American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fitz Roy's West Face

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1984

Fitz Roy’s West Face

Robert Gálfy, lames, Slovak Mountaineering Association

Translated by Tamara Koricanska

CZECHOSLOVAKIAN climbers led by Michal Orolin spent nearly two months from December 27, 1981 to February 17, 1982 on Fitz Roy, hoping to ascend the unclimbed west face. Bad weather plagued us throughout the whole of our stay. After four attempts, we reached the upper part of the face, but after two months we left for home in despair. (A.A.J., 1983, pages 210-211.)

Nine months later we headed back. Four of us had been with last year’s expedition: Vladimír Petrík, Zdenek Brabec, Michal Orolin and I. Tibor Šurka was the team leader and Orolin was the climbing leader. The other members were Milan Hoholík and Dr. František Kele. Dr. Kele is a member of the Academy of Sciences and had his own research program in the area.

On December 3, we arrived at the well known Hostería beneath Fitz Roy. Our enthusiasm was cooled by the traditional weather—rain and wind—but only for a while. On December 5, we erected Base Camp at Piedra del Fraile. For a week we carried equipment over the Eléctrico Col to the basin on the North Fitz Roy Glacier below the Supercanaleta. On December 11 we spent the night there, but by morning wild winds had demolished our tents and we were glad to be back in Base Camp in the evening.

An alternative was imperative. On December 15 we dug a cave in the ice and snow below the Supercanaleta as a jumping-off place for the western face. From there it took forty minutes to reach the ridge running to the face where we joined the route we attempted on our last expedition. This eliminated 2300 feet of dangerous face below the ridge which we had climbed four times the year before. Although easy terrain, it was constantly threatened by falling rock. The new route was quicker and above all safer.

On December 17 we headed upwards in a drizzling rain over broken slabs and found ourselves under a huge comer. The ropes from the previous year’s attempt were broken in many places. That day we returned to the cave to await better weather. On December 22 we set off for the face again. At a place 500 feet below the high point of last year’s attempt, the weather suddenly turned bad and we had to retreat, arriving at the cave in the dark an hour before midnight. We decided on new tactics. In bad weather two climbers would always be in the cave so that they could start quickly when the weather changed for the better. The other climbers would simultaneously set out from Base Camp.

Now we are only four. Milan Hoholík has fallen ill during our last attempt.

At long last on December 28 it is for the first time clear and warm. After two nights in the cave, Zdeno Brabec and I get to the high point and stand below a small overhanging chimney. I put on my klettershoes and after several minutes of hard but good climbing, we are above it. It is late. After another rope-length, we rappel 650 feet to our hammock bivouac. That evening Vlado Petrík and Michal Orolin climb up to us. Having set off from Base Camp in the morning, at eleven o’clock they were at the cave and at nine P.M. we are all four in the bivouac: 5000 vertical feet to the cave and from there, 1500 vertical feet on the face!

We sleep beautifully in the night, but at dawn the wind starts and by seven o’clock it is snowing. I put on my kletts and Michal and I jümar to yesterday’s high point in falling snow and light wind. From above the vertical crack we traverse 35 feet right. The wide crack demands bong-bongs, but I haven’t any and must improvise. My fingers keep freezing. Finally I get a good stance although powdery snow showers down on me from above. I belay Michal above me. A piton pulls out and he pendulums into emptiness. We fix the rope and rappel. Vlado has a hot drink for us at the hammock bivouac. An hour later we continue downward and by evening are in the cave. It pours rain on the last day of the year from the morning on and we descend to Base Camp. We spend New Year’s Eve in the company of good friends from Argentina and Italy.

On January 1 Vlado Petrík and I leave for the cave. The next morning we set off at four A.M. for the face, but we stop at the col since over Cerro Torre heavy clouds cover the sky. We return to the cave. At midday Michal and Zdeno arrive, not seeing the clouds in the west and thinking that we are on the face. In spite of the bad weather, Michal rightly decides to make the attempt. In the afternoon the weather clears. By evening we are in the bivouac where we slept during our last attempt. At six A.M. Vlado and I set off and in an hour are at our high point. Vlado takes the lead. He puts his boots in the pack and dons his kletts. I will haul his pack. Vlado fixes another two pitches. After several more rope-lengths we traverse right to miss a huge overhang. To secure our return, we have to fix a rope. Michal and Zdeno quickly climb up to us. We are working well together. Finally at six P.M. we reach the American route. The western face is climbed! We congratulate each other and prepare a drink on the ledges.

Above us there is a huge comer. Michal and Zdeno take the lead. There are pitons everywhere, each heading in a different direction. A lot of pegs with slings show us that the way back is hard going. We climb another three rope-lengths and then rappel back to the shelves to prepare the bivouac. During the night a strong wind starts to blow.

The morning is frosty but it is not snowing. There is still a strong wind and in the distance we can see the first clouds. Despite this, we decide to climb and I lead off. Already in the first pitch the fingers of my right hand get numb and stiff and I feel faint. Having climbed to the stance, I fix the rope and I feel terrible pain in my fingers. The wind strengthens. Vlado wants to take the lead, but the pain in my fingers subsides a little and so I climb on, finding the next rope-length not difficult. The chimney branches and I take the right fork. I like chimneys and I forget about my fingers. As Vlado removes pitons, the increasing wind catches one and wafts it fifteen feet up the crag. It is incredible how strong the wind can be!

A crash is heard. The rope has dislodged a rock which flies straight for Michal and Zdeno. It falls on a snow shelf above them, bounces and strikes Zdeno full force on the leg. He dangles in space, but the rope holds. We rappel to them. Zdeno is groaning. Rappelling with badly injured Zdeno takes until the evening. It is dark when Zdeno limps into the cave below the face. His swollen leg won’t bend at the knee. The next day it took all day to descend to Base Camp. The situation is desperate. Milan is sick, Zdeno hurt; the weather is miserable and we must leave for home on January 18 at the latest.

On January 11 Michal Orolin, Vlado Petrík and I leave Base Camp for our last chance. The weather is still bad. There is strong wind and it is raining when we reach the cave. On January 12 it snows all day. On the 13th the weather is worse but at seven P.M. a rift in the clouds lets us, for the first time in a week, see the summit now plastered with a white apron of snow. Tomorrow we shall set out.

At 3:30 A.M. on January 14 our headlamps show us the way to the first fixed ropes. Cerro Torro is golden at sunrise. The sky is clear. Eight hours later we are at the end of the fixed ropes. Vlado leads, often delayed when he must go around many places, now ice-covered, which we had climbed during our last attempt. By seven P.M. we are on the American route where we meet three Japanese led by Kozunori Kurata from Tokyo. After a short rest Michal takes the lead. The Japanese follow. An hour before midnight we are on huge shelves, close to the ridge. We have been climbing for 20 hours!

Although close to the summit, I dare not think about it. Bad weather has driven us off the face eight times! Now the weather is good. Every few minutes I stare out at the sky from my sleeping bag to see whether it is clear or not.

A hard day awaits us. We set off at 6 A.M. After a while we reach the ridge. Michal leads, climbing without gloves and having to clear the ice out of the cracks. Vlado takes a spell in the lead so that Michal can warm his fingers. After long traverses, pendulums and rappels, we are finally at the col. We have the summit before us. All our equipment is left there. We rope onto one rope and take only crampons and ice axes. Just above the col we scale a strip of glassy ice. We see the Japanese below the col. They are climbing in the wrong direction. We shout at them and show them the right way. The easy terrain leads us to the summit ridge. At three P.M. we reach the highest point. We shout for joy. We spend half an hour on the summit, enjoying the beautiful scenery.

We meet the Japenese on the ridge. After five rappels we are at the bivouac site. In the distance, behind Cerro Torre, heavy clouds appear. A west wind is blowing. We continue, rappelling. At twilight we rappel down “our” west face. We want to get to the place where we have left our hammocks, but it is midnight before we are there. Everyone prepares for a short sleep. We are so tired that we fall asleep in no time and do not hear the raging wind.

In the morning we awaken completely soaked. The rain comes down in sheets. Almost immediately we continue rappelling on wet ropes. We remove the fixed ropes. Finally in the afternoon we are at the cave. Taking equipment from there, we descend to Base Camp completely soaked. On January 17 we leave Tierra del Fraile for the Hostería. There we meet Luis Fraga and Francisco Aguado from Spain. We had seen them on the east face of Adela.

In the morning we part with our friends and leave for Rio Gallegos. It is pouring. I wanted very much for the last day of our stay to be rainy. I don’t know why. If it had been nice, I should certainly have been sorry that we couldn’t climb some more. And we had to got used to such weather during our stay on Fitz Roy.

Capricious but beautiful Patagonia … we shall miss you!

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Patagonia, Argentina.

New Route: Fitz Roy, 3375 meters, 11,072 feet, via the west face, summit reached January 15, 1983 (Gálfy, Orolin, Petrík).

Personnel: Tibor Šurka, leader; Michal Orolin, climbing leader; Zdenek Brabec, Robert Gálfy, Milan Hoholík, Dr. František Kele, Vladimír Petrík.

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