American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

South America, Argentine and Chilean Patagonia, El Mocho, Aguja Poincenot and Cerro Torre, 1991-2

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1992

El Mocho, Aguja Poincenot and Cerro Torre, 1991-2. Steve Gerberding and I arrived at Campo Bridwell in the Torre valley on November 22, 1991. That same day, we made two carries, set up camp and finally got to sleep at three A.M. the following morning. At eight A.M., the sun spurred us into action. We immediately headed up the glacier and made a cache under El Mocho. The next day was also fine and we carried more gear and bivouacked on the shoulder of El Mocho. The following day was also beautiful and we made our first foray to Cerro Torre’s south face. After studying the face through binoculars from various angles, we found our hopes of climbing a new route on this 6000-foot-high face dashed. We continued to the base of the face to confirm the desperate nature of the cracks. The amount of drilling required immediately made our decision easy to abandon the attempt before we wasted our entire stay. Since we were already in the area with equipment in hand, we set our sights on the beautiful unclimbed south face of El Mocho, the Half Dome look-alike next to Cerro Torre. We figured we could make the climb in two days and then move on to the larger peaks. We dug a snow cave at its base and cached our gear as we greeted our first storm. Several weeks later, after two partial days of fixing rope, we were well established. The climbing had been difficult: A3 and A4 in bottoming cracks requiring hooks, birdbeaks, questionable nuts and dicy free climbing off poor protection while the face ran with water and a continuous bombardment of ice and snow added to the excitement. After 1½ months, on January 2,1992, we finally summited. We had left Base Camp at three A.M. and arrived at our cave at ten o’clock. After digging it out from eight feet of snow, it was noon. However, we decided to go for it or perhaps wait weeks for another chance. Under threatening, though calm, skies, we arrived on the summit at 1:30 A.M. in total darkness. The 1800-foot-high route was completed in nine stretched 60-meter pitches, with all fixed ropes left in place on the final headwall to facilitate the descent down this very overhanging section. By eight A.M., we were back on the glacier with the route totally cleaned of all but rappel anchors. The following two days, we ferried loads across the valley to the foot of the southwest face of Aguja Poincenot. This 1200-meter-high face had been climbed by Argentines to three-quarters height several years before. In 1968, Argentines José Luis Fonrouge and Alberto Rosasco climbed a route on the far left side. We chose a difficult, direct route up the center. On January 14, we departed Base Camp at four A.M. in promising weather. By the day’s end, we had made a carry to the start of the route, fixed three ropes and descended to an exposed bivouac at the foot of the initial slabs. Dawn was ominous. Storms seemed imminent. We returned to Base Camp late in the evening. Then it cleared. We again raced up to the face only to be greeted once more by blustery squalls, but this time we swore to remain at the foot. Extreme cold and wind grounded us all the next day. By the next morning, we scrambled for shelter under a large boulder in 100-mph winds where we were pinned down for two days, unable to cook or get out of our bivouac sacks for fear of being blown away. During a lull on the third day, we made our escape. On January 24, we again made our alpine-style attempt on Poincenot and climbed to half height by ten P.M. to the only bivouac ledge on the face. The climbing had been fantastic, all free except for one short tension traverse to change crack systems on the vertical headwall of the central band of the wall. In gusty wind, Steve and I fashioned tiny wind breaks on our two independent 2x4-foot ledges. By morning, we were in a full Patagonian tempest and I was unable to communicate with Steve, 15 feet away, for more than 18 hours. We endured a second day in our exposed perch before the wind died enough for us to get out of our bivouac sacks for a brew of warm cocoa and a discussion. We had precious little food, fuel and water. The next day was either up or down. By six P.M., the weather was much better and so we ate our last micro portions of food and I cast off for the summit. At the end of the 200-foot pitch, the winds were back and so I rappelled back to the bivouac with the rope rigged for retrieval. The skies cleared. The oncoming next front out on the icecap to the west stood still and the evening sky glowed pink with promise. Climbing by eight A.M. in calm, cold, clear conditions, we ascended 800 feet of 5.10 to 5.11 with only 35 feet of aid through an icy section. From there on, we climbed roped but not belaying up the remaining 1600 feet to arrive on the summit at four P.M. We were back down twelve hours later. With only two weeks remaining, we focused on the Maestri Route on Cerro Torre. Six teams had been attempting the route over the last two months. Only Mexicans Carlos Carsolio and Andreas Delgado had been successful and they had spent two nights out without stove or bivouac gear through life-threatening storms. On February 17, we climbed the initial ice pitches to the snow cave on the shoulder, some 3000 feet below the summit. A day and a half of storms followed, leaving the wall covered with fresh snow, but by afternoon the weather was perfect and the walls were rapidly drying. At four A.M. on February 20, we set off for the summit and were on top by ten P.M. We were followed by an Argentine, a Brazilian and a Spaniard who joined us at 11:30. Twelve hours later, we were all safely back at the snow cave as the first clouds began to enshroud the Torre once more.

Jay Smith

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