American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

East Face of the Central Tower of Paine

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  • Publication Year: 1975

East Face of the Central Tower of Paine

Arthur McGarr, Mountain Club of South Africa

THE Central Tower of Paine in the Paine Range of Patagonia was climbed in the 1962/63 season by Don Whillans and Chris Bonington from the west via a route that involved 1600 feet of difficult rock climbing. In February of 1973 it was clear that the more photogenic east face of the Central Tower was one of the most attractive unclimbed faces in Patagonia and that it was not going to remain inviolate much longer. During the 1971/72 season a South African expedition, under the leadership of Paul Fatti, managed to climb about a third of the way up the East Face after bagging two previously unclimbed peaks in the Paine Range, the Sword and the Cuerno Norte; a severe blizzard and lack of time and provisions prevented further progress on that occasion. With this prior claim on the east face and spurred on by a request from a rival group for detailed information on the Central Tower, Paul hastily formed an expedition to attempt to scale the east face during the 1973/74 season. The climbers in his group were Mike Scott, Roger Fuggle, Mervyn Prior, Richard Smithers and the author; Janet Fatti, Doreen Scott and Heather Smithers provided valuable support. Roger Fuggle was a particularly crucial member of the team because a few months before our expedition he had been one of the party that did the second “hammerless” ascent of the Nose at Yosemite. He was a constant source of advice on “state of the art” big wall techniques and organization.

The east face is a wall of granite which rises 4000 feet out of the glacier situated between the three Towers of Paine and the Paine Chico, a massive mountain to the east. Except for the steep snowfields leading up to the slabs at the base of the face, the east face is purely a rock climbing problem similar to the big walls at Yosemite somewhat higher and with Patagonian weather.

Because climbing conditions in Patagonia are normally atrocious and siege tactics are used as a matter of course, we planned to place fixed rope along the entire route. The day after establishing Base Camp, in a pleasant beech forest at the foot of the scree leading down from the glacier, we set up an advanced camp on the glacier just below the east face. The following morning Roger Fuggle and Merve Prior started up the face. They made fast progress diagonally up the snowfields and finally found themselves approaching the steep gully between the North and Central Towers. They had hoped to gain some more easy height up the snow but some large unidentified object broke off near the top of the gully and was funnelled down towards them, finally missing Roger by about 20 feet. That ended the snow climbing. Within minutes they were climbing the rock slabs.

After they had advanced the route and waited out storms for three days, Mike Scott and I took over, had a short session on the face but spent most of our time sitting out blizzards and finishing the snow cave that Roger and Merve had started. Then Paul Fatti and Richard Smithers took over and had three days of superb weather which enabled them to reach the high point of the previous expedition. At the top of the slabs it was necessary to deviate rightwards, away from the system of enormous dihedrals we were aiming for, and to climb a shattered pillar. This provided some fine free climbing and from the top of the pillar, which ended against a blank wall, a spectacular king swing leftward for about 30 feet was necessary to regain the original crack system; it took Paul several exhilarating swings 1300 feet above the glacier before he stuck in the crack. Above the previous highpoint the route led up into the lower right-hand dihedral but progress was slow for the next eight days when each of the three teams made about two pitches each between storms. On Christmas Day Paul led a long pitch to a tiny ledge in the right-hand dihedral where he and Richard decided to bivouac. Up to this point we had been returning to the snow cave each evening but now it was clear that prusiking up the ropes was taking too much time from climbing. They hung the single-point suspension hammocks on the wall, one above and one below the tiny ledge and settled in for a cold night.

The following day Richard led what was probably the most crucial pitch on the route; it was a nerve-jangling diagonal traverse following undercut flakes from the right-hand dihedral into the bottom of the left- hand dihedral, an enormous feature which appeared to provide the only feasible line up the main portion of the face. After Rich was part way along on the pitch Paul informed him that some of the pitons were falling out behind him because of the expansion of the flakes. It was an incredibly exposed position and the situation continued to deteriorate until Richard finally succumbed to his frayed nerves and placed a bolt (the only one used on the climb except for two used at the bivouac camp in the main dihedral). From the bolt he was able to gain a vertical crack and then made a short king swing to the small sloping ledge that marked the base of the main dihedral.

Early the next morning Roger and I prusiked up the ropes in a rainstorm, the result of a warm front, and made our first acquaintance with the dihedral. With the rain the lower part of the dihedral had become a water course which gave us a bit of a soaking as we climbed the last section of fixed rope; the weather then turned clear and very cold.

We managed two exhilarating pitches that day and when I made a stance at a small overhang at the top of the second pitch, I noticed that the enormous black “thumb print”, which appeared from below to be the half-way point up the face, was on the same level on the right-hand wall. After a bivouac in the usual Patagonian snowstorm, we reached what became known as the “Boeing ledge” as darkness caught us the following day. Roger had spent most of the day leading a long pitch of almost 150 feet. It was a particularly satisfying pitch, because he had used up almost all of the gear on his rack and had made heavy use of the double cam nuts which saved time and worked beautifully in parallel-sided and flaring cracks. It had been snowing for most of the day; during a storm the snow would accumulate on sloping ledges high in the dihedral and then at intervals little avalanches would occur and spindrift would funnel down the dihedral and pile up on us.

As I approached Roger, I could see that he was quite agitated. “McGarr, there’s a ledge just above that’s so big the Boeings are landing and taking off.” This was exciting because so far on the route ledges had been very rare and tiny, especially in the dihedral. A ledge large enough to accommodate a tent would have provided an excellent base for climbing the upper half of the face. I climbed past Roger and, as the day drew to a close, placed a large hexcentric as high as I could under the precarious accumulation of snow on the ledge and stood up to have a look. It was big, as Rog had said, but it sloped at about 45°. On that disappointing note we abseiled down through the darkness to the haven of security provided by the snow cave. The long abseils at the end of several days of climbing and bivouacking undoubtedly provided our most dangerous moments. At every change-over point there was the possibility in the darkness of making a fatal error.

Mike Scott and Rich Smithers established a camp of sorts on the Boeing ledge. A flat ledge, 2 feet long by 1½ feet wide, provided a cooking platform in the corner and two hammocks suspended on the walls just above the ledge served as sleeping quarters. For the next two weeks the routine for each team was to prusik up to the Boeing ledge in the afternoon, spend two days extending the route and then to spend most of the rest of the time getting to and from Base Camp.

On the evening of January 9 Roger and I noted, as we trudged up the glacier towards the snow cave, that Paul and Merve were nearly at the top of the upper dihedral a short distance below the summit cone. With good weather a summit bid seemed on for the next day so we decided to make an alpine start the next morning to be in on the action.

At 2:30 A.M. Roger sleepily made his way along the tunnel of the cave to the entrance and saw a perfectly clear sky with no wind. He shook me awake and we were on our way. It was a fantastic dawn as we prusiked upward at top speed. We passed Merve and Paul as they were having breakfast at the Boeing ledge, paused for a welcome cup of coffee and then carried on to their high point. A short time later the four of us were heading up the easier angled rock and snow of the summit cone in eager anticipation of our conquest. The climbing was mostly free now and it had developed into a race against time as the weather was deteriorating rapidly. In the afternoon fish-shaped clouds had come across the summits of the towers heralding a storm front and as Paul stepped onto what he thought was the summit at seven P.M. the expected blizzard was already well underway. Paul’s euphoria was shattered abruptly when he noticed that the next tower along the summit ridge was about 60 feet higher than ours. We held a little conference on the false summit and unanimously concluded that getting to the summit wasn’t possible that day. At about eight P.M. we dejectedly started the long retreat to the snow cave 4000 feet below.

On the way up the summit cone, to save time, we had used a nut as an anchor point for one of the fixed ropes. We paid for our negligence when the nut came out as Merve abseiled past it. He fell down a recess for about 50 feet until the slack in the ropes above was taken up and then continued at a reduced rate as the rope ran through his descender, finally coming to a stop on a snowfield at the next anchor point. He had lost consciousness during the severe battering of his fall and was in shock when he came to on the snowfield. By that time Roger, who was just below Merve at the time of the fall, had reached him. When Paul and I arrived, Merve had recovered enough so that he could just stand up. It began to look as though, given enough time, we might manage to get him down.

It got dark shortly after we worked out a procedure for getting Merve down safely and started our very slow descent. During the long night it never stopped snowing. Roger went first and waited for Merve at each change-over point, while Paul belayed Merve down each pitch. Rog then put Merve into étriers, abseiled down another pitch and the procedure was repeated. On one of the abseils the karabiner holding Merve’s descender opened outward and Merve noticed, with horror, that he had parted company with it and was only saved by Paul’s belay rope; the karabiner must have received a severe strain during his fall.

It was a night of long waits for the rope below to clear and the damp gloominess was relieved only by the gleam of our head lamps. In the hours before dawn we were all showing a tendency to doze off while waiting attached to one of the pitons anchoring the fixed ropes. We reached the Boeing ledge at about 6:30 in the morning and decided to eat and rest for a few hours. During the break Merve’s condition improved considerably and so the lower half of the retreat went much faster. We arrived at the snow cave at about 6:30 P.M. Fortunately, we did not find out until a week later that Merve had suffered an impacted vertebra as well as broken ribs and various minor injuries. His determination to get off the mountain made the rescue far easier than it might have been.

For the next nine days Mike and Richard waited out the storm as time ran out; we had arranged to be picked up at the road head on January 24. At last on January 20 the storm abated, and Mike and Richard made their way slowly up the iced ropes to the Boeing ledge. The weather was perfect the following day and at 4:30 P.M. Mike and Richard were on the summit banging in a piton and admiring the incredible view of the Paine Range and the Patagonian icecap. Our seven weeks of concerted effort had been successful.

The east face of the Central Tower must be one of the finest, and most sustained rock routes in the world. The exposure never lets up as it is possible to see the glacier between one’s feet for the entire way up to the summit cone.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Southern Patagonia, Chile

New Route: East Face of the Central Tower of Paine, January 21, 1974 (Scott, Smithers).

Personnel: Paul Fatti, leader; Janet Fatti, Roger Fuggle, Arthur Mc- Garr, Mervyn Prior, Michael and Doreen Scott, Richard and Heather Smithers.

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