The Sword and Cuerno North, Paine Mountains, Chile

Publication Year: 1973.

The Sword and Cuerno Norte, Paine Mountains, Chile

Richard D. Hoare, Cambridge University Mountaineering Club

ON the evening of December 5, 1971 the South African Patagonian Expedition finally arrived at Pudeto, the end of the road, the last house before the Paine Mountains in the Province of Magellanes, Chile, latitude 51°S. We had come a long way in the past week and there was a general feeling of relief that we could pause at last. For the next two months the fastest thing we would see would be a man with a rucksack.

During the following three days we moved all our equipment about five hours into the mountains, using horses hired from Pancho, the park ranger and some-time poacher for the area. The spot chosen for Base Camp was one which many previous expeditions had used, judging from the number of tin can labels nailed to the neighbouring trees. It was well sheltered from the winds to which we had already been introduced during our load-carrying. Gales whipped the tops of the trees into a frenzy and sent spray flying horizontally down the Río Francés, but hardly a breath stirred in camp.

While the last of the food was still being backpacked across the river from the opposite bank, Paul Fatti, who was leading the expedition, and his brother Carl established a high camp some three hours further up the valley in the last grove of trees before the open screes rose to the slabs at the base of the Sword, which was to be our first objective. From there they studied the approach problems to the foot of the vertical section of the peak itself. There was a hanging glacier which overhung the obvious line up, and Paul Andersen and Tony Dick confirmed the following day that there were large falls of ice from time to time. As a result, they pushed a line up a snowfield to the left of the glacier, and then traversed back to the right to link up with the upper part of the glacier by fixing ropes up a slab section which was clear of the séracs.

It was December 11, and access to the vertical section of the Sword had been established with some 450 feet of fixed rope on the slabs. By the same evening, the four already mentioned plus Mike Scott, Rog Fuggle and I had established a top camp at the foot of the final rock face, stocked it with food and left Paul Fatti and Mike in situ. The camp consisted of a home designed box tent measuring 4'x4'x6'6", half buried in the ice and crammed with 1000 feet of fixed rope, masses of pegs, runners, cooking equipment, sleeping bags, spare clothes, food, torches, a walkie-talkie, a large sponge and two climbers. Life was a trifle crowded.

Because of reports from previous visitors to the region about the fierceness of the weather, we had resolved to climb under almost any circumstances on the theory that any progress was better than none at all. During the following two days, therefore, Mike and Paul pushed steadily up the face in spite of the cold which resulted in severely blistered hands. But the rock was sound, the cracks good, and the view exhilarating. They were followed by Tony and Rog for two days, and then Paul Andersen and me for a further two. Progress was badly hampered by snow and high winds, so that Paul and I only managed some 120 feet in two days. We were followed by Paul Fatti and Mike again, and on December 19 they reached the top. During the ensuing two days the rest of the party repeated the route. The line was graded VI and A2, being largely aid climbing with short free sections of a high standard. Fixed ropes were used on all the pitches. The altimeter read 7520 feet* giving a thousand feet of rock climbing in eight days. In better weather we would have been quicker.

It was Christmas, with roast mutton and paper streamers in Base Camp where Tony’s wife Judy and Paul Fatti’s wife Janet created a yuletide spirit despite pouring rain and winds off the nearby icecap. Attention now turned to the Cuerno Norte (North Horn) which was clearly the last peak of any size in the valley still unclimbed. A high- camp tent was blown open before we reconsidered and pitched a box tent under an overhang. This later disappeared without trace, taking 100 pounds of rock ballast and eight nylon guy lines with it, fortunately after we had any further need for it.

Carl and Rog spent two wind-swept days trying to climb to the col between the North and Principal Horns, but only progressed some 200 feet. Tony and I then took over. On a windless day, unencumbered by bulky clothing, we reached the col by dusk, and we saw that the final 150-foot vertical wall of granite, which from the foot of the climb appeared to have no lines of weakness, was in fact split by several bong cracks. The way was open; the star drill was dropped.

Two days later, with the rest of us hot on his heels, Mike pegged the last crack and we scrambled the final 1000 feet of loose snow and rock together. The altimeter read 7540 feet, with 1040 feet of V and A2. As before, fixed ropes were used, and as on the Sword the route was stripped completely on the descent. We arrived back at the foot of the climb at midnight, with a full moon shining on the east face of the Paine Grande and not a whisper of a catspaw moving the spindrift. It was New Year, and the weather had finally cleared.

With the arrival of January, we still had three weeks in the area and the talk centered around how to spend the time. As a result, a reconnaissance party was sent to the Río Ascensio valley eight hours away to see if there was a good connecting path. A day later they returned to confirm that there was. The great exodus started to the foot of the Central Tower of Paine. This peak was first climbed by a British expedition in 1963 by its shorter (1000-foot) west face. We now wished to look at its more sheltered, though considerably larger, east side.

Our first party into the valley found a comfortable four-man cave below the Tower, and to this we moved much of our Base Camp. A box tent was then sited on the glacier at the foot of the east face of the peak some three hours from the cave, and Rog and Tony took up residence. During the following two weeks, they, alternating with Paul Fatti and Mike, pushed a route up the lower sections of the Tower, aiming for the dièdre which starts high up on the face. After a short break, the weather turned bad again, food was running short, the supply line from the Río Francés was stretched to its limit with an eight-hour carry each way, and the equipment, particularly the fixed ropes which were simply old condemned kernmantels, was beginning to wear out. On January 14, after a particularly heavy snowfall, it was decided to call it a day. The route was stripped, High Camp dismantled and we retreated into the shelter of the trees in the Río Ascensio valley. In eight days the route had gone 1450 feet, but there remained an estimated 2000 feet to the summit.

Back at Base in the Río Francés valley a heat wave occurred and half the upper valley seemed to thaw. The river rose several feet overnight and our tenuous line of stepping stones disappeared under a mass of tumbling water and ice blocks. It took two days to rig a series of rope crossings to prevent getting wet, but on January 24 the last load was brought into Pudeto.

Yet I could not help noticing that as the lorry pulled away in a swirl of dust and diesel, the great peaks of the Paine stood clear and sharp against the blue Patagonian sky and the talk was already turning to plans for another expedition.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Paine Mountains, Near the Southern Patagonian Icecap, Southern Chile.

Ascents: The Sword, c. 6500 feet, First Ascent, December 19, 1971 (Paul Fatti, Scott), December 20 and 21 (Dick, Carl Fatti, Fuggle, Hoare).

Cuerno Norte, c. 6500 feet, First Ascent, December 30, 1971 (Andersen, Dick, Paul Fatti, Fuggle, Hoare, Scott).

Personnel: Paul Fatti, leader, Paul Andersen, Tony Dick, Carl Fatti, Roger Fuggle, Richard Hoare, Michael Scott.

*These altitudes seem much too high. The higher Cuerno Principal has been surveyed to be 2100 meters or 6890 feet. The Cuerno Norte (or Cuerno Segundo) must be about 2000 meters and the Sword is about the same.—Evelio Echevarría.