American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Central Tower of Paine

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  • Publication Year: 1964

Central Tower of Paine

Ian Clough and Don Whillans, Alpine Climbing Group

Preparations — Ian Clough

AT 7:30 p.m. on January 16, 1963, Don Whillans and Chris Bonington became the first ever to reach the summit of one of the world’s most inaccessible peaks, the Central Tower of Paine. Westward, beyond the vast white uninhabited mass of the Southern Patagonian Icecap, the sun was dipping into the Pacific as the pair wearily climbed the last few feet to the summit. For once the evening air was motionless and the sound of their exultant shout, "Big Ned is dead,” was audible to the minute figures waiting anxiously 2000 feet below at the foot of the great granite monolith. Happy and relieved at the success of their teammates, the rest of the British expedition descended to the shelter of the top camp. Their relief was easy to understand, for less than 1000 feet below the summit was a team of five Italian climbers, who had also hoped to make the first ascent of the mountain.

The Cordillera Paine is situated at the southern tip of the Andes in Chilean Patagonia, a compact group only about 15 miles in diameter. The peaks rise between the icecap and the pampas to a maximum height of 10,000 feet and include numerous spectacular granite towers of between 7000 and 9000 feet, few of which have been climbed and none of which are easy. The most remarkable of these are the three Towers of Paine. By their least difficult faces they are comparable to the hardest climbs in the Alps. They are sheer on all sides, the biggest walls being plumb vertical for 4000 feet and although the summits are not high altitudewise, Base Camp being only a few hundred feet above sea level, the actual height from base to summit is as great as in much higher ranges.

After the Italians in 1957/58 had ascended the highest peak in the group, the Paine Grande, an ice mountain, they moved to the other side of the range and climbed the northern of the three Towers of Paine. (Its second ascent was made by Argentines in 1960. A.A.J., 1960, 12:1, pp. 149-151. — Editor.) In 1960/61 the English "South Patagonia Survey Expedition” carried out scientific work and reconnoitered the two remaining unclimbed towers, from which they were driven back by atrocious weather, high winds and blizzards. This they found was the one serious drawback to an otherwise ideal area.

In October, 1962, the second British expedition sailed for South America. The leader Dr. Barrie Page, photographer Vic Bray and the expedition organizer Derek Walker had all been on the first expedition. They were reinforced by Don Whillans, a Lancashire plumber, and Chris Bonington. Two more of us, John Streetly from Trinidad and I, were brought in at the eleventh hour. At Punta Arenas, a port on the Magellan Straits, it took us a week to clear our heavy equipment which had come by cargo boat and to finish arrangements with the Chilean Army, which had kindly agreed to lend us transport to drive north to our Base Camp. Finally we were under way again. After a long, dusty, two-day drive in two army lorries over 200 miles of dirt roads across the flat pampas, we arrived at the Estancia Cerro Paine, a sheep ranch at the foot of the mountains.

The weather in the region had been fine for a month before our arrival. It stayed fine for another week, during which we set up Base Camp, unpacked and organized our several tons of food and equipment and established two camps on the mountain. Those from the previous expedition were amazed at how little snow was left from the winter months. Climbing conditions seemed very favourable. Our approach started up a long, deep valley, the Ascencio. Although there are virtually no trees on the pampas, dense beech forest, choking the sheltered mountain valleys, reduced our rate of progress. From the head of the valley we climbed around back of the Towers into the Northern Cwm, a high glacial basin hemmed in by rock walls. Immediately above our camp, on the left of the basin, was a complicated mountainside, 2000 feet high, which formed a plinth from which the Towers boldly thrust themselves skywards. Our second camp was placed high up on this plinth on a small platform constructed by the earlier Italian expedition. During this week of good weather two pairs reached the gap between the North and Central Towers with loads of climbing equipment. Above the col, the Notch (Col Bich), the faces of both towers rose vertically and below, on the far side, dropped dizzily for 2000 feet to the glacier of the Eastern Cwm.

Now that we were in position, the weather broke, and for five and a half weeks we were submitted to what must be some of the worst weather in the world. Although we were now in the height of Patagonian summer, snow fell, temperatures dropped and wind, more often than not, was at gale force. We were frequently knocked off our feet and even our mountain tents were blown down and torn. Life for those on the mountain became simply a question of survival. We attempted to besiege the peak by keeping a pair of climbers at Camp II so that, should the weather relent even for a single day, we would be in position to make use of it. We took turns at "sentry duty” but rarely was it possible to climb. The grim conditions soon forced us to abandon this high camp. Camp I was also in a bad state, much equipment being buried under snow drifts. A few hours of climbing were snatched from the weather. Chris Bonington and John Streetly got up the first 60 feet above the Notch by hammering pitons into the only crack in the smooth vertical wall. The route to the Notch was safeguarded with 1000 feet of fixed rope. This section could now be climbed safely even on ice-glazed rock and despite high winds. Most important, it guaranteed a quick escape should a pair be caught in a blizzard.

By the end of December a strong Italian Alpine Club expedition arrived. This presented an awkward situation since their objectives were also the Towers of Paine. Since we were already established on the Central Tower, we suggested the obvious solution: that the Italians should concentrate first on the South Tower. Unfortunately, they insisted that they were obliged to attempt the Central Tower first, but gave us assurances that under no circumstances would they trespass onto our chosen route. While we had reached a stalemate with the weather high on the mountain, the Italians put themselves in as strong a position as ourselves for an assault on the Tower.

It was impossible to live up there in tents in the extreme conditions we were experiencing. Why not use this period of bad weather to erect a small hut at Camp II? With borrowed timber from the estancia, we made a strong prefabricated framework which was to be covered with tightly stretched tarpaulin. After three days of hard work for the whole team, the hut was a reality and Camp I was moved back down to the shelter of the forest. Thanks to the hut, Don Whillans and I made good use of an isolated day of fine weather. Though the Italians had retreated to Base in the face of fierce conditions, we two were in the hut when the weather changed overnight. We awoke in the morning to surprising stillness, for normally the hut walls boomed like a big bass drum under the pummelling of the wind. That day we climbed and fixed with ropes over half of the major difficulties. Now we were within striking distance of the summit. Bad weather set in again, but we knew that with the next period of good weather we should make a summit bid and our rivals had not yet set foot on the serious part of the mountain.

The Summit Climb —Don Whillans

On January 15, Chris Bonington, Barrie Page, John Streetly and I toiled up to the hut in the hope of launching the final assault the following day. At dusk, two Italians passed us on the way to their now chaotic camp higher up.

We were astir early in perfect weather. With full bivouac equipment, we scrambled quickly up the frozen rocks, past the Italian tent, at which no sign of life stirred, and up the couloir to the Notch. Chris and I were on the first rope, John and Barrie on the second. It was still only six in the morning. Rapidly we swarmed up the ladders (stirrups — Editor.) and fixed ropes to the Big Slab below the Grey Corner, the highest point previously reached. I tested a rope we had previously left hanging down the slab and it seemed sound. Hauling on the rope with my feet on the slab 50 feet above Chris, I suddenly felt it part in my hand, apparently rubbed through by the wind. I was amazed to find myself, instead of falling, held by pure friction spread-eagled on the slab. Doing a piano-playing. movement with my right hand, I managed to retrieve the broken ends, retied them and continued cautiously. Soon Chris was leading up the Gray Dièdre, which offered a continuous crack for pitons but proved difficult at the overhang. Striving to reach out too far above this horizontal roof, he lost his balance and fell ten feet into pitons from his ladders. Luckily unhurt, he shinned back and put in another piton.

We were hailed by Vic Bray, Derek Walker and Ian Clough, who had come straight up from Camp I. Whilst Chris pressed on to a tiny stance above, I realized what our boys were shouting about. Moving up, complete with red crash helmets, were five Italians. Contrary to their statement that they intended to make an entirely different route, they must have used our fixed ropes in the couloir, as earlier that morning we had passed a pile of their equipment in the Notch. Now, although it seemed too incredible to be true, they were using our route on the face, ladders, fixed ropes and all ! I joined a determined Chris at his stance and he continued on. Time passed quickly as the rope trickled through my hands in fitful jerks. Progress now was purely by pegging. Hundreds of feet below, the red blobs of the Italians’ crash helmets dotted our route. Eventually Chris reached the end of what proved to be the longest and most difficult section of the climb; the last 250 feet had taken five hours. I passed him and got to the top of the Red Dièdre, which was easier than it had looked from below.

John and Barrie decided to turn back to let us continue quickly and unimpeded to the summit. All that mattered was that after so much hard work by us all, representatives of our expedition should reach the summit first. Dumping surplus equipment, we moved without delay up the easier rock along the line we had planned to a flat area, the Shoulder. Here we abandoned further equipment, our down clothing and bivouac sack. Though it was already 5:30, we hoped to get back down to it before nightfall. In the failing light we followed glazed slabs and icy chimneys to a vertical ice chute. Since this would be dangerous to cross without ice-climbing gear, we went around its top edge, which necessitated gymnastic work on verglas-covered rock. Then a long chimney led to a gap between two summits. The one on the left was definitely higher than the one we had been making for. We dumped everything but the barest essentials. A leap to a small ledge and more difficult climbing took Chris to what appeared the top, but on three occasions we thought we had reached the summit to find something higher around the corner. Eventually, across a small gap a hundred feet away, I saw what was undoubtedly the summit of "Big Ned”, our nickname for the Central Tower. I slid into the gap, climbed the other side and soon was standing on the summit block. Together we yelled, "Big Ned is dead.” Far, far below the sound reached the ears of our friends as they descended to the hut.

* * *

The summit pair returned and bivouacked on the Shoulder that night. The Italians, still ascending, spent the night in étriers (ladders), strung out between the Grey and Red Dièdres. After meeting the descending summit pair the following morning and salvaging the ladders from the Central Tower, Clough and Walker made the third ascent of the North Tower. Their arrival on top at five p.m. was simultaneous with the arrival of the Italians on the Central summit. In the remaining weeks the British expedition attempted and failed on two other peaks: the Cuernos (Horns), where they were turned back by bad rock 400 feet below the summit and the South Tower, where lightning and uncertain weather thwarted Whillans, Clough and Page on the south ridge. The Italians were successful on the South Tower by the north ridge, which they climbed on February 8 and 9.

Summary of Statistics

Area: Paine Group in southern Patagonia, Chile.

Ascents: Central Tower of Paine, 8055 feet, January 16, 1963 (Bonington, Whillans) — first ascent.

North Tower of Paine, 7382 feet, January 17, 1963 (Clough, Walker) — third ascent.

Personnel: Barrie Page, leader; Christian J. S. Bonington, Stanley Bray, Ian S. Clough, John Streetly, Derek W. Walker, Donald D. Whillans.

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