American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fast and Light on Fitz Roy

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1986

Fast and Light on Fitz Roy

Galen A. Rowell

In OCTOBER, 1985 Michael Graber, David Wilson, and I drove a thousand miles from Bariloche through the heart of Patagonia in the early spring. Our plan was to go fast and light on Fitz Roy, but we imagined, that like most other expeditions, we would have to bide our time before a bid for the top. We would arrive in the equivalent of April, when the mountain was far more snowy than in the southern “summer” climate in July and August of most ascents of the peak. One reason for this approach was reports from other expeditions of more clear spells very early in the season; a more urgent one was my December deadline for a chapter on Patagonian climbing for Mountain Worlds, a 1986 National Geographic book.

We planned not to take enough food and gear to wait out a storm in a snow cave, as many previous expeditions had done, but to do exactly the opposite and start our attempt from Base Camp. At the first inkling of bad weather we vowed to flee back down to the forest, but given a decent clear spell, we hoped to climb Fitz Roy in two days: the first to the base of the upper headwall; the second up the direct southeast buttress route climbed once before by the Argentines in 1984.

To prepare for Fitz Roy, David and I had climbed the northwest face of Half Dome on a short fall day with enough time left over to hike out, shower, and eat a leisurely dinner in a Yosemite restaurant. We imagined a Patagonian equivalent, since the upper headwall of Fitz Roy had more cracks and fewer pitches than Half Dome with only a few thousand feet more altitude. Mike’s attitude toward this approach was, “On Fitz Roy it is better to be lucky than good.”

As we drove the last miles under cloudless skies, our course of action was obvious. Clear spells rarely last more than two or three days, and we were having a day of the kind that expeditions waited months to behold. We would complete our permit with the national park, hire a gaucho with horses to take our gear six miles to Base Camp, and get set to climb in the morning.

The next day was very different than our expectations. David and I climbed for ten hours with much heavier packs than we had reckoned for—sixty-five pounds. A gully that most parties report as having rock pitches was entirely ice. The difficulties were not what was preying on our minds, so much as thoughts of Michael, who had traveled 8700 miles with us only to be denied the climb at the last moment. Our equipment made it through various flights, taxi rides, hotel rooms, roof racks, and campsites, only to have the one item that cannot be improvised or shared disappear on the last leg of the journey: his boots.

In Base Camp as we were loading our packs, Michael found his boots missing. He took off with a headlamp to search the trail. When he hadn’t returned at dawn, David and I began the climb, as agreed. We knew we didn’t dare waste the clear spell, but regardless of all our justifications for going on, we felt a pit in our stomachs because our friend who shared our preparations, our enthusiasm, and our long journey was not with us.

In the evening when we were still a few pitches below the Italian Col, David spotted a lone figure far below us in the snow. We were just about to pull our ropes up the most difficult ice pitch. After the initial joy that Michael was coming, serious questions arose. Did we really know he had proper boots? Could he reach us by nightfall? Should we leave one of our two ropes in place over the steep ice? If we did, what if Michael didn’t make it to the bivy and we couldn’t go for the summit the next morning because one of our ropes was well below us?

Long before we heard Michael, he gave us arm signals that all was well. We fixed the rope and hastened to set up camp on open ledges at the Col, rather than continuing on another hour to the base of the upper wall. At dark, Michael arrived with a most unusual story.

“I couldn’t find my boots anywhere, but I knew I’d seen them start out on the horses. I searched all the way to the road and then knocked on the gaucho’s door in the middle of the night. His story didn’t add up, and I was sure that he had taken my boots and hidden them. If I accused him directly, I risked never getting them back, so I let him save face and help me ‘find’ them. I got back to Base Camp late this morning and headed up the mountain at noon.”

The next morning dawned clear with a cold breeze. At six we started climbing toward the headwall, but during the next hour, clouds began to blow past Fitz Roy at a furious rate and our well-defined snow ridge became blurred into the pervading whiteness of a ground blizzard. We fled.

At the time we had planned to be on top, we reached a frozen lake above Base Camp. Barbara, my wife, was there with binoculars. “I watched you this morning, but I didn’t see your camp. Did you spot that yellow tent?”

“What yellow tent?” we asked in unison.

“It’s just below the ridge crest. Here, take a look.”

We indeed saw a speck of yellow in a cave under a boulder, invisible from above and just minutes away from our route. On our next attempt, we would plan to bivouac there. Back in Base Camp we followed the advice of Yvon Chouinard, who made the first American ascent of Fitz Roy in 1968. Shortly before we left the States he told me: “Don’t do as we did. Don’t wait out the weather in a snow cave up high. Stay in Base Camp and watch your altimeter. It will be your most important piece of equipment. When the elevation drops, pack up and go for it even if its storming worse than ever.”

Two nights after our first attempt the sky cleared and the altimeter dropped 140 feet. Before dawn we were on the mountain, but as we neared the Italian Col after 6500 vertical feet of gain that day, the winds were blowing and clouds moved across the sky at tremendous speeds. The rope we had coiled and carefully cached at the col was missing, victim of winds that must have exceeded 150 mph. Also gone was a bag of freeze-dried food and a quart of stove fuel.

We rappelled down the ice gully into the lee of the wind, and veritably skied (with poles and boots only) down a layer of light powder over a hard crust on steep slopes. Seventeen hours after we started, we crashed into our tents.

The next day was almost good enough to climb. When the clouds cleared, we kicked ourselves for not being up there, but when the winds howled we knew we had made the right decision. That night the altimeter jumped down yet again, but when my alarm went off at four A.M. the stars were gone, the wind was roaring, and snowflakes were in the air. We went back to sleep.

At eight the sky was perfectly clear and the air was still. We grabbed our packs and went for it, regaining the col by evening and locating Barbara’s yellow dot. Instead of a tent, it was a tarp tied across the mouth of a small cave opening directly onto a steep face of rock and snow. Behind the tarp, buried in ice and hanging from pitons driven into the roof of the cave, was an expedition’s equipment: ropes, hardware, pots, a stove, a shovel, bags of food, sleeping pads. Whoever left it must have been desperately fleeing for their lives.

We called the camp “the Yellow Submarine,” and spent a short night, awaking at 3:30 the next morning. At sunrise Michael worked his way up a questionable cable ladder fixed on the first pitch of the headwall. It listed at a crazy angle, twisting in and out of a vertical sheet of ice. When I followed on Jümars with a heavy pack of equipment, my rope slipped off a knob of water ice and flung me around an overhanging comer. I let out a dreadful scream during my sixty-foot swing, not because of the pendulum itself, but because I could see the taut rope dragging across a jagged edge of granite that looked as if it would cut like a hot knife.

Everything held, and I spun circles in space far out from the wall until I got my priorities straight: first I got out my camera and took pictures; then I carefully jümared upward, finding only slight damage to the rope. Because we were so early in the season, the rock was very icy and many of the cracks were welded shut. We had special felt-lined Fire rock shoes inside of Koflach outer boots, but we were unable to do a single lead in rock shoes. Most of the pitches required a mixture of rock-and-ice technique.

By mid-morning it seemed certain that we couldn’t make it to the top and back that day. We searched the sky for excuses, but couldn’t find any. There were no clouds, no breath of wind, and not even those lighter blues on the horizon that hint of moisture in the air. There were also no bivy ledges anywhere. Every flat spot was filled with steeply angled ice that merged with the rock.

The climbing was surprisingly continuous, and the difficulties did not break back after a prominent 250-foot dihedral about a third of the way up the route.

Every pitch had overhangs, which in icy conditions meant direct-aid climbing. Late in the afternoon we decided to veer left from the Argentine route onto virgin terrain. We knew the other way put the Argentines into a desperate spot, but ours proved no better. The long shadow of Fitz Roy began to stretch across the valley, and my fingers stuck to hardware as I tried to lead an overhang up a rust-colored fissure below a great block on the skyline. My fingers went numb and I took a ten-foot fall before resorting to aid and making it.

Then a funny thing happened. My anxiety ebbed and I had a tremendous sense of well being. I felt as if I was exactly where I wanted to be, exploring new ground in one of the planet’s grandest settings, and that we would be okay no matter where we had to spend the night, although I imagined standing partly in slings. By the time Michael led the next pitch, the sun was setting, and I took another lead that began below overhangs which blocked the view above. I tried to traverse an icy ledge to escape them, and took a short fall. Then in the growing darkness I aided my way directly up the overhang and fought to stand up at the lip. Above me was a snowfield with ice underneath that sloped back toward the summit, just a few hundred feet above. Michael and David arrived in complete darkness and we set up a bivy on tiny icy platforms about the size of a chair seat.

We had no bivy gear except for our pile clothes and down jackets, so we just stood there, shuffling, wiggling fingers and toes, waiting for the dawn. The temperature dropped to about zero Fahrenheit, judged from ice on standing water at Base Camp 9000 feet below us. We stood up in our magnificent box seats as a full moon rose and were further entertained by Michael’s solo imitations of current rock stars, both male and female. At three A.M. our rare still night was interrupted by a tiny breeze of about three miles an hour which chilled us to the core. We could only imagine what a real wind would do to climbers bivouacking in the open without sleeping bags on top of Fitz Roy.

Dawn brought all our rewards at once. We could see, we could start moving, and as we moved, we warmed up. We reached the summit just after sunrise as the moon set over the Patagonian Icecap, two hundred miles of continental glaciers that filled the western horizon. To the east the arid pampas stretched as far as our eyes could see; nearby were the jagged spires of Cerro Torre, Torre Egger, Poincenot, and Saint Exupéry. Stretching into the distance was the great lake, Viedma, fed by an arm of the icecap that calves icebergs into its waters.

On the summit we were happy, but not exuberant. Only seven hours later after fifteen overhanging rappels brought us back to the Yellow Submarine could we relax. Only a day before the cave had seemed a desperate place at the outer limits of existence. After the climb it was a palace filled with all our hearts desired: warm sleeping bags, hot chocolate, freeze-dried stew, gallons of powdered orange drink, fine company, and sleep.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Argentine Patagonia.

Ascent: Fitz Roy, 3375 meters, 11,072 feet, via a variant of the 1984 Argentine route, from which it branched to the left two-thirds of the way up; summit reached on October 31, 1985 (Michael Graber, Galen Rowell, David Wilson).

 Adapted from a chapter in Mountain Worlds, a forthcoming National Geographic book.

This AAJ article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.