American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

East Face of Cerro Torre

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1987

East Face of Cerro Torre

Stane Klemenc, Planiska Zveza Slovenije, Yugoslavia

ANYONE WHO HAS experienced Patagonian weather cannot fail to have doubts, and to fear each day more and more, that good weather will never come.

The clouds swirled in, covering what only minutes before had been a star-lit sky. Winds howled around the edge of the buttress. Half an hour later it was snowing hard and the wind grew to hurricane force. It was hard for the three of us to cling to a narrow shelf below the top of the buttress. The snow kept piling between us and the wall, pushing us toward the 800-meter drop. Our fourth member huddled nearby. The night was endless. Though only three hours from the top of route, we had to retreat to survive. The hurricane dance continued for three days. On the fourth, my three friends returned to the bivouac and successfully completed the climb. This happened two years before on the northeast buttress of Fitz Roy. [See A.A.J., 1984, pages 218-219.]

How often my thoughts returned to Fitz Roy as I listened for eleven days in a row to heavy rain drumming on the tent. The last good weather had been on New Year’s Eve. We had been in Patagonia for a month and had climbed 750 meters of the wall. The most difficult part was behind us. We had been lucky with the weather in December; out of 18 days, nine had been good. The hard rain brought discouraging thoughts. What was the use of good weather in December if we didn’t get at least some in January for the summit climb?

In doubtful weather on December 14, Knez and Karo started toward the great couloir on the east face of Cerro Torre, where they found traces of a previous attempt on the first two rope-lengths. High up, it was snowing and the snow was piling up in the couloir and on the steep slabs below it. It took them five hours to climb the slabs, to fix rope to the overhanging entrance of the couloir and to rappel to the bottom of the wall. Thirty meters away, Jeglic and Sveticic had dug a bivouac, a snow cave. It snowed the next day. We brought a few loads of food and equipment to the bivouac. The sun hit the wall again on the 16th. Kozjek and Podgomik attacked the twenty meters of overhang blocking the entrance to the 500-meter-high couloir. The overhang was plastered with ice and snow, and melt-water poured down from the couloir. Without scuba-diving equipment, they were soaking wet and cold after the four, long hours it took them to climb the overhanging waterfall.

The next day Jeglic and Sveticic started to climb the couloir, polished smooth by continuous rain and snowfall and covered with vertical ice. By ten o’clock when it began to rain, they had climbed 50 meters. They felt as if they were in the mouth of a cannon, raked by ice breaking from the upper part of the wall. Luckily they were not hurt. As the weather got worse in the afternoon, we all retreated to Base Camp.

A three-day pause was useful. We arranged Base Camp and organized supplies. On December 20, Cerro Torre reappeared in full majestic greatness, its walls covered with pristine snow. Since the face had first to be blown clean, it was a day for photography. In the evening we celebrated my birthday, joined by climbers from several lands. With wine, guitar and songs in many languages, the unforgettable evening passed quickly.

On the following day the invasion of Cerro Torre began. Eight of us carried food and supplies to the bivouac. During the last of the approach, the snow lay deep. We knew our bivouac must be there, but it was buried under new snow. After probing with ski poles, we finally found it. Within an hour we had dug a new entrance tunnel 12 feet long. December 22 was beautiful. Knez and Karo climbed 145 meters of the couloir, luckily surviving a half-day of bombing by ice chunks. Most of the climbing was on icicles and frozen waterfalls with short bits of rock. In the afternoon the weather went bad again and they retreated, sopping wet.

Again it stormed for five days. Podgornik and Kozjek were waiting at the bivouac. Every morning they had to dig themselves out. More and more snow and ice coated the face day by day. Although December 27 dawned beautiful, they couldn’t start climbing until eleven A.M. because continuous avalanches thundered down the couloir. The fixed ropes were frozen, in places a foot, into the ice. It took them four-and-a-half hours just to get to the top of the ropes. They managed to climb another two rope-lengths of 60° to 80° ice.

The day after, they climbed three more difficult pitches. While the lead climbers worked upwards, Jeglic and Sveticic started up the wall. Their task was to knock out all the pitons and pull up the ropes to the top of the buttress about 100 meters below the upper end of the couloir. After 16 hours of hard work, they had fixed the 500 meters of rope on the right side of the couloir down the slabs. No longer would we be exposed to the continual danger in the couloir. Climbing the fixed line would be much faster since the rope would not be frozen in day after day.

The weather continued to cooperate. Jeglic and Sveticic took over the lead. They could now ascend the fixed ropes much faster. Above them were two relatively easy pitches of rock to the top of the couloir. Then came the middle of the wall, the part we feared most. It looked horrifyingly compact and smooth, but luck was on our side. An overhanging chimney led from the couloir to the Red Band. Both had considerable overhang and the climbing was very technical.

We made good use of the last days of good weather and were 700 meters up the face. On December 30 Knez and Karo climbed an additional 80 meters of overhanging, crumbling slabs and flakes, the most difficult aid pitches. They had to place four bolts, the only ones we used.

New Year’s Eve was unique. Only Knez and Karo were missing, above in the bivouac. First we toasted the European New Year, and then later, the Argentine one. In the last days of the old year, Patagonia had treated us well, much better than two years before.

The weather changed again on January 1. Two climbers continuously manned the bivouac. For eleven days it stormed. The bivouac was snowed in nearly every night. The entrance tunnel grew by several meters. Avalanches poured off the face. Our friends had to fight day and night with enormous quantities of snow.

On January 12, the mountains started peering out of the clouds. I set out to renew our food supplies leaving by bus from the Hostería for El Calafate. Twenty-four hours later I was back with a large supply of bread, meat, cheese, butter and jam. I rode up in a truck with the workers who during the season had built the bridge over the Fitz Roy River. This meant we no longer had to wade through icy water, but I still don’t feel happy about this advance of “civilization.” The romance is disappearing. The road will continue deep into the national park. A number of bridges are planned over the Río de las Vueltas, a town will be built next to Fitz Roy and a little further, under Cerro Rosado, a mining town will be set up. At the end of the valley large reserves of coal and uranium have been found.

I arrived at midnight to a totally dark Base Camp. As I was trying to get through the kitchen, I woke my friends nearby. They thought it must be a fox which had visited the kitchen a few times before to “wash” the dishes. There was the bad news that Sveticic had dislocated his thumb, practicing on the cliffs in the vicinity. Our doctor reduced it and put it into a cast.

Since the weather had been good for two days and the face had blown clear, Podgornik and Kozjek started jümaring early in the morning. They had to get up 700 meters of fixed ropes before they could begin to climb further. They did three difficult aid pitches in the last overhanging part and returned to the bivouac. Jeglic, Karo, Knez and cameraman Fistravec meanwhile ascended to the bivouac. On January 15 at four A.M. Jeglic and Karo set out, followed later by Knez and Fistrovec with the bivouac equipment. The lead pair climbed two more extremely difficult pitches (UIAA Grade VII, Al), and then another five rope-lengths between the two pillars, which involved 90° ice. In the last light of day, from below with binoculars, I spotted the two about 50 meters below the top of the pillars. At ten P.M. Jeglic finished this last pitch. A new route had been climbed. On the southeast ridge it joins the Maestri route. The climbers bivouacked just below this point.

During the night Kozjek and Podgornik started to climb the fixed ropes from the snow-cave bivouac. They had joined their friends by seven in the morning. Since they were warmed up from jümaring, they led the route up the gallery of pitons toward the summit. My five-year-old dreams were coming true. A Slovene route on this magnificent wall had been climbed. Six climbers were right below the top. I was only sorry I wasn’t there with them, but just before the expedition I had had a finger amputated. The top wall was rather crowded that morning. The six climbers were heading up while our friends Lenarcic, Bišcak and Fabjan were starting down. The latter had climbed the mountain via the southeast (Maestri) route a day before and spent the night on the summit. At exactly 12:36 A.M. on January 16 the last of the six climbers stepped onto the top of the ice mushroom which decorates the summit of Cerro Torre. This was fantastic; in a single day nine Slovene climbers had stood on the summit.

On January 17 we were all back in Base Camp. The weather changed again that afternoon. We still had 14 days, but alas, it stormed for another full 12 days. It rained down low every day, and it snowed in the mountains. We needed one more good day to get the rest of our equipment from the bivouac. We made a vain attempt. After we had struggled back up in bottomless snow, strong winds drifted everything over as quickly as we dug. We couldn’t save the equipment.

The next day we left the mountains, now all coated with snow, in beautiful clear weather. The last view of the east walls of Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre was unforgettable. My thoughts went back to the last night in 1983. It was past midnight and I was picking calafate [a blue berry found in Patagonia] with Ermanno Salvaterra and Maurizio Giarolli, friends from Italy. An old saying says that he who eats calafate berries returns to Patagonia. I ate them again this time. Shall I return?

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Patagonia, Argentina.

New Route: Cerro Torre, 3218 meters, 10,263 feet, via a route on the East Face to the right of the Southeast Ridge; summit reached on January 16, 1986 (Knez, Karo, Jeglic, Podgornik, Kozjek, Fistravec).

Personnel: Stane Klemenc, leader; Franc Knez, Silvo Karo, Johan Jeglic, Slavko Sveticic, Peter Podgomik, Pavle Kozjek, Dr. Borut Belehar, Matjaž Fistravec.

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