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Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre

Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre

Alan Kearney

THE MORNING of December 23 heralded the start of our third day on the North Pillar of Fitz Roy. There was enough light to begin climbing but we were tired. My partner Bobby Knight slept soundly and he needed the rest. Around midnight a moisture-laden storm had come pouring out of the inky sky. Hail, snow and water flowed down the cracks and gushed out directly at him. He danced about, trying to avoid the torrent and divert the water by rearranging rocks and digging tiny ditches. During his moment of frustration I saw an opportunity and handed over my bottle for a refill. The gesture was thoughtless, I suppose, but thirst nagged at my throat.

Our ledge was roomy and although the midnight storm caused a loss of sleep, it provided us with plenty of water. I put a fresh butane cartridge in our miniature stove and tried not to disturb Bobby as I brewed up hot Tang and cocoa. Breakfast was only a means of procrastinating. The real problem lay above us. How many more nights would we spend on this colossal mountain in Argentina without sleeping bags? They were too heavy of course. The amount of aid, wet cracks and bad weather would determine the number of remaining bivies.

So far the weather had been unbelievable. For ten days straight the wind had blown very little and the clouds filled the valleys and covered the Patagonian Icecap. From 7000 feet on up, the sky remained blue, and we could catch glimpses of it from inside Fitz Roy’s private cloud that cloaked the upper half of the granite monolith. The evening storms we had been experiencing vanished in the morning but this trend could not last.

“In storm you must leave carabiner on abseil anchors,” commented Thomas Wüschner, down at the beach-forest hut. “The rope freeze and you cannot pull rope down.” The statement now had more clarity from our perch 2500 feet above the Piedras Glacier, and I estimated there were still twenty pitches of hard climbing to reach the summit.

But I wanted to climb the mountain desperately, and a certain amount of gambling was necessary. For nearly two years it had dominated my thoughts, and to several of my friends I must have appeared a little deranged. If the conversation strayed from Fitz Roy I would redirect it to put the spotlight on my dream. Now, even in the grips of reality, with aching joints, tired muscles and sleep-starved brain I remained euphoric. Where else in the world was there a view like this? With the wet snowstorm last night even I thought the game was up, but the sun came out and the wet rock started steaming. “Hot water,” I signalled to Bobby as he fetched his mug. The world could be in flames when he is tucking away his cocoa; after the cup was drained, I detected a slight sparkle in those tired eyes.

I leap-frogged up a wet crack the first eighty feet with Friends and then started jamming as the crack dried out. Our one pack lost more weight with the removal of the stove and both bivy sacs, left on the ledge below, but it hardly compensated for out greater loss of energy.

Water, however, was not in short supply. Above me a squeeze chimney and off-width crack dripped with the stuff. Bobby led the chimney pitch admirably and that left me with the “awful width,” which glistened with water and flared lightly. It lacked appeal, but a nearby crack accepted pins and small stoppers nicely, allowing me to circumvent the nasty gash in the wall. The second crack eventually converged with the first and a good deal of writhing and heavy breathing finally put the six-inch fissure below us. Our progress was meager. We had been climbing all day and only completed five pitches.

That didn’t seem so bad though, when I thought about Renato Casarotto spending 43 days on the first ascent of the North Pillar in 1979. He climbed just 200 feet during a stormy day in late December and on another day, 350 feet. But he kept at it. We found his fixed pins and scraps of rope here and there, although our line deviated from his on many pitches. His intention was not to solo the route, but the other two Italian climbers engaged in the venture became depressed by the distasteful weather and went home. Alone on the mountain he had climbed every pitch, hauled and fixed over one mile of rope and carried up sackfuls of pitons, biners and wooden wedges. What a task!

Bobby and I didn’t have any fixed rope high on the pillar to rely on and night was closing in. We still hadn’t reached the top of the pillar when darkness and fog drenched everything. I popped the plastic outer boots off my rock shoes and led up thin cracks and over fantastic little knobs. Small snow mushrooms 40 feet above revealed the top of the North Pillar, but the notch between the pillar and the main wall of Fitz Roy was enveloped in fog. We heard voices coming from the notch and knew that the Poles had gotten that far after twelve days of siege climbing up the pillar’s west side. There was no way we could reach the notch tonight.

We chopped ice from a ledge and kicked off a couple of loose rocks as our headlamps sent sporadic rays of light into the gloom. It began to snow as we sat down on the rope with nothing for warmth but our clothing. With the night growing colder and nothing to eat, any discussion between us evaporated and our thoughts followed separate channels.

I thought of food and remembered what Thomas Wüschner had said when I asked him if he exercised to stay in shape during the long storms: “No. If you here a month, you don’t eat much at first, then you eat more. You start in the morning and eat all day. It is the only work here.”

My stomach had nothing in it, the morning was clear and cold and although I felt giddy, my desire to finish the climb had not died yet. Bobby led a traverse across steep snow to the pillar’s top and I did two rappels down into the notch and greeted the Poles as they started to cook breakfast. I traded Michal Ko- chanczak a roll of Ektachrome for a pot of instant cornmeal. He apologized for the flecks of gravel that peppered the food, but it didn’t bother us at all. I managed a great smile: the day was December 24 and the weather was perfect.

Bobby climbed up cracks and flakes to a point where the wall poured with snowmelt. He winced at the prospect of getting soaked and wanted to jümar the Polish ropes. I did not. A serious argument followed and I painfully stated that I preferred retreat to using their ropes. How absurd! The fourth day on Fitz Roy, thirty-five pitches of hard climbing, starving and weak, and I refused to cheat. They thought I was a fool and so did Bobby, I’m sure, but he finally responded. “If the summit means that much to you and you don’t want to use the fixed ropes. I’ll try, but you will have to do more of the hard leads.”

Curving steep cracks swiftly disappeared beneath us and the pleasure of climbing on excellent rock softened my bad memories of our argument at the notch. Above the Poles shouted unintelligible words back and forth as they reascended their ropes. To them I must have appeared mad, leading strenuous pitches as a fixed rope dangled a few feet to one side.

Fog, sun, hail and more fog brushed the mountain as we scrambled onto rotten ice with ice hammers, but no crampons. We met the Poles descending from the summit as we prepared to climb the low-angle ice. They eyed us skeptically. I tried to tell Peter we had to leave “a few things behind” in order to climb the North Pillar in four days.

Boulders appeared and the sought-after views of the nearby peaks, especially Cerro Torre, awaited us. I have always tried hard to climb mountains in the best possible style and had I reached the summit by other means, my demeanor would have gone sour. As it was, the view that meant so much to me did not exist. Fog and mist obscured all but Poincenot and patches of blue sky over the Pampas. For me there was no welling up of emotions or arms thrust into the air in the victory salute, just sadness.

We began to leave and at that moment the clouds parted for fifteen seconds, unveiling the rime-coated spire of Cerro Torre. If ever there was a mountain that had deserved the “impossible” label, the Torre was it. Three months earlier my friend Steve Mascioli had asked me a simple question. “What about Cerro Torre?” “Too dangerous,” I replied. “With all that wind blowing and ice falling off it would be suicide.” But the question pestered me, and now that the phantom mountain had submerged back into the fog I wondered.

Two weeks after completing Fitz Roy, I found myself in the Torre Valley confronting a very anxious and energetic Swiss climber. Beda Fuster had travelled to Patagonia alone in hopes of finding a partner and climbing the Torre. He teamed up with an Australian climber who was not very experienced on ice, so they both decided to terminate the climbing partnership. Beda was fresh out of partners and that left only me.

To climb Cerro Torre with Beda I needed zip, and I was tired. He said to me with clenched fists, “I have so much energy for this mountain that I must climb it.” Great, I thought, you haven’t already endured seven weeks in Patagonia, frosted your toes with two sleepless and foodless bivouacs on Fitz Roy, climbed seventy pitches and performed sixty-five rappels in two attempts. Energy is not something you just pull out of a bag.

I saw in Beda the same desire I had had for Fitz Roy and the frustration when he no longer had a partner. By joining him I could fill the gap and his enthusiasm might stimulate me into action. Well why not? I thought. We probably will just sit in this dismal hut for a month and never see the mountain anyway.

Thirteen days later we ascended 2000 feet of snow, ice and rock to the Col of Patience and the wind was not blowing. Above soared the southeast ridge, the ice towers, the sheer headwall and finally the summit ice mushroom of Cerro Torre. I was not shaken visibly by this spectacle, but a tremor passed through me. Where was the lousy weather when I needed it? That hut wasn’t such a bad place really.

With the light that remained we climbed five pitches up the ridge, and excavated a two-and-half by six-foot ledge in the hard snow. I rapidly devoured my remaining lunch and freeze-dried dinner, but my nervous and empty stomach refused to digest the food and I threw up everything. Feeling weak, I nibbled on a 100-gram bar of Swiss chocolate and fell asleep under the stars.

The morning brought a blanket of dark grey clouds that neatly covered the summits of Fitz Roy and Poincenot. Not a scrap of blue sky remained and I didn’t feel very strong from losing my lunch and dinner, but I could still climb. Beda wanted to take the lead, thinking I would be pretty slow and useless. Perhaps he was right, but I didn’t join him only to operate a Sticht plate and a pair of Jümars.

A short aid pitch led to mixed ground below a squeeze chimney. I led the large crack quickly in plastic boots, placing nuts and clipping into fixed pins. Beda got a pitch of steep flakes, and then we each led excellent mixed pitches up coarse granite with patches of ice and snow.

From Beda’s semi-hanging belay garnished with faded ropes, a harness, pins and biners, I started a diagonal pitch free climbing next to Maestri’s bolts. The bolt traverse ate up several hours, and as we aided across the blank rock, I wondered how we would get back down it. So that I might save some of my stomach lining for the headwall and ice mushroom, I stopped fretting and looked for the next bolt.

Late in the afternoon we were approaching moderate ice ramps when the clouds unzipped with snow and fierce winds. In 1979 Don Peterson came to climb Cerro Torre with Tom Bauman. Before he departed I asked him if he was excited about his trip. “Yes terribly. I love the wind, I love the wind, I love the wind,” he chanted.

Twenty-six pitches up on the Torre his medicine did not work for me. Instead, tiny pieces of ice driven at high speed stung my mouth. This was ridiculous. As I approached Beda’s belay on the ice ramps I indicated the stupidity of continuing our ascent.

He suggested we go a “little higher,” and because the climbing looked interesting, and it was my lead, I agreed. I threaded my way up solid ramps of rime and water-ice, up a gully, twisted in a screw and then climbed thirty feet on fragile rime to the site of the Austrian’s bivy. Hans Bärnthaler and Manfred Lorenz had been ahead of us for two days now and we were happy to finally catch them. They felt it best to stop early (it was seven P.M.), and assess the situation in the morning.

Visibility was down to 80 feet and small bristles of rime began to form on our ropes and clothing. Our perch between several steep gullies became more bizarre with each passing hour. Ice feathers grew out of the wall as violent gusts of wind tried to tear the bivy sac off my body. I clutched it tighter and fussed with the butane stove to produce hot tea and dinner. Our ledge was two by four feet and chipped out of solid ice, but it beat standing up or hanging in a hammock.

Ice screws, pins, stoppers, Friends, hammers, crampons and our ropes hung in clusters all around us. So far Beda had dropped a mitten, an étrier and his headlamp, and I insisted he clip everything into slings including my pack, which he used for a pad. I dozed for a few moments at a time but could not sleep through the roar of the wind.

On our third day the sun came out and the wind reduced itself to a breeze. The anxiety from the previous night was gone and the intense storm seemed to have dissipated although a lot of clouds remained around the mountain. The decision was unanimous; we would all go up.

After four pitches of rime-ice and bolts I led directly above the ice towers on vertical flakes, the only free pitch on the headwall. My fingers curled over the smooth wafers of granite as I stuffed Friends behind them for protection. Ice filled the cracks, but the flakes were bare and the moves exhilarating.

Below, the tips of the ice towers rose 100 feet above the fog as the ant-like red and blue shapes of Hans and Manfred traversed the rime to the headwall’s base. Swirling clouds hid the glaciers below, Fitz Roy was seldom visible and the upper 600 feet of the Torre stood alone. Never in my life had I been in such a place.

On up the bolts we went to Maestri’s compressor and then Beda stepped gingerly into Bridwell’s rotting bits of perlon attached to rivets as the clouds again wrapped us in white gloom. Wind-blown rime from the mushroom started to bombard me as the refreshed storm screamed at the mountain. The only sound louder than the wind was that of my teeth grinding.

I was not going to retreat that close to the top and in another 45 minutes I groped no farther. In three directions the edge of the mushroom fell away into a cloud-torn void 5000 feet deep. Beda was all smiles as he staggered toward me in the fearsome gale. Hans and Manfred reached the top only minutes behind us, but we reserved any rejoicing until later.

The storm did not vanish. We had to cut 100 feet off our 300-foot rope when it hung up on the third rappel, and grapple with cable-like icy ropes. The wind tore at us from every side, our eyelashes froze shut and my locking ’biner kept freezing open on rappel.

Upon reaching the glacier I didn’t get down on my hands and knees and kiss the snow, but that’s only because the thought did not occur to me. Was I scared up there? You bet! Later, back at the hut, I realized that I no longer had to worry about climbing the Torre. I had climbed it.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Patagonia, Argentina

Ascents: Fitz Roy, 3375 meters, 11,072 feet, via North Buttress; summit reached December 24, 1984 (Alan Kearney, Robert Knight).

Cerro Torre, 3020 meters, 9908 feet, via Southeast Ridge; summit reached, January 23, 1985 (Kearney, Beda Fuster of Switzerland).