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Waiting for the Sun, A Year's Worth of Climbing on Escudo's East Face

  • Feature Article
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  • Publication Year: 1998

Waiting for the Sun

A year’s worth of climbing on Escudo’s east face

by Jean-Daniel Nicolet


Patagonia remains an unconquered country, an oasis of solitude, an ideal place for discovery and adventure. It is battered by winds and endures the violent assaults of capricious weather. The lay of this land offers no obstacle to the winds; it is an empire of the sky. The gusts sweep through everything, beating down vegetation and humans alike in their way. The Torres del Paine region is carved by mountainous relief, the horizon opening up to abruptly severed cliffs that seem smooth and inaccessible. They are the most beautiful granite walls on this planet, and they taunt and intrigue.

The commitment must be total, the adventure, seductive. Our dream is to open up a big-wall route. Plotting a path through these formidable granite shields constitutes a challenge that is somewhat crazy. The meteorological conditions are unfavorable, the immensity of these faces less than engaging. Driven by a passion for the mountains, we attempt (twice) an ascent on the fantastic wall of Escudo, the Shield. The scene is set; the actors are left to play.

Veni, vidi…but not vici.

As for veni: Nine friends from Neuchatel, Switzerland (Thierry Bionda, Denis Burdet, Régis Dubois, Christian Meillard, Jean-Daniel Nicolet, Jean-François Robert, Pierre Robert, Yann Smith, Jean-Michel Zweiacker) spent the months of January and February, 1997, in the Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia, with two objectives: the Torre Sur and the El Escudo.

As for vidi: a majestic landscape, impressive faces, a wild and somewhat hostile nature.

And as for vici—alas, it’s more complicated. In spite of elaborate battle plans and attack strategies, when the mountain (and, above all, the weather) says “no,” it’s no. The Patagonian wind did not fail to live up to its reputation. The rain and the snow seemed to appraise us; as for the sun, we didn’t see it for more than 48 hours during the month and a half we spent at the foot of the faces. Under such circumstances, the fight becomes unequal, and our morale had difficulty moving beyond zero. Christian’s bad fall didn’t help the situation either. In other words, the conditions were difficult. And to hear the locals, who hadn’t seen a summer that rotten in nine years, one could only tell oneself that the die were cast. We left a little disappointed, but not discouraged. The experience was still beautiful. Defeat is part of the game, even if it sometimes hurts one’s ego.

Back in Switzerland, we dressed our wounds. Most of the injuries were to our morale, for Christian and Thierry (broken tibia and ankle, tom fingers), to their physique. We would be back. For my part, I was sure of it, as was Jean-Michel. As if to keep us from changing our mind, we had left materials and freeze-fried food at Werner and Cecilia’s, our hosts and the owners of a guest house in Puerto Natales. But when?

In the end, the project quickly took shape and we decided to return to finish the route I had started with Yann, Regis, and Pierre on the southeast face of the Escudo. We decided to take up this climb again because it is more of a wall climb than the south face—and also because we had already climbed 500 meters (about half the face) on our last expedition. Little Louis (Jean-François) was immediately interested; he would accompany us as photographer for part of the trip.

On November 30, 1997, after some time in the United States (including Yosemite, where we climbed Zenyatta Mondatta on El Capitan), Jean-Michel and I arrive in Puerto Natales. We are soon joined by Little Louis, who comes directly from Switzerland. That leaves us two days to get everything ready. This time, we had decided to come earlier in the season. Would the month of December be preferable? Our first day in Puerto Natales leaves us dreaming. The sky is black, and it rains all day. Come on! No panic—the weather here in Puerto Natales is not the same as in the Torres, and, besides, in those mountains, the conditions change very quickly and are different from one valley to the next. So…patience.

We meet up with Lionel Daudet. He is back in Puerto Natales after having spent a couple of days in the park. He intends to repeat The Dream, Brad Jarrett, Chris Breemer, and Christian Santelices’ mythical route, established in 1995 up the middle of Escudo. We will be “neighbors” on the wall. Unfortunately, Lionel has had to come back to town to take care of a bladder infection.

Little Louis finally arrives. Time begins to feel like it is dragging here. Even though it is a small city of some 13,000 inhabitants, we feel oppressed and are impatient to leave Puerto Natales behind to find ourselves face-to-face with our objective.

On December 3, we finish gathering together all of our food and the following day take a bus toward the park with our 250 kilos of gear. While Jean-Michel busies himself dealing with the administrative problems, we dispatch Little Louis to the lodge at the foot of the mountain with our equipment. We rent four horses; thanks to inflation, they cost more than the last time around, and furthermore, they will not go all the way up to the Torres base camp, but only to the Chilean camp, which means an extra day of carrying for us. Within five days, we have moved all of our equipment to the base of the wall at the rate of three to four trips per person.

Here we are at the foot of our goal. We set up our camp on the glacier split by crevasses and covered with piles of rocks and dirt. We prepare as good a platform as possible for our tent, and, despite the hope that we won’t spend more than a day or two at the foot of the wall (the climate has been relatively mild until now), we build walls to protect us from the wind and bad conditions. You never know.

The space is sobering; we are surrounded by gigantic cliff walls. The face of Escudo is 1200 meters high and blocks our view and any access to other slopes. The proportions are completely distorted; because we are used to distances in the Alps, we are unable to measure our insignificance in this Goliath-like landscape.

The first part of the route is made up of 50 to 60° slabs that come together at a snow bench. We estimate at first that three pitches will get us to the névé. Actually, it takes seven.

We are on the attack, ready and confident. One can’t be jinxed twice in a row. Upon waking the next day, however, I have a feeling of déja-vu. No, it can’t be—not this again. It has snowed 20 centimeters during the night—truly difficult on morale, but we try to make the best of a lousy situation regardless. In the end, a day of rest is welcome after five days of hauling supplies. We brew coffee (the real stuff, with our Italian coffee pot; for caffeine addicts such as us, it’s more a necessity than a luxury), shuffle the cards, divide up for a game of two against three. Time passes slowly.

The wind blows throughout the next night, bringing us a wonderful surprise. In the morning, the sky has cleared, the snow has melted, and the slabs are, for the most part, dry. In one day, with Jean-Michel, we free-climb the first seven pitches, slabs that took a month’s effort to aid the first time around when they were covered with snow. We fix 350 meters of rope in a sort of umbilical cord that connects the base of the wall to the snow bench. From there, the wall soars into an overhang. The following day again is branded with bad weather. Despite the poor conditions, we haul up equipment—long, tiresome work, especially on the slabs.

October 12 is the big departure, and we flake out the ropes. Belayed by Little Louis, I repeat two pitches above the snow bench. Jean-Michel pulls up the rest of the equipment and retrieves the fixed ropes. While I’m fighting my way up the first tough aid pitch, I hear Jean-Michel calling me. He tells me that Lionel, who started up The Dream that morning, is giving up on his solo attempt. He is still weak from the antibiotics and not 100 percent up for such an undertaking. Instead, he would like to join us. Excluding the issue of food, whether we continue with three or four people doesn’t change anything for us, and we’re happy to take on this unexpected passenger.

Two of us move upward while the other two rest in the ledges. The next day, I continue the ascent with Lionel. Three pitches remain before we reach our high point from the year before—three pitches up familiar terrain before the big question mark. What will happen next? Will the route be obvious? The hours we spent scrutinizing the wall allowed us to plot out a logical course via a crack some 100 meters long; but in order to reach it, we will have to traverse a seemingly blank area without any noticeable weaknesses. We fear we will have to rely on rivets. Furthermore, there still remains the infamous double crack formed by questionable flakes. It has intrigued us since day one.

Lionel repeats two traverse pitches out of three and agrees with the A3+ grade we had given them. In four days, we repeat the 12 pitches opened up in January and February. The weather has been mild. It certainly isn’t warm, but if the conditions remain the same, we have high hopes of success.

It is Jean-Michel and Little Louis’s turn to lead the next section. From the portaledge, I watch them fix the ropes. Ah—what luck to stay “in bed” while our friends work. For Lionel and myself, it’s a day of rest. Not completely, however; we have to melt snow, preparing the approximately 80 liters of water necessary for the rest of the ascent. We have already fixed 150 meters of rope since the snow bench, and we estimate that 200 meters higher, it will become too difficult and too long to jug the lines each morning. We will have to move the snow camp 200 meters higher in the middle of the wall. No more snow benches—no more benches, period. We will be suspended in open air.

I watch Jean-Michel, who has reached the flake system, a double crack 15 meters high. The middle flake, sandwiched between the wall and the outer flake, makes one think of a sheet of paper. About ten centimeters thick at its base and two at its tip, it is not welded to its surroundings, existing instead in a precarious equilibrium, balanced by the winds. It is only when one reaches the top of the flake that one becomes aware of its fragility. Upon Jean-Michel’s return, I ask him how the crack was.

“Expanding!” he responds—when aid-climbing, a word to fear.

After the flake, Jean-Michel protects another half pitch along a soft, sandy slat with rivets. We are right in the middle of the question mark zone and hope the climbing higher up will be better.

It snows the next night. When we wake, everything is covered with ice. It looks like a day of rest. Lionel, who had just finished taking his prescription of antibiotics, has a relapse. The fever sets in again, and despite the numerous drinks prepared by Little Louis, he is delirious throughout the night.

The sun makes an appearance in the middle of the day, and I no longer can stay put. I gear up, and Jean-Michel takes over for Lionel. I complete the pitch begun the preceding day. Our fears were justified. There is no other way to proceed than right up the middle with a line of rivets—14 in all. What a nightmare.

Lionel is again on antibiotics and in a critical state. He must go back down. Little Louis will accompany him. Jean-Michel and I find ourselves back to our original plans. What follows passes as if in a dream: We move the camp from the snow bank to the 15th belay beneath a roof, just under the black dike. This is Escudo’s “vein,” which cuts diagonally through the face and reminds one of a large scar. It takes us all day to haul our gear and set up our second camp.

Now we are in open space. I am not very far from the comer of a big dihedral, but it is impossible to see what it looks like. I am impatient to find out more…perhaps a bit too impatient: The hook I am on pops, and I fall 15 meters. I scream out, cursing; even if it doesn’t change much, it at least serves to calm me down. The only thing I can do is climb back up and repeat the traverse on hooks. This time, I concentrate a little more, and finally reach the dihedral. The surface of the rock is sandy, but the crack is perfect, climbing up 20 vertical meters to end underneath a roof. I belay from there. I cannot see the continuation of the route and will have to be patient.

I spend nine hours hanging at this belay—nine hours during which Jean-Michel likewise will experience fear and the occasional adrenaline rush. He also tastes the “pleasures” of flight. I watch him place a green cam in an offwidth. Two seconds later, he is no longer five meters above the anchor, but five meters below me. He starts again from scratch, but this time he makes it through the offwidth and disappears from view, hidden by the roof. By leaning backward, I can see him, and call up, “Everything okay?” An unsettled grunt explains that the crack continues another 15 meters, but that it is quite precarious. And as for the next move… another big question mark.

We had positioned ourselves to get to a crack that began a little to the left. From where he is, Jean-Michel can see only smooth rock. Thirteen rivets later, he has climbed diagonally up to the left and arrived exactly upon the start of the line we wanted. It is more than we had hoped for. The crack, where two absolutely compact and overhanging walls meet, goes up more than 100 meters. We had doubted its true existence; whether it was the play of shadows and light or the different color of the seam, doubt had set in. But there it is. Magnificent. Fifty meters above us, it disappears, but by some divine providence, another crack begins some three meters to the left and continues uninterrupted to a series of roofs that we reach within three pitches. An unsullied line, the only weakness in this overhanging section of the wall, where the overhang increases the beauty of the climb, adding another dimension to our happiness, to our being the first climbers to move through here. It is magical. It is like a dream.

Well, not quite. When you dream, you sleep. For us, the hours of sleep are rare. For three days, the weather remains mild: little wind with the occasional ray of sun, but neither rain nor snow. The temperature remains wintry, however. In these conditions, we don’t have the right to dawdle, even if fatigue sets in. Our hands are cracked by the cold, and handling all of our iron makes us suffer enormously. The chapstick no longer helps. It is equally impossible to climb with gloves on. The up and down on the fixed ropes exhausts us.

We have moved beyond the roofs to reach a highly structured area. From the glacier, we had guessed that the face would kick back at this exact point. In reality, that is not the case, and the wall remains at an incline, hanging over us. Furthermore, there’s no obvious line. Several ways are possible. But which one do we follow to reach the shoulder? We know we are not far from the summit, but it is difficult to orient oneself on these huge walls. We curse ourselves for not having brought along a photograph of the wall. We left the glacier ten days ago, and the weather has remained relatively mild. We know it won’t last; the barometer is spinning. Tomorrow, we absolutely must finish the route.

When we wake up, the sky is still clear, and the sun is still in view, but we haven’t finished retrieving the ropes when the wind picks up. Funny—we had almost forgotten it. It blows in with Patagonian force, swinging us along in huge pendulums.

Jean-Michel attacks what we believe is the last pitch. For seven hours, he fights to move forward. The wind is joined by snow. The temperature dips significantly; everything freezes instantaneously. A resurgence of water in the middle of the wall transforms itself into icicles at an incredible rate. We had expected an easy pitch, but instead the wall is still overhanging and the placements remain difficult to get. And amidst the uncertainty of the route, the gusts of wind, and the snow, there comes the crushing pressures of time. The situation becomes more and more critical. Our progress becomes difficult and very slow. The gusts of wind are so violently strong that we are immobilized occasionally. In a word, it’s hell. Finally, after 55 meters of effort, pulling out all the stops on a perfect A4 climb, Jean-Michel reaches a ledge. He is at the end of the steep wall, just beneath the shoulder. He climbed up exactly where he needed to. This time, I’m positive it wasn’t just coincidence. He really does have a sense of the route.

I clean the pitch, stripping five- to ten-millimeter sheets of ice from the rope in order to jumar. When I join Jean-Michel on the ledge, it is 4 p.m. Before us lies a 5.8 crack. The rock flattens, and the shoulder is just 60 meters away.

What should we do? Go on to bivy wherever we can? In these conditions it would be suicide. Downclimb to a protected spot and leave all of the pieces in place with a fixed rope in order to finish the pitch tomorrow? If the ropes freeze, there will be no way to climb back up. Downclimb and retrieve everything along the way? For now, that seems to be the best solution.

In retrospect, we still believe we made the right decision. The weather the following days did not improve. We had already mildly frostbitten several fingers; another bivouac would have been dramatic. We had made it through all of the cruxes and to the end of the steep wall. Our lives are worth more than one 5.8 pitch. At least we have the satisfaction of leaving a clean route without any fixed ropes.

We fold up the portaledge, close the bag, and begin the descent. In these conditions, it will not be easy. The first rappel goes all right. On the second, we can neither see from one belay station to the next nor understand one another. The ropes fly in all directions. We finally meet up at one belay station with a bag, one fixed rope, and three 60-meter ropes. According to the laws of gravity, a rope should fall down when we throw it; instead, it remains completely taut, held up vertically by the wind. We spend an hour untangling everything and working out a technique. The answer: fold each strand of rope. Don’t let anything fly loose. It is a gigantic task, but it works.

At 11 p.m., we reach the portaledge, having retrieved everything except the last belay anchor (which, of course, is stuck). We will look into that tomorrow. For now, we’re well on our way. The following day, Jean-Michel loosens the ropes while I take down the camp. We embark upon the last 15 rappels. Our practiced technique this next day is perfect, and we arrive at the tent at 8 p.m. We treat ourselves to a day of rest and within three days, we carry down all of our gear in two trips. We arrive in Puerto Natales the evening of the 24th. We’ve been working like animals some 22 days. We are wrecked—but we are happy.

Summary of Statistics

AREA: Torres del Paine National Park, Chilean Patagonia

ATTEMPT: Et Si Le Soleil Ne Revenait Pas….(VI 5.10 A4, 900m) on the east face of El

Escudo, December 2-24, 1997, Jean-Michel Zweiacker, Jean-Daniel Nicolet, Jean-François Robert as photographer (up to the 12th pitch), the continuation of a route begun in January/February 1997 by Jean-Daniel Nicolet, Yann Smith, Pierre Robert, and Régis Dubois

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