American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

East Face of Fitz Roy

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1985

East Face of Fitz Roy

Miguel Angel Gallego, Club Montañero de Murcia, Spain

AT THE SOUTHERN tip of the American continent, the moutains of southern Patagonia offer climbers some of the greatest possibilities for adventure in the whole world. In my opinion, the Fitz Roy region brings together the greatest number of the ingredients that a mountaineer can desire. The gigantic height and steepness of Big Walls, both of rock and ice, combined with exceptionally adverse weather conditions, impose curious logistics on an expedition because of frequent uncertainties.

This uncertainty possibly and paradoxically constitutes the greatest attraction for climbing in this region. At present, in many mountain ranges an objective is sure to be climbed if the men who head for it combine illusion with capability, experience and means. In Patagonia, aside from these qualities, one needs an almost obsessive determination for success, a good dose of luck and patience and above all, a notable psychological resistance. A Patagonian first ascent is a struggle against the unleashed forces of nature allied with a demoniacal wind in a region where conditions change at a dizzying pace. All this is dominated by insuperable esthetic factors. Imagine an enchanted castle, Disney-style, defended by 5000-foot-high granite walls covered by sparkling ice, and you have Fitz Roy.

Its indescribable neighbor, Cerro Torre, is a mountain so beautiful and aggressive that it approaches unreality. The innumerable other equally handsome needles suffer somewhat by their close proximity to the two indisputable kings of the region.

Since 1952 when Terray and Magnone reached the tiny virgin summit of Fitz Roy, numerous expeditions have headed there. By the beginning of 1984, nine routes had been climbed up this mountain: in 1964 Argentines Fonrouge and Comesaña up the Supercouloir, in 1968 Chouinard and the Californians on the southwest ridge, in 1972 Mo Anthoine and the English on the south, in 1976 Ferrari and his huge Italian party to finish the Swiss effort on the east buttress, in 1979 Afanssieff and the French on the north face and Casarotto on the north buttress and in 1983 Slovaks and Yugoslavs. Only the shorter routes, Terray’s, the American and the English, had been done on the first try. The more technical and longer routes had taken two or more attempts.

In 1984 the 5000-foot-high left center of the east face of Fitz Roy offered a logical new route. It was a great mixed climb that fitted the style and form of the mountain. For my brother José Luis and me, the only members of the 1984 Spanish expedition, this was really unfinished business. In 1982 we had already tried the route along with skilled companions, Miguel Gomez and Manuel del Castillo. We were there for four months full of complications, almost decided on the first day’s approach to Base Camp when a horse’s kick put my brother into the hospital at Río Gallegos with a severely injured leg and out of action for a month. An endless succession of tribulations followed. Manolo del Castillo was buried, luckily alive, in an avalanche, I fell 650 feet along with sérac fragments, and José and Manolo were nearly dragged off by a huge avalanche that swept over them from above. There was an interminable series of “Made in Patagonia” frights: ropes cut by falling stones and ice, an ice cave full of equipment buried under thirty feet of snow which took four days and a half dozen snow tunnels to locate. And all this dominated by the chief protagonist of the region, the wind. More than once we were literally blown off our holds.

Naturally in 1984 some of these adventures were repeated. We watched as pieces of equipment of some weight were wafted up Fitz Roy’s walls and disappeared over the summit ridge. I was nearly converted into a human torch in a snow cave when a propane cylinder flared, burning my bivouac gear and leaving me with burned hands and without hair or eyebrows. We again became miners, though this time with a single tunnel through twenty-five feet of snow, to find equipment buried near the bergschrund. This year it was José Luis who was chosen to survive the unforgettable experience of being hoisted by the wind; his harsh landing almost cost him a broken leg. Finally there was the curious phenomenon of having the bottom of a hammock almost explode in the turbulence of the wind.

Fortunately, on occasion, the wind and inclemencies of these latitudes sometimes suddenly give way to days of great serenity, full of exalted activity, framed by a beauty impossible to describe. Without the memory of such days, rare but existent, and hope for more of them, mountaineering in Patagonia would be beyond the limits of reason.

In 1984 my brother and I, veterans of these latitudes, and our gear, mostly designed by us, were adapted and ready for another Patagonian adventure. We had two complete sets of clothing, snowshoes, all that would be required for a new route in the dead of winter.

After leaving Spain on January 1, José Luis fell victim to hepatitis, causing a month’s delay in Buenos Aires. During unstable weather in February, we carried equipment to the foot of the face. In the first part of this, we had the unexpected help of a new and now dear friend, Argentine architect Luis Her- rero, a strong enthusiast without any alpine experience whatsoever, who offered us the warmth of his home and his valiant assistance on the mountain. After he had to leave us on the mountain, we still needed many days of effort to get our gear onto the wall. Once that was done, our technique this year was to remain on the mountain for enough time to be able to complete the route. That meant thirty consecutive days, few of which were of decent enough weather and little enough wind.

Waiting against the great icy slope in the bottom half of the face which lies to the right of and below the Terray-Magnone route and the French Saddle, we avoided as much as possible this first part of the route. This may be climbed only under certain snow conditions, rapidly and mostly at night with headlamps. It is too exposed to permit a slow progression up it. It was this part that had checkmated us in 1982. Because of constant storms which load it with masses of snow, it is impossible to set foot on it when the weather first clears because of huge avalanches and buried fixed ropes. When the good weather has somewhat cleared the route of snow, it usually turns foul again, covering the face with snow in a vicious circle. Only a providential spell of six good days, on the first two of which we were held inactive while the slope disgorged snow, allowed us to bivouac four days on the wall and solve the complicated route-finding problems while avoiding the avalanches.

Despite indispensable modem equipment, our presence on the face had been limited on numerous occasions by the circumstances. During the month, we had lived by the rules set down by the vicious circle. A period when our protection points and our bivouacs were totally wiped out would be followed by a truce when we could refix the route and take up our provisional abode. In this sense we were lucky in March of 1984. We were able to prove that Patagonian weather has its fine moments, other than those with 125-miles-per-hour wind accompanied by authentic science-fiction precipitation.

If despite all this, one has the stubbornness to resist …

To have carried out something of this kind in Patagonia will form part of one of the most beautiful memories of our ephemeral existence. This happened for José Luis and me when on March 20 we embraced each other on the wind- tormented summit of Fitz Roy.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Patagonian Andes, Argentina

New Route: Fitz Roy, 3375 meters, 11,072 feet, by a new route on the East Face right of the Terray-Magnone and left of the Ferrari routes; summit reached March 20, 1984 (Miguel Angel Gallego and José Luis Gallego).

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