technical climbing. The Maestri/Egger begins straight out of the ice; negotiate the bergschrund's gap and you’re on it. A climb of two distinct characters on two separate facets of the mountain: Two thousand plus feet on the east face into the Col of Conquest between the north face and Torre Egger: Then a similar yet more technical length on the north face.
Skies remained clear as we hovered at the base watching barometric pressure plummeting rapidly. Never a good sign; psyche wavered to the point where we waited to see what would happen? Something tangible became necessary before movement up or down would initiate. The clouds then split against the backside (West face) of Cerro Torre and began to boil into the valley. Resolution; we turned and ran all the way to basecamp. Clouds continued spilling into the valley all day, stalled and then backed out. Base to high camp (Norwegos) is four or five humbling hours under a heavy load, and two unladen hours at the very, very least. We had arrived back into Campamentto Bridwell under a darkening sky, yet within an hour or two it cleared. Damn weather was leading us quite a dance, not the normal white wall or fair. Barometric pressure bobbed up and down as clouds rolled in and out; even with all the monitoring and pseudo scientific approach an underlying, universal mountain rule seems to be when it’s clear, gotta go! Short night’s rest then back up to the boulder caves, just in time for clouds to return in earnest, spit their rain & further engulf the valley. That night, each cavernous grotto chosen for sleep leaked considerably and it felt like we were under the landing lights of a bustling airport. Gusts would rip through the valley as if a 747 were grazing within feet of the bivi site, in turn seemingly driving the rain straight through the granite. Just as sleep took hold pressure change would pop one’s ears and BOOOOOM, the jet engines swept closely above.
This wavering pattern continued, neither truly horrible nor good, non-weather: Plenty of snow and wind but not quite slipping into full tempest. We remained in Norwegos, waiting again for the tangible indicator; it certainly wasn't climbing weather but the ferocity of that night did not return to drive us out. Day three in the cave was my break point: Without enough room to sit up, one's feet were jammed into an acute slot severely restricting their movement. One person could comfortably lie within but we were three! Attempting to cook without igniting sleeping or bivi bags required a huge concerted effort. Settling into this scene on morning three, it felt to be wearing thin. After caffeine, all were ready to don Gore-Tex and improve comfort levels with a trek to camp.
This can be a frustrating massif to climb. Usually a waiting game, but this season forced us to march up and down valley as if someone were controlling it all from a vantage point and never tiring of the joke.
The next time at Norwegos poised to climb, Leo asked. "What's your worst recent moment"? For some strange reason I couldn't conjure any climbing scenarios, all were flushed? A night in Manchester's Musicbox was the paramount in mind. Good club, great tunes, awesome crowd, I stepped into the toilet (that's its name in Britain, who's foolin' who we don't rest there?), usual derelict scene, people waiting but a free unit? The vertically oriented, wall mounted individual kind: Relief was mine as I noticed the washed out sign “Don't Use!” timed perfectly with the cistern releasing its flush into the whole row. Mine’s front was broken off, that little lip that prevents the contents being gathered by the flush and ejected onto one's crotch, yes, it was absent!
"What the hell's that got to do with climbing?" Leo blurted back.
I look across valley at the seracs between Fitzroy and Poincenot, "I remember watching those Seracs fall", I say. "First time I was here” we'd just climbed the Torre & Standhardt and were lounging prior to concluding the trip & hiking everything back to basecamp. Nowhere in the gully proved safe from falling ice it flushed, scrubbed and scoured every inch. The following visit, Alan Mullin and I descended the same gully after climbing Fitzroy. “Guess all I'm saying is selective memory really helps one be optimistic”? Either that or the worst that can happen never quite does and memory flushes these moments in a form of self-preservation. If all was considered, would ascent still be rational?"
Here we were poised; weather looking okay, psyched and running through the list of what makes it safe to climb this famously dangerous. Everything pieced together, this IS the time! As perils were subconsciously tallied and quashed, Leo chose the moment to deliver his question: Immediately following my rationalization, each point wrung, and dealt with, the palette freshened. Is that why climbing memories suddenly hid? All I could give him was the Musicbox recant and “If one cannot asses the dangers inherent in the game, whatever the game may be, it must surely minimize any practitioners playing time?”: Meaning I was ticking over all last night thinking of little else and please don’t make me go back there.
Attempts to awake at three am never came to fruition; alarms were set but nobody accepted accountability. We discovered within our indolent collective that setting alarms had no effect unless coffee duty and alarm recognition had been assigned. We all awoke at three and tried not to stir should someone comment thus initiating the day. By five, we were in motion leaving Norwegos for the Maestri/Egger, round two. This time, the glacier had not reconsolidated and we marched like cartoon ducks, exaggerating waddled strides, sinking into deep, heavy, wet snow.
The previous night had provided quite the show, a virtual fire fall. Boulders constantly ricochet down the cross-valley gullies, bright sparking granite, fridges, cars, vans even house sized chunks spat toward the glacier with disturbing regularity. Warm wet weather was causing rapid local evolution. It had favourably stripped our intended climb of most of the usual overhanging, threatening snow/ice blobs. Unfortunately, evolution was still evident as we drew under the East face. Ice blocks and rocks cascaded from all points, small barrages initially; the extra hour in bed looked to have saved our skins! Sun warmed the Tower; its response was to find larger chunks to cast down with increased vigour. Had we arose at three, we would have been a rope length or two up without the ability to dodge what became a constant volley. Nowhere on the route was proving safe from missiles. Even saw sloughs from the Torre's North face leap to the Egger and rebound with more debris back into the col. Spectacular but unapproachable!
Compadres steered me towards the famed Compressor route, Cerro Torre's South East arête. Frankly, little else was safe and repetition of this classic line was not hard to coerce. Climbing begins in the same glacial cirque, usually via a steep snow slope to a single pitch of mixed climbing. This season’s warm conditions had collapsed the entire snow slope requiring its avoidance via more technical rock pitches. Seven 60m rope-lengths a 5b/c move or two but never sustained. The shoulder drew closer as cloud did the same around the Torre's summit. Plan 'C' dropped into effect, a small spire east of the shoulder an unclimbed Patagonian summit!
From the col Maestri’s Compressor route (’78) takes off up the spectacular soaring arête/ridge and was already engulfed. Steering quickly left, a single 5c pitch and a ridge traverse attained our fresh summit "Cerro Pereyra". Named in memory of a good mutual friend who passed away following a climbing accident in Mexico.
Rain flushed us from the high-camp's caves and remained in-situ; town ventures became more frequent, we started accruing boulder problems in Madsen camp, and hiking back and forth for further bonsai projects, plus rain avoidance. The camp's cabana is a sweet hang out but does drip after time.
Climatic conditions looked to be firmly enforcing presence returning to normal mode. Debate and wonder about gear retrieval became choice topic. Town became lean of climbers and, after a week, we were solely left holding the torch for summit desires.
Having left Jose Luis Pereyra's impression on us all residing with his name on a Southern Andean tower accomplishment was felt but once again, that tangible something had to end the hope for more?
Newly delivered Internet connection was a useful tool in predicting weather and right before leaving, this vigil proved fruitful: A small high-pressure system was bumped south for just long enough to allow poaching an ascent.
Cerro Torre and Fitzroy remained under their rime ice cloaks so we picked a more rapidly achievable objective in the west face of Aguja de l'S. Shortest summit on the west facing side of the valley yet one of the longer climbs due to its technicalities beginning at glacier level: Not akin with others of its aspect in having to thresh 3000ft up a loose gully to the first pitch. Just a truly enjoyable, loooong route plus the first ascent of this four-thousand-plus foot (1200m) facet, "The Thaw's not Houlding Wright" E3 6a.
First section of climbing is a ridge/arête of perfect rock formed on the left side of a larger buttress: We kept ropes in the packs and free-soloed this section to just beneath the main headwall. Some of the finest, classic climbing ever! The highlight being a short 4b arête, lay backing the square-cut edge was the mode, all with an admirable view of the glacier a couple of thousand feet below.
The testy looking upper headwall relinquished passage via a series of thin cracks, just to the left of the main feature, a long, steep, grotty rust streak. Passage was never desperate, always fun, high quality rock climbing with a 5c section or two per pitch; requiring ten stretched 60m pitches. Upon mounting the summit we saw the true summit and, in turn, traversed a fine ridge encompassing both high-points; finalised with abseils down the North side of our second (main) summit onto a plateau.
One further abseil accessed St Exupery's gully and rope-work was concluded. Satisfaction from a steep journey absorbed in the expedition's dwindling hours! Fuel for the fire, not the main prize but certainly more moments for the bank!
© Kevin Thaw